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Screenwriting Tips, You Hack: 150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter

Screenwriting Tips, You Hack: 150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter

by Xander Bennett

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Screenwriting Tip #99
Voice-over usually feels like scaffolding. You know-something you left in there when you were constructing the first draft, but really should have torn out after it served its purpose.

Screenwriting Tip #120
Always remember that funny trumps everything. Your script could be written in


Screenwriting Tip #99
Voice-over usually feels like scaffolding. You know-something you left in there when you were constructing the first draft, but really should have torn out after it served its purpose.

Screenwriting Tip #120
Always remember that funny trumps everything. Your script could be written in crayon with your name spelled wrong on the cover, but if it's genuinely funny, none of that matters.

Screenwriting Tip #156
The easiest way to write kick-ass protagonists is to make them incredibly good at what they do.

Confused at the outline stage? Stuck in the swamp of Act Two? Don't know who your protagonist is or where she's going?

You might feel like a hack. But don't worry-you're not alone. Even the most experienced writers feel like this at times. Sometimes we just need a few short pointers and reminders to set us on the path again.

Xander Bennett worked as a script reader in the trenches of Hollywood, reading and covering hundreds of mediocre screenplays. After months of reading about heroic Sea World trainers, transgendered circus detectives and crime-fighting chupacabras, he couldn't take it any more. Xander started a blog called 'Screenwriting Tips, You Hack', a place designed to provide short, witty tips on screenwriting for amateur writers all the way up to journeymen scribes.

This book is the evolution of that blog. Dozens of the best scripts (along with many brand-new ones) have been expanded into bite-sized chapters full of funny, insightful, highly usable advice. Let Xander's pain be your gain as you learn about the differences between film and television structure, how to force yourself to write when you really don't want to, and why you probably shouldn't base your first spec script around an alien invasion.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Bennett's pointers cover all aspects of the writing process, beginning with the mental preparation necessary before you ever put pen to paper, or, fingers to keyboard. He then leads us through the full arc of drafting, revising, polishing, and ultimately pitching and selling your screenplay. Like most screenwriters, Bennett is well-versed in pop culture, and his movie references are a geek's delight...Unless of course, you're too much of a geek, and you notice that his reference to Rocky III teaching us that there's no easy way out actually refers to Rocky IV. Hair-splitting aside, Bennett's easy-to-apply screenwriting tips can only improve your writing."—MoviePie

"I've never written a screenplay, but I still believe that Xander Bennett's Screenwriting Tips, You Hack, has made me a better writer. I'm not being facetious here; Bennett's book has given me a much better appreciation for techniques of screenwriting and helped me ask questions about how I write my still-non-screenplay work."—review on DGSwartz.com

"Screenwriting Tips, You Hack elaborates upon close to 200 tips from the popular micro-blog that's now under the umbrella of The Black List. These great tips are compiled into helpful chapters on outlining, characters, ideas, rewriting, etc., which makes the book great for referencing when you've hit a particular roadblock in your writing. It also features a ton of helpful real-life examples, from Top Gun and Forrest Gump to Groundhog Day and Breaking Bad. Bennett's experience as a reader definitely informs his effective prose, but the book is filled with suggestions as opposed to complaints. Screenwriting Tips, You Hack is definitely a book that can help you think about your script in a new way - or help you get started on your first script!"—AspiringTVWriter.blogspot

"The book is an informative and easy read, but what makes it special is that it appears that every point that can be thought of was thought of and presented. Not only is the advice given sound, there is also support of each point. The way it was written was part of its charm. I found it very amusing and I can honestly say that I learned a few things that I will employ in my future screenplays. If you are a screenwriter, this book is a useful tool with advice that you can take and see how it applies to you and how you write and produce. If you are not a screenwriter, you can learn a great deal about the field and learn a lot about the process. I highly recommend this book."—Newzbreaker.com

"At the top of the top, I found Screenwriting Tips, You Hack; A snarky, witty, to-the-point tip-of-theday written by Xander Bennett. If you're not familiar with Xander and his daily dose of screenwriting gold, you've been missing some of the simplest screenwriting instruction that the internet has to offer. There are some fantastic long form blogs that go into the weeds of writing or pull back the curtain on the process or chronicle the journey of a struggling writer - and I love all of these and still read them - but what I've really grown to appreciate about Screenwriting Tips is that it is short and to the point. In one sentence Xander can highlight a common mistake, provide and example and offer a solution. That's not easy to do. That's why his blog is a must read."—SteamMyScript.com

"Just got my complimentary copy in the mail. Great book. I'd say that even if I hadn't gotten mine for free. Screenwriting Tips, You Hack. 150 Practical Pointers For Becoming A Better Screenwriter by Xander Bennett. It's a VERY useful book. Not as useful as mine, of course, but damn close. Plus, it has an index, which mine does not! He was a reader in Hollywood for a good while. Long enough to know the ins and outs of the business, not long enough to go insane. I am requiring the book for my screenwriting students, and that is a VERY short list."-YourScreenplaySucks.wordpress.com

"Are you a screenwriter looking for a magic 8 ball of insider tips and tricks of the trade? Do you feel like a hack? Then you should check out Xander Bennett's hilariously insightful Screenwriting Tips... You Hack: 150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter. The book, an evolution of Bennett's infamous screenwriting tips blog, offers tweet-sized tidbits of priceless writing advice for writers at any stage in their career or writing process. "—TribecaFilm.com

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Screenwriting Tips, You Hack

150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter
By Xander Bennett

Focal Press

Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-240-81825-2

Chapter One

FADE IN: Before You Put Digits to Keyboard

Whoa – whoa there. Slow down, pal. Before you start, there are a few things you need to do.

This chapter is all about preparation. I'm not talking about brewing coffee, sitting down at your chair, opening your screenwriting software, and whipping up a nice mp3 playlist. I'm talking about training your mind for the big prize fight that is writing a hundred-page screenplay.

We'll start out with the absolute basics: the prerequisites for learning how to think like a screenwriter. Then we'll move on to talk about having ideas (good ones, specifically), planning for the future, and researching your script.

Think of this chapter as being like the opening moments of a film. We're fading in on an unknown world, about to enter a whole new fictional realm. In those first few minutes, as we get our bearings, it seems like anything's possible. Maybe it is.

Screenwriting Tip #1:

Don't be boring. For the love of god, don't be boring. Tape it to your laptop. Tape it to your eyeballs. Don't be boring.

Matt Fraction – a fantastic Marvel comics writer; maybe you've heard of him – actually does tape it to his laptop. Literally. He has a sticky note on his laptop with "DON'T BE BORING" written on it. I can think of worse motivational phrases.

In a way, this is the only screenwriting tip that you absolutely must follow. Everything else is negotiable; every other rule can be bent or broken, but not this one. If it helps, you can think of writing a screenplay as a hundred-page-long game of "keep it up," with the ball being how much the reader gives a damn. If you drop that ball even once, you lose. The game's over. No other rule matters because you've just lost the one thing that really counts.

Unfortunately, "boring" is in the eye of the beholder. One woman's page-turner is another woman's insomnia cure. So I recommend using this tip less as a barometer and more as a litmus test – something you periodically apply to yourself as you're writing.

When your protagonist begins spouting off about her backstory, her difficult childhood in Colombia, and her family's genetic history of high blood pressure, stop and ask yourself: is this boring?

When you find your two leads standing in a small room doing nothing but talking about the status of their relationship, stop and think: am I bored to tears at the thought of having to write this scene?

When your bad guy explains the master plan to his underlings in exhaustive detail; when the setup for a simple, pointless joke runs for two pages; when everybody talks about a character we haven't seen yet because it's "foreshadowing"; when two characters banter back and forth without actually saying anything because you wanted them to interact but couldn't figure out how to tie it into the plot; or when the main character spends an entire scene feeling sorry for herself – that's when your Boredom Detector should start beeping loudly.

Of course, you might have particularly good reasons for including one of these typically yawn-inducing scenes. That doesn't mean you can just give up and let it be boring! There's always something you can do to patch up a dry scene.

You can add background action – enemies sneaking up on the characters while they're talking, or a character pretending to carry on a boring conversation while attempting to accomplish something else. You can intercut to other pertinent scenes that are taking place at the same time, or even to flashbacks, or you can interrupt the current scene by having a more interesting character or scenario crash the party.

Or, best of all, you can layer meaning into everything like some deranged, subtext-wielding bricklayer. When your characters don't quite say what they mean, and everything in your story has possible subtext attached to it, even the most superficially dull conversations can spring to life (for the actors as much as for the reader).

When writing a screenplay, you must train yourself to be many things. You must be brave. You must be bull-headed. And you must be brilliant. But you should never, ever be boring.

Screenwriting Tip #2:

Actually read scripts.

This is a big one. This may even be the biggest one.

Before you can learn to drive, you need to have at least seen a car. Before you can cook, you need to have tasted food cooked by other human beings. And before you can write a screenplay, you need to have read a screenplay. And not just one or two screenplays. Try ten, at the bare minimum.

Now, this may not be news to you. You're probably a sensible, intelligent, reasonably attractive person who understands that one does not embark on a complex technical task without some basic understanding of what the hell one is doing. But not everybody is like you – not by a distressingly long shot. There are screenwriters out there who, for whatever reason, feel like they are entitled to skip ahead.

They could be a student in film school ("I'm just writing it for myself and my friends"), a devoted fan of a certain franchise ("I've read transcripts and fan-fic. I know what I'm doing!"), the owner of multiple screenwriting advice books ("I've absorbed it all by osmosis"), or a writer in some other field involving the written word ("If I can write a play, I can write a dumb Hollywood movie"). Then there's the great granddaddy of anti-reading excuses: "A screenplay is just the blueprint for the movie. I've seen hundreds of movies. Therefore, I know all about screenplays."

You hear that a lot: "A screenplay is a blueprint." This – like so many popular, bite-sized definitions – is crap.

Unless you're a professional architect, a blueprint carries no emotional weight. We do not look at blueprints and see the shape of the whole house – we don't get inspired or enlightened or entertained. A blueprint is just an arrangement of lines and marks that show how long a wall is, or how many square feet is taken up by a particular room. In the world of scriptwriting, the closest thing to a blueprint is probably an outline: just a simple map of what goes where, conveying a vague idea of the overall shape but none of its nuance or soul.

A screenplay is different. A screenplay is the entire experience of a movie or a TV episode – all the sights and sounds, all the emotion and character – summed up on paper. This is a storytelling medium, but crucially, it's a different storytelling medium from film and television. Screenplays are an artform in and of themselves, and the only way to learn their rules is by walking in their world. Which means reading a lot of screenplays.

Here's the good news: scripts are everywhere. If you've heard of Google, you know how to find scripts for thousands of films and TV shows. You can read them printed out or on your computer or phone. You can touch them on your tablet or project them onto your living room wall. At no time in history has it ever been this easy to find and read scripts. So there's no excuse not to read them.

What are you looking for when you do read screenplays? Well, you could just read and enjoy them (or not, as the case may be), but you're probably looking for something a bit deeper. Try reading dialog aloud – roll the words around on the tongue and see how they feel. If the dialog evokes a certain speech idiom, try to figure out how it does that. If the words feel unnatural to say, try to think about why, and how they could be improved.

When you read action lines, pay attention to the way your mind conjures detailed images ... or doesn't, in the case of a bad script. Learn the difference between boring, lifeless action scenes and blazing fast, balls-to-the-wall, I-can't-turn-the-pages-fast-enough action scenes. Make note of the points where you lose interest and want to stop reading. Push yourself to keep reading anyway, because if you can figure out why that particular bit sucked, you can stop yourself from repeating it in your own work.

That's why I advocate reading bad scripts as well as good scripts: bad scripts are easier to critique. It's much, much easier (and sometimes more fun) to figure out why something sucks than why it works. Bad scripts are educational – good scripts are inspirational. Good writing just motivates – bad writing motivates you to do better than that idiot.

If you feel like going above and beyond, you might even try your hand at writing coverage. Sure, you're not getting paid to do it, but neither are half the interns in Hollywood. Pretend you're a cantankerous Hollywood script reader and read the script with a critical eye; then reread it, summarize it, and write out its strengths and weaknesses as if you were describing it to an overworked executive. Give it a PASS or a CONSIDER, and be brutally honest in your assessment. And why not? Somebody's going to do the same thing to one of your scripts one day.

So read screenplays. If you've already read some in the past, read more. The more you read, the more you start to see the patterns behind good structure and good dialog. You'll also be able to spot weaknesses and see the places where the writer has set herself up for a fall. You'll become a doctor, able to quickly diagnose script problems and prescribe cures. And if you can do that for other people's screenwriting, you can do it for your own.

Screenwriting Tip #3:

Get away from the computer and spend some time with your loved ones. Then steal their dialog and mannerisms for your characters.

Technically, you're not supposed to borrow directly from other writers. The academic world calls it "plagiarism," the fiction world considers it poor sportsmanship, and your high school English teacher wasn't too fond of it, either.

So you work around it. You read a wonderful line in a book or script, and you file it away in the memory banks. Of course you'll never be able to use that line verbatim, but maybe one day the memory of that great line will inspire your own writing to new heights. You'll use the spirit, if not the letter, of that first work to enhance the creation of a new, original piece of writing.

Or you could just plunder the crap out of your own life.

It sounds easy, and that's because it is. That's the wonderful thing about real life: people say funny, weird, and amazing things all the damn time, and it's all free for you to use. There's no copyright on the conversation you overheard on the bus. Your family isn't going to sue for losses due to your use of dialog from Disastrous Christmas Dinner Argument 2009. And the crazy person sitting next to you on the overnight from JFK to LAX will never, ever know how much they inspired the funniest set-piece in your comedy spec.

This is just one in a whole sackful of reasons why you should always carry a notepad – or, more likely, a smartphone. Download Evernote or another cloud-based note-taking app and never forget awesome lines of dialog again.

So there you are, eavesdropping on people and surreptitiously transcribing their words while trying to look like you're actually just texting a friend – nothing weird at all, I'm definitely not writing down everything you say, Mr. Crazy Bus Passenger. You're having fun, taking jokes and turns of phrase and using them wholesale in your scripts. But pretty soon, you're going to start noticing a few things about the way people talk.

Just the act of listening carefully and writing down what you've heard can be an incredible learning experience. You'll learn the cadence and the word choice, the class markers, and the idiosyncrasies that usually register only on a subconscious level. In no time at all, you'll be tweaking and changing your dialog to make it sound more like the way people actually talk. You won't have to take a wild guess at how a fifteen-year-old surfer or a forty-five year-old stockbroker might speak – you'll just know.

Remember: if you suck at dialog, the only way to get better is to stop talking (through your characters) and start listening. If you want to hear how real people speak, all you have to do is go outside. In time, plundering will give way to creation, and you'll be a true dialog master.


Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett Copyright © 2012 by Elsevier Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Xander Bennett is a screenwriter and has been a Hollywood script reader. Frustrated by the quality of the screenplays he was reading as a script reader, he started his blog, "Screenwriting Tips.You Hack," as a snarky diatribe. The blog now delivers a tip per day and is the home of the online script reading service, Hack Notes. Bennett has written for television, videogames, role-playing games, and comics, and is the author of a 2008 graphic novel.

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