An established producer with extensive industry relationships, Wendy Kram is also the owner of LA FOR HIRE, one of the industry’s leading consulting companies helping screenwriters sell and get their projects into production. Follow Wendy on Twitter @wendyla4hire.
I recently read a script by a best-selling author and screenwriter which was sent to me by a close colleague in the industry. The script was written several years ago and was “green-lit” this year by a major studio starring top level talent with a major producer at its helm. Because the film is in post-production and won’t be released until 2014, I am not at liberty to disclose the title. However, I wish to reference some of the content because it illustrates essential ingredients to writing powerful screenplays.
This was an exceptional script, yet it took me a few sittings to get through the first ten pages. I should qualify that my initial difficulty was not due to any lack of talent from the writer. On the contrary, he is exceptionally skilled and gifted. The experience made me reflect upon why I found it challenging at first and perhaps there were insights that could help other screenwriters gain awareness into how executives respond to material so they can avoid pitfalls.
The script was off to an auspicious beginning, immediately pulling the audience into its world through an evocative depiction of locale, character and mood. By page four, however, I hit a wall of dense prose, followed by a few more pages of lengthy descriptions and dialogue. In spite of feeling deterred, the quality of the writing and the knowledge that it was the work of an award-winning writer whose films have earned Oscars made me want to read on. By page fourteen, the script sailed – the result of well-drawn characters, exceptional dialogue, focused scenes, an escalation of suspense and tension, and economic descriptions with lots of breathing room on each page.
As a producer and script consultant I continually remind my clients that scripts cannot read like novels because they are a visual medium and must rely on images, action, dialogue, etc. more so than lengthy paragraphs of prose. Scripts must include detail in order to transport the reader to a specific time and place, but finding the right balance is key. Excessive details, if not modulated, can reveal a lack of discipline where the writer has become too enamored of his or her descriptions. Frequently, less seasoned writers will include a preponderance of minute details and stage directions throughout their screenplays, which become distracting and prevent the potential buyer from immersing him or herself in the characters and situations.
A few takeaways from my experience reading this script:
Established writers can afford to have some leeway because of reputation, combined with innate creative talents. But they also understand how to efficiently employ dialogue, character behavior, conflict, action, and visual elements to economically tell the narrative within the screenplay framework. The result is that the script is read in one sitting because the reader is unable to put it down.
A key distinguishing factor with most great scripts is that they “move” on the page, which this script did. Other great “reads” include works by David Franzoni (Gladiator), Aaron Sorkin (just about everything he’s written), Tony Gilroy (Bourne Identity series, Dolores Claiborne), and Shane Black, one of the kings of the “spec sale” (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3). While these writers have divergent styles, they share a common denominator. When you sit down to read any of their works, you can't put them down. Executives, agents and decision-makers call this experience a "great read."
Unless you are as skilled as some of these great masters of the craft and are able to write eloquent prose profound enough to sustain reader interest, and/or carry with you a reputation and track record that warrants a reader to continue reading – you are wise to avoid writing super dense passages throughout your screenplay. If you do, chances are your prospective buyer might not finish your script.
In addition to efficiency in understanding the screenplay medium, there is another key ingredient that makes this a great script – “soul.” Presenting clean, easy-to-read formatting and good pacing are essential, but creating authentic characters that elicit pathos will make you stand out as a writer and generate industry buzz about your work. In great films or television shows we might not readily identify with a character but the key to our engagement is the screenwriter’s ability to evoke our empathy.
In the current series Hannibal, the lead character could be wholly and one-dimensionally detestable, but at his core, he is someone who wants to be loved and has deep understanding and empathy for others. In Breaking Bad, the Brian Cranston character does terrible things, yet we identify with how and why he started on a path which sucks him even deeper into a quagmire of horrible deeds, tantamount to Shakespeare's Macbeth and Dexter, who are yet other protagonists we should deplore but simultaneously feel empathy toward.
In this particular script, we can’t help but root for the protagonist. He is all alone and somewhat detached when he finds an abused dog that brings out his long repressed yearning to care for someone and feel connected. The dog becomes the conduit for his ability to grow and love. The protagonist does some horrible things yet we root for him to succeed. Raw, authentic, and visceral, the script stands out because it has a tremendous amount of depth, heart and soul.
For screenwriters who are newer at their craft or just starting out, keep in mind that this established author and screenwriter wrote the script at least three years before it was “green-lit.” If it took this amount of time for a writer of his caliber to get a "green light," and you are not already a best-selling, award-winning author with an Oscar-winning film under your belt, you might not be so lucky as to have readers (the gatekeepers for agents, producers, and executives) read your script through to completion. Therefore, I highly encourage you to write with economy to facilitate the "read." And while doing so, write with heart and soul. Engaging your readers in your protagonist's plight will make them read through your entire script, root for your character, and moreover, root for it all the way to production. Even if it takes some time, you will stand out.
- More articles by Wendy Kram
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