By Charles Harris
Your script is complete. Everything works - but there is one more thing that you absolutely must deal with before you send it out.
If you've been following this series of blogs from the start, you've taken your idea from first spark to final draft, step by step, and learned a great deal about your story along the way.
You've honed the premise until it had that spark that lit up when you pitched it. You developed it into an outline that worked, with an intriguing beginning, a dynamic middle and a surprising yet satisfying end.
You've created a first draft that was a mess, but contained a few hidden gems.
You edited for structure, character, scene dynamics, dialogue and description until the whole screenplay worked from fade up to fade out.
In the previous draft, you faced up to the "X Factor" - the one thing (perhaps more than one thing) you've been putting off dealing with.
One more thing...
It's done and ready to send out. Yes?
Because you only get one chance to sell your script to any one buyer. And if there's an obvious flaw that you've missed, then you've blown it.
Before you send it out, you need feedback.
So far you've been doing this all on your own. You've been writing - to quote Stephen King - "with the study door closed." Now it's time to open up.
Screenwriting is a collaborative art, and no script has ever succeeded without feedback. Now is the time to get it.
If you thought the previous steps were scary, this will be the scariest yet. Nobody likes getting feedback.
The only thing worse than negative feedback is no feedback!
We all want to believe our writing is brilliant and unimprovable. And we're all wrong. Even the greatest novelists have editors. The greatest playwrights listen to their actors and directors.
Better that you know the problems now, before you've tried to sell the script, than after, when it's too late.
But listening to feedback is an art in itself. Not every response is right. Not every suggestion should be followed. How do you know which to listen to and which to ignore?
First, take the process step by step.
Before you send off for a report, tidy the draft. Check carefully for typos and spelling mistakes. Put it in the right format - this is crucial (if you aren't sure about screenplay format, I've written a simple guide and a couple of templates that you can download for free here).
Check also for inconsistencies (such as characters whose names change) and factual errors (Dr Google is a great help here).
Then , If you've never had feedback before, begin slowly. Start with a couple of friends, who will (hopefully) let you down lightly.
What do you want to know?
If they've never read a screenplay before, you may have to give them some guidance.
Suggest they imagine their favourite actors in the roles. Ask them to be constructive (not "this sucks" but "here's a place you could improve!")
I also like to give them some questions to think about, such as "Pause at page 10. What do you think is about to happen? What do you think of Josie? Do you care about her?" Etc.
Give them a reasonable time to read the script and then allow yourself time to make any changes that seem to be indicated (see below).
This may entail retaking all the steps from first idea onwards. But if so, don't complain, celebrate.
You're making it better.
Bring on the pros
Once you've gone though all this, you must get professional feedback. Useful as friends may be, they probably don't know the industry. And even if they do, they want to be nice.
Even after all my years and awards, I still get at least two professional reports on any screenplay or novel before I send it. And there are always issues that come up.
The one time I didn't, I ended up spending two years after filming, fixing the problems that should have been spotted in the script - at far greater expense!
Of course, not even the best feedback must be listened to and evaluated.
My rule is you have to listen when they say something needs to be fixed - but you don't have to agree with their suggestion of how to fix it!
Sometimes, you just know a criticism is wrong.
Sometimes, you just know it's right! Especially if you find yourself getting angry or defensive. That's always a good sign that you need to listen.
Sometimes, it's right to follow recommendations - sometimes the opposite will work just as well.
Sending one comedy script for feedback, I was told I should make it funnier.
In fact, I made it more serious. The resultant balance of light and dark actually made the remaining comedy work better.
And then you really are finally done
You've listened to the feedback. You've decided what it means. You've taken note. You've made the necessary changes.
You're finished. Celebrate. Well done!
You've done something that most people never do - however much they talk about it. You've written a professional, polished screenplay.
Start researching the right people to send it to - and begin sending it out.
And while you're doing that - start work on the next....
Charles Harris' best-selling satirical thriller novel The Breaking of Liam Glass is out now, published by Marble City Publishing. It has been selected as Finalist for a Wishing Shelf Book Award
Your Next Script #11
By Charles Harris
We're almost there. Over the last ten articles we've developed an idea, worked it up as a treatment, written a first draft and revised it to the point when it's almost ready to send out.
But there are two more crucial tasks yet to perform. And the first will often make the most dramatic difference of all.
What have you been putting off?
This is what I call the X factor. Nothing to do with reality TV, the X factor is both simple yet profound. But only you know what that is.
It could be something you've been meaning to cut - such as a sequence or character you love but which you know isn't working.
It could be something you know you need to add.
It could be some aspect of the script that you're starting to have doubts about. Perhaps the key turning point doesn't do the job as well as it should. Or the premise doesn't totally make sense.
It's the thing you've been putting off doing - draft after draft.
The difference between OK and great
Listen to the small inner voice that prompts a rethink or addition.
Most good writing comes from our unconscious minds. While we need to use our rational editing brain to polish it up, we also have to listen to those deeper instincts.
It's natural to be afraid of the amount of work needed. But that extra work may turn out to be the most important work of all.
If in doubt...
What may seem a trivial change at this stage may even have profound effects. The big difference between a script that's so-so and one that sparkles is often this stage. It's now that the writers who go the extra mile reap their rewards.
Kill your darlings
In this draft you examine everything you are clutching onto in your script.
All too often, at this stage, we find we're still holding onto the very things that we should be letting go.
Be brutally honest with yourself - because if you're not I can guarantee that the industry will be.
You only get one chance with each possible buyer - producer or agent. Once they've rejected your screenplay, they are very unlikely to look at it again.
If in doubt, cut it out
So if you have doubts about anything, cut out the scissors. Cut it out and see what happens. (Remember you can always put it back again... But you almost certainly won't).
If in doubt, put it in
The corollary to cutting what you are thinking of cutting, is to write what you've been avoiding writing.
What about that twist that you keep mulling over and putting off because it would involve some extra research?
Or the character change that you can't put out of your head, but means rethinking the entire second act?
Or maybe there's a seemingly trivial issue that you just can't put out of your mind.
What are you shying away from?
Changes I've made in this final mini-draft have always brought major improvements.
Whether it's writing an emotional crisis that I've been shying away from, because it will be too gruelling (or challenging) to write or rectifying what seems to be a relatively trivial plot hole, I never regret this last run through.
One script of mine came to life in a totally unexpected way, simply because I followed the little voice that told me I had to dramatise a flashback from a character's childhood in Jamaica.
Even though I thought I was being stupid - we'd never afford the budget for a location shoot in the Caribbean - I wrote the scene. And it worked.
Despite my fears, we shot it, for almost no money, on a gloriously sunny day by turning a gravel pits in Hertfordshire into a totally convincing country road near Kingston, Jamaica, and it gives a very special lift to the whole film.
Listen to your instincts
To sum up: you may think that all the writing is over. But you can be sure that there are a few little loose ends still to be investigated.
Now, for one final time, you will gain enormously from listening to your instincts and making those last few changes that make all the difference to your script.
We're almost done. One more job to do before we can send it out - which we'll look at in the final article of this series.
Charles Harris is an international award-winning writer-director and best-selling author. His new novel - The Breaking of Liam Glass - is to be published by Marble City tomorrow.
by Charles Harris
Our polished new draft is almost finished - last time we gave the dialogue a thorough work out.
But we're working in a visual medium.
Your descriptions are even more vital - and yet many screenwriters fall down badly here, writing descriptions that are at best boring and at worst sabotage the whole script.
Visual means visual
Having written the best dialogue you can - now your first task is to try to cut it all out! How much do you really need?
Italian writer-director Lina Wertmuller tries writing a complete draft with no dialogue at all. It may sound drastic, but it's an excellent way to force yourself into visual storytelling.
Once you've done this, you can always replace those lines that you absolutely still have to have. Then it's time to make those descriptions really pull their weight in your script.
The biggest mistake that writers make at this stage is either writing descriptions that are flat, over-technical and fail to bring out the mood in an interesting way.
Or overwriting - as if writing a literary work, such as a novel or short story.
8 steps to creating cinema
This is where you bring out the filmic quality of your story - picture and sound. Your job is to evoke the feeling of watching the finished movie or TV show - with economy and power.
Re-read each scene in turn, seeking out:
1. Dialogue that can be replaced with visuals (or sound)
Can that line of beautiful, witty, moving dialogue be better expressed in a cinematic way?
Often a thought, mood or idea can be more strongly evoked by an action, a look, an off-screen sound effect or some similar piece of cinematic storytelling.
Instead of someone saying how angry they are, for example, we can see them crumple up a letter or hear them hammering a nail into a piece of wood.
2. Descriptions that are in the wrong place
Writers who've read a number of stage plays might be tempted to use the theatrical convention where scenes open with detailed descriptions of the stage layout.
However a screenplay must only give what's dramatically relevant at the time.
Don't start a scene with a lengthy description of the location. Set the scene with a single pithy sentence and then move straight into action.
INT. LECTURE THEATRE - DAY
In the vast hall, long lines of chairs wait, empty. MARK checks the time on his watch...
If a prop, such as a lectern, is going to be needed later - then you can safely leave it out until it's needed.
By contrast, novels and short-stories tend to describe scenes in great detail throughout. This too doesn't work for a script.
You may want to describe the bustle of the railway station, with those interesting odd-ball passengers, the ramshackle coffee stall, the sun slanting through the glass roof... But if it's not dramatically relevant you absolutely must cut it out.
Screenwriting is closer to haiku - a single well-chosen detail stands for the whole.
At the same time, you can only describe what could be filmed (or recorded on sound).
So cut out all lines which tell us what someone is thinking, or remembering, unless the audience could reasonably work it out for themselves. Lines such as:
He stares out of the window remembering that this is the view that his ageing aunt would have seen just three days before she was arrested....
Similarly, you can't make editorial comments such as
Politics are a nasty business.
Instead, see if you can find an inventive cinematic way to make it clear what one or more of the characters are thinking. For all his dialogue skills, Aaron Sorkin is also brilliant at finding visual ways of conveying characters' thoughts.
6. The bleeding obvious
Delete anything that would be obvious from the context. If it's raining, you don't need to say that people are sporting coats and umbrellas. If the scene is a courtroom, we can assume there are seats, lawyers, a judge...
For the same reason, you shouldn't ever say that your protagonist is beautiful or fit. When did you ever see a movie where the star actors weren't!
Only include such things if they go against expectation - your hero doesn't have an umbrella in the rain, the hero is a fat slob, etc.
7. Locations that don't deliver
Many writers choose the first locations that come to mind and stick with them. But those first thoughts are rarely very exciting. Look at each setting and ask yourself if it's adding the most it can to your scene.
Does that action have to take place in an office, or living room, or restaurant?
What about somewhere more unusual and evocative? Such as a graveyard, or the avionics bay of a jumbo jet, or in the middle of a martial arts class?
8. Descriptions that don't evoke
Finally none of your descriptions should be flat, dull or cliched. Good screenplays bring a moment to life in a short, freshly-minted phrase.
For the same reason, ditch technical directions such as camera shots. These should be avoided because they break the mood.
Use your originality and your language skills to the full to evoke character, location, atmosphere, action so that we get the feeling - from high tension to romantic bliss.
But keep it brief.
In the next episode...
By now your script should be really tight. Story, structure, characters, scenes, dialogue and descriptions the best you can make them.
There's just one big thing that needs to be done before you get it ready to send out. Indeed, the next draft could turn out to be the most important of all.
And that's the subject for next time.
Charles Harris is an international award-winning writer-director. His book Complete Screenwriting Course reached the Top Two in Amazon's bestseller list for TV scriptwriting and has been in the Top Nine for cinema scriptwriting for many months now.
So far we've planned and drafted a new screenplay, and revised it for structure, character and scenes. Now it's time to turn to the dialogue.
By leaving the dialogue so late, we can be sure that we'll be making the best use of our time. There's no point fiddling with lines in scenes that may get cut out of the final script, or for characters who may disappear.
Dialogue is an important part of your screenplay. Good dialogue will lift a good story and characters onto a wholly new plane.
But good dialogue also comes from character and by now we should have a much clearer idea of what makes our characters tick, and what each scene is about, so dialogue becomes much easier to edit.ajor Dialogue Flaws to Check For
The 8 major dialogue flaws
The best way to warm up for your dialogue edit is to read and listen to the best dialogue that's been written.
There's no substitute for reading great scripts - also read bad scripts so you can recognise the main faults!
Now go through each scene in turn looking above all for the following:
1. Inactive dialogue
Drama is action to overcome an obstacle in order to achieve a goal.
All too often, you'll find that characters speak for no good dramatic purpose. Cut out padding, such as repeated greetings, goodbyes and space-fillers that don't push the story forwards.
Make sure that each line comes out of the character's desire to have an effect, most often on one of the other characters in the scene, in the face of difficulty, often provided by those same characters.
2. Lack of realism
In most genres, dialogue should appear realistic. Of course, in real life speech is rambling, broken up, unclear and generally disorganised. So what we're looking for here is to give a feeling of reality, while also tidying the lines up so that they can work on screen.
Similarly, cut out any lack of clarity. People may not be clear in real life, but they are generally trying to express their meaning as precisely as they can, given their abilities.
4. Attacks of the dots...
In an attempt to look like real dialogue, many beginner writers resort to an attack of the dots... That is to say, each line trails off in a.... People never quite finish their... Every sentence never quite reaches its...
This is a fudge and sucks energy from your screenplay. Eliminate the dots except when absolutely necessary...!
5. No subtext
Good dialogue has hidden meanings. Watch out for on-the-nose lines which wear their meanings on their sleeve and try to reveal those meanings instead through subtext.
In 'Juno', when Juno tells Bleeker she's pregnant, he simply says "I guess so.... What are you going to do?" No long speech could so neatly sum up his inadequacy. What he doesn't say says more than what he does.
And that "you" speaks volumes too. He's passing everything onto her. (Read the whole screenplay here)
See if you can let the audience understand what the characters are thinking through what they don't say as much, if not more, that what they do.
6. Going round in circles
Early drafts often contain lengthy passages while the dialogue tries to find its way. Cut the filler. Dialogue such as:
Let's go out.
I don't know.
I want to go out.
Let me think about it.
It'd be more fun than staying indoors.
Can simply become:
Let's go out.
On a similar theme, look out for what I call "ping-pong." It's tempting to write in alternate lines - character A answering character B who then answers character A. But this becomes rapidly tedious and flat.
Try removing the "ping" (or the "pong"). Have questions remain unanswered. And answers unprompted by a question. You'll be surprised how much your dialogue perks up and gains in liveliness and unpredictability.
Cliched lines really drag down your script. Cliches are imprecise, so they have an effect of blurring the story and sucking interest from your characters.
It's easy to fall into such writing, because the lines seem to work superficially, but try to hunt them down and find fresher and more interesting ways for your characters to speak.
Listen to how people speak in real life. Becoming an adept eavesdropper (and keeping notes where possible) is a vital skill.
8. Functional dullness
Many scripts get written, and even produced, whose dialogue is totally functional but simply dull.
Film and TV should be entertaining. So try to write lines which are aesthetically pleasing.
A nice turn of phrase, an unusual metaphor, a crisp witticism. They all help keep the story moving and add to the fun of reading the script - and watching the movie or programme when it's finally made.
Now you're motoring!
Take your time. By the time you've finished this mini-draft, your screenplay should be really motoring. We have just two mini-drafts to go.
Next time - all the bits that aren't dialogue: the descriptions.
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Charles Harris new book Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV was published last month by Creative Essentials and is already recommended reading on MA courses. You can buy it on Amazon or order it here and get the e-book version included for free.
As I said in previous articles, I suggest approaching a second draft screenplay as a number of mini-drafts, each focusing on a different aspect.
After revising structure and character, we're now ready to turn to the individual scenes. The advantage of this approach is that you don't have to worry about details when you're still working on the larger picture.
It would be pointless, for example, to spend time polishing a scene that may disappear if you later changed the overall structure or revised a key character.
The Scene Draft
For this draft, you work through the script scene by scene, starting with the first.
Read each through a number of times. Look for where the scene works best and where it falters. Is it too long - or too short? Does it work dramatically or is it flat?
Good scenes are the powerhouse of your script - but poor scenes will suck out the energy!
Watch out especially for scenes that are "setting things up". These are very off-putting, both to a reader and to the ultimate audience.
If you find a Setting-Up scene - and you'll doubtless find many - ask yourself if you can give it a dramatic point. Can you bring out some element of conflict or put at least obstacles in the protagonist's way?
Can you build the emotion - whether comedy, tragedy or thriller? If not, then you'll probably need to axe the scene entirely and leave the information till later - or cut it out entirely.
Writers often become over-anxious about telling the audience things.
Questions are more important than answers. Build up questions in the viewers' minds and they will be drawn into the story - and want to find out what happens next.
Short and sweet
Most early draft scenes will need to to be shortened, often dramatically. A good movie scene is usually short and contains a single dramatic beat - that is to say: one dramatic change.
For example, at the start of the scene, the heroine may be desperately trying to find a lost key, by the end she's succeeded or failed. There may be a few major scenes that contain more beats, but keep them to a minimum.
TV scenes may contain more than one beat, as there is generally less money for sets and locations, but even so the beats will be limited. Otherwise your script risks turning into a stage play.
Be ruthless. Find the heart of the scene and get to it quickly, cutting out any preamble. The best scenes dive straight to the heat of the action. And end rapidly - so eradicate any winding down. All those "hellos" and "goodbyes" should go into the trash bin.
You'll be surprised how much tighter and more energised your script becomes.
Who's in charge?
Now, decide who the protagonist of the scene is. It's usually the protagonist of the story as a whole, but not always.
Make sure that she pushes the scene forwards, taking action to overcome obstacles.
This may mean giving her a goal in the scene (which will normally involve planting this in a previous scene). Or it could mean adding new obstacles. Or ensuring that she takes action and doesn't leave it to someone else.
Variety is the spice of life
Next look at variety and pacing. Ideally each scene should be different from the scenes before and after - either faster or slower or funnier or more tense, etc.
As with characters, in the last article, look to see if you have two or more scenes performing the same function. You'll often find that you've written a number of quite different scenes that essentially do the same thing.
Three scenes which show the protagonist saving a dog, defending a work colleague and giving money to a Big Issue saleswoman may all be there to show his positive side. Decide which is the most interesting and delete the rest.
And just as some characters work better when combined into one, the same can apply to half-decent scenes. Often, one really strong scene can emerge from elements from a number of scenes that weren't working on their own.
Many layers make scenes work
Once a scene has been trimmed down and possibly combined with others, look finally at layering in some more elements to make it even better.
Good scenes are generally multi-layered. While pushing the story forwards, they surreptitiously slip in other material that can, for example, set up future issues, deepen character or enrich the theme.
Early in the film Nightcrawler, petty thief Lou comes across a burning car on a freeway. Cops are trying to pull the driver out. As Lou watches, intrigued, a TV news crew arrives to film the incident and he asks a few questions.
It's a simple scene, but does everything we've seen above. It starts the moment he pulls his car over and gets out. Immediately we are plunged into the action of the attempted rescue.
He wants to know how the TV crew work but the script provides obstacles, making the cameramen preoccupied and brusque in their answers. It is faster paced than the scene before and after.
And despite the simplicity of the action, it provides many deeper layers - developing Lou's character, setting up the idea of filming death and injury for TV, his future competitors and the mechanisms and the ethics involved. (You can read the screenplay here - the freeway scene starts on page 4).
Whereas I suggested writing the first draft quickly, jumping over any gaps, this fourth mini-draft should be painstaking and focused, ensuring that each scene is structured in the best possible way.
Once you've done that for every scene in the script, you can move on to the dialogue and description, which we'll be dealing with in mini-drafts five and six...
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Charles Harris new book Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV was published last month by Creative Essentials and is already recommended reading on MA courses. You can buy it here and get the e-book version included for free.
By Charles Harris
So far, we've developed an idea as far as first draft and in the last article we began to revise it - looking at structure. Now is the time to go back and look more thoroughly at character.
The character redraft is a crucial one. Of course, you've been learning about your characters all along - finding out what makes them interesting, credible and engaging.
However, in the first draft it was important to let the imagination flow, without too much constraint. As a result, there will be areas that now need to be strengthened and straightened out.
The character edit
Start with your protagonist.
Read through the script focusing only on her.
At this point in the process, she will almost certainly be too passive, reacting to events rather than pushing the story forwards herself. So the most urgent task will be to ensure she's as active as possible.
If someone opens a door for her, make her open the door herself. Or, at least, insist that it's opened. If someone discovers a crucial clue, see if she can't discover it instead.
This is her story. She must drive it forwards.
Dealing with her flaws
Next, is she growing and learning? Focus on her flaws and ensure that she grapples with them. Unless your story is a noir, a satire or an adventure story, the power of your script will depend on her personal character growth, scene by scene.
Of course, this shouldn't be linear: we all have set backs from time to time. And it shouldn't be clichéd. Whatever the genre, you want your characters to be original and full of surprise.
Complex and contradictory
The third step is to look at how rounded her character can be. When first sketching out the story, your protagonist will probably be fairly simply developed. Perhaps a little two-dimensional. Now is the time to add some more complexity.
In addition to her flaws, she should have strengths. Otherwise, why should we care about her? What is she good at? What positive traits could she show?
Then there's the way she likes to present herself to the world. Her fears are also important. What is she most afraid of in life? And her darker side: what less admirable things would she be capable of doing, if pushed to the limit?
Good characters have a range of traits, some of them contradictory. This adds to the credibility of the story, and also gives her the capacity to surprise us and keep us watching.
Using subplots to develop character
Some of her traits won't necessarily be visible when she's engaged in the main story, but may only come out when confronted by different characters, perhaps in subplots.
A detective, for example, may not be able to show her more human side at work, but only when trying to help her small son cope with moving to a new school.
The other roles
Once I've thoroughly revised the protagonist, I do the same with all the other characters in the story, large and small.
Antagonists are particularly crucial - and easily ruined by making them too flat and predictable. Antagonists must have their own strengths and contradictions - such as intelligence, sense of humour, human feelings, etc.
Indeed the strongest antagonists (such as Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates) may be highly personable and engaging in their own right.
Cutting and combining
Review the entire story from the point of view of each character in turn, even the smallest, to give myself a chance to bring each to life.
In the process, you'll probably find some characters are not needed - perhaps two characters are effectively duplicating each other. Others may disappear too early or arrive too late.
Sometimes two half-achieved characters can be usefully combined into one, which is always interesting as the new character will have a greater complexity than the original two.
Of course, subsidiary and bit-part characters won't have the same range as the main characters, but they too need freshness, contradictions and the truth that comes from observation of real life.
Once you've completed this third (Character) draft, which is in reality many little mini-drafts, you're ready for the next stage - to tighten and speed up the narrative flow - scene by scene.
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Charles Harris new book Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film and TV was published last month by Creative Essentials and is already recommended reading on MA courses. You can buy it here and get the e-book version included for free.
By Charles Harris
The latest instalment of How to write your next script - click here for article 1 - The Seed Image
In the last article of this series you finally read your first draft, with all the roller-coaster feelings that a first reading brings.
It's now time to begin the second draft. If you've seen a lot that needs doing, this may seem daunting - the trick is to approach it step by step.
Step by step
Over many years of editing first drafts, I've learned not to try get it all right in one go.
The only way that works for me is to take each element turn by turn.
By focusing on just one element on each pass, you take an enormous amount of pressure off. So for the first edit, we focus solely on the structure.
It doesn't matter, at this stage, how good or bad the dialogue is, whether the characters are consistent or the descriptions cinematic. That's all for future drafts.
In short, what I call (to the outside world) a "second draft" will probably be made up of six or seven mini-drafts.
For the first of these, I simply concern myself with whether the story is being told in the right order, at the right pace.
It's far too unwieldy to do all this to the whole dialogue script, so my second draft is usually a short synopsis. It might be a short as one page or as long as five, but it shows me how the structure of a new draft might look in simple terms.
The structure redraft
Now, there's a lot of hot air created about structure, especially three act structure. I'm not going to get into that, except to say that the big mistake is to think there is one "right" structure for every story. The job of the second draft is to find organically what structure your story needs, not to impose one.
In some cases, the right structure might indeed be three acts. Or it might be two acts (Full Metal Jacket), seven acts (Se7en), twelve episodes (Goodfellas), multistranded (Crash), flashback (Sunset Boulevard, The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction), circular (Tree of Life) or just about any permutation you can think of.
However, whatever your story, certain structural needs will almost always be there.
So now ask yourself the following questions:
1. Does the story get going from the beginning?
I guarantee that there will be numerous scenes at the start which are there to "set up" things that are coming later. The trouble is, an audience pays to watch a whole movie or TV drama - not just the bit that follows 45 minutes of "setting up".
Set up scenes are boring. You have two choices. Ditch them now or ditch them later. (Guess which I recommend).
Don't worry for the moment how the audience is going to know all that crucial stuff you want to tell them.
Your aim is to get a story going from the very first half page.
2. Do the key moments happen when they should?
No matter what your "act" structure, by page 10, the audience should begin to have an inkling of what the central issue is going to be. If not, they are going to get very twitchy.
By page 30, the protagonist must have faced disaster and made a crucial decision that will lead to the rest of the plot. It can happen earlier, but any later and you'll have problems keeping your viewers watching.
Around 20-30 pages from the end, we should have realised where the final resolution is going to take place and be on the edge of our seat waiting for it to happen.
You can break those rules, but even the greatest writers rarely do. And when they do, they make sure they know why and how to get away with it.
3. If not, should I be cutting more scenes?
Every first draft I ever see has far too much at the start and far too little at the end. (Including my own). The story starts around page 45. The big decision lurks on page 90. The final climax is squeezed onto the last five pages.
It's time to get ruthless. If not, the people you try to sell your script to will be ruthless instead... Put those key moments where they are supposed to be. Cut the setting up scenes you were leaving till later.
Now, with the space you've created, you can push your protagonist further than she thought she could ever go.
Plan it out
Now work your new structure into a brief outline to see if it works. Adjust as necessary.
You've done your second draft. Easy, wasn't it. As long as you have a ruthless determination and very sharp pair of scissors!
<Previous - How to read your script Next - Character>
Charles Harris is an experienced award-winning writer-director for cinema and TV. His first professional script was optioned to be developed by major agents CAA in Hollywood and he has since worked with top names in the industry from James Stewart to Alexei Sayle.
His books Complete Screenwriting Course and Jaws in Space: Powerful Pitching for Film & TV are recommended reading on MA courses.
By Charles Harris
#5 in the series - Writing your next script - read the first article here
In the previous article of this series on writing and editing your script for cinema or TV, I focused on writing the first draft.
By now, if you've been following the process, you should have a pile of pages with a start and a finish and probably no idea whether they are good or bad. That's fine, the editing will help you find the gold among the clinker - starting with with the first reading.
The naked truth
The first reading is vital. It is the closest you'll ever get to seeing your script fresh - as others see it.
It is also, almost certainly, the most painful. Here is your rough draft, naked and vulnerable, full of faults, ramblings and blind alleys.
However, if you look carefully, here among the ashes of your hopes are a few jewels, perhaps more than you expected. A good line of dialogue. The makings of a strong scene.
Approach it with the right attitude you'll put yourself in a perfect place to embark on draft number two.
Your most important ally is time. Put the script aside for a few weeks or even months, to give yourself distance. Then clear a time when you know you can read straight through, undisturbed.
This first draft reading should be done straight through without interruptions. You want to read it as if you were watching the movie.
Turn off your live Facebook updates, feed the cats, jam a chair under the door handle. Whatever it takes.
If possible read your script in a different medium. If you write on screen, then print it out. Or borrow a friend's laptop. Anything to give yourself a new perspective.
Nothing should delay your reading - not even notes. Keep them very short.
I find it best to read a print-out with a pen or pencil in my hand. Then I can make brief scribbles in the margin as I go.
I've devised a rough code for myself.Ticks and crosses are obvious. A wavy line alongside a scene means it needs firm attention. A horizontal line tends to mean that the scene should have ended there. A variety of circles, ovals, arrows and squares each have their own subtle messages, depending on context.
How you do it depends on you - but the important thing is to scribble fast and keep the reading flowing so you can maintain a sense of the overall flow of the script.
What to watch for?
At this stage, you want to be as open-minded as possible. Don't worry about details of style or even layout. They can be fixed later.
Read first and foremost for the ebb and flow of the story. It won't be anything like right, but you'll catch glimpses of what it can (and perhaps will) become.
Look also at the characters, especially your protagonist. Do we care about her? Does she seem like the kind of person we want to spend ninety or so minutes with? Can you see hints of the kind of fascinating person she might eventually become?
Zero in on the good points that you can build on for the future.
Be brave. In some ways it's harder first reading a first draft than writing it (if quicker). But you only have to do it once. Now you can start to plan how you're going to make it better.
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Charles Harris is an award-winning writer-director for cinema and TV. His first professional script was optioned to be developed by major agents CAA in Hollywood and he has since worked with top names in the industry from James Stewart to Alexei Sayle.
For an intensive three days on learning the secrets of professional screenwriting, join Charles at our unique ScreenPLAY Summer School - July 15-17
In the first three parts of this series on writing and editing your script for cinema or TV, I focused on your seed image, the premise and the outline treatment. Now it's time to write the first draft.
There are three important skills you need to conquer to be an effective first draft screenwriter.
There's Technique, such as how to structure and how to write dialogue. This is the area covered by most of the books and workshops.
Then there is Strategy. Knowing when and where to use those techniques.
And finally there's your Mental Game. This is where you deal with your demons and get the work done. First draft writing is mostly about the Mental Game.
The problem with most writers when they try to write their first draft is they start inventing rules that don't exist.
There only three rules for writing a first draft of anything. It must:
That's it. If you do those three things, if you've started - continued - finished - then you've successfully written a good first draft.
Note that it doesn't need to be a fixed number of pages. It doesn't need to have three act structure or be laid out correctly or all those things you learn in Technique.
That's what Second drafts are for.
Bad is good
The one thing you must not try to do with a first draft is to try to make it "good". Because you have two different parts to your brain - the creative brain and the critical brain. Both are essential but you simply can't use both at the same time.
If you try to judge your work while you write it, you'll tie yourself in self-conscious knots. This is the best way to get writers' block.
I've written scenes I thought were brilliant at the time and which turned out to be rubbish when I read through the following day. And I've written scenes I was sure were rubbish, and which remained unchanged all the way to the final draft.
So, to write your first draft, just sit down and put some words on the page. Fast. Stephen King says he writes his first drafts "just fast enough that his fears can't catch up with him."
You may indeed write rubbish - but that's OK. Nobody else need ever see it. If you try to make the draft "good" it will die on the page. Only if you give yourself permission to write badly will you discover a magic you can never find any other way. Of course you won't know it at the time.
Trust your mental game
You have to trust it's there - and you'll find it next time - when you start to edit. That's when you start to take the mess you've created and make it work. And that's for the future.
Next: How to read a draft
How to plan and write your next script - 3
by Charles Harris
In the first two parts of this series on writing and editing your script for cinema or TV, I focused on the seed image that starts it all, and the premise or pitch that provides the dramatic fuel (re-read them here). Now we move to writing the treatment (aka synopsis or outline).
1. Writing a treatment is by far the best way to plan out your script in advance
It’s true that some writers dive in and fly by the seat of their pants, but they are rare and almost always writing novels. A screenplay is much tighter and will run away from you if you don't plan. I have only written one successful screenplay without a treatment to start (and even then I spent time sorting out my ideas while I tried and failed to!)
2. Writing a treatment is invaluable for rewriting
Once the first draft is done, you need to stand back and get perspective. Otherwise you get lost in the mess. I find that the best way by far is to go back and rewrite the treatment based on what I have now learned.
3. Writing a treatment is essential for selling
More and more producers and agents insist on seeing a treatment before they’ll consider reading your script. It doesn't matter how brilliant your writing is - if the treatment doesn't fly, the script will never even get read.
However, the good news is that you don’t need to write three kinds of treatment. The effort entailed in ensuring your writing is clearly understood by others will make it all the better for planning and editing too.
Starting the treatment
If you followed the last article and worked up a strong log line then you have a solid basis to build on for the treatment. You know your genre, the protagonist and his or her main story goal.
Treatments can be of any length - from half a page to 30 pages or more - though most range from two pages. (the length you need for the Euroscript Screenwriting Competition) to five.
I find it best to start with a very short version, maybe less than a page - to help me focus.
I follow with a deliberately overlong version - to allow the writing to expand. I then cut that version short again. Alternating lengths allows me to get the best of both worlds - brevity and flow.
Write in the third person, present tense (like the script). Focus on the most important beats of the story - and as with the pitch: be ruthless. But at the same time, keep the style flowing. Allow it to reflect the genre - light-hearted for comedy, dark for horror, etc.
Don’t forget character. A good treatment is just as much about character as plot. I find it useful to alternate sentences between character journey and outer story. This draws the reader in and also avoids the dreaded “and then… and then… and then…”
Your aim is to make the treatment fit the proportions of the planned script - in other words the first quarter of the treatment should equal the first quarter of the script, and so on. This is a tough one - most of the treatments I see spend far too long on the opening, feeling that they have to explain everything. You don’t. It’s not about how much you can squeeze in, but how much you can get away with leaving out!
And unlike the pitch, you must include the ending. This is an unbreakable rule. No matter how much of a surprise twist you've got, you have to tell us. Without the ending, we can’t appreciate the point of the story. Or be sure you know how to end it yourself.
Start now. Focus clearly on your story, the unfolding of key events, the development of the inner journey and how it all comes together at the end. Create treatments of different lengths - you’ll need them later. And make your writing sizzle.
Next: Writing the first draft
If you liked this article, Charles Harris runs Exciting Treatments for Euroscript - a one-day workshop on writing treatments for cinema and TV in February and November. He'll take you through basic and advanced techniques for writing the strongest treatments and series proposals - including language skills that you need and which aren't taught in normal screenwriting classes.
This is always a popular class and gets rapidly booked up. Check here for the next available date and to see if there are still places available.
THE ONLY PLACE TO TALK ABOUT THE CRAFT OF SCRIPTWRITING.