As a screenwriting mentor at The Script Mentor (www.thescriptmentor.com) and producer with Shark-Eating Man Productions (www.sharkeatingman.com), I review over 300 original speculative screenplays annually, and dozens of first-ten pages a month. In fact, we offer a service that includes first-ten page reads, complete with constructive and thorough feedback notes on those all-important opening pages.
One thing I’ve found during this review process is the commonality of errors spanning the screenwriting experience spectrum: newbies and experienced writers alike make the same mistakes over and over again. In general, I call most of these formatting errors, since formatting is not exclusively about setting margin anymore. In screenwriting, we are talking about the proper way to write slug lines, as just one example of formatting. Other repetitive errors may include poor spelling, grammar, lack of punctuation, and overuse or misuse of a variety of acceptable screenwriting techniques.
Many of these are also considered “screenwriting rules”, but some don’t like to refer to them as such. You see, they’re the “rebels” of the screenwriting world. They are the ones with whom “rules” don’t apply- you know, like Hillary Clinton and the law, or Donald and basic manners. I call them “rebels without a clue”!
However, if these rules are consistently violated throughout the first ten pages – and beyond- no one of any authority will ever get past the first THREE pages, much less the first ten. They won’t even consider purchasing or producing your screenplay until they’ve read the entire thing, so you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot before you even get out to the dance floor.
If YOU want to be taken seriously as a spec screenwriter, here are ten RULES of basic SPEC screenwriting that you need to know and adhere to going forward:
- Scene Headings (a.k.a Master Scene Headings, slug lines, or slugs):
- You MUST write a proper Master Scene Heading. These include camera location (INT, EXT, INT/EXT), scene location (BEDROOM, BUSY STREET, etc.) and time of day, or TOD (DAY, NIGHT).
- Do NOT use any other TOD unless absolutely imperative in telling the story (if the killer only kills at midnight, and the killer is about to kill, then say “MIDNIGHT”).
- Always keep these to one typed line.
- Provide enough scene description to allow the reader to imagine scene, and exclude details that do not add to the story.
- You must also describe your characters. The descriptions do not need to read like a police report; blue eyes may be described as “blue eyes”, “like the deep pools of a Caribbean inlet”, or simply “Newman-esque”.
- Limit this to major characters; often those with more than one line of dialogue and more than one scene. It is not necessary to go into detail describing the grocery store and the check-out girl if they are basic “set pieces” in a scene that your character stops in and out of briefly, and one time.
- Try to keep all descriptions to two lines or less.
3. Camera Directions (CUT TO, DISSOLVE, etc.):
- EXCLUDE all technical camera directions in your spec script unless IMPERATIVE to the IMPACT of the story. Limit yourself to “FADE IN:”, and “FADE OUT:”. If it’s imperative to use a “BLACK SCREEN” midway through the script, then show a slow FADE IN: into the next scene, because this will improve the storytelling dramatically, then that would be the exception. Unfortunately, many people think their exception IS an exception when it is not. It’s better to err on the side of caution and NOT include an unnecessary camera direction, then to include one.
4. Action Text:
- When writing you action text, avoid repeats of words, such as “walks”, “laughs”, “looks”, etc.
- Write in the active tense; “He knocks”, as opposed the passive “He is knocking” (-ing words).
- Try to keep your action text to three typed lines or less, on average.
- Avoid expositional dialogue; having one character impart information to another character; information that they should already know; for the sole purpose of informing the audience (“You know Mom died when I was only eight, so…”).
- Keep dialogue to four typed lines or less whenever possible.
6. “More white than black”:
- Target 150-180 words per page, and you’ll have a nice balance between blank space and ink.
- Anything over 200 words seems heavy; long paragraph blocks are deadly.
- Keep scenes short; anything longer than three pages seems too long.
7. Actor Directions (“beat”):
- Do NOT include (beat) in dialogue. The actor is trained to act. Think of beats as “dialogue speed bumps”, and it slows the read considerably. Do NOT confuse this “beat” with a “Save the Cat” beat, or a beat sheet. You’re marching to the beat of a different drummer there.
8. Screenwriting Technique/ Style:
- Do NOT get carried away with parentheticals, CAPITALIZATIONS, flashbacks, montages, hyphens, ellipses and exclamation marks. If you need to use them, use them in moderation (sparingly), and only if you know how to use these techniques properly. If you don’t, do not try them.
- Rules of punctuation still apply in a screenplay. Learn them.
- If you can afford an editor to check for grammar, punctuation and spelling errors, you should make the effort to hire one.
- Do not rely on spellchecking programs to do your spelling work for you.
10. First Ten Pages:
- Make sure the first ten pages capture the reader’s attention
- Make sure that the Inciting Incident is in these first ten pages, or close to it.
- Make sure the tone and genre of the story is clear by these ten pages.
- Make sure most, if not all, of the major characters, have been introduced to the audience in some fashion in these ten pages.
If you follow these ten rules to the letter, I guarantee you will have a well-written screenplay on your hands!