4 Tips for Great Screenwriting

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It’s summer, let’s review!

Screenwriting is hard work.  Especially when sunshine and warm weather outside beckon.  If you don’t love the writing process, it’s hard to stay focused.  Applying your imagination, creativity and patience on a daily basis requires discipline and determination.

It can be a lonely pursuit.  Sometimes no more lonely then when you’re in meetings with producers and execs searching for some ineffable quality that will make your project stand above the rest.

There’s no way to guarantee what makes a screenplay great.  But there are some rules you can follow to make sure that your script is the best it can be.

Less is always more.

The phrase “Less is more” is often associated with the architect and furniture designer Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe (1886-1969), one of the founders of modern architecture.  He believed that the basis of good design was simplicity and clarity.

The same applies in screenwriting.  After all, screenwriting is a form of architecture.   With your script, you are creating not just a building but an entire world.

In a good screenplay, the writer is trying to grab a reader’s attention, fill his or her imagination with ideas, infuse it with emotions and create an urgency that keeps the reader turning the page.  With every moment – every word! – there’s a lot going on.

Anything that distracts or confuses the reader pulls his or her focus away from the ideas that you, the writer, want your reader to digest.  The more simple and clear you are in your presentation, the more certain you can be that you are communicating what you want to your reader.

Clarity trumps accuracy.

“Limit clarity for accuracy; Limit accuracy for clarity”

While a screenplay is often called “a blueprint for a movie,” it’s not actually a blueprint.   It’s more of a creative incubator.  It provides the content and content that allows a host of talented people to pour their hearts, souls and imaginations into realizing your script ideas on the screen.

It not your job or theirs to be “true to life.”  It’s not necessary that every little detail be correct, nor every historical event be absolutely accurate.  What is essential is that your story is accurate to the emotional truth of the moment.

For an emotional truth to resonate, it must be clearly articulated.  Too many details and unnecessary information won’t increase our understanding of an emotional moment, it will simply distracts our eyes, ears and logical brain centers.

Emotions first, ideas second.

An old saying goes: “A man walks into a room and tells a joke: everyone who speaks that language laughs.  A man walks into a room and pulls out a gun: everyone hits the floor.”

Why…?  Because culture is an acquired set of behaviors.  Depending on where we are from and how we are raised, we learn how to view the world and how to function in that reality.

But our emotions are universal.  All sentient human beings feel the same things – across all cultures on the planet!

One can argue exactly how many different emotions exits.  In the 20th Century, Paul Ekman identified six: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise.  Robert Plutchik listed four pairs of polar opposites: joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust, surprise-anticipation.

What enables a movie to become a world-wide hit is the ability to create an emotional experience for a viewer, regardless of the language, subtitles or over-dubs.

Yes, you must have wonderful ideas – you need a great concept and a clever story.  That is the context of your script.  But unless there is a clear and powerful emotional core embedded in the context of your script, the reader’s imagination won’t be fully engaged.  And your story will not have the impact that you desire.

Maximum description, minimum words.

This idea combines rules the three rules above:

Be direct.  Get to the truth.  And never use more words than necessary.

See what I mean…?

What are your rules…?

The above rules are the guiding principles I use as I rewrite and edit my work.  What are your rules?  How do you make sure your script is the best that it can be…?


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