Screenwriting is a science as well as an art, and rules sometimes define a screenplay as well as the eternal rules of story. Some things are just what they are. Think of the first time we watched ‘The Blair Witch Project’ type of home camcorder movie. We thought, “what the heck is that?”, now there’s so many indie movies that are filmed this way. Usually Horror or Yeti movies. They broke some rules and it became its own sort of sub genre. If you can do something unique and outstanding, you’re allowed to break rules.
If the hero has to win or achieve his or her goal, then the audience have to grow to like this person, therefore the hero must have certain qualities. They have to have likeable qualities and some weakness that we can relate to. Now Michael Hauge states that movies are emotional vehicles that we participate in and he’s absolutely right. How are we going to participate if we don’t like the character? That’s the first rule- make your main character likeable. Make them human if possible. Even animals in animations have human qualities, archetypes, traits, their voice to start with. That doesn’t mean that the hero has to be a good guy. Think of ‘The Godfather‘, they were killers, and recently, think of the villain or even anti hero Anton from ‘No Country for Old Men‘. The antagonist must be worse than the hero, if the hero is a so called “bad guy” and don’t we remember this movie because of Anton’s character. All story and drama is a reflection on human life.
The antagonist in my screenplay ‘Subject Six: Jenny‘ is a machine like alien force and I purposefully made the main protagonist a female because that dynamic works well with an emotionless force. If you can get the audience in sync with your main character, you will also get them in sync with your main story, because story is character.
Show Don’t Tell
You’ve heard this often enough but that also means don’t have your characters tell the story and don’t make your characters talk about what’s happened, or going to happen, unless it’s necessary to the main story. A good tip here to remember that the supporting characters around your main character are either going to help that character on their journey or hinder them, and that should be their main purpose. If your dialogue is revealing something to this character, offering help, insight or knowledge, then the dialogue is justified.
Less is More
Less words on a script are always better, the more concise, but detailed the writing, or writing style, the more imaginative and better flowing the story. I’ve read Pro’s work scripts as some of the red list scripts attached here, say so much in the first few pages and keep the story compelling. Page turners!
Hank smiles at Melissa whilst chewing his gum and slides on his shades as the sun blazes into his eyes.
He bends, opens the door and drops into the car as Melissa waits for a response to her question. He slowly turns up to look at her.
[slapping his mouth]
I ain’t telling you a god damn thing Melissa!
Why?… Who is she!? Tell me damn it!
Hank looks ahead, starts the car, SLAMS his foot down onto the gas and drives away.
[running to kick the car]
Piece of shit!
Hank doesn’t answer. He slides on his shades and climbs into the drivers seat.
You give me a reason to answer you this time?
For your sake, I hope she’s worth it…
Hank revs up the engine and pulls away.
You’ll be back.
Here, the context is more interesting and it’s loaded with subtext. Also, avoid trying to use italics and bold and underline, unless you know what you’re doing and it’s absolutely necessary.
Start Late and Finish Early
This is something I am still sometimes guilty of, if your movie has a car chase sequence, cut straight to the action. If your screenplay needs to reveal some important dialogue with the main character and antagonist, get straight to the point, don’t show the before or after. Whilst brevity is key, so is it being concise- to the point. Only show what’s fundamental to moving your story forward. Often you’ll see from feedback that your script has problems with pacing, well that could also be because there’s too much of “nothing” going on in the narrative.
For this, I am going to focus on a Spec Script, or a Speculative Script, because as a new writer, that’s the common one you’ll most likely write for it to be sold or optioned.
I am not going to write about the FOUR QUADRANT styles here, but you can read that in the linked article.
We’ll expand into this for writing tones, as shown in the section below, but for now I want you to keep in mind a more filmist or visual style of writing, that’s the one I commonly write with. This is the area where people adapting novels into screenplays, struggle with the most and that’s why I would advise you to hire a screenwriter to do it for you.
I have written Production and Directors scripts before too for my short movies, but for now, let’s focus on the SPEC SCRIPT.
Study My 3 Screenplay Samples below, all for very different movies and genres. See if you can visualize the feeling and flavour of the story from the different writing styles that have been used in each of them.
- Subject Six – Sci-Fi Drama
2. Grizzly Summer – Action Thriller
3. Faceless – Crime Suspense Drama
After reading all three samples, what does the writing style speak about the overall story, characters and soul of the script?
A Bad Style
A bad writing style is notnecessarily a lack of style, but a lack of focus. Randomness and as a creative writer getting lost in events, thus causing the reader to become lost.
When you don’t understand the style of the screenplay, you’re often doing something wrong, or you could simply be telling a good story and there’s nothing wrong with writing with the basic talent you may have, as long as it’s a very good story, told with mastery!
The Story density is the ratio of how much story, relative to the space, pages or word count. Is there enough story in this moment to warrant the length? Theme, humour, emotion, insight, action…
What’s happening in the scene? What are the goals? Desires? What’s revealed? This is why we need STRUCTURE and we’ll talk about this in an upcoming article. Is Anything satisfied or paid off? See Learning the Craft article.
A good script style isn’t filling a script full of parentheticals-
[whilst slurping his coffee]
What’d ya mean Gary?
You have to allow the actors to act. Even though I sometimes do this and it’s a visual habit, don’t direct and tell your characters how to move, unless it’s absolutely necessary. For anyone who’s taken Ron Howard’s Masterclass, you’ll know that this happens during the directing process.
Tone is the voice of the story or voice of the narrator. With the right tone, you can strike the right perspective with how you think the story should be told and this will speak to the Director or Producer.
Tone creates the cognitive effect in the minds of the reader. You have to find your unique voice and perspective to tell the perfect story. With what lens are you trying to tell your story? This will separate your script from others, its voice!
The narrator is everywhere in the script, every beat, scene, character description, every action transition and sequence. Make your narrators voice as strong as possible in the opening of your screenplay.
There are 4 Main Voices or Tones
- The God’s Eye Tone
- The Ironic Narrator
- The Comic Narrator
- The Sentimental Narrator
Tone is about filtering and by doing this, you shape the tone of your story or screenplay. What you focus on will visually shape what the camera shows when the Producer and Director come to film what you have written.
How do you describe your main character, look at how I’ve described the women in all three of my screenplay’s which are attached above.
Jenny from Subject Six is described as having an electric vibrance, is that because the theme is about thriving and survival. She’s not exactly your average human, the word vibrance is also associated with animated, perhaps synthetic. That’s a big hint right there!
Anna from Faceless is described in the opening scene as looking like a million dollars, is that because the themes are embedded in material, wealth, and also false imitation. Note that Milton’s flaw is physical desire or lust, and that’s another theme explored in the movie.
Kerry from Grizzly Summer is described as being a simple beauty because the theme focuses on small and simple things, because the major focus of this is life’s precious, and all those who appose that, or try to change that, end up in a sticky mess because the universe holds everything together for a reason.
The words you use have to portray visual things. Things that with the right archetypes and symbols, from the story you have crafted, can become metaphors.
HOW you strike up your story’s tone speaks in volumes of what type of artist you are, and if you’re not there already, just keep writing and learning!
The God’s Eye Narrator
This is the all knowing and all seeing eye ( I am not talking about The Lord of The Rings), seeing into the essence of the characters and everything. This is a very simplistic eye, it cuts to the surface objects and is very direct.
This is an objective and removed voice that offers balance without going into the deeper more aspects of the tone.
The Ironic Narrator
The Ironic Narrator balances the big things of life, with smaller insignificant things that may seem trivial. Faceless is riddled with irony in the opening scenes, in fact the antagonist keeps telling Milton, that he’s spoiling her, literally because when we all get what we want, that doesn’t necessarily mean we become better people.
You’ll find ironic writing tones in much older material from ancient Greek to Roman Satire because it was becoming apparent in Greek times as the modern season, so to speak- was birthing from the Old World. This is a strong theme in my published works, Belora, The Lost Book of Teaching.
My Quote – “You can never be great as what has already been… We are on a downwards slope and spiral, from Gods to Men, to lesser”. We didn’t descend from chimps, but we’re certainly going in that direction. A touch of my own World view riddled with irony. As an Engineer, I understand that when the original creators of something change or move on, die or lose contact, that creation is then misused over time, or is no longer understood, no longer valued or taught about well… User error. Have we really forgotten our way?
The Comic Narrator
Comedies, Romance Movies and even Chick Flicks are full of comical narrative. Let’s not confuse this with irony, also it can be viewed with that lens. I’ve never written with a comical narrative, because my work is embedded in truth and reality but I’d ask you to study the screenplay or movie See No Evil, Hear No Evil. It’s one of my favourites in the genre because it combines Comedy and Crime very well.
The Sentimental Narrator
This one is the most prevalent of all, because we fashion all of our characters and descriptions with time and respect. A writer in a lot of ways has to be an artist of life. This narrator speaks the language of the heart and becomes all of the characters as he or she writes them.
Those who perhaps don’t, especially with not loving the antagonist, have their own wounds as the writer, and are in fact writing their own story, or something specific to them. You’ll learn to detect this with experience. If that’s the case for you, the work will need many drafts to reveal its essence.
How you show a retired and beaten military veteran is the cultivation of your experience, knowledge and understanding and it’s these elements that industry Producers, Actors and Directors will connect to. This is substance for the soul of your story.
I am currently writing a new movie, which is pretty much verbatim for a big chapter in my life, and I’ll never forgive the antagonist in that story!
As an exercise read this attached script below – Immortal- which is Pro’s work in my opinion and a Red List screenplay. Try to find the Sentimental Tone or Voice here.
For me as a writer, themes are paramount to the material I write. I am trying to tell the world something with a lens or interpretation that may be known and felt, but not properly understood. I have made several documentaries in the past that have views in the many thousands on YouTube and these form the basis of some of the movies I have written. Those messages are so strong, that I’ve dedicated half of my life to learning screenwriting so that these insights reach the world.
Nobody can tell you what to write, you have to find that from within, what moves you? What makes you angry, upset, happy? What drives you to wake up each morning? What’s your journey and story? If you could change one thing about the world, what would that be? Write these down, they will be good factors to start ideas flowing.
This is what you should be writing about, this is what’s important and it’s a portraiture and reflection on life that could be worthy of production. Someone will invest in you, when you’ve fully invested in yourself.