Ten Things You Should Know About Writing Screenplays

This week, terribleminds is moving hosts. We got too big for our britches and we’re fleeing the warm embrace of Laughing Squid and diving deeper into the trenches of a LiquidWeb VPS server. I’m not anticipating any downtime, but one never knows in such an instance what will happen. So, I figured this wasn’t a good week for an entirely brand new “25 Things” list.

What I am doing, however, is giving you a tasty chocolate Whitman sampler of “25 Things” — these have never before been on terribleminds but can instead be found in their entirety in my writing books.

You’ll find this works on the following schedule:

Monday:

10 (of 25) things you should know about setting! (from 500 More Ways To Be A Better Writer)

Tuesday:

1o (of 25) things you should know about endings! (from 500 Ways To Be A Better Writer)

Wednesday:

10 (of 25) things you should know about screenplays! (from 250 Things You Should Know About Writing)

Let us begin.

10 Things You Should Know About Writing Screenplays

1. Just A Blueprint

A novel is a finished product. A film is a finished product. A screenplay is just a blueprint. It’s just a template. You’re creating the possibility of a film, not the final product. Let that free you.

2. Writing To Be Read Before Writing To Be Seen

A script has to read well before it ever makes it onto a screen. Nobody reads a shitty script and says, “This sucks out loud on the page, but boy, it’s going to look awesome on the screen.” Well, okay, Michael Bay might say that. But then he rides his cyborg tiger into the heart of an atomic cloud to the tune of some Aerosmith song. You can’t hold that guy’s attention for long.

3. Story Is King, And The Characters Serve At His Pleasure

A screenplay fails first because of its crapgasmic story. Not just plot: but story. Story is all of it: plot, characters, theme, mood. You’re trying to say something, trying to tell a cracking good tale. Characters are the vehicle for that story. We’re going to spend two hours with, what? Boring characters? Dull story? Unlikable and unbelievable plot?

4. The Three-Act Structure Matters

I know. You want to fight against the three-act structure. You want to kick and spit and break the bonds of this straitjacket The Man has slapped you into. Don’t. The three-act structure is here to stay. Trust me when I say, producers and directors look for it. They seek those act breaks. Here’s the trick, though: the three acts are nowhere near as limiting as people believe. They’re very easy and translate roughly to Beginning, Middle, and End. And out of each act is a turn, a pivot point of change and escalation. Hit those acts at 25%, 50%, and 25% of your script’s total length (Act I, II, and III, respectively) and you’re golden.

5. The Secret Act Break Smack In The Middle Of The Script

Don’t tell anybody else. I’m sharing this just with you. Take off your pants and I’ll tell you. Are they off? Sweet. HA HA HA HA JUST KIDDING NOW YOU’RE PARTLY NAKED AND VULNERABLE AND NOW I WILL ATTACK YOUR PRIVATE PARTS WITH BEES. … okay, that was weird. I’m so sorry. Anyway. Here’s the secret: the second act can really be two acts with the act turn smack dab at the midpoint of the whole script. Treat these like any act: escalation leads to an act turn which means some kind of pivot or change, both external and internal. Ta-da! That’ll help you fight the sagging mushy gushy lardy middle of your screenplay.

6. 90-110

Your script should be between 90-110 pages. Especially if it’s a spec script. Going to 120 pages is… regrettable, but doable. Going above 120 or below 90 can be death for your script.

7. Search Your Heart For Truth, Sacred Cricket

You’re committing time and energy to writing this thing, so figure out why. Figure out what you’re trying to say and what kind of story you want to tell. Know the reason your script must exist. “I want to write a tragic love story set in space.” “I want to highlight the horrific industry of dolphin-killing.” “I HATE MY DAD AND I WANT THE WORLD TO KNOW IT.” Whatever, man. Just find your reason. Let it live at the throbbing heart of the script.

8. Too Many Characters Foul The Orgy

A script with too many characters feels hazy and crazy. It’s like making a soup with too many spices or having an orgy with too many participants. Then it just becomes a greasy, smelly game of Twister. “Left leg, some guys pubic tangle. Right leg, shellacked with a heady broth of somebody’s man-seed. AHHH DICK IN MY EYE.” Keep major characters to about five. With maybe another 10 to 15 lesser characters if need be. But remember: they all need to be fully realized, at least in your own head.

9. Babar, Meet Rebar, And His Brothers, Robar, Zadar, And Radar

If your two lead characters are Gary and Mary, or Bob and Rob, the reader is going to get confused. I know, you’re saying, “What kind of asshole can’t figure out the difference between Bob and Rob?” The kind that reads hundreds of scripts per day and has suffered irreparable eye and soul damage from reading the unmerciful shit-fuckery submitted to them by subpar screenwriters, that’s who.

10. Narrative Rejiggering

Some screenplays suffer from a necessary slow build, but a slow build threatens to derail the reader’s attention. So go mess with the narrative flow — change the time-line. Start at the ending. Or in the middle. Somewhere dramatic. Break the narrative up into a switchback flow, ala 21 Grams or Reservoir Dogs. You can play with the timeline in order to adjust the revelation of plot. What happens then is revealed now. What happens now is revealed later.

Want the whole 25? Then I point you toward 250 Things You Should Know About Writing, merely $0.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, and also available here at terribleminds.