Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Above: a page of Outland CD liner notes. See below for context...
In recent weeks I published a three-part piece on screenwriting “wisdom” (to the extent that I felt smart thinking it up). Here are some “outtakes” of tips and tricks...
Amateur scripts tend to be woefully unclear. It’s like the writer is just writing for himself, so the reader has to keep track of a secret code in order to understand what has happened.
Professionals develop a “sixth sense” for what the reader experiences. They learn to guide the reader, eliminate distractions, and anticipate problems.
They are always thinking of the reader’s experience—not their own.
It’s a weird headspace to inhabit, trying to tell a story and, at the same time, imagine how that story will be received.
But that’s the job: you’re a storyteller. An entertainer.
Strangely, I got a ton of practice at it by writing liner notes to CDs I used to release of classic film scores. It’s very difficult to write about music, so I became attuned to what the customer was experiencing listening to a track and trying to learn about it.
You must think of what the reader knows at any moment.
As you figure out simpler and better ways to convey story information, it’ll become second nature, and your scripts will become much easier for readers to follow.
ARE YOU STUCK?
Or, perhaps, you’ve completed a draft and have no idea how to make it any better—yet it’s not performing with readers the way you want?
A simple trick is just to ask yourself, for any moment, what would this character really be feeling now? What should she be doing? If this was real life, that is.
And rewrite it so she does that!
Writers don’t like this because it messes up their plot. But remember—do plot last.
But be careful…
YOU CAN MAKE UP ANYTHING—EXCEPT ONE THING
You can fictionalize anything in your script. It’s your world!
Except for one thing: truthful human behavior.
As soon as people are behaving in ways that are phony, the reader is gone.
Characters can behave in ways that are different from modern society, based on their culture or who they are—but they have to be truthful, and consistent.
Also, as you get better with scenework (making every moment as emotional as it can be), it can be very easy to end up with inconsistent characters. So be careful of that, too.
PULL THINGS UP
One of the things that happens as you make your characters more truthful is that they become smarter. They see through traps or bad decisions.
Thus they don’t do what you need them to do—and you have to change the plot.
Try pulling up narrative events. In other words, that twist you were saving for the midpoint? Make that the break into act two. The inciting incident that you had on page 15 can really be on page 5.
Most of what I found reading amateur scripts is that stuff was taking far too long to happen.
Don’t be afraid to move things around. Invert them, simplify them. But try to see if they’ll work withoutadditional characters or subplots—the simpler, the better.
Usually, if you’re adding, you’re losing.