THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF SCRIPTWRITING
(and why you should break them)
Thou shalt worship the three-act structure
There is a saying in design: “Form follows function.” In other words, first you figure out what you want the thing you’re designing to do, then you design it so that it can do that. For example, if you’re developing a new vehicle, first you decide whether its function is to carry a lot of people or to be a sporty car for the driver and one passenger. Then you design it accordingly. Yes, most stories will have a beginning, middle, and end, but beyond that when you follow the three-act paradigm too closely, with plot points on pages x,y and z, you’re letting function follow form. The same happens if you adopt the hero’s journey or any other story pattern as a formula. Structure should serve the story, not become a strait-jacket.
Thou shalt make thy protagonists likeable
Did you like the godfather (the man, not the film)? Did you like Hannibal Lector? Did you like Rick in “Casablanca” (at least for the first two-thirds of the film)? Probably not, but odds are you found them fascinating. If your script makes us want to see what happens next to the protagonist, that’s enough.
Thou shalt write full character biographies and outlines
For some writers, having an exact road map for their script and knowing everything about their characters is extremely helpful. For others, it takes all the creative joy out of writing. As much as most of us are curious about how others write (longhand or on a laptop, mornings or evenings, etc.), the fact remains that each of us has to find our own way. For example, I have found that getting to know my characters via visualisations is a hundred times more effective than writing character bios—but it might not work that way for you. William Goldman said, in reference to what makes a picture successful, “nobody knows anything.” Similarly, nobody knows the best way for you to write a script. Experimentation is the best way forward and in this endeavour as in all others, there is room for innovation.
Thou shalt make thy dialogue short
One screenwriting book actually dictates, “Don’t write any dialogue longer than three lines.” Hmm, just as well Tarantino didn’t read that before writing “Pulp Fiction”, or Alan Ball before writing “American Beauty”. If you have intelligent, articulate characters, why gag them? If the dialogue sparkles, intrigues, surprises, or provokes laughter, the audience won’t balk at longer speeches.
Thou shalt not direct on the page
Yes, it’s true that you should not fill your screenplay with camera directions, but in many cases writers have gone too far and abdicated their responsibility to suggest specific visual images at the script stage. You can direct the reader’s attention with descriptions like “A single bead of sweat rolls into Peter’s eye. He blinks furiously to clear his vision,” without specifying that this is a CLOSE-UP. You can also create an atmosphere with your descriptions, much as a novelist does (if more succinctly), to provide an emotional experience for the reader in the same way that a director and cinematographer will later provide an emotional experience for the viewer.
Thou shalt not specify music
The point here is similar to that in commandment number five. Your first job is to create an experience for the person reading the script. That may be a development executive, an actor, a director, or a commissioning editor. If writing that your middle-age protagonist plays the air-guitar in his garage while listening to “Layla” helps them to understand quickly that he’s going through a mid-life crisis, then use that. When the picture gets made, the rights to “Layla” may or may not be available or affordable, but so what? It will have done its job in helping sell your screenplay, and it will be somebody else’s job to find a suitable substitute.
Thou shalt have a villain opposing thy protagonist
This isn’t actually wrong, just not always necessary. Obviously if you’re writing a flick in which terrorists are trying to blow up the world or a serial killer is stalking your detective, you’ll need a good bad guy. But many of the most interesting pictures look at how we can be our own worst enemy, or how we have to battle our circumstances (“The Full Monty”, “Annie Hall”, “Citizen Kane”). These films are harder to write because they don’t fit as easily into structural formulas and they ask the writer to look more deeply into himself or herself. They can be tougher to sell because they don’t appeal to the youngest audiences. However, when they work they are the kinds of movies that stick in people’s minds for years.
Thou shalt make thy endings happy
Did “Pulp Fiction” have a happy ending? What about “American Beauty”? What about “Y Tu Mama Tambien”? A lot of excellent films have a bittersweet ending, one that has the flavour of real life rather than the neat conclusions of many of the Hollywood studio offerings. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a happy ending, if it fits your story, but if it doesn’t, stay true to your story.
Thou shalt not write Westerns (or other out-of-favour genres)
Nobody’s doing Westerns…until somebody does, and it makes money. The same can be said for any genre. Yes, if your script is in a genre that happens to be out of favour at the moment, it may be harder to convince someone to buy it. But by the same token, the greater the impact it will have if it is made, because it will stand out all the more.
Thou shalt not be original
Surely nobody is saying ‘don’t be original’? Oh yes they are, just not in those exact words. Many of the scriptwriting books tell you that it’s poison to write for older protagonists (tell that to the makers of “Ned Devine”), or in an unpopular genre (see “Unforgiven”), or complex stories that may confuse the audience (like “The Usual Suspects?”). The fact is that every breakthrough film is, by definition, different from the norm.
I think it was writer Brenda Euland who asked, “Do you want to write to wake people up, or put them to sleep?” If you want to wake people up, it’s worth questioning the received wisdom about writing scripts—and also questioning those who question it! Only then will you find and express your unique voice.
ACTION: If you have felt compelled to follow any of these 10 Commandments, now is the time to question them!
New tips on writing scripts will appear here regularly, so be sure to come back and check for more. Also subscribe to the free Brainstorm creativity and productivity newsletter and visit Jurgen’s blog at www.timetowrite.blogs.com
How to Pitch Powerfully
Pitching means verbally presenting your story to someone, usually in order to motivate them to ask to see an outline or manuscript. You can pitch to agents, producers, directors, TV network people, or studio executives. Often this happens informally—you meet someone at a writing conference or other event and they ask, “What are you working on?” You then have a very short time in which to capture their interest. A query letter is a written pitch, so the points below are equally valid for such a letter.
So what are the secrets of making an effective pitch? Here are eight crucial guidelines:
- Let them know what kind of movie you’re talking about. If I tell you that my story is about a man whose mid-life crisis motivates him to do all the things he never did in his mild youth, that could be a comedy—but it could also be a drama in which he endangers his marriage and career . If you start by telling the other person the genre, if it’s a comedy, they will be listening for what makes the story funny; if it’s a horror film, they’ll be listening for what will provide the chills.
- Hook them before you provide any back story. In the lift example, it would be far better to start by saying, “The main character, Bob Finster, is a man in his mid-thirties who is missing only one thing in his life.” That makes me wonder what this one thing is. Now you can briefly tell me a few of thing’s Bob is not missing: he has a great wife and kids, a lucrative job, his health is good, ”and then you can satisfy my curiosity by telling what he is missing.
- Make your characters individuals. You don’t have much time to describe your main characters, so you have to be concise and colourful in providing a mental image of them. In something I’ve written recently, a character named Bloom is a bit of a con artist, and I’d describe him as short, overweight, and always sweating a little. You don’t have time to do this for all your characters, just the main two or three. The others will have to be described by their functions—the landlady, the cop, the lonely neighbour. Don’t give everybody names, because it takes too long and it’s hard for the listener to remember who is who.
- Get to the meat of the story fast. It’s tempting to spend a lot of time on the set-up, the call to adventure—Act One. Generally, Act One is fun, but it’s in Act Two that we find the meat of the story. It’s also where most scripts and ideas fall down. In a brief pitch (or letter) you don’t have time to go into all of the beats of your story, but you should tell three or four major developments that escalate the conflict, and you certainly will want to include the “moment of truth” at the end of Act II
- Don’t leave out Act III. Some people think it’s cool to leave the listener hanging, the idea being that if the listener wants to hear how the story comes out, he or she will have to buy the script. Wrong. Too many scripts have illogical or otherwise weak endings, so your listener wants to make sure that yours will not.
- Weave your theme into your story. If the story includes a theme or lesson, try to weave it into your story naturally rather than stating it separately at the end. Let’s take the example of the classic comedy, “Tootsie,” in which Dustin Hoffman plays a failed actor who disguises himself as a woman in order to get work. In a pitch you could include a statement something like this: “Ironically, it’s only as he experiences being a woman that he begins to understand how to be a better man. Now he’s ready to find true love with the woman he works with–but he can’t reveal his real identity without losing his new success as an actor.” The first statement is the theme, the second relates it to the plot.
- Tell your story with enthusiasm. When I was publishing the Hollywood Scriptwriter newsletter, I asked the agents, producers, story editors, and studio and network executives the same question: “What is the one most important quality of a good pitch?” Unanimously, they said, enthusiasm. If you don’t sound like you really believe in your story, why should they? If you are an introvert, as many writers are, find a way to show your enthusiasm that feels comfortable and natural. This can be as simple as putting an extra bit of energy or warmth into your voice.
- Practice! If you do a bad pitch in a workshop, or in front of your spouse or partner, or your dog, or the mirror, no harm done. You want to make your mistakes before you are actually talking to someone who can help your career, so practice as often as you can.
ACTION: Be ready to do a good pitch at any opportunity—you never know when you’ll have the chance.
“With compassion, wit and the wisdom from a long successful writing career, Jurgen Wolff guides you step by step, on the inner and outer journey to writing success.”
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