It’s great that you have finally made the life changing decision to write a screenplay. But stop and consider these basic points before you flush hundreds of hours down the proverbial toilet:
1) Not knowing why they want to write
So you want to write a screenplay? That’s fantastic! But why? Is it to make a lot of money? Or is it to impress your friends? Is it because you have a story to tell that will work best in the cinema?
Try and write your screenplay before you decide the ‘why’ you want to write it. will eman, almost cetainly, your writing will be encumbered.
2) Skipping the pre-planning stage
In planning your screenplay, there are a few major steps you need to follow before your pen ever hits the page. Some screenwriters identify these steps as 7 or 8 unique stages within the plotline of the story. Some writers use 22 steps! But in most simplified terms, these steps are: the beginning, the end, and all the catalysts that work in between to transition to and from those points. What is going to roughly happen within these stages to make your story sensible and complete? Even more importantly, in what kind of world is the story unfolding? Who are the characters in it? What has happened in their lives? We creative types know that we hate to be confined within boundaries. However, a certain amount of pre-planned structure can give your creative genius some sense of direction and lends your ideas a level of coherence. Without pre-planning, story ideas tend to read as cleanly as a drunk on a bicycle, and no one wants to see that movie.
3). Not having an original story idea
There are a lot of recognizable movie scenes that inspire the masses and work their way into popular culture. You probably know a lot of these movie scenes pretty well. Here’s the problem: so does everyone else.
Don’t recreate ‘you had me at hello.’ People will be most interested in seeing something they’ve never seen before, or wouldn’t have thought of themselves. As a screenwriter, it’s partly your job to be aware of what other filmmakers are doing, and what has worked in the past. But your most important job is to write the film that is most uniquely YOU. Your imagination is the mother of invention, so try and get inspired inside your own head, pulling real-life examples from unique experiences, especially ones that stray far from tired clichés. If you can’t think of any other films that mirror your own ideas, you’ve found a good start to developing a unique story.
4) Not having interesting characters
And by interesting, I mean weird. Think about it. From Margot Tennenbaum in her fur coat and black eyeliner, to Hannibal Lector and his human-flesh-eating tendencies, the film characters we remember are generally cracked-out on quirk. The same idea applies to the people we remember throughout our lives. You might not remember half your ex-girlfriends from high school, but you’ll always remember that one guy who brought his pet tarantula to school and played ukulele everyday because he was SO. STRANGE. Aside from general peculiarity, characters should also embody specific features that tie them together with human nature as a whole; morals, emotional weakness, and personal strengths.
So try to give your characters some idiosyncratic elements that make them stand out, whether it be in their dress, their mannerisms or their back stories. They don’t have to be 8-armed mutants who spawn asexually and sprout blue hair, but a couple of quirky attributes will lend them that element of interest that engages the audience.
5). Making a high concept the entire movie
High concept films aren’t bad. Trust me, I’m a sucker for Almost Famous, and though ET scared the crap out of me in my youth, it’s become a staple on the list of classics. What is bad, is when screenwriters develop a few master scenes that illustrate the high concepts, but don’t know how to stretch them across a 110-paged script. Rich stories need more meat than just one ongoing joke or epic dinosaur battle. This counts even more for independent films, since most won’t have celebrity names to draw audiences. Obviously, the purpose behind high concept is to tell a powerful, universal story with concision, but the most successful ones also have depth. Character growth, heartfelt moments and intellectual discoveries intertwined with the plot help extend the high concept to a full-length script. I mean, you could just write a full feature about snakes on an airplane, but…oh wait…
6). Not knowing when to stop
By this I mean, not knowing when to stop your story. In late out early is the golden rule. Don’t forget the showbiz maxim: ‘Leave ’em wantin’ more.”
7) Not knowing the true beginning
Start writing your script from where you initially think it begins. Then go back and reconsider. Often times, writers find that their beginning lies somewhere in the second or third scene. Or sometimes the beginning is actually the end, and the true story lies before what you’ve written. Either way, you might discover that the beginning is more compelling with less introductory information, or that the story need much, much more background context. Remember, rewriting is just as important an art as drafting, and one good rewrite could unveil more profundity than you ever knew was there.
8) On the nose dialogue
When writers need to deliver important messages to the audience, a character’s dialogue is one way to do it. However, when dialogue is ‘on the nose, it is forced and unnatural sounding. It serves as more of a lecture, full of specific details that we wouldn’t use in real life, and can make your screenplay read more as an infomercial advertising the story hidden beneath it.
It is really important to find a balance between giving your audience enough information through dialogue that they ‘get’ what’s going on, but not so much information that they feel insulted. The important bits that are revealed through speech should help to move the plot forward. To determine whether or not your dialogue is on the nose, read it out loud. Anything that you couldn’t imagine yourself saying in real life might be too convoluted for the big screen.
Besides, not all important information need be revealed through speech. And this brings me to Stupid Mistake number 9.
9). Creating a stage play
With stage plays, it’s a little easier to get away with dialogue that is more ‘on the nose’ because live theatre depends on colloquy. The audience gets the action from one perspective: the view from their seats. The actors can’t project their facial expressions, so they project their voices. But you’re not writing a stage play, dammit, you’re writing a screen play! The beauty of film is that we can rely on cinematography to deliver meaning to our audience. Point blank, movies rely on images, and there are so many ways meaningful images can be captured. Think of different angles at which action can be viewed. A close up shot of an actor’s reaction can speak louder than his words can. A quick flashback during a scene might explain a poignant moment better than dialogue.
So in writing your screenplay, remember the options you have through the art of film. If you want to capture speech-driven plot on a stationary camera, perhaps a stage play is your best bet.
10). Not knowing whether “gunshot” should be capitalized or not
Don’t fiddle about with formatting yet at this stage!