Screenwriting is a specialized skill and even with the on-line courses, coaches and books available, many aspiring screenwriters receive a PASS from coverage services.
There are ways to become a paid screenwriter. While there’s no substitute for a great story, learning a few pro tips can help the screenwriter compete.
As a story analyst for over 20 years in the business, here are my Top 9 Tips to help you Become A Paid Screenwriter, starting with #9 to the Top #1 Tip.
TOP TIP #9 – Avoid Passive Writing
Screenplays are written in a visual voice that paints a moving picture and engages the reader on a visceral level with the story and its hero. It’s a style of writing that’s unlike the prose we’ve been taught in school.
First, it’s imperative that the screenplay be written in PRESENT TENSE. Unlike many novels that are written in past tense or from a third person POV, a screenplay is a story written to evoke a present moment experience. It’s a writing style meant to engage the reader as if they were the audience experiencing the story in a theater.
Secondly, because a screenplay is moving pictures, the writer needs to avoid words that slow down the visual flow and pacing. The writer needs to focus on words that create an active voice. The easiest way to avoid a passive voice in screenwriting is to limit the use of the words ‘is’, ‘are’ and words ending in ‘ing’. For example:
EXT. STREET – DAY
John is running down the street.
EXT. STREET – DAY
INT. KAREN’S HOUSE – DAY
Karen, Susan and Mitchell are sitting at the table.
INT. KAREN’S HOUSE – DAY
Karen, Susan and Mitchell sit at a table.
Next, the screenwriter needs to approach description by thinking in terms of integrated action. Rather than just describing a room like the writer would do in a book, show us the room via the action. For example:
INT. JOHN’S HOUSE – NIGHT
A stoner’s den with bud-filled ashtrays, bongs and a crooked marijuana leaf poster. JOHN (20s) enters and flops down on a sofa.
INT. JOHN’S HOUSE – NIGHT
JOHN (20s) enters with a beanie hat and a cocky attitude. He flops down on a sofa and knocks a bud-filled ashtray and a bong off the coffee table. Pissed, he tears off his beanie hat and tosses it at a marijuana leaf poster.
The first description is okay, but the second one describes the room using integrated action. This style works best for screenplays and the top writers use it to engage the reader in their story.
Top Tip #8 – Use Transitions
One of the most misunderstood and rarely used pro techniques is the transition. A transition is the bridge between two scenes that provides visual flow and pacing. Most people are familiar with seeing a character pick up a phone, then the next scene opens with a phone ringing. This is referred to as a Visual-to-Sound Transition. The visual is the character picking up the phone in the first scene and the sound is the ringing phone in the next scene.
The transition bridges the two scenes into a tight flow that engages the reader and takes the reader into the story.
There are a variety of transitions:
Visual to Visual, Visual to Sound, Sound to Visual, Sound to Sound, Dialogue to Dialogue, Dialogue to Visual.
There are also different types of transitions:
Overlapping Transition, Location Transition, Reverse Transition, Next Day Transition, Time Jump Transition and others.
An example of a Reverse Transition from the movie Lake Placid. The heroine insists there’s no way she’d ever leave her city job to go to the wilderness for an investigation. No way! The scene ends with her saying this and the next scene opens with her in an airplane flying over the wilderness. It’s a reversal of the expected that transitions from one scene to the next.
Top Tip #7 – Dynamic First Ten Pages
Screenwriters have thirty pages to setup the story, but only ten pages to grab the reader. The biggest mistake newbies make is taking these vital pages and cramming them with information. Instead of information download, focus on creating visuals that do the following:
FORM A QUESTION
The story might open with a mystery-style teaser like a homicide. Or a dramatic character in a unique situation that leaves the audience wondering how he came to this point in his life. Or even an external conflict teaser, like watching a hundred zombies rise from the ground and head toward a town.
The moment the audience sits down in a theater, they’re looking for the hero. Who is he or she? This is done on an unconscious level. It’s important that this person stand out with a commercial entrance, which simply means giving the hero a grand, memorable introduction that leaves no doubt who is the story’s hero.
TOP TIP #6 – Introduce the Hero’s Flaw
Tip #7 is specific to the first ten pages because the audience should meet the hero and be able to clearly identify him within ten minutes (pages) of the story’s opening. Most writers know this and introduce the hero first or close to the opening, like after a teaser. The part they do wrong is failing to introduce the hero’s internal conflict when we first meet him. Instead, the reader’s left pondering the internal conflict until page 15, 27, 30 or even into Act II. This screams AMATEUR because an audience identifies with the hero because of his flaw (internal conflict). This identification is imperative for the audience’s visceral participation in the hero’s story. In the film Night at the Museum we meet the hero, a slacker father BEFORE he get the job in a museum where everything comes alive at night. It’s the first thing we learn about the hero when he’s introduced.
TOP TIP #5 – ATTRACT A-LIST TALENT
A story analyst reads a screenplay, critiques and scores it (Pass, Consider or Recommend) based on its commercial potential. Producers do the same thing, but with a more focused eye on specific talent they want to solicit to attach to the project.
But what’s most important for an aspiring writer is making sure the screenplay will attract A-list talent. Here’s what A-list actors look for when reading a screenplay:
Does the hero get the first scene?
Does the hero have a grand entrance?
Does the hero get the last scene?
Does the hero get the best lines?
Does the hero get the last line?
Is the hero upstaged by a supporting role?
Is the hero in a majority of scenes?
Is the hero’s arc scene clearly identifiable (by page #)?
Does the hero have a love interest (if applicable)?
Does the hero win the day or does another character steal the final resolution?
Does the hero’s flaw create plot irony? (Like a wedding planner who falls for her client’s finance in The Wedding Planner)
Can the hero return in a sequel? (This isn’t as important as the other points, but actors do like a screenplay that has franchise potential).
A-List talent are stars, so give them the star treatment.
Top Tip #4 – Add Plot Irony
I once heard a producer say the easiest character to sell to an audience is a hero pitted against himself. Put a hero afraid of being along on a deserted island. Put a cowardly hero in a situation that forces him to find courage. Send a knife-wielding killer after an easily terrified hero. Give a non-committal man 10 days to get married or forfeit a huge inheritance.
The two keys to plot irony include:
First, the hero’s internal conflict should create the plot irony. What’s the hero’s flaw? Identify the flaw then ask what external conflict would force the hero to change the flaw.
For example, a hero afraid of love could find himself in a situation (external conflict) that forces him to change and accept love. The key is the word ‘forced’. A hero must be forced to change rather than just deciding to do it. If he decides to change on his own, it’s game over. He should slowly transform as the story unfolds.
Secondly, the entire plot should encompass the irony. New writers make the mistake of only including irony in the end of the story. Pros know the entire story must center around the irony and result in the hero’s arc.
Top Tip #3 – Rewrite High Budget
The reason strong, newbie screenwriters often don’t make a break is because they only write high-budget screenplays. Producers rarely purchase high-budget screenplays from unknown writers. Why would a producer risk millions on an untried writer when there are plenty of pros in the business with proven track records? Think about this in practical, business terms. Would you hire an untried plumber to fix your kitchen sink or the five-star rated plumber? People want to pay for a pro they can count on to get the job done.
Here’s a fixes worth considering:
Do a second, low-budgeted version of a high-budget screenplay. Instead of forty locations, condense it down to three! Replace high-budget effects with low-budget effects, like sound (inexpensive to produce). For example, instead of seeing an explosion, we only hear it. Reduce the cast to a handful of characters. Focus on characterizations rather than big set pieces. Turn period pieces into modern-day stories.
If the writer is dead set against this approach, then write another script that is low budget and use it to break into the industry. The genres most often sold by newbie writers in the low-budget category include horror and comedy. Once the screenwriter breaks in, selling the higher-budget projects will be much easier.
Also, it’s worth noting that 9 out of 10 aspiring screenwriters write screenplays in the higher-budget category, thus knocking themselves out of the running in the spec market. By writing low-budget, the aspiring writer is automatically elevated into the top 3 percent, and assuming the screenplay is ace, is on his way to becoming a pro screenwriter.
Top Tip #2 Use Format to Create Emotion
The second most important, yet often overlooked, selling technique, is mastering format and using it to evoke emotion in the reader. This is the type of screenplays readers love because they’re engaging from start to finish. They make the reader laugh in a comedy. Cry in a drama. Make the hairs stand up on the back of the neck in a horror.
The pros do this with plot, characters, scenes, dialogue, but they also know how to use format as part of the story to create emotion. For example, the pro writer might create a sound o.s. that creates fear or evokes laughter, like a growl or a fart. Or the writer might use (V.O.) to transition into the next scene and create a deeper, visceral connection between the reader and the story.
Mastering this skill can take the writer’s work to a new level and engage readers to the point the reader forgets it’s a screenplay and sees the moving pictures in the mind’s eye.
Top Tip #1 – Understand Genre Rules
The #1 reason most screenplays receive a PASS is the writer’s failure to understand the rules of the genre. I recently read a pretty cool suspense thriller that lacked a double twist ending. Later that same week, I read a horror where the threat didn’t remain in the end. Or the writer crafted a romantic comedy without a cute meet or a chase scene.
I’m not talking about formulas, but genre criteria set by producers and expected by audiences. Think about it. What if you went to see a suspense thriller and guessed the identity of the killer? I bet you wouldn’t refer that movie to your friends. While the hero can win in a horror, ever notice how the monster lives on?
Genres have rules. The smart screenwriter who doesn’t want to remain a newbie learns these rules and finds creative ways to craft stories that fit the genre. Writers love to label this as a creativity buster, but even novels have genre rules. Go to any bookstore and notice how the shelves are labeled by GENRE! Most people select a movie based on genre. This week I went to see a comedy with my friends and next week we’re going to see a science fiction flick. AND we don’t expect to see Jason from Friday the 13th show up in an Adam Sandler comedy and slash everyone to pieces. Learn the genre rules and you’ll beat out 99% of the competition that tend to write off the cuff.
Here are a few general genre rules to get started:
The threat must remain in the end. In Hocus Pocus, the witches are dead, but the spell book’s eye blinks at us in the end scene. This leaves the possibility open for the witches to return.
This genre has more specific sets of rules than any other genre and producers consider it one of the more difficult genres to write. There has to be a cute meet, a chase scene, a secret, both leads must have a flaw related to love, and the couple shouldn’t get together until the very last scene.
This genre requires a double twist ending that the audience did NOT see coming. A perfect example is the movie Along Came A Spider.
In this genre, a crime’s been committed, but we don’t now by who or why. This genre requires a mystery that isn’t solved until the last possible moment.
In this genre, we know who did it and why. We’re just waiting for the good guys to catch the culprit.
This type of genre is otherworldly, even if the aliens are here on Earth. The key is to create mystery, suspense or fear from an otherworldly source.
This genre requires tie-in threes, punk lines, use of misinterpretation, and other widely used comedy antics. The most important scene in a comedy is the tragedy scene that ends with a laugh. An example is the death scene in the movie Click when the hero gives his ex-wife’s boyfriend the finger.
Delivering this genre requires an ultra-strong theme mixed with holiday magic.
TRUE LIFE STORIES
This genre can break even the most seasoned writers because they often become enthralled with the intriguing information about the story or its characters and forget to add entertainment value. In other words, they forget that true-life stories require dramatization and often adaptation to meet the criteria for a feature film.
These Top 9 Tips can help the aspiring screenwriter take a screenplay to a professional level, turning the newbie into a paid screenwriter.