5 Basic Pro Tips on Writing Screenplays

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by Kate Maruyama

I was raised on movies and books. My dad taught film at Wesleyan University before VHS was around, so rather than count on the one or two movies shown on the Sunday Matinee on television, I was exposed to all movies always. Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelley, the Marx Brothers, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford traipsed through my living room on a pop up silver screen on a stand as the 16mm projector clickwhirred sprockets along and Frankenstein, Dracula and the Invisible Man joined the parade. We also had a Saturday ritual of going to any movie that was out, good or bad, sometimes terrible. Hunkered down with junior mints and popcorn—popped at home and smuggled in enormously embarrassing but tasty and greasy paper bags, I saw the seventies unspool, Star Wars, Close Encounters, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Grease, Superman, Dog Day Afternoon, All the President’s Men. As I got older I was allowed to watch the movies unfurling for my dad’s classes, or the Wesleyan’s film series, Ford, Coppola, Capra, Donen, Cukor, Frankenheimer. As a college student I moved onto Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, John Waters. I became a student of auteurs and camera angles, scenes told in dialogue, scenes unfolded in imagery.

Sometime in college, scrambling for what to do with my life, I realized that film was a language I already spoke because I was raised in it, versed in it. So in the early nineties I moved out to Los Angeles to give it a whirl and I started writing screenplays immediately. But, as I needed to make an immediate living, I started working at William Morris as an Assistant. I then moved to Jon Peters’ company to work on the Warner Bros lot and later to Universal to work for Sylvester Stallone, which seemed an odd fit, but taught me more than any industry job I’d held yet. I learned more than I knew I could about screenwriting from the work I was doing in development. I started recognizing the scripts that caught the imagination, saw the scripts that went on to get made, the scripts that, despite being interesting, would never sell. By the time I was a junior executive, I had read and covered thousands of scripts, given notes on what would make them stronger, gotten inside scenes to see how they tick and given pointers to shore them up. There was so much to learn even in writing coverages, which is where you summarize a script into a page and a half. There’s something about how a summary cracks along that lets you know if the script has done its job.

The gatekeepers of Hollywood, the ones who decide if your script meets the eyes of a producer or executive or an actor, they are all people who read thousands of scripts for a living. And they are tired. And they have seen it all. They are looking for something new, different and engaging.

Here are some takeaways from reading two decades’ worth of scripts. Some simple things that can make or break the read of a script.

1. Format is everything. Your script is going to be read by someone who reads scripts for a living–which means dozens of them a week. You need them to see your words and your characters, your scenes and your world. Because I promise you, if your font is weird, or you’re being creative with your page layout, or you add pictures, they have taken points off your script before reading the first line. You can find screenplay formatting and free software to write with here: https://www.celtx.com/

2. Your first ten pages need to sing. Your reader, having ten more scripts to get to, needs to be sucked into scene in those first ten pages. They need to feel firmly anchored in your character, the scenario and what’s happening to them. If it’s an action movie, it’s generally a seat-gripping action scene. If it’s a romantic comedy, it’s usually funny, engaging and showing your character in full. If it’s an independent movie, it may be simpler, but it is always engaging: sometimes a quiet scene where you find your character doing something curious, sometimes it is a pickle they find themselves in later in the story, but it is always, always a good read. If you have spent ten pages simply on ambience, setting, or putting together a situation, you have lost your reader already and trust me, they have other scripts to move onto.

And on that note, skip the epigraphs. A famous author’s quote is not going to help your screenplay if it’s already good and will only emphasize what’s not working in a screenplay that isn’t cracking along.

3. Curb your descriptive language: Beyond creating tension in a scene or physically describing action, keep your descriptive language to yourself. I can’t tell you how many times, as a jaded script reader, my eyes rolled to the ceiling as a writer waxed rhapsodic for paragraphs about a farm, the light against the eaves, the fireflies, the flock of birds. Little visual signposts are lovely if kept to a brief sentence or two. What you are there to describe is the scene itself. Give us the time of day and the light, perhaps, a nod to what sort of evening it is and go with your characters and where they are in the scene, what they are doing with their bodies. Give your reader characters, scene and dialogue that they want to get into. Give the scene purpose from its first breaths.

4. Don’t physically describe your characters. This is a weird one and counterintuitive to any writer. But the truth is, your characters, beyond age and stature, and perhaps the way they hold themselves or their station in life need no further physical details. Think of your characters as indelible personalities imprinted on a blank canvas. Any producer, executive and (if all goes well) actor wants to project someone specific on that character and wants to do it all the way through. If you describe your heroine’s “blonde hair falls in her face” you’ve just lost five brunette actresses or actresses of different races and the potential for your script seeing the light of day has gone down exponentially.

5. Don’t write to the market. This also may seem counterintuitive, but please, for the sake of your precious time and the effort of the writing itself, take heed. I always heard it, what types of scripts are “hot,” from when I started, “People are buying cop dramas now” to later when I was writing “People are buying sex thrillers now.” As a reader, I would suddenly get an onslaught of one kind of script and by the time they got to us, that description of “what’s hot” was passe. It was while I was reading my 50th crappy cop drama that I read THE MATRIX, which flipped my lid. It was when I was reading my 70th sexy thriller that quiet, character driven independent films started breaking through. You don’t know the market and the people who put these buzzwords out there don’t either. Write the script that is the movie you want to see. Write the story that has captured your imagination, that you can see in your head. Write the script that is different. Because the most magical words in any scriptreader’s vocabulary is, “I haven’t seen this before.”

If you want to jump start your script idea, the one that’s been nagging at you to get it written, the one that you can’t get out of your head, you can get a good head start in my class, which starts May 30th: “Laying Down the Tracks: Jump Start Your Screenplay in Four Short Weeks.” The class is online and can be taken at any time of the day or night. All you need is access to a computer!

Kate Maruyama’s twenty years in the film industry started when she was an agency assistant at William Morris, where she learned the ins and outs, from contracts to deals, indie movies to studios films, indie releases to negative pickup. She moved on to Jon Peters Entertainment where she worked as a development assistant, developing pitches, giving notes on screenplays and finally was Director of Development at Sylvester Stallone’s company White Eagle at Universal where she worked with writers and executives developing pitches and screenplays for production. She was a script consultant for Demarest Films and for Village Roadshow Pictures for ten years. She then quit to write and learned the other side of the screenwriting world, with a number of scripts in development and had one screenplay produced. She has consulted on numerous screenplays since and has a knack for developing them into the type of material producers and actors are looking for.

Her first novel Harrowgate was published by 47North and she appears in numerous print and online journals as well as in anthologies.

Kate holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles in fiction where she is adjunct faculty in the BA program and Affiliate faculty in the MFA program. She teaches with Writing Workshops Los Angeles and is part of the team behind Antioch’s inspiration2publication program.

 

 

 

 

How to Look at a Solar Eclipse: A Trick on Writing for Social Change

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by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

I remember when George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. I remember being devastated and posting the news announcement on my Facebook with the caption, “No words.” I couldn’t stop thinking about how Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old kid walking back from a convenient store with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea, never made it back to his father’s house, and how wrong that was. I had no words.

But then another poet commented on my post with something to the effect of, This is exactly when we need words. Write.

When writing about a societal injustice, I see two hurdles: one, finding a way to spend time with a tragedy that is hard to face long enough to write about it, and two, figuring out how to hook readers into spending time with you too.

For the first, my advice is to trick your mind.

Some tragedies are so heartbreaking that to take a long look at them hurts the soul and can even physically turn a person ill. Sometimes the only way to write about injustice is to play a trick on yourself. “Tell it slant” is how Emily Dickinson put it: “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—”

When I was a kid I experienced my first solar eclipse. My father was with me, and he let me wear his giant welding mask and made me a pinhole projector out of a cardboard box. I remember standing barefoot on my front lawn, my face pointing to the sky, the heavy mask pressing down on me, preferring its tinted glass and weight to the tiny hole and shadows on cardboard. Going slant can be like finding your welding mask, or making a pinhole projector. In poetry, this can be playing with a classic form, counting syllables, using a rhyme scheme, or arranging a found poem. These tricks can free, or protect, the poet from the subject—acting more like a game than a duty—long enough to write about it. To be clear, I’m not saying to make light of something serious. If you are reading this article, and you are looking for tips on how to write for social justice, then it is clear you are a person who cares, so what I’m saying is, give yourself a break.

In August 2011, I traveled out to the Sonoran desert to volunteer as a desert aid worker with the direct humanitarian organization, No More Deaths. For nine days I camped in the desert along the Arizona-Mexico border in 100+ degree temperatures. I often worried for my safety, but I knew it was nothing compared to what the people crossing into this country were experiencing. Everyday my heart broke with what I saw and heard, and every night I cried myself to sleep. I volunteered with the intention of writing about the border, but when I got back my home, writing was the last thing I wanted to do. It took me six months to a year to finally start writing poems, and when I did, I played tricks. I wrote a villanelle, I played with repetition, and in one poem I stole lyrics from a Katy Perry song. I was in part inspired by Kate Durbin’s collection The Ravenous Audience, which is teeming with different forms. Her collection showed me what could happen with a little experimentation.

“Our Lady of the Water Gallons” is a poem I wrote about the process of leaving fresh water on migrant trails. All summer long volunteers patrol the desert borderlands looking for people in distress and placing fresh water supplies in strategic locations. Volunteers write messages in Spanish and draw images like butterflies and crosses on the water gallons to communicate to those crossing that the water is safe to drink and not a border patrol trap. I found my way into this poem by experimenting with a made up long form created by my friend and formalist poet, Scott Miller, that uses repetition similar to a crown of sonnets.

To this day, anytime I know I’m going to read this poem in public, I have to practice it several times at home so I don’t cry, but I kind of hope every once in a while someone hears it and is inspired to donate money to humanitarian border causes, or even volunteer.

For more pinhole tricks and for strategies on hooking your reader, join my workshop on Writing Poetry for Social Change with inspiration2publication on May 21, 2016 at 10am on the Antioch Campus. We will be writing poems inspired by the poetry of Martin Espada and Carolyn Forche, and taking a look at social media/poetry movements such as #blackpoetsspeakout and Poets Responding to SB1070.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange poetry winner and a 2015 Barbara Deming Fund grantee and a newly minted Steinbeck Fellow for 2016. She has work published in American Poetry Review, crazyhorse, CALYX, and Acentos Review among others. A short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Chicano activist and Hollywood director, Jesús Salvador Treviño can be viewed at latinopia.com. She curates the quarterly reading series HITCHED and co-founded Women Who Submit. Her debut poetry collection, Built with Safe Spaces, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications.