Monday, July 17, 2006

Less is More: Lean Scripts Earn Bigger Checks

David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, should be within arms reach of EVERY screenwriter – from aspiring wannabes to the Pros. Trottier may not get you a deal, but he’ll help you format, structure and craft the kind of story that can get you noticed!

There has been a lot of talk about new spec formats, lately. Beginning in the 90s, a strong movement toward lean unencumbered writing emerged. It should come as no surprise in an art form, which by definition is minimalist in scope (vs. the elongated prose of the novelist), that such a trend would only deepen. So what is the new spec style?

First, some technical issues to consider. Much of the available software, today, is designed to default to a more or less shooting script style format, while you (most likely) are writing a spec script. Trottier recommends disabling the following features:

Do not write CONTINUED at the top and bottom of each page. Do not write “continuing” as a parenthetical when a character continues his/her dialog after a paragraph of narrative description. And never number your scenes.

Avoid camera directions: ANGLE ON, CLOSE ON, POV, PAN, DOLLY WITH, TRUCK, ANOTHER ANGLE, ZOOM, PULL BACK TO REVEAL, ZIP PAN, CRANE SHOT, ECU, WE SEE, etc.

Avoid editing directions: CUT TO, DISSOLVE TO, IRIS, WIPE. The key, here, is “avoid” – meaning that you use technical directions only when absolutely necessary to move the story forward. (That’s about two or three times in a screenplay.) Remember, you are writing a story spec, not directing the movie.

As Trottier is fond of reminding us, “In the original BASIC INSTINCT spec by Joe Eszterhas, which sold for $3million; there is not a single DISSOLVE, CUT TO, ANGLE ON, SERIES OF SHOTS, MONTAGE or fancy technique in his entire 107 page script.” Only scene headings, description and dialog – period! Again, the focus is on telling a story through clear, lean, unencumbered writing.

Use of MORE when dialog is continued from the bottom on one page to the top of the next should be cheated – that is, move the entire block to the top of the next page or cheat the bottom margin to get the last line in.

Use parentheticals sparingly unless the subtext is unclear. Once in a while a line of action (about 3-4 words) is okay if doing so adds movement to the scene. (A lot of executives only read dialog, so this technique can improve the read. But only if not over-used.)

Try to keep your spec within the 110 page range. (Remember, every page equals about a minute of film time, and that costs money to produce! Today’s 2 hour and 30 minute behemoths are almost never written on spec, and certainly NOT by first time screenwriters.) Paragraphs of narrative description or action should never be more than four lines in length. Each paragraph should focus on an image, an action or story beat. Some paragraphs may only be one or two lines in length. Aim for lots of “white” on the page. This, too, will improve the read.

Use of MONTAGE, the SERIES OF SHOTS, INSERT, INTERCUT, FLASHBACK, and SUPERs is acceptable for dramatic or comedic purposes (or for clarity and ease of reading).

Today, specs are becoming increasingly non-linear in their story form, and may require the use of these or other techniques. I recommend that you do whatever is best for the story: bottom-line. Read lots of scripts within the genre(s) that you are writing in. Stay with movies that are most current to ensure that you are up to date on the latest tricks and techniques that have passed mustard with the Hollywood reader. Learn the rules, then break them!

Keep in mind that your audience, however, is the READER of your script and that these people are already "half-blind". These poor souls often read four or five scripts per night, and sometimes ten or more on a weekend! Just let the story flow like a river using visually compelling, concrete language that directs the eye and touches the heart without dulling the senses.

If you do, your reader will thank you on Monday morning with a “RECOMMEND” vs. the deadly “PASS”. Lean scripts earn fat checks.

May you get yours… this year!

Kevin C.

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