Screenwriting Tips by Michael Ferris
The Importance of Character Names
Character names are just as important as coming up with a great title for your script. They need to be unique both to other scripts, and unique from each other WITHIN your script. This last point is important because you don't ever want a character's name to be similar to another's within your own script. So don't re-use names that start with the same letter, or end with the same sound (see: "Sam" and "Steve" or "Jenny" and "Benny"), etc.
Great Titles are a Must
Great titles that grab you – off the bat – are paramount in this day and age. Don’t write cutesy titles that require a person to read the script to “get” why it’s a funny or interesting title. Write a title that both tells a potential reader EXACTLY what kind (see: genre) of script they are about to read, and one that is attention grabbing and/or interesting. Many times, your title will not be something that would ever possibly end up on the poster were it to get made (See: “F*ckbuddies”, which eventually became NO STRINGS ATTACHED, or "Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love" that eventually became AMERICAN PIE).
Shorter is Sweeter
If any 4 lines of action in a paragraph can be rewritten to only take up 3 lines, do it. If any 3 lines can be 2, do it. Don’t precious with your words – a quick read is paramount. Tell us only what we need to move the story forward, or enrich our view of the characters – nothing else.
The First Five Pages
Your first 5 pages will make or break your script. That cool, awesome, amazing little detail or set piece you've imagined for your script? Put it up front. You never know if anyone will read past the first 5 if it isn't compelling. Likewise, if you're creating a new TV series, don't save your best stuff for the show bible or season two. All that's going to be read is the pilot -- so put your heart, soul, and kitchen sink into it.
TV Spec Writing
Never spec an episode of a cancelled, low rated, or old show. Keep it fresh. Spec shows that are well rated and will obviously be around for several more seasons are how you get the most bang for your buck when writing a spec episode. You worked hard on it -- why not make sure it's a solid and sought after read for more than just a few months.
Write A Great Opening Scene
It's tough with today's spec market. Help yourself out with a great opening scene. It doesn't matter if it's a drama or a comedy or a thriller, have the opening be gripping, or intriguing, or mysterious, or exciting, or all four. A great opening scene will get you a lot of leeway when it comes to how long an industry player will sit down to read your script. If you keep the scenes consistently great, you might achieve that rarity of all rarities – an agent who reads a script from cover to cover.
Breaking Into TV
Breaking into TV is tough and you need to make sure your pilot and/or show specs move FAST. Hit it hard from page one and don’t let off the gas. Don’t just write a great episode, write the kind of episode for a show that people would talk about at the water cooler if they had actually seen it on TV
Writing TV Pilots
If you write an original TV pilot, you should have an existing show spec to package with it when you send to Agents. Make sure it's the same tone of show as your pilot if your interest is in getting staffed on a show (which it should be). The odds of a first time writer selling a show are extremely low (though no unheard of), so your goal when writing TV should be 1 – getting and agent, and 2 – getting staffed.
Master Writing Great Dialogue
If you're an aspiring writer trying to break into the industry, great dialogue that pops off the page is the single best way to capture Hollywood's attention. JUNO had an alright story, but the reason people went crazy over it was the dialogue seemed fresh and new and unique at the time. In Hollywood, great dialogue is hard to find – master that, and you’re head and shoulders above the competition.
Cut Out The Boring Parts
Why do we never see Batman take a leak between fighting crime? Because great scripts are real life with all the boring parts cut out. With both your movie and your scenes, always enter late and leave early. If a scene, a character’s action, or even a line of dialogue doesn’t move the story forward or add depth to a character, it can be cut.
Embrace White Space
The biggest thing aspiring writers can do to look professional is to embrace white space. Keep action and dialogue to 3 lines or less. Keep it MOVING. If you put your pedal to the metal from page one and don’t let go, it will go a long way (and sometimes cover up or lessen some of the problems the script might have).
When writing a query letter, keep it simple. All the industry cares about is the logline – we’ve got enough emails to write, scripts to read, and calls to make. So keep it quick and easy: No bio, no why you're sending to them. Just a professional greeting, a great logline, and a professional close. You’ll be their new best friend if it takes them 5 seconds to read your letter.
A former Hollywood Lit Manager, Michael started ScriptAWish.com as a way to help other writers get their foot in the door and has helped several writers sell their scripts (like Travis Beacham of PACIFIC RIM) and set up projects with producers like Academy Award Winner Arnold Kopelson. The mission of ScriptAWish.com was to help aspiring writers get their scripts into shape and then get their foot in the door. His new venture is a collaboration with several professional screenwriters called StudioGhostwriters.com and was intended to help producers get their movie ideas on paper or their drafts polished for production.