FADE IN: And now what?
By Chris LaMont
That is the sound of a 120-page spec screenplay that a writer spent hours, days, months and maybe years birthing from their creative ether – pulling the words straight out of their souls and onto the written page – forsaking family, friends, a social life, and a million other things that they could have done instead – all so they could tell their story to the world.
And that spec just landed in my trash can.
That’s right – Characters and plot points and themes and set pieces, pulled from the heavens thanks to the help of their muse – all in the hopes of getting their script into the hands of someone who can turn it into a living, breathing movie.
And I just threw it away.
Before I started writing screenplays with my writing partner in 2008, I was a producer. Always looking for the next big thing, the movie that I was willing to put myself out there – go out on a limb, hustle for financing, and create something born on a piece of paper and bring it to life.
All producers love telling stories. They also love making movies that get out to the world, with the hope that the film will find an audience and maybe make enough money so you can make another one. Producers are always looking for a film that speaks to them. A script that is the “right fit” for their sense and sensibility.
But this script? The one I just tossed into my mesh trash bin? Nope. That’s getting recycled.
And the worst part? I read one page.
One page? How? Why?
Easy – because the spelling was atrocious.
Face it, if a screenwriter doesn’t take the time to check for spelling and grammatical errors ON PAGE ONE – then why would I want to keep reading? If this writer didn’t proofread this, and then proofread it again, and then get someone else to read it and help them proofread it AND then proofread it one more time? Then why should I want to work with them?
But it’s not just the grammar, punctuation, and the spelling. There are tons of other things that a screenwriter can do to make their script formatting more appealing. Here’s a handy guide of things to look for that writer’s should be aware of to make their scripts as accessible to any producer looking for their Next Big Project.
Choosing the correct Screenplay Software – Do you have Final Draft? Good. Not only is it the industry-standard, but it’s not for the initial draft. It’s using Final Draft in Revision Mode to deliver rewrites to the studio / producer / director / actors after you sell the script. Every producer that has ever bought a script from us has asked for the fdx. No one has ever asked for the Studio Binder or Celtx version of our scripts. Don’t be a disruptor – just get Final Draft.
Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation – See above. Do it or don’t.
Follow the Character Rules – You know the one where the first time a character appears on-screen, we ALL CAP their names. That’s easy – but make sure you do that for supporting characters, background, first time they are on-screen.
Proper screenplay format was created for Producer and the Production Department heads to go through and do their Script Breakdowns. And make sure that those Character Names are consistent through all of the action lines.
Too Much Black – Do you write too much detail in your Action lines? Do your pages consist of nothing but action lines? First off, you’re writing too much. All of those little details that you think you need to include? No – you don’t. That’s not your job. That’s the Production Designer’s job. Let them figure out what the bedroom looks like.
Break up those Action Lines – Good rule of thumb – make your action lines no more than two sentences and three lines of real estate long. If you go over that, then it starts to all lump together. Break up those action lines and it will make your screenplay a lot easier for a producer to read.
Break up those Monologue and Dialogue Scenes – You need to let the reader’s eyes reset after a while. If you’ve got dialogue between two people, throw in a couple of action lines to break up the monotony of ping-ponging back and forth between Character and Dialogue. Same with Monologues. Break it up on the page to make it easier to digest.
Find some good emotional beats and use action line to emphasize the important moments that are the most important part of the reading experience.
ALL CAP SOUND EFFECTS and never Props – When you all cap something, it’s to visually give the script reader a kick. BAM! SLAM! CRASH! That’s attention-grabbing! Not “John holds up the SANDWICH.” You know who will all cap those props? The Propmaster when they get their copy of the shooting script.
Never use the SAME FIRST LETTER for multiple character names – Not only is it hard for the reader to keep track of who these people are, it’s also a giant pain-in-the-ass. Final Draft is great when you can type an A in the Character Line and Angela shows up.
If you have characters named Angela, Andy, Artemus and Abernathy – now you’ve got to click open the window and use your mouse and pick the right one. Too much work. Just avoid it from the start.
No ”CUT TO:” – You don’t need to put “CUT TO:” as a transition in-between scenes. We know it’s a cut. We’re going to a different scene. We got it. In fact, the only transition you need? FADE OUT. CUT TO BLACK. That’s it. You don’t need DISSOLVE TO or FADE IN – that’s the Director’s Job.
Don’t do Camera Angles – You don’t need to have the Camera gliding anywhere. That’s the Director’s job. Let them worry about where the camera goes. What if Christopher Nolan is reading your script and you say “ZOOM IN” and Nolan says “Screw you – I don’t need a zoom here.” He makes his own camera decisions – you tell the story. That’s it. Stay in your lane.
Be careful about (parentheticals) – Be really judicious in your use of the parenthetical. You’re telling the actor how to act. Again, that’s not your job. It’s the actor’s job. Oh, by the way – (beat) is not a parenthetical. Either use an action line and explain the beat, or come up with a better word.
Have fun with Italics, Bolds and Underlines – Who are we writing this script for? Not for us. No, we’re writing this for the producers to buy. So the read has to be enjoyable. Occasionally take an action line or dialogue line and emphasize it with italics. Looks different on the page then just the boring courier font.
How about ALL CAPPING WHOLE ACTION LINES? Or even Bolding them? Or Bolding and Underline them? The page is your canvas. Make it look visually arresting and keep the reader involved with your story.
Having a Good End of the Page – We like to end our pages at the end of a scene if possible. It means we trip and snip and edit so that the page ends at a good moment, enough to make the producer want to turn the page. Don’t let Dialogue (CONT’D) on the next page. You can end a piece of dialogue at the bottom of a page and then put an Action line at the top of the next page to reorient the reader to who’s talking.
Speaking of End of the Page – my time is up. I hope some of these ideas will help you moving forward! Writing is tough. Not everyone can do it. But if you want to tell your story – then tell it. But at least proofread the heck out of it! The world needs your scripts to come to life, not stuck in the blue bin to be recycled on Wednesday morning.
About the author: Chris LaMont is a WGA-writer named one of the Top 100 New Writers in Hollywood in 2016 with his writing partner Joseph Russo, has had six scripts optioned, five scripts sold including one to Netflix, four films produced and released and the fifth one is in pre-production. He also teaches screenwriting at Arizona State University.