Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #52: Writing dialogue in paragraphs

I’m not sure why, but all of a sudden I’m seeing a lot of screenplays with long blocks of dialogue divided into paragraphs, instead of just writing them out as one contiguous block of text. For instance, instead of this:

I love you somethin’ terrible, Martha. I can’t
imagine life without you. Before you came along,
my life weren’t nothin’ but a dang disaster. Now
you done gave it meanin’.

People have been writing this:

I love you somethin’ terrible, Martha. I can’t
imagine life without you.

Before you came along, my life weren’t nothin’
but a dang disaster. Now you done gave it meanin’.

Actually, I've never seen anyone write those words, thank the screenwriting gods.

The problem is likely that too many people are writing too much dialogue, so they don’t know how to make it look less like a huge block of text running down the length of the page without breaking it up arbitrarily. The best possible solution is to write way less dialogue and way more action. It’s okay to have one or maybe two monologues in a script, but any more than that and you’re almost certainly overwriting.

Try to limit your dialogue to no more than three or four lines; fewer would be better because that's how most people actually talk. If it’s absolutely necessary to write a longer string of dialogue from one character, you can divide it into two blocks by sticking a line of action between them, such as, “Billy gasps for air after realizing that he’s been talking for two minutes straight." Or perhaps something less on-the-nose.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #51: Telling instead of showing

One of the most common script issues I see is that screenwriters often seem to forget that the people who will be portraying their characters are called "actors" and not "talkers." So many scenes appear to exist solely for the purpose of getting a few characters together so that they can expose information to each other and then move on to a restaurant or someone's house so they can all sit down and talk some more. The characters in these scenes don't do anything other than move around from one part of the room to another and then react to to what other characters are sighing, often by sighing, glaring, or smiling broadly.

(Note: If there's any sighing glaring or smiling broadly in your screenplay, there's an excellent chance that you should remove it. This would probably be a good place to put a smiley face or something so that I don't look like such a curmudgeon, which I totally am. Smiley face.)

Imagine watching a scene like this in a movie:



Mary enters and leans against the refrigerator. John is standing by a window, staring out into the vast suburban sprawl of their middle-class neighborhood.

I can't live like this any more. You've become so
distant, John. So angry.

Why can't you see how tormented I've become
ever since the death of my father? Don't you know
that we had unresolved issues? Unresolved issues!!

I don't care about your unresolved issues, John.
I care about the future of my unborn child.

John gasps.

You mean...

That's right, John. I'm pregnant and it's not your
baby. I'm leaving you, John, and I would prefer
it if you didn't come after me.


Mary turns and walks to the door. She pauses for just a moment, but then boldly strides through the door into her new future.


Obviously, that scene is set in a boring location and is full of unnecessary dialogue and inconsequential actions. Here's an alternative to that scene that might be more effective:



Elaborate Christmas decorations festoon the office for a holiday party. John gives a toast to dozens of employees.

Those hippies can protest all they want, but we
just had the best fourth quarter in the history of--

Mary strides into the office. She drops a pregnancy test stick into John's drink. It's positive.

It's not yours. Get your shit out of my house
by midnight.

As she exits, Mary throws her wedding ring at John's assistant, Gwen.


That setting allows Mary to publicly humiliate John and also changes the mood dramatically from the beginning to the end of the scene. Mary does almost all of this without dialogue, only telling John and the audience the things we wouldn't be able to infer from her actions.

The important takeaways from this scene are:

1) If one of your characters tells another character a piece of information, see if you can show that information visually instead.

2) Look at the location of each of your scenes and make sure that it helps to get across the message of that scene or to underscore the action. If you have a scene that's set in a living room or a restaurant, chances are that the location is not contributing anything to your scene.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Screenwriting Seminar - December 4th

Hello, screenwriters! I will be putting on a brand-new seminar called "How to Start Your Screenplay Perfectly" on December 4th at 660 Alabama Street, from 1-5 pm. The topics will include:

  • Creating a compelling protagonist and antagonist
  • The most interesting kinds of external goals
  • How to create a great internal flaw for your protagonist
  • The best way for the supporting characters to contribute to your story
  • The ideal structural framework for your script

PLEASE CLICK HERE for more details on the seminar. Space is almost completely full now, so contact me quickly if you want to attend!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #50: No helper character

One character that you will find in nearly every movie is the protagonist’s helper. Where would Luke Skywalker be without Han Solo? Could Harry Potter have stopped Voldemort without Ron Weasley? (Or Neville either, technically, though the movie really didn’t do justice to that element from the books. Besides, that doesn’t support my point here, so I’m really not sure why I brought it up in the first place. Moving on.) What kind of story would “The Shawshank Redemption” have been if Red were not there to help Andy acquire certain items? And I can guarantee that Owen Wilson wouldn’t have crashed nearly as many weddings if Vince Vaughn weren’t there to egg him on. Without a good helper to accompany your protagonist on his quest, he will not be able to live up to his full potential, so make sure to have one in your script.

Here’s a good list of traits for your helper character:

-       Believes in the protagonist, even when the protagonist doesn’t believe in himself.
-       Pushes the protagonist to confront his fear/flaw and to accomplish his external goal.
-       Doesn’t have the same internal flaw as the protagonist, so he can see how good the protagonist’s life would be if he were to overcome that flaw.
-       Provides a sounding board for the protagonist.
-       Spends more time onscreen with the protagonist than any other character does.

Even the movie “Castaway,” which featured Tom Hanks as a man stranded alone on a desert island, needed someone for him to talk to, so they made up the inanimate character of Wilson, his volleyball. Without Wilson, Tom Hanks would have just been ranting to himself, which would not have made him a very sympathetic protagonist. If your script doesn’t have a single character dedicated to the role of helping your protagonist to accomplish his goal, then add one and see how much your story improves.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Screenwriting Seminars: July 30

I'll be putting on two screenwriting seminars here in San Francisco on Saturday, July 30. The first is on structuring screenplays the way the pros do and the second is my new "Top Ten Tips" seminar that will help you cut your rewriting time in half. Click here for more information.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #49: Slug line overload

After reading hundreds of screenplays, it's clear that there is a lot of confusion about how to end slug lines. This is the place where you should write “DAY” or “NIGHT” to let the director of photography know how to light the scene. However, I’ve seen a lot of scripts where the screenwriter tries to fill the slug lines with important story information, such as what day it is, what time it is, how much time has elapsed since the last scene, etc. The problem is that the audience won’t be reading your slug lines, so you have to let them know this kind of information in some other way.

For example, if the audience needs to know that approximately eight years has elapsed since your last scene, then you can have one of your characters approach another and say, “Golly, Bob, I haven’t seen you for approximately eight years.” Okay, don’t do that, but it is possible to reveal that information (subtly!) through dialogue, perhaps by saying, “Golly, Bob, you haven’t changed at all in the past four congressional elections,” or, “Golly, Bob, it seems like it was just two summer Olympics ago when we last got together.” The most important points are that all exposition of this kind must begin with the words, “Golly, Bob,” and that you shouldn't just come right out and have one character tell another how much time has elapsed. Reveal this information subtly and/or through conflict.

Another way to reveal this kind of information is to show it in your description. For example, if the audience needs to know what time it is, you can do something as simple as showing a clock, though I bet you could come up with a more creative way to reveal the time. If they need to know that a year has passed, you can do one of those cool seasonal montages where you show a flower growing, then dying, then being covered by snow, and then growing again, because that sort of device has never been used in movies. </sarcasm> But seriously, you should come up with an original way to demonstrate that time has elapsed, such as maybe the protagonist’s hair is longer or shorter, or she’s now visibly pregnant, or she has a full beard, though that last one might be better for male leads. If all else fails, you can always resort to using a "SUPER:" to display some text onscreen that spells out this information to the audience.

A good rule of thumb is that you can pretty much never go wrong by writing “DAY” or “NIGHT” at the end of your slug lines. If you ever write anything else there, first confirm that it’s the kind of information that should go in a slug line, and then make sure to reveal that information to the audience in a subtle and creative way. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Most Common Screenwriting Problems

This is my first post in about a month because it's the end of the semester and I've been reviewing so many student screenplays that my eyes are bleeding like poorly placed stigmata. I'm so exhausted that I've even lost the ability to craft a compelling opening sentence.

I thought this might be a good time for me to make a list of the most common problems that I saw in all of this semester's scripts while they're still fresh in my mind. Here's a categorized list:

- Too many ellipses. (Also in descriptions.)
- Using parentheticals to tell the actors how to deliver their lines.
- Having a character say how he's feeling instead of using subtext.
- Meaningless words, such as "uh" or "well" or "anyway."
- Writing about conversations in description, instead of writing the words in dialogue.
- Emphasizing words in dialogue with caps, bold, underline, Italics, etc.
- Expositional or on-the-nose dialogue.

- Following a slug line with dialogue instead of description.
- Putting dates or times in the slug lines instead of in description or dialogue.
- Not writing a new slug line when the action moves to a new location.
- Too many typos.

- Descriptions too wordy.
- Using anything other than active, present-tense verbs.
- Using too many adverbs.
- Writing what the characters are thinking.

- Protagonist doesn't have a clear, tangible external goal.
- Protagonist doesn't have an internal flaw that makes his goal difficult for him to achieve.
- No antagonist.
- No helper character.
- Supporting characters have nothing to do with the central conflict.
- Protagonist not sympathetic.

- Setup: Doesn't establish clear protagonist with an internal flaw that affects his daily life.
- First act: No catalysts that push the protagonist to begin pursuing his external goal, or that aren't effective at doing so.
- Second act: No point of no return event at the mid-point. End of second act low point doesn't relate to protagonist's external goal.
- Third act: No resolution for protagonist's external story and/or internal story. Protagonist doesn't demonstrate any internal growth.

I hope these are helpful!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #48: Comedies that aren’t funny

There is nothing worse than reading a script that is supposed to be funny, but just isn’t. If I’m reading a comedy and I haven’t at least chuckled a bit by page two or three, I know that I’m in for a long read. If you want your comedy script to be passed up the food chain, the only way to do it is to make sure that it’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish. Or you could just sleep with a studio executive – your choice.

If you are writing a comedy, the first thing you need to do is decide if it’s going to be the kind of comedy that has fart jokes, or the kind that doesn’t. There's not a thing wrong with either of those comedic styles, but you just want to be sure not to intermingle them since they don’t get along at all. You are either Farrelly brothers or Woody Allen, but not both. Slip a fart joke into “Bullets Over Broadway” and you would lose the audience instantly. Try to shoehorn an existential diatribe into “Dumb and Dumberer” and the audience would revolt by directing actual fart noises at the screen. Pick one comedic style and stick with it.

Once you have decided what kind of comedy you want to write, then you need to start making the audience laugh right away and keep the laughs coming at least every one or two minutes throughout the entire script. That’s a lot of laughs and at least one out of every four of those needs to be a big belly laugh. The only way to generate that many laughs is through a combination of funny dialogue, visuals, character traits and plot line. You need to take full advantage of all of those comedic options in order to fill your comedy with enough laughs to get it past the first reader. If you can do that, Hollywood will beat a path to your door because good comedies are far too rare in this industry.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Words of Inspiration

As my friend, Leo Maselli, commented in a previous post, every aspiring screenwriter should check out the documentary "Tales from the Script," (available on Netflix) which includes many illuminating interviews with actual working screenwriters. I wanted to share my favorite quote from that movie by screenwriter Billy Ray, author of "Color of Night," "Volcano," "Hart's War," and many other fine scripts:

"If you can survive while people are kicking you in the head, eventually their leg will get tired."

If that doesn't sum up what it's like to be a professional screenwriter, then nothing does. :-)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #47: Protagonist’s job irrelevant to the story

Along with demonstrating your mad writing skillz, the first ten pages of your script should clearly establish who the protagonist is and what environment he has chosen for himself. One of the key elements of the protagonist’s environment is his job and there are two important goals that you can accomplish by giving your protagonist the right job: 1) Demonstrating his skillset (or “skillzset,” if you prefer my previous spelling); 2) Showing how he avoids confronting his internal flaw.

Let’s start with the flaw. Every protagonist should have an internal flaw that makes his life significantly less enjoyable than it otherwise could be, and which also makes his external goal particularly difficult for him to accomplish. That internal flaw should be so painful for the protagonist to deal with, that he has had to find an environment (including a job) that allows him to avoid encountering it. For example, someone with a fear of heights would probably not work as a window washer or suspension bridge construction worker. He would find a job that allows him to remain as close to the ground as possible at all times. Your protagonist should do the same thing.

In addition to letting your protagonist avoid confronting his internal flaw, a well-chosen job will also demonstrate a particular ability that the protagonist can use to overcome his antagonist. In Hitchcock’s movie “Rear Window,” Jimmy Stewart’s character is a photographer, so he uses one of his bright strobes to blind Raymond Burr in their final confrontation. In “Slumdog Millionaire,” Jamal’s profession as a tea server for telemarketers allows him to avoid both the life of crime that his brother has chosen, but also his own inability to rise above his social caste by placing him at the absolute bottom of the corporate ladder. However, this job also demonstrates Jamal's clever resourcefulness by showing how he takes full advantage of those rare moments when he is asked to cover for a telemarketer who needs to go on break. Jamal not only uses these opportunities to contact Latika, but also to get a spot on the “Millionaire” show.

I should throw in the big ol’ caveat here that most protagonists, even in highly successful movies, don’t have a job that both demonstrates their unique abilities and allows them to avoid confronting their internal flaws. But most good screenplays do give the protagonist a job that has a direct influence on the story, so at a bare minimum, you should make sure that yours does too. However, it's so efficient way to manage those two character traits this way that you could set yourself apart by giving your protagonist a job like this. Give it a shot and see if it improves your story.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #46: No structure

I should start this post by saying that I am a big believer in screenwriting structure. I don’t think that excellent structure alone can make a script good, but it is extremely difficult to write a good script that doesn’t have at least some semblance of structure. I’ve analyzed enough good and bad scripts to say definitively that the good ones adhere more closely to standard screenplay structure than the bad ones.

But no matter how many books come out that extol the value of structure, the argument that I hear the most from new screenwriters is that they don’t want to be “constrained” by structure. They just want to write freely and let their artistic ability dictate the flow of the script. But just like structure alone isn’t enough to generate a good script, creativity is also not enough without structure to accompany it. Like so many professions, screenwriting is a mixture of art and science, so you need a healthy dollop of both in order to be successful.

So why does screenwriting structure exist? Simply speaking, this is just the way that most people prefer to consume their movie-going experiences. Structure doesn’t exist because some studio executive said that’s how movies should be written. The studio’s only goal is to give the people what they want, so they produce movies that they believe the greatest number of people will want to see. That kind of movie almost invariably contains at least some measure of structure, and the really successful ones have almost perfect structure. That’s the reason why I always check for structure when evaluating screenplays.

So what kind of structure should you have in your script? Of course, I think you should check out my structure guide and adhere to that as closely as possible. At the very least, you should have the following: A first act (comprising about 25% of the script) that shows who the protagonist is, what his internal flaw is and how it’s causing problems in his life, accompanied by a couple of major events that propel him to begin pursuing a clear and tangible external goal. This should be followed by a second act (comprising about 50% of the script) that shows the protagonist trying to accomplish his external goal against increasingly difficult obstacles, then reaching a point of no return in the middle, only to fail at his goal at the end of this act. The main things that you need to do in your third act (comprising the final 25% of your script) are to show whether or not your protagonist overcomes his internal flaw and whether or not he accomplishes his external goal. The protagonist should ideally have some kind of big showdown with his antagonist toward the end. There’s a lot more to structure than that brief description, but if your script contains all of those elements, it will be several steps ahead of the majority of the screenplays being written today.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #45: Introducing too many characters at once

Sometimes I see scripts that introduce a lot of characters all at the same time. These tend to involve scenes that take place in restaurants or at parties early on in the story. It’s okay to add maybe two or three new characters in a single scene, but if you have any more than that, you’ll need a good reason why it’s important to introduce them all at once. The main problem, of course, is that the reader and the audience will have trouble remembering all those new people that you just threw at them in rapid succession. Think about what it’s like if you’re at a party and meet a bunch of new people all at once. Chances are you won’t remember all of their names unless you use a specific mnemonic technique to make it easier. That’s exactly what it’s like to see a bunch of new characters all at the same time in a script.

Since using a mnemonic device is a good way for people to remember names, you should provide your reader with ones that they can use to remember your characters’ names, whenever you think it will be helpful. Some people call this the “limp and eye patch” rule. For each new character that you introduce, give the reader a strong visual image that will help him remember who that character is. The scene in “Goodfellas” where Henry walks through the bar introducing characters is a good example of this. For most of the characters, he gives this kind of vivid description that makes the characters easy to remember: “Fat Andy,” “Freddy No Nose,” “Nicky Eyes,” “Jimmy Two Times.” You don’t need to do this with your main characters, but it’s always a good idea to make the other characters as memorable as possible.

In addition to giving your minor characters a useful mnemonic, it’s also a good idea to remind the reader who your characters are when you haven’t involved them in the script for a while. For instance, you could say “Johnny the bartender” or “Marissa from the park” or “Alfred’s cousin, Gwen.” If it’s been more than 15 pages or so since you’ve mentioned a minor character, just add a couple of words of description like that to make sure that the reader knows who you’re talking about. (Okay, “about whom you’re talking,” but does that really sound better? Really?) If a reader has to flip back through a script to figure out who one of your characters is, that’s not going to bode well for your script since the audience won’t have the luxury of rewinding the movie at the theater. I’m sure that technology is in the works but, until that magical day, we'll just have to keep writing clearly.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #44: Protagonist not sympathetic

For those of you who have read Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide, Save the Cat!, you know how important it is to do something early on in your script to make the audience care about your protagonist. For those of you who haven’t read Save the Cat!, you should seriously stop what you’re doing and go read it right now. I don’t agree with every single point in this book and it does tend to oversimplify things a bit, but it contains so much practical advice that any aspiring screenwriter should give it a look. Go ahead and read it now – I’ll wait.

Okay, now that you’ve read Snyder’s book, you know that the specific example that he gave about how to make a protagonist sympathetic was from the movie “Alien” where the Sigourney Weaver character, Ripley, is portrayed as a cold-hearted bitch. Since that type of character tends to be unsympathetic, screenwriter Dan O'Bannon did something early on in the story to force the audience to like her – he had her save a cat. I think that might have something to do with the title of Snyder's book, but don’t quote me on that. (Smiley face. Or wink. Or whatever.) The point is that anyone who goes through the trouble to rescue a cat can’t be all bad, so we develop a bond with Ripley that will last throughout the rest of the story. It's fun to manipulate the audience like this!

Another good example of a character who is sympathetic, despite being completely unlikable, is Melvin Udall, the Jack Nicholson character in “As Good As It Gets.” (N.B. – The first time I wrote that sentence, I accidentally typed the word “unlickable” instead of "unlikable." It still made sense, but that wasn’t the point I was trying to get across. Moving on.) He’s not just unsympathetic, he’s staggeringly cruel and thoughtless to every single person he meets. In order to get the audience to sympathize with Melvin, screenwriters James L. Brooks and Mark Andrus take several specific steps: First, they show that Melvin actually has a mental disorder, which lets the audience know that his cruelty is not entirely within his control. Second, we find out that Melvin is actually a best-selling romance author, which means that somewhere behind that evil façade, lies the heart of a romantic. Third, Melvin does something extraordinarily kind for his waitress/love interest, Carol, by getting her son the medical attention that he needs. And finally, Brooks and Andrus show Melvin being mean to a dog at first, then bonding with that dog later.

The big takeaway is that if you want to make a character sympathetic, have him do something nice for an animal; if you want to make him unsympathetic, have him do something mean to an animal. See how easy screenwriting is?

The Adjustment Bureau

Before posting my next tip, I wanted to take a moment to recommend the movie “The Adjustment Bureau.” Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, this script (adapted and directed by George Nolfi) is an excellent example of how to structure a screenplay and how to use early scenes to set up the action to follow. There were a handful of things that I didn't like about the script (the closing voiceover leaps to mind), but overall the screenplay is so well done that it’s very much worth the price of admission.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #43: Predictable dialogue

I mentioned stilted dialogue in my last tip, but another problem that I see sometimes in dialogue is that it can be too predictable. When dialogue is predictable, it comes across as flat and boring, as if the character is just in the scene to help move things along instead of to stir things up. It’s easy to get into a rut of just writing down whatever words would be natural for your characters to say, but your screenplay will really stand out if you give some thought to what your characters could say that would bring new energy and even unpredictability to the scene.

One of the best examples of this kind of unpredictable and fascinating dialogue is from the movie “American Beauty.” Ricky, the drug-dealing neighbor boy, gets into a few fights with his extraordinarily creepy father, Colonel Frank Fits, just like you would expect between any teenage boy and his freakishly controlling father. When this happens, the audience would naturally expect Ricky to lash out at his father, yelling that he’s ruining his life or that he just doesn’t understand him or that he wishes he had never been born or some other clichéd drivel. But Alan Ball is a much better screenwriter than that, so every time Ricky and his dad get into a fight, Alan wrote down the exact opposite of what a typical teenage boy would say in that situation. The end result is a fascinating character with amazing dialogue.

For example, after the gay neighbors, Jim and Jim, drop by the Fits' house to introduce themselves, Frank bitches to his son about gay people having to rub their gayness in everyone’s faces. (Let’s see what kind of search results that gets me!) Ricky tries the expected response first by saying that their neighbors probably don’t feel like they have anything to be ashamed of. When his dad doesn’t buy that reply, Ricky does a complete 180 and says, “Forgive me sir, for speaking so bluntly, but those fags make me want to puke my fucking guts out.” He not only said the opposite of what you would expect an open-minded teenager to say, but he did so with such vehemence that it shut his dad down completely. No matter what you think about the words that Ricky said, there’s no doubt that it was both interesting and unexpected, which is a recipe for great dialogue.

The next time you’re having trouble making a character’s dialogue sound interesting, try writing the exact opposite of what you would expect that character to say instead. Chances are that will give you some ideas on how to make your scene, your character and your screenplay more interesting.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Script Coverage Services

I’m extremely excited to announce my Script Coverage Services to readers of this blog. Until now, I've only read scripts for a specific set of clients, but now I’m offering this service to anyone who wants to improve their screenwriting. If you're serious about improving your script, then contact me at phil@doctormyscript.com.

Before you look at the services I am offering, please check out this page of TESTIMONIALS that my former clients have written.

Here are the two services that I am now offering at limited-time introductory prices:

Basic Coverage - $199

• Logline
• Synopsis
• Numerical rating on six different criteria:
   o Marketability
   o Story
   o Characters
   o Dialogue
   o Visuals
   o Structure
• Checklist of 10 questions
• Detailed comments
• Summary
• Total of 3-4 pages of written feedback
• Resubmission for $129

Comprehensive Coverage - $299

In addition to everything above, comprehensive coverage includes:
• Checklist of 25 questions
• Total of 7-8 pages of written feedback
• Expanded comments section
• First ten pages analysis
• Rewriting strategy
• Resubmission for $199

Additional details:
- $1 per page over 120 pages.
- Turnaround of two weeks or less.
- Rush service of 3-day turnaround for $50 (if received by 2:00pm PST).
- Next-day service for $80 (if received by 2:00pm PST).

Monday, March 7, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #42: Stilted dialogue

Here’s another simple issue that I see all the time – dialogue that sounds stilted and unrealistic. The most common way that this problem presents itself is with a lack of contractions. People use contractions constantly in their daily lives, so it sounds much more natural to say, “I’ll send you those documents when we’re done with our meeting,” instead of, “I will send you those documents when we are done with our meeting.” You should only write out the separate words instead of their contractions perhaps for emphasis or if you're trying to create a specific effect. But when in doubt, use contractions.

The other way that I see stilted dialogue is when people try to write highly stylized, painstakingly witty conversations instead of more natural-sounding ones. As screenwriters, we have the envious opportunity to write the things that we wish we could say in real life. We can be as witty, clever and even confrontational as we want without having to come up with all those mots justes in real time. (BTW, I wrote "mots justes" to show just how pretentious it sounds to write words like that in dialogue without a specific reason. Yep, that's totally what I was going for. Honest.) However, we have to be careful not to take this cleverness too far because it’s exhausting for a reader to slog through page after page of over-written dialogue. It comes across as fake and unrealistic and makes it seem like the screenwriter is trying way too hard to demonstrate how smart he is. If you want to write clever dialogue, then stick with conversations that are intelligently realistic.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #41: No power exchange in scenes

One of the easiest mistakes to make in screenwriting is to think about just one character’s perspective in each scene. When I first started writing screenplays, all I thought about when approaching a scene was what the protagonist wanted and how he was going to accomplish it. All of the other characters were just props whose sole purpose was to help the protagonist get from one end of the scene to the other. That kind of writing should come with a warning not to drive or operate heavy machinery because it’s more effective than Ambien at putting people to sleep.

The solution to this problem is to plan what each character’s goal will be in every scene and then have them battle it out to see which one of them will end up getting what they want. The first step is to decide which character will have the upper hand at the beginning of the scene and then shift that power to a different character before the end of the scene. Good scenes always have one clear power shift, but the really fun ones show one character starting out with the power, losing it and then gaining it back.

Let’s look at an example from this year’s Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay winner, “The King’s Speech.” In the initial meeting between speech therapist Lionel Logue and Princess Elizabeth, Lionel begins the scene with the clear upper hand. He makes the princess wait while he uses the bathroom and then informs her that she’s late for the appointment. He follows that up by bragging about his skills, complaining that her husband didn’t come with her and even requesting that her “hubby” pop around on Tuesday to give his personal history. The princess is not amused, so she takes the power away from Lionel by revealing who she is and saying that he should address her as “Your Royal Highness.” Lionel is so screwed. But wait! Lionel takes the power back by telling Princess Elizabeth that his method requires total equality – no exceptions – so she agrees to his terms. Lionel had the power, then he lost it and then he gained it back again. That is a perfect scene and one that all of us should try to emulate in our own scripts.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #40: Not writing out dialogue

One simple problem that I see pretty frequently is when people write a description of what a character is saying rather than writing down the words in dialogue. For example, I’ve seen people write things like, “they argue for a few minutes,” or, “they introduce themselves to each other,” or even more elaborate scenarios like, “they discuss the terms of the deal and arrive at an agreement.” The basic rule is that if any one of your characters says anything at all in your script, then you must write down every word in dialogue.

Look at the movie “Shine” in which Geoffrey Rush plays the brilliant but emotionally impaired pianist, David Helfgott. He spends a lot of the movie mumbling incoherently in a rapid-fire blur, but screenwriter Jan Sardi didn’t write, “David mumbles to himself as he walks in the rain.” He wrote down every single word of that long string of madness that came out of his protagonist’s mouth. If he didn’t, then how would Geoffrey Rush know what to say? This is a pretty easy mistake to make, so just remember to watch out for any times when you find yourself describing what a character is saying and then change that into actual words of dialogue instead.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #39: Writing things the audience can’t see or hear

One issue that I see in a lot of scripts is people writing things that the audience won't see or hear, such as what a character is thinking or the reasons why people are doing things. It’s easy to make this kind of mistake because this is a natural way for people to talk and also to write just about any other kind of prose.

Here are some examples of the kinds of things that can easily sneak into screenplays, but which can’t be seen or heard, each followed by alternate wording:

1a. Josh rushes across the room to check his voicemail.

1b. Josh rushes to his message machine and presses Play.

2a. Rhonda can’t look her mother in the eye because of her overwhelming guilt.

2b. Rhonda keeps her eyes downcast.

3a. Bill and Karen walk through the park where they met back in the fall of 2003 and then sit on the bench where they had their first kiss in order to work out the problems that they’ve been having in their relationship.

3b. Bill and Karen sit on a park bench.

We need to talk.

One time when it is okay to write things that the audience won’t see or hear is when you’re first introducing a character and want to describe his personality so that the actor and reader will get an idea of what kind of person he is right from the start. For example, you might describe a character as, “far older than his 15 years,” or “always bursting with energy and enthusiasm” or “trapped in the body of a white girl.” (Snooki, I am looking in your direction.) But other than character introductions, it’s always best to stick with writing just what the audience can see or hear since those are the only things that will end up onscreen.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #38: Clichés

As the saying goes, good writers should avoid clichés like the plague. But one of the easiest traps to fall into while writing a script is to go into a kind of auto-pilot mode where you just start writing things down that sound familiar. Any time you write down something that sounds familiar, that necessarily means that what you’ve written isn’t original. Since you want every part of your screenplay to sound unique, you will need to fight off the temptation to describe things in ways that you have heard before, which tend to come in the form of clichés.

Here are some examples of clichés that you never want to include in your screenplay:

1. Long, dramatic monologues delivered while staring out of a window.
2. A single tear rolling down someone’s cheek.
3. Scripts that begin by slowly panning around the protagonist’s bedroom.
4. The hero detonates a bomb, then walks away without looking back.
5. Montages of people trying on clothes.
6. Montages of a new couple going on fun dates together. Hell, just all montages.
7. A villain who confesses his criminal plans to the hero before killing him.
8. In a room full of people, one person starts clapping slowly.
9. A cop who is about to retire takes on one last case that should be no problem.
10. Your hero goes to a new country and is helped by a street-wise young boy.

I’m working on a script right now in which the protagonist defeats his antagonist by secretly using his cell phone to record the antagonist admitting his involvement in a criminal plot. I thought that was the perfect solution because this particular cell phone plays an integral role leading up to that point. Then I watched last week’s episode of “Lie To Me” where they did the exact same thing and I wanted to stab myself in the eye for succumbing to such an overdone plot device. Now I have to come up with an original way to defeat my antagonist, but that effort will definitely be worthwhile when the people who read my script see that I took the time to give them something that they haven’t seen before. I promise it will be worth your effort as well.

If you have a favorite movie cliché, I’d love to hear about it so please write it in the comment box below. Thanks!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What is a Protagonist?

I've been reading through some articles over at Jim Hull's Story Fanatic site and he has some interesting thoughts on the differences between a "Protagonist' and a "Main Character." For more information, check out these pieces:

The True Definition of a Protagonist

Redefining Protagonist and Main Character

Jim also raised a question about whether or not Nic was the true protagonist of "The Kids Are All Right" since she doesn't seem to go through a significant change by the end of the story, which I thought was an interesting point. I do think she changes, but I agree that the change is pretty subtle, which is simply an observation and not a criticism at all since I liked the ending. Within days, a friend of mine named Zenas asked the same question about how Olive could be the protagonist of "Little Miss Sunshine" when she isn't the one who changes in the end. This has inspired me to add a section in my screenplay analyses from now on about which character undergoes this kind of change and how that is demonstrated in the script.

Here are my thoughts so far: A protagonist should struggle to overcome an internal flaw (or to fill an internal need) in order to accomplish an external goal. The protagonist's character arc is represented by how much progress she makes in overcoming her internal flaw, so it seems like a good script should clearly demonstrate the amount of internal change the protagonist has achieved. From now on, that specific question will be in my script analysis template, because I'm not convinced yet that it's a 100% requirement for the protagonist to be the character who demonstrates that internal change. It could be this "Main Character" that Jim refers to in his articles, which would certainly be reflected in the amount of change that Olive's step-dad Richard goes through over the course of "Little Miss Sunshine." Fun stuff to think about!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #37: Unexplained special abilities

There’s no worse way to end your movie than with a deus ex machina, except for maybe running out of funding at the end of act two and then just releasing the film as is. A similar device to the deus ex machina that I sometimes see is to give the protagonist (or anyone else in your script) an unusual and inexplicable ability right when he needs it. For example, here are some abilities that you should not give to your protagonists without first setting them up thoroughly and believably:

- A priest who knows how to fly a Stealth Bomber.
- A waitress in Idaho who can read hieroglyphics.
- A paralegal who is an expert at underwater welding.

If you put any one of these characters into a position where they will need one of those specific skills, and you haven’t first provided a reasonable explanation as to why they have that skill, then you will actually be able to hear the audience groaning all the way from your house. It’s entirely possible that any of these characters could have one of these abilities, but it’s so unexpected that you would have to set that up beforehand (subtly, of course) in order for the audience to believe it.

Let’s look at some movies that do give their protagonists some extreme abilities, and show how they pulled that off:

- You wouldn’t expect a relatively diminutive slave to be able to defeat the most powerful gladiators in the world, unless you first saw that this particular slave was once a general in the Roman army, as was the case in the movie “Gladiator.”

- A crippled man isn’t likely to become the greatest warrior in a tribe of physically imposing aliens, unless we know in advance that he is a tough ex-marine inhabiting an alien’s body in “Avatar.”

- An orphan who works on his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm isn’t likely to lead a rebellion against the most powerful overlord in the universe unless we know beforehand that he's the son of a Jedi warrior and has a special ability called “the force,” as is the case in “Star Wars.”

- We wouldn’t believe that a college professor could defeat an army of Nazi soldiers in an effort to find the Arc of the Covenant, unless we already know that he has overcome tremendous odds in previous adventures, as we see in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

- We wouldn’t expect an uneducated, lower-class woman to overcome a team of powerful corporate lawyers unless we already saw at the beginning of the script that she has breasts — I mean moxie. They’re used interchangeably in “Erin Brockovich.”

If any of the screenwriters of the above movies had tried to spring that background information on the audience right at the point of the protagonist's major showdown with the antagonist, or just at any crisis point where that ability is necessary, those movies would have turned out much, much worse.

The bottom line is that it’s fine for your protagonist to have a particular skill — however extreme or unlikely — as long as you set it up beforehand in a believable way. If you give the audience even a shred of evidence that your hero has a specific high-level ability, then they will gladly, even eagerly, suspend their disbelief long enough to watch him kick the bad guys’ butts with his uncanny ability to, say, rapidly solve complicated math problems with an abacus. (Seriously, how long does the world have to wait for an abacus-toting action hero? Get on that, Hollywood!) But if you give your hero an easy way out of a major challenge by suddenly revealing, for example, that he is fluent in every language on earth, then the audience will never forgive you.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #36: Not following slug lines with description

Here’s a basic formatting tip that ought to come in handy: you should always follow a slug line with description, not with dialogue. While this is obviously not as big a deal as forgetting to include an antagonist in your story or writing the entire script in 36-point Comic Sans font, it is a fairly common error that can create confusion for anyone reading your script. Imagine a reader coming across a scene that looks like this:


Hey, Sergeant, are we walking down a
hall, or sitting at your desk, or what?

I’m not sure. There’s no description
for this scene, so we might even be
standing next to each other at urinals.

Ew, I hope not because I’m actually
a woman.

No way! I couldn’t tell from just
your name. Who are you, anyway?

Not sure. I hope I’m not under arrest,
but there’s really no way to know
unless the screenwriter clues us in
before beginning our dialogue.

Looks like you’re guilty – of giving
good advice, that is.

And also of killing my husband, but
the screenwriter forgot to mention
that as well.

Oh, you!

Okay, so that probably went on a bit longer than necessary, but it should indicate why some kind of description is necessary in each scene. Check out this alternative to see how much clearer scenes can be with just a little bit of description:


SERGEANT TICE, 30s, sits at his desk in a CROWDED staff room. CHRIS, 20s, in a halter top and hot pants, slinks up to his desk and plops into a chair.

May I help you, miss--?

It’s “Mrs.” actually. Mrs. Chris
Thorne. Well, not since my husband
died, I suppose.

I’m sorry. How long ago did he die?

I'd guess about five minutes ago,
assuming the poison worked correctly.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the point of this post is not to demonstrate how to write bad dialogue, but how to clarify your scenes by writing a brief description below every slug line. Without setting the scene, the reader doesn’t know anything other than the general location and time of day, which doesn’t create enough of a visual image. You shouldn’t go into too much detail in your descriptions, but you do need to briefly describe what the audience will be looking at in each scene in order to avoid confusion. Happy writing!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #35: Low point irrelevant to goal

When I’m writing an outline for a new script, the first thing I do immediately after establishing what the protagonist’s external goal will be, is to figure out what could happen that will guarantee that the protagonist will fail at that goal. To put it another way, what is the worst possible thing that can happen in the protagonist’s pursuit of his external goal? To put it in yet another way (I promise I’ll stop rephrasing soon), what is the most devastating thing that the antagonist can do that will cause the protagonist to fail? Whatever the answer is to any of the three questions above, that is what should happen at the end of act two. It should appear at this second act break (about 75% of the way into your script) that the protagonist has failed at his external goal, so don’t go easy on him here or let him off the hook in any way. Do everything you possibly can to destroy all of his hopes and dreams so that the audience will be all the more impressed when you show how he overcomes those seemingly insurmountable obstacles and succeeds in the end.

The problem that I see too frequently is that the low point at the end of act two doesn’t have anything to do with the protagonist’s external goal. In one script that I read, the protagonist wanted to become a professional boxer, but then at the end of act two his mother died. That’s extremely sad, but it doesn’t do anything to prevent him from becoming a boxer. If you want your story to be tightly integrated and highly dramatic, then the low point at the end of act two must make the audience think that your protagonist is no longer able to achieve his external goal.

If you really want to show off, you should also make it seem like the protagonist can no longer overcome his internal flaw here as well. A common way for an antagonist to defeat the protagonist at the end of act two is for him to expose the protagonist’s internal flaw for the whole world to see. This usually causes the protagonist to slink back to his ordinary world in act three, an utterly defeated shell of a man, which is great dramatic stuff. If you shut down all hope for your protagonist both to accomplish his external goal and also to overcome his internal flaw at the end of act two, you will be miles ahead of at least 90% of all of the scripts sitting on agents’ desks right now. Just follow the old axiom that goes something like, “put your protagonist into a tree, then throw rocks at him, then disintegrate his entire world into a nuclear holocaust that will make Revelations seem like a children’s popup book” and you’ll be fine. I may be slightly misquoting there, but you get the point.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #34: Bad character names, part 2

In addition to the two character name problems that I discussed yesterday (cutesy names and characters whose names sound alike), there are a couple of other name-specific issues that you should avoid in your screenplays.

Unless you are writing a script for the SNL character “Pat” or you have some other good reason for making one of your characters sexually ambiguous, you should make sure that there is no uncertainty about your characters’ genders. I have read a number of scripts that introduce a character named “Chris” or “Terry” or “Alex” only to find out a few pages later that the character was not the gender that I thought. It’s fine to use a name that might not have an obvious gender as long as you make it clear in your script what sex the person is. Obviously, this is only an issue that will affect the reader since moviegoers will be able to see your characters’ genders without taking cues from their names, but it’s always good to make things as easy as possible on readers.

Too Many Characters With Names

I don’t see the problem of having too many named characters all that frequently, which is why I saved it for last, but I have seen it enough that I wanted to make sure to include it in this list. I remember one script in particular that named every single character, including bystanders who were in only one scene and didn’t have any lines. If a character doesn’t play a significant role in your story, then there’s no reason to give that character a name.

However, if a character does have a line in your script, then you do need to give that character a name, even if it’s just something generic like “Passerby” or “Security Guard,” but you only need to give actual names to characters that contribute something significant to your story. You can be the judge of what “significant” means in your script, but you definitely shouldn’t give names to every single person who appears onscreen.

Okay, that’s al I have to say (for now) about character names. If you avoid these four common problems, your script will definitely be the better for it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #33: Bad character names, part 1

I regularly see four problems with character names that, at the very least, can cause confusion among readers and audiences, and at the worst can cause a reader to stop taking your script seriously and drop it right into the “no” pile. I’ll outline two of the naming problems in this post and will include the other two in the second half of this article tomorrow.

Let's start off with the character-naming issue that will definitely cause you the most problems:

Cutesy Names

The reason I say that cutesy character names will cause you a serious problem is because I once saw a reader go on an actual tirade after reading just the first page of a romantic comedy script because the main characters’ names were “William Wright” and “Allyson Wong.” Get it? Mr. Wright and Miss Wong. Har! Seriously, the reader actually threw a real-live hissy fit, which isn't something that you regularly see grown men doing unless you watch "Project Runway."

Tell the truth — did you just roll your eyes when you read those names? You don’t want a reader to roll his eyes at any part of your script, let alone throw a hissy fit, so make sure not to give your characters gimmicky names like this. Just give everyone regular names and let your writing ability stand on its own merits without unnecessary ploys like this.

Even though the above naming problem can be the most damaging to your script, the one that I see the most frequently is:

Characters Whose Names Sound Alike

I once read a script with three characters whose names all started with the letter “B,” and in one scene they were all having a conversation together. Can you imagine trying to keep up with a conversation among characters who are named “Bob,” “Billy” and “Bernard?” I also recently saw a script with two main characters named “James” and “Jamie,” so I had to keep checking their names to confirm who was doing what. Unless there’s a good reason why you need your characters to have names that sound alike, such as a story about mistaken identity, then you should make sure that your characters’ names don’t rhyme and that they don’t start with the same letter. This will make your script much easier for your reader to follow, which can only help you.

Check back tomorrow for the next two character naming issues!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Structure Analysis - The Kids Are All Right

Standard disclaimer: There are plenty of spoilers in this analysis, so please read on if you're okay with me ruining everything for you. :-)

I finally got around to seeing this movie on DVD and was really excited to write an analysis for it because it seemed to defy standard screenplay structure in that there didn't appear to be a single protagonist. On first viewing, I thought that the entire family was one big collective protagonist and that Paul was their antagonist. But as I laid out each of the structural points, it became clear that there actually is a single protagonist – Nic. She is definitely the one who drives the action for everyone in her family and is clearly the one character who stands diametrically opposed to Paul.

But even though this script actually does follow standard screenplay structure very closely, it's another great example of how a screenwriter can generate a tremendous amount of drama within that structure by creating a full cast of vivid and active characters. Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg clearly put a lot of thought into every single one of their characters and gave them each distinct personalities and unique goals, which is a sure way to generate lots of conflict and drama in every scene. This movie provides an excellent example of how to write great characters, so I can't recommend it highly enough.

I do need to point out that the analysis below is based on the actual movie and not on the screenplay, since the movie differs greatly from the only version of this script that I could find. Thanks to Kim Nunley for sending me that script and for her excellent blog (http://www.kimnunley.com) that contains lots of good information about movies and screenwriting. And now, on to the analysis.

The Kids Are All Right
By Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
Released in 2010 and nominated for a ton of awards. Literally, 2000 pounds worth of awards.

Genre: Drama
Number of pages: Movie 101 minutes; Script 122 pages
Protagonist: Nic Allgood
External Goal: To stop Paul from taking her family away from her.
Internal Flaw:  She can't see how much her actions are hurting the people she loves.


Statement of Theme
Page 3: Nic and Jules ask Laser what he gets out of his relationship with Clay. The theme is about trying to find happiness outside of the family (specifically from someone other than Nic), versus working on being happy within the family.

First Catalyst (10%)
External: Page 11 (11%)
Paul calls Joni. He meets her and Laser for lunch. This is clearly the inciting incident because it's the point where Paul has his first contact with the family.
Internal: Page 3-7 (3-7%)
This is the only structural point that is more generalized than a single event taking place on a single page, though it's pretty close. The internal story is about how Nic's actions are driving her family away, so from page 3-7, Nic alienates everyone in her family with her perfectionism and judgmental attitude. Nic 
insults Laser's friend, she forces Joni to write all of her thank-you cards on her birthday, and she makes fun of Jules, questions her decision to start yet another business and can't even enjoy an intimate moment with her.

Second Catalyst (17%)
External: Page 23 (23%)
Laser tells Nic and Jules that he and Joni met Paul. This brings the entire family into the Paul story. As is typical of  character-driven story, this structural element happens later than the 17% point in order to establish all of the characters' stories and personalities first.
Internal: Page 18 (18%)
Nic complains to Jules about Laser wasting his potential, which turns into an argument about their relationship. She can only think of people as being successful if they're like her.

Plot Point 1 (25%)
External: Page 26 (26%)
Paul comes to visit the family for dinner. This begins the journey of the entire family getting to know Paul. Let the fun begin!
Internal: Page 27 (27%)
Nic interrogates Paul about how different he is from his sperm donor profile, expressing her clear disappointment. She demands that Joni read him her valedictorian speech, but Joni refuses. As always, Nic can't see the effect that her actions are having on others.

Twist 1 (37.5%)
External: Page 34 (34%)
Jules starts working on Paul’s back yard. She says they should just let it grow as lush and fecund as possible. (Metaphor alert!)
Internal: Page 37 (37%)
Nic is disappointed in Laser for not writing a get-well card to his grandfather. Laser snaps at her and cancels his weekend plans with her to spend more time with Paul. The rebellion against Nic has begun.

Mid-point (50%)
External: Page 45 (45%)
Paul compliments Jules on her work and they kiss. The relationship with Paul has now officially become toxic to the family and can only get worse if it continues from here.
Internal: Page 50 (50%)
When Paul brings Joni home on his motorcycle, Nic confronts him for breaking her "no motorcycles" rule, making her opposition to Paul perfectly clear. They are now in a head-to-head battle over her family.

Twist 2 (62.5%)
External: Page 66 (65%)
Paul tells Jules that he’s falling for her. He actually starts to believe that he can replace Nic in her own family.
Internal: Page 68 (67%)
Nic tells the family that she wants to give Paul more of a chance so she suggests that they go to his place for dinner. But by this point, the rest of the family has developed issues with Paul, so they're not into it. As usual, Nic gets her way.

Plot Point 2 (75%)
External: Page 76 (75%)
Nic finds Jules’ hair in Paul’s bathroom and bed. She realizes they’re having an affair.
Internal: Page 72 (71%)
Nic connects with Paul right before finding out about the affair, but only by excluding her entire family as she and Paul talk over them and then sing a painfully awkward Joni Mitchell song together about hurting the people that you love.

Paul comes to the family’s house to try and see Joni one last time before she goes to college. Nic tells him that he's just an interloper and then the whole family sides with Nic over Paul. Jules then apologizes to the family and begs their forgiveness. The moms bring Joni to college and Joni misses them immediately. Laser tells Nic and Jules that they shouldn’t break up, so they hold hands and start the process of making up. Basically, everyone re-commits to the family, showing that they don’t need anyone else to make them happy. Structurally, Nic has defeated her antagonist and accomplished her external goal of stopping Paul from taking her family away from her, while also beginning the process of overcoming her internal flaw by seeing how much her own actions have pushed her family away.