By Lucy V. Hay
So last month I was reading screenplay submissions for the Actors' Read Through at London Screenwriters' Festival in October. Delegates were asked to submit a short excerpt of their script for actors to read at the event, so writers might hear how their words on the page actually sound.
I think this is a great idea because as a filmmaker myself I'm all too aware of the uncomfortable fact that what looks good on the page frequently does not sound great in reality. In my opinion, screenwriters are encouraged to think of the page far too much and not enough of how actors and filmmakers can bring those words to life. In short, screenwriting is only part of the process, not the process itself (unless you're writing screenplays solely for yourself, of course).
As ever, there were various things that cropped up again and again in the script pile that meant submissions misfired. Here's what they were, from the small nitpicky things through to the super clangers. Strap yourself in:
1. Weird fonts on the title page. Just about everyone knows a spec screenplay is Courier 12 point now, but writers do still think they have a bit of leeway on the title page, and we saw all sorts of fonts that supposedly went "with" the story. Now, I don't actually care what font you use on the title page (though I hardly ever understand the logic of why a font goes with a story, barring the "Chiller" font and Horror maybe), but there is the point that if you use the "wrong" one (ie. not Courier), you *may* run the risk of a less thorough reader believing the rest of the script is in the "wrong" font too, no? More: 1 Page Format Reference Guide (PDF).
2. Screwy Margins, small font & "Tight." Here's the thing. Readers read all day. It's their job. So they can tell if you've altered the margins, made the font size 11 or changed the settings to "tight" to fit extra stuff in. Sad but true. Oh, and by the way - lots of submissions came in with Final Draft Demo watermarks. C'mon. You're professionals. Either buy Final Draft or download CeltX.
3. Bold & Errant Caps. As ever, there was an explosion of bold and errant capital letters for no real reason. Remember, format's not about "rules," but it IS about not getting "busted"... You want the read to "flow." Make the reader go cross-eyed and it WILL interfere with your story's ability to strike the "bull's eye." FACT. Read more: The 5 Biggest Format Errors Of Spec Screenplays.
4. Grammar & Punctuation. As ever (aside from typos), the biggest grammar clangers were apostrophe confusion and mixed tenses. Don't know what these are, or what the big deal is? Check out this great resource from The University of Bristol.
5. Extra stuff we didn't ask for. We wanted screenplay pages, plus a form in which the writer filled in details like their name, address, the script's logline, a bit of story background, etc. Yet a huge amount of screenplay pages included stuff like synopsis, character bios, etc. One even had a ten page treatment attached and another had included sketches of concept art. Never do this. Always read the submission guidelines (PDF).
6. Notes/Asides. Again, readers read. Tell them how to read your screenplay? They will hate your guts. Similarly, if you want to write a jokey aside, you better rock it.
7. Theatrical scene description. Someone said to me once, "It's a screenplay, emphasis on SCREEN." This is a great way to remember it, especially when so many scripts in the spec pile have their emphasis on PLAY. Don't be theatrical with your scene description; we don't want chains of dialogue, broken up with moving body parts of facial expressions. It's a movie, we want VISUALS. Never forget that. Read more: 10 Ways To Revitalise Your Scene Description.
8. Bad Character Introductions. If characters are not what they say, but what they do, then what's the first thing we see your character DOING? What does this action say about that character's personality and their place in the story? And stop introducing characters by what they look like physically, or worse, the clothes they are wearing.
9. Expositional Dialogue. Never make it easy for your characters to express their pain or tell one another what's going on; make it as difficult as possible. Avoid those long chains of dialogue and characters who facilitate backstory, like sympathetic spouses and therapists. Withold everything you can, make the reader (and thus the audience) work at understanding why a character is behaving the way s/he does. Read More: 5 Reasons Dialogue Is Overrated.
10. No Opening Image. I cannot tell you how many screenplays started like this:
Character X walks into the room, Character Y following.
Character X is walking down the road.
Character X sits in his/her room.
Every time you start a scene, think about WHERE it starts - especially the very first scene, but EVERY scene thereafter too: is this the "best" place for it to begin? What do we SEE? 5 Openers That Make Readers Groan.
Film is a visual medium. That's what audiences sign up for, first and foremost. That's why generally speaking in-depth monologues and theatrical scene description do not cut it. We want a sense of the visual that "speaks" to us... What you see is what you get. So give it to us!
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