One of the more omnipresent traps that aspiring screenwriters succumb to in the actual writing and execution of their script is to think of their screenplay as a movie. 

I know, I know, that doesn’t sound right at all. A screenplay is a movie, right? 

Well no, it’s not. For non-established spec writers a screenplay is a written story that—if loved by enough industry folk—can then lead to being set up at a studio, and hopefully produced into a movie. 

It’s an extremely valuable distinction to make for aspiring screenwriters who write on spec, and here’s why.

Avoid being so engrossed in envisioning your finished product as a movie that you fail to fully articulate the story on the page.

Yes, writers should be envisioning their screenplay as a movie, which means writing visually, externalizing actions and conflicts, and applying form and function. However, the story has to be fully executed on the page first. 

That means that the narrative intentions of the writer have to be clear in the writing. The ideas associated with the story; individual beats, moments, subtext, emotional nuance, and the plot itself, have to be transparent to the reader. 

Most reading this article would think that’s a complete and utter given; yet lack of clarity is a trap that far too many aspiring screenwriters fall into and never even realize it. 

Spotlight'Spotlight,' 2016 Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay

Your screenplay must be understandable on its own

Screenwriters can get locked into the movie they’re envisioning in their head, one that’s filled with amazing images, and casted with brilliant actors, and has amazing cinematography and sound. The challenge is that they often get so caught up in seeing it, that they lose sight of the fact that it has to be read first.  

In other words, they’re so engrossed in envisioning the finished product as a movie that they fail to fully articulate the story on the page. And as any studio reader will tell you, that’s a knife in the belly of any screenplay that will instantly cut the life of your read short.  

Simply put, instead of writing a story for a reader, they’re writing a movie for a producer. Instead of telling a story, they’re explaining a movie. 

I’ve seen it happen far too often. I would read a writer’s spec only to be constantly stopping because it lacked clarity.

The repercussions

Writing a movie for a producer or director in mind instead of writing a story for a reader is a mistake, as it can directly lead to ambiguity in the writing. Parts of the story are on the page, but other parts are vague and still in the writer’s head, attached to that awesome three-dimensional finished movie that one has to actually see in order to fully comprehend its story. 

In my years of teaching and consulting I’ve seen it happen far too often. I would read a writer’s spec only to be constantly stopping because it lacked clarity. I’m constantly being “taken out of the read” because the writer’s narrative intentions aren’t clear on the page. Instead of being engaged, I’m confused. 

However, when I sit down with the writer and he or she explains it to me, it all makes perfect sense. 

As an example of this at play, let’s take an excerpt from a spec script I consulted on that illustrates this notion of failing to articulate a vision. The following is a before and after snapshot of the scene. Here’s the before version:

Spec Script beforeSpec script before clarification.

When I sat down with the screenwriter, I explained that the scene confused me on many levels, and that I sensed there was supposed to be much more here that wasn’t being articulated. 

Upon hearing this, the writer eagerly launched into an emotional explanation of the scene and its narrative intent as related to the story as a whole. It was both compelling and moving, yet it was entirely missing from the page. It was still in the writer’s imagination in movie form. 

After rewriting the scene per our discussion, here’s what the “after” version looked like:

Spec script afterSpec script after clarification.

As you can see, the scene took on a whole new life by simply clarifying beats and emotional intentions. 

And therein lies the rub, because your screenplay isn’t going to come with a person to explain it. When your screenplay goes out into the world, it doesn’t go with a person attached who can clarify or explain scene intentions. 

For non-established screenwriters a screenplay has to be a piece of material that stands on its own merit. It’s not a blueprint for a movie. It’s a literary version of a movie. And thus it has to engage and move the reader just like a great movie does an audience. 

When your screenplay goes out into the world, it doesn’t go with a person attached who can clarify or explain scene intentions. 

How to overcome it

Ambiguity is the enemy of your screenplay. Curiosity is its hero. Meaning, truly engaging writing generates narrative curiosity, causing the reader to want to read more in order to know more. Ambiguous writing just causes confusion. Or, as I like to put it, curiosity is “good confusion” whereas ambiguity is not.  

One exercise I would have my former MFA screenwriting students do was to read their finished first draft scene-by-scene as if they were a lit agent reading it for the first time. In other words, step outside yourself and be an objective reader. What would the agent’s informational and emotional takeaway from each scene be? Does it match what your intention as a writer was for the scene? 

Doing this forces you to take the intuitive ideas you wrote and articulate them into specific choices in the rewriting stage. (Note: Experienced writers tend to do this organically in the outline or first draft stage of the process.)

The bottom line

The bottom line is: a spec writer’s audience is the people who will be reading their screenplay, which may include agents, managers, development execs, and readers doing coverage on it.

Executing the story on the page is everything. It’s the difference between the reader understanding the nuance of your story or not. Between them being engaged in the read or not. Between them continuing to read it or tossing it. 

In order for your screenplay to ever actually become a movie, people have to love it as a story first. And that story has to be on the page.