Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Join Koura on Filmmaking (Actually) in episode three: Revenge of the Script! How do you go about writing in the first place? How do you avoid and overcome writer's block? How do you avoid writing the same old clichés, tropes and stereotypes so common in screenplays of today? How do you ensure that your stories and characters have real depth? And how do you know your script is ready for production? All of these questions will be discussed, considered, confabulated, sifted, jawed, hashed over and dissertated by Ms. Linda!
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Below please find a transcript of this episode. Episodes are also available as audio-only podcasts here or with subtitles in this video:
What's Important About Scriptwriting, Actually??
Hello, my name is Koura Linda and welcome back to my podcast, “Filmmaking (Actually)”.
I feel like I'm going to be saying this a lot as I go through these episodes, but one of the best parts of indie filmmaking is that it is kind of like the Wild West of filmmaking. You don't have to follow any of the big studio rules, and some of the things I'm going to suggest are not exactly what you would expect to hear. This isn't your run-of-the-mill basic cut-and-paste script advice. This is indie filmmaking, where we get to make our own rules...to a point. You have to know that the Wild West is also wild, which means it's not an easy place to be. This isn't exactly how to write the next Marvel blockbuster, but some of this is relevant to anyone. So go ahead and listen, and you can let me know what you think in the comments and all of that.
First, this is going to sound a little bit cliché, but it actually is really important. Just write! If you're going to write a script, just sit down and write. No one is going to write the next great masterpiece as a first draft. Doesn't happen. Don't write for your editor, or for your friends to read it and be impressed, or for your mom to finally see what an amazing writer you actually are, or so you can trend with NaNoWriMo. Put words on paper and fix it later. Don't worry about your Insta stories, or your Tweet-putation. If you want to write a script, write a script. Don't obsess over social media or feedback while you write. Take the story, and put it out there. You can't edit what hasn't been written yet, so just write.
If you can't figure out something cute or funny or zingy for your character to say, just write what you would actually want them to say, and then figure out a cool way of saying it after the fact. For example, you know you want the mom character to say some sort of funny version of, “No, you can't go to the party after school, we talked about this,” but you don't want it to sound so boring. Write out what she's literally saying and then go back. When you're editing it, you can find maybe a more creative way of saying it. Just get the story out there, and then polish it. And a note for when you polish: people can say a lot with facial expressions. Maybe the kid asks the mom something, and the mom just gives them a look and doesn't say anything at all and then the kid just looks disappointed.
Anyway, it actually doesn't matter in your first draft. Just get it down on paper, get your story out there, sit down and write. And once you've got the story down, then go back and make it more interesting with snappy dialogue, show-don't-tell moments, things like that. The best cure for writer's block is, literally, just write anything. And then edit it and make it better! You can't carve a stone into a beautiful sculpture if you don't even have a stone. So get your first draft done so you have a stone. It can totally suck, but at least now you have a starting point.
Another cure for writer's block, if you're not able to think of anything for your character to do, is write the exact opposite of what your character would say or do. Again, just because you're putting words onto a page it doesn't mean you're burning the letters onto your flesh with indelible fire. You're just getting it out there, so you can have something to work with beyond a blank page, so you can edit it.
Maybe your character is an older woman who has always been very prim and proper the whole story. And you need her to somehow get from the nursing home to the part where she decides to chop off her long hair. (I don't know, I'm making this up as I go.) You have total writer's block, no idea what to do. What's the last thing she would do? Maybe you have her run naked through the nursing home and pull the fire alarm and steal a car and go on a wild ride about town and her long hair gets caught in the car door and she goes to a barber shop and chops it all off. (I don't know, I'm just being random.) But the point is: get something on the page so you can edit it. Just something. And who knows? Maybe you end up writing an action/adventure story about a woman who comes out of her shell and goes for a wild ride! Or you re-read it and you go, “She'd never do that! She would…” and then all of a sudden, you have your story! No matter what, don't let a fear of a lack of immediate perfection get in the way of producing anything even potentially good. Just write.
And while you're writing — I know this is going to sound super weird — don't freak out about your page count. I once produced a 15-page script that turned into a 27-minute film and I've produced a 13-page script that turned into a 7-minute film. It is my totally unpopular opinion that the only way to actually figure out runtime off of a script page count is if you're using a very basic style of filmmaking. That is to say, dialogue is just plainly spoken, there aren't long moments of silent action, nothing is ever really said quickly, the pace doesn't move at a faster rate, you don't have a lot of sound design in the story...it just kind of moves at an average pace, which can be fine, and some people need that stability of the quote-unquote "certainty" a 120-page script is going to be a 120-page movie. But it totally depends on how the movie is made. I know that's a little panic-inducing when you need a sense of certainty and stability. But this is where read-throughs come in handy, to kind of get a sense for it. Also, collaborations with filmmakers once the script is finished. But for right now, you're just writing a script. So don't worry about it. Just write it. And you can always edit it later if you need to.
Another thing is, if you're going to write a story, tell an actual story. You want to evoke feeling from your audience, or share another way of seeing the world, or bring up a section of humanity that isn't usually showcased or talked about. If you just want to write and sell scripts, your main focus might be a low character count, or only a certain number of page numbers, or simple limited numbers of locations because you're trying to hit a small-budget range.
Honestly, you can make a movie about two people on a park bench and have it cost millions of dollars. And you can have movies like “Napoleon Dynamite,” where there's a ton of locations, a bunch of characters, lots of extras, filming at a school and a ton of other places, and that was a few hundred thousand dollars. Which is a decent size indie budget, but it's not multi-millions. The budget is really the problem of the producers. So write a good story. That's your job. That's the point of a scriptwriter. Just write!
If you want to try to keep your location simple, or your character count small, that's fine. But don't do anything to your script at the expense of the story. I mean, okay, you can do whatever you want. But I'm from the school of thought that filmmakers should tell stories, and scripts are what the films are made from. Just saying.
I will say, please tell stories about actual people. Don't make your one black woman the sassy friend, or don't tell a story about a Latina transgender plus-sized woman in a wheelchair, and then all of her dialogue and the whole plot is about the fact that she wants to lose weight, or she's trans, or she's Latina. That isn't to say that, sometimes for some stories, that information is relevant to the plot. I did a film about the Vietnam War, and one of the characters — really big shocker — they were Vietnamese, and one was American, and that was kind of important to the whole Vietnam wWar plot. But even then, aside from a few passing comments, the rest of the dialogue was about a whole bunch of other things relevant to the plot, not just about their nationalities.
Try and populate your films with human beings. And try and mix things up! Make the pretty blonde the math whiz or the science fair winner. Maybe there's a Jewish kid who's living in poverty. Maybe there's a Christian kid who's gay and still religious with a family that loves and supports them. Or better yet, don't have someone's gender, sexual orientation, skin color or religion have anything to do with their character unless it's actually relevant.
If you're writing a script about the Reconstruction era following the American civil war, that's one thing. But if you're writing a script about a woman setting out to start a new car dealership in a small town because of her love of Mustang convertibles? Just write your characters, and then listen to my upcoming episodes about casting, and how you should cast the best actor for the role, no matter what they look like.
But don't try to pander to festivals or distributors by writing in the funny fat friend whose only joke is that they're funny and fat. That isn't funny. And it's been done, and overdone. Make that character your lead, and give them all the attributes your lead would otherwise have had if they were being played by Alicia Silverstone in the late 90s. And not in a satirical way. Actually make them adorable, and popular, and rich. Just as no human being is defined by one single part of their character, don't make your characters defined by one single part of who they are. Unless that is the whole point of the film.
My husband and I did a film about a young dancer who had lost her hearing in an accident, and she was learning how to dance again. The fact that she was deaf and hadn't learned sign language was relevant to the plot. But the film focused on the dance and her dancing because it was a story about a dancer. I know this isn't how mainstream movies are made. Yet. But the world isn't going to change until it's changed. So it might as well be you changing the course of history! Right? Woo! Go indie filmmakers!
Another note is, when writing dialogue — and don't stress out over this until you have your whole script written, this is more like an editing thing — make sure to give your characters their own voices. That is to say, certain ways of speaking, or how they react to things. You don't need to make their whole backstory relevant to the plot, but it is helpful to know things like: if someone is always angry as a person, they probably aren't going to smile and cheerfully wave to somebody while walking down the street. But a cheery character would! So have your characters say and do things that match who they are as people, or the mood they are in during whatever scene you are writing. And make sure there are mood changes. They get happy, or sad, or angry, or excited. Don't have the character start off bored, be bored by life, and end off bored... because that's boring. Write in some dynamic emotional motion to your story. It doesn't have to be tsunami level waves, but if something horrible happens, have your character get upset, or not get upset, if that's who they are.
Use emotion and mood changes to keep your story and script engaging and interesting, and exemplify who your characters are and what they're going through, and also how they change. Maybe they react one way in the beginning and then they react a different way in the end. At the same time don't obsess over your dialogue. I know when writing for a sitcom you're supposed to have like a new joke every two minutes or something like that? No one in life actually talks like that. And if they do, it's really rare, and random, and sometimes it's just annoying. Try to talk the way people talk. Don't watch movies from the 80s, or early 90s for dialogue inspiration. Please. No one talks like that anymore. And again, if they do, it's rare! And you can creatively work it into your script as part of the script if that's what you're going for, but as a general rule, try to write dialogue appropriate to the conversations happening in the script.
For example: if two people are best friends, they probably aren't going to be super formal. They may have nicknames for each other, slang they use between each other, inside jokes. Maybe they know who other people are in each other's lives, or they'll possibly be friends with mutual friends, or they'll know each other's family members, or they'll have mutual enemies. If two people just met, they may speak a little more formally, they won't know intimate details about each other's lives, things like that.
Also, please use your words. I cannot tell you how many scripts I've read where people are trying to be edgy, or real, and you'd think the entire cast was limited by a 10 word vocabulary of four letter words. Again. It's been done, it isn't edgy, it takes no effort, and no creativity to drop 587 f-bombs and six pages of script. I don't know, that's a lot, so maybe that does take some creativity. But you know what I mean. Now, if that's a part of who your specific character is, or it's relevant to the script and the story, that's different. I once read an incredibly powerful script that was themed around racism, and it had different characters using the n-word. It wasn't just thrown out for shock value. Only specific characters said it — and this would be one of those scripts where what someone looks like obviously is relevant to the story — and they set it in different places in the script, in different ways with exact reasons. And that story still haunts me. That would be an example of, You're not just trying to shock people, but it's actually a part of your story.
As a general rule, you don't need obscene profanity to make an edgy indie film. I'm going to be blunt and cold and unpopular, but if you do, you probably just need to work on your writing skills. No film has ever been made on profanity and shock value alone. Even graphic stories like “Game of Thrones” and “Joker” have incredibly beautiful cinematography, brilliant set design, costumes, makeup. The story actually is really substantial, and they have arguably flawless acting. It isn't just the shock value that sells those stories. If high shock value, endless obscenity and boobs was all it took to make a billion-dollar franchise, there are literally thousands of films out there that would have all taken home Oscars. Just write a good story. Don't rely on tropes, or crutches, or shock value to get your point across. Use language as a tool to authenticate your characters, and add layers to who they are. But not every single person in your story needs that.
And once you've written, and rewritten and rewritten, and edited, and edited, and edited and edited and edited, and you feel like if you look at the script one more time you are going to lose all your vocabulary and be left with a limited range of four letter words? Stop. That's probably when you should stop writing. Even if it just means taking a break, and then coming back to it. No matter what, eventually you need to be ready to send your little word babies out into the world. Also, once you give your script over to a director or producer, there's bound to be rewrites, even if it's just simple things like location changes, or sometimes you do have to tweak things to fit a budget, or character tweaks once it's cast. The director is going to breathe their own life into it, the actors are going to breathe their own life into it, editors are going to breathe their own life into it and sometimes even distributors will breathe their own version of life into it. But anyway, one of the most important parts of screenwriting is knowing when the story is there, so you can stop writing and let it grow into the movie it was meant to be.
Okay, last points. Once the story is locked, you know you've got your story there, you're good, you're ready for it to move on to development for production. Check for obvious things, like if a character said, "See you next Sunday," to another character and then we see them meeting, don't have them go from there to the Post Office and have an interaction with a postal worker… on a Sunday, when literally every post office in the entire country is closed. Just make a rough outline of time of day and sequences and make sure all your timelines make sense.
Also, check things like your continuity. If someone had a cold in one scene, and they're holding a baby in the next, that doesn't totally make sense unless you're telling a story of how a baby got a cold. So just make sure the story makes sense, it follows a point or lots of points, or at least makes a point. Even if the point is that it doesn't really have a point, just make sure that it makes sense. And then also check all your scenes and number them. If the time of day changes, even if it's just moments later or shortly after. If the location changes, even if it's just from a living room to a kitchen of the same house, or from inside to outside a car. If you need to move the camera and the lights to change location, just number a new scene. This isn't for storytelling, this is for when your script is broken down for production so they're able to get an accurate count of all the locations, how much time is needed at each scene, how many setups are needed at each location, all of that stuff. If the time or the location changes... new scene. That's all.
Make sure the locations are labeled clearly. I learned this the very hard way. I'm actually working on a script right now where there are scenes in different backyards. And every single time in the script they were just called backyard, but they weren't the same backyards. So when the script was being broken down, and all we were looking at was the scene number and the location, it was really hard to tell what was what, and then I had to go back through you know, fix it, and make it backyard A, backyard B, just so it was really clear when we did the breakdown. And it was really annoying and I wish I did it right the first time. So I'm telling you, so you can do it the first time, because that's basically what this podcast is. Anyway, just take the time to clearly number and label your scenes. And it makes production that much smoother so your script can actually be made into a movie or TV show or play or web series or whatever it is you're writing for.
And yeah! All right. I'm going to take my own advice on knowing where to stop, and that's it. Let me know what topic you'd like to see covered next? But seriously, what do you want me to cover next? Is there a specific topic you'd like me to go over? Something you'd like me to cover first? Let me know!
Okay. That's it. Bye!
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