I’ve been helping writers via SCRIPT ADVICE since 2007 and it feels the right time now to collate the most oft-made mistakes I see in scripts and hope you find the don’ts useful to know and the do’s easy to apply to your own writing.
As much as possible, screen writing is best kept clean, clear and simple. If the story line is convoluted, labyrinthine, moves across time zones, or periods in time, has many layers of plot that weave in and out of each other, it is very important to keep your layout, your script language and your telling of the story as simple as you can. The more complicated the storyline, the more transparent should be your script layout.
Why? Because a script is there to be read, understood, interpreted and made into something else; a piece of television, a short, a play for radio or theatre. A script therefore has to be easy to follow and easy to understand.
Take it from one who knows, there is literally nothing, (bar childbirth) as painful as ploughing through a script that is dense, over-written, confusing, woolly, and ill planned.
ILL-PLANNED SCRIPT = BAD STRUCTURE
Get your homework done before you get creative. Plot out all your storylines for each character (each character arc) and also plot your main throughline (your central narrative) and make sure each plotline has a clear, separate and interesting journey through your script, from the first to the last scene. Use what ever method suits you best, post it notes, a white board, a big sheet of paper that you can cut up, do it the old fashioned way or use a spread sheet, whatever it takes. Don’t begin your script until you know where the plot is going, where the big moments are, how each plotline reacts and interacts with another and the overall shape of each character journey. To do this properly you will need to produce the following documents before you write your first script draft:
A BEAT SHEET/or STEP OUTLINE
AN EPISODE OUTLINE
Usually between 4 and 6 pages, this is a succinct, detailed, visually written, descriptive introduction to your story and is written entirely to clarify character, storyline, tone, genre and format in order for potential producers and commissioners to ‘see’ your drama and to understand it as a piece of workable film or television. It is in short, a selling document and I have written about treatments before in newsletter 11 and from that blog I add here the basic outlay of a treatment again:
Treatment General Layout:
I love titles. Make yours really sell your idea by being the best you can make it. Favourite Titles? ‘Strictly Ballroom’. ‘A Matter Of Life Or Death’. ‘Call The Midwife’. ‘Roger and Val Have Just Got In’. Sometimes, it’s better that the title describes what’s in the tin so to speak, but also being succinct and summarising either the plot content; ‘In The Line Of Fire’ or giving a sense of the tone and style of the piece; ‘The Unbearable Lightness Of Being’ works better. And a title from my own stable? ‘Full English’ – a comedy drama about running a B and B in Cornwall.
Is your idea A Comedy Drama? A 4 or 6 or more parter? Is this is a serial or a series? Is it a one off or Single? Action, High Concept, Character driven? Say so here to give the reader a clear idea of what to expect straight away.
There’s a lot on the Net about the difference between series and serials and you may get conflicting opinions on this one, but the definition for me and how I have used it in my career of 20 years (so far!) in television, the definition stands as I set out below:
A drama that is open ended. A core cast of returning characters. The backdrop remains the same and is returned to each week. There may be several stories per episode which are resolved, but the series storyline; that which is carried by the core returning cast, remains open ended. Eg: Holby City. Coronation Street. (all of the Soaps in fact) Hustle. Merlin. Spooks.
A drama of more than one or two parts, which has a serial element; a core cast of returning characters and an over-arcing storyline, but in this case, the storyline is ultimately resolved. Eg: Jane Eyre. State of Play. A Passionate Woman. The Lost Prince.
Make these as tasty as you can. I like to add a quotation from each character under their name; something they are most likely to say or something that alludes to their particular storyline. Eg: In a treatment I wrote ostensibly about The Eternal Quest For Mr Right entitled ‘A Man For All Seasons’ (another not bad title!) I created a character called PLUM; her quotation was ‘Plum is looking for a man she can spar with; so far, she has only dated those that shop at Spar’.
In each character biog, give a suggestion of the over arc of their storyline across the number of episodes or across the span of the script you are intending to write. Make these people live on the page.
I think this is self explanatory – but be exacting and succinct in your language whilst being as interesting as you can in your outlay of the storyline. Give the main thrust of the A (or the main) storyline with the smaller, B and C stories if you have them, running parallel.
Main Story Arcs:
Each character has a journey and here you outline what that is in story terms. Again, pithy, evocative language is what we are looking for.
The Central Message:
This will be alluded to in your pithy Logline at the top of the treatment, but here you can extrapolate a bit more and dig a bit deeper.
Throughout the writing of your treatment you must also pay attention to the style and tone of your writing and as much as possible, evoke for your reader the flavour of what they will ultimately be seeing on screen when your Must Have Drama is produced.
BEAT SHEET / STEP OUTLINE
In film; a beat sheet, in television; a step outline. This document is both to use as your reference, to keep you on track as you write your script, and also to show the ‘business end’ (the producer/commissioner) of the writing process, that your script has enough drama, twists and turns, intrigue and interest to hold an audience. There is no need in this document, to go into great detail, but it is important to block out the main beats of the storyline and to mark the major twists and turns of the plot and to note the key interactions between plotlines. Also, to clarify the ending!
A SCENE BY SCENE OUTLINE
Here it is necessary to go into detail.
This is the blueprint for your script. Each scene, as you see it, should be outlined in simple terms, so at a glance, you (and the producer/commissioner) can see how the scenes interact and are juxaposed together. Literally, via this document, you can see how the script works. The scene by scene outline is essential in my view, to get right before you start the business of writing. This is the skeleton of the script, the bones of your story and will reveal it’s overall shape.
It’s also a really useful document to use as you write your drafts, as each scene can easily be referred to and can just as easily be cut or extended as your writing progresses.
3/ SCRIPT LAYOUT:
OVER DESCRIPTIVE SCENE SETTINGS:
Short, simple, to the point and exact, these are the words that should come to mind when reading a scene setting. There is no good reason to go into any detail here, except to say where we are, whether it is day or night, and if it’s pertinent to the plotline, what year it is. Ext. Int. Time. Place. Year. That should do it.
If you are writing a flashback sequence, or a flashing forward in time, then make this clear here by stating FLASHBACK and when the sequence is over, state END FLASHBACK. Sounds simple enough but you will be suprised by the amount of scripts that confuse the reader for the lack of these simple directions.
The same applies to the use of Montage. State the begining of the sequence and the end point. As much as possible, keep Montage sequences to a minimum and make sure they are visual and clearly carry the storyline forward.
OVER-DETAILING THE ACTION IN A SCENE:
Avoid getting too hung up on every action a character does in a scene. Keep in mind that if it does not highlight character, or add a dimension to the atmosphere, tone or story content of the scene, then it is not important to mention. Keep the scene moving – avoid internal observations (that we will not see on screen) and prose-like descriptions. Remember to use the camera as our eyes, and do not stray into novel territory by leaning on description (telling) in your narrative and forgetting the camera (showing) aspect of the story.
4/ GETTING ADVICE AND TAKING IT WELL
Well I would advocate getting advice wouldn’t I? But it really is worth doing and once you have settled on your script editor, writing mentor, tutor, take their advice with good grace and at all times, avoid taking any of their comments personally. It’s a tough call, but taking notes is hard as it exposes the writer and their vulnerablilities. However, a good script editor will not be afraid to expose their opinions to the bright light of your response so remember that all script edit sessions with your editor or tutor, are an exchange of their creative and professional responses to your work and your reaction to their comments. Both should be delivered with respect and received in the same vein.
Nothing separates the professional writer from the amateur as quickly as a writer who doesn’t take advice well.
I help writers write better scripts – check me out here www.scriptadvice.co.uk