When introducing a new character give their age. MATT 25, SUSAN, mid-twenties, SAM early nineties. Make a hard decision and commit to it. Don’t make the reader stop and have to figure it out. Sometimes it’s obvious, but not always. Don’t take the chance.
You can’t tell us what’s happening inside the character’s head. You can only describe what action the character is doing. We must understand what is going on by the action lines and dialogue only. That’s your job as a writer. It’s hard. Billy glances at his brother remembering when they were little. Inside Head. – Re-worked: Billy glances at his brother and smiles. Joan realizes that she is not the woman she thought she was. Inside Head. – Re-worked: Joan places herself in front of the mirror and shakes her head. Marty knows the second he turns the knob, the bomb would go off. Inside Head. – Re-worked: Marty reaches for the wires but retracts his hand. He takes a deep breath. – If you use the words, thinks, realizes, knows – you’re inside the character’s head. Get out of there.
Have a reading of your script out loud. When your script is read aloud, you can hear where the dialogue isn’t working. You can listen to where the action lines slow down the read or is confusing. Watch listeners’ faces and see if they are lost. If people look bored so would your reader. If you have actor friends, great, if not, as long as your non-actor friends can read, use them.
WAYS NOT TO TAKE THE READER OUT OF YOUR SCRIPT
Don’t have characters with the similar names. Readers do a lot of reading. They read fast. It’s hard to differentiate between Denise and Dennis. Sarah and Susan. Fred and Fran. Even Jack and John can be a problem if they are used constantly. You don’t want to give a chance for the reader to stop and have to figure out which character is which. Then they are taken out of your story and you lost any momentum you had earned so far. Be creative.
I read a lot of scripts.
I work with hundreds of scripts a year through workshops. I read for numerous contests. I’m hired to read for literary managers and companies. There’s also my own business, ReWriteDr, where I read, study and take apart scripts for a living.
Why are most scripts mediocre at best?
As I said, I read a lot of scripts. And most scripts are – mediocre. They’re not bad, but they’re not great either. They’ve got the three act structure. The main character has an arc. There is some witty banter in the dialogue. Even some have an interesting or fun and unusual premise. They are technically okay. But they don’t bring that extra ingredient to make it stand out from the pact. It’s a good script but it’s not a great script yet.
You can study the craft of screenwriting. There are some excellent books out there. There are invaluable teachers and workshops that can help you bring you up a level. These can all contribute to you being a better writer. But still you need more to turn out a great script.
When you think you’re finished with your script, you’re not. Now the work really begins. You can’t do it alone. Writing is solitary, rewriting is mostly solitary. You need another set of eyes – from an experienced screenwriter friend or a professional script consultant. It’s almost impossible to do it all on your own. We all need help. You think you have clear plot points, they make sense to you. But another set of eyes can point out what you think is there but really isn’t yet. The dialogue is clever, but is it making sense? You want to make the reader work a little, but are you being too subtle? Or are you hitting the reader over the head and there’s no challenge or excitement? An unbiased reader can point these problems out to you. You have the whole complete story in your head, is it clearly on the paper?
What else can I do to bring it up to the next level?
Study good scripts. Don’t just watch films or DVD’s. You’re selling your writing, selling what’s on the page. Read. See how scripts that got sold were able to get passed up the food chain until that glorious word was heard – “yes.”
Some quick tips to making your script stand out.
- Make it cinematic. Your script is not a novel or a short story. It’s a unique storytelling format. Use exciting visuals to convey the story. Some of the most powerful films ever made were silent. Constantly think visually. Ask yourself, how can I either make this scene stronger with a great visual image or action? Do I even need dialogue? The first twenty minutes of the film WALL·E is all visual, no dialogue, yet you’re immediately pulled into a story filled with emotion and humor. Remember that the eye is quicker at grasping details than the ear. Use that to your advantage.
- Transitions. When one scene blends into the next seamlessly or through a connecting device, it makes the script much more cinematic. The old tried but true example of a human scream from one scene that matches the tea pot shrilling to the next can work. Or a baseball that is tossed at the end of the scene that is replaced by a newspaper landing on the street with a headline about the game in the beginning of the next scene. It takes time and energy to make original transitions that come organically from the script but it’s worth it.
- Set-ups and payoffs. The audience and readers love to find some information they learned early on that finally pays off later in the script. It makes them feel smart and connected to what’s going on. In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, we find out early on that Indy is afraid of snakes when there’s one in the plane that saves his life. “I HATE SNAKES!” So when he finally finds the resting place of the ark, his life work, what happens? The place is crawling with snakes. Hundreds of them. Set-up/payoff. The more the merrier.
- Subtext – There’s an expression – “on the nose” dialogue. That’s when the character says exactly what’s on their mind. There’s no depth or cleverness or richness to the scene. “Dialogue works the least when it tells you what’s going on.” – Tom Rickman. There’s a great scene in DOUBLE INDEMITY where the two main characters are talking about sleeping together but they never utter any words to that affect. The dialogue is about speeding in a car – but it’s sexy as hell.
- Tell a familiar story differently. How many films can they make about weddings? Right now the market is about saturated. But look at the variations. There’s, MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING, where Julie Roberts wants to break up her best friend’s wedding and marry the groom herself. Then there’s, 27 DRESSES. A perspective from one of the bride’s maids. There’s also, MADE OF HONOR, when a guy is the Maid of Honor in the wedding of the girl that he really wants to marry. BRIDEZELLA, two battling brides want to marry on the same day. All scripts sold. All about weddings but told differently.
Take the extra time to make your script special. Find ways to make it stand out from the pack. Read great scripts. Have trusted eyes read your script and give you the proper helpful feedback.
If you don’t do it for you, do it for me. I love nothing more than to read agreat script.
What do you think? Any questions about this blog? Any questions for future blogs? Feel free to leave comments here or email me at: Stephen@ReWriteDr.com.
Next week: WHEN AM I FINISHED WITH MY SCRIPT?
Don’t use movie stars and famous people as character description.
MATT, 35, a Tom Cruise type.
SALLY, 24, think Kristen Bell, but cuter.
If the reader doesn’t know who you are talking about, you’re sunk. If the reader doesn’t like the person being used in the description, you’re sunk. It also shows lazy writing. Be creative.
Use dialogue to help convey character, even in the simplest of sentences. Don’t just rely on your description lines to show us character. The word “okay” can be said many different ways: yes sir, don’t mind if I do, you bet your sweet ass, okey-dokey, if you say so, I do agree, and sure e’nuff. Each response comes from a completely different character. Can you think of any more ways to say “okay?”