All of us hope we’ve got a fabulous story poured into a page-turning screenplay. The reality is, a relative few of us have the former; fewer still have mastered the mechanics of the latter. As a script consultant, I’ve read my fair share of badly executed scripts. Unfortunately, my experience has shown me that “badly executed” is the rule and not the exception.
Below you’ll find an example of what a novice screenplay can read like. Some read better, some far worse, but this example is fairly typical. Except for the dialogue, the formatting in this particular example is pretty much on target – and let’s assume the story is something we’d pay ten bucks to see in a theater – but there’s more to a saleable screenplay than a solid story and proper formatting. After all, a producer can forgive some basic formatting errors, but if the overall execution is severely lacking, if you are unable to convey your ideas properly, there’s a very good chance he won’t have confidence in the remainder of the script and will toss it in the trash bin before page ten. With this in mind, let’s take a look at our sample...
INT. BAR – NIGHT (MONDAY NIGHT)
It's your typical bar. Joe walks into the bar and looks all around the place. He remembers what it was like the first time he came in here years ago. He turns to the left and sees a woman sitting at the bar. Her name is SHEILA (about 52) and has long red hair. She’s an alcoholic.
Joe wanders around the place a little then sits down at a table. He waves his arm to a passing WAITRESS (short blonde hair, attractive and in her 20s).
WAITRESS (to Joe): Hi, welcome to Frank’s Bar. What can I get for you?
JOE: I’d like a beer. A light beer. And I’d like some information about something.
WAITRESS: Information about WHAT?
JOE: About Larry.
WAITRESS: Larry? What about him?
JOE: Bring me the beer and I’ll tell you. I'll even give you fifty dollars for your time.
The waitress walks away to get the beer. Joe SITS at the table for a few minutes as he looks around the bar. There are lots of UNUSUAL PEOPLE there. Joe smiles.
OK, so let’s take a closer look at this example...
Don’t tell us it’s “MONDAY NIGHT” in your scene heading slug. If it’s truly important that we know it’s Monday night, and it probably isn’t, then superimpose that over the scene itself, like this:
SUPERIMPOSE: MONDAY NIGHT
Don’t be lazy in your descriptions. Don’t tell us it’s “a typical bar.” What’s typical? Is it a classy bar? A bleak, depressing bar? You don’t need to go into great detail, but paint a thumbnail picture of the place.
The word "bar" is used twice in one line. Then it's used again a few lines later. Don't repeat words!
How do we know Joe remembers something from years ago? We don’t. If we can’t see it or hear it, then it doesn’t belong in the script. (Well, 99% of the time, anyway.) If you’ve set up in an earlier scene that Joe has a history at this bar, then you can have him look around the place and smile. If you set it up right, we’ll connect this to his past history there.
You don’t necessarily need to get overly specific with character’s movements. We don’t care if he turns to the left or the right. Just tell us “he turns" or "he glances over."
I love it when writers tell us the specific age of an insignificant character. At this point, we don’t really know if Sheila is important to the plot, but let’s say she’s not. We don’t care if she’s “about 52.” (Why “about 52?” Either she’s 52 or she’s not!) Just tell us she’s “early-50s” or just tell us she’s “middle-aged.” Also, do we meet Sheila later in the story? If not, we don’t care what her name is. You can just refer to her as the "middle-aged lush (a more descriptive word than "alcoholic") seated at the bar.” Sure, you could tell us she's got red hair, but it's not really pertinent. Let the director, casting director and wardrobe people come up with a look for Sheila.
Why is Joe wandering around the bar? Why are we wasting time with this? Is he doing anything? Is he looking for something or at something? If so, tell us what he’s doing. If not, then keep things moving and get him seated at the table.
Why is Joe waving his arms at the Waitress? This is something so many novice writers do. They describe an action incorrectly or they exaggerate the action to comic proportions. Joe’s not waving his arms; he’s simply motioning to the waitress, or he catches her attention.
Now, is the age and appearance of the Waitress of importance? Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. Again, don’t get bogged down in your descriptions of insignificant characters. With the above example, you could simply write, “Catches the attention of the cute, 20-ish WAITRESS.” We don't care if her hair is blonde, brunette, short or long (again, unless it's pertinent).
Is it necessary Joe order a “light” beer? If not, cut it. Besides, it makes him seem wimpy. Is he a wimp? Then OK, light beer is fine. But if you’re making a point of it and it’s not part of the character or plot, get rid of it.
Now let’s look at the dialogue...
We know the Waitress is speaking to Joe, so there’s no need for the parenthetical. We know where Joe is and Joe knows where he is, so we don’t need the Waitress wasting time with “Welcome to Joe’s Bar.” In reality, what waitress is gonna say that? “What can I get for you?” is awkward dialogue. “What’ll it be?” or “What can I get ya?” would be more realistic. Write the way people actually talk.
Why does Joe ask for information at this point? There's probably no need to waste time with this additional dialogue. Joe can simply ask for the info when she returns with the beer a moment later.
Should you cap the word “what”? Nope, no need to.
Back to the stage directions/actions...
No need to tell us the “Waitress walks away to get the beer.” Too wordy, too awkward. We know where she’s going. Just tell us “She moves off.”
Why are you capping "SITS"? Stop that.
Why are you capping "UNUSUAL PEOPLE"? Stop that.
We know he's sitting at the table, so there's no need to remind us.
Do we actually watch Joe sit there for “a few minutes”? If Joe looks around the room and observes the odd people surrounding him, that’s fine, but we’re not gonna take three or four minutes to watch him do it. Describe in real time, folks.
OK, so here’s a quickie rewrite of the above scene:
INT. BAR – NIGHT
Dark, seedy, a pit of society. Joe comes in, takes a look around. A thin smile comes to his face.
SUPERIMPOSE: MONDAY NIGHT
He moves to a table, takes a seat. He motions to a passing WAITRESS, a leggy cutie in a mini-skirt. She steps over, flashes perfect teeth.
WAITRESS: Howdy. What can I get ya?
WAITRESS: Comin' up.
She moves off. Joe scans the place. There’s a middle-aged lush at the bar, talking to herself. At another table, a creepy guy nurses a drink. Joe seems amused by it all.
The Waitress returns with the beer, sets it down.
WAITRESS: Anything else?
Joe slaps a fifty on the table.
JOE: Need some information.
She eyes the cash.
WAITRESS: This about Larry?
She swipes up the fifty.
WAITRESS: Not here. I get off in fifteen minutes.
OK, so there you have a one page example. Just extrapolate these handful of problems over the subsequent 100 pages and you’ve got a script that needs plenty of work. Scripts that need plenty of work generally don’t make it past the gatekeepers. So yes, have a really hot story idea, be concerned with format, but get those 15,000 words laid out in a manner that makes your screenplay a swift, entertaining read. That's half your battle. Maybe more.
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