What the professional screenwriter knows

January 13, 2009

In preparation of the upcoming 9-week Screenwriting I course, I’d like everybody attending to get grounded in my approach, philosophy and expectations of you, the emerging screenwriter…

Compared to a novel, writing a screenplay is easy. The parameters in which one has to work are so clearly defined as to leave little room for deviation. Point-blank: action takes place at a location; dialogue facilitates the action. However, successful scriptwriting, a shrewd balance of words and plot and characters and action, is in itself no meager achievement. The ability to motivate a reader/agent/producer/prospective investor/director/actor to turn from one written page to the next, then deliver on expectations roused–that is what the business of writing screenplays is all about. Determining whether the script you’ve written accomplishes these goals hinges on the ability to present yourself as a professional screenwriter.

My definition of “professional” is a screenwriter who’s completed a script that 1) Does not lose its audience because of lackadaisical storytelling or esoteric overkill; 2) Does not lose its audience because of superfluous camera direction or pedantic action description; and 3) Does not lose its audience.


A spec screenplay is not a movie to be made, it is first a story that must be read, often repeatedly by any number of individuals whose sole ambition it is to advise against its further consideration. Keeping in mind that the average industry personality reads countless scripts of varying quality, most funneled to them via the recommendations of often questionably-qualified “readers” hired to wade through the constant deluge of scripts submitted, one after another, 8 to 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, it is essential to address what factors more often than not prevent a script from being seriously regarded. These factors generally fall into two categories:

1. Execution

Professional format is obvious, but execution is everything. Craftsmanship, that is, the way the words lead the eyes, the rhythm, clarity and distinction of phrase, or “voice” of the author’s words on the page, is crucial to the success of a seamless, rewarding read.

Here, I’m talking about any turn of phrase, any muddled or repetitive or unmoving passage that might aggravate the reader long enough to consider not turning the page and reading onward. We must listen as much with our eyes as we do with our ears when evaluating the effectiveness of the story we have written. Personally, I’ve read (and written) too many scripts whose good story was undermined by the words that got in the way of the reader’s ability or patience to discover it.

2. Screen Story

The suspension of the reader’s disbelief and the rendering of densily woven characters believably compelling the events of the story are hallmarks of a good script.

While professionally evaluating our own script, we need to be sensitive to jarring lapses in credibility or motivation; unimaginative or hackneyed dialogue heard too many times before; dialogue that, if it was removed, would in no manner anything in the story be lost; and, finally, flat or stereotypically depicted characters that could be far more effective with a fresh interpretation that defies what made them so easy to introduce in the first place.


There are generally two types of screenplays that are written. One is the shooting script, a “green-lighted” version of a previously written screenplay purchased and now formatted in such a way as to determine production costs, scheduling, director’s vision, etc. The previously written script from which it is based is called a story script. A story script is basic in its layout, devoid of superfluous camera direction and consisting primarily of INT. (Interior) and EXT. (Exterior) sluglines to establish where the reader is, followed by the events of the scene.

To sell a spec screenplay, write a story script. The reason for this is because too many writers do not understand the subjective realities governing how a prospective producer/director sees the shots moving. When poorly used, or used without a clear understanding of the need of usage, such direction often makes an otherwise clean and understandable script confusing to read. Confusion, or the need for the reader to re-read scenes to picture the way the writer had “shot” it, means the reader then has sufficient time to put the script down and never get back to it. That reads as: No Sale.

Story Script = Where we are and what the action is.


Action in the general sense, we all have a pretty good idea of. A car chase, a bar room brawl, a gunfight, for instance, these are clear examples of typical action. But never forget that dialogue is action, too. If the dialogue is not propelling the story forward at a clip in keeping with the tempo of the scene, it ain’t action. If it ain’t enlightening the reader with information that is crucial to story/character development; if it ain’t providing fresh information necessary to tell the story coherently; if it ain’t something that, omitted, would jeopardize the ability of a reader/agent/producer/prospective investor/director/actor to understand what’s going on, then lose it.

A challenge for us all is to render dialogue essential to story movement that unmistakably distinguishes one character’s individuality from another. Should you find your characters all sound the same, then try giving each their own verbal “shtick.” For instance, have a character end every comment with “Know what I mean?”, or one that uses polysyllabic adjectives when any single verb will do. Give a character a perpetual sniffle, a lisp, a tick, anything to instantly convey the individuality of that character.


The chunk of words beneath the slugline commonly referred to as the “action description” is undoubtedly the most problematic areas in most scripts written by non-professional screenwriters. Many feel obliged to go into great detail about the physical movement of characters, either in the action description or in parentheticals amid dialogue. Word to the wise: Don’t. If “Marty walks over to the door, turns the knob, and with a final glare at the guests, leaves the room,” believe me, “Marty exits in a huff!”

Say it, say it clean, and get on with the story.


Finally, constructing certain scenes in stories can sometimes prove terribly frustrating even to the most accomplished writer. For whatever reason, there are simply times when a scene, so vivid in the mind’s eye, won’t lay out on the page in a manner that seems to make sense. When this happens, turn to those before you who’ve done it successfully. Invest $15.00 or $20.00 in a copy of the script for a movie which most closely resembles your own, or contained a scene which you might be able to emulate, and see how it looked on the written page before it reached the screen. There is not a more beneficial means of education for the aspiring professional screenwriter than that contained in scripts of movies seen.


Anyone can write a screenplay. As a professional screenwriter your job is then to go back and whittle away all the words that are getting in the way of others’ ability to discover that you’re not just anyone. Your job then is to identify the elements that are not communicating your ideas clearly, succinctly and in a non-detracting manner. Your job is to render a more compelling story. You job is to introduce and sustain interesting characters bristling with density and individuality. Your job is to rewrite. Why rewrite? Because the professional knows that the secret to writing is rewriting.

And the professional screenwriter also knows there is no singular right way to do it. Only an infinite number of wrong ways.


Whether you’re an aspiring screenwriter starting with nothing but a faint idea for what might make a good movie, a writer looking to write movie or TV scripts to sell to Hollywood, a writer seeking to make your own short or feature-length movie, or simply a writer who wants to understand the restrictions and discipline required to craft a quality screenplay, Screenwriting I aims to empower you with the basic tools and insider tricks to effectively communicate the movie in your mind to the stranger across the page via the written word in a story script format. Or in other words, to present your work as having been written by a professional screenwriter.



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