Happy New Writing 2017!
If you’ve made some writing resolutions then January’s already lining up with some exciting possibilities. There are 14 opportunities alone on the BBC writersroom page at the moment, check them out here. Screenwriter Kulvinder Gill compiles a regular 1-page PDF to highlight various schemes and competitions, currently 60+, check them out here.
One of the current competitions is the Screenwriting Goldmine Awards (DEADLINE END OF JANUARY). Here’s Phil Gladwin, founder of Screenwriting Goldmine, with a guest blog to offer some handy tips. Take it away Phil!
WRITING SCRIPTS RULES OF THUMB
If you’re just starting out in this thing called screenwriting, here are some top tips to keep in mind as you write your script.
- Try to tell your story visually first.
Try this: Try to do as much as you can without people speaking. Only when they can’t get what they want without talking should you allow them to speak.
- Make sure your dialogue never, ever says what the person is actually thinking.
That’s called being ‘On The Nose’, and there are few worse sins. The dialogue should play the opposite of what’s going on. People should talk in an oblique way, apparently ignoring the real stakes of the scene; talking about anything other than what the person is actually thinking deep down. Bad drama is FULL of people standing around telling each other what they are really thinking. Good drama uses this thing called SUBTEXT constantly.
- Get into the scene as late as you can, make your point, and get out as early as you can.
Old advice, as vital as ever. Don’t worry that being so brief seems unrealistic. Look at any drama on TV. People aren’t realistic in drama. Being realistic in this sense is boring. That really does mean don’t bother with ‘Hello’, How are you’ and ‘Goodbye’ – unless you are consciously using them to tell us something interesting about the character. It also means looking hard at the start and end of your scenes to see what could go. (It can go if the story stays the same without it.)
- You can break that rule if your dialogue is funny.
Actually you can break most rules if you are being funny. You can certainly take time out from strict story telling if you are being funny. But don’t be TOO long about it unless you are writing a real full-blooded comedy.
- Be concise in your scene directions.
Be short and to the point. Don’t give us endless flowery description. You aren’t painting a detailed picture of every aspect of this world, that’s the director’s job. You are providing the emotional lines of the script, the skeleton. So: ‘The space ship hangs in space’ rather than ‘The alien craft seems suspended in star strewn blackness.’
- Write tight dialogue.
It’s an old BBC rule that you need an extremely good reason for a speech to last more than four lines in standard screenplay format. Characters in American drama tend to be more articulate than characters in British drama, but it’s a great target to aim for whichever side of the Atlantic you are. It seems arbitrary, but in practise trying to stick to this restriction really does force you to distil your dialogue.
- Track each character who speaks in the scene.
Find out who is driving the scene, (normally the one who really wants something), and make sure that they end the scene in a different emotional state to when they came in.
- Never put directions for the camera.
If you want us to look at something, just give us a phrase or two that tells us about it. We’ll get the idea.
- Don’t give the actors their blocking.
That is, don’t write down every time they smile, sit, stand, or otherwise move their body. Again, it’s something actors like to discover themselves, and it gets in the way when you are reading the script.
- If you want to stay cool, don’t ever tell the actors how to deliver their lines.
Never use parentheticals. (The little words in brackets after a character name). I once wandered into a room where a director and an actor were laughing themselves stupid over a script. (Not mine.) They were going through the script, reading the parts aloud, and acting out the redundant parentheticals with massively over zealous conviction. So it was something like:
Robert: (passionately) Rose, I love you!
Rose: (shy and reluctant) But I only met you half an hour ago. I don’t know you.
Robert: (raging) Since when did what you think mattered?
Actors and Directors work out how to read the lines you have written, that’s their job. If you’re lucky they will do it in a wonderfully subtle way that will surprise and delight you.
Phil Gladwin, Founder, Screenwriting Goldmine Awards
The Screenwriting Goldmine Awards are currently accepting scripts for a fifth year. The five finalists will have their work read by an astonishing 35 senior industry execs and agents. Doors close on January 31. More information here.