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An Open Letter to Spec Screenwriters


Confession time:

I am the world’s worst reader. A former manager of mine used to refer to my pile of unread scripts as the “Rockpit.” It was a steadily-growing 8 1/2″ by 11″ rectangular stack that sometimes grew so tall you’d think I was trying to turn it back into a mighty oak. I’ve finally broken that habit, but it’s taken a constant level of self-control.

Recently, I stepped it up when I made it a goal to read 2-3 screenplays per week, which seems modest enough but I assure you it’s a huge improvement for me.

And it’s not easy.

First World Problems

In order for me to read a screenplay, I have to block out time, turn off my phone, load the script onto my iPad, sit in my office chair, and tune out the world. I have to hope that nobody sends me email or a Facebook message because I lack the discipline to disable those things on my iPad. Especially if the screenplay itself isn’t holding my attention completely.

And then, while reading, I have a horrible tendency to actually fall asleep – even if I love the script. That’s been happening my entire life, and has always bedeviled my otherwise avid love of reading. So sometimes I’ll have to take a break mid-script, drink coffee or do something else, then finish the script. For more challenging-to-get-through scripts, I will take more breaks.

And I seriously doubt I’m the only one who does these things.

And as much as I hate myself for my pathetic reading habits, I’ve still managed to read a multitude of scripts over the years. Some for friends looking to develop their material further, some to consider shepherding as a filmmaker or theater director – and this year alone about 35 play scripts as a co-artistic director at the Sacred Fools Theater, to build a season of 5 shows (a blog topic in and of itself, and maybe I’ll write that one of these days). And yes, I’ve written some screenplays myself and developed even more with some amazing writers – a few of which I’m actively working to get made right now.

Thankfully, there are those scripts that I can’t put down, that hook me and demonstrate the power of words and storytelling like no other. When reading one of those, it’s often clear within the first page that I’m in the hands of someone who understands what script writing is and isn’t. Those moments are magical, the best kind of communication between the writer and a reader.

Before You Ask…

My friend and awesome screenwriter Jonathan Mangum once compared asking someone to read a script to asking for a ride to the airport. I have since stolen this line and used it many times – although I like to point out that when giving someone a ride to the airport you have company for half of the process. When reading a script, you’re always alone the whole way.

So I’m writing this maybe as much for myself as I am for the hardworking writers of spec scripts who might find my blog somehow. And it’s a call for mercy, a literary cease-fire. Understand that while writing your script required a massive amount of work, reading it will also require effort. Understand that your job is to tell a story that will ultimately be very different than the PDF you shoot out to the world, and that many people are as wracked with antipathy about reading a spec script as they are rapturous with joy at the thought of making a film.

And I am one of those people.

Nothing special qualifies me to write this. I’m not an accomplished screenwriter myself (not for lack of trying), and the only feature I’ve made bears the unfortunate tile “Alien Raiders.” But I’m a filmmaker like a lot of others, constantly on the lookout for a new project to direct or a new writer with whom to collaborate. And it all starts with the script so I’m always on the hunt for what could be the next project.

Not A Top-10 List

So here are ten thoughts. I didn’t set out to make a “top ten list” of these and they aren’t in this order for a reason. Just consider them, maybe before you write a film and certainly as you work on your rewrites:

1) Understand Basic Screenplay Structure Even If You Refuse to Adhere to it.

Seriously, “structure” isn’t to be conflated with “formula,” and even if it is – it’s something every reader is looking for. Bad structure is what will make readers (and audience members) feel bored, feel like the story is dragging, feel like they want to check their FaceBook page to see if their aunt responded to the video of kittens on a Roomba.

I’ll make it easy: Your first act should probably end around or just before page 30, your second act should probably be about half of your script, and whatever’s left afterwards – that’s your third act.

The 30/60/30-page plan assumes a two-hour film, and in my opinion if you’re writing a spec you might consider keeping it at or under 100 pages but that doesn’t necessarily mean that each act shrinks proportionally.

And please remember – the act hasn’t changed because you’ve crossed page 30, it’s changed because the main character has irrevocably changed the course of the story. With willful effort. As a rule (if I can be so pretentious), stories that happen to characters are less dynamic than characters that push their own stories (more below).

And if you’re one of those people who refuses to adhere to the structure, know that you do it at your own peril. Lots of great scripts violate the structure beautifully and have made brilliant films – but expecting any reader (much less simple-minded me) to understand the narrative revolution you’re about to spark is a dangerous game and unless your writing has a hook that makes it impossible to put it down, you might want to consider paying some deference to the red flags that will appear to any reader who knows what the industry and (presumably) audiences are looking for.

2) The WRITER Makes One Page Equal a Minute, Not the Format – And Page Count Matters.

Different producers will tell you different rules of thumb regarding how a page count translates to screen time, but I’ve always been a fan of the One-Page-Equals-One-Minute theory. But the truth is this: The writer is the one who makes that so.

The legend goes that a single line in the script for “Gone with the Wind” reads “Atlanta Burns.” I implore you, don’t do that to your reader.

Part of your craft is looking at a page and asking yourself if it equals a minute and adjusting accordingly. How? Try reading it out loud with a stop watch. Bring in some actors and do a staged reading. Ask yourself, are you describing the action in forensic detail? Not enough detail?

I will tell you why this matters a lot: Movies are scheduled by the page. I’ve shot a 3-page day and I’ve shot an 11-page day and everything in-between. If the writer has crammed, let’s say, 1:15 worth of screen time into a page, then a 6 page day is actually a 7.5 page day (or in the parlance of production management, a 7 4/8 page day) – and you can bet that day is either going to run over or at least long. And even to a reader, the pace of reading will be off.

Conversely, wordiness is your enemy and can make a page of script really feel like about :20 of screen time. And as a reader, that :20 will feel like an hour.

Lastly, every person I know who spends time reading screenplays starts any screenplay by looking at the page count. A 90-page script somehow sounds so much more conquerable than a 115-page script. And a script over 120 pages had better earn every letter.

3) Figure Out Who Your Hero is and Let Them Drive the Story.

I don’t know how to say this in a more basic way, and yet I’m often perplexed at scripts that seem to have no protagonist. Or they have a main character who doesn’t make willful decisions that drive the story. Do they have to drive every beat? No, but I personally believe they should drive the major beats, like the ones that get us into act 2 and act 3.

I would suggest that if your hero isn’t moving the action on at least those beats, that he or she isn’t the hero.

What about ensemble scripts? Well, those have heroes too. Somebody’s making decisions and if they aren’t then the reader (and audience) will feel bored.

4) If a Block of Action Exceeds Three Lines, Consider Breaking it Up.

This isn’t really a hard-and-fast rule (because apparently I’m making up rules now), but a guideline. I would say that in general, a block of action that takes up five lines is probably at least two actions. If it’s two actions, put a space between them.

This really has an effect on page count, and can make a script that’s 95 pages long really read (and get produced) like a script that’s 100 pages long. Which might mean that it should have been budgeted for an extra day of shooting.

And one day of shooting costs a lot of money.

If you have five lines that are one solid action and you can’t find a way to break them up, PLEASE consider shortening that block.

5) Wow The Reader With Your Great Storytelling, Not Your Great Wordsmithing.

The craft, cleverness, and creativity in screenwriting are never about the writer’s novel construction of scene description, but the writer’s novel use of economy in that description.

This took me a long time to get my head around in my own writing as well. In fiction writing one strives to find significant details to bring the story to life but in screenwriting the significant details will spring forth from actors, designers, cinematographers, etc. This doesn’t mean to throw away all significant detail, just understand that if you say a character drove an old Dodge Dart, that’s more useful than saying they drove a 1973 green Dodge Dart with old blackish-reddish mud caked on the wheel wells (unless all of that is crucial to the story).

I recently read a script by someone who probably should be writing novels and the issue I kept encountering was that it was impossible to hold all of the significant details from the script in my mind at the same time as the movie. What resulted was a maddening read. The film felt opaque, the prose impenetrable.

Don’t be afraid to skip your own cleverness and say exactly what something is. I think I’m saying this: More Hemingway, less Faulkner.

6) Write Like You’re Already Watching the Movie, Transcribing as Fast as Possible.

I suppose this is a corollary of my last point, but it’s important enough on its own: All of the best screenplays I’ve read work like this. They have a savage economy of description and reading them is like a constant reminder that it’s a movie. That it’s character, action and dialogue to tell a great story.

My friend Bob DeRosa has this technique down to a science. I’ve never read a script of his that didn’t leave me with the feeling that I’d already seen the movie. That feeling – one of having seen something rather than having read it is what I wish more people were going for.

To this end, always remember this: If it can’t be seen or heard, consider taking it out. If you say something like “He stops, he’s seen this a thousand times before,” understand that the viewer of the movie will have no way of knowing what he’s seen before.

7) Don’t Take ANY of the Screenwriting Gurus too Literally.

I’ve read many of them – Robert McKee, Syd Field, Blake Snyder, Christopher Vogler, etc. They’re all food for thought. They’re all serving suggestions; but if you’ve used someone’s idea of structure as formula, the reader will feel every beat coming a mile away.

I know that a lot of learned people like Craig Mazin and John August (who host the amazing screenwriting-centric podcast “Scriptnotes” – a thing you should be listening to regularly) disparage a lot of these writing gurus and probably with good reason. But I believe that many of them do have a lot to offer so long as you don’t take their suggestions as gospel truth.

Also, know that if you’re sending the script to producers, readers, directors, etc. – many of them have read those books too. So in my opinion the best reason to read them is to know what readers are going to expect, and then think about how to pleasantly surprise someone with that set of expectations.

8) Don’t Give the Reader ANY Reason to Stop. 

I would bet you money that your relatively new script has some typos. Or formatting issues. Or you wrote “your” when you meant “you’re.” Eradicate all of that. If you don’t know when to use there or their or they’re on-sight, you might seriously consider getting someone you trust with a black belt in schoolmarmish grammar to mark your script up like it matters – because it does.

When I started reading specs probably 12 years ago, I remember thinking to myself “what difference does it make if it’s not in courier font?” I was, at the time, too naive to realize that the font could affect the page count but beyond that, I can honestly say that I’ve never read an improperly formatted script, or one which employed Times New Roman (or any non-Courier font), which was producible.

Never? Correct, not ever. Ignoring the basics seems to be a guarantee of not even being aware of deeper craft.

And today there’s no excuse. Final Draft too expensive? Get Celtx. Get Adobe Story. Use Scripped or Fountain. Learn how to set up your current word processor to format correctly. Understand the format you’re writing for, or don’t get read. It’s that simple.

I may be paraphrasing something John August once said on “Scriptnotes,” when I say: Your script is a contract with your reader that you’re about to tell them a fascinating story that will pay off.

The easiest way to violate that contract is to not have control of your language or format, or to appear sloppy with either.

9) Don’t Be Afraid to Keep it Short.

I would not be surprised to find that more readers get to the end of a 90-page script than an equally-good 120-page script. Does your script need to be longer? Write it longer – but economy in storytelling goes a long way toward keeping the reader (and viewer) engaged.

10) It Bears Repeating – Be Spare in Telling Us What The Camera is Doing.

When I was in film school, it was something our teachers pounded into our heads – don’t write out what the camera is doing, that’s the director’s job. I don’t agree with that 100%, as sometimes the camera is an active participant in how the story’s being told.

Also, I appreciate some “non-camera” camera description techniques like:

ON THE KEYBOARD

I get it – it’s a closeup and you didn’t have to say “CLOSEUP OF THE KEYBOARD.”

So if, here and there, the camera is somehow mentioned or the kind of shot we’re seeing is described because there’s no better way to tell that part of the story, then write it. But at the same time, camera direction is one of those things that readers tend to skim over and the more frequently it appears in a script, the less importance it will have.

I’m just saying, be careful and be spare with that stuff.

Thanks for Considering Any of This

Although the act of writing this list might come across as bossypants or arrogant on my part, I’m really doing it to make the life of whoever’s reading scripts out there easier and therefore get more good stories read.

Writing a script takes an insane amount of effort. When you write “FADE TO BLACK” on that last page, you know you’ve done an honest day’s work and you want people to appreciate it. But before you beg for validation and send your script out to those of us who get to read it, imagine “The Rockpit.” Imagine I’ve just whittled it down by half, and instead of calling it a day I’ve decided to open your script.

Now keep me hooked.

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26 comments on “An Open Letter to Spec Screenwriters

  1. Your mean.

    😉

  2. Wow, man. This is gold. Thanks for putting this out there, Ben. My one and only screenplay is too descriptive and a lot of CAMERA PANS and all that nonsense. Anyway, I’ve been thinking of revisiting it and here I am reading your insightful blog! Thanks!!

  3. I like the information since I am writing my 1st story /screenplay, I will take all the info I can get! Ty for the article!

  4. This is my correct website information. Ty again!

  5. Hmmmm I wonder what prompted this… 🙂

  6. Thanks, Ben. I like #8, about the contract.

  7. I recently finished a screenplay and am going to polish it. Your suggestions will come in handy. Thank you!

  8. Thanks so much for this valuable insight. Now I’m psyched to do my rewrite. 🙂

  9. you doll…i’ll just tickle my fancy with this scrubber now….

  10. Thank you for #6, I’m going to definitely employ that technique.

  11. You couldn’t pay me enough to read scripts. Even the good ones, short though they may be, are a hard read. The poor ones are painfully hard. What I find most difficult are the notes I’m compelled to write on annoying little stuff, like grammar, spelling, and sentence structure (most annoying being the inverted timeline/word order in a sentence).

    God bless you for having what it takes to even do two or three a week. I can’t read one of mine without wanting to fix something. Don’t think I’ve ever read one of mine straight through.

  12. not sure how I achieved the status “Awesome screenwriter” but I’ll take it 🙂

  13. I am immediately forwarding this to my writing partner! And also using “I generally don’t give rides to the airport. Sorry, man.” When someone asks me to read their script.

  14. Nicely done. Enjoy your nap.

  15. I don’t normally ask strangers to read my scripts (unless they are associated with a production company …), however, I do have a script entitled NEPTUNE’S EMPIRE, that I will send you if you want. Just thought the title jived with your handle here. Totally understand (esp. given your article above), if you opt out. Informative article, by the way.

  16. What a fabulous, unpretentious, straight talking, common sense article! Well worth reading if you write film screenplays. I’ve been saying this for years. My personal failing has always been actually marketing myself and sending out the screenplays I take such pains over. “Life gets in the way” is my only pathetic excuse. Thanks for this bolster though. Sincerely.

  17. Reblogged this on Screenwriter & Actor and commented:
    Wow, this article really offers quite possibly the best advice I’ve ever read for spec screenwriters! Well done!

  18. […] as a director looking for projects, Ben reads a ton of screenplays. He recently published a blog that was his version of the “mistakes that writers make” list but his list stands head […]

  19. Very informative. Thank you very much for your effort.

  20. This is awesome. One of the few lists of screenwriting tips I’ve seen that’s worth reading. Do you mind if I reblog it?

  21. Reblogged this on Sprinting to Fade Out: and commented:
    Haven’t had much time for original content lately, but this post from director Ben Rock was so great that I felt the need to reblog it. Love this guy’s point of view, and it’s always great to see things from the perspective of someone other than a fellow writer.

  22. Amen. Thanks for the lesson.

  23. It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one with difficulties really focusing on reading scripts. It’s kind of my job now too, which can make things worse. I have no problem reading when i’m at home or in my “cave of solitude,” but when i’m in the office and am told to read two scripts and write coverage it’s SUCH A DRAG!

    Anyway, you have some great pointers and I am taking them with me on every script i write. Thanks for the advice!!

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