October 25, 2013

Is Your Screenplay a Great Reading Experience?

Really, there's no "right" or "wrong" way to write a screenplay, but there definitely are more sellable ways to write one. One issue that comes to mind specifically is how to ensure  an effective, moving, and entertaining reading experience. Some schools of thought insist on leaving out as much detail as possible, still others insist on being very, very precise. So, should you include adjectives and adverbs aplenty in your descriptions, or leave it up to the filmmakers to make those decisions? How exactly should your screenplay read, anyway?

Now, a lot of this depends on who is going to read your script -- perhaps that's the first question that you need to ask yourself. Are you writing a screenplay for a film you and your friends are making? Is it for a low-budget, no muss, no fuss kind of deal? Are you trying to sell it to a company?

It goes without saying that if you're writing a script for a movie you're making yourself, you could write whatever you please -- it could be in hieroglyphics if you really wanted. But specifically, if you're wanting to sell it, there are some things that need to be taken into account, some of which Jurgen Wolff touches on this in an article for Raindance Film Festival, in which he says that screenplays are more than just a "blueprint."

He explains that the "first goal of your script is to be a great reading experience," so being vague might sound like you're doing the filmmakers a favor, but it's important to remember that before the filmmakers come on board, a reader has to like it first. And according to Wolff, and I happen to agree, no one likes to read a blueprint.

However, there's a fine line between sweeping your reader away into a beautiful narrative world, and completely overdoing it with adjectives and dreaded adverbs. Wolff gives two examples:

Howard is a so fat he finds it difficult to walk.

and

Howard wheezes with the effort of carrying his weight. Every ten steps he has stop and lean against the nearest wall.

The first forces the reader to create the story world on their own -- essentially filling in the holes you left in your description. The second is better, according to Wolff, not just because it's more descriptive, but because it enlists multiple senses of the reader.

The more you can bring in not only what things look like but also their smell, their feel, their taste, the more real they become to the reader.

However, descriptions can definitely be overdone as well as useless. Wolff says one adjective is enough when describing something, and it might also be a good idea to check what you've written and ask yourself if you've either described or characterized the action. For example, is your character "working on his lawn meticulously" or "measuring each shrub and shred of grass with a tape measure?" Wolff shares a quote from playwright/short story author Anton Chekhov, "Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass."

What do you think? What methods do you use to pull your readers in?

[Script image by Flickr member Joe in DC]

Link: Remember You’re writing A Selling Script -- Raindance Film Festival

Your Comment

23 Comments

The narrative is in vogue these days, due to folks like Vince Gilligan. Overall, I'd break this debate into two major and opposing camps - ex-TV vs ex-Literary. Folks who come into screenwriting from the short stories and novels tend to write a lot of precise descriptions. Those who had tried their hand in TV tend to stay minimalist. In the old sitcom world, shows like Seinfeld and Murphy Brown almost had no narrative whatsoever. Many of the 1-hr dramas were written closer to a feature style but still Zwick-Herskowitz's "30 Something" was mostly dialog.

October 25, 2013 at 10:14AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

9
Reply
DLD

Apatow's scripts are the same, mostly dialogue with almost no blocking or description. But it may be a good idea to embellish a script A BIT thinking of the producers.

October 25, 2013 at 12:19PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

7
Reply

Ya, Apatow comes from the TV sitcom background (the Ben Stiller Show, Larry Sanders). Mamet is more interesting - "Glengarry Glen Ross" is ALL dialog (Mamet's own stage play) but others have a lot of action and description lines.
.
The types of dialog in various screenplays also differ greatly. Gilligan and Kurt Sutter style themselves after guys like Stephen King (read the recently posted Creepshow again). Their lines are mostly slang. The late Nora Ephron, on the other hand, wrote in a classic Hollywood format, closer to Brackett, Wilder and Hecht. Tarantino falls somewhere in between the two. IMO, once something is acted out in front of the camera, these distinction get blurred a lot. Some scripts read better but others are easier to bring to the screen. I think clean dialog leaves more to the actors interpretation but slang is what's hot these days.

October 25, 2013 at 4:57PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
DLD

I agree with the rule, keep descriptions short while using some adjectives. Don't create a blue print.
Nobody wants to read your "fucking script." Should the muster the energy to do so, let it be a quick read so they can get back to life.

October 25, 2013 at 1:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

5
Reply
VinceGortho

lol +1

October 29, 2013 at 2:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
avatar
Micah Van Hove
Writer
director, producer, dp

I'm from the school of thought where if your dialogue is engaging and interesting (think: Quentin Tarantino). The reader will easily create the world around the words that come out of your characters.

October 25, 2013 at 1:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

3
Reply

Depends on the production itself. It's been my understanding that for feature length films, the writing should be more diction oriented while TV scripts ( most especially sitcom's) needs to be cut to the bone and written as prose.

October 25, 2013 at 5:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

1
Reply
Bolex16

But Tarantino said that he likes scripts to read like a novel, to be able to stand up as independent entities in themselves. He even said that he would be happy to write a screenplay and not have it made into a movie if people would just read that. I believe that that is called a novel, by the way. See Pulp Fiction for example

Two of these people are a YOUNG MAN and a YOUNG WOMAN. The
Young Man has a slight working-class English accent and,
like his fellow countryman, smokes cigarettes like they're
going out of style.

It is impossible to tell where the Young Woman is from or
how old she is; everything she does contradicts something
she did.

June 29, 2015 at 5:04PM

1
Reply
avatar
Julian Richards
Film Warlord
1176

"Howard wheezes with the effort of carrying his weight. Every ten steps he has stop and lean against the nearest wall."

If I read this script I would assume that the fat guy had to stop and take a breath every ten steps in the actual film. I mean really - the first (what you call 'boring' version) says this:

"Howard is a so fat he finds it difficult to walk."

Where did the stopping come from?

A script isn't a novel. It's something that should be read, but it's not given any right to place information into it that is either not going to be used in the film or would confuse the reader. If I read that I would think "Hey, what a boring ass film. I don't want that guy to have to stop every 10 steps." An interesting script is derived from relevant sub-textual information what won't be directly apparent to the final film audience but rather more of a point that needs to be made to get an idea across. If it's not a main point in the final film then don't make it a main point in the script.

-The old man stumbled over with his hands held high-

as to

-The old man walked over with his hands held high, limping on his left leg.-

In the first example I see an old dude tripping up on himself and the phrase in general is rather boring. Re-written, we read that he walks over - but wait, he's limping. That's how a viewer in a film would realize the current events of the sequence. They would see him move, then notice his limp. It creates an interest from changing the viewers perspective on the situation (from him moving normally to suddenly noticing the limp) without creating a boring ass novel that explains how a fat guy stops every 10 steps.

October 25, 2013 at 5:10PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
Tyler

This is the opening for "Amelia" by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan (who have more than one Oscar in between them) -
.
CLOSE on a mud-streaked AIRFIELD in mist and driving RAIN. A Lockheed ELECTRA sits. Sleek, twin-engine, state-of-the-art, its metallic surface battered by the monsoon. Waiting. - /// PULL BACK to see... ...our VIEW down onto the landing strip is from an open-sided, thatched roof BAR high above the airfield. And peering down through the mist and rain... / ...a WOMAN in grimy flight clothes gazes at the plane. Slender. Feminine. At first glance, fragile. Then the gray eyes change like the sea, as a stray thought transforms her. Something fierce lives there. ---- (end of the excerpt)
.
Now, the weather portion of the opening can be filmed. The heroine's description is, of course largely impressionistic.

October 25, 2013 at 8:32PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
DLD

It's funny, quickly glancing over this I thought "Howard is so fat he finds it difficult to walk" was a snappier, more clever way to describe the scenario. The second version reads like a novel and I instinctively start skipping words as I skim it. I was surprised to see that that was the recommended writing. I, for one, disagree.

October 25, 2013 at 11:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

4
Reply
Nate

I agree with Nate. The longer version tells us nothing more, really...yet takes us longer to read. My favorite advice about scripts is to have a lot of white space...it is just so hard to slog thru scripts that are too dense. Don't give ppl an excuse to stop reading your script.

November 5, 2013 at 10:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
Daniel Mimura

I just started reading into the scripts by Vince Gilligan (breaking bad) posted here earlier and was simply blown away by this writer, I actually loved reading them more then watching the actual show and probably learned more on writing then with any other script I ever read, his character studies are short, to the point and downright awesome while he is still covering more then a writer would have to (f.e. comments like: we may have to rent a specialty lens for this) he writes as if was going to direct, something I usually only know from other writer / directors like Paul Thomas Anderson for instance. Would love to read more from him!

October 26, 2013 at 1:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply

Things work a bit differently in TV land. The directors are often bought in to serve the vision of the show. The real creative control is usually with the Creator of the series. Vince Gilligan was a Creator/Show runner/Writer/Executive Producer of Breaking Bad. This is probably the most powerful creative position anyone working in TV could hope to find themselves in so he could write whatever he wanted in the scripts. I'm sure he probably directed some of the episodes too but the real creative control in TV land is with the people in charge of the writing.

October 26, 2013 at 2:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

5
Reply
Mak

Gilligan is credited with directing 5 episodes. Bryan Cranston did 3. There were 25 directors of the various episodes overall over the show's five year run. (and it's rated as 9.5 out of 10 at IMDB, which is higher than "Seinfeld" at 8.9, "MASH" at 8.2, "Cheers" 7.7, "thirtysomething" 6.8, "My so-called life" 8.0, "NYPD Blue" 7.0, etc.)
.
Personally, I would have major arguments against the pilot's story arc in general and about the drug dealers deadly poisoning in particular (Phosgene is generally a slow acting gas and a meth lab is more prone to explosion due to the nitrate content anyway).

October 26, 2013 at 3:45AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
DLD

Agreed, the story has its flaws... nevertheless it is the style in writing that caught my attention, would love to read more by Gilligan...

October 26, 2013 at 3:59AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply

You might be able to find older "X-Files" or "Lone Gunmen" scripts online and, given the popularity of the "Breaking Bad", there have to be fan sites that either upload the PDF's of actual shooting drafts or do the self-made manuscripts off the dialog as spoken on TV. The latter might be an interesting "second take" on the same work - separate the dialog from the action and see if you still hold the same opinion as you did before.

October 26, 2013 at 12:14PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

11
Reply
DLD

This is a great article although a bit confusing for me. I've always been told to keep scripts as undescriptive as possible. Intuitively I knew that would make the script boring and difficult to follow. Like the article says: "Nobody likes to read a blueprint". And now I read this. I'm puzzled. I think the best way to make my own decisions is to read as many produced scripts as possible but I was told those scripts you can buy online and on the street are mostly transcripts from the final result - the film. Does any of you have a link to original scripts I can download and read? Or any other resource that would help me? I'd appreciate it a lot.

Again, this is a great article and it has given me a new perspective in screenwriting.

October 27, 2013 at 10:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

4
Reply
Prax

Sometimes you can find the early drafts online but, usually, what you get is a shooting draft. That, however, should do the trick. As to what works better, try to read your favorite screenplays/writers and see if it fits your own style (it may not).

Another sample - (if you don't know where this is from ...)
.
A normal Denny's, Spires-like coffee shop in Los Angeles. It's about 9:00 in the morning. While the place isn't jammed, there's a healthy number of people drinking coffee, munching on bacon and eating eggs.

Two of these people are a YOUNG MAN and a YOUNG WOMAN. The Young Man has a slight working-class English accent and, like his fellow countryman, smokes cigarettes like they're going
out of style.

It is impossible to tell where the Young Woman is from or how old she is; everything she does contradicts something she did. The boy and girl sit in a booth. Their dialogue is to be said in a rapid-pace "HIS GIRL FRIDAY" fashion.

October 28, 2013 at 1:31AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply
DLD

Sometimes if you google the name of the film followed by .pdf or screenplay or screenplay pdf you will get a link to the screenplay. This is quite hit and miss. As DLD said many will be shooting scripts (which have their own very specific formatting that you shouldn't try and imitate when writing your own screenplays.)

Don't be afraid to buy published screenplays on Amazon, Abe books etc... A good set of screenplays may cost you anything from pennies to $50 and above (especially if they are out of print) but will be an invaluable investment; my Preston Sturges screenplays cost me a small fortune and I once paid £30 for an 88 page Kind Hearts and Coronets screenplay (virtually nothing when compared to what people spend on camera equipment) but I read them all the time... Do your research and make sure that you aren't just buying a transcript though.

You can pay to join a tracking board. I've never done this before but I hear you can get drafts of screenplays that are in production at the moment or are just hot and doing the rounds in Hollywood.
Nofilmschools Christoper Boone will often post links to nominated screenplays around award season. Other Nofilmschool authors have posted interesting older scripts too, so keep your eyes peeled.

Some sites that I find useful when searching for screenplays or screenwriting advice:
http://www.simplyscripts.com/
http://www.imsdb.com/
http://www.script-o-rama.com/table.shtml
http://www.dailyscript.com/
http://www.reddit.com/r/screenwriting
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/lb8draki31379az/1LZ5ULT7Op
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/tvpa1kipnnhaye3/euPxVapYw9/Movie%20Scripts
http://messageboard.donedealpro.com/boards/
http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/
http://johnaugust.com/
http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/scripts

I guess as long as you aren't trying to sell them on or download pdf files of actual published screenplay books you should be okay legally with all of this stuff, although I'm not sure.

There are loads of screenwriting podcasts too. My favourite is Scriptnotes by John August and Craig Mazin. It's really helped me think about my writing in a more critical but productive way. These guys are actually working screenwriters who get their stuff produced at the highest level. They've written films that you've probably seen.
The Nerdist Writer's Panel podcast and The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith are great for getting an insight into what screenwriters think about their craft.

I'd be interested to know where the other screenwriters/aspiring screenwriters on Nofilmschool get their inspiration/advice/resources from?

October 28, 2013 at 4:07AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

5
Reply
Mak

I can't say I agree with Wolff on those two examples.

I'd have mentioned Howard's fatty composition in his character introduction. And then at this point I'd just say:

Howard wheezes with every step.

Personally I like to keep things as simple as possible in the action. But each to their own.

It's a difficult balance to get. One which, I'm sure I fail at more often then not.

October 28, 2013 at 3:02AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

7
Reply

I've had teachers and movie-makers emphasize that it's most helpful to make your screenplay a good experience to read, but only put down what the audience can see and hear.

For example, don't write "Fisher gestures at the pile of resumes on his desk", but rather "Fisher gestures at the stack of paper on his desk" -- because that's all that we the audience will see; we don't know they're resumes, we only see a stack of paper. Later, "Fisher picks up the top sheet from the pile, looks at it, and sighs. The resume he holds has a coffee stain on it." You can practically see the shots: medium on Fisher behind his desk; he picks up a page from the pile. Cut to: Close on the page; it's a resume with a coffee stain.

The audience only needs so much information. If we need to know that Fisher is busy, a pile of papers on his desk tells us that; we don't need to know what kind. If we need the specific information that he's hiring someone, we need to know that the papers are resumes. The screenwright's job is to give us the information we need to understand the story, when we need it -- and using only what we can see and hear; we don't have access to the characters' interior worlds except through what they do and say.

November 1, 2013 at 1:22AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

0
Reply

TYPO: Every ten steps he has 'TO' stop and lean against the nearest wall.

June 29, 2015 at 2:41PM

0
Reply
avatar
Anthony
Writer/Director
74