April 2020

Seven Tips For The Aspiring Screenwriter

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

By Ross K. Foad

 

They say that you need to do something a thousand times before you can become an expert in it. Have I hit that heady height as a screenwriter yet? No, but I would wager that very few have. Plus, how would we quantify it? After all, the experience one gets from a single comedy sketch is not equal to writing one feature film.

Regardless, I did start my writing career aged twelve with a publication in a poetry book, was a newspaper comic strip writer by fourteen, and have written in excess of 200 shorts, web series episodes, and feature films.

As such, I would like to think that I have learnt something useful to impart on those just starting out.
So, without further a due, here are seven tips for an aspiring screenwriter to take under consideration.

 

Consider the Actors.

Commenting upon the first Star Wars script, Harrison Ford remarked:

“George, you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it.”

 

This is why actor-writers are often highly appreciated among actors. They know how to write for actors, not for themselves. The amount of scripts that I see with dialogue that simply does not flow or will not easily commit to memory is staggering.

If it is well written, even if long, the actor will have no problem remembering it. If you are not an actor or experienced, this is easy to overlook.

You might think you need this exceedingly long monologue, and maybe you do, but try reading it back aloud to yourself first. Several times. Someone has to say this. Does it slip off the tongue with ease? Or is it a clunky catastrophe?

 

The 20-80 Rule

One of the fatal errors that I see in first-time writers is a feeling that you need to depict scenes in their entirety.
Or, as Brian Helgeland, Academy-award winning screenwriter of LA Confidential puts it:

“If you write a scene that is lateral, cut it out or make it do something.
Make it drive you to the next moment because there’s no time to mess around.”

For example, imagine that you are writing a Police drama, and the next scene that you are writing follows a scene in which PC Jones interviews a suspect.

So, in our current scene, PC Jones now has to debrief one PC Smith about what he has learnt.
The laborious approach would see PC Jones enter the room, say his hello and how are you? Recap what
we already saw ourselves, and then have the characters say their goodbyes and leave. There are far better
things we could be doing with this run time.

Instead, try what I call the 20-80 rule. Also known as starting after you begin, and ending before you finish. Try starting the scene around 20 per cent of the way through it, and end it before the scenario has wrapped up.

You could start the scenario with PC Smith repeating something that he has just been told –
“He said he didn’t touch the gun?” We now know that PC Smith is aware of the interview,
and he is acting in surprise to a particular point of it.

We don’t need to see characters enter a room, sit down to breakfast, choose jam and toast, and say they are good mornings. We can begin with them already seated, having breakfast, and start midway through a conversation. Of course, this bandwidth is adjustable. You could try starting 10 per cent of the way, or even 50.

The point is to consider whether the scene needs playing out from entry to exit point. Adhering to this will help make your film at a far more interesting place.

Put It Away.

So you have completed your screenplay?

Congratulations! Now, put it away. The longer the better, but even if it just for a few days, after spending hours upon hours on the same document, it is easy to become oblivious to the most blinding of errors.

Re-read it after a little time away and you will be in a better place to catch simple spelling mistakes, and also be able to get a better feel for whether a scene works, whether it is movable, or should it be axed entirely.

Rule ABC

Newsflash!

Not everything you write is great. In fact, some of it is terrible, but that is ok! You just cut out what does not work.

The sooner you do that, the sooner you get to the end of your screenplay. The ideal page count for a feature film is around 100-120 pages, with comedy normally coming in for the lighter end of that count.

So, if your first draft for a feature is clocking in at 140+ pages unless you are Martin Scorsese, you might want to revisit that.

Now, why do we call this rule the A-B-C?

Always-Be-Cutting

 

— To be continued in our April 2020 Issue of Cut Frame Magazine. —

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