In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy opens his novel with the line “[a]ll happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. I’ve just finished reading for several screenplay competitions for the year, and Tolstoy’s observation can also be applied to screenplays, though in a vice versa manner: all good screenplays are good in their own way, but all mediocre to badly written screenplays resemble one another.
So I thought I would start a series of articles based on what are for me the most common errors I have run across in my years as a reader and script consultant, not just for contests, but for a production company as well as with my personal clients.
There was one area that was particularly frustrating this year, an area that seems to have actually been getting worse every time competition time comes around (if I had hair, I wouldn’t, because I would have torn it all out by now). For some reason, screenwriters often have little to no idea how to write effective narrative and formatting. In fact, I got so frustrated that at one point I publicly growled on my facebook page wondering whether writers were even being taught how to write narrative well, desperately wishing that someone, somewhere would devote a course to nothing but this topic.
First it should be noted what I mean by effective narrative and formatting. It’s not, as some people think, following a set of rules that if not followed, will automatically get an author a failing grade from a reader or production company or agency. The main reason to strive for effective narrative and formatting it to make the screenplay easy to read and understand; make the plot easy to follow; and make the characters come alive.
I even had to respond to a contestant who said that a professional script doctor was telling him to do things differently than I was and was curious which set of rules were correct. My response was that the screenwriter was approaching the idea of narrative/formatting from the wrong perspective. It’s not a matter of rules that have to be followed. It’s a matter of creating a use friendly screenplay that will be entertaining and exciting to read.
Usually there are two reasons writers give for why they write narrative and formatting the way they do (other than pure ignorance--writers who really have no idea). The first reason is that a book or teacher told them to. The second is that they read a script in which the writer did the same thing.
For example, one issue that continually pops up is writers who fully capitalize sounds and other objects the author wants to emphasize.
My suggestion is that it is more effective to only fully capitalize the names of characters when they first appear. The reason for this is that fully capitalized words are distracting to the eyes and can therefore interrupt the flow of the reading. In addition, fully capitalized words can throw off the rhythm of the lines, making me emphasize the capitalized word in the sentence rather than retain the natural rhythm of the sentence (“John throws the grenade” and “John throws the GRENADE” read very differently in the head).
When I ask a writer why he wants to capitalize these words, he often says that a book told him to. When I ask him why the book said to do it, he often says that the book said it was a rule. I suggest that that is usually an insufficient reason for doing something.
The only reason that ever made any sense to me in regard to capitalizing like this is that the writer wants to emphasize something for the director so that the director knows how to visually shoot the movie (in other words, the author is storyboarding the movie). But this is not the author’s job, it is the director’s. And the director isn’t going to care what you want to emphasize visually. They are going to storyboard the screenplay and shoot it the way they want to.
The second reason is that the author read a screenplay (one that has been made and/or lauded) and that that writer did something not normally done and therefore the screenwriter should be able to do it, too. Again, that’s not a reason to do something since you don’t know why this particular screenwriter did what he did.
Also, screenplays at different levels of development look different. Shooting scripts can look very different from spec scripts because there is often a lot of detail that has been contributed along the way, details that the director and producer asked the screenwriter to include. Also, sometimes these screenwriters are directors and include details for their own purposes. And sometimes these screenwriters have reached a level where they can do whatever the hell they want. Also, screenplays written for Hollywood studios do sometimes look different from spec scripts written for independent producers.
But in the end, I’m not here to tell you what you can get away with, like these writers have done. You can get away with anything. I’m here to suggest what is best for the screenplay and what makes it easier to read and understand, what works best for the screenplay. You can do anything you want and it’s possible that you might get the script bought. My purpose here is to make your screenplay more readable and more appealing to production companies, contests and others.
Next: length of narrative paragraphs.