Screenwriting With Impact
By Don Bledsoe
The screenplay you've pounded out on your trusty word processor is finished at last! Before the reader even looks at the title of your script, it must pass the "rifle test." The rifle test tells a professional in seconds whether the script is professionally written or not. Is the screenplay in the right format? Does it look like it was written by a professional screenwriter? Is the script vertical?
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.
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.
Real vs. Reel Dialogue
There's real dialogue and "reel" dialogue. If you want real dialogue, just go outside, where there's plenty of it. Reel dialogue in film is different. It's terse and more direct without being "in your face" or "on the nose." Here's where reading good, quality scripts can really help you. If you need help with dialogue, I recommend getting a great dialogue tool called Great Dialogue (www.greatdialogue.com).
Rule of Thumb: In a properly formatted script, if there are more than five lines of dialogue under a character name, it's starting to become a speech. Too many speeches and your script becomes too "talky."
Strike every "well," "now," "listen," "oh," etc. that you find in your dialogue. Actors put those in where it's natural to do so and they only make a script harder to read.
Delete the "pleasantries" and "chit-chat" from scenes. You're just wasting time, boring the reader and keeping them from your story.
Act it out: say the lines out loud as you write them. It's amazing how much this helps.
Let's Start Hacking
It's time to get rid of the weak, passive and pointless from your script. Start by making a backup copy of the script before you get out the hacksaw and start chopping everything to pieces.
Your story might be too long, wanders aimlessly, or lacks impact. Let's thin it out without gutting it. Do this:
1. Strike every "well," "now," "listen," "oh," etc. that you find in your dialogue. Get to the subject at hand and cut to the chase. Cut out the unnecessary clutter in what your characters say. You can always put it back in if the producer wants it. Actors hate to be told how to act and producers hate reading about that, too.
2. Look for parentheticals (instructions to the actor in parentheses in the dialogue). Hack them out. Use them ONLY when there's no other way to indicate that a particular line is directed to a specific character out of several in the same scene or if it cannot be done by carefully selecting the words for a character. Parentheticals are speed bumps in a script. Avoid them entirely if possible.
3. See just how terse you can make the dialogue. Terseness helps to create impact and makes characters seem more forceful and decisive in a drama and funnier in a comedy. When it gets to the point where you're feeling a little uncomfortable with the directness, it's probably about right.
4. Review the action descriptions. Any "is" or "being" description needs to be re-written to give it impact. Strike references to ANYTHING not seen on the screen, like reminding the reader that "so-and-so was the same guy who..." -- you get the idea. If it can't be seen: HACK IT OUT! Think in master scenes. It's okay to write the interior and exterior scenes at one location as one scene. Use a separate action description paragraph to signal a separate shot without explicitly saying so, to let the reader know we went outside, if you started with INT. BAR - NIGHT. It's a LOT easier to read that way.
5. Find every instance of a simple word and give it more impact. Get simple, colorful language in your descriptions. Cars don't just "pull up at the curb." They also gasp, lurch, grind, shudder, gurgle, clatter and expire at the curb. Get a good thesaurus or use the one built into your screenwriting or word processing program. The point is -- use it! Also, eliminate big words not commonly used in everyday speech unless it's part of a character's persona.
By now, you should have thinned things out a LOT. Good. You're down to meat and potatoes, if you're lucky. Your script should be more visual, carry more impact and possess tight, crisp dialogue. Now set it aside for at least a week, preferably two. When you come back in one or two weeks, start again and repeat the process. You're done when you run out of things to hack out.
Making Your Script Vertical
A reader is looking for any excuse to dump your screenplay on the ever-growing reject pile. One way to do this is to look for the amount of white space that is seen when doing the "rifle test." Vertical scripts have more white space. How do you make a script vertical? Just break up the densely packed paragraphs into two or three sentence paragraphs. There's a side benefit to this approach, too. All of these smaller paragraphs serve to imply the shots that are needed. It's not good to tell a director how to direct, but it's not bad to lead him down the path. You can do this by the way you write the script and by making it vertical.
There you have it: a few approaches, do's and don'ts, exercises and suggestions. I hope you will put the exercises to a test. You might be very surprised at the results. Perhaps there's a better script inside the one you're working on just waiting to get out.
About The Author
Long wanting to be in "the business," Don Bledsoe started young, producing a short film for NBC while still in high school, worked in the Story Department at Paramount Studios at age 19, and later as an actor and makeup artist in film and television in Hollywood. A self-confessed computer geek, he took up screenwriting in the early 90's and founded Script Nurse in 1999.