By N.G. Davis
Part II – Screenwriting Don’ts: Shit that you should never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever do, unless your only priority is writing a really fucking great script, in which case it’s probably not that big of a deal.
A Seasoned Professional Can Do This, But You Can’t Because You’re A Mothafuckin’ NOOB! – Figured I’d start here. You will, unfortunately, encounter plenty of people who preach this nonsense. They say that because you’re just one of a bazillion unknown screenwriters, you must toe the line like the rest of them and abstain from the frivolous writing luxuries of the pros. Step out just a little, and you’re going to piss off some Demon Reader who will burn your script in Hellfire and curse you with carpal tunnel.
Or… maybe that’s all just bullshit. Maybe, the reason these silly rumors get started is because there are certain techniques that, when used poorly, make a bad script even worse. So, if you feel the need to use the following, just do it well. Use them when they’re necessary; when they’ll help you tell your story more effectively. Do that, and I promise, no one’s going to give a fuck.
Don’t use Voice-Over: Voice-over is bad when it tells us what we can already see onscreen. It’s bad when a lazy writer uses it to tell us exactly how the character is feeling. Most stories don’t need it. But when used effectively, it adds layers like nothing else can. Go watch FIGHT CLUB, LOOPER, GOODFELLAS, orTHE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and tell me those films would be as good without it.
“BUT THOSE WERE WRITTEN BY PROFESSIONAL WRITERZ!!!!!!1”
Fine. Get your hands on THE MANY DEATHS OF BARNABY JAMES, a nightmare-inducing script written by then-unknown Brian Nathanson that was picked up by Appian Way. That would be Leonardo DiCaprio’s company.
Don’t Use Camera Directions: Screenwriting sages will tell you to avoid camera directions at all costs. They are an insult to the director, who is much more important than you and who will have his/her own vision for how the movie will look.
All of that is pretty much true. Directors trump everyone but the money people, they’ve got egos just like the rest of us, and one would hope they’ve got a vision for the project. All that said…
Do you realize how fucking long it’s going to be before a director even sees it? Here’s the approximate timeline for a successful script from an unknown:
-A rep agrees to read your script due to a query or referral.
-The rep actually makes his assistant read it over the weekend.
-Based on incredible, this-only-happens-twice-a-year coverage from the assistant, the rep takes it home a couple weekends later.
-The rep signs you. And has you rewrite it.
-The rep takes it to some producers who agree to read it.
-The producers have their assistants take it home over the weekend.
-Based on incredible, you-get-the-picture coverage, one or a few of the producers reads it.
-A producer attaches to the project. And maybe has you rewrite it.
-Your rep and the producer take the project out to studios. Most of them agree to read it.
-It gets assigned to an intern and is passed up the food chain until, incredibly, someone with power decides to buy (option) it.
-Hey… maybe we should show this to a director!
-The director’s assistant…
You get the point.
Your script has to pass through an enormous chain of people before it’s going to risk stepping on the fragile toes of The-Guaranteed-Next-J.J.-Abrams. To make it that far, it has to connect. People have to get it. If an emotional payoff requires a precise shot and you choose not to write it in because you’re worried about what McG might think eight months from now? Hey, your loss.
All of that said, camera directions are rarely necessary more than a couple times a script. They’re also a chore to read when there are a bunch of them. Most people, when they open a script, would rather sit down to a good read than be forced to slog through yet another turd. This requires not only an incredible story, but some really great craft. Lean, easy-to-read prose.
So, while I think you should use them when needed, it’s important to note that lots of camera directions will muddy up the best writing before you can say –
It’s true that the use of “we” in an action line is usually unnecessary and redundant. “We see John riding a unicycle,” could just as easily be, “John rides a unicycle,” or “John struggles to balance atop a unicycle.” Both make for a better read, in my opinion.
But check out this opening to Chad St. John’s THE DAYS BEFORE:
EXT. WASHINGTON DC (ABOVE) – NIGHT
WE MOVE over America’s Capitol. It most definitely “Tis the Season”. CHRISTMAS LIGHTS are everywhere. Tinsel and decorations gleam–monuments are bathed in green and red flood lights.
I remember reading this back in the day, when I still subscribed to many a screenwriting rule. It seemed so brazen that this new writer (this was his breakout script) would literally open his script with “we.” In my fit of arrogance, I tried to make the paragraph work better without it. I failed. I was forced to admit to myself that, not only was this the most effective way to write the opening, but the word “we” was actually capable of ADDING something to the tone of a scene. Amazing.
I still use “we” sparingly, but when it’s the best option, I don’t even think twice.
Don’t Use Word ART!: As anyone who’s read my scripts can attest, I LOVE word art. If I want to emphasize something, I will bold, underline, capitalize, italicize, or even strike-through the fuck out of it.
This annoys some people.
I don’t care.
If you’re someone who reads three scripts a weekday and five more over the weekend, you can’t help but start to scan through that shit. That’s fine. I empathize. But I also want to be sure you notice when something important happens.
Jeff Morris basically kickstarted his career with THE TRUE MEMOIRS OF AN INTERNATIONAL ASSASSIN, in which he capitalized practically every other word. Personally, I think it works great.
You don’t have to do this. There are plenty of writers who are doing just fine with plain, old, non-emphasized Courier. However, a sampling of recent Blacklist scripts will show that there are plenty of successful new writers who like to show a little more flair. Whatever works for you. Whatever helps you tell your story.
Don’t Use (Wrylies): Wrylies are the things that people put in parentheses in dialogue blocks. They’re generally used as directions for how a line should be read, although they can also be used to note an action that’s taking place while the words are being spoken.
There are lots of people who like to say that this is insulting to the actor, because they will find their own way into the character and may come up with even a more brilliant way to read and act the line. This is true. But remember that long list of people who will read the script before the director? In some cases, you can go as far as to double it.
There’s another school of thought, too: Some people feel that wrylies are insulting to the readers. In general, people who’ve managed to land a job in film are intelligent, even if all they’re doing is reading scripts. They should be able to infer the meaning of a well-written line, right? Well, not always.
Avoid wrylies when you can. When overused, they become annoying, much like camera directions. However, if the line could easily be read with an intent that messes with the tone you’re going for, I say it’s better to play it safe. In some scripts, I might only do this once or twice. In AFTERMATH, a couple dozen.
It’s not just me. In GALAHAD, the breakout script from writer Ryan Condal that sold for megabucks, he’s got three wrylies in the first five pages. In ARMORED, the Nicholl-winning, mid-six-figure-selling, Matt-Dillon-Lawrence-Fishburne-starring breakout spec from James V. Simpson, he’s got nine in the first ten.
These were scripts from unknowns who are now doing quite well as professional screenwriters. They didn’t fear the wryly – they just used it well.
Don’t Use CUT TO:’s and Other Transitions: First of all, can someone tell me whether or not I’m supposed to have that apostrophe after “CUT TO:”? It’s not possessive, but “CUT TO:s” just looks kind of bizarre. Anyway –
Like camera directions, these should be used sparingly. In most cases, a new slugline implies exactly the cut you’re looking for. In cases where it doesn’t, you can often create that same effect with your action lines.
But when you can’t, go ahead and throw in a “CUT TO:”. I find they’re often most effective when trying to show the passage of time inside the same location. Just make sure you cut to something interesting. This is still a movie, so at least show us cool stuff.
Other types of transitions are pretty rare and probably shouldn’t be used unless they’re absolutely necessary and appropriate for the effect. For instance, if you’re using some spirally wipe type thing for a hilarious comic effect, then that’s great. Otherwise… no.
Don’t Use Odd Sluglines: A slugline consists of three parts. You’ve got your INT./EXT., your location, and the time of day. Typically, it should read like this:
EXT. DILAPIDATED MANSION – NIGHT
There are those who would tell you that it should ONLY read like that. But why? In terms of a shooting script, sluglines are largely a tool for cinematographers. When they’re lighting the set, they need to know if they’re aiming for day or night, interior or exterior. Makes sense.
But you’re writing a spec script. A script that, even if it’s successful, is probably years from production. Right now, you need to ensure that all of the people that read it before that point are able to see the movie that’s in your head.
You don’t want to confuse people. Don’t fuck with the form too much, but if this scene absolutely has to take place at sunrise, then don’t you think that should be in the slugline, instead of your standard, “DAY”?
Many people will also write “SAME” or “CONTINUOUS” instead of the time of day, to make note of a scene that is happening simultaneously to the last one, or to show that the camera is following someone from one location to the next. Again, it’s all about clarity. If a reader doesn’t get your intention, you’ve got a bigger problem than non-standard formatting.
Something you’ll see in many new specs is bolded or underlined slugs. Sometimes writers do both. To me, it helps the location pop off the page a bit, meaning if your reader is scanning, they’ll at least know where the scene takes place. I’ve seen some people say you shouldn’t do this, but they’re clearly not up to date on the spec market. It’s already pretty common and it wouldn’t shock me if it becomes even more prevalent.
In the case of fast-paced action, I’m also a big fan of mini-slugs. You skip the “INT./EXT.,” as well as the time of day, and just give the location, so it looks like this:
Aaron catches the touchdown pass, spikes it into the ground, fires a look back across the field to the –
Where Juliana cheers like a madwoman.
F. Scott Frazier did a bunch of this in his frenetically-paced breakout script, LINE OF SIGHT. Honestly, if you want to read a script that breaks rules, track down and read that one. Clearly, he didn’t piss Hollywood off, because he’s now working with its biggest producers and carving out a pretty awesome career for himself. He also has a John Cusack movie coming out this year.
Don’t Use Specific Music / Intellectual Property / Etc.: You’ll hear a lot of talk about how you should never suggest a specific piece of music for your script, or have a character watch a clip from a specific movie, etc. It’s true that if you try to include every possible element of the movie in the screenplay, it’s going to feel like an amateur piece of work. Music directors, production designers, art directors, cinematographers, and editors exist for a reason. Also, it can be difficult and expensive to license certain intellectual property, which could make it harder to put the movie together.
However, if you’ve got a case where a specific piece of music is truly perfect and sets off the emotion/tone/theme you’re going for in a way that nothing else can, you should use it. There shouldn’t be a need to do this a lot. I never have. If you fill your script with song references, it’s only going to look silly (unless perhaps the story literally revolves around the music). If you fill it with Beatles and Michael Jackson hits, it’s going to be ludicrously expensive. But it is done, by new writers, in scripts that have become successful.
Young Il Kim came out of nowhere with RODHAM, which wound up at number four on last year’s Blacklist. Not only has Hollywood taken notice of him, he’s gained national attention for his script. He opened the thing with a song.
Don’t Use “Walk,” “Look,” “Talk,” “Etc.”: These are considered by many to be no-no words. Let’s face it, they are kind of boring. Each one has a plethora of synonyms that are probably going to work better for your story.
But not all the time. Sometimes, the “boring” words are perfect. There are cases where, if you try to force something more descriptive, it just feels unnatural. There are also times when you don’t necessarily want that action in the foreground. Boring words carry the ability to be invisible, which can be very useful if you either don’t want to draw attention to what’s going on, or you simply want most of your reader’s attention on something else.
You’re a writer and if you want to do this for a living, you had better be able to use the best words for the job. All I’m saying is, don’t waste 15 minutes trying to find a better word when “walks” will do. If it feels right, it probably is.
Don’t Let Your Scenes Be Longer Than (X): This is one of the more ridiculous rules out there, but I continue to see it. Please don’t worry about a maximum scene length. Although it’s true that most scenes are around 2 pages long, there are plenty of stories that call for scenes that are 5 or more pages in length.
What you need to concern yourself with is whether the scene flows, moves at a good pace, and does what it’s supposed to do for your story. Usually this will result in short scenes. Not always.
Don’t Be Ex$pen$ive: The success of breakout scripts like LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, BURIED, BRAKE, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, and ARMORED might seem to lend some weight to the idea that you should consider budget when writing a spec. And to some extent, you should.
If you’re writing something that isn’t high-concept, you should probably give some thought to VFX, set pieces, CGI, and how many speaking parts you’re going to have.
But if you’re writing high-concept genre fare? Strut your stuff. Show what you can do. Out of GALAHAD, LINE OF SIGHT, THE DAYS BEFORE, and THE TRUE MEMOIRS OF AN INTERNATIONAL ASSASSIN, not one of them has been made. Some are dead and some are still in development, but they all have two things in common: They all sold, and they all kicked off majorly successful careers for their writers.
Budget does matter, but those scripts sold despite being super expensive. Sometimes you’ll get development notes requiring you to dial something down. That’s fine. But if you don’t write it in the first place, your introduction to Hollywood won’t include the very best that you’ve got. Be conscious of budget, but don’t let it get in your way.