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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ten Things

As requested by Dom, here are my top ten things I feel a writer should and shouldn't do when I'm reading their script or when they're redrafting...

1. DO: Use poetic language in your scene description. Get your thesaurus out, don't repeat words over and over. It gets dull for the Reader. Try and be inventive.

DON'T: Overdo it. This isn't a novel. Try not to use words you don't understand or use them out of context because it seems "different". I'm looking at you, Mr. Verisimilitude and Mrs. Tenebruous, you know who you are! ; )

2. DO: Run a full grammar and spelling check. There's nothing more annoying than reading consistent errors. Remember to check tenses particularly and get rid of all instances of mixed tense and/or the present continuous where it isn't neccessary. Apostrophes too.

DON'T: Get too hung up on the above. The odd typo will make it through no matter what you do; you expect to see a certain word spelled a certain way, which is why you miss it. It's consistency that's key here: a good Reader is only irked by consistent errors, not the odd mistake.

3. DO: Develop your arena. Give the Reader a sense of where this story is taking place and WHY it's there and not somewhere else. You'd be surprised by how many writers leave this notion out altogether and stories feel like they're "floating in space" or conversesly, put it in a particular, specific place for no apparent reason.

DON'T: Go overboard. Sometimes a writer can fall so in love with their arena they neglect character motivation or even the plot.

4. DO: Have strong, interesting female characters. I am so bored of reading about females who are self-obsessed or rely on men or conversely, ARE men in everything but body and name. I have become interested in even the most flawed scripts because they have at least one interesting female character.

DON'T: Use the interesting female character as a marketing tool and try and construct a script AROUND her. Readers can spot this a mile off. Try and make your characters fit organically INTO your story.

5. DO: Make your script as "vanilla", "vertical", "white" (or whatever you want to call it) as possible. If you bunch scene description together, impact will be lost for certain actions - a Reader might even miss them altogether. Whilst this sounds daft, a writer has to appreciate the Reader has not written what is on the page, so they do not know which the significant actions are. If it's a BIG event, pay off, etc, put it on its own!

DON'T: Put too much black on the page. You see what I've done here? Essentially, as above.

6. DO: Think about structure BEFORE you start your script. A lot of scripts I read, structure is an afterthought and as a result, the story is all over the place, sometimes to such an extent that I'm unsure what is going on. Structure is not just a "buzz" word, but a legitmate device to make your screenplay coherent. Some thought must go into it - whether you go for the Three Acts, Five Acts, Mini-Movie Method, 22 steps, etc - BEFORE you start.

DON'T: Get hung up on structure. Good structure won't neccessarily deliver excellent characterisation, nifty dialogue, a fabulous story. It's just a device to make your plot coherent, not a fix-all-ailments cure.

7. DO: Outline before you begin. The more coherent, interesting scripts have better foundation work: it's obvious on the page to the Reader; they can make an educated guess as to who has outlined and who has not. Whilst they may not always be right on who has, that's down to luck on behalf of the writer in my opinion, not skill.

DON'T: Stick to your outline no matter what. An outline is just an outline, it's not set in stone and nor should it be. Writing is an organic process. Whilst writing your draft, you'll get ideas that will mean changing certain aspects; you'll get feedback from other writers and Readers who may have read a few pages or you tell your story to. This is as it should be. If you shackle yourself to your outline from the outset, this will become self-limiting in terms of what you can achieve not only in your draft, but the rewrites that come after.

8. DO: Invest in your characters. Audiences - and Readers - don't always remember plots, but they remember characters. Those more successful scripts have characters that jump off the page in some way, whether they're male or female, good or bad, black or white, etc.

DON'T: Be afraid to kill off characters. Even if they're good, sometimes they just aren't needed for this particular story. So cut them. No writing is ever wasted, you can use them in another script. Recycle!

9. DO: Pay attention to your dialogue. I see a lot of scripts where scene description is very good but dialogue is horribly on-the-nose or goes on for far too long. Make every word count. Try and give characters different ways of speaking.

DON'T: Use Parentheticals. Only use these when absolutely neccessary, if a bit of dialogue is ambiguous for example. Or if the character speaks in another language or with a heavy accent. Don't use them to tell an actor HOW to say the line, ever.

and finally:

10. DO: Thank the Reader for their time in reading your script - especially if you're a private client and have asked them additional questions to the coverage you've ordered, but even if it's from a more anonymous Reader at a prodco or initiative wherever possible. A little courtesy goes a long way: you never know when you might come across these people again.

DON'T: Argue the toss. Emailing a Reader and telling them they're wrong, misguided, ill-educated, misinformed is an absolute no-no. You will get coverage you agree with and coverage you'll think is wrong. Live with it. It's the nature of the biz.

Writers and Readers - anyone out there got anything to add to this? Have I missed anything? Let me know...


Buzz said...

That's the most useful list I've seen in ages.

Lucy V said...

Thanks Buzz! Great name btw. If you have a request for an article like Dom did, email me and I'll see what I can do.

Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

I'd say DON'T get too hung up on format, but DO, DO, DO undertake a bit of research on the subject.

And by research I don't mean read scripts on the internet, because often these break the rules the most. Read a published book, or stop by the blog of a respected reader where articles on the subject exist (you must have one or two lurking around Lucy).

I've heard many readers say that story matters more than format, but you don't have to make it hard for them from page one.

Elinor said...

Great list Lucy. Timely and sage advice for anyone. It's very easy to get so absorbed that you forget the most obvious things. I couldn't endorse your point about disagreeing with the reader more. As a writer who consults a reader it's quite simple. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open, you will learn something.

Lara said...

I think you've nailed it all on the head there! Great list.

Lucy V said...

Chris - totally agree, format DOES matter less than story - but, like you say, if it's hard to read, format gets BETWEEN the Reader and the story, what's the point?

Elinor - I don't think you should keep your mouth SHUT-- great ideas come from chatting about the script, even the bits where it's gone wrong. But appreciate the sentiment. Lots of writers get so defensive, when it's not about them being "good" or the script being "bad" even so much as opening up to new ideas.

And thanks Lara!

Wow, much love for ME today, cheers guys (I'll give you your fivers later!)

potdoll said...

working for a production company myself I would like to see a short covering letter stating the genre etc. one sentence synopsis would also be great.

Lucy V said...

PD - you DON'T get cover letters?! I'd have thought that was a given!

potdoll said...

We do get cover letters. But they rarely say much more than what the title of the project is. So often you are going in cold.

Not the end of the world but it's like going to see a film - you like to know what expectations to have.

Anonymous said...

nothing short of brilliant

Lucy V said...

Did you expect any less?! ; )

Milli Thornton said...

Enjoyed your list, Lucy! Thank you. It's always a relief to find some confirmation that I'm on the right track. This was also a great reminder re: the things that are really important.