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Three tips for writing better screenplays

WE’RE ALL WRITERS

When you start down that path of directing, one of the first thing you realize is how difficult it can be to find a script that captures your imagination. You think, why not? I’ll just write my own. I’m amazing at everything else so of course I can write a screenplay. So you buy a book, and maybe take a few classes. And you slug at it, and you throw it all out, and then you try again.

And you do a lot of sitting, and staring.

This is usually how it starts, and sometimes how it ends. JJ Abrams is credited as a writer on 21 projects, and yet he says directing is his favorite part of the process because that means he’s done writing.

On the flip side, Joss Whedon became a director because he was tired of other people screwing up the projects he wrote.

Love it or hate it, if you’re a director the odds are you’ll need to know how to write at leas to some extent. And when you do, here’s a list of things I’ve learned to help make the process more effective.

Remember: Time will always be an issue. It’s up to you to place ironing out the script at the top of your priorities. Other filmmakers are rushing straight through the writing phase and accepting a hasty first draft as their shooting script. And guess what? It shows. Set yourself apart by doing the opposite. Don’t accept a lesser quality script. “Ya, close enough” said no famous director, ever, and neither should you.

So the next time you’re staring at a blank screen, here’s my list of three things to help you write better.

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READ OUT LOUD

You have to cultivate the ability to judge whether what you’re writing is good or not. Good writing is not your first thought, but your best thought. And you’ll have to sift and sort them until you find the right one. Something that can help with this, is reading out loud. Even though you’ll feel like a crazy person at times, it’s incredible the difference this simple trick can make.

As writers, we’re dealing with words on a page, but in film it never stays that way. It’s something the viewers see and experience in a way that makes the writing invisible. When I read back the lines I’ve written (even as I write this article) I have a much easier time of picking out bad writing.

Want to kick it up a notch? Take it one step further by having someone else read it aloud. One of the most painful things a writer can endure is a round table reading of their own bad writing. But boy can it be helpful.

Our minds are so good at filling in what isn’t there, we often read what we intend, instead of what’s actually on the page. When you get other people to read your script, and specifically read it out loud, you suddenly see exactly what’s on the page, and how easily readers can mis-interpret your lines.

If you think your script is getting close to production ready, grab pen and paper for notes, and do a round table reading. From start, to finish. It may be painful, but you’ll thank me in the end.

ASK FOR FEEDBACK

I’ve been bit by rushing a screenplay into production before, and since then I employ a strict rule of three complete revisions. I’m not talking about brushing up some dialogue or hunting for typos. I’m talking about scene, structure and arc type stuff – deep down into the inner workings of the story.

I believe that an excellent story comes from none other than good old fashioned blood, sweat and tears. And a lot of staring. And banging your head against the desk. And staring. So trust the people around you to clue you in to where you’ve got it right, and where you haven’t.

They may be fellow creatives, close friends or just people you respect. I call them the brain trust. Whoever they are, those chosen few are saints because they’re reading a script that YOU wrote and that deserves your eternal gratitude. So be sure that when the criticism stacks up, you don’t forget to make sure they feel your sincere appreciation.

When I get to the point of releasing a script to the brain trust, it’s already gone through a few quick brush ups for dialogue and typos to minimize their headache. From here I get all feedback collected into a single document that’s color coded so I can tell who wrote what comment just from a color. Make sure everyone puts a page number in front of their note for reference. By placing all the notes chronologically in the same document you will speed your revisions considerably.

So how do we digest all of these emerging opinions? Do we chase down and appease every little note? Not at all. Go with your gut. The most important thing I find from this process is where jokes, scenes, or character traits just aren’t landing. Because if more than one person notes that a given element is confusing, you know you’ve got some work to do.

Version by version, note by note we come to a place where the script is no longer something that seems cool inside of one persons mind, but a starting point for a living breathing story, proven by the way our readers have gradually responded to the story.

USE THE BEAT SHEET

When it comes to screen writing books, I’ve read the big three: Story by Robert McKee, Screen Writing by Syd Field, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. There’s something to be learned from each one, so by all means read them. But I have to say that the more I use Blake Snyder’s beat sheet, the more I come to appreciate it as a tool to keep you going.

If you’re not familiar, the beat sheet is a detailed way of breaking down the moments or beats that make up a movie. Some might call it a formula, but I think that sounds misleading. I’m not about copycat artistry. But I am about studying why films work the way they do, and giving yourself a grid to work from.

That’s exactly what the beat sheet does.

If you’re someone who isn’t as fluent in screenplay nuance, then you are a perfect candidate for the beat sheet. Or if you’ve written quite a few screenplays and always tend to have a hard time organizing your ideas into something cohesive, then you’re also a perfect candidate.

Pacing. How can we tell on the page whether it will work on the screen? Well we can’t. Not really. Which is why we hold so closely to aids like the three act structure, and plot points, and the inciting incident.

The beat sheet condenses all of these moments into one concise overview and keeps the story on track for the best delivery. Here’s what I mean, complete with page numbers to aim for.

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If you haven’t read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, you should certainly pick it up from Amazon. While that’s on its way, head on over to Blake Snyder’s website where they have some excellent examples of the Beat Sheet using popular movies. You’ll see how simply movies break down into this type of outline.

But it’s no good unless you actually use it.

As I begin to outline my next screenplay, I start by fleshing out a no rules, free flowing version of the entire script inside of the beat sheet, aiming for something like ten pages. I find that the more I break down each segment, the better evaluation for flow I can get. And a proper evaluation at this stage is exactly what you need.

I’ve begun writing exclusively in Slugline, the screen writing app from Stu Maschwitz and Clinton Torres. As far as screenwriting apps go, this one is a keeper. It’s intuitive to work in, and deceptively simple in a stop fiddling and keep writing sort of way. It writes in Fountain, which is a plain text markup language for screenwriting. If that sounds complicated, the opposite is actually true. It’s amazingly liberating and you’ll quickly wondering why someone hasn’t thought of this sooner.

But here’s the point: the good folks who created it, packed Slugline with a few templates, including Blake Snyder’s. Now you can outline using the Beat Sheet while also including, notes to yourself or actual lines of dialogue, all in one place.

Here’s an example of Slugline using the Blake Snyder Beat sheet.

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In the end, we all write in different ways, so at the very least remember this: Nothing will help you write better than simply keeping your butt in the chair and slugging through it.

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