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How To Write A Screenplay That Will Get Read
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So you have an idea for a movie? You just know it would be a big hit. All you need now is a good script. You remember that your friend has a buddy who knows someone who once sold a script to Disney. You contact them only to realize that you just don't have the $15,000 necessary to pay this con-artist mid-level Hollywood writer to take on "your baby." What next? Well, if you're like most ambitious, semi-intelligent zealots, you decide to go for it and just write the thing yourself! After all, how hard can it be? If Quentin Tarantino can do it, why can't you?
Congratulations! You're on your way. As Confucius once said, "beginning is half done." And I must say the only feeling better than finishing your first script is selling your first script. I still have the voice mail saved on my phone when I got that call that a production company wanted to buy my script.
So, you Google screenplays and decide to read a few great scripts ("Good Will Hunting," "Rocky," etc.). You get the basic formatting... and you're ready to go... or so you think. And this is where the trouble begins:
Most scripts never get read beyond the first ten pages. I can't tell you how many times I've seen readers stop reading a script almost before they've begun. Why? Because these readers have 1,000,000 scripts behind yours to read. If they don't understand where your story is going or what it's about by the first 10-pages, they're simply going to assume the rest of the story is just as confusing; and stop reading. Thus, it is imperative that within those first 10-pages of your script, the reader knows (1) what your story is about (2) who your lead actor(s) are and (3) the who, what, where, when and why and how's of your story. SPEND AS MUCH TIME ON THESE FIRST 10-PAGES AS NECESSARY TO ENSURE THE REST OF YOUR SCRIPT GETS READ!
Read the script out loud. To yourself. To friends. To strangers. To anyone who will listen. Then, have them tell you where they think the story's going. Have them share their thoughts. Input at this stage is crucial.
One of my favorite scripts is titled, "Big Bear." It's about a group of 20-something friends that take a trip to Big Bear, California. I loved this script and it was my first attempt at writing a comedy. Even though I would laugh every time I read it, the moment I had a group of friends read it out loud - I realized just how not-funny it was. This made me go back in and perform a major overhaul of the project. It's so important to do this. Scripts are not written - they're rewritten.
Now, before I go any further, I will admit that I do realize there is no "one-way" to write a great screenplay. I'm simply giving you the guidelines that work for 99.9% of the people out there. There are always exceptions to the rule. If that's you, great! No need to read on. If not... keep going. You're well on our way!
"A great rule of thumb is one-page per minute of script. Thus, a 90-page script translates into a 90-minute movie. And 90-minutes is the perfect length. How many times have you found yourself looking at your watch or waiting for the movie to get to the big climax? This is the fault of overly-wordy writers who tend to go on and on and on when all they should really be doing is getting to the end! We want our hero to live... we generally know they're going to anyway. We want our couple to fall in love... we generally know they're going to anyway. Stop dragging this on and let us have our satisfaction!"
You've now written 10 great pages. Your story is kicking in. At this point, everything is taking us to the end of Act 1. And where is the end of Act 1? Right about at page 30.
I was at ShoWest in Las Vegas listening to Gus Van Sant, Director of "Good Will Hunting" speak about that incredible screenplay. He said that after reading that story, he went back and circled the pages where the Act's broke. Act 1 was (literally) page 30. Midpoint was (literally) page 60. Act II was (literally) page 90. An incredible script.
Your Act I doesn't have to be at exactly page 30, but if it's not, it's generally a sign that you're dragging on a story point and beginning to bore your audience or reader. Or vice versa; you're not giving the audience enough information. Thus, if not page 30, it should be close to it.
So what happens at the end of Act I? That's up to you to decide. But whatever it is, it should throw your story into the second - and longest Act - Act II.
This could be...
- the girl gets kidnapped
- the boy realizes he loves the lowly waitress (and not the popular cheerleader)
- the code to the nuclear bombs have been stolen
It's endless. But whatever it is, we're now into the meat of our story! Fun, fun, fun!
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