HINTS & TIPS TO THE SCREENWRITER
by Frederick Bailey Directing Mentor, IAFT-LA
Five suggestions and pointers for aspiring writers and filmmakers.
1.] Always have a title page with your name, address, and phone number on it (or your agent’s address and phone number, if you’ve got one) and an Email address. Contact numbers. Always. If somebody you don’t know likes it and wants to contact you, how can they if there’s no contact number? And you never know where your script will end up. I went into an office once accompanying a producer on a pitch, and I saw a copy of one of my scripts on the shelf. The meeting wasn’t about my script. I didn’t know anyone in the office, and I have no idea how my script got there. (But I can confidently tell you I did have my name and contact numbers on it.) Point is, the same thing could happen to you. Your script might get passed from hand to hand or computer to computer, and somewhere along the line, someone might read it and want it and not know who wrote it or how to get in touch, if there’s no contact numbers. It’s a crap shoot out there and you never know where your script will end up. I know a development person who keeps piles of scripts in the trunk of her car, just in case she’s having coffee with someone who unexpectedly says he’s looking for a certain type of story. Put your name and contact numbers on the title page of your script.
2.] Cut and trim. Examine every scene to determine if it’s necessary to your story. Examine every line of dialogue. Do you need it? Trim sentences. A wise director once told me this: you don’t need “he sits in a chair.” “In a chair” is understood. All you need is “he sits” (unless it makes some kind of plot point as to what he sits on–there’s a bomb under the chair or something significant like that). A script should be no more than roughly 110 pages, with industry-standard margins. For lower budget movies, I try to keep it under 100 pages. A tighter script reads better. A tighter script keeps me involved and wondering what will happen next. Sometimes in reading a script I feel like I’m hacking my way through heavy brush with a machete. When I start feeling that way, I start yawning. Make it easy for me to read your script.
3.] A lot of people in the business don’t like to read scripts on a laptop. They want paper in their hands. If you deliver hard copies to prospective readers, I advise using hole-punches and brads. If you give somebody loose pages, even in an envelope, they’re bound to lose some of them. Also, it’s my own practice to announce, on the title page, the total number of pages in the script. Just last week I read a screenplay and there was no The End written at the bottom of the last page, and the way it printed out the last page was full right to the bottom of the page, so I wasn’t sure the script had ended. I wondered if there was more on a missing last page or pages. I had to call the guy and make sure I’d got the end of the story right. I think it helps if the reader can look at the front of the script and see how many pages it is. What if somehow, while your script was sitting around in some office, the last page got torn off or misplaced? Again, the reader could check the number on the title page and would know at a glance that a page is missing. Also, my preference is just to put End. Just like that, in bold typeface.
But I don’t mind reading a script on my computer. It saves paper, and maybe that’s good for the planet. If you send out an electronic file of your script, make sure it’s a read-only PDF file.
4.] Use your spell check! There’s nothing worse than wading through a bunch of typos and misspelled words with improper punctuation. If you can’t proof your script, ask somebody else to do it.
5.] Remember who you’re writing for. You’re not writing for the audience. You’re writing for the guy sitting in an office who’s paid to read the script and write coverage for the producer who might fund it. You’ve got to get past him (or her) before you can get to an audience. Create the movie in the mind of the reader–get them hooked (seduced) so they keep turning pages…
Did I say five? Make it half a dozen. Here’s one more.
6.] The Four Big Goals: Focus, Shape, Clarity, and Economy.
Focus: Keep your story concentrated on who and what it’s about.
Shape: Sculpt your story around only what is needed.
Clarity: Just because it’s clear to you doesn’t mean it’s clear to everyone who reads it. When you’re reading through your script, read it with the eyes of someone who’s never read it before.
Economy: Get rid of everything you don’t need. Like Picasso said, “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”