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.

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