Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
More than in any other form of storytelling, in screenwriting it is vitally important to get on with it -- to get your story going and keep it going at a crisp, efficient pace, with a tight focus and without meandering or dawdling.
This is because screen storytelling is dramatic storytelling and dramatic storytelling generates most of its impact from two factors: build and momentum – a dramatic situation kicks off with an inciting incident and then continues to grow more and more intense at a faster and faster rate until it reaches a powerful climax. Anything that gets in the way of that build or interrupts that momentum – any narrative fat or digression – will significantly dilute both the impact and effectiveness of the tale being told.
Unfortunately, too many screenwriters, especially new screenwriters, submit scripts that are flabby and unfocused – that contain too much narrative excess and whose scope goes wide instead of lasering in. Here are ten tips for keeping your script on point and moving at a lean, mean pace.
- Start the story right away.
The inciting incident – the event that gets the story rolling – should occur on page 1 or as close to page 1 as possible. The end-of-Act-One plot twist – the event that establishes the premise and kicks the narrative into high gear -- should happen somewhere between page 15 and page 20 and certainly never later than page 25.
- Introduce your protagonist on page 1
Or as close to page 1 as possible. The protagonist is the character the story is about – his arc is the story’s arc. Therefore, the story cannot begin until the protagonist enters. Unfortunately, many writers spend a lot of time at the beginning of their scripts introducing and developing supporting and minor characters before they finally get around to bringing in their protagonists. No matter how interesting those other characters are, these are wasted pages because the story hasn't gotten underway and the script is just spinning its wheels and will continue to do so until the hero shows up.
- Establish the premise of your piece right up front.
If your script is about an alien invasion of New Jersey, then the off-worlders have to land sometime in the first ten pages and Bayonne better fall no later than page 25. Too often, aspiring screenwriters delay introducing their story “hooks” until far into the script (I’ve read more than a few specs in which the premise isn’t introduced until page 50 or 60 or even page75 or beyond). The premise is the concept the story is built on -- it's the foundation of the story's house. Therefore, the story can't begin until the premise is established. The purpose of the first act is to set up the premise, which is then introduced in the end-of-Act-One plot twist (an out-of-work actor who needs money decides to dress up as a woman so that he can get a part on a soap opera; a New England beach resort realizes the Great White shark that has injured some bathers isn't going away and that they are going to have to hunt it down and kill it; etc.). It is only then that the narrative really gets going. This should all happen no later than on page 25 of your screenplay. Any longer and the momentum of the script will slow to a crawl because nothing of consequence (or of interest) is happening.
- Avoid prologues.
Many spec writers these days are fond of beginning their screenplays with pages and pages devoted to detailing the life story of the protagonist from birth to the present or chronicling the backstory of the story’s central situation from the beginning of time until a week ago Wednesday before introducing their tales; inciting incidents. Some of these prologues are quite lengthy -- I recently read a screenplay that rambled on for 43 pages before the inciting incident occurred and I have read scripts with more than 70 pages of preliminaries in advance of the main narrative. Because all of this material occurs prior to the tale’s inciting incident, it's not part of the story and therefore including it is simply adding a lot of dead space. So avoid prologues if you can and if you must have one, then keep it to five pages or less.
- Make sure all subplots are relevant.
The purpose of a subplot is to enhance the primary plotline in some meaningful way -- by augmenting it (usually by delivering exposition that the main narrative is unable to), by commenting upon, by providing another point of view on the issue at hand. Any subplot that does not do one of these things should not be in the script.
Do not include subplots in your script simply to give minor characters something to do. I see this a lot – a character plays a crucial role in only one or two scenes, but otherwise has nothing to do, so the writer concocts a standalone subplot for him/her that is threaded through the script to keep the character alive but is otherwise irrelevant. If you find yourself doing this, then it is a sign you must rethink your script – either find a way to exit the character gracefully once his/her purpose has been served or else see if you assign the character’s plot duties to another character who has more of presence in the rest of the piece.
- All scenes must be necessary.
Every scene in the script must advance the story. Any scene that does not push the narrative forward must be cut. There should be no fluff, no digressions, no scenes included in the script solely for mood or atmosphere or “just ‘cause” (all grace notes should be incorporated into the narrative, not added to the script apart from it).
- Start your scenes as late as possible and end them as quickly as possible.
Every scene has a dramatic point it needs to make -- a hero gains leverage over a villain (or vice versa), a man tells a woman he loves her, a detective discovers a crucial clue, an alcoholic finally recognizes that he has a problem, etc. Some writers like to take their time and gradually build up to these moments in the course of a scene. In general, however, that’s a bad idea because it can cause the story to drag and take the wind out of the narrative's sails. Ideally, you should always begin a scene as close to its dramatic point as you can and then exit it as soon after that point as you can. Don’t worry about the scene being too spare – the acting, staging, and emotion in the scene will fill it out quite nicely.
- Only make your points once.
Worried that readers (and eventually viewers) will not understand what they are trying to say, some anxious writers will repeat their points over and over (and over) again and thus add a great deal of flab and redundancy to the screenplay. I recently read a script about a character that got out of prison. The writer wanted to establish that his protagonist was no longer comfortable in “normal” life after spending so much time in prison. He made this point by writing 25 different scenes showing the character being uncomfortable in “normal” situations, even though the point was made just fine in a single “welcome home” party scene at the very beginning of the piece. This overkill added 15 unnecessary pages to the script. To avoid this problem, make your points once and trust that your viewers will get it. Because they will.
- Keep exposition to a minimum.
Exposition is information that the audience needs to understand the story but that cannot be generated by the tale itself (e.g. knowledge of an event that occurred before the story begins; information regarding some technical process that is an essential element in the narrative, etc.) Because exposition exists outside of the story, inserting it will automatically bring the tale to a halt. Therefore, the trick with exposition is to work it in as briefly and unobtrusively as possible – usually via a few choice lines of dialogue (with the emphasis on "few" -- no long, run on explanatory speeches that read like encyclopedia entries, please) or in a few select images or bits of behavior (a widower gazes mournfully at a photo of his late wife; a detective unearths a clue; etc.). Include only the exposition the audience absolutely needs to comprehend the story -- we don’t need to know that a character flunked a spelling bee as a child unless that failure has a direct bearing on the story at hand.
Modern screenwriters are very fond of using flashbacks to provide exposition, but flashbacks are an awkward tool because they not only bring the narrative momentum to a halt, but actually send it reeling backwards. So avoid them whenever possible and if you must use them, use only one or two and keep them brief.
- Don't go off track.
In a properly conceived and constructed dramatic tale, a protagonist sets out in pursuit of a goal, which he pursues throughout the narrative, overcoming many obstacles (including opposition from a formidable antagonist) until he finally accomplishes his goal (or doesn't, as the case may be). Keep your narrative focused on this quest -- some writers (often those who can't think of enough material to flesh out the second act) will give their heroes a second goal in the midst of the first. These additional quests will certainly fill up pages, but they will also cause your script to lose focus (a cop can set out to solve a murder or he can set out to solve a robbery. But when he sets out to solve both a murder and a robbery in the same screenplay, then what the heck is the story about?). Your protagonist should pursue his goal with single-minded zeal and when writing about his adventures, you should do the same.
- Keep the page count down.
A properly executed screenplay should run between 90 and 120 pages. The closer you can get it to 90, the better (and it should never, ever run over 120).
Check out my new booksA Quick Guide to Screenwriting, A Quick Guide to Television Writing, and A Quick Guide to Film Directing. All three are handy primers to the art, craft, and business of creating for the big and small screens.
Copyright © 2014 by Ray Morton
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