Articles & Advice

The Same Answer to 11 Questions

There is one answer I give to a great number of questions I receive from developing screenwriters. Here is that answer:

The script (or scripts) you are referring to was developed in the studio system, or was written by an established writer, or was written by a writer who is also the director of the production, or is the shooting script version of the original. On the other hand, you are a spec writer trying to break in. Thus, you should do everything you can to make a positive first impression on your audience, and your primary audience is the reader (story analyst), who is almost always the first person to read your script and recommend or not recommend it.

And now for the 11 questions:

1. You say to use editing directions (transitions) judiciously, but I just read a produced script by William Goldman that had tons of CUT TOs.

2. You recommend limiting spec scripts to 120 pages or less, but I’ve seen dozens of produced scripts that were over 120 pages.

3. You often caution against a lot of voice-over narration, particularly long narration speeches on page 1, but what about Shawshank Redemption? [I should add to my answer above that most narration that I read by developing screenwriters amounts to obvious exposition. Narration should add an extra layer of drama, comedy, or meaning to the story without repeating what we already see on the movie screen.]

4. Dave, have you read a Woody Allen script? He doesn’t follow standard format, so why should I?

5. You recommend that I don’t bold and/or underscore slug lines [scene headings], but I’ve seen both styles in a couple of scripts by pros. [Concerning this issue, I ask: if you bold master scene headings, what do you do with secondary scene headings? Why complicate things? Focus on a great story with fascinating characters, and use the standard spec format readers expect to see. When the two major software applications change, consider changing yourself.]

6. You caution against writing “talking heads” scenes, especially as a first scene, so what about The Social Network, which opens with an eight-minute “talking heads” scene? [I’d like to add to my answer above that I am only cautioning you. If you can write as well as Aaron Sorkin, follow your Muse.]

7. Most of the scripts I read have camera directions in them. What gives? [I feel impelled to add the following: even though most scripts available to read are shooting scripts, they are still worth reading.]

8. Dave, you emphasize readability, but I’ve read some produced scripts that were actually difficult to read. How did they get produced?

9. You tell us to be careful about early flashbacks in a script, but I saw a couple of early flashbacks in a recent successful movie. {I should add to my answer the following: as a general guideline, don’t tell your audience about the past until they care about the present. Naturally, there can be exceptions. Also, make sure your flashback isn’t just obvious exposition, but that it moves the story forward. And, finally, if you use an early flashback, make it as short as possible.]

10. You recommend the avoidance of bold and italics, but I’ve seen both in a few recent scripts that I’ve read. [I wish to add that there are rare exceptions. For example, it is okay to italicize foreign words. Generally, in a spec script, you should emphasize words or phrases by underscoring them. Bolding has not hit the mainstream yet.]

11. Every once in a while, I see a writer who breaks one of your “17 Commandments.” Why is that? [“The 17 Commandments” can be found on page 160 of the new 6th Edition of The Screenwriter’s Bible.]

Remember that formatting does not have to be perfect, but you should still show your best work. If you break or bend a formatting rule or guideline, make sure you are clear and consistent. And keep writing!

- There is one answer I give to a great number of questions I receive from developing screenwriters.
DAVE TROTTIER, author of seven books including The Screenwriter’s Bible, has sold or optioned ten screenplays (three produced) and helped hundreds of writers sell their work and break into the biz. He is an award-winning teacher, in-demand script consultant, and friendly host of keepwriting.com.
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