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Screenwriting With Impact

By Author: Kevin Young

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The Rifle Test
Hollywood screenwriters know that a reader, agent or producer can tell instantly by fanning the pages back to front if your script is professionally written and in the proper format. Your script will not even get a read at an agency or get studio coverage if it doesn't look right. The typical development executive reads 35-50 scripts a week on their own time, away from the office. After reading hundreds and hundreds of scripts, they can see at a glance if it looks right. If it's not right, it's dumped. It's that simple. If you use a good screenwriting program, then this is an area you won't have to worry about. If you don't have one, at least follow the rules. They're relatively simple. They're also hard and fast and not meant to be deviated from, so don't "improve" upon the formula, just use it. You can get the layout details at ScriptNurse.com for free.
Before you get the screenplay down on paper, watch out for "speed bumps" that are practically guaranteed to stop the reader in his tracks. Remember, there are only TWO TOOLS to work with in writing a screenplay:
* ACTION: a description of what is seen on the screen visually
* DIALOGUE: what the characters say
Here are some rules and do's and don'ts for writing your screenplay with impact:
Action Description Tips
Don't direct or act: Directors don't like to be told how to shoot a scene. Besides, a good director might do it better than you suggest in the script. Actors don't like to be told how to act, so don't tell them how to play the scene in your script. By using techniques to make your script more "vertical" you can lead the director and the reader where you want them to go. Break up paragraphs into smaller ones so that each paragraph implies a shot. "we see" or "we hear" sounds like you're directing, so don't use them. Instead, the the technique of making your script "vertical" to accomplish the same thing.
Kill the camera: Remove all references to camera movement and angles. If you have to do it more than once or twice in an entire script, there's something wrong with the way you're writing it. Eliminate any "we see" or "we hear" references because "we" don't see or hear. Write the visual action the audience will see on the screen or the words the actors say. The simplicity of screenwriting is what makes it so hard to do. Use the "vertical" technique to lead the reader through the shots.
The verb "is" implies a state of being that cannot be photographed. Only visual action can be put on the screen. Any reference to whom "is thinking," "knows about," "wants to be," or "looks like" needs to be rewritten. Action description doesn't have to be perfect English. This isn't a novel. It DOES have to be colorful, descriptive and visual so the reader can "see" in their heads what you want seen on-screen.
Use strong language and avoid passive voice writing: "Fred is running around crazily" is weak compared to "Fred runs, flailing his arms frantically." Look for any descriptions that talk about "is" or "being." That's weak writing. Make it colorful! Use simple, colorful, visual words. Don't convert verbs into nouns as in the example above. The verb is "runs" -- keep it a verb and you'll have stronger, present tense writing.
Eliminate CUT TO: in your script. It's already implied when you show a new scene heading anyway.
Character Development
If they're good, make them very good. If they're bad, make them really bad. This makes your characters easier to identify with and clearer in the mind of the script reader. We all want to know who to root for and who to despise. Don't make it hard to figure out. It can always be "dumbed down" later.
Write backstories for your characters. Create their past lives and family history. Note their quirks, habits (good and bad), flaws, compulsions, fears, phobias and dark secrets. List things that scare them in the night. Write down every skeleton in their closet. Include parents and siblings, if appropriate. Write down traits others might see as good, redeeming and to be admired. What makes them likeable? What makes others immediately not like them? These all work together to help you understand your characters. It makes them come alive. Creating a past lets you create a future in your screenplay that's real and plausible. Having this understanding leads to you knowing that a character would or wouldn't "do that" or "say that." For example, everyone knows that Indiana Jones has a phobia about snakes that gives him pause. Since he's bigger than life, he faces his fear, but because he has a common phobia, we can all identify with him easily.
Try "casting" your script with a dream cast. Cast each principal role with the biggest name you can think of who is perfect for the part. See that $20 Million Star as the character you're writing. Get their photos and stick them up on a wall with their character name above the photo. When you've got Jack Nicholson speaking your lines, you find out very quickly the kinds of things he simply could not do or would not say.


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