What can you tell about a screenplay or manuscript before you even read it?
There’s a well-known adage to not judge a book by its cover. But we all do it. And for writers, it’s good advice to think carefully about how your submitted work appears at first glance when you send it off to whomever you hope will read it and like it. There’s nothing that will get your manuscript or screenplay tossed in the circular file by an agent, a publisher or a studio faster than for it to be ill-formatted on paper, riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, and just plain unappealing in its structure. Put yourself in their place for a moment: professional readers who read maybe dozens of manuscripts or screenplays in a month, can easily develop a sense of fatigue, and that means they have pretty much zero tolerance for submissions that look like someone who doesn’t know how to write, sent it in. It could be potential New York Times bestseller material, but if you type it up hastily using Microsoft Notepad, and either omitted or prepared a cover page that doesn’t show what it needs to in the right places, they are very likely to just toss it out without even turning to page one—you might as well have written it with a crayon on the back of some napkins.
YOU NEED TO ACQUIRE A WRITING APPLICATION! I uppercase shouted that one for extra emphasis. Trust me, you don’t want to try to get an ordinary word processor to do all the intricate formatting—especially for a screenplay. There are reasonably good ones you can download for free, such as Celtx. Celtx was originally aimed at screenwriters, but now can be used to write novels, stage plays, and comic books. It has many tools that word processors like MS Word don’t have that are dedicated to writing manuscripts or screenplays. Formatting conventions for screenwriting are much more stringent than for novels. There are a half-dozen basic elements of the script that must start at and be indented and so forth in a precise manner. Even if you are struggling to put food on your table, there’s no excuse for skimping here. This bears repeating: if you misformat your work, you will be laughed at and dismissed as a rank amateur by most of the people who read your screenplay or manuscript.
And read books on writing, and maybe take a class or two, for goodness sake! I am surprised by how many aspiring beginner writers whose works I get a chance to see who don’t have the slightest inkling about the craft of writing. And as much as I hate the concept of formulaic writing, learning and adhering to the standard formatting guidelines is a must-do if you want to be taken seriously—not only in New York or London or Hollywood, but in small-town “indiewoods” around the world.
Now I know a guerilla filmmaker or three whose idea of a script is their notes on index cards. Sometimes they don’t decide exactly how they want the shoot to go down until they’re on set and ready to roll. Films made under these conditions tend to be more spontaneous and freeform, and have an almost documentary sort of feel to them. But it is a bit unfair to your actors under most circumstances to not give them a well-formatted script in advance that they can glean what they need to from. I don’t believe for filmmakers, that being good with a camera and having lots of contacts is a good substitute for knowing how to write.
So what can you tell when you read a draft a colleague or acquaintance has asked you to look at and give your feedback, before you even chomp into the meat of the story? Well, keeping in mind that every distinct genre will look and feel a little different, and every reader or viewer will differ in their desires and expectations, there are things that tend to turn you on and things that tend to turn you off.
A script can be too heavy on dialog. You can see that at a glance in a screenplay because of the indentation convention. Dialog-centric scripts might work well for touchy-feely dramas such as a story revolving around a couple of grandmothers recounting their early lives to each other (and the reader/viewer). But it can be an emotional anchor for an action-adventure or science fiction story. Think about the last time you got excited watching and listening to people talking for a very long period of time. Being too heavy on dialog means the story is too light on action or narrative. Narrative is what paints a picture in a reader’s mind of the locale, what the characters look like, and so forth. You strive to develop complex multi-dimensional characters, but dialog alone is not enough to accomplish this.
On the other hand, the story might come across as too light on dialog. Sometimes this can give a film something of a documentary sort of flavor as there is always something happening and only occasionally someone talking about it. For the most part, we look for dialog to give us a peek inside the heads of the characters that we cannot completely accomplish from their actions alone. In literature, there can be well-placed sections of lengthy narrative that work well, but eventually, we want to see and hear characters interact with each other, and this is where dialog comes in. There is a good balance between the various story elements, but it is not an exact science.
Screenwriting adds a few additional elements that aren’t of concern in writing novels or short stories (film is after all a visual experience, and even the script should convey imagery at all times). There are “directives” such as “FADE IN”, “PUSH IN ON”, PULL BACK TO REVEAL”, and so forth. And there are editing hints like “CUT TO”, and “DISSOLVE TO”. Some directors hate these. They think it insults them for a writer to suggest what a camera operator or an editor should do under his or her direction. But since not everyone who reads a script is a director, screenwriters use these anyway since they help convey the visual imagery of the as-yet unmade movie in the reader’s head.
And then there are the parentheticals laced occasionally into a block of dialog that are used to clarify how the line should be delivered e.g. (MUTTERING) or whom the line is being spoken to, e.g. (TO JOE). Again, some writing instructors advise going easy on parentheticals so as not to insult the director by implying he doesn’t realize who an actor is supposed to be speaking to or how he should speak the line. But sometimes it isn’t clear, and the writer really should clarify thee ambiguities. Directors can be very touchy people. If you’re writing for Hollywood, go easy on these add-in writer notes. If you’re writing for some local smalltime director, feel free to add as many directive notes as you want. It is better to give the director too much information as to what you the writer were intending when you wrote the script. But again, remember that directors aren’t the only people who read scripts. And since directors can and should have a shooting script prepared from the writer’s script anyway, and can potentially remove or change things at will, this is really just informal advice to go easy on them (too many parentheticals do sort of distract from the flow).
The balance of the different elements on paper is one of the things that defines the style of the writer. But it is also driven by genre. Horror, for example tends to have more staccato sort of flow to it to help build tension. Comedies might have more dialog, as the banter and kidding around may play a central role in defining the characters. How you write might also be driven by who you write for. If you write spec (speculative) scripts or a self-published novel or collection of short stories, you have more freedom to express your style. You have only yourself to answer to. But if you’re writing or rewriting for a studio or magazine, you may be required to comply with certain guidelines (such as a word count range, avoiding controversial issues, etc.). And the chief editor might tell you you need to adjust your style to fit the expectations of the readers. Welcome to the world of commercial writing.
With experience and with reading lots of other people’s works, you develop a sense of rhythm, pace and balance. The best advice I ever got from a writing instructor was: if you want to be a good writer, you must first become a good reader. I firmly believe you need to read a lot of existing novels and short stories (or if a screenwriter, read lots of scripts and watch lots of movies). Everyone has his or her own personal preferences, but we are all shaped by that which pre-exists all around us at all times.