Screenwriting Tips, You Hack
150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter
By Xander Bennett
Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.
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.
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