Five Tips for Getting Your Screenplay on Track

There’s a joke in Hollywood that starts out: “Did you hear the one about the blonde who was so dumb she slept with the screenwriterâÂ?¦”

There’s no punchline. It’s just a painful reminder to Tinseltown scribes that “the power of the written word” does not translate to power for the writer. Not in L.A.

As a side-effect of their impotence, out-of-work screenwriters read many of the unproduced screenplays floating around town. Giving feedback as a favor, checking out the competition, boredom. Whatever. Reading tons of scripts that will likely never become movies is part of the territory.

Some of these unproduced scripts are pretty good. They make you root simultaneously for their success because you’d like to think that “good scripts get made”, and for their failure because, well, you’re a writer and you’re petty and the last thing you want to see is some no-name written up in the trades with mention of a 6 figure sale in the cutline under his picture.

Some of these scripts are absolutely awful to the extent that they’re barely readable. And maybe not even barely.

But the majority of scripts passed from scribe to scribe fall in the middle. Readable, competently written but, for one reason or another, ultimately unsatisfying.

Is there something particular about these scripts that makes them fall short? Well, a script can be both bad and good at the same time, obviously. Good dialogue, boring plot for example. Or imaginative premise, horrendous characters. The combinations are plentiful.

But I think there is something particular about competently written scripts that fall short. I believe there is one dominant flaw. Lack of focus. In other words, scripts that stray a little too far off the path with subplots or scripts that are padded.

Granted, successful movie plots do occasionally meander on purpose. Robert Altman and Richard Linklater films are known for that quality. But I’m speaking to the kinds of scripts in which getting sidetracked is clearly unintentional.

The good thing about this flaw is that it is one of the easiest to fix. You can’t do much for a writer with a tin ear for dialogue, but somebody who hits the mark on all facets of screenwriting except focus is just a few easy steps from a remarkably better screenplay.

1. Identify the padding or moments of writerly self-indulgence. These scenes are often referred to as “the babies” and the going Hollywood advice is for you to kill them. I’m sure you’ve heard it before – “Kill the babies”. Kill the scenes that are most precious to you. Throw them out. Any scene that brings you stark unadulterated joy, wrap a plastic bag around its head and suffocate it.

I think this is terrible advice. If you regard a scene with the unconditional love of a mother, then you must have written it for a reason. There must be something about it that speaks to your very soul. So don’t kill it. Nurture it.

If this baby sticks out like an orphan, but you still love it, then find a connection to your story and make sure it gels. Look at every scene, the babies or just merely the necessary ones, and look for ways to connect them to both the past and future of your script.

When done, your script shouldn’t so much resemble an assembly line where each part is added independently until it is one complete appliance. It should be covered in synapses, like a brain. Everything is organic and whole and interconnected and breathes like a living organism.

For example, I once wrote a character with a brain implant meant to control his behavior. Another character tells him the way to beat the implant is to refocus his brain, at all cost, on something else. Some thirty pages later, the character repels a potential love interest. Two seemingly unconnected things.

Another 15 pages later, I gave the character an opportunity to explain how he was able to mentally defeat his brain implant. I cut to a flashback of his encounter with the love interest, then back to his present conversation where he explains that he concentrated on something more painful than the implant. That’s a synapse within the script that spans 45 pages and it would not have occurred if I hadn’t deliberately asked myself “How can this scene connect to somewhere else within my script?”

So don’t kill the babies. Find them a home.

2. One way to keep your writing on track during the writing process itself is to constantly ask, “What would most likely happen next?” Jot down the first two or three answers that come to you. Then ask yourself, “What would be the most unexpected thing to happen next?” Again, jot down two or three possibilities. Now pick one of these four to six scenarios and go with it. But mix it up as you continue on with your screenplay.

If you follow every scene merely with what would most likely happen next, then the script becomes too predictable and boring. Likewise, if you only write unexpected follow-up scenes, then the script becomes absurd and unbelievable. Strike a balance. Go predictable more often than unpredictable. This will keep readers on their toes. They like it when they sometimes predict an upcoming scene. This will make the unpredictable scenes more surprising, yet more believable at the same time. If possible, you may occasionally want to mix elements of your expected/unexpected scenarios within the same scene.

By asking yourself these two questions, you are essentially laying a logical track. The track may have twists and turns, but the reader will definitely be able to see where you’re going and where you came from at any given point in the script.

3.Identify the specific qualities of your characters that can be easily researched on the web. Find chatrooms specifically designated for people with the same specific quality.

For example, I wrote a script that involved three hunters. I don’t know much about hunting myself. I’ve never done it. So naturally, I went to the library and checked out some books on the subject. I came away with a lot of technical information. But it was all very sterile and it didn’t give me much of a sense of what it was actually like to be a hunter. So I found a chatroom where hunters traded stories and tips about their pastime. From this, I not only came up with an authentic way of making my characters speak, but I also found a tip posted by one of the hunters that actually influenced the direction of my plot.

By going to chatrooms, I’ve also found little bits of trivia that I’ve been able to center dialogue around. Eavesdropping on professionals and enthusiasts is the fastest way of becoming expert enough to competently use the knowledge in a screenplay. You can pepper these bits trivia throughout the script, creating more synapses and again, keeping the plot on track. The more one scene seems connected to the others, the less your script will unintentionally wander.

4. After laying down connections and letting them gel, you will need to trim the fat or the redundancies. When one scene seems to serve the same purpose as another, that’s one scene too many and while it may be on target and connected to the theme of the plot, it still has the effect of taking a script off track. But instead of wandering, the script is spinning its wheels. Trimming the fat also includes maximizing word economy. Say what you have to say in as few words as possible. The shorter the script, the faster the read and the less chance your script will have of being derailed.

5. My last tip for keeping a script on track may seem odd. And for that reason, this suggestion is optional. Download a mind-teasing video game and leave it on your computer desktop. Master the game so that playing it becomes second-nature. Become so proficient that you’re not really playing the game so much as doing an activity. Once you’ve reached this level of mastery, play a round or two before you start writing. Then, at a convenient spot — let’s say 90 minutes into your writing session — play another two or three rounds.

Tthis will allow you to organize your thoughts without getting up from your desk. That’s not to suggest a real break from the actual computer desk won’t do you good — by all means take those — but playing a “mindless” game before and in the middle of writing delivers the same effect as taking a shower, going for a walk or driving a car. Many writers list these activities as triggers for their creative juices. I’m the same way.

But it’s not very efficient to get up and leave your computer every time you want to jog your mind. So I use a video game. For me, it’s Tetris. I’ve become so good at this game that I can complete 150 lines and not even remember doing it. This is great for organizing my thoughts. It keeps my brain active, but not too active. Story ideas seem to fall into place like the blocks on the screen and a good number of story synapses have been created this way.

I hope these 5 suggestions help some of you whose scripts have wander lust. When it comes right down to it, this kind of flaw suggests a good thing. It means your subconscious has more stories to tell and, by focusing your script in one unified direction, you’ll get the overall satisfaction of telling them one at a time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 × = twelve