Monday, December 22, 2008

Tips for Screenwriters - Off with Their Heads!

Where does your script REALLY start? More than 50% of the scripts I read every year have opening scenes that are not nearly as interesting as the rest of the story. Not badly written, not meaningless, but tiresome and overdrawn. I get a lot of background I don’t care about. I want to get on to what happens to whom. I swear I could toss out the first fifteen pages of most scripts, and no one other than the author would miss them.

So why don’t good writers see this obvious failing? I think this is because the writer’s pleasure is as vastly different from the reader’s pleasure as a mother’s love is from everyone else’s. How many of us have seen photo after photo of a child or pet when, for us, one or two would do? Well, as a writer, when you read your story, every beat that is adorable to you may not be of equal interest to your reader. You have to teach your prose manners.

You, the writer, are forming a newborn world in your imagination. You have to write your way into that world, bring the people and places to life in your mind. Once the story has legs and “has learned to walk” so to speak, you go about challenging your characters and changing their world. So. Go to your script and find the first real challenge or change for your main character and check your pages. Are you only a few pages in or are you 10-15 pages in? Remember, you are writing a movie, where backstory can be dispatched before the opening credits have finished rolling. Get the story going.

Here’s an experiment. Give someone your script minus the first fifteen pages. Then invite them to ask questions about things they didn’t understand or missed because the beginning wasn’t there. If you don’t have anyone close who has not already read the story, do it yourself. Mentally toss out what you know about the beginning. Image your movie opening with a scene about fifteen pages in and read through the screenplay. Was anything that was missing crucial, vital, absolutely essential to getting the plot or character? Put that stuff back, but try to do it later as the story unfolds, not at the beginning unless you absolutely have to. Do not put anything back in just because you love it, or, if you cannot do without, sum it up in your opening credits and get on with the story.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Women Write - Then What?

News from the world of scriptwriting competitions is not good for the gals. The 2008 Movie Script Contest announced its winners, and out of the 24 finalists, three were women. And of the winners - zip, nada, zero. Out of eight comedy screenplay finalists, the only woman was at the bottom with an honorable mention.

Last summer I wrote a long post about some of the reasons for this gender bias by people of presumably good will, but understanding does nothing to further our interests. Pointing out the bias, protesting against it, fighting it at each turn uses a lot of energy and does not seem to produce results.

As someone who reads a ton of scripts every year, I can tell you women write great and funny films. True, I am female, but again, the experiences I have had in this festival show me that guys like the kind of comedy women write when they see it on screen. In general (with all the pitfalls of generalizations) women structure their comedies differently, both in the relationship of the world to the characters and in the manner of the climactic payoff(s). But I have had Marines and ex-cops who knew no one associated with the films walk out of screenings telling me that this festival was the most fun they have had at an indie screening. Anecdotal - yes. I would also say emblematic, symptomatic of a larger appeal that these women's work possesses if only they could reach a larger audience.

I want to find outlets for our films outside the mainstream. If we can build an audience and a name for women's comedy, the establishment will come to us. So how do we do that. Any ideas?