That’s what you get. You spend six months on that spec screenplay and the reader at the agency-manager-prodco-contest is giving five lousy pages before he makes a judgement.
It’s an outrage! Blame it on Attention-Deficit-Disorder, the Twitterverse, the 24/7 news cycle…but guess what?
A good reader can recognize a poorly written script within five pages or less. Sometimes it can be seen on Page 1.
Here are a couple of traps to avoid:
- BE AN ADVERB & ADJECTIVE HATER
“The Chow Chow sadly waddles up the plush scarlet-carpeted, serpentine-twisting rug, woefully stopping under the plumb Ming Dynasty vase, dumbly lifting his hind leg…”
You’re writing a screenplay, not the Great American novel. That means not killing the reader with purple prose. Just because you can write effective adjectives and adverbs doesn’t mean you should. When it comes to pumping up screen direction, ask yourself: Do I need it?
How do you know if you need it? Ask: How does it advance character or plot?
It’s Page 1 and you’ve got that Chow doing his business on the purple plush carpet. I know you’re going to be able to tell me how this advances the protagonist’s character, right?
This is not to say you can never use an adverb or adjective. You just have to pick your spots. If it’s a scene where a character grabs a coffee at Starbucks, as a reader, I really, really don’t care about the faux fireplace flame warming the caramel brulee latte drinkers. If, however, my protagonist has been estranged from his father for a decade, some extra detail about the scene where they reunite would be welcome.
See the difference? Be an adjective and adverb hater.
- AVOID BEATS AND PAUSES
JIMMY Well… (beat) I’m not surprised… (beat) Why didn’t you tell me sooner?
HARRY It’s hard being a Chicago Bears fan. (long beat) It really is!
You want your screenplay to be a visual experience. You want the reader to see the movie in your mind. Using parenthetical beats and pauses looks clunky, mechanical. It takes me out of the read, out of the visualizing of your movie. Use ellipses instead. Those three dots are a time tested method to indicate pause.JIMMY Well… I’m not surprised. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? HARRY It’s hard being a Chicago Bears fan…it really is!
- THE NAME DISEASE
“Abe Lincoln, I had no idea you were so obsessed with vampires…”
“Petey, bro, how many times can one dude see The Hangover 2?”
“Sheldon, I thought I told you to take the garbage out. Oh, and Sheldon, don’t forget, recycle!”
Are you using character names in dialogue too often? If so, you’ve got the name disease. This is a lazy writing habit. Did you use Petey’s name in dialogue three times on a single page? Cut some, or all of them. When you’re talking to someone in real life who you know, how often do you use their name?
- KEEP VERBS ACTIVE
Hayley is playing on the monkey bars.
Billy is swinging on the swing set.
Active verbs are more direct, more assertive, and ultimately easier on the reader’s eye.
Hayley plays on the monkey bars.
Billy swings on the swing set.
Ditch the passive writing. And while we’re talking verbs…
- PICK BETTER VERBS
Jimmy slowly walks down the stairs.
Anyone can write that! Want your script to stand out? Do a full spell check and proofread, yes. While you’re at it, pink highlight EVERY VERB in your script. Are they strong, action verbs? Can you make them stronger? Challenge yourself. Pick better verbs.
Jimmy ambles-rambles-limps-saunters-wanders-stumbles-hobbles down the stairs.
Anything but walks slowly!
Lastly, and perhaps most important:
- FIND THE PROTAGONIST
Please don’t make the reader guess on who they’re supposed to be following. Find your protagonist as soon as possible. Does that mean we have to see the protagonist in Page 1 Scene 1? Of course not. There are no absolutes, no always or never in screenwriting.
In general though, as a reader, I’ll take clarity over confusion. When you introduce seven named characters in the first five pages and make me guess who the story is about, it leaves me wondering. And if by page 10 I’m still wondering who the story is about, well, it’s not ideal.
Find your protagonist quickly.