by Jennie Jarvis
Here on 5writers.com, we spend a lot of time talking about what’s on the page – characters, structure, plot, etc. But this month, we decided to do something a little different. We’re going to talk about what’s NOT on the page, and it should be a really wonderful month filled with diverse topics. In the world of screenwriting, I have to admit that what’s NOT on the page can be the thing that determines whether your original and unpurchased screenplay is even read.
As anyone that’s gone through an introductory screenwriting class should know that, while your story needs to be top notch, how you present your spec screenplay is almost as important. Every writing industry has its expected way of how to arrange your words on the page, but screenplay formatting is a lot more complex than font size and double spacing. We have scene headings (aka slug lines), action lines, dialogue indents and character headings. We have transitions and parentheticals and dozens and dozens of “rules” that are, let’s face it, more like guidelines made to be broken. While one producer may want to see you use the pronoun “We” (i.e. “We see a helicopter rise from the horizon”), another one might reject your screenplay for including it once in the entire script. If an actor gets your screenplay, depending on who that actor is, they might either love or hate that you include any parentheticals that dictate character performance. A writer should “NEVER” include camera directions in their screenplay, but the second that writer is considered to also direct the film, those same camera directions in the script become acceptable. It’s an ongoing headache that sends beginning screenwriting students – especially the type A ones – crying to their professors and demanding something more concrete. Sadly, we can rarely give them something more substantial.
But there are two “rules” to screenplay formatting which pretty much any industry professional will agree on: 1) it’s all about the good read and 2) keep the balance of white and black on the page.
1) The Good Read refers to the idea that any screenplay being considered for possible purchase needs to read as easily as possible. Yes, this means that you need have a well-written and interesting story, but it also includes making sure that the story isn’t hidden on the page. In his book Write Screenplays That Sell The Ackerman Way, Hal Ackerman demonstrates the good read by showing the reader two versions of the same screenplay. In the first version, we follow a guy and a girl riding down the street in a car. This simple scene takes a couple of pages as written. The writer has included extraneous details like clothing design and information on the make and model of the car in which they drive. There are camera directions and references to road signs. It’s detailed and well thought out, but it’s really friggin’ hard to read. There are so many details that the reader can’t really get a sense of the personalities of the individuals in the car or the emotional flow of the story. After about a half a page of trying to read that script, I won’t lie – my eyes just skipped to the next paragraph where the book went onto talk about how hard that screenplay was to read. I didn’t want to read the rest, regardless of what was happening in the story.
The book then goes on to show that same scene with all the extra bits cut out – no camera angles or references to performance, no details about clothes or car or location. The final scene, after all the edits, lasts about a half a page – and it’s SO much easier to read. Suddenly, that scene of the two people driving down the road in the car is much more interesting, and we are ready to read on. Is it a lot more open to interpretation and input from other people like the director, actors, production designers and costume designer? Yes, but that’s the point. In the world of filmmaking, the screenwriting isn’t king (as much as we really wish that we were). In fact, I would argue that there isn’t a king at all. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and so if the writer just focuses on telling the story in the screenplay and not worrying about all the extraneous details then not only is she/he showing a comprehension of the collaborative nature of film, but the writer is also making it much easier for someone to become emotionally engaged in the story. No one is going to purchase a screenplay for a story that doesn’t touch them emotionally, so removing all those barriers to making that emotional connection is key.
2) Finding the balance of black (ink) and white (empty space) on the page can sometimes throw beginning writers for a loop. Either their screenplay will have too much description or too much dialogue. And they can’t imagine cutting one or adding to the other in order to find that balance. However, making sure that the visual balance exists is key.
As you can see from the photo of the Avengers screenplay above (ignore Samuel Jackson’s name and the page number in the middle of the screenplay – that’s added after a script is sold), a well-written screenplay will have a balance of dialogue and action lines. This shows that the writer understands the fundamental concept that a screenplay is a blueprint for a VISUAL medium. Stories in film must be told using event (stuff we see) and dialogue (stuff we hear).
If a screenplay has too much dialogue, then it makes the story feel too “talking heads.” Dialogue is the primary storytelling device of theater, not film. Sure, there are always exceptions to this “rule”, especially in independent films, but the writer needs to challenge her or him self to be as visual as possible – and not by telling us that the character glances at someone or smiles. Keep the action moving in order to create event in a screenplay.
If a screenplay has too much action/event, then the screenplay looks more like an essay than a screenplay. This is bad not only because it shows that the writer is being too controlling on the page, but it also mentally weighs down the reader. I mean, let’s be honest: would you prefer to read the page from the Avengers screenplay above or something like this:
To be fair, that’s the award-winning screenplay for The Artist, but can you see how the visual weight of that format makes it harder to read? Plus, The Artist is a SILENT film that had to get funding from abroad in order to be made.
As a script reader in Hollywood, I had dozens of screenplays come across my desk every day, and I wanted – more than you can possibly imagine – to find top quality material that I could recommend to my boss. But with so many scripts to get through on a daily basis, I didn’t have the time to read every page of every screenplay. Therefore, I often used a trick taught to me by my fellow readers – the flip test. Basically, we flipped through the screenplay and looked for two things: story over details and the balance of black and white on the page. If someone failed the flip test, they would often get an automatic rejection. I know it sounds cold, but we needed a way to sort out the professional screenplays from the amateur ones in order to get through everything on our desk. When I first started, I felt awful about using the flip test and wound up reading the scripts anyway. Without fail, anyone who failed the flip test would also disappoint me with their screenplay, so I eventually fell to the same habit as all my colleagues: fail the flip test = automatic pass.
There are enough reasons in this business for someone to say no to your screenplay, so do yourself a favor – pay attention to what you are keeping OFF the page so that you can pass the flip test and let your story shine.