By N.G. Davis
Part III — Screenwriting Dos: That’s the Plural of “Do,” Not a Primitive Computing System
Heads up — this list is going to be way shorter than the last two. I mean, think about it. If you’re trying to sell your services as a screenwriting guru, it’s safer to list things that will prevent someone’s success than to offer up tips that will “guarantee” fame and fortune.
Granted, when you step away from formatting and start talking about story, your average screenwriting specialist will have a lot more to say. Story’s abstract. It’s easier to point the finger and say, “Oh, you didn’t do it right,” if their Ten Steps to Mindblowing Characters don’t actually blow any minds.
It’s not that story can’t be taught; it’s just that those who can teach it are able to do so because they’re far more experienced than those who generally do. I’m happy to offer notes on friends’ scripts, but I’m uncomfortable giving story advice in a public forum because I don’t feel like I’m an authority on it. Even though my writing’s gotten pretty good, I’m still operating on a lot of gut instinct. This isn’t paint-by-numbers.
Format, however, offers more rigidity and is therefore easier to take a hard stance on. Or, if you’re like me, a loose one.
White Space – Basically every format-related screenwriting “do” that comes to mind has to do with creating lots of – you guessed it – white space. White space is what this blog does not have. It’s the empty area, the relief, created by short paragraphs and punchy dialogue.
I’m a big fan. A script with lots of white space often means that there’s an easy, quick read ahead. Conversely, a dense script is often an overwritten chore. And so, like with many other useful concepts, there are a handful of imperfect rules thrown about to support it. (I also find it funny that the people who harp on these rules are often the same people who say you should NEVER use space-making CUT TO:s and wrylies…)
Keep Your Action Paragraphs to (X) Lines: The standard version of this says to limit action paragraphs to three or four lines. That’s a GREAT target. Seriously. In general, each paragraph should describe a new shot. If you’re using several lines to describe each frame of the movie, your script is going to feel dense and it’s going to take forever to read. Please don’t do this.
But, sometimes you’ll need that fifth line to describe a detail that’s absolutely crucial to the story. I’d recommend that you do what you can to keep every paragraph short, but don’t be afraid to go a little long if that’s what the shot requires. If you’re doing it right, you’ll balance things out with a lot of one and two-line paragraphs, anyway.
Keep Dialogue Short and Avoid Monologues: Again, I mostly agree with this. Three or four lines is a great target for dialogue as well. In general, you should only have a character speak when an action or a visual can’t say it for them. You should only have them say as much as is necessary. You should have your characters cut each other off before any of them can say too much. A monologue needs to be earned. It should change the course of the story.
And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need. If you’re at a pivotal moment in your script, one where every other character in the room is willing to shut up and listen for a bit, then do what you have to do and write the line the way it needs to be written. Don’t let some arbitrary rule about a maximum amount of dialogue prevent you from creating an emotional payoff.
Word Count: I’ve seen it suggested that you should limit yourself to an average of 150-180 words per page and that absolutely, positively, you want no more than 200. I’ll admit, I only heard about this “rule” recently. I don’t know how prevalent it is, but I think it’s ridiculous and feel obligated to dispel it.
I’m a bigger fan of Final Draft’s profanity count.
So, let’s take a quick look at the successful spec scripts I’ve mentioned in parts one and two. I am literally grabbing the word counts right now, so this will be as much of a surprise to me as it is to you. Hopefully, the variance in them will back me up.
BRAKE by Timothy Mannion (191 WPP)
BURIED by Christopher Sparling (192 WPP)
TRIPOLI by William Monahan (The PDF I have is imaged and can’t be copy/pasted for word count. I would not be surprised if this one is over 200. It’s a historical epic, so that makes some sense.)
500 DAYS OF SUMMER by Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber (The PDF I have is imaged and can’t be copy/pasted for word count. This one is probably under 180.)
THE MANY DEATHS OF BARNABY JAMES by Brian Nathanson (233 WPP)
THE DAYS BEFORE by Chad St. John (212 WPP)
THE TRUE MEMOIRS OF AN INTERNATIONAL ASSASSIN by Jeff Morris (171 WPP)
GALAHAD by Ryan Condal (249 WPP)
ARMORED by James V Simpson (153 WPP)
LINE OF SIGHT by F. Scott Frazier (197 WPP)
RODHAM by Young Il Kim (216 WPP)
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE by Michael Arndt (The PDF I have is imaged and can’t be copy/pasted for word count. Not really sure where this one would wind up, but maybe on the lower end.)
Of the scripts I could count, the average is: 201 WPP
Wow! There were some major surprises in there for me. I would have expected the average to wind up around 180. I just figured there would be a few scripts that would end up above that number and prove my point. I am especially blown away by the word counts of THE DAYS BEFORE and GALAHAD. It’s been a while since I’ve read either of them, but I remember both of them as fast reads.
One could make the argument that this isn’t a fair sample since it spans a number of years and may not reflect the industry in its current state. Fair enough. I’ve taken the liberty of averaging the WPP of the top five scripts from the 2011 and 2012 Blacklists. Remember, these were the top scripts for that year, handpicked by over 300 Hollywood executives.
With 2012′s list, the PDF I have of SEUSS is imaged, so I couldn’t get the word count. The average of DRAFT DAY, A COUNTRY OF STRANGERS, RODHAM, and STORY OF YOUR LIFE is 194.5 WPP. A little bit lower than my above number, but still well above that 180 WPP mark. The range was as varied as the above samples.
With 2011’s top five, the average wound up at 193.4 WPP. Again, the variation was big, ranging from 170 WPP all the way up to 221 WPP. THE IMITATION GAME was the one that came in at 170 WPP, which is very surprising considering how much depth that script has. Pretty cool.
So what do these numbers tell us? I’m pretty sure that they say that there are no exceptions to the above rule, because the rule itself is flat-out wrong. This truly, honestly was not the result I was expecting, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t love it.
Hopefully all of this number crunching is enough to prove that you don’t need to worry about your word count. Hopefully the rest of this series is enough to prove that you don’t need to worry about those other rules, either. Focus on telling the story in the absolute best way possible. That’s what matters.
So, where does a new writer go to learn how to tell a good story?
Resources for New Writers:
Other Writers: The best writing resources I’ve encountered have been other people. Specifically, screenwriters who want this just as bad as you do and can give you objective feedback on your work.
Meet people however you can, be it through local writing groups or the internet. I don’t currently belong to a local group, but they’ve been very helpful in the past. You get to hear your words read out-loud, which is invaluable. The downside of course is that regular groups are time consuming and are bound to contain some people who aren’t as focused (and therefore aren’t as helpful).
As a guy outside Los Angeles, the internet has been an incredible resource. I’ve got a couple of friends who I’ve known for six years and who have read every single thing I’ve written. We’ve continued to help each other, introduced each other to new contacts, and our networks have expanded. I’m being completely honest here – without the help of a few select people, I’d have never had a prayer of optioning a script to a legitimate Hollywood production company.
These people are real-life friends now, but I initially “met” them through screenwriters’ forums and Facebook. It’s been fun to watch our respective careers grow over time.
The internet is a vast place, so where should you start?
Screenwriting Websites Worth Your Time:
Wordplayer.com – Run by Terry Rossio, writer of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, SHREK, ALADDIN, and many other hits. He and his partner Ted Elliott are two of the highest-earning screenwriters EVER. This website is full of great stuff, despite being mostly inactive now, but the best section is easily the columns. Read all of them.
Johnaugust.com – John August is one of the more prolific screenwriters of our time. You probably already check out his site if you’re a writer, but if you don’t, do yourself a favor. Lots of helpful advice on there and his SCRIPTNOTES podcast with Craig Mazin is solid.
Oscars.org – This is not only the home of the Oscars, it’s home of the Nicholl Fellowships, the most important screenwriting contest out there. The reason I’m linking to it, however, is because it’s also got a useful formatting page for new writers who just want the basics.
Done Deal Pro – Has some up to date information about recent script sales if you want to pay for it, but the goldmine here is its free forum. Let me put this out there first – there are some major idiots who frequent that place. It’s the internet, so what do you expect? They’re worth dealing with, because the majority of the users are helpful writers who are taking the same journey you are. The unexpected part is the fact that there are also a number of professional writers and a couple managers who contribute there and have excellent advice to offer. I’ve made several good friends as a result of this site. It’s an excellent spot for networking.
There are a lot of terrible screenwriting books out there. Most aren’t very helpful. They tend to be written by people who know a thing or two about screenwriting but not nearly as much as they claim. Based on the small sample I’ve read, here are the few that I think are pretty good:
STORY by Robert McKee – This book is dry at times and some of its theories feel a little overdone, but I guess there’s a reason so many people pay this guy so much money. He’s got some solid story advice. Just don’t take it as the Word of God and you’ll be fine. Leave it at the book, though. Don’t shell out cash for expensive seminars like his. Spend that money on getting beers with other writers.
SAVE THE CAT! by Blake Snyder – A lot of people love this book. I’d say it’s favored more by executives than by actual professional writers, but it’s got merit. I mean, it was written by a guy who had a solid career in screenwriting. You can debate the merits of his credits, but the fact is, he wrote for money for a long time. That’s not easy to do. His beat sheet is great for certain types of stories. It just doesn’t fit them all, as he suggests. It’s also not perfect, as he suggests.
I think that’s my major issue with it. He tries to make every story fit his mold, but that’s just not the way things work. I say read this and try it on for size. I’d be surprised if you don’t get something good out of it. Just don’t make it your bible.
THE WRITER’S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler – I liked this book. Lots of thoughtful breakdowns of movies into the Hero’s Journey, which is also worth reading, even though it’s not a screenwriting book.
Read them. Seriously, though. Read lots of them.
There are some out there who think reading scripts is a waste of time. I think they’re crazy. Would those same people tell a novelist not to read books?
The best resource for a writer is other writers. The second best? I think it’s screenplays. If you want to learn what’s appropriate for formatting, you can skip this whole series of posts and just read ten scripts. If you want to learn how to build tension in a visual way, read scripts. If you want to learn where writers place their act breaks and turning points, read scripts.
Admittedly, recent spec scripts can be tough to track down. There was a huge, stupid lawsuit a couple years back which scared a bunch of people into avoiding file sharing. Technically, sharing screenplays is illegal. They are copyrighted materials that you haven’t paid for. Realistically, no one really cares.
The business operates on script sharing. It’s how agents, producers, and executives find out about new writers. Good scripts get passed around. New writers have been learning from them since the dawn of film. Screenwriting books have only existed for a few decades. Seminars and classes are even more recent than that.
To track them down, however, you do need to know people. Since I’m posting about this publicly, please don’t ask me to be your resource (and if Fox is reading, I don’t have any scripts, anyway. I was borrowing them from a friend). You don’t need to know people who are actually working in the business. There are plenty of aspiring writers who have huge collections of scripts and you can meet lots of them by checking out places like Done Deal Pro’s forum, which is where I’d start.
In the meantime, check out Simply Scripts. They stock a whole lot of already-produced screenplays. This is slightly less helpful than hot spec scripts in some ways, but getting to see how one of your favorite movies is written is still very eye-opening.
I don’t really like recommending consultants. I don’t. A writer really doesn’t have to spend much to get their foot in the door. That said, I used a consultant myself once.
I was at a point where I was feeling insecure and needed some validation. I got it – the guy liked it a lot – but I realized that the notes I was getting from my friends in the business were just as solid as what this guy was offering. That’s not a knock against him in any way. He was awesome and extremely well-priced. I’m just saying that I was able to build a network all on my own that offered me the same thing – for free.
However, if you don’t have any writer friends and feel like you need a professional opinion, check outThe Screenplay Mechanic. This guy has actually sold scripts and is a producer on BRAKE. I’m not honestly sure how much longer he’ll be working as a consultant, so take advantage of him while you can. He’s a really smart guy and his prices are ridiculously low.