|Alex Epstein is a screenwriter for television and movies, and author of the book Crafty Screenwriting. He co-created the comic drama television series Naked Josh, which is now running on the Oxygen Network (U.S.A.) and on Showcase (in Canada); the pilot episode was just nominated for a Canadian Screenwriting Award. He was most recently Head Writer for a new science fiction TV series, Charlie Jade, which premiered on April 16, 2005, on Space. Previously, he was the executive story editor for the science fiction series Galidor (on Fox Kids and YTV). He has freelanced on various other shows. A feature film he co-wrote, Warriors, starred Gary Busey.
Before devoting himself to writing, Epstein was a development executive at various production companies in Los Angeles, working with such directors as Lord Richard Attenborough (Gandhi) and John Badham (Saturday Night Fever), and helped develop many independent pictures.
- Does Spelling Count?
- Basic Format
- Screenplay Length
- Basic Style
- No Camera Direction
- Only Write What You Can See/Hear
- Cut To’s and William Goldman
- Character Names
- Voice Overs
- Read Your Script Out Loud
- Never Make Your Characters Stupider Than You Are
- On the Nose Dialogue
- No Unnecessary Bad Language
- Using Songs and Music in your Script
- Random Thoughts on Fleshing Out Characters
- Never write from hunger!
- Horror and Thriller Don’t's
- Science Fiction and Fantasy Don’t's
- Some thoughts on Period Pieces
- A Brief Rant About Readers
- Words to Live By
- Screenwriting is a Craft, not Art
- Query first.
- The First Reel Contract
- Pitch Your Movie To Yourself
- Cast Your Movie
- Development Exec Myths
- The Rubber Ducky
- How We Know Character
- Pat the Dog Scene
- Secret Lives of Characters
- It’s Episodic
- Love Thy Enemy
- External Antagonist, Intimate Opponent and Tragic (or Comic) Flaw
- Literary Names
- How to Adapt a Book (Hitchcock Method)
- How to Write a Script Based on a True Story
- Editing Your Scenes
- Foreign Language Dialogue
Voice overs are generally looked down on, as a non-cinematic “cheat” for getting thoughts into the screenplay that you were too lazy to communicate through action and dialog.
That’s an extreme view, fostered in film schools. Voice overs are often used as a last gasp, when the movie is too confusing for audiences and needs explaining.
Ah, you think, “explaining” is bad. Exposition is dull. But exposition, properly done, is as essential to crafty screenwriting as handles are in a cabinet.
Blade Runner is a prime example. Test screening audiences couldn’t understand who Deckard was or what replicants were or what was going on. Then the studio (not Ridley Scott) put in Harrison Ford’s voice over (Ford reportedly hated doing it) and the movie made more sense.
(Between you and me, Blade Runner is a rare example of where studio meddling makes a picture better. The various director’s cuts floating around are, in my humble opinion, self-indulgent. The studio cut tells the same story with less subtext and more emotional affect. It’s just a more effective picture.)
Voice overs are most legitimately used to add a layer of texture to your main character. For example, in the book The Accidental Tourist, William Hurt’s character has a deeply strange internal monologue. It makes him interesting. The monologue was jettisoned by the movie, making him seem terribly dull, losing the dramatic tension in a character who has deeply strange thoughts he submerges behind a facade of dullness. The whole point of the character is the way he thinks. So how can you tell his story without showing his internal monologue in a voice over?
That said, be extremely careful using a voice over. Often you will find you are using the voice over to tell us things you’ve already shown us, or to tell us what is going to happen, or tell us what we already saw. Show, don’t tell. Show us closeups to make details obvious if they’re not already. (See “No Camera Direction” on how to write a “virtual closeup.”) Show us flashbacks and flash-forwards to remind us of past events or to foreshadow future events. Only use a voice over when you have considered all the options and there is no better way to show what you need to show.
Flashbacks are often as maligned as voice overs, for less reason. Flashbacks are one of the most powerful tools of the cinema, allowing the filmmaker to send us
jumping o’er times,
turning the achievements of many years
into an hourglass
The problem is they are sometimes abused in a cheesy way. For example, your character is burying his best friend. We get a cheap montage of all the funny or poignant moments in the movie where the two were together. Do we need it? Or can you trust your actor to communicate that through his sadness?
Can you give the actor some memento of the best friend, to hold in his hand as he weeps, something we can get a closeup on?
Don’t use a flashback to communicate something that the film is already communicating without your help.
That said, don’t be afraid of using flashbacks in a clear and coherent way. They can communicate things no amount of talk or linear story telling can.
In general, only your central character should have a flashback. Even if the story is not told 100% from the literal point of view of the central character, it is his or her story. Giving someone else a flashback may wrench us out of our identification with the central character. But like all rules, this one is made to be broken when you need to.
Preferably with friends playing the parts, read all your dialog out loud. You’d be surprised what jumps out and bites you when you do this. Ideally, get actors to read the parts, after they’ve had a chance to read the script once.
Actors are the best commenters anyway — they don’t want to rewrite your story, but they’ll tell you when something’s out of character.
If you wouldn’t go back inside that house, why should your character? After all, your characters have seen movies, too. They know what kind of stuff goes down.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have them do dangerous things, only that they better have a strong reason to do them.
Ask yourself two questions:
- Why don’t they just call the police?
- Why don’t the cops call for backup?
People rarely say exactly what’s on their minds. They search for words. They try to phrase things so it won’t cause a big confrontation. They’re not sure exactly what they want or what they mean. In struggling to express themselves the way they want, they come up with surprising inventions.
People also rarely listen very well, especially in an argument, and often answer the question they expected, rather than the question that’s been asked. Often they respond a line or two late. Especially when bringing up something painful, people often talk in circles until the other person figures out what they’re trying to say.
Good screen dialog compresses conversation, cutting out its repetitions, dead time and much of its aimlessness, and choosing the most striking, fresh and expressive language that is still believable as something someone came up with on the spot. But like real conversation, good screen dialogue should avoid being “on the nose.” Let your characters struggle for their words, and come up with inventions. Let them talk a little aimlessly when they’re scared of getting to the point. Let a chance word provoke an argument. Avoid having two characters cut to the meat of the disagreement between them, unless it’s a climactic scene, and even then, load your words with hidden agendas.
There almost always wants to be tension between what your character is literally saying, what your character intends to communicate and what your character is thinking.
Look, screenwriting is not easy! If it seems easy, you’re probably taking the easy way out, and it will show.
It is painful to read bad language. Bad language usually indicates lazy dialog writing. While the occasional use of curse words can create a comic effect, or sharpen an angry moment, many scripts I read use them the way people use them in conversation: carelessly scattered anywhere the writer couldn’t come up with a more interesting phrase.
Obviously, lowlife are going to curse a lot. But it generally does not help your script when business people, cops, soldiers, extraterrestrials or demons from the maw of hell speak like juvenile delinquents.
Most crafty dialog writers try to come up with a fresh and new way for their character to say anything.
This rule (like most rules) is meant to be broken when you have a reason to break it. All I am saying is only use bad language when it creates a specific effect, tells us something about the character, gets a laugh, or justifies itself in some other way. Never use it out of laziness, or because “lots of people talk like that.” No one pays $7.50 to see “lots of people,” either.
From a copyright standpoint, there is nothing to stop you from putting a famous song in your screenplay. However, it is rarely a good idea. ÒTotal Eclipse of the HeartÓ may not speak to your reader the same way it speaks to you. Moreover, it is hard to keep a song in the foreground of the reader’s mind — you can’t play a song in the background of a written scene. Break this rule and you will seem unprofessional.
The exception would be where the song itself is in the foreground of the scene — where the song is part of the point of the scene. I put Woody Guthrie’s song “Pretty Boy Floyd,” words and all, into a driving scene. The script was about Charles “Pretty Boy Floyd,” and the point of the scene was that Pretty Boy was listening to a song on the radio about himself. He knew he was becoming famous.
You may want to include “background music” if it is actually playing in the scene itself and contributes to the ambience: “A tinny radio plays surf music.” “The cradle is empty except for the tape recorder, still eerily playing the Barney song.”
You should never tell us about the score, the music written to underly the scene and amplify its emotional impact. Never tell us the music swells at a certain point. If your scene isn’t romantic enough, telling us it has great music under it won’t convince us or save the scene.
Put yourself in their shoes. Then think, I’m in this situation, what the hell do I do? Then, if you’ve seen someone do the same thing in a movie, question yourself about 5 times, because it’s probably not really what the character would do, or worse, boring.
For example, you’re Sarah Connor, machines from the future have tried to kill you twice, what is your life like? Well, I doubt you are still friends with anyone from your pre-Terminator past, because, like a Viet vet, they can’t relate to your experience. Worse, no one is going to believe you. Your only friends are other paranoid nutcases in the survivalist fringe. But they really are crazy. Maybe some professors will talk to you “hypothetically”; perhaps, spiritual people from traditional cultures who fear progress will help you some. But mostly you are alone, alone, alone in the world … and the human race’s existence may depend on you. Imagine the stress that would put on someone? How do you live a life under those circumstances? How do you raise a kid?
Write what you love. Write a movie you’d like to see. Or write a movie you enjoy writing, even if you’d never pay money to see it. Write a certain kind of movie as a writing exercise, to develop your craft. But never write from hunger.
Writing from hunger means writing for money. Some people make a lot of money writing commercial scripts. But they got where they are because they loved what they were doing, they have a gift for it, and they are writing at the top of their ability. They are not condescending to the material.
Unless you are a “name” screenwriter with a big fee quote and multiple alimony payments, there is no point to writing from hunger, because the odds of your selling your script are low. If you write from love and don’t sell, you still have the love. If you write from hunger, all you’re left with is the hunger.
If you are one of those lucky few who love writing high-octane thrillers, God bless you, stay married and write us stuff worth watching!
Don’t kill an animal on screen. It just isn’t done, not by good directors. It’s a cheap and repulsive way to get an emotional effect. I will generally stop reading a screenplay where this happens.
While it is perfectly all right to have an undead creature strangle the department store Santa to death under the neon lights, less cartoonish violence, especially when directed against the weak (women, children, pets) often throws the reader and the audience out of the movie. So, for example, if you have a physically abusive husband who’s going to get his just desserts later on, you should not show him beating his wife on screen. You don’t show a rape on screen. You never show someone hurting (as opposed to frightening) a child on screen. It is classier and more effective to show the aftermath of extreme violence than the violence itself.
You can, if you must, kill your animals off screen, but personally, I prefer a movie in which the pets have the sense to snarl at the vampire and run away.
Don’t start the movie with a horrifying sequence that turns out to be someone’s dream. It isn’t original at all.
Don’t just write for the science fiction and fantasy audiences!
Don’t create a world too far removed from our own. The most successful sf movies introduce an sf element into our contemporary world. (“No, I’m from Earth. I just work in Outer Space.”) Think of Independence Day, Stargate, Predator, Terminator, T2, Starman, ET, Close Encounters, Star Trek IV. Everyone can relate to the contemporary background and characters, and can put themselves in the shoes of an ordinary modern person confronting a space alien.
The next most successful science movies create a future very similar to our own, but warped by one major science fiction element. Blade Runner is set in a film noir LA not far removed from modern Tokyo or Bangkok, except that (sf element) there are superhuman androids on the run and Deckard has to retire them. Outland is High Noon on (sf element) a mining colony on Ganymede.
As you can tell from the examples above, these movies also fall back on familiar genre plots and characters. We may not be personally familiar with the Old West, but we recognize Sean Connery’s character in Outland from a dozen westerns.
What novice writers love to do is create a whole world full of things named the Vogon and the planet Utapau and the Journal of the Whills and the Bendu of Ashla and so on. These movies never get made, because only the science fiction audience loves to plunge wholeheartedly into a different world with a different social structure, different laws of physics, different history, and deeply meaningful names that you never heard of before.
… these movies almost never get made, I should say. The above names were all invented by a novice writer named George Lucas for an early draft of something called The Star Wars. However, I must point out that for many, many years no one would touch the script, which (in the draft I’m referring to) is practically unreadable. It was only after American Graffiti convinced the then boss of 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd, Jr., that George Lucas could do anything he believed in, that anyone would touch The Star Wars, and then no one believed it would make money.
There are no rules, but you break them at your peril.
Using hindsight, I would argue that Star Wars worked because it cribbed a lot of genre conventions, but from an unexpected genre: the universal hero legend made famous by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
One moral of the story is, unless you have already written and directed one surprise hit, and know a studio head, keep the science fiction aspects down to what can be explained in one phrase. “Nasty aliens invade the world.” “An alien child is left behind by accident and …” “There’s a mine on Ganymede and…” Not (George again):
The REPUBLIC GALACTICA is dead. Ruthless trader barons, driven by greed and the lust for power, have replaced enlightenment with oppression, and "rule by the people" with the FIRST GALACTIC EMPIRE. Until the tragic Holy Rebellion of "06", the respected JEDI BENDU OF ASHLA were the most powerful warriors in the Universe. For a hundred thousand years, generations of Jedi Bendu knights learned the ways of the mysterious FORCE OF OTHERS, and acted as the guardians of peace and justice in the REPUBLIC. Now these legendary warriors are all but extinct. One by one they have been hunted down and destroyed by a fero- cious rival sect of mercenary warriors: THE BLACK KNIGHTS OF THE SITH. It is a period of civil wars. The EMPIRE is crumbling into lawless barbarism through- out the million worlds of the galaxy. From the celestial equator to the farthest reaches of the GREAT RIFT, seventy small solar systems have united in a common war against the tyranny of the Empire. Under the command of a mighty Jedi warrior known as....
Too much. The brain can only hold so many facts!
Obviously, there are successful fantasy movies which create whole worlds. But they are rarely successful unless they are based on bestselling books, e.g. Conan, Princess Bride, Interview with a Vampire, or legends everyone already knows, e.g. Excalibur, Company of Wolves, or monsters we love, e.g. Dragonslayer, An American Werewolf in London. One could argue that Willow, Legend, Dragonheart, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and many other major fantasy pictures flopped because the audience had to learn too many new facts about their world during the course of the movie.
Period pieces are very difficult to get made. Successful period pieces are not perceived as period pieces (“Braveheart isn’t a period piece, it’s an action adventure.”). Flops are perceived as period pieces when they are just bad movies (cf Restoration).
Get the details right. The audience doesn’t know, but it knows when you get it wrong.
However, the piece isn’t about the details, it’s about the people. The audience shouldn’t have to know much about the period to appreciate it — no more than can be put in a title crawl (“Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away …”).
The hardest thing is getting the dialogue right. People in the 16th Century did not speak in archaic English, they spoke the very latest up to the date modern 16th Century English. (Spenser wrote “The Faerie Queene” in archaic English, but he was pretentious even then and no one still reads him for fun.) To get the same sense of modernity, don’t be afraid to use contractions, sentence fragments, just like now.
You can and should use slang, but it must be modern slang that could have existed then. “Dude” is unacceptable. “Poxy whoreson dog” is period-accurate, but audiences won’t know if them’s fighting words or just kidding. But “son of a bitch” is a timeless sentiment even if the expression was not in common use.
Look at how well the dialog works in Braveheart: “My Father says he can get me out of this … but he’s pretty sure you’re fucked.”
The key to a great period piece is to show real people we’d want to be with who operate in a world that is different from our own, where honor is worth fighting over, and men were brave and women were pure … or however you see it. The people are timeless; their goals and the obstacles in their way are of the period. D’Artagnan is a romantic adventurer (timeless) who wants to save the Queen’s honor (period — these days he’d want to run away with her). Wallace is a romantic adventurer (timeless) who wants to liberate Scotland from an evil English king (period).
Same goes for period dramas, period tragedies, period anything. The period is no more than a background to a human drama. The period makes for a richer cloth, but the weaving must still be passions, vices, lies, hopes, frustrations, greed, love, pride and mercy — the stuff that dreams are made of.
The first step in the gauntlet any script runs, unless it’s backed by very powerful people, is the “reader.” The reader is someone getting paid $30 to $50 to read the script and write a synopsis and comments. If the reader says the script isn’t worth reading, the odds are it will not get read. Executives, producers and talent hire readers because they get hundreds or thousands of scripts flung at them every year, and they don’t have the time to give all of them a careful read.
Who are the readers? Generally, they are kids recently out of college or film school with a good grasp of expository writing and an inflated idea of their knowledge of what makes a movie worth seeing and worth making. There are a few readers in a union who work for the studios and get paid a decent living, and have some experience at least reading script, but for the majority of readers, it is their first job in movies.
The most powerful agency in town, CAA, is notorious for having scripts read by its mailroom staff, who tend to be highly intelligent, ambitious lawyers, MBA’s and Ivy grads working 14 hour days for under $300 a week. After a 14 hour day, how much attention do they pay to their scripts? Let’s just say that one script we submitted to CAA was rejected as an incompetent pompous piece of drivel by the reader. We eventually managed to get the wise and generous agent Martin Baum to read it himself. He sent it to Oscar-winning director Richard Attenborough, who signed on to develop and direct the picture. It is a mystery to the rest of the business why CAA, the most powerful agency in town, is infamous among writers, producers and directors for having the most arrogant and careless readers in the business, but they probably feel that if you don’t have the clout to get your script read by an agent personally, you have no business submitting a script to CAA.
My first job in Hollywood was as a reader for Carolco. I read perhaps forty scripts, for $45 a pop. I don’t think the rate has gone up. I rejected a few pictures that went on to get made elsewhere — Pascali’s Island comes to mind — although I can’t say that any of them made money, unless, like Vampire’s Kiss, they were radically changed. I got fired when I savaged a script by Oscar-winning writer Horton Foote (To Kill A Mockingbird) that had then-star Molly Ringwald attached. I still think it was a boring, boring script, and it’s never been made since. But what did I know? I had just finished film school. I had no idea of the mechanics of how a film gets packaged and financed. I had no experience reading scripts. I had only written one or two scripts myself. My old school chum Jeff Kleeman (now a young mogul at UA) was kind enough to give me the job.
What are the lessons from this? I don’t know, it’s just the way it is. Readers are supposed not to like flashbacks; I suppose this means they would have rejected Casablanca. They are also rumored not to like voice overs, apparently something they learned in film school. I suppose they would have rejected The Fugitive?
However, bear in mind when you are writing that if you are not communicating your movie in an immediately arresting and visual way, the reader is not going to be wise enough to rescue your pearl of an idea from the calcium carbonate of your prose. You must succeed in turning your reader’s critical brain off; you must seduce her into becoming a member of the audience again. Good luck!
There are no rules, but you break them at your peril.
“Find the truth.” – Joanne Baron. When you look at a performance or a movie or a work of art, look for what is good and true in it, not what doesn’t work. Rather than homing in on what doesn’t work, look for the truth and make that expand to fill all the hollows and empty spaces.
“Kill your darlings.” – Picasso, or maybe Faulkner. You have to be ready to brutally sacrifice those beautiful moments, moving scenes and brilliant lines of dialog, when they don’t forward the movie. Often they are what’s in the way of your seeing what’s wrong. If something’s not working, and you have a line, scene or moment you desperately love, take it out and try to make the piece work without it. You may be surprised.
“If I’m bored [writing a scene], the audience will be.” – top screenwriter Jeffrey Boam.