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How to Write a Salable Screenplay

Here's the way it is ... Scripts come to me to edit, or to simply read - because everyone thinks their screenplay is a "quick read" and is the blockbuster Hollywood has been praying for and "It will only take a minute for you to read it and tell me who I should send it to". We'll pause for a bit of laughter before I go on to make the point that it breaks my heart to find that very often (too often) what I'm getting has no way in this world of ever even being read by those in a position to buy the material. And the writer has no clue.

Spec script writing has changed ENORMOUSLY in the last year. Here's why: Up until the advent of the Independent Film, everything was done in a studio. No matter which studio, they all had one language. They could communicate. There was one film making language, one script writing language. And then came the Independent. But most of those came out a studio, so the language continued. Now, as never before (though there's no sign that it won't continue to grow), a new kind of independent film maker has hit the scene.

Cable television, Internet viewing, DVDs and dozens of other possible venues for film has brought in a flood of "film makers" who come from everywhere but a Hollywood studio. They don't have a clue there's a professional language; a reason for everything that's written on paper to be translated to the screen. Not a clue. So, don't bother learning the craft of screenwriting you say?

I didn't say that.

That's not it at all. Just don't let them know that you know how to professionally craft a screenplay - because most of the new folks can't read the thing, don't know what you mean by certain terminology familiar, even standard, to those who truly DO know. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This new 'storefront' indie film maker comes with a film class in their background and somebody else's money in his, or her, pocket, on which to launch their company, or their first movie project. They hire someone to wade through a mountain of scripts and pay darn little to have them do it. Or else they wade through themselves. No matter. The result is the same. The un-clued reader is looking for a story. But you can't tell it the way you tell a novel because they know just enough to realize that a script needs a SLUG LINE and an OPENING NARRATIVE, but they don't know much else (in most cases).

So ... you write your Slug Line, but even that isn't done the way it's been done traditionally. Again, because the new indie film maker doesn't realize that each word in a Slug Line had a distinct meaning that kept you, the screen writer, from writing one incorrectly.

Here's the rub. Let's say you dummy down (because you actually do know how to write a screenplay correctly) and you give them a bare-bones script without any fancy terminology to boggle their kindergarten mind. And they like your story! What will they do? They'll say, "Gee, we really like the story. We're going to buy (option?) it. And then we're going to bring in a professional screenwriter, one who knows the way to write a truly professional screenplay."

If YOU write the truly professional one, you won't get past the reader. If a "professional" screenwriter is brought in, they'll get the lion's share of the money and credit.

Is it fair? Heck no. It's life.

Don't put CONTINUED at the bottom or the top of your pages. Don't use POV if you can avoid it. Don't use INSERT SHOTS or MOVING SHOTS because most of the readers don't know what you mean.

DO tell your story in a quick, breezy manner; make it conversational even if the subject is heavy.

DO keep your narrative down to an absolute minimum, three or four lines. The best way to learn to write narrative is to go to your library and check out an audio tape for the visually impaired. "E.T." or any of the Harry Potter films are excellent. Then listen to how each scene is described. It's done to perfection. That's how you should write your narrative.

DO write dialogue the way people talk - except for southerners. Just say in narrative who has a heavy southern accent rather than try to write it that way.

DO limit your screenplay to no more than 100 pages, if possible. I guess the readers don't have a long attention span. In any case, the script that once traditionally ran 120 pages is a thing of the past. Mario Puzo ("The Godfather", "Superman") must be turning over in his grave since his scripts ran hundreds and hundreds and pages!

Now let's take a look at the most common mistakes that keep scripts from being seriously considered, or even read, and then let's fix them.

(I recommend you print out this page and keep it to study as you write)


Remember: A script is not a story.  A treatment is your story.  A script is only
a set of production notes to a film crew.

1.  Use a light cardstock cover and bind with 2 brads.
2.  Put nothing on the cover except the title.  Use a larger than normal point size, put it
about 1/4 of the way down on the page, centered. Nothing else goes on your cover.

3.  Inside the cover, the first page is your Cover Sheet. On this goes the title
(centered, about a 1/4 of the way down, in about a 14 point size, underlined and
in quotation marks).  Drop down 2 spaces and, centered under the title, write the
word 'by'.  Drop down 2 spaces, centered under that, write your name.

4.  Your Writers' Guild of America information goes in the lower left corner.
You do NOT have to be a WGA member to register your work (see Writers Guild Information
page on this website). If you send out your material without this information,
you're inviting theft.

5.  Your address, city-state-zip, phone number, and email address goes in the lower
right corner.

6.  Nothing else goes on this page!  Not your copyright information (if you have it),
not the draft number and certainly not the date.

7.  The first script page is not numbered.  The first words on the page are FADE IN.

8.  A link to a sample script page, with complete explanations, is at the bottom
of this page.  STUDY IT!

9.  Script pages MUST be filled!!!  Start one and a half inches from the top, go to 
approximately one and a half inches from the bottom. The left margin will be one
and a half inches from the left and the right margin will be approximately one and
a half inches from the right edge of your paper, though it will vary (sometimes being
shorter, but never longer).

10.  A script page CANNOT end on anything except a complete sentence.  

11.  All dialogue MUST have a character's name over it.

12.  There are 4 tabs on a scipt page.  Tab #1 is for dialogue which runs in a rectangular
box, approximately 3 1/2 inches across on your page.  Tab #2 is for Dialogue Direction.
This is used in case there may be some question as to how the actor should
deliver the line and also for directives such as (pause), (a beat), (to Jane), etc.  It
is NOT used to give the actor an action direction (he crosses the room) or for any
actor other than the one talking.  Tab #3 goes smack in the center of the page and
is for your character's name.  Every name starts at exactly the same spot on a page!
Tab #4 is for CONTINUED (if the scene continues to the next page), TIME DISSOLVE,
but never for the words CUT TO as those are simply not used in scripts today since
someone realized that editors are among the brightest in the Industry and have figured
out all by themselves that they MUST cut in order to get from one scene to the next,
and don't need a writer to instruct them.  

13.  Your script should run no less than 90 pages, no more than 110 with 100
the ideal.  If you're writing for televison, that's a different situation altogether.
I'm addressing myself to feature film scripts.

14.  Do NOT send backup material with your script. Do NOT send photographs or a
Xerox of your graduation picture, or anything else. Just the script.

15.  Do NOT number scenes.

16.  Do NOT use any camera angle unless it's absolutely necessary and then only sparingly -
and only if you're absolutely sure you know what you're asking for.

17.  And, for cryin' in the beer, write on normal typing paper!  You have no idea
of the wild assortment of paper I see a script written on.  What a waste.  Waste of a
story, waste of time and postage, waste of paper. Wasted dream.

Go now to the link that will take you to a SAMPLE SCRIPT PAGE with complete
explanations.  Don't even think of marketing your work without this critical step.


Sample Script Page w/explanations
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Esther Luttrell
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