While this is an “only in L.A.” billboard, having your screenplay unsold is a worldwide reality for many anguished writers. We know your pain. We offer you our hard-earned bits of wisdom to make sure you can prove Chase Bancorp’s marketing and advertising department wrong.
1. Read screenplays. SimplyScripts.com, the Internet Movie Script Database, and DailyScript.com all have a plethora of screenplays. You can learn as much from reading the scripts for B-movies as you can “Chinatown”. You’ll see how screenplays are constructed. A tip: Don’t put camera angles in scripts just because you saw them in shooting scripts. That happens once the producer buys your script and/or hires you to write another script. Similarly, the long blocks of description in, say “Spartacus” may have worked in 1960, but not today.
2. Proofread your script or hire someone to do it. This may sound obvious, but typos indicate a lack of professionalism.
3. Learn structure from Syd Field, Robert McKee, Linda Seger, Aristotle, and Chris Soth.
4. Too personal? Don’t assume everyone cares about your alcoholic parents or that you were raised by circus midgets — unless you can make it funny and commercial. “A boy starts his own circus to escape alcoholic circus midgets,” on the other hand, might inspire an agent or development executive to laugh. “But that’s not how it happened” shows a lack of imagination. Give yourself permission to rewrite your life — or someone else’s, if you have the rights to the story.
5. Have a clear protagonist (hero) with a clearly defined goal. Who is your lead character and what does he/she/it want? If you have an ensemble piece, you still have to have one main character — at least for casting purposes.
6. Don’t have your antagonist drown puppy dogs and steal money from orphans. A great villain, or even a great antagonist who’s not necessarily a villain, has motives for what he/she does. For example, Bill of “Kill Bill Vol. 1″ and “Kill Bill Vol. 2″ keeps the Bride, aka Black Mamba, alive instead of having her murdered by stealth because of his honor code. Although this gives the Bride time to plot her revenge against the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, Bill has his own motives for allowing her to do so.
Similarly, in “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” Vice-Principal Gene Wolters doesn’t decide to cut Mr. Holland’s music classes because Vice-Principal Wolters hates music and teenagers or wants to hurt Mr. Holland (although he admits to jealousy). His stated motive (supported by hisactions) is, “I care about these kids just as much as you do. And if I’m forced to choose between Mozart and reading and writing and long division, I choose long division.” Even if Mr. Holland (and the viewer) feels that the decision is wrong, Vice-Principal Wolters has a motivation that stems from who he is: an administrator who feels he is doing is best with the resources he has.
7. Assume your audience is intelligent. Remember your alcoholic circus midgets? Don’t have your hero sit around and talk to his circus buddies (unless they’re circus animals) about how unhappy he is with his situation. Show us in a brief scene or two why the hero must change his circumstances, why he must start the circus. You don’t need to show us scene after scene of the circus midgets mistreating your hero. Give your hero other obstacles and smaller goals that complicate the quest — he needs to smuggle his favorite elephant out of the circus, for example–but watch the budget, you may have to change the elephant to a dog that wants to be an elephant.
8. Write more than one script. Your first screenplay is usually practice. Your second, third and fourth scripts are, most likely, practice. It’s usually a good idea not to send out your first screenplay.
9. Nonhuman characters must have their own personality and motivations. Pixar does brilliantly at this. “Wall-E” takes a nonhuman robot that barely speaks, and creates an endearing character who wants to escape his loneliness. The rabbits in “Watership Down” are far from happy, cute and cuddly bunnies. Some of them scheme and some behave like tyrants.
10. Hire a pro. To make sure your screenplay hits the right beats, that the format looks perfect, and that you have your pitch, e.g. alcoholic circus midgets, hire a professional ghostwriter who can (a) edit your dialogue/formatting or (b) polish your screenplay. Get an independent evaluation.