Reader Questions: Format and Style

June 28th, 2016 by

During the 8+ years of this blog’s existence, I’ve answered nearly 300 questions from readers about the craft of screenwriting. Here are my responses and subsequent comments on the subject of format and style.

Are there any script rules that really shouldn’t be broken?

Bolded sluglines: Yes or no?

Do I HAVE to use INT/EXT – LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT in scene headings?

How consistent should the tone in scene description be?

How do I know if it’s too much or too little scene description?

How do you handle one character with different names?

How much do I need to focus on “stylized writing”?

How to handle capitalization in scene description?

How to handle characters speaking in a foreign language?

How to handle dialogue happening under voice-over?

How to handle insert shots?

How to handle passage of time in a script?

How to handle POV shots?

How to handle scene in blackness?

How to handle songs in a screenplay?

How to indicate a jump cut?

How to misdirect a reader in scene description?

How to write “unwriteable moments of a film” in a screenplay?

If I’m writing and shooting my own movies, are there style and format issues I should be aware of when writing my script?

Is an 80-page spec script too short?

Is it okay for there to be more action lines in an action script?

Is it okay / advisable to put a logline on the script’s title page?

Is it okay to include an image in a spec script?

Is it necessary to have scene description before dialogue in a scene?

Is there a danger of having an Act One that is too short?

Should I use “is” construction verbs or not?

Sluglines and character intros?

Use or don’t use title cards?

What about a credit sequence at the beginning of a spec script?

What about a credit sequence in a spec script?

What about a flashback as a ‘flashpresent’?

What about a revelation flashback?

What about breaking screenwriting style / format rules?

What about capitalizing sounds in spec scripts?

What about “establishing shots” and “establishing scenes”?

What about screenplay page count?

What about showing a character’s emotions in action description?

What about submitting a 187-page script?

What about using (CONT’D) in separated dialogue?

What about using a flashback / flash-forward as a prologue?

What does a secondary slugline/shot look like?

What guidelines are there for using scene headings / primary slug lines?

What information should I include on my script title page?

What is the absolute limit on script page count?

What is the difference between a montage and a series of shots?

What to do with a 70 page screenplay?

What’s the best way to master writing a particular type of dialogue?

What’s the structural difference between a play, a screenplay, and a teleplay?

When writing do you paint a visual picture through your action lines?

If you have a format and style question, or any other question related to screenwriting, please post in comments. I’m happy to give you my two cents worth.

For the Reader Question archives, go here.

Reader Question: Does a writer have any control over casting decisions?

June 23rd, 2016 by

A question via email from Z.D.:

First I would like to tell you that I am enormously grateful for your blog and your advice, which is really priceless, especially for an aspiring screenwriter. You really are a true mentor and a fantastic person for doing that. I could not imagine a better teacher.

I would like to ask you a question, if I may.

Is there any way to convince the producers to cast a certain actor in the movie made out of my script?

Let’s say, they liked the pitch, they are interested in the story and there is a chance they are green lighting the project.

However, to me, there is only a certain person, a certain actor I would like to play the lead. I do not care about the money as much as I care about the story itself, the right casting included, and let’s say I had a certain person in my mind while writing my Protagonist, and I would suffer to see anyone else in this role.

Is there any chance I have anything to say in this, or do I just need to accept the truth – that the producers decide, who is cast, especially if I am a newbie and do not have any connections or know that actor personally.

I would be really grateful for an answer, because in my method of work, I cast certain actors in certain roles in my mind a lot and then get attached to characters who have their faces and their voices and behave in a certain way.

Thank you very much in advance!

Z.D., when you “cast certain actors in certain roles” in your mind, this is a practice pretty common among screenwriters. It’s often referred to as ‘star casting’ and I’ve interviewed pro writers who do the same thing. It’s a way of ‘seeing’ a character, ‘hearing’ a character, getting a fix on them to facilitate the writing process.

That’s all to the good and I can certainly understand how and why a writer such as yourself, Z.D., can “get attached to characters who have their faces and their voices” reflecting a particular actor.

Here’s the deal: You have little to no control over these matters. Let’s say you sell a spec script. In meetings with producers, execs, and the director, you can certainly let them know your desires. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that at the end of the day, it’s the director who is going to head off and make the movie. A casting director will be hired. They will put up dozens of names for key roles, perhaps including your actors, perhaps not. Offers will be made. Some actors will accept. Others won’t. Some may drop out to schedule issues. Casting a movie can be a highly fluid situation.

And there’s this: The actors you have in mind may simply not be available to do your movie. They may not even respond to the material. You have no control over that.

Besides your focus, especially as someone just breaking into the business, should be on getting the movie made. You want that credit in your resume. That’s how you can start to build a career.

So my suggestion is prepare yourself for the likelihood that your movie will not land your ‘star cast’ actors. However while making that suggestion, let me offer up another thought: What if the actors they do cast knock the ball out of the park? What if they do an even better job than you could have imagined with your ‘star cast’ actors? It’s quite possible they can. So while steeling yourself to shut the door on your fantasy cast, open another door to the chance the real cast can take your story and do wonders with it.

Meanwhile if ‘star casting’ works for you as a tool to help you write great characters, keep at it. Just don’t get too attached to them. Once you set up your script, it becomes the blueprint to make a movie, a process in which the writer’s role gets smaller as the production moves forward. Therefore you would be wise to shift your fixation on your cast of actors to getting the movie produced.

If anyone has another question about the craft or business of screenwriting, please head to comments. For nearly 300 other reader questions and answers, go here.

Reader Question: What does “literary style” mean in terms of writing a screenplay?

June 12th, 2016 by

Question from Erik Rolfsen:

Scott: I’d be interested in reading an elaboration on something you posted recently:

“…the shift the last two decades has been away from using directing / editing lingo in screenplays toward more of what may be called a literary approach to style,…”

Or do you have a previous blog post on this you could point me toward?

Keep up the great work!

Let me preface my comments by making a distinction between a selling script and a shooting script. A shooting script is a production draft and style considerations pretty much go out the window. A selling script is any script we write, whether on spec or assignment, in which the goal is to set up the project initially or get the project green lit. For a selling script, there is one golden rule in terms of style:

Write the story in the best, most entertaining fashion possible.

In terms of a selling script when I say literary approach, you can see it quite clearly by comparing older scripts to newer ones. For example, here is a Scene Description Spotlight post I did with an excerpt from the 1951 movie The African Queen:

 
EXT. A NATIVE VILLAGE IN A CLEARING BETWEEN THE JUNGLE AND
THE RIVER. LATE MORNING

LONG SHOT -- A CHAPEL

Intense light and heat, a stifling silence. Then the SOUND
of a reedy organ, of two voices which make the words distinct, 
and of miscellaneous shy, muffled, dragging voices, beginning
a hymn:

VOICES
(singing)
"Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah..."

INT. CHAPEL -- LONG SHOT -- THE LENGTH OF THE BLEAK CHAPEL

PAST THE CONGREGATION, ON BROTHER, AT THE LECTERN, AND ROSE, 
AT THE ORGAN

BROTHER, a missionary, faces CAMERA near center; ROSE, his 
sister, is at side, her face averted. Everybody is singing.

"Pilgrim through this barren land..."

MEDIUM SHOT -- BROTHER:

middle-aged, rock-featured, bald, sweating painfully, very
much in earnest. He is very watchful of his flock. He sings
as loud as he can, rather nasally, and tries to drive the
meaning of each word home as if it were a nail. He is beating
with his hand, and trying hard to whip up the dragging tempo:

"I am weak, but Thou art mighty..."

CLOSER SHOT -- ROSE

early thirties, tight-featured and tight-haired, very hot
but sweating less than Brother.

She is pumping the pedals vigorously, spreading with her
knees the wings of wood which control the loudness, utilizing
various stops for expressiveness of special phrases, and 
rather desperately studying the open hymnal, just managing 
to play the right notes -- a very busy woman. She, too, is
singing her best and loudest, an innocent, arid, reedy 
soprano; and she, too, is very attentive to the meanings of
words:

"Hold me with Thy powerful hand."

INSERT -- HALF-WAY THROUGH THE FOREGOING LINE, AN EXOTIC AND
HORRIBLE CENTIPEDE-LIKE CREATURE SLITHERS INTO VIEW BETWEEN 
TWO OF THE ORGAN KEYS. WITHOUT INTERRUPTING HER PLAYING, AS 
METHODICALLY AS SHE WOULD PULL OUT A NEW STOP, ROSE SWIPES
IT AWAY.

Compare that to this excerpt from The Matrix (1999):

INT.  HALL

She bursts out of the room as Agent Brown enters the hall,
leading another unit of police. Trinity races to the
opposite end, exiting through a broken window onto the
fire escape.

EXT. FIRE ESCAPE

In the alley below, Trinity sees Agent Smith staring at
her. She can only go up.

EXT. ROOF

On the roof, Trinity is running as Agent Brown rises over
the parapet, leading the cops in pursuit.

Trinity begins to jump from one roof to the next, her
movements so clean, gliding in and out of each jump,
contrasted to the wild jumps of the cops.

Agent Brown, however, has the same unnatural grace.

The metal SCREAM of an elevated TRAIN is heard and Trinity
turns to it, racing for the back of the building.

The edge falls away into a wide back alley. The next
building is over 40 feet away but Trinity's face is
perfectly calm, staring at some point beyond the other
roof.

The cops slow, realizing they are about to see something
ugly as Trinity drives at the edge, launching herself into
the air.

From above, the ground seems to flow beneath her as she
hangs in flight --

Then hitting, somersaulting up, still running hard.

COP
Mutherfucker -- that's impossible!

They stare, slack-jawed, as Agent Brown duplicates the
move exactly, landing, rolling over a shoulder up onto one
knee.

What can we learn from such a comparison:

* Contemporary selling scripts do not include camera shots anymore, so gone are the days of LONG SHOT, MEDIUM SHOT, CLOSE UP.

* Contemporary selling scripts generally don’t have long blocks of scene description, but rather break them up into smaller paragraphs (2-4 lines).

* Contemporary selling scripts normally don’t have primary slug lines that extend over one line.

* Contemporary selling scripts most often avoid using directing jargon.

In fact, we can see screenwriting style change even since the time of The Matrix. Check out the opening scene from The Black Swan (2010):

INT. DARK STAGE - NIGHT

A SPOTLIGHT slices black space.

In its beam, a DANCER in a white dress materializes. She is
fair-skinned. Beautiful and pure.

She twirls on pointe, a smile on her face, light as air and
carefree.

Suddenly, her face grows worried. Sensing someone watching.

Scared, she peers into the darkness.

She moves now, looking, growing more frantic.

But she can't see anything. She pauses, relaxes. Convincing
herself it was just her imagination...

Then, a SINISTER MAN emerges out of the darkness behind her.
She stumbles backwards, frightened.

She tries to escape, twirling away, but he pursues.

He flings his open hand towards her, casting the spell.

She wants to scream, but nothing comes out. She looks at her
body, sensing something happening to her. Something
terrifying.

She spins, panicking, clawing at her body with her hands,
trying to stop it. But it's too late.

As she turns, she morphs into the WHITE SWAN, the iconic
protagonist of SWAN LAKE.

See how much white space there is? How much easier on the eyes that is? How each line suggests a camera shot? To me it reads more like a story than something you use to produce a movie. And that’s what I mean by literary where the emphasis on style is about story, not script.

My theory is this is a natural evolution as screenplays become their own literary form. There are companies such as Newmarket Press who publish screenplays in book form. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of that in the future where people will sit down to read a screenplay with a similar expectation as they do with a book — to read a story.

What does that mean for us practically as screenwriters?

First read screenplays of movies that are being released this year so you can track style trends.

But most important we have to think about how we approach screenwriting style because it is a reflection of our writer’s voice — and when you’re in competition with a zillion other scripts, if you have a distinctive voice and an appealing writing style, that can make the difference between a sale or no sale, representation or no representation.

Gee, if there was only someone who taught a course on screenwriting style. Something online so it was easy to take. A class that went beyond format and really talked about how to develop one’s sense of style as part of their writer’s voice.

Wait. There is a course like that? Oh yeah, right here.

[Originally posted February 11, 2011]

Reader Questions and Answers on Screenplay Format and Style

June 3rd, 2016 by

Yesterday I answered a question about screenplay format — Is there a current screenplay formatting ‘norm’? — and as I always do, I checked the site’s Reader Question archive to see if I’d already covered it and was reminded as I scrolled down the list…

HOLY CRAP, I’VE ANSWERED A LOT OF QUESTIONS!!!

To wit, here are just some of the GITS posts I’ve done over the years responding to your questions about format and style:

Format and Style

Are there any script rules that really shouldn’t be broken?

Bolded sluglines: Yes or no?

Do I HAVE to use INT/EXT – LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT in scene headings?

How consistent should the tone in scene description be?

How do I know if it’s too much or too little scene description?

How do you handle one character with different names?

How much do I need to focus on “stylized writing”?

How to handle capitalization in scene description?

How to handle characters speaking in a foreign language?

How to handle dialogue happening under voice-over?

How to handle insert shots?

How to handle passage of time in a script?

How to handle POV shots?

How to handle scene in blackness?

How to handle songs in a screenplay?

How to indicate a jump cut?

How to misdirect a reader in scene description?

How to write “unwriteable moments of a film” in a screenplay?

If I’m writing and shooting my own movies, are there style and format issues I should be aware of when writing my script?

Is an 80-page spec script too short?

Is it okay for there to be more action lines in an action script?

Is it okay / advisable to put a logline on the script’s title page?

Is it okay to include an image in a spec script?

Is it necessary to have scene description before dialogue in a scene?

Is there a danger of having an Act One that is too short?

Should I use “is” construction verbs or not?

Sluglines and character intros?

Use or don’t use title cards?

What about a credit sequence at the beginning of a spec script?

What about a credit sequence in a spec script?

What about a flashback as a ‘flashpresent’?

What about a revelation flashback?

What about breaking screenwriting style / format rules?

What about capitalizing sounds in spec scripts?

What about “establishing shots” and “establishing scenes”?

What about screenplay page count?

What about showing a character’s emotions in action description?

What about submitting a 187-page script?

What about using (CONT’D) in separated dialogue?

What about using a flashback / flash-forward as a prologue?

What does a secondary slugline/shot look like?

What guidelines are there for using scene headings / primary slug lines?

What information should I include on my script title page?

What is the absolute limit on script page count?

What is the difference between a montage and a series of shots?

What to do with a 70 page screenplay?

What’s the best way to master writing a particular type of dialogue?

What’s the structural difference between a play, a screenplay, and a teleplay?

When writing do you paint a visual picture through your action lines?

Mind you, this is just questions about format and style. The archive covers a slew of subjects ranging from Character Development to the Business of Screenwriting, the Writing Life to the Writing Process, and much more.

To access the Reader Question archive, go here.

Reader Question: Is there a current screenplay formatting ‘norm’?

June 2nd, 2016 by

A question via email from Chaz Fatur:

Just a quick Q, in hopes for a lengthy A… the whole do or don’t do on properly formatting accentuated words in all CAPS, bold, underline,etc… In your best experiences and what the Industry now sees fit on proper formatting, what is the norm these days? These would be action or audible words in the action sequences… and in keeping with this tradition, how about words in dialogue, over-accentuated? Like a character nailing a point!

I’ve read a lot of books on screenwriting and am totally confused!

I understand your confusion. So many voices in the screenwriting universe bloviating about the subject of screenplay format. Odd, too, that a lot of the most vigorous online flame wars arise from those very embers of confusion, fanned by what I call ‘scripteralists’ (script literalists), acting on the assumption there are specific rights and wrongs about screenplay format, which presupposes there is a universally accepted rule book in Hollywood.

Fact: There is no such rule book. Indeed, there are no rules as I wrote here a few years back:

No matter what you have read. Or may have heard. Perhaps the source is a so-called screenwriting ‘guru.’ Maybe it’s a friend. A member of your writer’s group. Whoever it is, if they tell you there are screenwriting rules… they are flat-out wrong.

There are no rules.

Why do we know this? Because there is no universally accepted codification of how to write a screenplay.

Sure, there are tons of books, webinars, seminars, classes, downloads, columns, tweets, and blog posts. And there may very well be people who claim this or that to be a rule.

But that’s just bull shit.

Repeat: There is no single authoritative guide to screenwriting. So by definition, there can be no such thing as a screenwriting rule.

Here is what there are:

* Guidelines: There are generally known and accepted ways to approach script format that reflect how most professional screenplays look.

* Conventional Wisdom: There are certain axioms most people who work in the script acquisition and development universe carry with them when they crack open a screenplay for a read.

* Patterns: There are certain forms and paradigms related to story structure, character types and narrative which are held pretty much in common by these same people.

* Principles: We can even go so far as to acknowledge there are key precepts about story which derive from the relationship between human experience and our attempts to craft narratives about that experience which entertain the masses and convey some sort of meaning about life.

None of these constitute rules.

A good exercise would be to read the entire 15 part series I did on So-Called Screenwriting ‘Rules’. In that series, you’ll see my mantra re this subject: Tools, not rules.

As far as the use of capitalization, bold, underlining, and italics in scene description, bold and/or underlining slug lines / scene headings, I can clear up the confusion pretty quickly:

Do what works for you and the story. As long as you are consistent and clear about what you are conveying, you have the freedom to do what you want.

You want to underline and bold something to make sure a reader sees it? Go ahead. You want to capitalize an entire line of scene description because it involves incredible action? Be my guest. You want to bold, underline, italicize, and capitalize something because it’s the biggest goddammed thing to happen in the script? Knock yourself out!

As long as you service the story, are clear in your intent, and contribute to a reader’s ability to see your movie in their mind’s-eye, you can do that.

This is yet another reason why it is critically important to read contemporary movie scripts and spec scripts which have been sold or show up on the annual Black List. I promise, if you read 30 scripts, 1 per day for a month, you will see (A) the wide variety of approaches to writing format and style, (B) find ways which are attractive to your eye and fit with your own style, and (C) discover commonalities between scripts which give you a pretty good impression on what the Hollywood development community considers to be ‘conventional’ at this moment in time.

That said, once you understand those conventions, then make sure if you choose to differ from them, your choices in terms of format support your story.

For example, if you read my interview with 2015 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting winner Andy Friedhof, his script “Great Falls” eschews the use of primary slug lines / scene headings. Instead Andy ‘directs’ the action using secondary slug lines / shots almost exclusively. It works, you never lose track of where the action is taking place, and it makes for a nice clean read.

There are style guides out there — you may download the Nicholl Fellowships guideline to script format here — and if you want to play it safe, which is a legitimate even practical choice, write to the convention.

However as your writing voice evolves and your style bumps up against format, inspiring you to try something different, you have that freedom, no matter what the scripteralists say.

Let the flame wars begin!

Reader Question: Shouldn’t a writer figure out the craft on their own?

May 21st, 2016 by

A question from @AndrewMcDermot1:

Is there really no point where screenwriters should be encouraged to work some of this stuff out for themselves?

Andrew’s tweet is in response to this post which raised the haunting specter of screenplay paradigms.

And if you troll online screenwriting sites for no more than 5 nanoseconds, you will find a slew of them, some claiming a sort of Deep Insight or Magic Formula or Secret To Success.

Cue my usual caveat: There is no right way to write. Every story is different. Every writer is different.

Interestingly that sentiment cuts both ways.

On the one hand, it decries a strict adherence to a structural formula because chances are that will result in a formulaic script. Indeed there are some who claim it is the popularity of these type of paradigms / systems / whatevers — intentional or not — that have led to an increasing glut of Hollywood movies that feel awfully similar in terms of their narrative structure to the point where, as the article I linked to suggests, “you’ve seen this move before.”

On the other hand, depending upon the writer, the story and the ‘formula,’ it can work. No matter how much any working screenwriter laments the glut of screenwriting ‘gurus’ hawking their wares, the simple fact is that some writers have found success using the approaches of this or that one. And, indeed, as noted in the original post, some of these patterns are pretty well universal in nature, such as three-act structure.

My bottom line with my students is this: Stories are organic. Their characters live and breathe. The single best thing you can do is engage your characters directly and actively as part of your brainstorming and prep process. That way the narrative structure you find will arise in large part from them and hopefully that will translate into a more vibrant, unique, surprising, and compelling story.

Which is pretty much my response to you, Andrew. I agree with you, it is absolutely imperative for each writer to work through their own education about the craft of screenwriting. No matter what books you read, seminars you attend, classes you take — and they can be helpful — never stray far from another one of my mantras:

Watch Movies. Read Scripts. Write Pages.

There is nothing like a writer engaging Story and Character as primary sources. That is one key, perhaps the key to working out “some of this stuff” on your own.

I would go one step further: That is precisely the same attitude we should adopt with every story we write. Use what we learn about the craft, all the theory, techniques and tips, as tools to dig into the story material, but always with a mind toward engaging the Story, Characters, Themes, indeed the entire Story Universe directly, immersing ourselves in that so it all springs to life in our creative imagination.

In particular, focus on your Characters. They are key. After all, it’s their story. Moreover I choose to believe they want you to tell their story. And the fact they are unique individuals with specific personal histories, personalities, wants, needs, goals, secrets, and on and on, what better way to avoid formulaic writing than by going where the characters want to go, following the distinctive paths they carve for us to follow?

So it’s not just about figuring out the craft on our own, it’s about figuring out each story on its own terms and merits. If a given story fits into some paradigm you like, great. Go with God! But if not, then you absolutely owe it to yourself, your Story, and those Characters to go with Them.

How about you, fellow writers? What are your thoughts? How best to learn the craft? Ought we figure it out on our own? And how to combat formulaic writing?

[Originally posted July 25, 2013]

Reader Question: What’s your opinion about signing release forms for material submissions?

May 20th, 2016 by

A reader question via email from Mark:

Hi Scott,

Fantastic website!

I can write pretty good loglines. As a result, a number of producers request material. At lease half or more require signing release and agreement forms. While I’ve signed them in the past, I now try to avoid doing so, which has eliminated many opportunities to get my material read. In such a competitive business, that makes it much tougher.

What’s your advice regarding signing these forms, and did you routinely sign them before having a rep?

First off, good for you, Mark, that you have a knack for writing loglines. That’s note every writer’s forte.

Re release forms, let me state for the record: I am not a lawyer (but later I’ll provide a link to someone who is and his thoughts on the subject).

Here’s my understanding: Most producers and managers, after receiving a solicitation from a writer, almost always via email, will require the writer to sign some sort of form in which the writer waives all rights to sue them in case the writer contends the producer or manager ripped off the writer’s script.

The language can vary from form to form, but that is pretty much the gist of it.

Example of a release form

When I broke into the business back in the Dark Ages — although I don’t know this from personal experience because I was never in a position where I needed to solicit anyone for potential representation — it was easier to get unsolicited material to agents and producers (there was no such thing as a manager in the late 80s). So what happened?

Two words: Nuisance suits. They still happen to this day wherein a writer with barely any merit to their claim will sue a manager, agent, studio, or producer asserting somebody had access to and stole their story.

Let me say this represents the perspective of those working inside Hollywood. This view is not shared by many writers who are outside the system witness articles such as this and this.

That’s a discussion for another time. In response to the original question, if you are unwilling to sign a release form, the chances a manager or producer will request your script are basically zilch.

However let me say this: If the entity you’re dealing with is a legitimate Hollywood player, the chances of you getting ripped off are negligible, so bear that in mind when considering if you should sign a release form or not.

The reality is it’s a buyer’s market and if you don’t sign, they’re off to the next writer who will toe the line and agree to sign a release form.

For a comprehensive legal take on the matter, go here.

How about you, GITS readers? What’s your take on submission release forms? Do you sign them? And if not, how do you get your material to potential reps and buyers?

Reader Question: What does a good treatment look like?

May 17th, 2016 by

Open forum question from Lalithra Fernando:

What do you think a good treatment looks like?

I posted something about the distinction between a treatment and an outline here, so that might be worth checking that out.

If your question is about what makes an effective treatment, that’s simple: Tell a whopping good story in 5, 10, 20, 30 or however many pages it takes.

If it’s literally about how a treatment should look, as in its appearance, I’m not sure how far you want to drill down on the subject. But I’d frame the discussion by saying that there is no definitive style-guide that I know of re treatments. Here are some different takes on the subject:

* If you go here, they suggest three possible approaches: Headers, Prose-Style, Combination. The latter is intriguing as they suggest dividing up the treatment into five “sub-categories”: concept, characterization, theme, tone, and story. As the article states, “This method is a popular choice for some as it allows you to add into your treatment what is unique about your approach, what people will find interesting, as well as telling the story.”

* If you go here, you can see how ITVS (Independent Television Service) advises producers to handle treatments to present to them for possible PBS programming. The format is TV, but the guidelines, I think, are relevant to a film treatment.

* This article gets more to the heart of where I think treatments can be of value: In the prep-writing phase of writing a screenplay. As the article’s author states, “When you are preparing to write a screenplay or even preparing to do a major rewrite, it is very helpful to create a blueprint or treatment of what you are going to write prior to actually writing or rewriting it. This is what a treatment is used for. It will help you layout the direction of the entire screenplay and work out some of the kinks before jumping into the whole thing.”

Finally there’s this: TV writer and novelist Lee Goldberg’s take on writing treatments. He ends his post with these sage words:

Don’t fixate on treatment format, because there isn’t one. Tell your story in the style that works best for you. Don’t worry about whether the character names are in capitals or not (it doesn’t matter). Concentrate on telling a strong story.

Lee has a great blog which I heartily recommend.

GITS readers, what say ye? How do you approach writing treatments?

[Originally posted November 7, 2009]

Reader Question: What exactly is a "spec script"?

May 15th, 2016 by

A question from Daley Productions:

I’m quite new to this and I’m wondering, what exactly is a ‘spec’ script?

“Spec script” is term that gets thrown around a lot, certainly here on GITS, and your question got me to thinking that perhaps there are many folks who don’t quite understand what it means – so thanks for raising the subject, DP. And as long as we’re here, how about a quick history lesson to help put things in perspective?

Technically a spec script is an original or adapted screenplay written by a writer on their own time & dime, in other words a ‘speculative’ effort, hence the term “spec.” For the first seven decades or so of the film industry in the United States, there was no such thing as a spec script, instead the standard practice was for studios to hire writers either on a per project basis or as salaried employees to write whatever assignment the studio gave to them. Per Wikipedia, an exception was the 1942 original screenplay for Woman of the Year (writing credits for Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin) which MGM bought for $100,000.

What is generally thought to be the first spec script sale of the modern era was Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid by William Goldman, which was purchased in 1967 by 20th Century Fox for a reported $400,000.

While there were some sales of original screenplays during the 70s, it was during the 80s that the active and much-publicized spec script market emerged with screenwriters such as Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas selling multiple projects for several millions dollars.

[In 1987, a spec script I co-wrote K-9 sold to Universal Studios for $750,000].

Since that time, the spec script market has ebbed and flowed. Recently it’s been in something of a down cycle. You can go here for my breakdown of the spec script market in 2008 (by my count, there were 88 sales that year). I’ve yet to finish an analysis of 2009, but did post the cumulative list of spec script sales here (there were 67 sales in 2009).

Why write a spec script? Several reasons:

* You can make a lot of money if you sell a spec script.

* You can break into the business as a screenwriter if you sell a spec script.

* Even if you don’t sell it, a spec script can function as your calling card to agents and managers.

* Even if you don’t sell it, a spec script is a writing sample for producers and studio execs.

* From a purely creative standpoint, unlike assignments or rewrites, a spec script represents your opportunity to tell your story the way you want to tell it.

* If you don’t sell a spec script, it makes an excellent doorstop.

Seriously the only way you can get better as a screenwriter is to write scripts. So every spec script you write, even if they don’t sell, even if they flat-out suck, they are part of the necessary incremental process of you becoming a good writer.

Malcolm Gladwell espouses the 10,000 hour theory:

The search for success has spawned a motivational industry worth millions of pounds and libraries full of self-improvement books.

It is practice, however, that makes perfect, according to the sociologist whose books have become required reading within the Conservative party. The best way to achieve international stardom is to spend 10,000 hours honing your skills, says the new book by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling The Tipping Point.

The greatest athletes, entrepreneurs, musicians and scientists emerge only after spending at least three hours a day for a decade mastering their chosen field.

“What’s really interesting about this 10,000-hour rule is that it applies virtually everywhere,” Gladwell told a conference held by The New Yorker magazine. “You can’t become a chess grand master unless you spend 10,000 hours on practice.

“The tennis prodigy who starts playing at six is playing in Wimbledon at 16 or 17 [like] Boris Becker. The classical musician who starts playing the violin at four is debuting at Carnegie Hall at 15 or so.”

Whether you need to spend 10,000 hours writing or not, the simple fact is you have to write to get better. And unless you get hired to write, what you’re looking at is a spec script.

The odds are enormously long and against any writer hoping to sell a spec script. But every year, dozens of them do.

Besides I prefer to look at the subject of spec scripts in a more macro, even more spiritual way. How can you quantify what you learn about your life, your values, your creativity when you write an original screenplay? How can you put a value on the experience of spending time with those characters – who are in some sense a reflection of you – and hearing what they have to say, seeing what they choose to do?

The fact is you may never sell a spec script and yet you may benefit enormously through the script-writing process. Perhaps you will meet a person or people you never would have who become an integral part of your life-journey. Maybe the research you do into a story excites you so much, you decide to change career paths. Even that simple but profound sensation you get when you type FADE OUT, print out your final draft, feel the warmth of the pages in your hands, and smell the combination of paper, ink, and your dreams — how can you measure that and what that means to you as a human being?

Joseph Campbell said that all stories are in essence one story: The Hero’s Journey. And the theme of that story is this: Follow your bliss.

For men and women who pursue screenwriting, that is their bliss. So while we do well to pay attention to market trends, to generate the best story concepts we can, to learn screenwriting theory, to watch movies and analyze them, to read scripts and break them down, to write pages and rewrite them, all of the things we do on a practical level to craft a great story, we should not forget to bring some measure of a spiritual awareness to our daily engagement with a spec script. It is not only a commodity and an end product, it is also a constituent part of our creative life’s journey.

Wow. I started off with a history lesson re spec scripts, then ended up with a ‘sermon’!

Well, so be it. I trust my gut on these things. Perhaps there’s one GITS reader who really needed to hear this today. Whoever you are, that thing you’re writing… that spec script… as you struggle with it, don’t forget that it’s a blessing as well.

[Originally posted July 15, 2010]

Reader Question: What is life really like for a beginning screenwriter who has just broken into the business?

May 5th, 2016 by

Reader question from Eric Harris:

What is life really like for the beginning screenwriter who breaks in with a manager/agent, maybe sells a spec? Do they start taking meetings, competing for open writing assignments? Are they chewing their nails because it’s an unstable profession? No one ever gives a detailed explanation of what it’s really like and what to expect. Are they writing for free with producers in hopes that it will get set up?

Eric, let me take this opportunity to frame the conversation by offering this reminder I post regularly just so everyone understands this fundamental reality about breaking into the business as a screenwriter or TV writer: It is really, really hard to do. The odds are long, so the chances of anybody being in the position your question suggests are slim.

There may be others out there in the online screenwriting universe who claim otherwise. Learn the keys to selling a million dollar spec script! My advice: Run away from those people as they are not dealing with you honestly and almost assuredly out to take your money, and little else.

Okay, now that we’ve established that, there is another fact: Every year hundreds of writers do manage to sell a script, obtain representation, land a gig on a TV series and the like. It is not impossible, a sentiment worth the double negative.

What happens when a writer breaks in? Well, that depends on the writer… what they wrote… and what you mean by “breaks in”.

If you hit a grand slam and sell a movie spec script — not an option, but an actual sale in the six figure range — here are a few things you may expect to happen:

* If you sold the script via your manager, you will meet with agents for additional representation. Screenwriters from the Old School often only have an agent or in some rare cases, just an entertainment lawyer to handle them. I don’t know what the percentage is with Young Turks, but my guess is perhaps half of them have dual reps: manager and agent. Yes, it’s 20% commission as opposed to 10%, but having an agent as well as a manager can offer certain benefits. For more background on the roles of managers and agents, go here.

Note: You’ll also meet with lawyers as you will need one to handle your contracts. That’s another 5%, but trust me, do everything you can to get a damn good lawyer.

* That spec script of yours that sold is not just of value to the company that bought it to develop into a movie. It is also valuable to you as a writing sample. Depending upon the splash your deal made, you could find your reps sending it out to a lot of studios, financiers, and producers. This will result in the vaunted “bottled water tour” wherein you do a ton of ‘meet and greets’. This is a crucial part in establishing the foundation of your career as a writer. How you do in those meetings — how comfortable you are, how knowledgeable you are about the craft, how well you mesh with people in the industry — is a big deal. This is Networking with a capital “N”.

Rule of thumb I’ve discovered about Hollywood: People like to work with the people they like to work with. So apart from your talent, voice and ability to translate a story onto the page, if you come across as someone who will be enjoyable to work with, a problem-solver, not a problem-creator, that can go a long way in helping you secure gigs.

* You will be invited to premieres, industry screenings and other social events related to the business. This is also time for Networking with a capital “N”. And let me say, at some point, if you do not know names and faces of the players in the business, you will want to start doing that ASAP. This is not only important in understanding the ebb and flow of who is where and who is doing what relative to project acquisition and movie development, the fact is Hollywood is a small community. You will almost invariably be out shopping, jogging or wherever, and bump into these people. Yet again Networking opportunities.

* Assuming you are a flavor-of-the-week, you may also expect to meet industry types at lunch meetings. For some thoughts on how to handle yourself and what to expect, read my post Let’s do lunch.

* The sale of your spec script would almost certainly qualify you for membership in the Writers’ Guild of America, so at some point you’ll have to pony up a $2,500 initiation fee plus 1.5% of applicable gross earnings. Once you are official, you will be invited to a WGA new members meeting. I’m actually still in touch with a couple of writers I met when I had my welcome to the Guild meeting back in 1987. Oh, be sure to sign up for the WGA movie series, a great deal to see movies at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills.

* You will meet with your reps to strategize. You may go after Open Writing Assignments which will require you to be able to read a piece of material, analyze it and come up with a take you can pitch. You may go out with an original pitch. In either case, you will need to work on your ability not only to pitch, but work a room. You and your reps may determine it’s best for you to write a new spec script. There’s no etched-in-stone plan, everything is malleable and dependent on you and current business opportunities. But bottom line, you will be expected to be creative and productive.

So no matter what happens in terms of the whirling dervish of Hollywood life of someone who sells a spec script, you need to keep your eye on the ball: Writing. That’s one great reason for you to develop solid writing practices now so they are in place once you do break into the business. Even after you break in, you will want to continue to write at least one spec script per year to maximize your chances of widening your connections and setting up projects, while continuing to get better at the craft.

That’s just a few things you can expect if you sell a spec script. It is much more common to break in by getting representation alone, no spec deal, in which case you will likely find yourself writing multiple drafts of one spec script (or more) your reps can take out to market. But that’s a whole other subject.

GITS readers who have been there, what can you add to the subject for Eric? Please head to comments for your thoughts.

[Originally posted August 4, 2014]