This week’s blog title is from a future Asylum movie for SyFy.  It’s not in development or anything, as far as I know, but I’m pretty sure just by writing that online I’ve caused it to happen.  It’s the internet butterfly effect.
            And speaking of that geeky reference to a geeky reference…
            What that title really comes from is a note from a friend of mine, the editor at a sci-fi/ science site called Giant Freakin Robot (check it out—it’s fun and educational).  He was explaining what kind of movies and television shows the site covered.  To paraphrase, if the zombies have biochemical or viral origins, GFR will cover them, but not if they’re raised by voodoo spells or curses.
            Over the past few years, a lot of genres have really blended together.  In books and movies, it’s not uncommon to see strong action, drama, or even comedy threads mixing in with sci-fi, fantasy, or horror.  Nowadays it’s just as common for protagonists to fight the undead as it is to run from them, and in doing so writers and readers have created dozens of subgenres.
            Personally, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of this.  I think any story that stays too much in one vein tends to get dry pretty quick.  There’s almost always some humor in every situation, even incredibly dark ones.  It’s not uncommon for men and women to have inappropriate thoughts at really inopportune times (or to act on them).  Hey, I grew up on Doctor Who, so in my mind it makes perfect sense for religion-obsessed barbarian tribes to be descended from intergalactic survey teams or for aliens to be controlling the Loch Ness Monster.
            Now, sad but true, there aren’t a lot of firm rules on mixing these things.  Every story is different, so the way mystory blends horror and comedy is going to be different from the way yourstory blends them.  Ten of us can use the same basic plot, but we’re each going to end up with our own unique story.  My characters won’t react the same way as yours, hers will make different decisions than his.
             As such it’s hard for anyone to say which amount is right or wrong without having all the context.  To use one of my frequent cooking analogies, it’s kind of like if I asked “is this too much sugar?”  It’s an impossible question to answer without knowing what I’m cooking, what are the recipe standards, what are my preferences, and what are the preferences of the people who are going to be eating it.  My own skill level in the kitchen matters, too, on whether I should be trying a fried Alaska, death by chocolate, or maybe just a bowl of Captain Crunch.
            However… all that being said…
            I think when these mixed genre stories go bad, a lot of folks tend to look at the small issues and ignore the big ones.  Something isn’t bad because it mixed androids and artificial intelligence with Arthurian legends, or because it introduced a lot of comedy into the Cthulhu mythos.  Those are just the easiest targets, so they get the criticism first. 
            What I’ve come to realize is that most bad genre stuff tends to be bad for the same three reasons.  Granted, there’s always going to be someone who tries to write a sexy mutant cockroach story (or something worse), and there will always be people who just load up on basic mistakes like spelling or flat characters or incoherent plotting. In my experience, though, most genre stuff goes wrong in three basic ways—whether my story is one pure genre or several overlapping ones.
            The firstand often biggest mistake is when authors try to make their stories too fantastic.  If I have an idea, it gets included in the story.  No matter what it is, I’ll cram it in there.  If you’ve ever watched old slasher movies, you know most of them just devolved into creative ways to kill people, and sometimes there are excess characters for no other reason but to allow for more inventive deaths.  Most of us have probably read a sci fi novel that went to great lengths to explain how the weapons, shoes, uniforms, food, transportation, education, and economics are all very different on that other world or in that not-so-distant future.  I read a book recently that had to do with… well, everything.  No, seriously.  Government conspiracies, bio-engineering, super-soldiers, angels and demons, secret identities, zombies, aliens from Neptune, extraterrestrial dragons, thrill-killers, child abuse, sadism, torture porn, regular porn, and lost civilizations in the Amazon.  All of these things were major threads and elements in one average-length novel.  Heck, I’m tempted to say it was even on the shorter side.

            The problem with writing a story like this (book or screenplay) is my audience has nothing to connect with as they’re overwhelmed with all these unfamiliar elements.  The people are different.  The setting is different.  Motivations are different.  I may have created the most amazing post-apocalyptic matriarchal feudal society run by a supercomputer (and its secret android army) that’s ever been seen, but my readers need to be able to understand those characters and that society and relate to it right now while it’s on the page in front of them.

            This is closely related to the second problem—when the writer tries to explain everything.  Bad enough that I felt the need to include the secret android army, but now I’m also going to write about how they were first developed by the Mysteridroid Corporation three hundred years ago, how they see the world, and even how they recharge in various situations.  I think most people reading this have read a story or two that suddenly deviated into exposition like that.  Edgar Rice Burroughs had an awful habit in his Mars books of having his characters stop and explain various aspects of Barsoomian technology (one midnight walk with the Princess famously spun into a discussion of how radium bullets are manufactured and used).  A few recent horror films have gone to great lengths to explain why their antagonist turned out the way he or she did, even though that mystery was part of the character’s strength.
            What this often leads to is stories that feel very exotic and detailed, but very little ever actually happens in them.  Page after page of explanation can add up really fast, and no matter what my chosen format is, there’s only going to be so many pages.  Suddenly a third of my book is just… details.  And while I’m going over those details, my characters are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to happen again.  This can also lead to a bit of resentment from the reader as I’m spoon-feeding them all this information.
            As it turns out, problem number three is the flipside of two.  It’s when the writer doesn’t explain anything.  I’ve gone through whole chapters of a book trying to figure out which character was KristoMystery Science Theater 3000 once had a running gag about a mystical object (or maybe it was a person…) called “the Sampo.”  We’ve all seen stories where people ride “twyrfels” and we’re left wondering what the hell a twyrfel is (an animal? a vehicle? some kind of transporter beam?).
            There’s also the folks who hide motives and actions to create a sense of mystery.    Characters will appear, make a mysterious statement or three, and then vanish from the story.  Creepy messages will be found on walls, sidewalks, or computer screens and we never learn how they got there.  Disturbing objects are found in the cellar, but never discussed again.  Ever.
            There are two general causes behind this, in my experience.  In the first case it’s when I’ve sunk so far into my fictional world and spent so much time there that I forget the reader isn’t quite so familiar with it.  I can tell you the whole history of the twyrfel as transportation, so I forget that you don’t even know what one looks like.  In the second case, they’re trying to duplicate the tone of books like House of Leaves or shows in the vein of LOST or Person of Interest, but they don’t really understand how those stories achieved that tone.  This is especially frustrating when there’s clearly no real mystery, just a bunch of withheld information.
            So, there’s three big, common mistakes in genre fiction.  Sci-fi, horror, fantasy—we could probably give an example of each failing for each genre.  We could even make a chart.
            Or we could go over a few simple ways to avoid these issues…
            For that firstproblem up above, my story needs to have something my audience can immediately relate to in some way, and it’s best if it’s the main character.  Someone who hates their job, who wants something they can’t have, or maybe who just feels like an outsider.  Simply put, a person with a universal need or desire. 
            I’ve mentioned once or thrice that believable characters make for believable stories, and that’s especially true here in the genres.  Seriously, pick a popular genre story and I’ll bet the main character has a very humble, relatable origin.  Dan Torrance is a nursing home orderly before he’s forced to confront the True Knot.  Katniss Everdeen is just trying to put food on the table when she’s forced to fight for her life in an arena.  John Anderson (a.k.a. Neo) was a cubicle drone who was dragged into a war between humanity and sentient machines.  Dana, Marty, Jules, and their friends were regular college students before they decided to spend their vacation at that old cabin in the woods.  Hell, even in Pacific Rim, one of the most over-the-top movies of the year, our hero Raleigh is working a construction job when we catch up to him in the present, still shaking off the death of his brother.

            If a reader believes in my characters, they’ll believe what’s happening to my characters.  It has to do with willing suspension of disbelief—I can’t believe in the big elements of a story if I don’t believe in the basic building blocks of it.  Once I’m invested in Wakko’s life, then I’ll be more willing to go with it when he finds a lost civilization under the bowling alley or when he finds out the crab people have been running his life since he was born.

            I think there’s two ways to deal with the second problem, too much information.  One is a concept I’ve talked about here in the past—the ignorant stranger.  If things are going to be explained, I should have an actual, in-story reason for that explanation.  Yakko may know all about the secret android army, but Dot doesn’t.  This gives him a valid reason to talk about the Mysteridroid Corporation for a page and a half.  I just need to be sure this really is an ignorant stranger situation and I’m not falling back on the dreaded “as you know…” crutch.

           The other way is, well, for me to just get rid of all that excess information.  Cut it.  I can delete anything that isn’t actually necessary to the story.  This can be tough, because genre stuff tends to involve a lot of new spins on pretty mundane things.  Special pistols, close combat weapons, energy sources, transportation, zombie origins… all that stuff I mentioned up above.

            But is it necessary to the story, or is it just there to help push things deeper into my chosen genre?  It’s cool that my hero has an energy sidearm that uses ultrasonic beams focused through a blue quartz crystal to set up a harmonic vibration in the target’s cells which causes extreme pain and eventual molecular disruption, all powered by a cold-fusion microbattery… but in the long run is this any different than just saying he has a blaster?  Or a pistol?  I may have the most inventive take on teleportation ever, but if there’s no point to teleportation technology in my story except to show off this idea… why bother?  If the plot flows along fine without it, why take up space on the page with it?
            The thirdproblem, not explaining anything, is a little tougher.  On one level, it’s just a matter of skill and practice.  I need to be a good enough writer to know how my plot’s shaping up and to empathize with my audience. 
            A friend of mine gave me a great rule of thumb once—my main character should mirror my audience.  If my main character’s angry about something, the reader should be angry about it.  If my protagonist is puzzled, it means the audience should be puzzled. And if my hero is annoyed because he still doesn’t know what’s going on… well, that’s probably a sign I should have a reveal or two in the immediate future.
            The other way to deal with that third problem is to be sure my story actually has a real mystery, not just the sense of one.  Tying in to what I just mentioned, nothing will aggravate my readers more than to stumble through a story alongside my hero and then discover I’m not revealing a single thread of my mystery.  Or, worse yet, they might realize there isn’t a mystery at all—I was just stringing them along with some nonsense clues.  I need to know what the secret is going to be and work backwards, making sure my characters are smart enough to uncover it or honestly motivated to hide it, depending on which side of the mystery they’re on.
            Are these three the only problems that might crop up in my genre writing?  Not by a long shot.  But these are the ones I see cropping up again and again, so they’re worth looking at and considering.  And fixing.
            Next time, the last post before Christmas, I’d like to share a little holiday conversation I had with the writer-director of Iron Man 3, back when he was just the guy who did Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,
            Until then, go write.
            Pop culture reference.  I have no idea why, but that commercial always made me giggle like a little kid.

            So… I’ve only got a couple of minutes, so let’s talk about right now.  Starting… now.
            When I used to read for a couple of screenplay contests, one of the most common mistakes I’d see would be writers loading the page with information that wasn’t being shown on the screen. 

Push in on PHOEBE, sitting at a table, sipping her coffee.  She’s young, blonde, and pretty in that girl-next-door way.  She’s also heartbroken because she just found out her boyfriend’s been sleeping with someone from his office.  They got in a fight when she confronted him and he told her to move out.  She moved here to Seattle to be with him, doesn’t have any nearby family, and has realized that most of her friends were his friends first.  So now she’s sitting here in a cafe, with all her belongings out in her car in the parking lot, trying to figure out what to do with her life.

          Now, in the scene I just scribbled out… what’s happening in the movie right now?  What do we, as the audience, see?  What actions are taking place? 

            Screenwriting is about right now.  Not a year ago, not last week, right now.  Nothing matters except what’s on the screen right now.  If it’s not on screen right now, it’s not important.  If it is important, it’ll come out on screen later (later, at that point, being right now).  If all the words on page one of my screenplay aren’t related to the first minute of my movie, I’m doing something wrong. 

            So, just to clarify, my script should only be talking about what’s happening right now
            Now, there are lots of screenplays out there by some amazing screenwriters that mention a character’s background, past relationships, all that sort of thing.  Thing is, if I really pay attention when I read all those scripts, I’d see that these elements are only brought up when they’re relevant to what’s happening on screen right now.  Because screenwriting is about right now.
            Here’s my quick little common sense analogy for you. Feel free to swap genders or locations as you like…
            If I’m out at a bar talking with Phoebe, she’s what’s important.  If I’m talking to Phoebe but thinking about Dot, it means I’m either A) a jerk or 2) focused on the wrong thing.  Because if I’m talking to Phoebe, I should be focused on Phoebe.  If I’m thinking about my boss, I’m doing something wrong.  If I’m on the phone talking with a friend, I’m doing something wrong.  If I’m thinking about my ex-girlfriend or the woman I met earlier in the evening, there’s something wrong.  And if I’m thinking about where Phoebe and I are going to be two hours from now… yeah, I’m probably still wrong.  Phoebe’s in front of me right now, so I should be focused on her. 
            Right now.
            When next week becomes right now, I think I may talk a bit about flashbacks.
            Until then, go write.
March 9, 2012 / 5 Comments


            Beginning with a minor aside, go see John Carter.  The original book, A Princess of Mars, has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid and I’ve referenced it here once or thrice for storytelling examples because it tends to be relevant.  I got invited to a press screening on Tuesday and loved it.  So go see it and prove a bunch of Disney marketing execs wrong.

           Continuing on to a second minor aside, ConDor Con was pretty fun.  It was a bit stunning to hear that another writer, Art Holcomb, reads this little collection of rants on a regular basis.  So expect me to be very self-conscious for the next few weeks.
            Anyway, on to the reason you all bother to show up here…
            I know I hinted that I was going to talk about dialogue this week, but two weeks back my friend Bobbie (who I know from a far classier place on the web) asked about sequels.  I started thinking about responses and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had to say.  This wasn’t just something to jot off a quick answer to in the comments —it was a full post.
            So, here’s my thoughts on sequels.
            First off—and I can’t stress this enough—here’s my first thought about writing a sequel.
            Don’t do it.
            I don’t think you should ever write a book or screenplay with a sequel in mind.  Ever.  The only time to do this is when the person paying you says you’re going to get a sequel.  If I go to a publisher or a producer with a story that is “the first in a three part epic,” there is no possible reality in which I am going to be making a sale.  It’s just good math.  Most publishers and producers don’t want to be stuck with one manuscript from an unknown writer that doesn’t sell, so why would they possibly want to get stuck with two or three or more?  Why risk signing a contract for a three book/ movie series when you don’t even know if the first one’s going to do well? 
           Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  There’s always some chance of someone buying a series.  But the odds are already slim for an unknown writer, so why trim them down to almost nothing by writing something that’s going to put the publisher in an awkward position?
Seriously, would you think
this was getting a sequel?

            Ex-Heroeswas written as a single, stand-alone book.  So was A Princess of Mars (see, it was relevant) and Rendezvous with Rama and Interview With the Vampire.  Same with Star Wars (no subtitle), Pirates of the Caribbean, The Matrix, and Planet of the Apes (both versions).  I got to interview Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci once–arguably the  most successful, highest paid screenwriting team in Hollywood today–and they both shook their heads and scoffed at the idea of working on a  sequel story before you even knew how the first one was going to go over.

            Now, if you’ve bothered to read any of the stuff I’ve written past this blog, you may be poised to respond.   Some of you may have already skipped to the comment section.  Yes, Ex-Patriots was clearly written with a sequel in mind.  And the only reason I got to do that was because the first book did so well the publisher guaranteed me two sequels.  When the third book comes out you’ll notice everything stops there.  If they both do well, maybe Permuted Press will offer me a fourth and fifth.  Or maybe just a fourth.  Or maybe another three.  It’s foolish of me to plan on anything until both of us know where things stand.
            So, to recap, never write something that depends on a sequel.  Never. Ever.
            With that out of the way, let’s talk about writing sequels.
            One of the big challenges in writing a sequel (but not the only one) is making it accessible for everyone.  Readers can’t feel alienated and left out.  If my manuscript doesn’t have an entry point for them, I’ve just ruined the chances of anyone randomly picking it up and enjoying it.  And they won’t say “oh, I should’ve read Book X first,” they’re just going to say “It sucked.”
            As a writer, I need to make sure everyone is up to speed.  I don’t need to revisit every detail of the first book in the sequel, but I do need to make sure readers have a basic grasp of my characters, the world they’re in, and any key events that happened in their past.
            Here’s a few ways you can do that.
            Firstis just honest recollections.  People talk about things that have happened to them in the past.  I do it here all the time.  Someone could go back and reconstruct a semi-decent history of my life just from this blog.  I didn’t lay it all out in order, but a lot of it’s come up at one time or another.  When my lovely lady and I talk, it’s not unusual to mention “the last time your parents were out here” or “that place we went mini-golfing.”  My friend Marcus and I talk about theater shows and movie nights and miniature wargames we’ve played.  When I talk with my friend Patrick, we sometimes discuss films or shows we worked on—some separately and some we worked on together.
            The trick, of course, like all dialogue, is that it has to be motivated and it has to sound natural.  Patrick and I don’t randomly discuss films, after all, it usually spins out of another conversation.  If I’m just going to have a character do an infodump then it’ll come across as awkward at best, false at worst. 
            Secondis character descriptions.  Hopefully my characters have grown and changed a bit since the first story, so I can also add in hints of things that happened in the last book.  Maybe someone has a special coat or a piece of jewelry or maybe a new nervous habit.  It’s easy to mention where these things came from or the circumstances that led your character to them.
            In Ex-Patriots, for example, St. George now wears a long, dagger-like tooth on his jacket, a trophy from the final battle in Ex-Heroes.  He’s also got a web of scars on his arm where a zombie demon bit him.  And he can actually fly now, unlike the extended leaps he was doing in the first book.  Since all of these elements are part of his character, it’s simple to bring them up early on in the story.
            The Thirdway is the ignorant stranger.  Sometimes I have to tell someone else what happened before and why things are the way they are.  Maybe I need to explain why I have all these scars (like St. George had to explain to Captain Freedom in Ex-Patriots).  Perhaps Han Solo has to remind Leia he’s glad to help the rebellion, but he’s also hiding from Jabba the Hutt (in The Empire Strikes Back).  And I’m sure more than a few of us had to explain to the new kid what happened last summer between Wakko and Dot.  There are always meetings and debriefings and those awful Christmas catch-up letters.
            The ignorant stranger works very well with sequels because odds are I’m going to be introducing new characters.  As long as I’m not trying to do the “they were here all along” bit, that’s an instant excuse to explain things and talk about the past.
            And the Fourththing you can do is probably the most important to remember.  Don’t do anything.  Sometimes we don’t need to know what happened before to understand what’s going on right now.  Most of the Friday the 13th films didn’t felt the need to explain Jason’s origins.  They understood that there’s not much we need to understand about a psychopath past “he’s here” and “he has a machete.” 
            Tell the things you need to tell, but don’t be scared to leave some things mysterious, too.  Let the audience piece a few things together on their own.  You want a story with an entry point, but you also want it to entice readers to go back and see what happened before.  If I spell out everything that happened in book one, there’s no need for you to go back and actually read it, is there?
            The best part about all these methods, of course, is that they’re all pretty natural.  I can slip them into conversations and introduce them into a story without much effort.  And that means I’m getting this information out to the reader without making it look like I’m beating said reader over the head with it. 
            Speaking of sequels, I need to get back to Ex-Communication.
            Next time, that rant about dialogue.
            Until then, go write.
September 15, 2011 / 4 Comments

Screenwriting 101

Okay, I’ve said many times that I don’t want to use this blog to go over the basics. If you’ve found your way here, I’d like to pretend that you’ve got a loose grasp of your chosen writing format. But after a few recent scripts I’ve seen, it’s apparent the basics aren’t as well-known or understood as they should be.

So, without further ado (because there’s a lot to go over), here’s a baker’s dozen of basics you should have down before you show your screenplay to someone. And especially before you submit it to someone.

1) Basic FormatScripts are always in single space Courier 12. Always. If you heard a story about a professional screenwriter who only works in Times Roman and turns in his or her work that way, I can tell you two things—that person’s already got the leeway you only get with a well-established career, and as soon as they handed the script in the whole thing was reformatted into Courier 12. It’s the industry standard for a number of reasons, including timing and scheduling. Every other department needs that script in Courier 12.
Ahhh, says clever wanna-be #7… but if they can convert it anyway, what difference does it make if I want to write in Times or Arial or Wingdings?
It doesn’t make any difference how I write it. But when I submit it to a contest, an agent, or a production company, it has to be in Courier 12. Because scripts are always in Courier 12. Always. And I’m trying to convince people that I’m a professional.
And another thing—you don’t use scene numbers in a spec script. That’s something that comes up much later during the actual pre-production for a film. They’re a tool for the assistant directors and department heads, not the screenwriter. Putting them in now will just get me tagged as an amateur.

2) Basic StyleAlways use third person, present tense. Always. The script is what’s happening on screen right now. Characters can have dialogue where they talk about things in past tense, but all my action blocks and descriptions must be in third person, present tense.
A screenplay that switches person or dips back and forth between past and present tense is always a good tip-off for readers that this is someone’s short story or novel they sloppily adapted into screenplay format. There’s also usually a reason no one bought their short story or novel, and it’s related to the fact that they didn’t bother to learn how to format a screenplay…

3) Don’t use archaic terminology – Forsooth, whenst thou uses scrivening of yesteryore, thy words appearst equally of yesteryore. And few and far between liest those who show interest in the dry, dusty bones of a mouldering anecdote.
Or, as we say today, no one’s interested in an old script.
It used to be common to end every scene with CUT TO or FADE, or to end every page with (CONTINUED). It also used to be common to see kids be-bopping to their transistor radios. In both cases, no one’s done that for years. When I started working in the film industry back in 1993, CUT TO was already dead. CONTINUED was on life support, and only crops up in very limited use, usually for ongoing dialogue.
If you’ve been using an old script from Casablanca, Star Wars, or Chinatown to learn this stuff–toss it. The film industry grows and changes like any other industry. If a script wasn’t written in the past ten years, it’s probably going to give you more bad habits than good ones.

4) Capitals — This really isn’t that tough. You use capitals the first time we see a character so the reader knows this is someone new. I’ll go into this a bit more in a minute.
You also use capitals when something important happens. When YAKKO IS SHOT or Dot’s exploring the cellar and finds A SEVERED HAND ON THE FLOOR. Keep in mind, though, that in this sense capitals are just like exclamation points. The more often I use them, the less power they have, and eventually they’ll tip the scale and just start frustrating or annoying the reader.
Also, none of this applies to dialogue. Again, for clarity, never apply the above rules to dialogue. If dialogue is in capitals it means someone is shouting, nothing else. There is no other way to interpret capitals in dialogue. So even if my step-sister has never been mentioned before, I don’t say “Have you met my step-sister CAROLYN?” I also don’t say “Hey, over there on the floor, is that A SEVERED HAND!?!!?
Well, okay, I might shout if I see a severed hand… Question is, am I supposed to be shouting?

5) Names — Again, whenever I introduce a character, I always put them in all caps, even in the action blocks. The very first time I see YAKKO WARNER I need to know he’s someone new. After that he’s just Yakko. For example…
Another man cut from the 50’s action cloth, ZACK “ZAP” MARSHALL is standing by another panel, a few feet down the wall from Lance’s. This one has three large buttons on it, marked “laser,” “missile,” and “x-ray”. Zap also wears a wide, high-tech belt buckle with a large button in the middle of it.
Ready, Zap?
Just give the command, Captain. I’m ready to blow it out of space.
Dialogue headers are always all caps and you never change dialogue headers for a character. Jack’s dialogue is always headed with JACK, Jill’s is always headed with JILL. The only time they would change is if the character has completely changed identities on screen.

For example, in Lord of the Rings when we find out the ranger Strider is actually Prince Aragorn. He’s STRIDER in headers until he’s revealed as ARAGORN in either the action block (because you’re introducing a new character) or dialogue. Then his next dialogue header should be STRIDER/ARAGORN. Use that double-header once, and then he’s ARAGORN from there on in.
6) Don’t Name every Character—In the abbreviated, concise format of a screenplay, names are an important tool. They tell the reader that this character is someone we need to pay attention to. They’re important enough to the story that they rate a name and not just a title like MAN #2 or WAITRESS or OFFICER.
Alas, some idiot somewhere started pushing the idea of naming everyone in a screenplay. The logic is that this gives more detail, nuance, or some such nonsense. Do not do this. If your screenplay is littered with extra names, I’m going to be tripping over myself trying to keep them straight because the logical assumption is that they need to be kept straight. You made the effort to name them, after all. So rather than focusing on the story, I’m trying to figure out how the guy at the bus stop and the waitress figure into it. That’s breaking the flow and it’s going to piss me off when I realize I wasted time and effort juggling twenty-seven names for no reason.
Never name someone just to give them a name. No one—not even the actor—is going to be upset with just MAN #2. A friend of mine has made a good career out of being MAN #2. Trust me, MAN #2 is going to make a nice chunk of money, even for just one day on set.

7) Actually Describe Things—A few years back I got to interview screenwriter-director David Goyer (The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, the Blade trilogy) and he told me a funny story about getting smacked down by Guillermo del Toro. It seems Goyer had described a character in a script as “a living nightmare.” del Toro looked at this and said “What does that even mean? That is boolshit!”
There is a time and a place for pretty, evocative imagery and language. That time and place is not while writing a screenplay. As I mentioned above, the script is about what’s on screen, which means it has to be something we can actually see. A reader needs to be able to visualize what’s on the page, and it’s very important that multiple readers visualize the same thing. I can tell you Kara is a dead ringer for my college girlfriend Penny, but that doesn’t mean a damned thing if you don’t know what Penny looked like. “It’s every bad dream you’ve ever had rolled into one” sounds fantastic, but it’s really hard to do concept sketches and storyboards off that.
During the interview, Goyer actually admitted this issue bit him in the ass when he was directing one of his own scripts. He’d given a vague, roundabout description of a sequence, but once he was on set he actually had to figure out how to film it—now he needed a real description. So the gears of production jammed up while Goyer and his assistant director tried to clear up the mess writer-Goyer had left them to deal with.
That leads nicely into…

8) Don’t write what we can’t see – A solid corollary to the last point. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen stuff like this in amateur screenplays.

Tight on a man sitting on the side of a bed. This is JOHN, a computer scientist who created a new type of parallel processor chip. He’s depressed because he found out his wife is cheating on him with his best friend. He’s moved out of the house and has been living in this hotel room in Boston for the past six weeks as he tries to figure out what to do with his life. He’s thinking about divorcing her, but part of him is still in love, despite the pain she’s caused him.
What’s wrong with that paragraph? Well except for the first sentence, how is the audience expected to know any of this? All we’re going to see is a guy sitting on a bed. Again, the script is what’s on screen. Not what’s in someone’s head on screen. That’s the stuff that comes out through dialogue, action, and maybe some clever set dressing or wardrobe choices. But definitely not in a block of exposition in the action blocks.

9) Don’t Over-Describe Characters—This sounds a little contrary to some of the stuff I’ve just said, but trust me–it isn’t. A bad habit some writers develop—especially prose writers—is to go mad with character description. Hair color, eye color, education, underwear preferences, etc… They take their entire character sketch and drop it into the screenplay.
You don’t go nuts describing characters in scripts for a few reasons. One is that you always want to be tight and lean in a screenplay. Two is, as I just said above, you don’t want to describe anything you can’t see. Three is the one none of us like to think about—there’s a good chance this character will change. I can spend half a page describing Angelina Jolie and then they decide to cast Kiera Knightly. It happens.

Just give enough description so the character stands out from any other character. Really, if you’ve got more that two sentences of character description you’ve got too much. Yeah, you may have tons more, but remember—the script is about right now. Everything else about your character will come out in the course of the story through their dialogue and actions. If it doesn’t, my problem is not that I only got two sentences of character description.

10) Don’t act – Okay, you know those little descriptions under the dialogue header, usually in parentheses? These are called parentheticals. Sometimes, as a joke, they’re called wrylies. It’s a quick set of instructions to the actor about how the line’s supposed to be delivered.

Actors hate parentheticals. They hate them the same way screenwriters hate development and producers who want you to add in a bit with a dog and a part for their girlfriend. It’s someone who has no idea how to do your job telling you how to do your job. Let’s look at a quick scene from one of my own scripts…
You did it!
Yeah, great shot, Zap!
All clear again, Captain.
Yes. But for how long?
What do you mean, Rex?
If it wasn’t for brave crewmen like Lance, Zap, Ted, and the rest of you, the galactispiders would make the starways far too dangerous.
Are those parentheticals really telling you anything useful? Most actors would be able to figure this stuff out just from context. So would any reader. Which, for the record, is why none of these parentheticals are actually in my script—I just added them for this example.
Y’see, Timmy, there are only two times to use a parenthetical. One is if it’s life or death important to the story that this line is delivered a certain way. If the whole film is going to fall apart if Yakko doesn’t whisper in this scene, then add a (whispered) to that line of dialogue. Two is if I think there’s a very real chance this line could be misunderstood, even with all the context and lines before it, and the resulting misreading will destroy the entire film.
If you’ve got a parenthetical in your screenplay, think long and hard about if it meets one of these two criteria. And then remove it. They’re the adverbs of screenwriting.

11) Don’t direct—Okay, remember what I just said about actors hating it when you tell them how to act? Directors loathe writers who fill up a script with directing notes. When I fill pages with stuff like “Dolly over to reveal” or “pan up to Dot’s face,” directors start shaking their heads and figuring out how they’re going to shoot it.
Like the parenthetical above, only put in direction if it’s life or death important to the film. If the story hinges on this being a crane shot, then put in—if the story really hinges on it. Me thinking this scene would be really cool with a crane does not make it a pivotal shot.

Plus, a lot of time adding direction honestly detracts from the story. Here’s a great example—how many of you have seen The Shawshank Redemption? The last time we see Andy walking to his cell, it’s pretty important that we don’t see his feet, right? Except if I point that out, readers are going to spend the next ten pages trying to figure out what’s so important about Andy’s feet and that’s going to override a lot of what’s going on now. If I hadn’t mentioned it, they wouldn’t’ve thought about it, but now it’s essentially a low-level spoiler in my own script that his shoes are going to be key. By the time the readers get to the flashback and figure it out, they’ll understand that when the movie is filmed we can’t see his feet at that point.
By the way, just to clarify—it doesn’t matter if I plan on directing the script myself. The script I submit to a contest, an agent, or a producer, has to be a script for anyone. If you’ve actually going to be the director, you’ll have plenty of time later to add that stuff. Plus you’ll have your own notebook and schedule. For now, all those things are just taking up space on the page.
12) VO vs. OC—Okay there’s a huge difference between voice-over and off-camera. This is one of those little things that can get me tagged instantly as an amateur if I get them wrong.

Voice-over (V.O.) is when someone’s talking that no one else can hear. Announcers and narrators are usually voice-over. Train of thought is voice-over. “Little did he know…” tends to be voice-over. Another good tip—I will never, ever see lips moving for a voice-over.
Now off-camera (OC) is when someone’s talking that other characters can hear but the audience can’t see. For example, if Yakko’s on his phone talking to Dot, and we hear her voice, she’s off-camera, not voice over. That old bit when everyone hears a voice, turns, and sees that Wakko’s come into the room—that’s off-camera.
I want to use OC carefully, because too much makes it look like I’m trying to direct again (see above). I’m not going to put it during an intercut phone call. I don’t use it when we know Dot’s on the other side of the room but we’re not seeing her at this moment.

13) Don’t use real celebrities as charactersThe last of our baker’s dozen. I’ve read screenplays where one character married Carmen Electra, another one where someone ended up on a cruise with Whoopi Goldberg, and a really, really creepy one about Matt Damon falling in love with a producer (who happened to have the same name as the screenwriter). Unless your movie is already in production and Zachary Levi happens to be your best friend in the world who would do anything for you, do not use his name in your screenplay.
Yeah, I’m sure some of you are already calling foul. After all, didn’t I litter Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots with mentions of celebrity zombies? Well, yes I did. But that’s the difference between a book and a screenplay—you can still read the book if Angelina Jolie, Alex Trebek, or Nathan Fillion don’t show up. Now if someone ever decides to make a movie… well, then there’ll be issues. Although I feel relatively safe saying Fillion would show up…
So, thirteen tips to a more coherent screenplay. I’m betting the majority of you knew most of them. But a few of you… well, now you know.
And knowing is half the battle.
Next week, I think I’ll steal another reader suggestion and show you some of my etchings
Until then, go write.