Film Ireland gets some not-to-be-ignored advice from James Bartlett, story analyst to the Sundance Institute amongst other illustrious organisation.
Living in Hollywood and working as a script reader and story editor, I know that studios, agencies and production companies receive hundreds of scripts per day. The market in Europe may be less intense (and less well-funded), but either way, someone like me is going to be the first person to read your script.
Over 10 years of script reading I have noticed the same 13 mistakes appearing time and time again in scripts. These ‘red flags’ are all a reason to say ‘No’, and I devised the lecture ‘Hollywood Screenwriting: Jumping The First Hurdle’ to help writers by talking about these 13 mistakes, looking at screenwriting competitions and the industry as a whole so that they’ll have a more sellable, professional product. Whether you’re a new writer or an experienced professional, everyone makes these mistakes – believe me!
1. Spelling and Punctuation
It may seem obvious, but 75–80% of scripts have this problem. You call yourself a writer and want to be paid to write, yet you can’t spell? Or you don’t know the correct usage of ‘you’re’ and ‘your’ or ‘it’s’ and ‘its’? Remarkably, ‘loose’ and ‘lose’ are always incorrect, and Spell Check is simply not enough.
Frank is slumped on the coach, polishing off a bear. A dozen bears are strewn on the coffee table, a one man party that didn’t go so well.
The writer means a ‘beer’ of course, yet Spell Check reads ‘bear’ as a word. I’ve even read scripts where the very first word was spelled wrong! Try reading your script from the end to the beginning and keep checking, because there’s never any excuse…
2. Introducing Characters
When any character first appears, their name should be in CAPS (i.e. JOHN or WAITER). It should not be in caps in the scene description from then on, because IT gets REALLY hardTO READ when ALMOST every other WORD is IN CAPITAL letters, and secondly, it’s a nightmare for casting (unless you have hundreds of characters all named JOHN in your script).
3. Songs, Poems & Quotes
Firstly, music licensing is often complicated and expensive. Producers always cut the music budget first too, so it’s best not to keep drawing attention to it. Also, while it may seem like a good idea, what happens if the reader doesn’t know the song, doesn’t like it, or thinks it doesn’t work with the scene? Then it takes him/her out of the story, and it comes off as an attempt to manufacture emotion.
An opera aria plays on the car stereo: ‘Morgen!’ from Strauss’ Wesendonk Lieder WWV91.
The important information here is that opera is playing on the car stereo; listing the song itself is the mark of an amateur (unless of course the script is an original musical).
4. Prompts, Asides & Jokes To The Reader
This often manifests itself by showing knowledge of films, books, the film business, or the screenwriting process itself. Don’t ever address the reader outside the world of the story, just impress them with your characters, dialogue and narrative – that’s all they care about.
He is Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom, focused on his prize, moving forward despite the ghosts and ghouls lurking in the darkness, waiting for him, ready to strike.
The Delivery Guy leans against a hand truck and talks as if he were pontificating on Nietzsche’s theme of eternal recurrence.
As this happens, several people in the theatre feel great about laying down ten bucks to see this on the big screen – recession be damned!
His wife Kathleen pokes her head around the door and smiles. See, I told you we would see her again – and soon.
Her smile, the twinkle in her eyes – it’s pretty hard not to love her.
Incorrect presentation and formatting makes your script stand out a mile – in a bad way – and though there are many differing opinions, in the US there are very, very strict industry standards.
Use Courier 12 font to write (no bolding , underlining, italics or colours), punch with two holes at top and bottom, and bind with brass fasteners (known as ‘brads’ for some unknown reason).
Some competitions even have categories for formatting, and the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting (the biggest screenwriting competition and worth entering) even has a guide (http://www.oscars.org/awards/nicholl/resources.html) so you can be sure of 10 points at least.
To learn about the rest of the mistakes, get some insider information and find out the positive steps that make your script a better read, come to ‘Hollywood Screenwriting: Jumping The First Hurdle’.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 133, 2010
Currently based in Los Angeles, James Bartlett is a story analyst for the Sundance Institute, the Nicholl Fellowships, the UCLA Professional Screenwriting Program, the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards and National Geographic Films. He also reads for several UK regions, is the US consultant for Euroscript, and lectures across the UK and Ireland. He’s available for private consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org