No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Wisdom of the Wave... inatrix

Julie Gray is an industry script reader. She stands between you and the people with the money (or the contacts) who can make it all happen. So when Julie says, hey, this is what I like in a screenplay and this is what I hate, we listen. If you don't have The Rouge Wave on your RSS feed, add it now.

I figured I would spend a little time weeding out the some important tips (IMHO) from her blog and present them here, quoted directly, in handy summary format. Add this checklist to your things-to-do before putting your screenplay out there.


From: 20 Things I Know For Sure: Do's and Don'ts in Your Spec Script

  1. Do title the script in such a way that it both piques interest and tips the reader off to the nature of the script.
  2. Do keep the script down to a nice, tidy 100-ish pages long. Many readers and execs flip to the last page first so we know what we’re up against. The number of pages gives us a sense of your discipline and skill set as a writer; 120 pages of romcom telegraphs to the reader immediately that this script is not working on a fundamental level.
  3. Do make sure the script is clean in presentation and absent of spelling errors, typos or poor language usage. Proofread it eighty times.
  4. Do write your action lines so that they read easily and are entertaining in and of themselves.
  5. Do write characters that are unique and yet instantly recognizable; they should tell volumes about themselves in even their small details. Inventive economy. Make it your mantra.
  6. Do write dialogue that feels natural, is never superfluous and moves the story along quickly.
  7. Do check and double check that your writing is spare and simple: everything should make perfect sense as the reader moves along so that they never flip back or get bored and check emails; once you’ve lost the reader’s interest it’s an uphill battle to get it back.
  8. Do pay a great deal of attention to keeping the story moving; nail your three act structure; readers won’t notice it consciously, but it will make the read faster and more interesting.
  9. Do pay off the ending; the reader has invested most of their morning or afternoon in your script, make the ending count. Surprise us!
  10. Do us one favor: write a story so entertaining that if only for that hour, we forget we are readers and simply enjoy the experience.

From: The Importance of the Scene

Warning signs that indicate faulty scene work:
  • Misuse or overuse of sluglines
  • Dense, boring action lines
  • Misuse of matchcuts or intercuts
  • Scenes that are too long; anything over 3 pages is suspicious
  • Scenes that are too short and exist for no apparent reason
  • Scenes that start too early and end too late
  • Scenes without a discernable point

From: Rewriting

Consider a rewrite where your screenplay shows signs of:
  • Soft, unoriginal or confusing premise
  • Faulty main character arc
  • Missing or lame antagonist
  • Not enough conflict; linear narrative
  • Missing stakes
  • No ticking clock
  • Action lines need work
  • Logic or world issues
  • Missing theme
  • Scenes are too long
  • Structure in trouble

From: Page Count Lipo

Julie points out the importance of three-act structure. What Julie describes is the Syd Field model (three acts; quarter, half, quarter, with a midpoint or 'pinch' dividing the middle act), but you can go ahead and think of it as a four-act model.
Review your script for act breaks throughout; Is your inciting incident on or about page ten (if not earlier)? Is your first plot point which takes us into the second act on or about page 25 to 30? How ‘bout that midpoint? Page 50-ish? And the second plot point should be around page 85 to 90.

From: Episodic

How to identify if your screenplay is episodic:
Think about this:

Esther does this
Then she does that
Fred meets her and they talk
Esther does this
Then that
Then this

Versus:

Esther does this BUT
She stumbles into that AND
THEN she discovers this
WHICH leads her to overcome THIS
And eventually she learns THAT
EXCEPT she will have to sacrifice THIS

The emphasized words indicate turning points in the scene. Surprises, setbacks, reversals. Static scenes guarantee a static story. You only have about 100 pages, people, so light a fire under it. And don’t get accused of having a soft, episodic script. Because that’s just another way of saying PASS.

From: Coverage Reports

Do you know how to think like a Reader? If not, let Julie teach you. Doing coverage reports is a process. Knowing (and reviewing) that process improves your screenplay before it lands on Julie's desk and makes it easier for her to like your movie.
The next thing to appear on your coverage is the grid. Down the left hand side is:

PREMISE
STORYLINE
CHARACTER
DIALOGUE

And across the top we have: Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor

[...]

Here are some of the elements that readers evaluate when they read the script – mind you, they would absolutely not be listed like this in a coverage, but this is more or less the check list. And please note, the way these elements are discussed is not academic or scientific, but rather from a pretty basic point of view: was it entertaining, did it make sense?

Premise & Genre: Premise might be soft, or it might be really original. The genre may or may not be what the company is looking for.

Narrative/Structure: The narrative is how the story is told; is it original and fresh? Does the writer have a great “voice”? Is it paced well; is it a page turner? Structure isn’t often referred to as such; writers with repped scripts that made it all the way to a production company don’t often have trouble with structure but it happens. Mentioning poor structure in a coverage is an absolute kiss of death for the writer and the script. Bad or missing structure means this writer is not ready for prime time.

World: Did the writer establish a “world” for the script that the reader believed? This is more likely to come up in a fantasy, sci-fi or slapstick comedy script but not exclusively so. World is not usually mentioned in a coverage unless the writer has some pretty big “buys” that the reader – well – didn’t buy because it didn’t make sense in the world.

Conflict/Stakes: Did stuff happen to drive the story forward? Was there a sense of building conflict and tension? Was there something hanging in the balance in the end that made the reader really care about getting to the last page to see what happened?

Characters/Dialogue: Coverages will almost always mention character work – whether it is really great or really awful. A writer who can write great character and dialogue is probably going to get a “consider” writer even if the premise is not for the company at the time. The ability to write great characters and dialogue is the brass ring for aspiring writers. If you do nothing else well, you could still build a career off of this talent. Thing is, it tends to go hand-in-hand with other screenwriting skills, so don’t go trying to be some kind of character-savant.

Scene work/Action Lines: Oh man, if you have to note this stuff in a coverage, that’s bad. Again, just as structure, above, this falls under basic execution of craft and here’s the thing – if the execution is good, it becomes invisible. If it’s bad – then I have to note that your page or scene work sucks as do your action lines. Death knell for script. Bad page work basically means sloppy, cluttered pages, overlong scenes, dull scenes, typos, misspells, inactive scenes and sequences.

Logic: Stuff just didn’t add up.

Theme/Tone:
Theme and tone may not always be mentioned, only if the theme is really beautiful and timely. Great themes in scripts are often a little invisible; it just really affected the reader with a sense of universal resonance. There is a connection with the material on a subconscious level. It’s a little ephemeral. When you read the script and when all is said and done, no matter how big the action sequences, or how scary some of the set pieces were, if you are left with the feeling that none of it really mattered – that’s because theme was not in the building. Tone will usually only be mentioned if it’s uneven. If tone is appropriate there’s no need to bring it up. This means that if you have written a bouncy little romcom and then you have X-rated sex scenes, I will be pulled out of the story – because the tone didn’t match. Of if you have a horror script with a long, romantic, upbeat romantic sequence. This could work. Or it might feel like some script pages got mixed up and I’m in a new story now. This would be a tone (and narrative) problem.

From: Character Descriptions

Writing concise but informative character introductions is an art. John August presented his thoughts on the topic about the same time that Julie wrote this excellent advice:

How much should you describe your character? You definitely need to tell us how old they are but you only need to describe their clothing to the degree that it reflects the character’s personality.

[...] When you describe your character you are only drawing broad strokes and intimating much more than you are describing. You are giving us a snapshot.

SANDY (20s) a fit and cheerful blonde, straps on her running shoes.

HOSEA (48) an intense businessman, straightens his Republican red tie and plucks a grey hair.

Do you get an idea of who Hosea is? I noted the color of his tie for an obvious reason – I am insinuating he is a conservative.

CECILIA (12) puts her mousy brown hair back with a pink barrette and runs her tongue over her braces.

Need to see what she’s wearing? Nah. Pink barrette, mousy brown hair and braces. I can fill in the rest with my imagination.

JUSTIN (23) lanky and thin, trims his soul-patch and grins. He tucks a skateboard under one arm and gives himself one last approving glance in the mirror.

What kind of shoes does Justin have on? Well, probably not loafers.

[...] Descriptions are necessary only insofar as they tell us things we need to know or infer about your character. A guy with dreadlocks has just told us so much about himself. An adult with braces has too. So just give us those broad strokes and hints so we can make some assumptions and form some opinions about your character. Don’t micro-manage and describe every last detail. It’s unimportant, it’s boring and it will mark you as an amateur.

From: The Title
  • Does the title hint at the genre?
  • Is the title as succinct as possible?
  • Does the title in some way embody the theme or dna of your script?
  • Will the title look good on a poster and will it intrigue passersby?
  • If the title isn’t clear immediately, will it rise to the surface within the script?

From: Budget, Rating and Box Office OH MY

How in the heck do you know what kind of budget your script would call for? Well, think about this:

Locations: Are they exotic? Are there several locations? This costs a great deal of money for production companies.
FX: Does your script contain a lot of special effects? Are there expensive car chases, explosions or dangerous stunts and sequences?
Cast: Is the main character going to sink or swim based on whether the role is given to Russell Crowe? Stars drive up the costs of movies considerably.

What is the box office (or commercial) potential of your material? [...]

Is this a high concept script? A highly entertaining central conceit that is so simple, so beautiful and so fun that it’s a slam dunk.
Is this a tentpole? A star vehicle, big adventure with the whiff of franchise?
Is this a Sunday afternoon genre? Drama, romance, period?
Is this material HOT? Very zeitgeisty or provocative?

All rules, guidelines, and advice aside, this article from Julie reminds us why we're writing screenplays in the first place: Just Effing Entertain Me

2 comments:

Julie Gray said...

Well, gosh, I'm late to discover this flattering best-o-the-wave-inatrix! Gee whiz, thanks!

Belzecue said...

(nervous yank on collar) Crikey. Glad you don't mind me lifting your material, Julie. I tried to minimize the plagiarism, and link back to Rouge Wave as much as possible. It's just very handy to have your key points summarized as I've done here: a one-page final draft checklist to quickly expose areas that need work.

Best wishes and a prosperous and productive 2008 to yourself, Rouge Wave and Script Whisperer.

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