Despite the amount of drivel produced for film and TV these days, writing a screenplay is not easy. Surprisingly, it takes a lot of work to produce the same thing over and over. However, it doesn’t take anywhere near as much effort as it does to produce the truly amazing screenplays that will keep a potential agent/director/producer reading, and want to bring your work to life.
This latest edition of the ingredients list is all about how to write a screenplay that will grip the audience over and over.
(Please note: These ingredients are also needed to write a really shit one, but they’re more watered down.)
1. Engaging Plot
Much like in fiction, if your plot sucks, nobody is going to be interested in the story. You don’t want to be a part of Hollywood and recycle the same story over and over, do you?
The audience you choose will dictate the characters, plot, dialogue and just about everything else in your screenplay. Even if you’re only writing for your best friend, it’s important to keep your audience in mind when writing.
There are certain things you can’t get away with for particular age groups. Mean Girls, for example, had to be rewritten so that it could achieve its PG-13 rating in America. In the original draft, the line, ‘Is your muffin buttered?’ originally read, ‘Is your cherry popped?’ The original makes much more sense, but was one of the reasons it wouldn’t have been able to reach its teenage audience. The BBFC has a list of criteria for each age bracket.
Characters are important. They should be likeable, well-rounded, and flawed. The more perfect you make your character, the more annoying they’ll be. Don’t make them walking cliches — make them nuanced, interesting, human. And for the love of God, don’t force your females into the trap of being the damsel, the diva or the Buffy. They — and the female species — deserve better than that.
Characters can have visual cues as well as verbal ones. Consider giving one of your characters a visual cue such as a nervous twitch or a facial expression they use in a particular situation.
4. Individual Characters’ Voices
Each character should have a unique voice that stands out as much as they would if stood in front of you. Someone should be able to read a line of dialogue and instantly tell which character it belongs to. If you can’t hear your characters’ voices when they speak, write some character biographies, or a monologue. You could even combine the two. Having your character speak their life story will help you to get inside their head and work out where they come from, who they are, what kind of mannerisms they have, what they want from life, and anything else the character would — or wouldn’t — want to say. Don’t forget to include paralinguistic features in this, too — the little things that they do like twitches, pacing, hair flicks and rubbing their hands together can say more about their state of mind than the words that come out of their mouth.
5. Correct Layout
A screenplay is an awkward thing to lay out. If you’re serious about writing yours, it’s important to lay it out correctly. Names should be in capitals, directions aligned to the left, emphases should be underlined, not italicised. If you’re lazy, you can use Final Draft — or if you’re a cheapskate, Celtx — to lay yours out. You can format it yourself if you want, but programs such as Final Draft and Celtx allow you to focus your time on the content of your screenplay and not the layout.
6. Visual Description
A successful screenplay should be a visual affair that, when read, is as beautiful to read as it could be on screen. You want people to be able to see your screenplay. Make the description as visual as possible. This will make it easier for the director to translate on to screen, and turn the reader from a passive one into an active one. Screenplays should be written in third person, and present tense. This makes it easier for the reader to visualise it. Be wary of using passive voice, too. Passive voice will make your screenplay less visual because the focus won’t be on the action.
7. Useful Dialogue
Dialogue is great. However, a lot of films use dialogue unnecessarily. Don’t fall into the trap of using dialogue for the sake of it. If you can communicate something without using dialogue, consider doing so. Dialogue should serve a purpose, not just be there because you don’t know how else to convey something. If you’re not sure of what I mean, watch Stoker. Stoker really helped my friend and I realise what our teacher was saying when she said that films are a visual affair, and that dialogue should be used sparingly. An example of the opposite of this — where dialogue is used for the sake of using dialogue — is Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There were some lines of dialogue that were completely unnecessary, and where the characters were stating the obvious to the point of condescending the audience. Said film was also poorly written, and you could tell it was written by more than one person, but that’s another post (or should I say ‘rant’?)…
8. Complementary Subplot
Be wary of too many subplots in a screenplay. If you have too many, some always end up falling by the wayside and things become unresolved, like in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Sometimes, subplots need to be cut so that the main plot can shine through. A good example of cutting a subplot to focus on the main plot is in The Hunger Games trilogy: the avoxes still exist, but they are background characters that can be picked up by fans of the books and missed by those that haven’t read them. There are also several subplots from Catching Fire that were omitted to no loss of the film.
A subplot should complement your main plot. Perhaps it’s like in Castle, where the (family/relationship) subplot often mirrors the main (crime) plot in some way. Alternatively, it could be comic relief, like in Twelfth Night. The purpose of your subplot is up to you, but don’t put one in for the sake of it: ensure it serves a purpose to you, and the audience.
Your screenplay should be a visual affair that only uses dialogue when it moves the plot along. The plot should be engaging, with a subplot that complements the main plot. Subplots should be used sparingly, else you’ll end up with a muddled mess. Your screenplay should be laid out correctly, but you don’t need to worry about doing this yourself, as there are tools out there that will do it for you, whatever your budget.
What do you think are the most important ingredients to writing a screenplay?