Last night I attended the monthly meeting of the San Diego Writers and Editors Guild. The guest speaker was Jonathan LaPoma, author of Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story, and winner of 101 screenwriting awards. He spoke about his screenwriting process, as well as giving the audience tips for punching up the drama in a script, and creating great dialogue. Here are my Top 10 Takeaways from his speech:
10 – Writing is writing
No matter what the genre or format, a lot of screenwriting tips cross over into tips for writing a novel. Screenwriting is simply a much more condensed storytelling method, but the focus is the same: write compelling characters, great dialogue, and tell a story that the audience will want to follow.
9 – Character drives structure
Instead of trying to use beats or impose a narrative structure on your screenplay, think about character. The actions your characters take will naturally drive the story forward, and this forward motion will become the structure. When you’re stuck, ask yourself what motivated you to write this story in the first place. Or think about the ending you’ve got in mind, and write backwards from there. What decisions do your characters need to make to end up where you want them to go?
8 – Forget chasing trends
Instead of approaching screenwriting like a businessperson analyzing the market, write from your own inspiration. Don’t chase the trends, because what’s hot now will be cold by the time you try to sell the script. Just write stories that are important to you, and that personal touch will stand out in a sea of vampires and zombies.
7 – Conflict drives story
Conflict doesn’t mean people yelling at each other all the time. It just means there’s a barrier between what a character wants and their actually getting it. You must have conflict in your story. The conflict is the story. As an example, if Batman decides he’s too tired for fighting crime, and this time he’s going to sit things out, you’ve got no movie. Even if that’s what he really wants to do, your story has to pull him back into the action.
6 – How long is too long?
Back in the day, Hollywood scripts used to be 90 to 120 pages. These days, 120 pages is too long. About 100 pages, or even 90, is the preferred length for a feature-length film script.
That being said, don’t pressure yourself to write to this page count in your first draft. Just get it all out on paper, then go back for revisions, and you’ll likely add pages as you go.
5 – Work your dialogue
Quoting Robert McKee (Story), LaPoma said: “Dialogue should have the swing of everyday talk, but content well above normal.” Make sure your dialogue is always doing double-duty, not just restating the visuals onscreen. Develop character and move the action forward. Cut anything that isn’t doing one or both of these things. And don’t bother with all the extraneous “Hi, how are you?” types of small talk we use in everyday life. Just cut straight to the heart of the matter.
Also remember that dialogue has the following specific functions:
- Moving the story forward
- Revealing character through word choice, cadence, content
- Communicating information
- Creating conflict
- Expressing emotion
4 – Something has to change
The main character is typically the one that changes, during the course of a film. But that isn’t always the case. LaPoma mentioned Leaving Las Vegas as an example of a film where the main character remains the same, whereas secondary characters change after coming into contact with him. And sometimes it’s not the characters who change, but the viewers.
3 – Make it easy
Make it as easy as possible for someone to stay engaged and keep reading your script. Keep your chunks of dialogue down to three or four lines. Break up long monologues with actions. Producers are often afraid to take chances, and want to stick with what they know, so make them feel like your script fits this mold.
2 – Show, don’t tell
Every writer has heard this advice, at some point, but what does it really mean? LaPoma offered a writing exercise to help, citing the 2011 silent film The Artist, as inspiration: try to tell the story without words. If you can do this, you’re doing all the heavy lifting with visuals instead of dialogue.
1 – Write a damn good script
How do you do that? Write about characters people will care about. Cut anything that pulls readers out of the story. Study the craft. Learn how to pitch.
Want to learn more about writing a damn good script? Here’s LaPoma’s recommended reading list: