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26 March 2008 @ 02:25 pm
Thirteen Mistakes Scriptwriters Make  
James Bartlett ran a workshop at CWN on the 15th March.  I was there with coffee, notebook and the odd, dislocated feeling that comes from not working while being somewhere that you work. 

It was a good day.  James was an informal, informative and entertaining tutor - adding nuggets of information about working as a scriptreader and writer in LA.  I'm not particularly into script writing myself.  I once - years ago - wrote a radio play that I quite enjoyed and might, after Annie McCartney's workshop inspiration, revisit someday.  In general, despite my years in TV production, it's not a medium I'm inspired by.

So why was I there?  Because it was about writing and I think that any information about writing - no matter the genre - can be absorbed and turned to your own advantage.  Besides, I'd heard James was cute.

Some of the information was very script-specific -  very film script specific, in fact - but some of the other 'mistakes' could easily be applied to writing novels too.

1. Number the pages in your script/novel.  He said that you should put it on the top right-hand of the page and that you shouldn't put your name and the title in the footer.  Personally, I disagree with this.  I put the title and my name on the bottom of all my manuscripts - slightly smaller than the main body of text and in a muted grey so it doesn't jar the eye.  I can't see what it hurts and if an agent finds a page on the floor, reads it and loves it, then they'll know who to contact.  (Ok, so that's not likely but what if the reader loses the top page or they leave the contact information behind?  James said that the producers in Hollywood are all looking for reasons to say no to a script - it costs them after money - and you have to limit the opportunities for them to do that.  Same thing goes for Agents/publishers I guess.)

2. Spelling and punctuation.  It's important.  Do your best to get it right.  If you don't care enough about your manuscript to spell-check and re-read it, why should the reader?  Read it backwards when you're checking it for mistakes and remember that word will only catch words that are spelt wrong - not words that just aren't right or are missing.  I'm sure I've told everyone reading this about the time I wrote a story where the character 'grabbed her big ass gun' only to leave out the word 'gun'.  Or the time I had a horse shot dead through the arse.

3. Songs, poems and pictures - they do not belong in your manuscript.  For two reasons - three, as far as I am concerned.  James pointed out that it broke the flow of the story and made the reader think of something else.  It also makes the producer think about cost.  Getting the rights to even a few seconds of a song can cost thousands and sometimes you have to go through all the hassle of chasing down who holds the rights, who represents who holds the right and all the haggling only to find that they don't want you to use it.  A reason to say no.  It's also a problem if you're writing the poems or songs yourself - and you're just not very good.  I mean, I'm a good writer but any poetry I've committed has been doggerel, it really has.  If I put that into a story with the claim it's by some wunderkind of poetry - people are going to laugh.  Even if you're a good writer, it's HARD to get away with that.  The piece you're parading as 'immensely talented' has to be better than the writing around it, otherwise it doesn't convince.

4. Don't put in camera angles or directions for the actors.  You aren't the director and they'll just be annoyed by it.

5. Sluglines.  Which is just a great word.  Basically telling the reader where you are, when it is and what you're doing.  'Day.  TED is outside a corner shop.'  Keep these simple.  The less detail you give for the location - TED is outside the Mace on Royal Avenue - the easier it is for it to be universal rather than regional.   And the reader/lighting guy/director doesn't care if it's 9.15 in the morning.  They want to know if it's light or dark.  Keep it to the essentials.

6. Literary Descriptions.  This is a script specific one too - avoid literary description.  Don't tell the reader that TED is a middle-aged man with sad eyes and the seasoning of age whitening his hair, or that he has a wealth of experience written on his face from the five years he spent in prison.  Film is a VISUAL medium, if the audience can't *see* something then it doesn't belong in the script.  TED is a middle-aged man with grey hair.

7. Don't describe emotions and reactions.  MARGE looked hurt when Ted stormed out of the room.  It was just like the end of you last marriage.  Let the dialogue do it for you.  Ted stormed out of the room.  "Just like that other bastard," Marge said. 

8. Exposition.  Avoid it.  Use subtext and let the reader/viewer draw their own conclusions. 

9. Avoid passive actions in scene description.  Ted runs down the street, not Ted ran down the street or is running down the street

10. Transitions.  A smooth transition can really make a script pop and I think it can do the same to a film or short story.  It's a way of linking the two scenes across the break in the narrative.  For example, you have a character scream in terror - scene break - next break a baby's crying and your detective tells someone to take it away from the scene.  Or a man storms out of the room in one scene and in the next a woman enters through a different door.  It can also be used to say something about your characters quite subtlely but effectively.  In one scene the aggressive, bolshie character slams a door in fury, in the next the kinder, gentler character is trying to sneak down creaking stairs to avoid waking anyone.

11. Don't reference other books or movies in the scene description (it's obviously ok to have the character mention them if needed).  For example: The restaurant looked just like the one from Casablanca.  It puts readers off, it assumes that they've seen this film or will be impressed if you've seen it.  Usually it's trying to suck up to some director - ie. their film - or it's trying to show off the writer's intellectual cred.  Readers find it annoying and so do producers - what if they hadn't read or seen that book? They won't want to put this play forward and maybe have to admit that they didn't know what the author meant when he described a place as 'just like a out of b."

12. Don't put in any notes or jokes or asides to the reader - 'I'm sure YOU know someone like that?' - it puts them off.  Like over ornate scene description it's not something that the viewer can 'see' and therefore it has no place in the script.

13. Formatting and Presentation.  Be aware of where you are sending the script and how they like it presented.  Don't use styles or colours or over-fancy title pages.  It makes it look like you don't have faith in your own product.

James also said a couple of other things about being a scriptwriter in LA.  Horror's always popular - low-budget, specially if there's not too many people in the cast, and the bad guy usually has a mask on so they might not even have to pay an actor for much.  He says to always use hard-copy for submissions - I don't know about that in novel terms - and that it's always a good idea to have a couple of printed out, bound copies of the script with you at all times - just in case.  People like to flip through things and talk to you about it there and then.
Current Location: Workplace of the Tamm
Current Music: Car noises outside
wednesday childewedschilde on March 26th, 2008 08:46 pm (UTC)
are you twittering me?
(Deleted comment)
wednesday childewedschilde on March 27th, 2008 01:41 am (UTC)
:::grins::: heh....

i was twittered!
tammy_mooretammy_moore on March 26th, 2008 08:56 pm (UTC)

I was name-squatting and I didn't realise it was going to send twitterings out to everyone.

All embarrassed now
wednesday childewedschilde on March 27th, 2008 01:42 am (UTC)
heh. i twittered back so you wouldn't be lonely :) twittered!
orbzineorbzine on March 26th, 2008 10:28 pm (UTC)
Local writing events
Hi Tammy,
many thanks for posting this. I was regretting missing the session, but at least now I've found out what the 13 Mistakes are.

I didn't know you were on LJ, but if you're interested you can Friend the Studio-NI Syndicated account.

Good luck!
tammy_mooretammy_moore on March 26th, 2008 10:38 pm (UTC)
Re: Local writing events
Hey Bruce,

You're welcome :D If there's anything you'd like more detail on just ask and I'll try and remember what was said.

There's another couple of workshops coming up soon. The Vincent Kinnaird 'Writing Short Films' and the Loren Niemi 'Book of Plots' workshops. They both look pretty good and I know Loren a bit from the last CWN conference and he's very good.

I'll friend that now!