Screenwriting

The 10 dead giveaways that reveal an amateur screenplay

The 10 dead giveaways that reveal an amateur screenplay

The following I found on Quora and was written by Dan Hoffmann so all credit to him. I just found it and thought it was a good resource to share, especially for less experienced writers.

THE 10 DEAD GIVEAWAYS THAT REVEAL AN AMATEUR SCREENPLAY

There are many things that give away an amateur script and most of them are obvious from page one. As a seasoned studio reader, back in the spec script days, you learned how to spot an amateur script a mile away; and we were instructed not to read any further whenever we found such a script.

There are the obvious telltale signs such as wrong formatting and bad spelling; but in my experience, the far majority of all current screenplays are formatted correctly, thanks to screenwriting software and spell checks - so that’s no longer the biggest problem.

However, here are a few things that are dead giveaways:

1. LACK OF FOCUS

“What’s the story here? It seems to be going either nowhere or in too many directions." Those were probably the most common words we heard when we evaluated amateur scripts.

Sure, every great story contains surprises - and it should. You think the story is going in one direction and then, suddenly, something happens to reverse or twist the direction. But when is it a turning point and when does it become a new story? This question seems to confuse a lot of amateur writers.

One of the secrets to writing a coherent story is to realize that the beginning of any great story is really the setup for the ending. When you read a great beginning, the ending is always foreshadowed in it. A story may take a lot of turns but it always leads in only one direction . It's what professional screenwriters sometimes call, “The Necessary Scene”; and this concept is not at all that hard to grasp.

A beginning is like the eruption of a wound. Kramer's wife, Joanna, leaves him. E.T is abandoned. Little Miguel in Coco, is prohibited from playing music; and so on. The events that start a story (the inciting incident) is like a wound; and in order for that wound to be resolved, the story must end with the closure of that wound - if it is to come full circle.

So, of course, Joanna will return; as will E. T; and Miguel will end his story by playing music and be accepted for it. That's a given.

The ending is never in question; it’s how the characters will get there that is. Great writers always know this. They know that writing a screenplay is similar to planning a road trip. The real trick is knowing your final destination before you decide where to start.

2. TOO MUCH DIALOGUE

Flip randomly through the pages of any professional screenplay and you will see it right away. You will see what every screenwriter, worth her name, always knows: SCREENWRITING IS A VISUAL LANGUAGE. Film stories are primarily told in images. It’s neither filmed radio, nor is it a filmed stage play. It’s supposed to be a movie and, as you should know, the word “movie” is short for “moving IMAGES.”

Almost all amateurs make this mistake. They tell the story in dialogue rather than what professional screenwriters always do - tell the stories in images and actions.

Not only is that the cinematic way to write, but it’s also what makes stories possible. So, when amateurs write most of their screenplays using mostly dialogue, they also fail to tell a story. A story is not what somebody says - it's what someone does. For instance, the movie E.T is not a story about: then E.T said, then Elliot said, then his mother said, and so on...

It's a story about an alien who is abandoned on earth and then befriends a young boy who helps him get home. All actions. To be abandoned. To befriend. To help.

If you want to fix this problem of too much dialogue, then you are advised to write your screenplays like professionals do: Develop your story in stages before you write the actual screenplay. Develop a workable Logline. Then develop that Logline into a Synopsis. Develop the Synopsis to a Step Outline and from Step Outline to a Treatment. The good thing about this process is that you aren’t allowed to use any dialogue; and once you can tell the whole story without it, you can write screenplays.

3. BAD DIALOGUE - PART I

Amateur screenplays are not only overloaded with too much dialogue, the dialogue is also pretty bad. There are many reasons for why bad dialogue occurs but a major reason is when the dialogue becomes a vehicle for exposition - a transgression that is a direct consequence of telling a story through dialogue, rather than action.

When dialogue is used for exposing the characters and all the facts we need to know, then the dialogue becomes phony and stilted. Page after page, we get characters talking about things that real people would never talk about, like: who they are, what they do, what the story they're in, is about.

Once again, the solution to this is to learn how to write a story where everything we need to know is told in actions and not dialogue. Once you can do that, you have freed the dialogue from the burden of exposition. Then you may use it to have your characters talk about things that real people talk about. Things that are unimportant to the plot and carry little exposition; like the dialogue in Pulp Fiction where Vincent and Jules talk about "Quarter Pounders".

BAD DIALOGUE - PART II

Another telltale sign of an amateur script is the lack of subtext in the dialogue. In these screenplays, all or most of the dialogue is “on the nose”. Everyone always expresses their honest, true emotions all the time. It’s as though it was written by someone who's never listened to how actual people talk - including themselves.

It leads to exchanges such as these:

A: You really don´t like my linguine, do you?

B: No. I hate it. It's the worst linguine, I’ve ever had.

Whereas a professional writer would achieve the same intent, but by using subtext:

A: You really don't like my linguine, do you?

B: I like the color...

4. BAD EXPOSITION AND A LACK OF ECONOMY OF WRITING

Bad exposition is one thing. Too much exposition is yet another hallmark of an amateur writer.

Amateur writers, too often, mistake exposition for the story. It is not. It's information; and screenplays have little room for that. In a good screenplay, the exposition goes unnoticed. When Indiana Jones frantically jumps aboard his water airplane pursued by an angry mob of natives, only to find a snake in his seat, we think it’s yet another dangerous obstacle hindering his path forward.

We don't notice that it's actually exposition. It tells us that he's afraid of snakes. And that bit of info is a necessary setup for the later scene in which he is buried with snakes.

But amateur screenwriters often put this info in dialogue. And even when they don’t, they dedicate a whole scene to it - a scene that serves no purpose to the movie except for feeding us the info.

And that’s one of the many problems with scenes that only serve as exposition; exposition is NOT the story. So whenever we are fed exposition, the story stops.

It has always been a fundamental principle of screenwriting that everything in a screenplay is and should be a story. And story always moves forward. Every beat, every scene, every sequence, every act, moves the plot forward. So when we get a scene where the only purpose is to give us information, the flow of the story stops and that is a deadly sin in dramatic writing; one that easily gives the writer away as an amateur.

But the bad handling of exposition is not the only problem here. Amateur screenplays often have way too much exposition.

Exposition is something we screenwriters try to avoid as much as possible. Before we write a draft of a screenplay, we carefully consider just how little info we can get away with. And anyone who has ever tried this will often find that you can get away with telling a whole story with little or no exposition at all.

But when we do end up with a bit of exposition, we carefully dramatize it so that it never stops the flow of the story.

The best and most professional handling of exposition is when you can convert all expo into action, conflict or obstacles. If you always do that, it never stops the flow but becomes part of the story.

5. THE STORY NEVER STARTS OR IT STARTS TOO LATE.

When I started as a reader, my boss , an executive producer, told me: “Don’t bother reading all the screenplays. Read only the ones that kick into gear by page 10”; he then went on to say; “If they can’t do that in 10, they won't be able to do it in 20, 50 or 200 pages.”

And he was right - as the next couple of years would teach me. Amateur screenplays never seem to be able to kick the story into gear soon enough.

Some of them (I call them the Syd Fieldians) will use the whole first act to set up the story. It plays out like a long-winded, non -narrative, introduction to a story that starts 25 minutes too late.

In professional screenplays, the story starts right away. If possible, on page one; but if not, then at least on page 10. Once again, there is no time for exposition in a screenplay. The story should kick into gear from the very beginning and whatever you feel is necessary to set up, should be set up while the story is already rolling.

6. BAD SCENE STRUCTURE

You don’t actually have to read more than the first scene to know if it’s written by an amateur.

Professionals, will usually start a scene too late and end it too early. Amateurs feel they need to give us the whole beginning, middle and end - in each and every scene.

The Amateur scene:

The alarm clock rings. The protagonist gets up, showers and cooks breakfast. Then the phone rings. He picks it up. From the conversation, we learn that his wife is being held hostage by bank robbers at the local bank. He puts on his shoes, throws a jacket on, leaves the house, enters and starts his car, then heads off. Minutes later he arrives at the bank.

The Professional scene would look like this:

The phone rings. He picks it up. From the conversation, we learn that his wife is being held hostage by bank robbers at the local bank. Cut to: he arrives at the bank.

7. BAD OR MISUNDERSTOOD ACT STRUCTURE

Many amateur writers believe that any event, placed on the 25th page, will serve as the first turning point; or that any change of an event is a turning point. What they too often fail to realize is that every scene, every beat in a screenplay, is a change of an event.

Turning points, however, are what they sound like: They are events that turn a story in the opposite direction. “Opposite” in this respect, means unexpected. Most amateurs consistently get this wrong.

For instance; during the whole first act, we see a group of bank robbers plan a bank robbery. At the end of the act, they move ahead and break into the bank. But then, lo-and-behold - they are caught.

That’s not a turning point!!! Because it was to be expected. Let’s look at it this way:

When someone pursues a goal, we can expect two possible outcomes: either they will succeed or they will fail. Both of these scenarios can therefore not be turning points because they were to be expected.

Let’s look at what I mean:

In William Goldman’s screenplay to The Hot Rock we have just that scenario: A group of thieves, led by Robert Redford, are hired to steal a valuable jewel from a highly guarded security museum. During the first act, they plan and practice the crime. At the end of the act, they break in and steal the stone but suddenly the police turn up. All thieves make a run for it. Each in his own direction to confuse the cops. The plan works. All except one guy escapes from the police. Unfortunately, he's the one who had the stone. And so, right before they arrest him, he swallows it. The police arrest him and put him in a detention cell. Now, the rest of the gang are faced with a completely new and much harder situation: they have to break into the police station and rescue him and the stone.

So, what happened? Did they succeed or fail? Neither and both. And that’s what a turning point is - something we did not expect.

Another example that comes to mind is the screenplay to Small Time Crooks. In that story, we have the same setup: a gang of thieves plan to rob a bank by digging a tunnel into it. They rent an empty store next to the bank and open a cookie store as a cover-up for the tunnel digging. Turning point: The cookie shop becomes an instant hit and turns them all into millionaires.

It’s a sad fact that screenwriting gurus insist on calling this a "Turning point". It has caused a lot of confusion and even more bad act breaks. In the old days, screenwriters would call it a “reversal of events” and that’s exactly what it is; and every 3 act movie has two of them. A turning point, however, is what every scene should be.

8. POOR SUSPENSE OR A COMPLETE LACK THEREOF

Of all the telltale signs, this is by far the most annoying. It makes for a very long and tedious read where you find yourself checking your wristwatch every minute; only to realize that you're still on the same page.

Many amateurs believe that suspense is a term that only applies to thrillers and suspense movies - not true at all.

Suspense is what makes you want to see what happens next. It's what compels you to read on rather than toss the screenplay in the paper shredder. it’s what makes audiences stay in the theater or with the channel rather than leaving or clicking to the news.

Suspense is what drives every story, no matter genre. In a love story, it’s what makes you want to see whether the loving couple end up together. In a Mystery, it’s what makes you want to see "who did it” and in a social realistic movie, such as Bicycle Thieves, it’s what makes you want to see whether Antonio Ricci will ever find his stolen bicycle.

The problem is that virtually all the amateur screenplays I’ve read assume that suspense is something that magically appears by itself.

Suspense needs to be built into a story by a conscious, deliberate effort - by applying craft and technique, in every beat, every scene, from fade in to fade out.

Why else would I care whether the murderer gets caught? whether the lovers end up together or whether Ricci will find his bike. Just because a character has a goal, it doesn’t mean that it's remotely interesting, not to say - exciting.

Amateur screenwriters, in general, should make a much harder effort to study suspense and how it works and not assume that a story is automatically suspenseful. If they want to have a better chance of getting past the reader, they should learn the craft of putting values at stake, putting pressure on the protagonist, applying limitations, setting up negative failure scenarios, creating evolving obstacles and all the other techniques that go into crafting any story worth watching.

9. UNINTERESTING OR UN-IDENTIFIABLE CHARACTERS

For a professional screenwriter, the character is everything - and it shows. The amateur is endlessly confused between a nonexistent division between character driven or plot driven screenplays. The amateur spec script who sides with the character driven screenplay believes it’s a convenient loophole in which no plot is needed and the “plot-driven” spec script writer gasps a sigh of relief, thinking that because they have made that choice, they don’t have to give us interesting characters with layers of depth.

In the first case, it makes for a boring read. Who wants to read a story, or anything for that matter, where there is no story? Stories and plots are embedded into our entire fabric and there is no escaping them. They are everywhere; in newspapers, in magazines, in commercials, in the small talk we engage in at the canteen, even in our dreams. There is no such thing as a story with no story.

In the second case, it makes for unidentifiable characters; and the sad thing the Amateur doesn’t get is, if you can't identify with the character, you can’t identify with the plot he's in. Who cares about events that happen to someone we don’t care about?

Both camps are, of course, victims of an illusion. A story is neither character nor plot driven. They are both. Whenever a character acts, he causes an event to happen. The result is a plot (a succession of events) and therefore; plot comes from character.

The plot is, therefore, the best way we know to reveal character; through his actions and in-actions; and those events, he thereby sets in motion. How else would we know who a character is if it were not through his actions?

The other matter with character is this:

Amateur writers, too often, (in both camps) do not care or know how to make characters identifiable or interesting. I often get the feeling that these writers seem to think that identification with a character somehow comes by itself.

The other day, I went to the movie theater. On the seat next to me sat an elderly gentleman, a stranger to me. I spent two hours sitting next to him and his actions were such that I could not help notice his every move. And yet, when I left the theater, I did not identify with him. I did not want to know more about him. I was not dying to see what he would do next. And yet, amateur screenwriters often think that as long as I am exposed to their Protagonist for 2 hours, I would somehow identify with him by default.

Identification is a delicate thing and it requires technique, craft and a huge portion of insight into the human soul. But in any case, it is something that amateur writers better be advised to give a lot of thought. Why would I care about your character? If you can’t answer that; then I, the reader, can’t either.

Lastly, there’s the big question of whether the character is interesting enough or not.

Once again, amateur writers never give this much thought and that's a mistake of epic proportions; not only because it makes for bad storytelling but also because it shows an ignorance about how movies are made.

Screenplays have to be sold to actors. Major actors have to sign off on it. If they don’t, the movie will never get made. Actors are interested in the story, for sure; but mostly they're interested in characters. If it hasn’t occurred to anyone, it’s kind of what they do for a living - portray characters.

The thing is - if they don’t have anything to work with, in terms of an interesting character, they're not likely to sign on to the project.

Some amateur writers, that I've spoken to, seem to be aware that their characters might not be very interesting. They are aware of the problem but somehow they think that a great actor can save it. That a great actor can somehow make a bland and uninteresting character, interesting.

It’s indeed a profound lack of understanding of how an actor works. First of all, as I’ve said; no actor would ever take on a non-character in the first place.

Secondly, even if he would, there's nothing to work with - nothing to make the character interesting. It’s sort of like inviting a master chef to your home to cook dinner when you have nothing in the cabinet and nothing in the fridge. And when I ask you how you expect him to cook anything, you say; “Well he's a master chef. he’ll figure it out.”

It doesn’t work that way. An actor needs something interesting to work with. Secondly, it's not actually his or her job to make the character interesting or believable. That’s the screenwriter's job!!! The actor's job is to bring the character alive and if there is no character - nothing will come alive.

10. NO GREAT SCENES

When you leave the theater after having watched a great movie and you're dying to tell friends and family about it, what’s the first thing you're most likely to say about it - besides the story?

When we think of Casablanca, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the “play it again Sam” scene or the ending. Or the storming of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan or the Russian Roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, the “Speak Low” scene in Phoenix or the dance scene in The Shape of Water.

In my entire career as a screenplay analyst, working with professional screenwriters, I’ve always found at least three great, memorable scenes that stand out in every screenplay. In amateur screenplays, there are more often than not - none.

The screenwriters I have been honored to work with, some of them which are Academy Award winners, go through great pains and spend a lot of time and energy to come up with memorable scenes.

Memorable scenes don’t happen by accident. They are made that way. And if there are none, there is nothing to remember the movie by. And in the movie industry - that is fatal.

In addition, I might also add that one of the most obvious telltale signs of an amateur screenplay is its lack of imagination when it comes to scenes. Here, I'm not only talking about memorable scenes but scenes in general:

A man is fired by his boss. How and when does it happen? His boss calls him into his office, of course. A young man meets a girl at a nightclub. A young woman is kidnapped off the street by criminals wearing (yes you’ve guessed it) - ski masks. The husband comes home and discovers another with his wife.

Amateurs always take the easy way out - the logical way. Professional writers struggle hard to come up with fresh approaches to a scene, any scene - all the scenes.

11. BAD STORY CONCEPTS

We have finally arrived at the last and probably the most important amateur move.

Bad concepts come in many varieties but I will limit myself to two important ones:

UNORIGINAL CONCEPTS

Most unoriginal story concepts are unoriginal because they are not actually concepts, but merely a definition of the genre. Let’s take a mystery story, for instance.

“Someone is killed. The protagonist, a police detective, arrives at the scene. He discovers clues, interrogates witnesses and after many twists, finally solves the crime. He identifies the murder and puts him to prison.”

That is not a story. That is a standard definition of a whole genre. Every classic crime story ever written contains this basic structure. And while every story belongs to a genre, it nevertheless has to either renew that genre or have a different take on it - if it's to keep out of the rejection pile, that is.

Amateur writers ask themselves too few questions. Why must the investigator be a police detective? Could he be something else? Could he be a professional chess player? Or a criminal? Or even the murder victim herself?

And why must the arena be so predictable? Does it have to play out among gangsters or lawyers or reporters? Couldn’t a murder mystery play out in a traveling circus? Or among celebrity chefs?

WEAK CONCEPTS

Weak concepts or Loglines raise no questions; and to write in such a way as to raise questions in the readers' mind is what is at the heart of writing.

Strong concepts are suspenseful concepts. When I read a great Logline, I'm dying to know how the character will get out of his predicament. I want to see what happens.

Great concepts, as far as suspense is concerned, puts the character in a jeopardy from which there is no good way to resolve it.

Think of The Big Sick. Here we have a young Pakistani American from a very traditional family who wants to arrange his marriage to a Pakistani girl. He must oblige or face being disowned. He then falls in love with a non-Pakistani girl.

How is he going to resolve this? He will either lose his family or the love of his life.

And that’s exactly what a strong concept is: It raises irresolvable questions. This is remarkably different from what we often find in amateur screenplays. Here, the question (if there even is one) is something like: will he find the murderer or not?

And the answer to that one is obvious - who cares!

Though not an exhaustive list, this is a pretty good summation of what to look out for when you are starting out. The only issue I had was

2. TOO MUCH DIALOGUE

Some of the greatest movies ever made are dialogue heavy, or rely mostly on dialogue to expose information. 12 Angry Men, Network, basically any Aaron Sorkin project. Some stories necessitate more dialogue than action, some don't need as much dialogue, it depends on the story.

It all depends on how much dialogue ... if you have a page of “hows your day” before getting to the meat it’s one thing. But 12 Angry Men has tons of dialogue and it all means something.

I think too much meaningless dialogue would be a better thing

Queue the sound of a thousand re-writes

One of the most important ones is a subset of #10: lack of imagination in rendering scenes. How amateurs just pick the easiest logical choices, and pros are always looking for a new and interesting way to tell each story moment.

We dont talk about it much here, but I think this is a big deal. Writing is a process of inventing. Inventing new ideas that tell the story. Most people will come up with a few interesting ideas every year. A writer has to invent new interesting dramatic, scary, funny ideas on every single page. You can be a structure and genre expert with an amazing concept and a lifetime of screenwriting knowledge and still just not be able to come up with original, interesting ways to tell the story. It seems to me this skill is absolutely essential to what we're trying to do here, but it's not really discussed at all.

I’m John August. I’m a screenwriter (Big Fish), novelist (Arlo Finch), podcaster, app developer and Grammy nominee. AMA.

I’m John August. I’m a screenwriter (Big Fish), novelist (Arlo Finch), podcaster, app developer and Grammy nominee. AMA.

Hey Redditors!

My name is John August. I’m mostly a screenwriter. Some of my credits include Big Fish, Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Frankenweeenie, and both Charlie’s Angels. I also wrote and directed a movie called The Nines, which no one ever talks about.

I’m currently writing a middle-grade fantasy novel trilogy called Arlo Finch. The first book came out in February, with a new book each year. People seem to dig it.

With Craig Mazin, I co-host a weekly podcast about screenwriting called Scriptnotes. I also did a seven-episode podcast called Launch which follows the process of making Arlo Finch from idea to book tour.

I have a small software company. We make Highland 2, which came out yesterday and is currently #8 Top Grossing on the Mac App Store. We also make an iOS app called Weekend Read and several card games. Our Writer Emergency Pack was the top-grossing card project in Kickstarter history until Exploding Kittens blew us away by millions of dollars.

I share a Grammy nomination for Wonka’s Welcome Song with Danny Elfman, which is random. But I’ve done a lot of other musical work with Andrew Lippa on the Broadway version of Big Fish.

Other stuff: I’m on the board of the WGA and work with a charity in Malawi. I’m an Eagle Scout and a converted single-spacer. My husband and I have been together 18 years. We have a 12-year old daughter. I use a SafeType keyboard because I had really bad carpal tunnel syndrome. (Let's see if it saves me today.)

Most importantly, I play a 5e D&D campaign and have strong opinions on how surprise works in regards to initiative.

Starting at 10am PT. AMA!

Hi John, thanks for doing this. Huge fan of the show. I was listening to another podcast recently with a manager talking about being fun and outgoing when it comes to taking meetings with people. How big of a component is being good in a room for screenwriting? I suffer from anxiety, and while it's not completely debilitating, I wouldn't consider myself the most gregarious of types. I do love to write though, and my big worry is that, even if I'm lucky enough to get to a position of being called to meetings, I might not have enough interpersonal skills to wow people. Can great writing trump that to a degree?

Hello John, I am a writer/director and I wanted to ask you if it would be a good idea to shoot the opening 10 -12 pages of my feature film script as a short film. My logic is that it can allow to showcase my vision for the project and can also help me in landing an agent in case the script gets any traction. What do you think?

Hey John!

Thanks for everything you do. I'm interested in the journey from screenwriting to novel writing.

How did the craft of screenwriting translate over to novel writing for Arlo Finch?

Did you find yourself using the same dramatic structures you employ in screenwriting? Just more prose?

What was the most difficult transition for you?

If you had to give one piece of philosophical/theoretical idea that you use in novel writing and screenwriting, what would that be?

You possibly answer some of these questions in the podcast series you did for Arlo, but I've been burning through old scriptnotes episodes. Looking forward to listening to the Arlo Finch podcast!

Remember: Jordan Peele quit writing 'Get Out' twenty times

Remember: Jordan Peele quit writing 'Get Out' twenty times

I've only quit my current script twice. What am I doing wrong?

Clearly quit 18 more times and BOOM! Oscar.

Every time I see the term "virtue signaling" on reddit I love it because I know the comment is going to be stupid.

I'm glad he finished it, it was a pleasure to watch

Tips for your screenwriting career

Tips for your screenwriting career

I see a lot of misconception and focus on the wrong things amongst new screenwriters. I've been working in the business for almost 15 years, and though I'd give you some tips. I'm based in Europe, so some things are very different from e.g. the US.

Finish your script. When you're doing something on commission, you have a producer asking you how it's going and when he/she can read something. That pushes you. But when you're alone, you don't. So push yourself. Finish it.

Learn to prioritise, and write something good! I see people in writing subs saying you should just make a first "vomit draft". Sure, for your own sake that's true. But if you're commissioned to write, the producer can't have something too shitty. You still need to deliver a good first draft. Learn to prioritise what you need to do well in a first draft, and what can be done later.

Write a lot. I see people with this one script they've written, trying to have it made. And when they get a no, they modify it and keep going. That one script. Leave it for now. Write something else. You can always go back. But if one script is all you've ever written and all you'll ever write, screenwriting isn't for you.

Books are there for you, you're not there for the books. Sure, you can get some good ideas and theories from books on screenwriting. But when a producer or director tells you the adventure needs to start earlier, "but the acceptance of the call is at exactly 25%, so it's correct!" is not the right answer. Those "what should happen when" books and rules are just to help you out early on. As you're doing re-writes, those beats will move around.

Rewrite on demand! Sure, when the worst ideas from executives are launched at you, when the director has no clue what movie it should be (according to you), when the producer is just not getting it, you'll be frustrated. They're making it worse. You can't do this. Well, then don't. They'll exchange you for someone who will. Being a screenwriter is not being an auteur. Sure, you'll be referring to those writer-directors who just do their thing, like Woody Allen. And one day you may be Woody Allen. But right now you've been commissioned to write something, or you've had your script optioned by a studio, and now you're part of the machinery. The gears will keep grinding whether you'll be the one changing that line, or someone else takes over and does it.

one day you might be Woody Allen

God I hope not.

Thank you for this post, though. Very clear and concise!

Thank you for this, great post!

I'm no way nearly as experienced as the OP, but I have written a few scripts now. My first was a 4 page short written in word with no formal formatting at all. The story was there and I sent it to a friend who is a script supervisor for major flicks, she immediately told me to Google the correct formatting of a script. Do that. Then download some free screen writing software. The free version of Fade In is my preference, it pops up with a buy now memo just press enter twice and it disappears. First try putting down a story in the right format... Then read up, there's so many books about screen writing and blogs and videos, look for john truby, Blake Snyder and syd field to start with. Then read scripts. Lots of scripts. Pick Oscar winners and see what they put in and what they leave out. Read scripts while you watch the film. Watch the DVD with the writers commentary if they have it.

More important than all the above is just to start.

Good luck!

EDIT: in answer to your question, small scripts are easier and follow the same structure and rules so it's a good place to start. Aim for 5 pages or less.

Great to hear! Good luck!

How do you actually get an agent, I mean, for real

How do you actually get an agent, I mean, for real

[deleted]

How do you actually get an agent, I mean, for real

Pretty much from what I researched the only way to get an agent is to already have an agent. The other ways from "self help" blogs seems to be "Send letters, a lot of them, but don't expect that to ever work lol" and "buy my book which will tell you everything about being a successful screenwriter except how to get an agent which I have but you don't".

So other than being famous and already having an agent how do you get an agent. I have friends who have agents and they won't even tell me how to get an agent. I get that it's cause this is a competitive career but if the only way to actually sell a screenplay is to have an agent and no one really gets an agent other than what appears to be voodoo or nepotism, what's the real way to get an agent?

People won't tell you because there is no magic formula..

It's getting good at your craft. It's networking. It's placing in competitions. It's emailing that guy you used to live across the road from. It's cold calling agents until your ears bleed.

There's no short and quick fix answer but mostly it's having what they want when they want it, and it has to be good.

No, it’s you refusing to admit you can do better. This guy gave legit advice and even qualified it with “because there’s no magic formula.” He then answered your question to then best of his abilities, taking time out to do so, and you are ungrateful and reply with “this is yet another non answer I suppose.”

Perhaps you are what’s standing in your own way. Negative energy begets negative energy. It sounds like you have a victim-attitude/demeanor, which people can spot a mile away.

Just trying to point it out, not trying to shame you or anything.

This is a side note, and getting an agent is absolutely a step forward to a career, but please don't make the mistake of thinking an agent = jobs.

I've had an agent for the last year and half now and have been sent on three meetings. That's it. Every other meeting, every job, every conversation I've had that has led me to either a meeting or a job has been set up by me, for me, either through networking, luck, or connections.

Now you might say I'm an exception. I wish I was. But the fact of the matter is an agent is a negotiator on your behalf, not an employment agency. Yes people will take you more seriously if you have an agent. Yes that agent will be able to get you 10% more on that contract you sign and maybe get you a better title like "Executive Story Editor," but you are the only person who is going to land jobs for yourself.

The thing you have to realize is that you may think an agent works for you, but it's a two way street. There are so many people want to do what we do and there are only so many contracts going around, so for agents to make a living they need to sign as many young writers in the hopes that two out of the two dozen have careers.

I use baseball as an analogy. You get an agent? Congrats, you've been drafted. But you still have three minor leagues to battle through before you reach Game One of the Majors. And guess what, there were many others in your draft class, even on your team, that are going for that same dream you have. And that's not counting the thousands of others already in the minors. So good luck, and get to work.

Again, I can't stress enough the value in having an agent. But too often on this site I see it as a codeword for having made it. So don't get too excited when you get signed and are left twiddling your thumbs wondering now what.

Because it only gets harder from here.

I don't get it, whenever I read online forums or talk to people they say selling a screenplay is like winning the lottery. Why is it that 90% of the movies today are horrible with weak to no storylines?

I don't get it, whenever I read online forums or talk to people they say selling a screenplay is like winning the lottery. Why is it that 90% of the movies today are horrible with weak to no storylines?

Is it talent that wins this lottery or not? If so, the product shown in the marketplace does not prove that in the least.

My time learning about the craft/business has led me to believe it's the following things:

It IS talent that wins the lottery, but being talented doesn't guarantee you'll win. You can increase your chances of winning through various ways (networking, submissions, queries).

Talent doesn't have to mean writing a good screenplay - it can also mean being good at writing the kinds of movies the people with the money want to make (the bad kind).

Lots of bad movies started out as good screenplays, but competing interests (producer, director, talent, marketing, finance) have resulted in them being "crapified" (Craig Mazin's word).

The bad movies that started out as bad screenplays were probably written by good screenwriters, but weren't able to produce their best work because of interference.

Making movies is hard and nobody really knows what they're doing.

What a lot of people underestimate is that there's a huuuge difference in being able to see why Suicide Squad is a bad movie, and actually writing the script to suicide squad.

The hard fact is that 90% of the people here wouldn't be able to deliver a script at the quality level of an average bad hollywood movie.

People mistake their ability to discern why a movie doesn't work, with the ability to do better. Which is just so far from the truth. We've got 11 year old kids who can pick Inception or Transformers 2 apart. We've got thousands of youtube videos elaborating on why tons of movies suck.

But none of those people would be able to write anything that'd even get close to getting made.

It's really, really difficult to write and make a good movie.

Obviously there are things within the industry that doesn't help. A lot of the time studios put out movies more to make a years movie making budget make sense, not because they think the movie is good.

But the number one reason why there are a lot of bad movies it that it's really difficult to make a good one.

The hard fact is that 90% of the people here wouldn't be able to deliver a script at the quality level of an average bad hollywood movie.

Hope you don't mind me hi-jacking, because I don't disagree but I want to make an important semantic point: More (I'd say far more) than 90% are "able," but won't, because this is a tough career path and requires a whole lot of resilience. In my experience at many different jobs, the majority of my co-workers have displayed incredibly poor work ethic. If people were willing to work harder, they could do it.

The reason that you're right about it being "really, really difficult to write a good movie" isn't that it requires an extraordinary natural talent - it's that it requires an extraordinary work ethic, an exceptional attitude, and humility; all things someone can acquire by choice.

EDIT: DAMN, this whole time I meant more than 10%. Ugh.

Who says narratalogical aficionado unironically?

A cheat-sheet to improving dialogue

A cheat-sheet to improving dialogue

Hey all,

I put together a sort of cheat-sheet that has helped me improving when writing dialogue for my characters and thought I would share. Dialogue seems to be one my weak points. It seems that among writers, there are two camps: Those who write excellent description/action and those who write excellent dialogue. Putting these skills together is what separates the men from the boys, or the paid from the unpaid (IMO).

Anything else to add?

Exercises:

At lunch, grab a sketch pad and eavesdrop

Note how people talk over each other constantly, and rarely ever finish a complete thought Don’t transcribe the conversation verbatim, but jot down interesting phrases, notes regarding the flow of dialogue, and how the flow shifts (or how the dialogue volleys / turns of phrases)

Write a scene where a couple is buying a mattress

They are only allowed to speak about the mattress, but through the subtext, we learn of their marital problems

"I've always wanted a firm mattress, what with my back problems and all. I need a nice hard lay, don't I John?"

Dos:

Short, simple sentences -- one thought at a time Include tension and purpose to every word/sentence Generally, no more than three, uninterrupted sentences -- the odd, lengthy monologue is fine but should be absolutely warranted If you can, always break up dialogue with action Channel your characters -- quiet the automated voice in your head Engage the audience -- viewers are engaged by what the writer doesn’t tell them, not by what the writer tells Join scenes late -- i.e., avoid pleasantries Leave scenes early -- i.e., cut the scene at the point of tension or drama Allow characters to exist offstage -- reference their background lives or acts, at least those aspects worthy of mention, in their dialogue/character interactions Let the scene loop over in your head 10-20 times, silent, before placing in the dialogue to establish what needs to happen and what messages you want to convey Alternatively, imagine watching your scene, but in a foreign or gibberish language -- What does the talking feel like? What’s the emotion behind the words? Who’s in control? Who’s guiding the discussion? Is it an equal exchange? Have your characters actually listen, engage, interrupt and react to things said by each other, instead of each character just speaking because it’s their turn When you’re finally done and happy with your scene -- go back and cut the dialogue shorter Remember that film is a visual medium -- a motion picture Some screenwriters suggest writing to a rhythm; write to the pulse or the beat of your story

Don'ts:

Avoid people saying directly what they mean Avoid big speeches Avoid “uh” and “um” Avoid spellings things out, instead allude Avoid stating the obvious (particularly in respect to things the audience can see or hear)

Purpose of Dialogue

Dialogue in film has four major functions: reveal character, advance the plot, express subtext, and entertain. Aristotle gave us the idea that everything in a story is a microcosm of the entire story, and if it isn't, then it is unrelated (and shouldn't be in the story) -- the same can be said of dialogue.

Reveal Character

Every line should resonate with who says it The flavour of their background should be captured in their word choices The syntax (arrangement of words) should be uniquely theirs Focus on background, attitudes, personality quirks, unique world view, education, mannerisms -- and most importantly -- wants and needs Strong characters have needs which should come into conflict with the needs of other characters

Advance the Plot

Well-written dialogue imperceptibly moves the story forward -- by having the characters say something that leads to something happening A decision is made A question is asked Information is revealed -- with subtlety Momentum or tension is built Even silence at times can be moving A cause and effect relationship should be established between what is spoken and what happens next Try to instill conflict in your character interactions In real life, inner conflict often gets externalized, or “dumped” onto friends/family/complete strangers (remember to be subtle)

Express Subtext

Avoid people saying exactly what they mean Let visuals, sounds, tension and so on, drive the meaning behind words -- trust your audience and your actors

Entertain the Audience

Dialogue needs to evoke a visceral response and engage the audience Whether it’s a funny line, poignant line, mysterious line, frightening line, emotion-filled line or so on, the audience should be moved emotionally Engage the audience by... Joining scenes late Leaving scenes early Allowing characters to exist offstage Revealing new information about your characters (reveal the different or unexpected facets of their personalities) Thinking about what the audience expects from this film -- Is it a horror? Drama? Comedy?

A great quote (though from a religious preacher):

[Great dialogue requires] thinking out what I have to say, then thinking out how the other man will understand what I say, and then rethinking what I have to say, so that, when I say it, he will think what I am thinking

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I am a professional script reader. I have covered over 3,000 scripts in the last five years. AMA

I am a professional script reader. I have covered over 3,000 scripts in the last five years. AMA

Like the title says, I'm a reader. I've covered for indie production companies, major production cos and one of the big 3 agencies. It's a living.

Try one of these subthreads