Make Your Movie Leap Off the Page

Screenwriter can “direct” movie through clear, compelling writing

Even the most accomplished, brilliant screenplays are, by definition, unfinished works, as they require a director’s vision to be made whole. Consequently, what you are writing is a written document first, which, God willing, will find its way into the hands of enthusiastic P.W.M.s (People With Money).

You, as the screenwriter, must find a way not only to tell a story, but also to present that story in an engaging narrative style from page one.

1. COMMAND THE READ.

You must develop your voice and attitude as off-screen narrator to lead your reader by the hand through the entire script.

Without mentioning the camera or using any other cinematographic language, find a way to “direct” your movie on the page. Your goal is to make your incomplete movie a complete, satisfying read. Excise all unnecessary verbiage; save your purple prose for that novel you keep meaning to write.

Brevity is the soul of wit — and the art and craft of screenwriting; keep it lean and mean.

Film is a visual medium, so a good rule of thumb for screenwriters is: If an audience can’t see it or hear it, don’t write it.

Remember, you’re catering to readers (producers, development executives, agents, managers) who take home piles of scripts every weekend. Once you have their eyes on page 1, don’t lose them with a dull, flat, predictable style. Yes, the story must absolutely rivet them. But so must the manner in which you tell the story.

Never underestimate the value of the entertaining read. If they get bored, it’s your fault, not theirs.

2. DEFY THE FORMULA.

By now, everybody has read all the screenwriting books and knows just what to expect in terms of “inciting incidents,” “plot points,” “midpoints” and all that structural jazz.

As a result, screenplays have become formulaic, structurally predictable and mechanical. You might say, “Your plot points are showing.”

Structure needs to be seamless, invisible. You need to defy your readers’ expectations of What Happens Next, both plot-wise and structure-wise.

What this means is, your plot points must unfold in new and surprising ways.

Readers crave neatness, symmetry, the tying up of loose ends. Never give them what they want.

Guide your readers through your plot by constantly dangling a carrot in front of their faces. Each scene must present unfinished business that cries out to be completed — but isn’t. End your scenes on discordant notes, so your reader is compelled to turn the page and read the scene after it, and the scene after that.

Readers yearn for resolution, order. Life is about compromise, mystery, wonder, constant change. If you give your readers tidy, ordered structure, they’ll be disappointed because it won’t feel organic.

Life is messy and unpredictable. You must structure your stories to create the feeling that virtually anything could happen next.

Your readers will not be comfortable with this approach — which is exactly your intent. When we feel too comfortable, we get restless and bored. We want to be surprised and even shocked by movies, or we may as well stay at home in our Barcaloungers and be remote control zombies.

How do you keep your story structurally surprising? By focusing on your characters’ relationships to structure. Your “plot points” emerge as crises for your characters because they force your characters to change, and while each crisis presented in your screenplay should be surprising, your characters’ unique and very specific approach to crisis management is what keeps your reader hooked — not the crisis itself.

3. DIG AS DEEPLY INTO YOUR CHARACTERS AS POSSIBLE, THEN GO DEEPER.

Shallow people are boring and don’t deserve to have movies written about them.

You’ll need to do a character autopsy. Really roll up your sleeves and get in touch with what makes your characters tick at their core.

Ask yourself:

– Does my protagonist’s character contain a CORE CONTRADICTION?

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