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 ( 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.