One question every single fledgling scriptwriter asks is, “How do I write a script?” In this article, we are going to break a script down into its component pieces and explore what you can do to make them better. This article should be read in conjunction with How To Format A Script. So, without further ado, let’s get to it…
The first professional person to read your final draft will most likely be a script reader. I like to think of these people as the gatekeepers of the movie world. They read through your script and produce a report; sometimes this is for you, other times it is for a producer, or at least, for the viability of it moving into production. Script readers will go through your script with a fine toothcomb and score each component. It’s up to you to make sure that each element of your script scores as high as possible. I will be writing an article on Script Readers and what they can do for you soon.
Scene descriptions should be minimalistic. They should put a clear picture in the reader’s mind with as few words as possible. They should contain vocabulary that paints a picture of what a character is feeling; show not tell, and see not feel.
Rather than describe a scene in great detail, try to find words that convey it concisely. For example, when trying to portray a character as being scared, rather than saying something like, “John sits behind the chair, he quickly looks right and left, his eyes are wide, and he is shaking. He is hiding from his mother-in-law, she was a terrifying person.” you could simply state, “John cowers behind the chair, hiding from his mother-in-law.” The word ‘cowers’ paints a picture of someone being scared and intimates that his mother-in-law is someone not to be trifled with. Something, I’m sure, all son-in-laws can imagine.
Scene descriptions have an impact on the pace of your script; too long, and they tend to slow it down. If you’re building up the tension, then short, sharp sentences will add to the pace. For example, while the following two lines say the same thing, the second gives the sense of speed.
The car raced around the town at a dangerous speed, leaving long, black tire trails as it sped around the corners. The streets were empty.
The car tore through the deserted town. Every corner painted with rubber. The smell and smoke of burning rubber was the only sign of life.
A general guideline is scene description should be no more than seven lines long.
Characters are the thing that, in most cases, make or break a script. You can have a meandering drama with little action, but if the characters are strong, then it can still be a great script. Make sure all your significant characters are fully developed and have a backstory; make sure they act and speak consistently throughout the script. A good idea is to write up a list of characteristics for each character, e.g., what type of clothes do they wear, what hairstyle do they have, where are they from, etc.
There are five character types in scripts:
- Protagonist – the main hero of the story
- Antagonist – the person who is trying to thwart the hero
- Accomplice – A friend or helper to the hero
- Messenger – the person who introduces a beat
- Romance – A love interest of the hero
There can, of course, be more than one of any type except the protagonist. Every one of the above characters needs a clear goal. If you don’t have that goal clear in your mind, then it’s difficult to set up conflicts between them because it doesn’t really matter.
The reader needs to be able to empathize with your protagonist. They may well be a less than pleasant person (think Hannibal Lecter), but the audience must root for them throughout the film, or it just won’t work.
This leads us nicely to dialogue. You should check to make sure all of your dialogue is in character; is it something that that character would say?
Don’t be tempted to abuse dialogue to continually tell the reader what is happening; this should be done, in the main, through the Description. Saying that, you can use dialogue to reveal a backstory; a conversation between two characters can hint at a dark secret for example.
Well written dialogue is a nightmare for some proofreaders. Why? Because it rarely follows grammatical rules or even correct spelling for that matter. Real people rarely speak in a grammatically correct way. Using perfect grammar and spelling in dialogue should only be used for emphasis, e.g., to portray a character as stiff or formal. I’m not saying every piece of dialogue should be grammatically incorrect, but just to think about how real people actually speak, or more specifically, how your character would speak.
If you’re struggling with a high page count, then one of the reasons may be unnecessary dialogue; ask yourself, what does it add to the story? If it’s not important, then look at removing it.
For any script to be successful, there must be some conflict; it is commonly between the main character and the environment (events), but it doesn’t hurt to have a bit of conflict between characters. There needs to be at least one major conflict in your story, preferably along with two or three minor conflicts. Almost every second or third scene should have an element of conflict.
The golden rule is that conflict needs to build to a crescendo where the hero’s major conflict finally reaches its conclusion. But it’s not all about step-by-step working toward the solution, think about adding some setbacks; things that make it harder for your protagonist to achieve their goal.
Another way to add conflict is to give one or more of your characters opposing views; make them opinionated. Conflict also doesn’t have to be big; the most insignificant of events can help sustain or build tension, e.g., a character about to go for a walk finds it has started to rain.
Conflict goes hand-in-hand with the pace of your script.
Pace is a critical part of your script, and it needs to have variation. In many ways, it is like music. Every successful song has ebb and flow – a verse and a chorus. If you’ve just had a high-octane, chase scene, then you might want to think about following it with something at a slower pace to give the audience time to catch their breath.
One of the reasons some scripts fail is by having too many exotic locations. When using varied locations, spare a thought to the cost of shooting the scene(s). Unless your film is going to be a blockbuster, then it’s unlikely to have a massive budget. When your script goes to a reader, one of their tasks is to take account of how locations, along with any special effects, might affect the budget.
There are several hard and fast formatting rules (font, page numbering, etc.), make sure your script follows the industry standards. If you are unsure what these are, have a read through my Guide to Formatting article.
Spelling and Grammar
Too many grammar errors is another reason many scripts fail to get past even the first round of a competition. While the odd typo or grammar mistake will probably be ignored, too many will make your script hard to read. A reader could well ask themselves that if you can’t be bothered to proof your writing, why should they be bothered to spend time reading it?
As mentioned in Description/Action, another thing to watch for is your vocabulary. A script should be minimalistic; archaic words or long-winded descriptions should be swapped out for modern and clean words and short-descriptions. Also, remember that for Dialogue, spelling and grammar rules often go out of the window.
So, once you’ve finished your first draft, things to do:
- Check the formatting
- Get it proofread
- Get a reader’s report – a minimum of an Overview Report
- Go back and create your final draft
- Get it proofread again in case any errors snuck in when you created your final draft.
- Enter a competition or send it to an agent, and then sit back and cross your fingers. You’ve done all you can.