Some quick thoughts on what readers, or at least this reader of screenplays (and television pilots) likes and doesn’t like on a general basis. These are issues that consistently annoy or excite me when reading a script. I find myself writing these comments in consultation notes over an over again so thought I’d lay them out so those writers reading this can gather some insight.
I cannot read one more scene of action leading to our main character or any characters waking up in sweat from a nightmare. It’s as old as the hills. If you want to show trauma, PTSD or anything that is haunting the character please find a new way to show us. I urge writers to stop writing what they’ve read or seen before. I quote the brilliant writer William Goldman who said, “Writing is putting words on paper that have never been there quite that way before.”
Montages are tricky. Rarely do they work. They can sometimes be used as ‘series of shots’ but if so, this should be done sparingly and only if passage of time needs to be condensed in this way. I would not want to see more than one montage per script and definitely not placed anywhere near the first 20-30 pages of a script. If your script is less than 100 pages – there is likely no need for a montage – you have plenty of time to show us what’s really happening. Again, there are exceptions to this rule but montages have to be sleek, funny and tight. A good use of montage would be the shopping scenes in “Pretty Woman’. The same rules go for flashbacks but to a lesser degree. Use when necessary but be careful not to use flashbacks within flashbacks as that can often be substituted by dialogue or exposition. Time and place are really important to remain clear in stories so try to make sure you’re not confusing the reader.
Writers are there to write the words and description along with some action. Let actors act and directors direct. Therefore, no camera shots should be included nor should there be excess direction towards how a character should ‘play a scene’. The screenwriter of “Carol”, Phyllis Nagy would not begin to explain the final look from Cate Blanchett to Rooney Mara so let the actors do their job. 99% of the time, your script is going to be taken apart and dissected in all kinds of ways by whomever makes it so whatever you put in there is going to be disregarded anyway.
The most important thing for me when reading a script regardless of the genre are the emotional arcs. Here is a great article featuring my friend Meg LeFauve talking about creating emotion in characters Tips on Emotional Storytelling. Without a connection to something emotional, whether it be a character or an idea, it’s very hard for me to get involved in a script. When outlining characters make sure they are 3-Dimensional. People, even action heroes have emotional arcs. In fact, many action scripts have very big emotional arcs. It doesn’t need to be a Meryl Streep movie for us to feel something. Emotion does not solely mean romance, but feelings; passion, desire, intent, caring, redemption, revenge, etc…These are examples of what drives a character or the larger theme of the script. A movie such as “The Revenant” is as much an emotionally based movie as a movie like “Room” or “Carol”. Everything is propelled by love, revenge, and desire. It’s one of the reasons that it works so well and has 12 Oscar nominations. It’s not just an adventure story.
I mentioned this with montages but again, time and space are often a huge problem that writers tackle. The pace of a script is very important. It’s not necessarily about the length of the script but how time is used, how scenes flow from one to the next and how the characters and story unfold. When this is not properly structured it’s easy to lose track of where we are and when things are happening. Scenes should not be too long. We want to get the information, feel what we need to and move on. This is not a book where one can languish in a mood for pages. Hopefully, the mood flows with the script. Space is important because unless scenes are properly structured from start to finish, arcs aren’t properly complete and we don’t know where we are in the story, not just time wise but also regarding physical space. A character cannot easily go from an all out street fight to sitting in his living room, yet many scripts show this. Yes, there is passage of time and we don’t need to see every move, but scenes need to be carefully cut together and ‘where and when’ need a lot of attention. Description is one way to help move scripts along as long as it’s not too dense. We usually want to see what’s happening, not hear it from the writer him/herself.
There is nothing like a good twist and I know they are hard to come up with but I have read some good ones over the past year. If you’re looking for a good script that can show you how this is done, I suggest finding a copy of the recent screenplay “The Shave”, written by Miles Hubley and Thomas White. I once became very interested in a client because when I read the first script he gave me he killed off a main character in the first half of the script. I loved it!! It was a great script as was the next he showed me so I signed him. The bravery of throwing away a character like that jars an audience and that’s what people are looking for in certain genres. Yes, this was an action/thriller and I’ll never forget the effect it had on me. I believed this writer had faith in his writing and his outlining of the script showed that it survived well without the character just as a good outline should allow. Take chances.
Know how to write your genre. It feels funny to say this but comedies need to be funny as often as possible. There can be drama and intrigue but when you’re using your scenes to move the story forward, use comedy. Only write a comedy if you are funny because comedy is hard. Thrillers and mystery/suspense genres are very tricky to write as well and I am seeing a lot of the same not so great choices being made by writers lately. Yes, there is a mystery to solve but remember, WE do not need to be in the dark all the time. Reading a script that gives out no information to the reader (not talking about the audience now) is very hard to read and understand as a potential piece of suspense. While we all like to be kept in the dark plot wise on some levels, using the whole script as a mystery for a third act reveal is a case of bad development and structuring. Creating a strong thriller is about pace, proper doling out of information, red herrings and twists. We need to know the story so we can read along and be surprised and engaged at the right time, not lost and alone. These are hard genres and really need the most outlining.
Lastly, please make sure your script make sense. If you are writing in a genre such as fantasy or science-fiction where much of what you are writing is made up and cannot be proven or real, it still needs to make sense within the world you create. That does give the writer some leverage in creating their own rules but no matter how original a premise you come up with, if it cannot make sense even within ‘suspension of disbelief’, it cannot be a solidly and clearly written script.