One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from running the Trainee Writer contest (that isn’t really a ‘contest’) is just how difficult a job studio readers, agencies and the like actually have. As writers, we like to bitch about how hard it is to break in. Some people have even tried to sue their way in. The truth is hard to swallow, but here it is: The vast majority of scripts they receive aren’t good enough.
How do I know this? Because most of the scripts I’ve received so far haven’t been good enough. And I’m getting just a small fraction of the number they receive. Luckily, I’m patient enough to look for the potential in a script; I’ve no financial incentive to do this, I just want to help make the people who take the time to send their scripts my way better writers.
As you’ll have noticed, nothing I’ve received so far has inspired me to champion it, but everything I’ve seen so far has had the potential to be something special with just a little work.
It’s in that spirit that I decided to write this post. You see, a lot of the places things have fallen down are on the most basic tenets of the art of screenwriting: layout, structure and characters.
The first thing that any reader will notice, whether that’s just little ol’ me or the guy who does Ari Emmanuel’s reading for him, is the formatting and layout of your script. There’s a standard format for a screenplay, yet many writers have fallen at this most obvious of hurdles.
If you’re writing in Word – which is almost as old-school as pen and paper – there are readily available templates on the internet to help you get it right or, if you Google hard enough you can find actual margin measurements.
The easiest way to jump this first, most basic of hurdles is to get yourself some good screenwriting software. For my money, there are only two that are worth a damn: Celtx and Final Draft.
Celtx is free to download and the ideal tool for the beginner screenwriter; it has format templates for film, stage and radio scripts as well as the facility to write prose and doesn’t complicate itself with too many advanced options. Whilst I’ve found it’s not idea for writing teleplays, it is the software that I started out on, and it still has a place in my heart.
For those of you willing to spend some money for a more complete screenwriting program, there really is no other option but to buy a copy of Final Draft. Priced at $249 (a free demo is available), Final Draft is the industry standard, used by all the top writers the world over. Whilst it still does all the basics of formatting, it has alternate templates for different types of movie. For television writers, it has templates for almost every major television show currently on the air, too.
Whilst there are other alternatives, none of them come close to giving as complete a set of tools as Final Draft does.
With a screenwriting program, you can immediately avoid the embarrassment of having a script rejected on first sight because of something so easily fixed.
Structure is another easily fixed aspect that people often overlook, usually because (in their zest to finish the script) they don’t spend enough time planning out the story they want to tell. I realize the irony in my saying this, as I openly admit that I’m not much for planning on paper – only in my head – but it’s a skill that many writers, especially beginners, will find to their benefit.
I could write a hundred thousand words about structure, but the truth is that I’m going to hand you off to people who already did; as a screenwriter, it’s vital to constantly evolve, to always be studying your craft. These four books will answer all of your screenwriting questions, especially those about story structure:
Screenplay by Syd Field is still, for my money, the greatest book for the newbie screenwriter ever written. It covers everything from layout to story structure to characterization and everything else. This is the book that taught me how to write for the screen and I still use it as my first point of reference for any questions I might have on the craft.
Successful Sitcom Writing by Jurgen Wolff is a wonderful ‘how-to’ guide to everything you could ever wish to know about writing sitcoms. Wolff, a former writer on such shows as Benson and The Love Boat, breaks down the sitcom to minute detail and this book is a must-have for any and all wannabe comedy writers.
The TV Writer’s Workbook by Ellen Sanders and Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin are equally good resources for television writers in general. Though both break down many of the same things, including everything I’ve brought up today, the small differences between the two make it worthwhile to own them both; what you don’t learn from one, you’ll learn from the other. And if you read both, you’ll know almost everything important about TV writing.
Whilst by no means the easiest thing to write, it’s arguable that characters are the most important part of your script. You can have the most rigidly formatted script and the most intricate, beautiful and emotionally involved story of all time, but it ultimately means nothing if the characters don’t work.
The characters are the conduit by which we, as the audience, become involved in the story, how we relate to the events on-screen. There are two main types of characters: protagonists and antagonists. Your protagonist is your lead character, the person who drives the story, the person you want us to relate to most. The antagonist is largely the opposite; the character you want us to hate, that your protagonist hates. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t relate to them – you want your audience to form a relationship with every character.
To do that, the key is making every character you write as three-dimensional as possible. I don’t mean by using some tacky cinematic gimmick that forces the audience to wear glasses; every character needs to feel real to the audience. And the best way to mak that happen is to make the character feel real to you.
The following advice is as valuable to you in the pitching stage as it is in the writing stage: Know everything about your character. The best way of doing this is to write a full biography of your character. The best way I can demonstrate this is by giving you a sample bio from one of the leads in Improper Representation, Scott Weismann.
Scott Jonah Weismann was born in Los Angeles, California on November 25, 1985 to parents Joseph and Linda; raised in the LA suburbs by orthodox Jewish parents, he found himself in an unorthodox friendship with the kids next door, JJ and Rosie Marquez. They were, and remain, lifelong friends.
At school, Scott was a top student. Straight As, great extracurricular activities, class valedictorian. As a high school senior, after JJ had graduated, he began to date Rosie – a relationship they kept secret from her brother – until the morning after prom night when he suddenly left Los Angeles without giving her any explanation.
He attended Columbia University, gaining his Law degree and graduating top of his class before going on to work at a prestigious New York law firm. It was whilst working there that he started dating Vanessa, a fellow associate and recent Yale graduate who he would eventually move in with and become engaged to.
Eventually, the pressure of life in the fast lane got the better of him and he began to slip into a moral downward spiral; after cheating on Vanessa with a paralegal he met whilst in trial, his relationship with her disintegrated: the paralegal worked for Vanessa’s brother at a rival firm. The situation exploded mid-trial, erupting into a fist fight between Scott and his brother-in-law to be.
With Scott’s reputation destroyed and his career in tatters, he’s decided to return to Los Angeles in an attempt to rebuild his life.
Scott’s hobbies and interests include music and video games; he has an affection for hip-hop, reads obsessively and hates cats. His favourite film is Manhattan and his favourite author is Elmore Leonard.
From that most basic of information, I have a basis on which I can build an entire personality, a template by which I can predict his reaction to every situation.
Once you know your characters, the next challenge is dialogue. And dialogue is something I’m going to save the explanation of for another time…