10 Essentials for Screenwriting Fame

You have a great story to tell. You even have your Oscar acceptance speech ready. You’re even thinking about entering the professional-level competition at L.A. Screenplay Awards.

But writing a screenplay is tricky business. You have the discipline. You’re willing to do the work. You can handle rejection. You’ll even do rewrites. But do you understand the basics you need to master before you get your hands on that gold statuette?

Let’s cut to the chase, because you’ve got a script to write. Ignore any of the following at the risk of your entire career (and remember, these are basics, i.e. essential):

  1. Spell flawlessly, write grammatically. Any professional reader will not read past your second or third failure in this regard. Sloppy spelling and weird grammar is a stumbling block to fluent reading. Don’t depend on spellcheck or grammarcheck. Have someone who knows this stuff (if it’s not you) go through your script with a red pencil, and fix it all.
  2. Format as per industry standards. Professional guidelines are easy to find. Follow them. Basics like ALL CAPS for character names above dialogue. Proper indents. Use formatting software if it’s all too complicated to absorb. Use Courier font, nothing else. If you get creative and make up your own rules, MacDonald’s is always hiring.
  3. Kill your clichés. That means everything you’ve ever seen or heard before in all your favorite movies. Archetypical characters are one thing…but they need to act like real people with genuine motivations and personal objectives. It’s called originality, and without it, your screenplay will never see the light of day at the end of the tunnel where no man has gone before and greed is good (no extra charge for those clichés).
  4. Outline your story before you start the script. Yes, we know you have a great story. Prove it by writing it down. Draw a line at your dramatic (even in a comedy) act breaks. Can’t find them? Then you don’t have a story or a narrative that will ever sell as a screenplay. In fact, you’ll be halfway through and wonder what’s next. Why is this scene here? Does it really move the plot forward? Only a straightforward outline can prevent that stumbling block. Save the brilliant dialogue until you know exactly where everything is going.
  5. Screen directions don’t mean you direct Those paragraphs of timeless prose where you describe how everything looks, how everyone feels, how the action plays out on the set…? They stop readers dead in their tracks, they interrupt the flow of your story, they enrage directors, and they get your script tossed into the circular file. Screen directions (better referred to as “scene slugs”) should just tell the basics: Location. Day or Night. Fundamental action (“The car pulls to the curb and they get out.”). Keep them short, keep them simple.
  6. Get things going. Your opening sequences are critical to your success. Bore the reader with 10 pages of prelude to your story, and your story will never be read. Make your script impossible to put down by making things happen right off the bat. Put your best stuff right up front.
  7. Don’t be too clever. Amazing denouements and surprise endings based upon information you don’t reveal until the last three pages aren’t just aggravating; they’re lame. Such trickery only proves you haven’t done the real work of foreshadowing or of character development. A reader (the audience) will stay with you only if you give them a reason to trust that what you’re telling them matters for a proper resolution.
  8. Avoid “on the nose” dialogue. Real people rarely say exactly what they mean, and neither should your characters. That doesn’t mean you let them ramble on in oblique, pointless, redundant exchanges. Every line of dialogue should move something forward in the scene, but other than the obligatory “I’m going to kill you”, your characters need to be subtle in expressing their motivations and objectives.
  9. Let the conflicts breathe. Without conflict, of course, your characters have no reason to interact and the reader won’t care about anything they do. Everyone in your script must want something, and your job is to make it difficult for them to get what they want.  But don’t make it so incredibly arduous for any human to achieve those objectives. Sure, make your hero struggle to survive or to overcome odds.  But neither make their hurdles to high nor too low.
  10. Take a breather. Put your finished screenplay down. 24 hour minimum. Read something else…then read your script again with “fresh eyes”.  Wait—did you really make all those typos and spelling errors? Wait—did you really have your heroine say those silly words? A careful re-read will save you unfathomable embarrassment and just might save your writing career. Do it. And then…do it again.

Writing—and the world of screenwriting in particular—is not easy. But you’ll be much closer to achieving your screenwriting goals (dare we say Fame?) if you master these ten basics.

Want some rapid response hands-on help to make sure you’ve got these basic covered? Just get in touch with the professionals at L.A. International Screenplay Awards. No matter what shape your script is in, they can set you on the path toward writing success.

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