Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
I’ve been reading a lot of specs lately and whenever I do that I have a lot of random thoughts, some that I think might be helpful for writers to hear and some that I’m pretty sure won’t be all that helpful (“This chair is lumpy;” “Gee, I wish I had a chocolate doughnut;” etc.). Here is a collection of some of the potentially helpful ones:
- If you’re writing about children, it’s really important that you get the ages right. I read a lot of screenplays with kid protagonists in which the stated ages of the characters don’t match the personalities being presented. As an example, I’ve read many scripts that depict 13-year-olds as naïve, wide-eyed innocents who believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny, hang out in treehouses, and play on monkey bars. Have you ever met a modern 13-year-old? He or she has much more in common with a burned-out 40-year-old account manager than they do with the fresh-faced denizens of Romper Room – these days, wide-eyed naiveté and innocence is pretty much a done-deal by the time a kid is eight. A child’s level of awareness and maturity changes drastically every year, so there is a very vast and very specific difference between a 7-year-old and an 8-year-old; an 9-year-old and a 10-year old; a 11-year-old and a 13-year-old; and so on. With adult characters, you don’t have to specify an exact age (unless the plot requires it) – an adult’s personality is basically the same no matter what his/her age. The most you have to do with adult characters is place them in a general age range (e.g. “Fred is in his 30s”) and you’re good to go. However, with kids you must be extremely precise (e.g. “Benjy is 9,” “Katie is 11”) or the characters won’t ring true. I think the main reason so many writers assign the wrong ages to their young characters is that they don’t have much experience with actual children and are relying too much on either their own inaccurate memories of their own childhoods or they are just lazily recycling the stereotypical kid characters they have seen in other movies and TV shows. If you’re going to feature children in your script, you should hang out with a few first so you can get a better sense of what they are actually like.
- In fact, hang out with all your subject matter before you start writing. In other words, do your research. I’m all for taking dramatic license in the service of telling a good story, but you can only take dramatic license from something that’s real. Otherwise you’re just making stuff up out of whole cloth. That’s fine if you’re writing a fantasy (but only if you are very, very thorough) but it doesn’t work at all if you’re basing your story on an actual profession or endeavor or setting it in a real place or a real time period or if you are basing it on actual events. Your stories don’t have to be 100% factual for audiences to buy into them, but they do have to feel 100% authentic. I read too many scripts in which it’s clear that the writers have done no research into the world or the era they are writing about so there is nothing authentic for them to extrapolate from and, as a result, the stories just don’t ring true. In order to depart from reality, you must first know what reality is. If not, you end up with something like a script I read a while back set in the world of professional theater in which the writer clearly didn’t know a thing about professional theater. Instead of doing his/her research, this writer made the assumption that plays are written and produced in the same manner as movies are (they’re not. At all) and so created a narrative in which not one of the plot developments was authentic or believable and, as a result, the story completely turned to paste. I’ve read scripts set in the 1970s in which cell phones played a pivotal roles; scripts in which computers do things computers can’t do; scripts about doctors who write routine prescriptions for diseases for which there are no cures; and, recently, a script about a submarine in which the author identified a certain instrument as “that thing submarine sailors use to look on top of the water when the submarine is under the water” because (I’m assuming) she/he was too lazy (or too clueless) to look up the word “periscope.” Do your homework, folks. It’s important.
- Do not write specs for animated movies. Animated films are not made from pre-written screenplays. Instead, they are most often developed by the creative teams behind the movies – initially by brainstorming ideas and then by translating those ideas into loose outlines and eventually storyboards (or, more likely these days, pre-viz). At some point (sometimes), a formal screenplay is written, but that is at the end of the development process rather than the beginning. The point is, animated films are never based on outside specs so it is a complete waste of time to pen one.
- It’s really important that your script have a consistent tone. Straight is good; spoof is good; gritty is good; idealized is good; dark is good; light is good; cynical is good; optimistic is good. What isn’t good is when two or more of these approaches are mixed together in the same script. Audiences will follow you anywhere if you make it clear to them what type of story you are telling, but when you keep changing the type of story you are telling while you are telling it then you run a very good risk of losing them completely.
- The only time CONTINUOUS should ever be used in a scene slug is when the action in one scene carries directly over into the next without a break: e.g. when two people discussing something in the kitchen continue having that discussion as they walk into the living room. In other words, CONTINUOUS is only used when the action in two scenes is actually continuous. CONTINUOUS is not used to indicate that one individual scene follows another (that is assumed by their sequential placement in the script) and it is not used when cutting from one bit of action to another in the same sequence: e.g. if a doctor is operating and we cut to the patient’s family praying simultaneously in the waiting room. Of all screenwriting terminology, CONTINUOUS is the one I see misused the most.
- In this day and age, it is not acceptable to use stereotypical characters in your script unless you also include some sort of twist or spin that subverts the stereotype. You may think this is a no-brainer, but I still read far too many scripts that continue to employ such characters. Many of these are presented in what I’m sure the authors think is a positive light (e.g. as best friends or coworkers rather than as drug dealers or burglars), but a stereotype is still a stereotype whether the writer’s intention is positive or negative.
- It’s also time to retire the snotty voicemail announcement (“This is Doug. When you hear the beep, blah, blah, blah…”). No one in real life has a message like this, even impossibly hip dudes who can’t be bothered.
- It’s really, really important that you don’t send out your first draft. I read so many scripts that have great premises and/or contain lots of great ideas, but that have not been properly or sufficiently developed or honed. These pieces have great potential, but do not work in their current states and so I have no choice but to pass. It does you no good to get a script to market quickly if it’s not ready. It can never be said enough – the most necessary thing that a writer needs to do is revise, revise, revise (and then revise again).
- Ages do not have apostrophes. Betty is in her 30s, not her 30’s.
I really do wish I had a chocolate doughnut…
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