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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting
How Hollywood Evaluates 

Your Screenplay
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Collin Chang
Alison Haskovec
Michael Lee
Nick Sita
Helen Truong
Dwayne Alexander Smith
Scott Honea
Maya Goldsmith
Vikram Weet
John Evans


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Edited by John Evans
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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !2

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Contents
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Introduction 3
by John Evans
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Chapter 1: PREMISE/CONCEPT 5
by Collin Chang

Chapter 2: PRESENTATION 12
by Alison Haskovec
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Chapter 3: STRUCTURE 21
by Michael Lee
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Chapter 4: PLOT 29
by Nick Sita
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Chapter 5: PACING 39
by Helen Truong
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Chapter 6: CHARACTERS 45
by Dwayne Alexander Smith
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Chapter 7: DIALOGUE 52
by Scott Honea
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Chapter 8: THEME 60
by Maya Goldsmith
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Chapter 9: STYLE/TONE 67
by Vikram Weet
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Chapter 10: COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL 76
by John Evans
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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
pageawards.com
The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !3

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Introduction
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by John Evans
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As a screenwriter, one of the most daunting tasks you face is submitting your
work to the agents, producers and industry execs whose approval you need
in order to get your movie made. It can be an ego-bruising experience.
Every writer longs for a “yes” (ideally followed by a tidy sum of money),
but the unfortunate reality is that 99% of the time the answer you get from
the industry decision-makers is “no.”
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What’s doubly frustrating is that the “no” almost never comes with any useful
advice on how to get a “yes!” You rarely receive an honest explanation of
the thought process behind the rejection. Instead, the “pass” is couched in
non-committal, formulaic language about “our needs at this time” or some
such polite brush-off. Thanks for nothing, right? It’s maddening.
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But what if you could get inside the minds of those Hollywood gatekeepers
and learn how they make their judgments? What if the industry professionals
who are on the front lines at the studios, networks, agencies and production
companies − the people reading the scripts you submit − actually took you
through their thought process and explained the criteria they use to evaluate
your work? What if they told you how to get a “yes”?
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That idea was the inspiration for this eBook.
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The Judges for the PAGE Awards all have years of experience evaluating
scripts and participating in the acquisition, development and production
process at major Hollywood studios, agencies and production companies.
Some of them are also professional screenwriters themselves. They are
the eyes and ears of this industry. They know the current trends, they
know the marketplace, they know what makes for a winning screenplay,
and most importantly, they know what separates an amateur from a pro.
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In this eBook, 10 of our Judges discuss the various criteria they use to
evaluate scripts for both the PAGE Awards and the companies they work
for. They explain how these elements are key to a successful screenplay,
they show how top screenwriters do it, and they offer insights and ideas
to help you elevate your script to the professional level.
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Within these pages you’ll notice many points of agreement among the
Judges. Some key pieces of information are repeated in different ways.
You may notice some disagreement, as well! Everyone working in this
business has developed a unique point of view based on their personal
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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
pageawards.com
The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !4

experience. Which is why you’ll find that one industry reader may respond
favorably to your work, while another may not. Evaluating a script (or a
movie, for that matter) will always be a subjective undertaking. But to
maximize your chances for success, you need to make sure that your script
meets the expectations of the industry in certain fundamental ways.
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We hope you will find these chapters a useful reference as you construct
your next screenplay from the ground up, step-by-step. And we also hope
this eBook will help you assess the work you’ve already done and where
you stand as a screenwriter. Every writer has individual strengths and
weaknesses. What are yours? Do you need to develop a greater command
of three-act structure? Work on fulfilling the dramatic potential of your
characters? Learn how to better express the themes of your story?
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This eBook is packed with information, so don’t try to read it all in one sitting!
Take it one chapter at a time. As you read, think about your own scripts.
How do you think this particular Judge would evaluate this particular element
of your screenplay (premise, plot, dialogue, etc.)? Consider how you can
use the information provided to help improve your script. What ideas does
it spark?
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Ultimately, the question to ask yourself is: “Given my current strengths and
weaknesses, how can I take my writing to the next level? What do I need
to do to make my screenplays more reader-friendly? Contest-winning?
Production-worthy?”
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Our mission here at the PAGE Awards is to discover the next generation of
professional screenwriters. You are the future of the movie and television
business. I hope the following pages will inspire you, inform you, and help
you write the exciting new stories this industry needs in order to remain
creatively vital and prosperous. – JE
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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
pageawards.com
The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !5


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PREMISE/CONCEPT
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by Collin Chang
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“You had me at hello.”
− Dorothy, Jerry Maguire (1996)
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Back in my misspent college days, I was at one of those big frat-house
shindigs branded a failure if the cops didn’t show. I’d just met a sweet
sophomore named Ariel when our heads bongo’ed as we both reached for 

the last remaining Guinness chilling in the fridge. A real life Meet Cute.

As we laughed about this, I suddenly felt a lick of electric tension. It was


almost as if someone swept a live wire just above the hairs on the back of 

my neck.

I’d felt that only once before in my life, when I was six years old and sitting in
the passenger seat of my dad’s Mercury Cougar. A big semi-truck sideswiped
us on the freeway. A split second before the truck slammed into us, sending
our tiny car spinning into the guardrail, I felt that same electric sensation.

Every head in the kitchen swiveled toward the living room of the frat house.
All breathing stopped and we became a party of mannequins. Through the
sea of heads and shoulders between the kitchen and living room I couldn’t
see what was happening, but I heard a girl scream. The sound sliced through
the din of collegiate revelry like a fire engine’s wail.

An instant later Ariel voiced the obvious, instinctive, perfect question: “What’s
happening?” She didn’t ask “Who’s involved?” or “What’s the deeper meaning
of it all?” Those questions would come later. The natural human reaction 

to a mysterious, tense, electrifying event like this is to first ask, “What’s
happening?”

This is also the fundamental question at the core of every screenplay.

That chaotic party scenario (and my childhood car accident, for that matter)
mirrors the movie-going audience’s experience of a good story. The setup 

is surprising, impossible to ignore, and fraught with unanswered questions.
We don’t know what’s happening, but we need to find out!

If the setup for your story captures the power of this kind of experience, you
will hook your audience. “What’s happening?” is the most important question
you need to ask yourself as you begin writing your script. It’s also the
question that agents and producers first ask when they consider your work.

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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !6

The answer to this question is, fundamentally, your script’s concept.

What’s the difference between “concept” and “premise”?

The concept is the engine of your story and the premise is that idea
developed into a logline — the short, one-or-two sentence ditty that tells 

the world what your movie is about.

Do you recognize these classic loglines?

An over-the-hill boxer gets one last chance at glory when 



he’s handpicked for a publicity stunt match with the reigning
world champion.

When terrorists overrun an office tower Christmas party, a 



lone police detective trapped inside is the only hope for the
survival of the hostages — among them, his estranged wife.

A young boy meets a new friend, left behind by his family, 



and hides him in a shed. That friend happens to be an alien,

and the government is on the hunt for him.

All three premises just seize you by the jugular, don’t they? These loglines
describe the films Rocky, Die Hard and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, and 

all three share one commonality with that fateful night in my frat house:
Something’s happening, and I want to know how it plays out.

That’s the key to an irresistible premise. Your audience just has to know the
outcome of the situation. Just as Ariel had to know “What’s happening?”

Back to the frat house… (You’re still curious what happened there, right?)
There was a love triangle of sorts unfolding in the living room, not more than
20 feet from where I stood. A jilted lover pulled a Saturday Night Special on
his rival and held it to his head. This scenario was the logline of that night.
And believe me, it had everyone’s attention. As a police standoff unfolded
over the next 30 minutes, it snared our attention like the story of the
Lindbergh baby. As should the premise of any script you write!

How do you evaluate a script’s concept and premise?

Your concept needs to be solid and your premise needs to wow me. A great
premise has a jolt like a cattle prod, while the logline has an instant “need-to-
know” factor. Quite unlike this:


Dori resolves to milk Bessie the cow, who thwarted her 

efforts the day before.

Is this a sound logline? Technically, yes. Is the main character, Dori, faced
with a challenge? Yes. To milk the cow who just wouldn’t stand still
yesterday. But is there a need-to-know quotient involved? Absolutely not.
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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !7

You’re going to have to write the hell out of this script to make us care
whether or not a cow gets milked today. And getting anyone to actually read
that script will be an even greater feat.

While a girl milking a cow in the next room would certainly elicit curiosity, it
wouldn’t keep anyone riveted for long. Doesn’t quite have that “I gotta know
what’s going on” factor, does it? A great “what’s happening” stops someone
in their tracks and forces them to take notice.

“Concept is king” isn’t a new idea. In fact, it’s as old as the hills. See if you
can identify this oldie but goodie:

A hero takes down a monster destroying his city and is crowned


king, only to discover that he himself is the greater monster.

That story is nearly 2400 years old. It was first performed in 420 B.C. in the
city of Athens, Greece. Figured out what it is yet?

It’s Oedipus Rex, also known as Oedipus the King. In this ancient Greek
tragedy, Oedipus, a hero of ancient Thebes, is called upon to vanquish a
monster known as the Sphinx. After outwitting the Sphinx by answering its
riddle, Oedipus is crowned king and takes the late king’s wife as his own.
Then he learns that the king and queen were his parents, and that he
unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother.


M. Night Shyamalan didn’t invent the twist ending. Sophocles, the playwright,
knew exactly how to pack ‘em into the seats.

A great premise works exactly like a good joke. Pitched correctly, with the
proper mechanics, it should evoke some combination of a laugh and a gasp.

Another component of a great premise is compounding the impact of the


concept with an ironic twist. I have to give the late, great Blake Snyder props
for this one. In his wonderful screenwriting primer Save the Cat, Snyder
proposes that all great premises have one dynamic in common: They’re all
steeped in irony. Here are three that prove the point:

A seven-year-old’s birthday wish comes true when, for just 



one day, his silver-tongued dad can’t tell a lie. Trouble is, 

his dad’s a lawyer. (Liar, Liar)

When a Great White shark terrorizes a beach community, 



the town’s only hope is a police chief who’s afraid of the 

water. (Jaws)

In a darkly futuristic Los Angeles, a cop tracking escaped


humanoid “replicants” falls in love with one of the replicants 

he was hired to destroy. (Blade Runner)

What makes those premises great? Each has an ironic twist.


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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !8

In Liar, Liar, it’s cool that the boy’s wish comes true and that his father can't
tell a lie for a day. But when you factor in that Dad is a lawyer? Well now,
that story almost writes itself, doesn’t it?


In Jaws, a police chief who’s afraid of the water is forced to go into the ocean
to combat both his fear and a deadly shark.


In Blade Runner, a cop falls in love with the very creature he’s obligated to
destroy. I’m in!

Another ingredient of a great premise is a high-stakes situation. I'm always


amazed at how many young writers (and sometimes even older, seasoned
ones) will simply close up shop with only half the day's work done. The
concept is there, but the stakes aren’t nearly as high as they could be.

Take this premise, for example:

A young FBI trainee must hunt down a serial killer.

That isn't a bad idea for a movie. We have a wet-behind-the-ears trainee


thrown into the manhunt for a killer. However, it's missing two factors sure to
transform it from a good premise into a great one.

First, high stakes. When you raise the stakes, your idea becomes downright
irresistible.

To save the kidnapped daughter of a U.S. Senator, a young 



FBI trainee must hunt down a serial killer.

The kidnapping element adds a ticking clock to the proceedings, thus raising
the stakes. And the second ingredient? If you’ve been paying attention, you
already know! It's missing that all-important ironic twist.

In order to save the kidnapped daughter of a U.S. Senator,



a young FBI trainee must solicit the help of a notorious 

serial killer.

Boom!

To sum up, when I evaluate the concept and premise of a screenplay, I look
for four things:

1) The premise should beg the question, “What's happening?”

2) It should have a “wow” factor. End of the world? Wow! Milking


Bessie the cow? Not so much.

3) It should have an ironic twist.

4) It should involve a high-stakes situation.

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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !9


Some tips on how to come up with a compelling premise…

Here’s one proven technique you can use: Combine two into one. Often, with
the collision of two disparate concepts you’ll find your noggin filled with a
single great one.

For example, two often-emulated premises originated in The Seven Samurai


and The Exorcist. Seven Samurai was remade (twice) as a Western, 

The Magnificent Seven. The latest iteration concerned a band of outlaws
recruited by a young woman to avenge the murder of her family. The
Exorcist concerns a young girl possessed by an ancient demon and the two
priests – one young and modern, the other older and weary – called upon to
save her. So, slosh both premises around in the martini shaker of your mind
and see what you come up with. Here's my take:

When an ancient evil threatens the very existence of the



Earth, an elderly nun seeks the seven holiest people alive

to band together to fight it as a team.

Not bad, huh? Can’t you just see that movie? Just imagine if each one of
them came from a different country? And imagine if the holiest person from
America just happened to be a 12-year-old choirboy who prays diligently every
night for his sick mother to get well!

Now, you try it!

Here’s another way to conjure up a great premise: Do the genre shuffle. Have
an idea for a bleakly apocalyptic film so dour it just might hang itself with its
own logline? Re-envision it as a comedy!

Let's look at the Cormac McCarthy novel they turned into a dark drama, The
Road. There's nothing so dour at your local cinema but Ice Cube’s scowl.
Ask yourself, “How would this story play as a comedy?”

Hint: “Paging Jason Sudeikis!” Imagine Jason Sudeikis as a rocket scientist at


NORAD, the missile-launching site. He's in love with another scientist, played
by Amy Schumer. They're perfect for each other, except for one glaring issue:
She wouldn't let him touch her if he were the last man on Earth.

Well, wouldn't you know it? The apocalypse strikes and all the missiles are
launched. Sudeikis and Schumer climb out of their platinum-encased safe cell
only to discover that the Earth's population, as far as they can see, has been
wiped out. Now it’s possible that he is the last man on Earth. But he still has
to win her over! So here’s the logline:

To ensure the survival of the human race, the last man on

Earth must win the heart of a woman who hates his guts.

Are those stakes, or are those stakes?


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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !10

Here’s another technique for you: “another time, another premise.” With this
one, take a proven idea and put it in a different time and setting.

What if James Bond lived in the 18th Century?

What if Saint George chased his dragon through an evil wizard's portal that
led them to Los Angeles in 2018?

Intriguing scenarios fall into your lap once you choose the right year. I have
to give Jennifer Lerner (500 Ways to Beat the Hollywood Reader) props
for inspiring this one: What if an alien invasion happened before anyone
knew what an alien was? There's a great idea hibernating somewhere in
there. Here's my take on it:

A hostile alien armada approaches the planet and only the


greatest astronomer on Earth knows how to stop it. The

year is 1610 and the astronomer is Galileo Galilei.

All of these approaches stress one thing above all else:

When you’re looking for an exciting new idea for your next script, you need 

to stretch your imagination as far as it'll go. And when you think it won’t
stretch any further, stretch it some more. Your imagination, as you’ll soon
discover, is limitless! – CC
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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !11

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About the Author…


Collin Chang has sold two scripts to major studios and has been hired on a
dozen writing assignments. In 20016, his first independent horror movie The
House of Usher was filmed and subsequently distributed by ThinkFilm. He
currently has two projects in active development – one with Mosaic Media
Group and the other with Accelerated Entertainment. He is the co-creator,
head writer and co-executive producer of the HBO Asia series Halfworlds,
which ran two seasons on the network from 2015 to 2016. He has worked as
a professional script reader for Film Colony and has also worked for the test
screening company OTX. Collin is a member of the WGA, and has served as
head mentor for the WGA’s Young Storytellers Foundation.

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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !12

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PRESENTATION
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by Alison Haskovec
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“You believe you are special, that somehow the rules do not apply to you.
Obviously, you are mistaken.”
− Rhineheart, The Matrix (1999)
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You know the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? Well, unfortunately,
that does not apply to screenplays.
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If you want your script to impress the Hollywood execs (and who doesn’t?),
it needs to look professional. Proper formatting, good grammar, correct
spelling and punctuation − together, your “presentation” − contribute to the
overall readability of your screenplay. And readability is vital.
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Submissions from aspiring screenwriters usually end up in a tall stack on an
entertainment industry professional’s desk, and when yours is finally picked
out, you don’t want your script to be quickly dismissed for something so
simple as formatting errors or typographical mistakes.
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What are the components of “presentation”?

Format refers to the manner in which the language and scenic elements
appear on the page. Font, margins and spacing, scene headings, character
names, scene description and dialogue all follow a basic formula in both
film and television scripts.
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Typos, short for “typographical errors,” are misspellings, grammatical
mistakes or improper punctuation. A handful of typos will be forgiven as
long as the script is engaging overall. However, it is important to try to
avoid typos, because anything that takes the reader out of the world of your
story − even for a moment − is bad news for you. This is especially true at
the beginning of your script, when you’re trying to grab and sustain your
reader’s interest.
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If you want to become a successful writer, no matter what the medium,
it should be a matter of personal pride and vigilance to care about these
fundamentals. At the very least, make sure you run a spell-check on your
script. And before sending your screenplay out to the industry, ask a trusted
family member or friend to act as your own personal presentation police.
Your mom may not be the best judge of your script’s blockbuster potential,
but she might very well spot the typo that snuck by you!


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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved


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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !13

Why is presentation so important?


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The truth is that most executives and agents are looking for any reason to
say “no” to a new writer. Poor formatting and numerous typos are sure
signs of rushed, sloppy, or worse, amateurish work, and they provide
busy Hollywood execs with an easy excuse to put a script down.
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Proper formatting is also important because the overall page count provides
an indication of how long the movie will run. When you use standard
formatting, each page of your script ends up being roughly equivalent to
a minute of screen time. When a writer strays from conventional formatting,
it not only makes the reader’s job more difficult, but also undercuts the
producer’s ability to evaluate such crucial elements as budget and schedule.
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How do you evaluate a script’s presentation?
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This is one of the easiest elements of a screenplay to evaluate because it is
concrete. Apart from a few minor variables, a script’s format is either correct
or it isn’t. The script is either free of grammatical errors, or its readability
is hindered by typos and mistakes. So for example, when judging for the
PAGE Awards, I start out assuming a score of 10 and knock off points as
any distracting mistakes catch my eye.
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If you receive Feedback on your script, you may find that some Judges are
much tougher in this area than others. The truth is, some industry readers
don’t pay that much attention to typos, while others are real sticklers and
will get very annoyed by any formatting errors or spelling mistakes. So cover
your bases either way! Make sure your script is in industry standard format
and typo-free. (Plus, in a contest like the PAGE Awards, this is the easiest
“10” you can get!)
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For a detailed description of proper screenplay and teleplay format, you
should consult one of the formatting books listed at the end of this chapter.
But let me give you a quick overview of a few of the specifics, along with
some information about the current trends...
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FEATURE FILM FORMAT
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(Please take a look at the Screenplay Format Sample provided with this
eBook to see how all of the following elements look on the page.)
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Feature film scripts normally run anywhere from 90 to 120 pages. Horror,
family and comedy scripts tend to be on the shorter side (90-100 pages),
action scripts and thrillers in the mid-range (100-110 pages), while dramas
and historical epics may run a little longer (closer to 120 pages). But try
never to exceed 120 pages! Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin, an excessively

long page count is rarely justified and will be a big turn off to most 

Hollywood readers.
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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !14

Industry standard screenplays are set in 12 point Courier, Courier New or


Courier Final Draft font. Top, bottom and right margins are all 1” and the left
margin is 1½”. Scripts are generally submitted and read online these days;
however, when shooting scripts are printed for the cast and crew, they are
printed on 8½ X 11” three-hole punched paper and bound with two brads.
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Some new screenwriters make the mistake of centering their character names,
dialogue and description. That is incorrect. The elements should all be
indented from the left margin, with measurements approximately as follows:
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Scene headings and description are set flush with the left margin

Character names are indented 2.2” (22 spaces from the left margin)

Parentheticals are indented 1.6” (16 spaces from the left margin)

Dialogue is indented 1” (10 spaces from the left margin)

Transitions are set flush with the right margin
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(Some screenwriting programs use slightly different measurements. Minor
variations of a space or two are acceptable.)
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Traditionally, the first page of every script has always begun with “FADE IN:”
at the top of the page, set flush left. Although the use of “FADE IN:” is going
out of style, no one will penalize you for including it.
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Each scene begins with a scene heading, also known as a slug line. This
establishes the setting and helps the filmmakers figure out how many times
a location will be used and how many day and night shoots will be required.
Scene headings are written in all capital letters. They consist of the following
elements, in order:
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1) (INT.) interior or (EXT.) exterior
2) Location (e.g. RESTAURANT, AIRPLANE) followed by a dash
3) Time (e.g. DAY, NIGHT, LATER)
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Here are two properly formatted scene headings:
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!EXT. FREEWAY - DAY!
!INT. MASON’S BEDROOM - NIGHT!
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Note: Recently, many professional screenwriters have begun setting scene
headings boldface and/or underscored. Long discouraged, this style is now
becoming increasingly prevalent in the industry, as it helps the scene headings
stand out. (You can see how this looks in our Screenplay Format Sample.)

Next comes the scene description, also called direction or action. Scene
description sets up characters, conveys tone and atmosphere, and illustrates 


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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !15

what is on screen. Description should be written in the present tense with an


active voice. Keep your description simple so the reader never gets bogged
down in unnecessary detail, but make sure to use evocative language that
tells your story in a vivid and engaging manner.
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Scene description should be single-spaced, standard text, upper and lower
case. Certain words may be capitalized, set in boldface or underscored for
emphasis. Character names should be capitalized only when the characters
are first introduced. Sound effects should be capitalized, and important props
and special effects may be capitalized, as well. For example:
! ! Two college students, PETER (19) and DYLAN (18) shoot!
! pool. A strange HUMMING SOUND makes them look up at !
! the TV, where the Red Sox game flickers erratically.!
!
! The television EXPLODES. !
!
Break up the scene description into paragraphs of no more than two or three
lines each. The rule of thumb is that each paragraph indicates a specific
camera shot. If you’re writing an action sequence, single line paragraphs
can help convey a sense of urgency and tension.
!
No matter what kind of script you’re writing, remember that long blocks of
type are daunting to a busy industry professional and risk turning the read
into a slog. So keep a good balance between description and dialogue, and
leave plenty of white space on the page!
!
Dialogue is presented by first indicating the character name in capital
letters. If the dialogue is voice over (V.O.) or off-screen (O.S.), that
appears in parentheses beside the character’s name, like this:
! ! ! ! ! NARRATOR (V.O.)!
! ! ! Anne and Beth are hard at work on!
! ! ! their first screenplay.!
!
A parenthetical (aka wryly) may appear below the character name, with a
word or two of direction to convey how the line should be delivered, indicate
some piece of action or, if it isn’t otherwise clear, explain who or what the line
is directed toward. The parenthetical is all lower case, single-spaced, like this:
!
! BETH!
! ! ! (chews her sunglasses)!
! ! ! I think we’re onto something with !
the talking unicorn, but how can !
we get a bare-chested boy toy !
into this picture? !
!
(It’s important to note that professional screenwriters use parentheticals
very sparingly. Avoid giving actors line readings.)


!
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Below the character name or parenthetical is the dialogue itself, set in


standard upper and lower case, single-spaced. Each block of dialogue is
followed by a double space, as follows:
! !! ! ! ANNE!
! ! ! What if he’s the unicorn’s trainer?!
!
! ! ! ! ! BETH!
! ! ! Or his best friend? Maybe it’s one !
of those centaurs, you know: half !
man, half horse.
!
Transitions are used to indicate how the writer wants one scene to flow to
the next. Transitions are set flush right on the page and are preceded and
followed by a double space.
!
“CUT TO:” indicates an abrupt change of locale and is the standard transition.
However, the current preference is for shorter, less cluttered scripts, so if you
intend a standard cut from one scene to the next, the transition “CUT TO:” is
no longer required (it’s assumed). In this case, simply skip the transition and
go straight to the next scene heading.
!
Other transitions you can use where appropriate:
!
“DISSOLVE TO:” indicates one image fading out as another appears, often
indicating a passage of time.
!
“MATCH CUT TO:” ends a scene on one object and starts the next scene on
the same object or something similar, again indicating a passage of time or
suggesting an allusion between the two shot compositions.
!
“FADE OUT” is used at the end of the movie, when the frame goes black.
!
TV FORMAT
!
Teleplays share many similarities with feature scripts. The scene headings,
margins, font and type are all the same. But there are also several important
differences, which vary depending on which TV format is being discussed:
TV movie, single-camera series, or multi-camera sitcoms.
!
TV movies are usually 90-110 pages long. Of all the television formats, TV
movie scripts look the most like screenplays.
!
Single-camera series (shows that are filmed on location with one camera)
share similar formatting with features and TV movies. One-hour dramas
generally run 54-60 pages long, while half-hour comedies run 25-30 pages.


Network TV dramas are made up of four acts, with a teaser at the beginning
and a tag at the end. Half-hour single-camera series have two acts and often 


!
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include a teaser and/or tag as well. Act breaks are not used for shows that
air on pay cable channels like HBO and Showtime, which do not interrupt
their programs with commercial breaks.
!
The opening teaser is a short establishing scene about a minute in length.
After the teaser, write “ACT ONE” at the top of a new page, centered. Triple
space and then begin the scene. At the end of the act, triple space and write
“END OF ACT ONE,” centered. Start each act on a new page. After the end
of the last act, you may want to include a tag or epilogue − a brief postscript
to the episode that resolves a minor subplot.
!
TV sitcoms are usually filmed on one set using multiple cameras, and thus
are known as multi-camera comedies. Sitcoms are the most dialogue-
heavy of the TV formats, so their page count exceeds their actual running
time, averaging around 40-45 pages. And the sitcom format looks quite
different than standard screenplay format.
!
Sitcom scripts are generally comprised of a teaser, two acts and a tag. If
there’s a teaser, the heading “TEASER” appears at the top of the page,
centered. If the show employs a tag at the end, the heading “TAG” is used.
!
The comedy acts are divided into scenes. Each scene begins on a new page
and is lettered (i.e. “Scene A”, “SCENE A”, or simply “A”). On subsequent
pages, the letter appears capitalized in parentheses under the page number.
!
The first page of a sitcom begins with the series title, followed by episode
title, act number and scene letter, all centered like this:
! DUDES HANGING OUT!
!
“Rock Warriors”!
!
ACT ONE!
!
(SCENE A)!
!
Each new act begins with the act number in capital letters, centered and
underlined, followed by the scene letter. The scene starts 12 lines below that.
!
At the end of each act, there’s a double space and the transition “FADE OUT:”
followed by five spaces and “END OF ACT ONE” or “END OF ACT TWO.”
!
In sitcoms, scene headings are underlined and all of the characters appearing
in that scene are generally listed in parentheses directly under the scene
heading, as follows:
! ! INT. SCOTT’S APARTMENT – NIGHT!
! (Scott, Andrew, Phil, Gillian)!
!

!
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Sitcom description is set in all capital letters:


! ! SCOTT PLAYS GUITAR HERO. ANDREW CHEERS HIM ON.!
!
Sound cues are separated from description and underlined:
! ! PHONE: RINGS!
!
Camera direction is also underlined:
! ! SCOTT PICKS UP THE PHONE. AFTER A BEAT, HE LOOKS LEFT.!
! THE CAMERA PULLS OUT TO REVEAL GILLIAN’S FACE AT THE !
! FIRE ESCAPE WINDOW, PHONE TO EAR. SCOTT WAVES HER IN.!
!
Sitcoms have fewer location changes than other formats; therefore, all
character movements in and out of a scene are underlined:
! ! GILLIAN ENTERS AND SLINKS OVER TO THE COUCH. !
!
While sitcom description is single-spaced, the dialogue is double-spaced.
Parenthetical directions are embedded in the dialogue in capital letters,
like this:
!
SCOTT!
!
! ! ! Whoa, she’s finally made it!
!
back! (TO GILLIAN) Where have you!
! !
! ! been all day, woman?!

Transitions are underlined:



FADE OUT!
!
Different shows use slightly different variations of this format, depending
upon the preferences of the show runner. So if you’re writing a spec for an
existing series, make sure you get a copy of one of the scripts for that show
and mimic the format actually used. If you’re writing an original pilot, study
scripts from shows of a similar genre and style to get a feel for how they look.

Some tips on how to deliver a professional presentation…
!
To make your job easier, use the professional screenwriting software Final
Draft, which is available for both Macs and PCs. This software is very helpful
because it automatically does most of the work of formatting your script for
you, so you can concentrate on developing your story and characters.
!
If you can’t afford software right now, there’s plenty of information about
script formatting available online, and there are numerous books on the
!
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subject. The Hollywood Standard: The Complete and Authoritative


Guide to Script Format and Style by Christopher Riley is an incredibly
comprehensive guidebook and covers both television and feature formatting,
as does David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible. Elements of Style for
Screenwriters by Paul Argentini is a useful glossary and guide for feature
writers, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and The Chicago
Manual of Style are very helpful additions to any writer’s library, as well.
!
Perhaps most importantly, one of the best ways to learn how to write a great
screenplay is to read scripts by professional, produced writers. You can
access copies of produced screenplays and teleplays free of charge at
websites like simplyscripts.com and imsdb.com.


Please note that most of these published screenplays are shooting scripts, 

not spec scripts, and they include things like scene numbers and camera
directions, which you should not use in your spec. However, in ever other way
it is extremely valuable to study these scripts. Just as many visual artists
begin their careers by studying and emulating a favorite master, you too can
hone your presentation by studying and emulating your screenwriting heroes.
Every aspiring screenwriter should be an avid reader of the great works of
cinema and television. Reading good scripts will not only have the effect of
perfecting your formatting, but will help you improve every other aspect of
your writing, as well. – AH

!
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The Insiders’ Guide to Screenwriting Page !20
!
!
!
!
!
!
!

About the Author…
!
Alison Haskovec is the Senior Vice President of Development and Production
at Silvertongue Films, a production company that specializes in live action
family movies. Silvertongue’s credits include Mortal Engines for Universal,
Clifford the Red Dog for Paramount, and His Dark Materials for the BBC.
Alison began her career at Team Todd/Dreamworks and Radar Pictures, then
moved on to oversee development at Intermedia Films. She has also served
as a consultant at Scott Free Television and Echo Lake Productions. She is a 

graduate of Harvard University.


!
!
!
!

!
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!
!
!
STRUCTURE
!
by Michael Lee
!
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
− The Wizard, The Wizard of Oz (1939)
!
!
INT. OFFICE OF A MAJOR PRODUCTION COMPANY – NIGHT!
!
A PRODUCER (40’s, looks 30, tan and well dressed)!
converses with his ASSISTANT (20’s, looks 40, pale,!
haggard, in dirty t-shirt and jeans). !
!
PRODUCER!
How’s that stuffed animal neo-noir !
script I gave you?!
!
ASSISTANT!
The guy can write, but there’s a !
problem in the first act.!
!
PRODUCER!
What’s the inciting incident?!
!
ASSISTANT!
It’s the jewelry store robbery, but !
that doesn’t happen until page 40.!
!
PRODUCER!
Hmmm... Writer has problems with !
structure.!
!
(This conversation actually took place. Only the details were changed.)
!
So you have a great idea for a movie… Where do you begin? What’s the first
step? How do you turn that great idea into a completed feature script that
someone will want to produce?
!
I found the answer to that question years ago when I stumbled upon The
Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field. By the time I was done reading
that book, my confusion was replaced with enthusiasm. What before had
been an almost mystical process seemed suddenly reduced to child’s play.
Anybody could write a screenplay!
!
!
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It would take a while longer before I would learn the difference between just
writing a screenplay and writing a good one. But Syd Field’s book gave me
my start. And what was the most vital information contained in this tome?

!
Structure.

!!
Why is structure so important?
!
Simply put, structure is the blueprint for the construction of your story.
Think of a screenplay as a building. It has an interconnected foundation,
walls, ceilings and roof. You wouldn’t dream of constructing a house without
a set of plans, would you? Your walls might fall down and your roof might
collapse. Screenplay structure is a way of planning your story so that when
it comes time for the actual build, the entire edifice doesn’t collapse into a
pile of unconnected ideas and half-realized intentions.
!
I know, the idea of planning a story this way may not jibe with your image of
yourself as a writer. Some people believe writers should be monk-like artists
who stare at their computer screens until inspiration strikes and then put
down whatever mad thoughts jump into their heads. Author Stephen King
famously said that he simply writes until he finds “the hole in the page.”
!
What King doesn’t mention in that particular quotation is that narrative
structure is already ingrained into his thinking. In his book On Writing,
King makes it clear that he never needed diagrams or outlines because he
absorbed the rules of narrative intuitively through doing a lot of reading.
That’s like learning to play the piano by ear − simply by listening to others
play. One person in a million is capable of that. So forget what works for
Stephen King. You’re not Stephen King and neither am I. If we were, we’d
each have five bestsellers and ten movie scripts in production by now.

So how do you design a fundamentally sound blueprint for your story?


!
The most important thing Syd Field discovered is that all “traditional narrative”
screenplays share a common DNA regardless of genre. Westerns, Action,
Horror, Romance, Comedy and Musicals all follow the same basic plan: the
famed Three Act Structure (cue the awe-inspiring chorus).
!
I’m not going to argue whether or not a screenplay can be effectively
structured in other ways. It doesn’t matter. When people in Hollywood talk
screenplay structure, they mean Three Act Structure. You find it even in
shorter works. I recently applied Three Act Structure to a Spongebob
Squarepants cartoon and it fit like a glove.
!
The Three Act Structure provides the basis for your blueprint. You dream up
all the key scenes and fit them together using a diagram like the one below.
Sometimes people use flashcards to write down individual scenes and then
try to arrange them on the diagram, shuffling and reorganizing until the right
things happen at the right times.
!
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The whole goal is to organize your story so that it has a solid foundation in
the beginning and a clear rising action throughout. The story picks up
momentum as increasingly dramatic things happen to test your protagonist’s
strength, determination and resourcefulness.


Here’s a diagram illustrating Syd Field’s trusty Three Act Structure:
!
Inciting Incident Plot Point #1 Midpoint Plot Point #2 Climax
! ______|____________|________________|________________|____________|______

Act I Act II Act III


(20-30 pages) (50-60 pages) (20-30 pages)


!
ACT I
!
The beginning of your movie is devoted to setting everything up. In the
first 20-30 pages, your leads and any important supporting characters are
introduced. Your premise is established and we are provided with any
exposition necessary to understand the story. We also get the Inciting
Incident that sets the main plotline in motion. Oh, and you also have to
establish your tale’s primary theme. That’s a whole lot to get done, isn’t it?
!
The good news is that Act I, much like puberty, only lasts so long. With so
much to do, the first few pages go by pretty quickly. Think of these pages
as the opening moves in chess. Sure you could get fancy and bring out the
big pieces, like the Queen, right away. But winning at chess is about thinking
several moves ahead and carrying out a patient strategy, step by step.
Similarly, Act I should set up the big moves to come.
!
INCITING INCIDENT
!
While Act I is largely concerned with character introductions and laying the
groundwork for your story, it’s essential that the overall plot starts moving
forward from the very beginning. The hero can’t just hang around getting
to know everybody. The scene that starts your hero’s quest should occur
in Act I, and by page 10 or 15 at the very latest.
!
Many beginners make the mistake of saving the inciting incident until 

Plot Point #1, somewhere around page 25 or 30. But if you look at the
vast majority of movies today, you will see that we know what the protagonist
wants − and what he or she has to do to get it − within the first 10 minutes.
As audiences grow more sophisticated (and more impatient), the pace of
cinematic storytelling gets faster every year.
!
Example: The moment when Neo receives the FedEx package from
Morpheus in The Matrix.
!
!
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PLOT POINT #1
!
This is the spot where Act I ends and Act II begins. This is the end of the
beginning. No more hellos or introductions. Your plot’s foundation is laid and
now it’s time to build in earnest. Plot Point 1 is a major event that spins the
story in a new direction. Often something dramatic has occurred to disrupt
the protagonist’s plans. The protagonist was in active pursuit of his or her
goals and moving purposefully in one direction for much of Act I; then
something unexpected happens that forces our hero to change course.
!
Example: Dr. Kimble sets out to find the One-Armed Man in The Fugitive.
!
ACT II
!
This is the middle half of your script. Your story’s main conflict resides here.
Syd Field called this section “Confrontation,” Blake Snyder called it “Fun and
Games” and, either way, that’s exactly what it is. Here’s where you take the
premise and run with it. Act I should not be boring by any stretch of the
imagination, but Act II must find a higher gear. In Act I, your hero and villain
trade jabs; after Plot Point #1, they exchange body blows.
!
MIDPOINT
!
Act II is so big that Syd Field realized it had to be broken into two sections.
The spot where the first half of Act II breaks into the second half is called
the Midpoint.
!
Even the best musician can’t keep hitting the same note over and over again.
If you don’t change tempo at regular intervals, the audience stops toe-tapping
and starts checking their watches. So, after 30 or so pages of one kind of
conflict, your plot needs a new wrinkle. For this reason, there is usually a
major revelation at the Midpoint.
!
Often there is some pressing question or mystery hanging over the script’s
first 60 pages. The characters and audience are operating in a fog of the
unknown. At the Midpoint, at least one layer of that fog is cleared − revealing
a new layer of fog. This is the pressing question or mystery that will sustain
our interest and drive the action through the second half of Act II.
!
Example: The “Sicilian speech” in True Romance.
!
The midpoint scene raises the dramatic stakes and underscores how much
trouble our hero is really in. Then, in another 30 pages or so we reach…
!
PLOT POINT #2

This is where Act II ends and Act III begins. Here the protagonist is generally
brought to his or her lowest point. All seems lost. Our hopes are dashed as 

! !
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our hero absorbs a shocking defeat or faces seemingly insurmountable odds.


Structurally, we’re in the home stretch now. Our hero is in a real fix, with only
30 pages or less to resolve it!
!
Example: In Rocky, boxer Rocky Balboa realizes he has no shot of winning
his fight against the champion, Apollo Creed.
!
ACT III
!
The final 20-30 pages of your script. The climax and resolution of your story.
After bringing the protagonist to a low point, the remainder of the script
dramatizes how he or she digs deep, fights back and achieves victory (or
defeat, if you’re going for tragedy or a hard life lesson).
!
CLIMAX
!
The capper, the crescendo, the grand finale. It’s Luke Skywalker blowing up
the Death Star. It’s the final reversal of fortune, where your protagonist
triumphs over formidable adversaries and overcomes seemingly
insurmountable obstacles.
!
Throughout Act III, you say goodbye to your characters and wrap up your
story’s loose ends. All questions big and small that were raised in Act I must
be resolved by the time the credits roll. It all has to fit together in one nice
little package. That’s the reason structure is so important. Used correctly, it
produces a powerful, propulsive narrative with a deeply satisfying conclusion.
!
How do you evaluate a script’s structure?
!
Along with presentation, structure is one of the easiest elements to evaluate.
Why? Because it’s concrete. It’s self-evident. It’s either there or it’s not.
!
As I read a script, I look for the key moments and turning points. Is there a
strong inciting incident? When does it occur? Am I still wondering on page
15 when the story is really going to get started?
!
Judging structure is easy because it’s about placement and position inside
the script. Where does the writer introduce new characters? What happens
halfway through the script? Is it significant? Does it change the direction
of the narrative? Is the hero at his lowest point at the beginning of the final
20 or 30 pages? Are major characters being introduced after page 30?
!
It’s like the old saying, “A place for everything and everything in its place.”
!
Some tips on how to build a solid structure…
!
Start with your logline or concept. Write it out on a sheet of paper and
prepare a blank structure diagram beneath it. Here’s where you begin to
turn that fabulous logline into a full-fledged story. A good logline will tell
!
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you where to start and who and what you need to establish in Act I, whether
it’s a cop who’s guilt-ridden over the death of his partner or a nerdy teenager
with a golden singing voice.
!
Now you need to think about how you’re going to end your script. Does the
movie climax in a big shootout? A triumphant school musical number? Once
you know where and how the hero triumphs (or fails) in the end, you can then
work backwards to the Third Act break. If the hero ultimately succeeds, ask
yourself what is the furthest point possible from that moment of triumph.
What would it take to make the prospect of victory seem impossible?
!
Keep working backwards through the major moments of your story to fill in
the remaining Plot Points on your structural diagram. What brought the hero
to this low point? How did he get there? It’s all about connecting the dots.
Cause and effect.
!
Once you have your structural diagram rock solid, create index cards for your
movie. List each scene of your story on a card and place the cards in order,
logically from point to point. You’re building your plot here. You’re starting to
develop your characters. Move scenes around as necessary. Fill in the blanks
as you find them. It’s often helpful to start at the end and work backwards
through your scenes until you’re at the very beginning of your story.
!
Once you’ve created all your index cards, the scenes are all in place and the
logical progression of your story is working, then it’s time to put something
down on paper. No, it’s not time to start writing the script. It’s time to write
your treatment.
!
A treatment is a summary of your story. Using your diagram and index cards
as a guide, write what happens. Start small. At first your treatment may be
only a couple of pages long, hitting only the key points. There is no universal
template for a treatment, but it should include all the important structural
elements: Inciting Incident, Plot Point #1, Midpoint, Plot Point #2 and Climax.
You don’t need every scene or potential scene spelled out, but make sure you
include enough information to connect each of the major beats listed above.
In other words, your treatment should flow smoothly from beginning to end,
without obvious gaps.
!
Just keep adding dramatic moments, character information and description
until the story flows and makes sense. In fact, some professional writers
continue adding description, actions and bits of dialogue until the treatment
evolves into a first draft of the actual script. You should be able to see from
your treatment whether the important scenes are really popping. The Inciting
Incident, Plot Points, Midpoint and Climax are the dramatic peaks of your
script, so your most exciting, pivotal scenes should serve those key functions.
!
Once your treatment is rock solid, then and only then is it time to start writing
the script. But the good news is, by this point you’ll know your story and
characters so well, writing the script will be easy and fun! Plus, you can

!
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begin this part of the writing process knowing that you’re sure to come out
!!
the other end with a strong, well-structured screenplay.

GOING BEYOND THREE ACT STRUCTURE


!
After you’ve written a few screenplays and can recite Three Act Structure in
your sleep, what next? Well, you could have a very successful screenwriting
career with only Syd Field as your guide. But with structure, as with most
things in life, there are several distinctly different schools of thought, and
maybe one of the others will suit you better.
!
If the constraints of Three Act Structure are getting you down, check out
Robert McKee’s Story. McKee looks at structure in a looser manner.
According to him, a screenplay can have three, four, five or even more acts.
McKee’s book is extremely popular, his seminars are widely attended, and
his teachings are highly respected among industry professionals.
!
On the other side of the equation, there are teachers like Blake Snyder who,
in his book Save the Cat, proposed an even tighter structural paradigm.
Snyder created a 15-point beat sheet. With this beat sheet, you plot out
nearly every single moment of your movie, from the first shot of your
protagonist to the film’s final image. Beat sheets often produce excellent
results, and the writers who use them swear by them.
!
Another structural model is the sequencing method outlined by Chris Soth in
Million Dollar Screenwriting and Paul Gulino in Screenwriting: The
Sequence Approach. This method breaks a script down into eight 10-15
page sequences or “mini movies.” Many screenwriters love this approach to
structuring their scripts. They feel that focusing on small, bite-sized pieces of
the story makes the whole structuring process much easier and more doable.
!
Over time, I suggest that you test all these approaches. With experience,
you’ll learn what works best for you. Most importantly, you’ll start to view
scripts and movies with an architect’s eye.

Let me leave you with a little exercise…


!
The next time you watch a successful movie by a great screenwriter, try
to pick out the components of Three Act Structure we’ve discussed here.
Regardless of genre, tone, or subject matter, you’ll quickly begin to see
how the scenes work together to create that structure, and how seamlessly
the finished film plays, carrying the audience smoothly and (seemingly)
effortlessly from beginning to end.

Best of all, doing this exercise will allow you to get inside the mind of a
William Goldman or Lawrence Kasdan, masters of the medium. There you
may well discover the insights you need to craft your own classic. – ML
!
!
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!!
!
!
!
!
!
!
About the Author…
!
Michael Lee has served as a script reader for The Vine Entertainment, and 

as Creative Executive for the literary management firm AEI, where he helped
develop the novels Demon Keeper by Royce Buckingham, Una Vida by
Nicholas Bazen and Fire with Fire, by Allan Kahane. Mike currently works as a
freelance script consultant and writer, and he frequently contributes articles on
entertainment and writing to online publications. You can read his ongoing
series on the Super Villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at ScriptMag.com.

!
!

!
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!

!
!
PLOT
!
by Nick Sita
!
“Houston, we have a problem.”
− Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 (1995)
!
!
Many people confuse the terms “plot” and “story” or use the two words
interchangeably. From my perspective, it helps to think of “story” in the
traditional sense − a piece of fiction that narrates a chain of events − while
“plot” is a technical way to organize story elements to make them workable in
the screenplay form.
!
Why is plot so important?
!
Plot is the engine that drives your screenplay forward. It provides the
framework and context for your characters as they struggle, connect, grow
and evolve. In order to have a successful screenplay, you need a plot that’s
lucid and engaging from start to finish.
!
Perhaps the most basic, “top level” way to discuss plot is using the concept of
equilibrium:
!
1) Most stories begin with equilibrium. This doesn’t necessarily mean peace or
something positive – we’re looking for some form of stability or stasis. The
equilibrium at the beginning of Mad Max: Fury Road is the dictatorial,
patriarchal society run by Immortan Joe, which regulates everything from
reproduction to access to water. Equilibrium is established in Act I. 


2) The next step is to upset the equilibrium. In Fury Road, this moment
comes when Furiosa (Charlize Theron) deviates from her planned route and is
revealed to have absconded with Immortan Joe’s brides. Her actions threaten
to dismantle the entire system. Equilibrium is upset near the end of Act I.
!
3) What follows is a journey towards a new equilibrium. In Fury Road,
Furiosa and the brides search for a new home in the “Green Place.” When
that turns out to be a fantasy, the only remaining option is to return to Joe’s
citadel and carve out a new form of egalitarian, matriarchal government. This
journey unfolds over the course of Act II, with the climax occurring in Act III.
!
4) Finally, we end on that newly won equilibrium. In the denouement of Fury
Road, we see Furiosa and the brides hailed as leaders and water flowing
freely to the parched populace. This depiction of a new equilibrium is
presented in a film’s final scene or sequence.
!
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Since screen stories usually unfold in three acts, let’s look at the vital
components of each act.
!
Act I sets up your protagonist’s central problem and sets into motion the plot
elements that will carry us through the rest of your story. The act should
establish an objective to pursue and hint at the beginnings of a plan to reach
that objective.
!
Think of the opening sequence of Sicario, where an FBI hostage rescue team
enters a home in Arizona to find no living hostages, but scores of murdered
cartel victims buried in the walls. The level of violence is shocking and serves
to galvanize the protagonist’s goal to bring the killers to justice. The journey
of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is set into motion in the after-action meeting,
when she is recruited into a shadowy anti-cartel operation led by the CIA.
!
Act II should depict your protagonist or protagonists taking on a series of
challenges while on a literal or metaphorical journey, the objectives of which
were established in Act I. Your second act is a story unto itself and is all
about dramatic conflict. You’ve introduced your protagonist and antagonist,
established the bones of contention between them and established a goal for
your protagonist to pursue. Now it’s time to show the protagonist working
towards his or her goal while facing opposition every step of the way. This
is all the “hero’s journey” stuff you’ve likely read about elsewhere. 

!
Mad Max: Fury Road is a fine example of the hero’s journey in screen
storytelling. In this case, we’ve got two protagonists – Max and Furiosa –
risking everything to spirit Immortan Joe’s “brides” to the “Green Place” of
Furiosa’s childhood memories. The roadblocks and reversals they face along
the way are examples of using conflict to build tension and hold an audience’s
interest. Conflict is a vital aspect of your story’s “engine.”
!
You’ll also want to introduce one or two subplots in Act II. While your primary
plotline should focus on the protagonist’s pursuit of his or her goals, the
subplots generally serve to advance your themes.
!
Consider Michael Mann’s crime-thriller masterpiece Heat. While the plot
carries the action, the subplots effectively speak to the isolation of the two
characters and their failings when it comes to interacting with “normal”
people. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) struggles to save his crumbling marriage
while Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) makes fumbling attempts at romance
with a woman ignorant of his criminal background.
!
Think of the subplot in Sicario, where Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez), a small
town Mexican cop – a dedicated family man by all accounts – serves as a drug
mule for the cartel. His life and death speak to the bleakness of existence
along the U.S./Mexican border in an age of increasing cartel violence. No one
is immune to its corrupting influence. To paraphrase Alejandro (Benicio Del
Toro), this is a time for “wolves,” not sheep.
!
!
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Your second act should end with a major plot point that backs the main
character into a corner and forces him or her to take drastic, decisive action.
Look at the decision McCauley is faced with at the end of the second act of
Heat. He knows the cops are on to him. Hanna tells him as much, but also
gives him an out. He must decide between walking away clean or making one
final score and leaving the life with a hefty sack of cash.
!
While it might not be the best course in life, in a screenplay it’s almost always
preferable for your protagonist to select the more dangerous or difficult path.
De Niro’s character in Heat decides to take on that final job no matter the
risks. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the team of outer-space outlaws has the
option to flee but instead decides to take on Ronan, which practically
guarantees their deaths.
!
Act III contains your climax – the biggest scene or sequence in your script
and the moment you’ve been building towards all along. This sequence must
finally offer up the opportunity for your protagonist(s) to reach their goal(s).
It’s Max and Furiosa’s decision to capture Joe’s citadel rather than living life on
the run. It’s the Guardians’ final battle against Ronan to protect planet Xandar
in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s the decisive battle in the shell-pocked
town at the conclusion of Saving Private Ryan.
!
Your climax should wrap up your plot’s loose ends and resolve the story as
a whole. As cinema is a visual medium, the most successful climaxes opt
for dynamic, powerful action and imagery over dialogue. Disarming a bomb,
hand-to-hand combat with a nemesis, competing in a championship game
and similarly decisive confrontations are the sort of climactic sequences that
tend to satisfy an audience.
!
Once the climax has concluded your protagonist’s journey and resolved the
central struggle, it’s time to show your characters enjoying the fruits of their
labors in a moment of resolution. After holding their collective breath for two
hours, your audience needs a chance to relax and share a victorious moment
with your heroes, or in a tragic ending, a bittersweet final reflection after the
hero’s death or defeat.
!
Picture Winthorpe and Billy Ray toasting on the tropical beach at the end of
Trading Places. Think of Furiosa and the surviving brides ascendant as Max
walks off into the sunset in Fury Road – a classic bit of imagery borrowed
from the Hollywood Westerns of John Ford. Remember the battered,
bloodied, yet victorious assassin Wick picking up a dog from the pound at
the end of John Wick.
!
How do you evaluate a script’s plot?
!
Whether I evaluate a script for the PAGE Awards, a production company,
TV network or studio, plot is always one of the most important factors in my
assessment, especially in a genre script or something that is meant to be
popular, “popcorn” entertainment.
!
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In assessing a script’s plot, I ask myself the following questions:


!
1) Are the premise and central conflict clearly defined?
!
Many scripts written by inexperienced screenwriters lack a clearly defined
premise and a powerful central conflict to drive the plot forward.
!
2) Are the protagonist’s goals and needs clear?
!
Is it clear who the main characters are? What about the motivations that
drive them to take action in pursuit of their goals? How are these wants and
needs directly connected to the protagonist’s journey?
!
3) Are the stakes high enough to engage and sustain the interest of
an audience?
!
It’s important to set the stakes as high as possible – life or death, love or
loneliness, wealth or poverty – in order to get the audience emotionally
invested in your protagonist’s journey.
!
4) Is there a believable, causal relationship between the characters
and their actions?
!
Are your characters’ behaviors consistent with their natures and backstories? 

Do they react to stimuli in a logical, relatable human fashion? If a character
is described as a brilliant investigator, do his actions live up to the hype over
the course of the story? If a character is described as a daredevil, does he or
she act that way?
!
5) Do tension and conflict build as the plot progresses?
!
Tension and conflict – the roadblocks placed in front of the protagonist – are
the essence of an engaging story. A story where everything goes well for
the protagonist or good things come too easily for him makes for a dull read.
Make things hard on your hero. A hard-fought victory is a satisfying one.
!
6) Does the story evoke an emotional response?
!
Can we relate to your characters and the world they inhabit? Is their struggle
something we can understand and empathize with? Do we root for their
success?
!
7) Will the audience be satisfied by the story’s conclusion?
!
Does your hero’s journey culminate in a resolution that feels appropriate,
given the scope of your script? Or does the ending feel too pat, unconvincing,
unearned or unjustified? Does it leave the audience feeling cheated?
Bewildered? Unfulfilled? 


!
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Some tips on how to craft a strong plot…
!
Here are some of the key aspects of good plotting, along with some
techniques to craft a strong, compelling plot.
!
PREMISE
!
While techniques for coming up with a rock ‘em sock ‘em premise were
covered in a previous chapter, I can’t stress enough how closely your plot 

is tied to its premise – a weak premise almost guarantees an iffy plot.
!
Your premise must contain the potential to tell a story that will keep an
audience on the hook over the course of two hours. The dramatic stakes
must be very high. Think in terms of huge obstacles and strong conflicts.
!
In Sicario, a young, naïve FBI agent finds herself embroiled in a covert and
likely illegal assassination plot against a Mexican cartel boss. In Saving
Private Ryan, a team of Army Rangers is sent on a risky mission behind
enemy lines to rescue a young soldier. In John Wick, a retired assassin
embarks on a vendetta against the Russian mob after his dog is killed and
his prized muscle car is stolen.
!
A strong premise is the vital cornerstone that holds our attention and
generates dramatic situations throughout the script. If there isn’t enough
juice in your premise, your plot is doomed to wander or jump the rails before
it ever reaches Act III.
!
ROADBLOCKS & OBSTACLES
!
Giving your protagonist strong roadblocks, challenges and obstacles to
overcome will keep your audience guessing and keep viewers fully invested
in your story and characters.
!
Think of the sequence in Guardians of the Galaxy where the protagonists
must escape a futuristic maximum-security prison in order to continue the
pursuit of their goal.
!
In Sicario, recall the extremely tense sequence where the protagonist, her
mysterious handlers, and a team of Delta operators encounter traffic – and
two carloads of cartel assassins — as they attempt to escort a high-value
criminal back to the U.S. for questioning.
!
CATALYSTS
!
Catalysts — also known as turning points — are vitally important to your plot
and are the very essence of big-screen entertainment. These are moments
when something unexpected and dramatic changes everything and drives the
plot in a new direction. Catalysts can be generated by a shocking revelation,
!
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a disruptive new character added to the mix, a win that proves the hero has
what it takes, or a crushing defeat that causes the protagonist to rethink his
or her direction and actions. Your Inciting Incident, Plot Point #1, Midpoint,
Plot Point #2 and Climax should all be strong catalysts.
!
Let’s look at the inciting incident in John Wick. The film’s retired-assassin
protagonist (Keanu Reeves) is grappling with the recent death of his wife
when he adopts a puppy and finally begins to emerge from his depression by
bonding with the lovable pooch. This positive progress comes to a tragic halt
when masked thugs beat him bloody and kill his dog in the process of stealing
his prized muscle car. As a result of this fateful incident, Wick returns to the
life of violence he left behind.
!
In Sicario, Kate is sure she’s going to be dressed down in the wake of a
botched hostage-rescue effort, but instead is recruited into a shadowy multi-
agency task force with mysterious goals.
!
In Mad Max: Fury Road, Max (Tom Hardy) is prepared to go his own way
after literally breaking his chains, but changes his mind when he learns that
Furiosa is risking her life to transport the group of enslaved brides – one of
whom is pregnant – to safety, far from the clutches of Immortan Joe.
!
These catalyzing moments — and the unexpected twists and turns they
produce — keep audience members glued to their seats.
!
CAUSALITY
!
Causality is the relationship between an action (cause) and a subsequent
reaction (effect). In order to have maximum impact and story continuity,
every action should have an equal/opposite reaction.
!
When constructing your plot, it’s important that every effect or reaction has 

a clear cause. Conversely, decisive action and causal events in your story
should elicit an appropriate reaction or effect. The relationship between cause
and effect is vital in terms of making your characters’ behavior logical and
believable, and also helps create a sense of forward momentum.

!
Consider an early sequence in Mad Max: Fury Road. Furiosa has diverged
from her path to retrieve gas from outside the citadel, raising concerns among
her superiors. It’s soon revealed that she has taken Immortan Joe’s slave
brides with her. This action of hers is followed by a logical reaction: Joe
musters an army to go after her and retrieve the brides. What follows are
scenes and sequences that are linked in a “causal chain,” a series of actions
and reactions that raise the stakes and build towards the film’s climax.
!
BACKSTORY
!
Backstory is information about a character’s past that helps an audience
understand the character and understand what’s at stake over the course
!
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of the character’s journey. Planting unresolved issues (or a dark past) via
backstory is a great way to build tension and create a need for resolution in
your climax.
!
Consider the titular character in John Wick. In the wake of the inciting
incident – the theft of Wick’s car and the killing of his dog – we learn that the
protagonist is a retired assassin and perhaps the most talented killer New York
City’s underworld has ever seen. Wick’s backstory sets the stage for an ultra-
violent revenge tale.
!
Mad Max: Fury Road opens with narration from Max, wherein he informs
the audience that people were counting on him and he let them down. Based
on the accompanying imagery, we assume those people died as a result of
Max’s inaction. This choice morsel of backstory effectively sets up Max’s
journey in the film. Over the course of Act II, he transitions from a loner 

to someone willing to risk his life so that others may be free.
!
In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe
Saldana) trade backstories as a means of bonding. Peter says his Walkman is
the only remaining connection he has to his mother, thus humanizing him in
the face of a would-be paramour. Gamora, softened by Peter’s personal
revelation, tells the story of how Thanos killed her family and turned her into
a living weapon.

When it comes to crafting a believable and naturalistic plot, it’s important to


seed backstory throughout your script rather than front-loading it in Act I 

or saving it all for the end. Not only does a measured approach prevent
exposition overload, which no reader or viewer appreciates, it also affords
you the opportunity to create powerful dramatic reveals.
!
Think of the now famous and shocking reveal in Chinatown, where Evelyn
Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) reveals that the missing girl is both her daughter
and her sister. This scene not only makes our collective skin crawl, it also
accentuates the depravity of the film’s central villain, played by John Huston,
and speaks to themes of the inherent dishonesty of authority figures and the
helplessness of average people in the face of institutionalized evil.
!
EXPOSITION
!
While backstory is critical when it comes to understanding character
motivations, exposition is vital information your audience needs to understand
the world of your movie, its plot and the events contained within it.
!
Difficulty in conveying exposition arises when the information would already
be known by the characters and thus would not naturally be repeated in
dialogue. Scenes where characters spoon-feed exposition to the audience
feel artificial and contrived. Try to avoid clunky, exposition-heavy dialogue
by interspersing tidbits of critical information throughout your script and
conveying exposition primarily through action and images.
! !
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Another technique for sneaking in exposition is to include it in “briefing


scenes.” Picture scenes where a senior FBI agent briefs his or her team about
the methods of a serial killer, scenes where news reporters or anchors appear
on television in the background, or scenes where a teacher or mentor figure
conveys info to a class or to a “newbie” character.
!
A fine example of pro-level exposition can be found in Fury Road. When
Max’s blood type is mentioned in passing in Act I, astute viewers will realize
this information will likely be important later in the film. Sure enough, Max
is able to give Furiosa a life-saving transfusion amidst the masterfully violent
chaos of the film’s climax.
!
For an example of what not to do, consider the ending of Alfred Hitchcock’s
classic Psycho. The tension and terror Hitchcock built up over the course of
this chilling story are undermined by a veritable exposition-a-palooza in the
film’s denouement, where a doctor spells out exactly what was wrong with
Norman Bates.
!
A more modern example of what to avoid can be found in John Wick, where
Viggo’s numerous speeches about the dangers posed by Wick become
repetitive, corny, and wholly unnecessary. We don’t need to hear him tell us
that Wick is a badass killer when we can see it, repeatedly, with our own eyes.
!
TENSION & DRAMATIC STAKES
!
A sense of escalating tension is vitally important when it comes to holding
your audience’s interest. How do you escalate tension? By upping the
dramatic stakes.
!
In Fury Road, the reveal that the “Green Place” no longer exists puts the
protagonists in a terrible yet highly dramatic position. They’re faced with
two choices: either flee into the great unknown and likely die of thirst or
starvation, or turn around and take the fight to Immortan Joe and his army.
!
In David Ayer’s World War II film Fury, a harrowing battle with a superior
German Tiger tank results in Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) and his team
realizing that their Sherman tank is the only one left to fend off an enemy
advance and protect the Allied Army. With their radio destroyed and the tank
and crew battered and bruised, our protagonists are forced into a seemingly
hopeless battle against insurmountable odds. Tension is cranked up even
further when the tank hits a land mine, making maneuvering impossible.
!
This sets the stage for a decisive, violent climax, as the dramatic stakes are
pushed to the limit.
!
DRAMATIC IRONY
!
This device, a writer’s best friend, engages the audience on a visceral level.
Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters do
!
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not. It draws the audience into the world of the movie, creating the illusion
that we’re personally involved in the story.
!
You can use dramatic irony to connect the audience to your characters on
an emotional level and to invoke empathic reactions such as laughter, anger,
pity or fear. In countless horror films and thrillers, for example, when the
audience knows the killer is in the next room but the character (usually the
next victim) does not, the viewer instinctively feels afraid for the unwitting
victim and yearns to warn him or her about the looming danger.
!
A well-constructed plot benefits your script in many other ways, as well. The
bigger your story’s obstacles and the greater the tension, the faster and more
exciting the pace of your movie will be. The more intense the dramatic stakes
and the more interesting your characters’ backstories are, the more we’ll care
about your characters.
!
As you continue to read through these chapters, you’ll find many of the same
points repeated and reiterated in different ways. That’s because all aspects 

of screenwriting are ultimately interwoven and interrelated. Structure affects
plot, plot affects characters, characters affect dialogue, dialogue affects
pacing, and so on. Of course, premise affects everything. Begin with a
compelling, conflict-laden premise and you’ll find it much easier to craft a
compelling plot. – NS
!
!
!
!

!
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!!
!
!
!
!
!
!
About the Author…
!
Nick Sita started his professional life as a journalist and television producer
in New York City. After moving to Los Angeles with a feature script, he found
work in story departments at Showtime, Fox TV Studios, and NBC/Universal,
where he has covered features, episodics, manuscripts and books. He loves
working with writers and gravitates towards genre scripts, particularly action,
sci-fi, horror, comedy and crime stories.
!
!

!
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!
!

!
PACING
!
by Helen Truong
!
“Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy.”
− Han Solo, Star Wars (1977)
!
!
Pacing is one of the most intangible elements of a screenplay. In general
terms, pacing is all about the speed and flow of a script, but what makes
it particularly difficult to quantify is that it’s inextricably tied to every other
element of a screenplay: structure, plot, character development, dialogue,
dramatic stakes, and the parceling out of exposition and information.
!
Why is pacing so important?
!
Film is a temporal medium − meaning that it’s experienced over a specific
period of time. In a well-paced movie, the story is always being driven
forward toward the Act III climax, but without ever sacrificing character
development or subplots. Strong pacing keeps the audience glued to their
seats. It plays on the audience’s hopes and fears, giving both due time at
the right moments in the story. And regardless of the actual length of a
movie, appropriate pacing will make viewers feel like they lose track of time
as they watch the story unfold.
!
One of the great misconceptions in this business is that pacing can be “fixed”
by simply cutting the script.
!
But think about it…. Have you ever watched a movie that was nearly three
hours long, yet time seemed to fly by because the characters were so
engaging and the story so exciting, dramatic or fun? A movie that was
so good, even then you didn’t want it to end? Conversely, have you ever
watched a 90-minute movie that felt like it dragged on forever?
!
While it’s true that screenwriting is a ruthlessly economical medium, and
an inflated page count is often an indicator of pacing issues, problems with
a script’s pace tend to be more complex than simply a question of overall
length. Problems in pacing are almost always a symptom of fundamental
issues in other areas of the screenplay.
!
PACING AND STRUCTURE
!
Poor structure often causes pacing problems. In a well-structured screenplay,
the major act breaks provide clear and distinct plot turns that elevate the
stakes and ratchet up the pace.
!
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The first act break should introduce a twist and a new direction for the story.
The midpoint should be a point of no return, where the stakes escalate and
the protagonist must take action that will have significant consequences in
what is to come. Generally, the second act break should find the protagonist
at his or her lowest point, as defeat seems imminent, while the third act
culminates in a climax that resolves the story’s key dramatic questions. If any
of these key story turns are ineffective or nonexistent, the movie will start to
feel like it’s meandering aimlessly or simply treading water.
!
One example of how pacing is adversely affected by poor structure occurs
within The Matrix trilogy. The first Matrix had a flawless three-act structure
that closely followed the classic hero myth. But the second two films were
diminished by convoluted structures, riddled with far too many subplots and
unclear act breaks. Although all three movies featured the same protagonist
and sci-fi world, the pacing smoothly accelerates toward the climax in the
first movie, while it lags and even stalls in long stretches of the second two
films. Here, poor structure is primarily to blame for poor pacing.
!
PACING AND PLOT
!
Another cause of pacing problems is weak plotting. Pacing flags in a movie
that has a thin or illogical plot. This is the case with many character-driven
movies, which tend to rely too heavily on internal character issues without
fully externalizing those problems through story events and decisive action.
!
On the other hand, pacing also suffers in movies with too many plot
convolutions. This is often the case with overblown action movies that don’t
provide enough time for character development or allow the character
relationships to deepen. Not enough is happening with the characters to
keep the audience engaged, while too much is happening in terms of pure
action and events. This puts the movie in constant overdrive, but does
nothing to get the audience emotionally invested in the characters. As a
result, viewers become just as bored by all the furious activity as they would
be by a movie with a lethargic pace.
!
A well-plotted story shows the key events instrumental to the major dramatic
question of the movie, which will finally be answered in the climax. Without
a strong plot engine, a script has nothing to drive the pace. Even a character-
driven movie needs a strong plot, hinging on key decisions the protagonist
must make. Without this compelling, interconnected sequence of events that
constantly brings the protagonist closer to (and farther from) his or her goal,
the momentum of the story will suffer and time will drag for the audience.
!
A good example of how strong plotting can drive the pace is The Usual
Suspects. The film carefully builds suspense through the use of a mystery,
posing the question: “Who is Keyser Soze?” The mystery builds with each
new plot twist, until the final revelation pays it all off. The story pulls us
relentlessly forward, as we’re increasingly intrigued by the mystery and
invested in the characters.
! !
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PACING AND DIALOGUE


!
A frequent cause of pacing problems, particularly among rookie screenwriters,
is over-writing − especially with regard to dialogue. In many spec scripts,
pacing issues can be directly traced to over-long stretches of dialogue or
conversations without a clear and focused purpose.
!
Good dialogue reveals character, advances plot and/or delivers information,
and ideally does all three of these things at once in a blissfully succinct
fashion. When dialogue isn’t successful in accomplishing at least one of those
goals, the pacing suffers and the movie begins to drag. Even dialogue that
does convey exposition or reveal character can slow the pace of the film if the
exposition comes too early or too late, or if the characters are speaking in
long monologues.
!
Conversely, if at the right point in the story the writer has carefully crafted
dialogue to reveal another layer of a character or to reveal two characters’
changing feelings for each other, the pace seems to accelerate, as we absorb
new information and become increasingly invested in the story.
!
For example, watch the film Jerry Maguire and you’ll see how the dialogue
always has a purpose, whether it’s to actively establish the contrast between
Jerry and the other agents he works with, to set up character arcs for Jerry,
Dorothy and Rod, or to reveal the conflicts between the characters.
!
PACING AND DRAMATIC STAKES
!
The escalation of the story’s dramatic stakes (whether physical, psychological
or emotional) also plays a large part in a movie’s pacing. Generally, if the
established stakes aren’t high enough from the beginning, the pacing of the
movie will feel sluggish. And if the stakes aren’t continually raised throughout
the course of the story, the pacing won’t have enough steam to carry the
audience into the third act climax.
!
The dramatic stakes in your story can be anything − the pursuit of love, the
potential loss of money, dignity, life or limb − but whatever the stakes are,
they must be of paramount importance to the protagonist. This helps the
audience identify with your lead and become invested in your story. In most
effective movies, the stakes evolve as the story progresses, and usually
become even more dire as the protagonist is pushed to the limit. In less
effective movies, the stakes may perhaps be “big” enough, but don’t ever
become personal to the protagonist. This prevents the story from ever truly
picking up dramatic momentum.
!
Two examples of how strong, escalating dramatic stakes help create great
pacing: What starts out as a professional opportunity for Rocky Balboa in
Rocky becomes a point of dignity and pride for our hero as the film reaches
its climax. What begins as a job in Erin Brockovich becomes a highly
! personal case for our heroine, as she grapples with life-and-death issues.
!
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How do you evaluate a script’s pacing?


!
Pacing is more of an overall “feel” rather than a concrete aspect of the script.
Yes, overly long descriptive paragraphs and repetitive beats are a clear sign
of pacing problems, as are long stretches of dialogue and excessively long
page counts.
!
However, pacing is much more subjective than that. It’s all about the
perception of time. Though admittedly a rare experience, I’ve read scripts
that were 140 pages long in which every scene was necessary to tell the story
and all of the dialogue provided fresh conflicts and revelations into character.
I cared about the characters and what happened to them. I lost track of time
as I read. So, despite the fact that the script was technically too long, I gave
it a high score for pace.
!
Screenwriting teachers and consultants tend to be very strict when they
instruct beginning screenwriters on the rules, only because they are rarely
broken successfully. That said, the thing that really matters is how well you
can engage your reader and whether you can craft your story in such a way
that the two hours (or however long it takes to read your script) feels like
nothing. In scripts with strong pacing, I find it impossible to put the script
down. I simply have to know what happens next.
!
Some tips on how to establish effective pacing…
!
One of the great masters of pacing was none other than Alfred Hitchcock.
In his films, the juxtaposition of dread and surprise, slow dramatization and
abrupt shock are classic examples of how to pace a story. Hitchcock took
complete control of the audience’s emotions − and the clock of perception −
and gave us one unforgettable film after another.
!
Read your own script with a critical eye. Imagine the audience’s experience
of your movie for the first time. What are they feeling? What do you want
them to feel? Are there long blocks of expositional dialogue that weigh your
movie down? Are there any “filler” scenes or scenes that seem to drag?
!
As the writer, you are attempting to orchestrate a seamless cinematic dream
that will evoke strong emotions from your audience. The trick is to tell your
story and reveal your characters in a way that makes the audience forget
about everything but the world you’ve created for the entire length of the film.
!
To help your pacing, look for ways to infuse humor into your story. That
always improves the pace.


Also look for ways to add mystery and suspense − deliberately withholding
information or discrediting the characters to build the audience’s desire for
answers. Though most obviously utilized in thriller and horror movies,
mystery and suspense can be employed in a multitude of ways in nearly 


!
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every kind of movie. To create mystery, pose a compelling question that will
pique the interest of the audience, then withhold the answer to that question
until late in the film. To build suspense, slow the pace and draw out the
moment before a key event to heighten the drama.
!
Take a look at the pacing in Reservoir Dogs. Quentin Tarantino masterfully
slows down certain scenes to draw out the tension just before delivering
the main dramatic hit. For example, he spends a good deal of time on the
moments leading up to the torture scene. This builds the audience’s sense
of dread and empathy, while also underscoring Tim Roth’s character dilemma
before he makes the decision to shoot the torturer.
!
Pacing is often thought of only with regard to speed. However, the writers
who have the most control over pacing know when to slow down and take
advantage of the moment before the big moment to maximize dramatic
impact. Though pacing as a whole should accelerate towards the climax,
within that steady forward motion there are hills and valleys − opportunities
to fine-tune the emotional experience of your movie.
!
If you master all the other aspects of screenwriting discussed in this book,
that will take you a long way toward writing a well-paced screenplay. Give
us characters we care about, create a well-structured plot with high dramatic
stakes, deliver some exciting visual moments and crisp, smart dialogue, and
time will feel like it flies by for your readers as we become lost in the world
of your story. – HT
!
!
!

!
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!!
!
!
!
!
!
!
About the Author…
!
Helen Truong is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She has 

been the recipient of several prestigious screenwriting awards and fellowships,
and has worked as a professional script reader and story analyst for such
companies as Carmichael Films and Denis Leary’s Apostle Pictures in New
York, and for Robert Cort Productions, UTA, Nickelodeon Movies, Paramount
Pictures, MGM, United Artists and Amazon Studios in L.A. Helen has written
scripts for Disney, Occupant Films and the WB network.
!
!
!

!
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!
!

!
CHARACTERS
!
by Dwayne Alexander Smith
!
“See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.”
− Joker, The Dark Knight (2008)
! !
The single most essential element of any great screenplay? Great characters. 


The quality of the characters in your script is more important than dialogue,
structure, pacing, and even plot. Those elements are very important, without
a doubt, but if you don’t have characters that the audience will care about
and relate to, none of the rest matters.
!
Why are great characters so important?
!
Audiences bond with great characters because they possess motivations,
desires and flaws that everyone can identify with. Be it a hero’s drive to
overcome impossible odds and achieve amazing success or a villain’s
willingness to defy authority to satisfy his lust for power and wealth, these
are primal human traits we all share. When we empathize with a character
in this way, we become invested in his or her journey on an emotional level.
We care about the character, and we care what happens to them. Thus, we
become caught up in the movie.
!
Think of your favorite movies. Most likely, the reason you’re drawn to those
films is because you fell in love with the characters. The most beloved movies
of all time all have wonderful heroes: Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones, Rocky
Balboa, Katniss Everdeen, Ellen Ripley, Dorothy Gale. The best movies also
have fantastic villains: Darth Vader, Agent Smith, Hans Gruber, Hannibal
Lecter, Miranda Priestly, Annie Wilkes. In fact, these characters are so
memorable that I didn’t even name the movies they appeared in and I bet
you knew every one of them.
!
Can you imagine what those movies would be like if you didn’t care about
their protagonists? If we didn’t love Rocky Balboa and want desperately
for him to win, Rocky would be just another boxing movie. If we didn’t
empathize with Dorothy’s simple desire to return home, The Wizard of Oz
would just be a very colorful kid’s film.
!
How do you evaluate a script’s characters?
!
As I read a script, I break the characters down into three main types:
Protagonist, Antagonist and Supporting Characters.
! !
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!THE PROTAGONIST
!
Also known as the hero. It goes without saying that your protagonist is your
most important character. This is who the audience must bond with and cheer
for. If the audience fails to connect with your protagonist, you’re lost.
!
Here are the qualities your protagonist should possess:
!
1) Your protagonist must have a clear goal that the audience will
sympathize with.
!
The key words in that sentence are “clear” and “sympathize.” “Clear” because
if the audience doesn’t understand what’s at stake, they won’t care what
happens. “Sympathize” because if the audience doesn’t share and support
your hero’s goal, they’ll get bored really fast.
!
Rocky wants to win the championship. Luke wants to rescue the princess.
James Bond wants to stop the mad scientist from blowing up the world. 

All of these goals are easy to understand and easy to cheer for.
!
By contrast, here’s an example of a protagonist that probably wouldn’t work.
Imagine Bill Gates wants to win a million dollars because he has never won
anything before and he thinks that winning a lottery would be really cool.
Would you want to sit through a film about a billionaire trying to win a million
dollars because he thinks it’s cool? I’m guessing no. This might make for a
good antagonist or supporting character, but it won’t work for your lead.
!
2) Your protagonist must be active.
!
Your hero should drive your plot, taking decisive actions at every turn to
determine the outcome of your story. Indiana Jones swims after a Nazi
submarine. Ripley goes back for Newt without the Marines. Your hero’s
plans might get fouled up, but a good hero finds another way to succeed.
Overcoming obstacles is what being a hero is all about.
!
3) Your protagonist must be likable.
!
Some people may argue with this one, but in general, audiences like heroes
that they would love to spend time with in real life. Someone they can
imagine being buddies with. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with James
Bond? It just stands to reason that if you don’t like a character, you’re
probably not going to give a damn whether or not he achieves his goals.


4) Your protagonist must have unique characteristics. 


In Deadpool, Wade Wilson can’t help turning everything – even his own
cancer, disfigurement or heartbreak – into a joke. In Mad Max: Fury Road,
Imperator Furiosa makes every word count. And Alejandro Gillick in Sicario
acts as though nothing – nothing – affects him in the slightest, whether it’s 

!
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an imminent threat to him or his own terrible acts of revenge. Specific, unique
qualities like this make your lead character memorable.

5) Your protagonist should be in almost every scene of your movie.
!
Many novice screenwriters make the mistake of cutting away from their hero
too often and for too long. But how many scenes are there in Rocky where
Rocky does not appear? How many scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark do
not include Indiana Jones? Think about your favorite movies. How many
scenes do not feature the hero? Your protagonist is your audience’s guide
through your story. We experience the journey from his or her point of view.
So if you must cut away from your hero, do so only briefly.

THE ANTAGONIST
!
Everyone loves a great villain. But what makes a great villain? Surprisingly,
some of the same elements that make a great hero also apply to the villain.
!
Here are the qualities your antagonist should possess:
!
1) Your antagonist must have a clear goal.
!
The audience might not know right away what the villain’s ultimate goal is,
but you as the writer had better know. Sometimes a villain’s goal changes
during the course of the movie, but each goal should always be crystal clear.
Hans Gruber wants to catch that pesky John McClane. That’s not Hans’
initial goal, of course, but it’s a goal that’s very clearly established during the
movie. Later, we find out his true goal, which is also very strong and specific.
!
2) Your antagonist must be active.
!
Just like the hero, a good villain is always taking decisive action to achieve his
goal. He’s the one making the decisions, not his goons. Everything a goon or
henchman does should be ordered by the villain.
!
3) Your antagonist must be more than a match for your hero.
!
Your villain should actually be superior in strength and/or intelligence to your
protagonist. All the cards should seem to be stacked in the villain’s favor.
This forces your hero to grow during the course of the movie − to rise to the
occasion and defeat his own weakness, as well as his nemesis. There are
so many great examples of this in movies. Luke vs. Darth Vader. Neo vs.
Agent Smith. Ripley vs. the Alien Queen. The list goes on and on.
!
4) Your antagonist should not be all bad.
!
This one’s a little more subtle. Think about it. Nobody is all bad − unless
they’re a comic book character. The best villains are complex characters.
Their dark deeds are motivated, and they have at least one good quality. 


!
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Hannibal Lecter was very charming to Clarice. And Belloq wasn’t a raving
maniac, he was just Indiana Jones’ ruthless rival. Belloq actually had a lot of
respect for Indy.
!
My favorite example of this is in the classic Western Shane. The antagonist is
a cattleman named Ryker. He’s determined to force the homesteader Starrett
off his land. Ryker’s a very bad dude, but there’s a great scene where he
explains his motives. From Ryker’s point of view, he’s completely in the right.
At one point, Ryker genuinely tries to make friends with Starrett. In another,
he plots Starrett’s murder. In my opinion, this complexity makes Ryker one of
the best movie villains of all time. If you haven’t seen Shane, I highly
recommend it. It has some of the best characters ever put on film.
!
SUPPORTING CHARACTERS
!
Your supporting characters (i.e. best friend, love interest, sister, boss) must
each be portrayed in a vivid, memorable way. Each should stand out as
separate and distinct. And despite the fact that you have less time to
develop these characters, they still need to feel like real people.
!
Most importantly, each of your supporting characters must have a good
reason for being in the movie. Many scripts by novice screenwriters include
too many unnecessary characters. The rule of thumb? If a character doesn’t
serve a story purpose, that character should be cut.
!
Some tips on how to create great characters…
!
In order to design truly great characters − characters that jump off the page −
you have to add depth and dimension. There’s a simple technique you can use
to give a character depth. Do this work before writing your script, and it will
make your characters live and breathe.
!
CHARACTER BACKSTORIES
!
The secret is to create a full life history, or “backstory,” for each of your key
characters. Start from the character’s birth and write out all the key moments
in his or her life right up until the start of your story. 


Where was she born? Did she grow up with both parents or just her mom?
Was she adopted? Was she an only child? Where did she go to school?
What are her favorite TV shows? Most importantly, what are her goals and
motivations? What drives her? What is she determined to achieve, and why?
!
That might sound excessive, but once you’ve done this work, guess what?
You’ve created a real person. Most of the specific details you come up with
will probably never make it into your screenplay, but they will inform
everything you write about that character. They will affect his or her voice,
personality, motivations and actions, and it’s these details that will make each
of your characters distinct.
! !
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If your character was born in the South, he’s going to speak differently than
someone who was raised in the Bronx. If he grew up with a houseful of
sisters, he’s going to treat women a certain way. If he grew up poor, he’s
going to have a different attitude about money than someone who grew up
with a silver spoon in his mouth.
!
The more important a character is to your story, the more detailed his or her
life history should be. For your main characters, I suggest you write at least
two pages of history on each. Just create enough of a backstory to fill up
two full pages. It’s good to have a set goal like that because it forces you
to come up with more details.
!
For secondary characters, one page is usually enough, but make sure to
answer all the key questions about the characters’ personal history, goals
and motivations.
!
NAMING YOUR CHARACTERS
!
Character names are extremely important. Some writers just slap any ol’
name on a character. I think that’s a huge mistake. They’re missing out on
an opportunity to add another facet to their characters’ personalities.
!
Some writers think it’s only important to give thought to names if you’re
writing a larger-than-life character, like Indiana Jones, Neo or Luke Skywalker.
I disagree. I think that it’s equally important to find the right-sounding name
for every type of character. Even for a more typical character, like a cop.
!
For example, “John Green” could be a cop’s name, but it’s missing something.
Let’s change the last name to McClane. McClane’s an Irish name. We
associate Irish-Americans with New York City cops. “John McClane” is a nice,
strong Irish-American name and a great cop name. “Marty McFly” evokes
speed and adventure in a subtle way. “Peter Venkman” sounds like someone
who would be a bit of a smart aleck.
!
The trick is to come up with a realistic name that still sounds exactly like the
character’s personality, so that every time the audience hears that name, they
subconsciously make the association. 


Here are some examples from a project I developed: For a clever con man, I
chose the last name “Keane.” For the meanest cop in the NYPD, I went with
“Lyon.” When you read and hear those names, what do they evoke to you?
!
It really pays to put a little thought into what you name your characters.
Details like this will make them leap off the page.
!
SPECIFIC CHARACTER QUIRKS
!
Since supporting characters don’t have as much screen time to endear
themselves to the audience, you as the writer have to find ways to make that

!
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connection more quickly. One trick is to give your supporting characters a


specific quirk or a prop that establishes them as a certain type in an instant.

When Neo meets the Oracle in The Matrix, she’s baking cookies, and she
delivers her wisdom like a wise grandmother. In Aliens, Hudson expresses
his fear through humor. Besides being a two-foot tall Jedi warrior, Yoda talks
backwards.
!
I only recommend using this “quirk trick” with supporting characters.
Sometimes when it’s applied to the main character in a film it can come
across as heavy-handed, because we spend so much time with the lead.
!
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW
!
One of the best ways to create strong characters is to base them on the
people around you. As a writer, you should be constantly observing all the
real life characters you encounter every day. The grumpy guy at work. Your
weird uncle. That creepy neighbor you can’t stand. Lift what’s best and
what’s worst from the real human beings around you and use those qualities
in your story.
!
If you take the time to develop interesting, complex characters before you
start writing your script, you’ll find the payoff will be magical. Writing your
screenplay will become a breeze, because the characters you’ve developed
will come to life and begin to speak for themselves. – DS

!

!
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!!
!
!
!
!
!
!
About the Author…
!
Dwayne Alexander Smith has been working as a professional screenwriter
for more than a dozen years. He has sold six spec screenplays and has been
employed by studios for numerous rewrite assignments. Dwayne is also a
producer, and he recently produced the features Bleed and Triple Threat.
His first novel, a thriller titled “Forty Acres,” was published in 2015 by Atria
Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. He was honored with a NAACP Award
for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author.


!
!
!
!
!

!
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!

!
!
DIALOGUE
!
by Scott Honea
!
“Talk to me, Goose.”
− Maverick, Top Gun (1986)
!
!
Dialogue, by its literal definition, is simply a conversation between two or
more people. But screenplay dialogue is very different. There is no room
for filler in a 100-page script. For that reason, good screenplay dialogue
contains all of the important elements of a conversation and none of the
unimportant parts.
!
Good screenplay dialogue includes only the meat and potatoes − the most
crucial information − and little else. It skips the “Hello, how are you?” and
gets right to “I have your wife and child in my basement and if I don’t get
$10 million within 24 hours, they will die.”
!
Why is good dialogue so important?
!
Good dialogue engages the audience. Gets us interested in your characters.
Pulls us into the world of your story.
!
Can you have a good screenplay without good dialogue? Maybe, if your
story and concept are strong enough. But will it be a great screenplay? 

In my opinion, no. The ability to write high-quality dialogue sets the
professional screenwriter apart from the amateur. Brilliant dialogue elevates 

a script to a professional level, and that’s where you want your script to be.
!
Good screenplay dialogue does two things:


1) It reveals important information about your characters.


2) It moves the plot forward.
!
Poor dialogue serves neither of those purposes.
!
Mediocre dialogue fulfills one or both purposes in a very obvious way, calling
attention to itself by being overly expository.
!
But good dialogue gives us vital information and advances the story without
the reader even realizing it. At its best, it also reveals character,
introduces conflict and raises the story’s dramatic stakes.
!
!
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Some examples of bad dialogue? Long monologues that are stilted and
expositional − speeches the writer included simply to explain some piece of
information to the reader. Characters chattering on ad nauseam about things
unrelated to the plot. Characters saying things to each other that real people
would never say. Characters whose voices all sound the same (usually exactly
like the voice of the writer).
!
How do you evaluate a script’s dialogue?
!
The first thing I want to see is a good flow. Does the dialogue roll off the
tongue? Does it sound natural? Does it sound like real people having a
conversation, or does it just sound like information the writer wants to share
with the audience? Do each of the characters have a unique voice?
!
Then I look for a higher degree of execution and intent. Does the dialogue
employ subtext? Does it work on more than one level? Is it nuanced and
layered, or is it too “on the nose”? I’m looking for an almost transparent
quality to the dialogue. Its purpose should not be immediately noticeable
as I’m reading. The scenes just flow naturally, and the dialogue drives the
plot forward while drawing me into the characters and their story.
!
Another thing I look for is a script that effectively balances dialogue with
action. I don’t want to see an entire page with only dialogue and no action.
Nor do I want to see large blocks of action go on for pages at a time without
any dialogue. Too many long monologues or speeches are another no-no.
While they can be very effective at the right moment (see my example from
Sideways below), monologues have to be earned.
!
The dialogue should also suit the genre of your screenplay. If you’re writing
a comedy, your dialogue better be funny. If you’re writing a drama, your
dialogue needs to make the audience feel something emotionally. If you’re
writing an action comedy, your dialogue has to advance the plot in a witty
but succinct manner. If you’re writing a historical biopic, your dialogue should
sound historically accurate.
!
Whatever your genre, the dialogue needs to sparkle! You need to give us
some of those “movie trailer moments” that will set your script apart and help
get your movie made.
!
Some movies that did it right and how they did it… 

!
I’d like to share a couple of examples of what I personally think is extremely
well written dialogue. My first example is a character-revealing snippet from
Sideways, by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. It appears near the midpoint,
during our protagonist’s first date with his love interest, Maya.

! ! MAYA!
! ! ! Can I ask you a personal question?!
!
! !
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!! ! MILES!
! ! ! Sure.!
!
! ! MAYA!
Why are you so into Pinot? It’s !
like a thing with you. !
!
! Miles laughs at first, then smiles wistfully at the !
! question. He searches for the answer in his glass and!
! begins slowly.!
!
! ! ! ! MILES!
I don’t know. It’s a hard grape to !
grow. As you know. It’s thin-skinned, !
temperamental, ripens early. It’s !
not a survivor like Cabernet that !
can grow anywhere and thrive when!
neglected. Pinot needs constant care!
and attention and in fact can only!
grow in specific, little tucked-away !
corners of the world. And only the !
most patient and nurturing growers !
can do it really, can tap into Pinot’s!
most fragile, delicate qualities.!
Only when someone has taken the time!
to truly understand its potential !
can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest !
expression. And when that happens,!
its flavors are the most haunting and!
brilliant and subtle and thrilling!
and ancient on the planet.
!
What makes this monologue so engaging and compelling? About halfway
through it becomes clear that not only is our protagonist talking about why
he loves Pinot so much, he’s actually revealing very intimate information
about himself. In the subtext of his words, we come to understand that
Miles is Pinot. He’s thin-skinned, temperamental. He needs constant care
and attention. The dialogue is brilliant because it works on two levels.
!
Long monologues like this are potentially dangerous, particularly in the hands
of beginning screenwriters. But in this case, as executed by these two very
talented professionals in the service of a subtle, character-driven story, it
works brilliantly. This monologue is exactly the right length to delve deeply
into character, and it happens at exactly the right point in the movie. After
a series of awkward, uncomfortable exchanges between Miles and Maya,
the moment is well-earned.
!
My next example comes from Billy Bob Thornton’s Oscar-nominated drama
Sling Blade. In this scene, the protagonist, Karl, confronts the antagonist,
!
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Doyle, with two intentions: first, to kill him, and second, to figure out what
to do after he kills him. The end result is both shocking and hilarious.
!

! INT. LIVING ROOM - NIGHT!


!
! Doyle is in his chair drinking beer and watching TV. !
! He looks up as Karl comes around and sits on the sofa.!
! !
! ! ! ! DOYLE !
! Where's ever'body else? You seen 'em? !
! ! (no response)!
! I thought I told you to get the hell!
! moved out of here anyway.!
!
! ! KARL !
! How does a feller go about gettin'!
! ahold of the police?!
! !
! ! DOYLE !
! Pick up the fuckin' phone and call!
! 'em, I guess.!
! !
! ! KARL !
! What numbers do you punch?!
! !
! ! DOYLE !
! I told you to get away from here,!
! didn't I? I'm tryin' to relax and!
! look at TV. !
! (notices the blade)!
! What are you doin' with that piece!
! of iron? I swear to God you're the!
! weirdest son of a bitch I ever!
! heard of.!
! !
! ! KARL !
! I aim to kill you with it.!
! !
Doyle keeps drinking and watching TV.!
! !
! ! DOYLE !
! Yeah, okay. Well, to get the police!
! you push 911. You'll need to tell!
! 'em to send an ambulance, too. Or a!
! hearse. You fuckin' idiot. You're!
! gonna kill me. !
! !
! He laughs. Karl gets up and walks slowly toward Doyle. !
! We see the flickering light of the TV on the wall. !
! O.S. we hear one short dull thud.!
!
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! ! DOYLE (O.S.) !
! Oh God! Oh God!!
! !
! We hear one more thud, then the sound of Doyle's body!
! hitting the floor. !
!
! Karl appears again and we follow him to the kitchen, !
! where he picks up the wall phone. He stares at it for !
! a moment, then pushes 911. He has a few specks of !
! blood on his face, hand and shirt.!
! !
! ! KARL !
! ! (into phone)!
! Yes, ma'am. I need the police over!
! here at the Wheatley house.!
!! ! ! (pause)!
! !I've killed somebody with a mower!
! !blade. !
! ! (pause)!
! Yes, ma'am, I'm right sure of it. !
! I hit him two good whacks. That !
! second time just plumb near cut !
his head in two. !
! ! (pause)!
! It’s a little old yeller house !
! right on the corner of Marigold !
! Street and some other street. They’s!
! ! ! a red pickup truck out front says!
! DOYLE HARGRAVES CONSTRUCTION on it.!
! I'll be a settin' here waitin' on !
ye. Beside sendin' the police, !
Doyle said you might want to send !
an ambulance or a hearse. Thank ye.!
!
What’s genius about this dialogue is the way it establishes a very calm,
conversational tone in the context of a brutal killing. Karl, in his simple-
minded way, has no idea what to do after he kills Doyle. So before he does
it, he asks him. And Doyle, being a drunken idiot, thinks the whole thing is
a joke. The payoff at the end when Karl tells the 911 Operator “Doyle said
you might want to send an ambulance or a hearse” ties it all up perfectly.
!
This is what great dialogue does. It builds to a climax within the scene.
It reveals information. It moves the plot forward. Then it turns the scene
completely on its head. 

!
Some tips on how to write good dialogue…
!
Never obsess over dialogue in the first draft of your script. Just get the
scenes down on the page and make sure your story is working. Allow your

!
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characters to speak in a very literal, functional manner at first. Then, once


your structure, plot, and characters are solidly established, go back and
refine your dialogue until it sounds natural. You’re spinning a lot of plates
in your first draft, so it’s very difficult to nail the dialogue right off the bat.
No worries! You can focus your attention entirely on dialogue in subsequent
drafts. It’s like the icing on the cake.
!
Once you have a sound foundation, you can start refining your dialogue.
Look for ways to camouflage the functional purpose of the words so the
dialogue doesn’t sound too obvious or literal. Give your words the ebb and
flow of real conversation.
!
Bury your characters’ true needs or intentions in subtext − the underlying
meaning of what your characters are actually saying. When you don’t let
your characters say precisely what they mean or when you can find a more
colorful way for them to say it, this allows you to reveal character in a much
more believable, naturalistic way.
!
For example, your lead character could express his emotions literally by saying
“I’m very angry with you!” Or he could say “I want to put my fist through that
wall!” Both statements communicate the same idea, but the second does so
in a more interesting, authentic fashion.
!
One of the best ways to learn how to write good dialogue is to practice your
listening skills. Take a notepad with you everywhere you go. Discreetly listen
to people’s conversations on the subway, in restaurants, while they talk on the
phone or wait in line. Write down what people say, verbatim, and you’ll find
that most people talk in circles. They stop and start. They stutter. They
mumble. They utter incomplete sentences. They rarely say exactly what they
mean. These are exactly the kinds of nuances that will make your dialogue
more real and believable.
!
Of course, much of what people say in real life is too boring for a movie, and
your screen time and page count are limited, so you can’t let your characters
ramble on the way people do in real conversation. That said, you can use the
way real people talk as inspiration for the voices of your characters. And while
you’re listening, make sure you note the differences in the way people speak.
People use different words and phrasing depending on where and how they
were raised. Everyone has different ways of expressing their feelings.
!
Note how specific and unique Karl’s dialogue is in Sling Blade. No other
character before or since has sounded quite like him. The more distinct your
characters’ voices are, the more your characters will leap off the page and feel
like real people. Moreover, you’ll be creating characters that top actors will
want to play!
!
You’ll find that you may have to rewrite a scene 10 times before the dialogue
accomplishes its goals in the fewest possible words, all while sounding real
and natural. This is normal. Most professional screenwriters have to go
! !
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through multiple rewrites to nail their characters’ voices, as well. But the
more you work at it, the better you become. Practice makes perfect.
!
To learn how to write great dialogue, I highly recommend that you read as
many produced screenplays as you can − preferably in the genre that you’re
writing. If you’re writing a coming-of-age drama, read Moonlight. If you’re
writing an action script, read Baby Driver. If you’re writing a comedy, read
The Big Sick. Better yet, read them while watching the produced films.

Learn from the greats. When Quentin Tarantino first emerged on the scene,
someone asked him which film school he went to. His answer was, “I didn’t
go to film school. I went to films.” – SH
!
!

!
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!!
!
!
!
!
!
!
About the Author…
!
Scott Honea is a Texas native who moved to Hollywood in 2006 to join
Niad Management, a boutique literary management firm. He has since
worked as a script analyst for major production companies and management
firms, including Gold Circle Films and Madhouse Entertainment, and in 2010
he wrote and directed his debut feature Believe You Me, which premiered at
the Asheville Cinema Festival and went on to find distribution through Hulu.
In 2011, Scott produced the horror movie The Oregonian, and in 2012 he
co-produced Satellite of Love, which premiered at the Dallas International
Film Festival. His feature script Winners was a finalist in the 2013 Sundance
Producers Lab, and he was executive producer of The Procedure, which won
the Short Film Jury Award: U.S. Fiction at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. In
2015, Scott wrote his first novel, "Devil in a Sleeping Bag."
!
!
!
!

!
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!
!
!
THEME
!
by Maya Goldsmith
!
“Beneath this mask is an idea, Mr. Creedy, 

and ideas are bulletproof.”
− V, V for Vendetta (2005)
!
!
One reason, perhaps, that many screenwriters have trouble developing strong
themes for their stories is that they aren’t entirely sure what theme is or why
it’s important. Wikipedia offers this in its definition of “artistic themes”:
!
“A broad idea or message…usually about life, society or human nature”
!
Not bad. Some examples of familiar themes in literature are “individual vs.
society,” “appearance vs. reality” and the idea of “moral ambiguity.” Many
themes emanate from classic archetypes found in Greek plays and the Bible.
!
In the simplest terms, theme represents the writer’s point of view about
the subject matter. You can have several movies based on the same subject,
even with the same basic plot, and each may offer radically different themes.
As the personal philosophy of each screenwriter varies, so does his or her
perspective on the world, the story’s characters and events. The theme is
the lens through which the subject, and thus the story, is viewed.
!
Let’s take as an example the much-studied Orson Welles drama Citizen
Kane. The subject of this legendary film is clearly the life of Charles Foster
Kane (a fictional mogul based on newspaper magnate William Randolph
Hearst), but its theme is more subjective. Scholars have attributed several
different themes to the film, many suggesting that it explores “the myth of 

the American Dream” and/or “the loss of innocence.” Another writer could
take the exact same subject matter (a fictionalized account of William
Randolph Hearst) and write a screenplay with completely different themes,
presenting an entirely different perspective on the story.
!
For example, you could tell the story of the man’s journey from humble
beginnings to unbridled power as a classic rags-to-riches story. This could
easily be a triumph-of-the-will tale or an idealistic depiction of “the American
Dream” in action. Instead, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles wrote
a screenplay that suggests that the price of success outweighs the rewards.
!
The Wikipedia entry emphasizes that theme is different than “motif.” This
is an important distinction, and writers often confuse the two. A motif is a
thread that’s woven throughout the story. A well-conceived motif can express
!
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or represent the theme or point to it in some way, usually visually. But while 

it may symbolize a larger idea, it’s the messenger, not the message.
!
For example, in American Beauty the visual motif of red roses and rose
petals is woven throughout the film. One interpretation is that this represents
the characters’ unexpressed desires, particularly their sexual desires. While
this motif certainly relates to both the subject matter and theme of the movie,
the roses are not a theme in and of themselves.

Theme is also separate and distinct from the “subject” of a movie or its
premise. The subject is what the movie is about. The theme is what the
writer is trying to say about that subject. The subject becomes a vehicle for
expressing a point of view on the issues involved.
!
Theme is easily differentiated from subject in that a movie usually has only
one subject, but may have several themes that work on different levels.
And while a film’s subject matter is objective (a film about the newspaper
business is inarguably about that and not, say, professional sports), the
theme may be open to interpretation − just as a work of visual art is open
to interpretation.
!
For example, while the subject matter of Edward Hopper’s iconic painting
“Nighthawks” may be described as “people in a diner late at night,” the
theme is best described as “urban alienation.” When we look at the visual
motifs in Hopper’s body of work, including “Nighthawks,” elements of film noir
are evident. Much of his subject matter is painted in a style of lighting and
composition characteristic of the film noir sub-genre, which often explores
themes of alienation and suddenly finding oneself an outsider from society.
Thus, Hopper’s film noir motifs are the symbolic expression of his themes.
!
Why is theme so important?
!
I’ve heard writers ask, “Yeah, but does my script really need a theme? It’s
not a heavy drama.”
!
For most aspiring writers, as well as many experienced writers, the idea of
theme can be elusive. A screenwriter can get so caught up in creating a
tightly structured story and plotline, compelling characters and riveting
dialogue that developing a theme becomes an afterthought. Especially when
working in a genre other than serious drama, beginning writers are apt to
dismiss theme as unnecessary.
!
But to think that theme only applies to dramas, utilized only in hopes of
making them more profound or weighty, is a mistake. Every screenplay
needs a theme, no matter what your genre, because whether you’re writing
a light comedy or an action-adventure script, you want your film to resonate
with an audience. And your theme is the “beating heart” of your script.
A strong theme will take what is already a good story and elevate it to
something far greater. By “greater” I don’t necessarily mean in some deep
! !
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philosophical way (although that can be, and often is, the case). I mean
that a strong, clear theme is essential in order to help a script resonate on
both a personal and universal level.
!
When a script doesn’t have a well-developed theme, it can feel flimsy, even
though the story itself may be well thought out and effectively structured.
That’s because theme generally touches on the essence of what it means
to be a human being or part of society as a whole. And without a strong
theme, a story tends to feel bereft of “soul” and pointless (even if perhaps
still entertaining or titillating).
!
How do you evaluate a script’s theme?
!
When I finish reading a script and don’t feel like I know the writer’s point of
view, this is invariably due to the absence of theme. As the writer, you should
have a perspective on your subject matter. You should even have an agenda
to a certain degree. I’m not interested in reading a script that is ideologically
neutral. You aren’t telling your story in a vacuum. You are a human being
with thoughts and feelings about life. Ideally, I should have a sense of who
you are as person from what you’ve written.
!
Let me be clear... I’m not suggesting your movie be “preachy.” There’s a big
difference between clunky propaganda and good writing. But I am saying
that even a romantic comedy should express the writer’s opinions about the
subject matter (i.e. love, marriage, relationships, etc.).
!
When I’m reading a script, I look not only for the presence of theme, but the
quality of its expression. Does it feel organic to the story you’re telling or is
it shoved in like a “square peg in a round hole”? Is it well thought out and
sophisticated or does it seem like a superficial afterthought? Most importantly,
is it skillfully integrated throughout the script or merely tacked on at the end?
!
Great screenplays incorporate theme from the get-go and use strong motifs
to support that theme throughout the script. Weak scripts generally save any
reference to theme for the last act (usually in the climax or thereabouts), and
deliver it in the form of a character speechifying. For example, the lead has
a monologue about how society’s institutions are corrupt, rather than the
movie as a whole making a case for the corruption in societal institutions.
!
Some movies that did it right and how they did it…
!
One example of a movie where a strong, fully integrated theme played a huge
role is Mike Nichols’ romantic comedy Working Girl. I’ve chosen a comedy
to illustrate the power and importance of theme because I find that when
reading submissions for the PAGE Awards or for my job, it’s the comedies
that most often lack a cohesive theme (or any theme at all).
!
To my mind, the main theme of the movie Working Girl centers around the
attainability of the American Dream. Unlike Citizen Kane, Working Girl 


!
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takes a positive view of this beloved national ideal. However, the movie also
explores themes of “class struggle,” so it has some complexity. One could
easily envision these themes working in a drama, but since this is a comedy,
the story reflects its themes in a delightful, funny, entertaining way.
!
From the opening of the film, motifs are included that highlight the theme.
One of the very first shots is of the Statue of Liberty. One would be hard
pressed to find a more iconic symbol of the American Dream. (For that very
reason, “Lady Liberty” has been lensed in countless films, including The
Godfather, which contemplates different aspects of the American Dream.)
!
These types of strong visual motifs are woven throughout the fabric of
Working Girl. Tess, our protagonist, begins the film as a secretary with
ambitions of becoming a success on Wall Street. When we first meet her, she
is commuting to work from Staten Island. Her trip on the ferry evokes that of
the many immigrants who traveled to New York City by boat in order to begin
a new life and achieve the American Dream. During one pivotal moment, the
American flag is visible waving in the background, seen through a window.
!
However, the “class struggle” theme is constantly in play as well. From the
beginning of the film, it’s clear that Tess is extremely ambitious, incredibly
hard-working and smart as a whip, but her blue collar background has held
her back. It’s only when she poses as a replica of her female boss, adopting
sophisticated clothes and Ivy League mannerisms, that she is taken seriously
and is able to show what she can really do. The film seems to posit that
achieving the American Dream is a real possibility, but with caveats.
!
Another movie where a strong theme really elevates the audience experience
is Back to the Future. Again, I’m intentionally picking a film that, as a big
sci-fi comedy romp, probably isn’t the first to come to mind when you think
about theme. But don’t assume that theme only pertains to sensitive dramas,
character-driven stories and the occasional quirky dark comedy. Don’t assume
that blockbusters only need a high concept and strong structure in order to be
successful. The fact is, most blockbusters have wonderfully well thought out
and integrated themes. Jaws, for example, is a modern day “Moby Dick,”
dealing with themes of “man vs. nature” and the concepts of “good and evil.”
The theme of Back to the Future might best be described as “the search for
identity,” which in this case also includes “generational conflict.” In fact, this
was exactly how screenwriter Bob Gale originally came up with the idea for
the film. He wondered whether he would have been friends with his own
father if they had known each other as teenagers.
!
At the beginning of the movie, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is searching for
his identity. He’s told by the principal of his high school that he’s a “slacker,”
just like his father (whom Marty doesn’t respect at all). Marty wants
desperately to be a rock musician, but he’s afraid that his music (and by
extension, himself) will be rejected. When Marty goes back in time and has
to interact with his then-teenage father, he learns that back in high school his
dad was filled with a kind of passion and creativity (in the form of science 


!
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fiction writing) that Marty was never aware of. And why not? Because Marty’s
father is just like Marty − afraid that if he shares his work with people he’ll be
told he’s “no good.”
!
If you removed these character moments from the screenplay, the basic plot
and focus of the story would remain intact. Cutting these elements wouldn’t
affect Marty’s travel back in time or his need to get back to the future. It also
wouldn’t affect the obstacles he faces in getting his parents to fall in love,
thereby guaranteeing his own existence.
!
What those character moments do provide is theme and − dare I say − heart.
Marty doesn’t merely go back to the future. He goes back to an altered future
that he has helped to change for the better. This adds pathos and richness
to a film that is already chock full of excitement and clever humor. Moreover,
everyone can identify with these themes. Part of our identity is informed by
our relationship with and understanding of our parents, and this movie not
only touches on our fantasies about being able to travel through time, it also
addresses more subconscious fantasies about what life would be like if we
were able to know our parents as human beings, when they were young and
more like us. By healing their wounds, we might ultimately heal ourselves.
!
By contrast, a movie with a very weak theme is Michael Bay’s Transformers.
The premise of the film sets up a perfect opportunity to explore larger ideas
beneath all that robot-on-robot violence (for example, “man’s relationship with
technology” or “man vs. machine”). But the movie doesn’t address man’s
relationship to technology in any way, and also doesn’t speak to any aspect of
society at large or to the future of society. As a result, we never become
deeply invested in all the action, and the plot feels like it has very low stakes.
This is why Transformers and its many sequels lack the same resonance and
artistic merit as the great sci-fi action movies that manage to integrate plot,
special effects and theme, such as The Terminator and Aliens.
!
Some tips on how to develop powerful themes…
!
First, study the movies you love and see if you can discern the underlying
themes at work. What is the screenwriter’s perspective on the subject
matter of the story? How does he or she explore and express those ideas?
With your own work, it’s helpful to sit down and ask yourself what made
you interested in telling this story in the first place. It may have been a
personal experience that was important to you or helped define you, or
it may have been a stroke of inspiration that you thought was particularly
fascinating or clever.
!
Whatever the origin, see if you can find the deeper, more universal truths
within the idea that speak to you. What moves you? What ideas are you
interested in expressing about people, society or human nature? For example,
if you are writing a romance, ask yourself: What do I want to say about love 

and romantic relationships? What’s my perspective? Do I believe that “love
conquers all?” Or does love only lead to heartache and tragedy?
! !
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It might take some effort to distill your main theme from unfocused, general
notions to something clear and specific. But do this work, and I promise it
will pay off for you.
!
Once you determine your main theme, you then have to figure out how to
integrate it into your script. In general, a great script integrates its themes
into both the A-story and the B-story (and also the C-story, if you have one). 


Take a look at movies you admire and examine how their themes are
integrated throughout each of their storylines. For example, let’s take a look
at the classic comedy Tootsie. Many comedies have depicted men in drag,
but Tootsie is in a class by itself − and one of the reasons why is because it
integrates theme so well. There are no doubt several interpretations, but for
me, at its heart Tootsie is about gender. What does it mean to be a man and
what does it mean to be a woman?
!
That theme is definitely present in the A-story. Dustin Hoffman’s character
can’t get work as an actor because he has earned a very bad reputation, so
he decides to dress up as a woman to try to land a plum role on a soap opera.
In so doing, he experiences all the difficulties women face in the workplace,
and he recognizes certain advantages to being a man that he was previously
unaware of because he simply took them for granted.
!
This theme is present in the B-story as well: his romance with Jessica Lange.
Because she thinks Dustin Hoffman’s character is a woman, Lange uses his
shoulder to cry on when she’s mistreated by her boyfriend. Hoffman sees and
hears firsthand about her experiences and her vulnerability. In the process,
he learns to be more empathetic and to see women in a whole new way.
!
An important turning point is when Hoffman recognizes that he has been
thoughtless and negligent to the woman in his life (Teri Garr), but never
realized it because he had never seen things from her point of view. The
Teri Garr storyline doesn’t need to be there for the main plot of the movie to
work. If you removed those scenes entirely, it wouldn’t really alter much of
the action. That story thread is included in the movie primarily to illustrate
theme. It plays an essential role in Hoffman’s realization “I was a better man
with you, as a woman... than I ever was with a woman as a man.” This line
of dialogue beautifully encapsulates the theme of this movie.
!
But it’s also important to recognize that a great line of dialogue by itself
doesn’t constitute theme. In the absence of the interwoven thematic
elements and motifs of the story (such as the Teri Garr story elements),
it would simply be a clever, but hollow, turn of phrase. You have to earn
dialogue like that by incorporating theme throughout your script.
!
While theme is definitely one of the trickier aspects of screenwriting, both
to define and to implement, it is also one of the most essential. I strongly
urge you to explore these ideas further and gain a deeper understanding
of this critical aspect of your work. – MG
! !
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!!
!
!
!
!
!
!
About the Author…
!
Maya Goldsmith began her career in the development departments at
Tribeca Films and Fox Searchlight, where she wrote coverage and script notes.
Subsequently, she was hired as a story analyst for such companies as Strike
Entertainment, Jeff Dowd & Associates, and Bedford Falls. In 2005 Maya
began working in television, when she was staffed on the NBC series
“Inconceivable.” In 2008, she was staffed on the NBC series “Lipstick
Jungle,” and since that time, she has written and produced such shows as
the ABC series “Pretty Little Liars,” the Amazon series “The Collection,”
and the ABC series “How to Get Away With Murder.” Maya received her
BA in English from Yale University.
!
!
!

!
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!

!
!
STYLE/TONE
!
by Vikram Weet
!
“There’s no crying in baseball!”
− Jimmy Dugan, A League of Their Own (1992)
! !
While style is the barometer of a screenwriter’s skill at creating description
that evokes the world of the movie, tone gauges the screenwriter’s command
of the material’s dramatic register − with searing drama on one end of the
spectrum and goofy comedy on the other.
!
Style and tone are inexorably intertwined. The style in which you tell your
story goes a long way toward setting the tone. And determining the right
tone for the material governs the stylistic techniques you choose to employ.
Simultaneously, these are two of the most important elements of
screenwriting, and also the most difficult to execute properly.
!
Why are style and tone so important?
!
Their importance lies in the fact that they can greatly enhance your reader’s
ability to share your vision for the movie; and their difficulty arises from the
fact that they don’t appear onscreen in a concrete way, like plot, characters
and dialogue do.
!
Tone is determined by the genre (or genres) of the movie and the writer’s
unique perspective on the material. For example, although Deadpool and
Man of Steel are both fast-paced action-adventure movies, they are vastly
different in tone. The level of comedy vs. drama, types of characters, style
of action, and approach to dialogue all contribute to make these two movies
tonally unique and distinct.
!
Tone is a “feel” − a vibe. It comes to life in the finished film when you hear
the actors speak their lines, see the images created by the director and
cinematographer, listen to the composer’s musical score, and engage in the
cinematic experience cut together by the editor.
!
But the truth is, despite what some would like to believe, the basis for the
choices these various people are making is largely determined in advance –
by the writer. The tone established in the script informs countless critical
decisions along the way. It is central in determining who will be hired to
direct the movie, shoot the movie, star in the movie, et cetera. Is Paul
Greengrass the right guy to direct your action flick? Or would this movie
be best served by the sensibility of someone like Michael Mann? Should
!
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the starring role in your comedy be played by Kevin Hart, or is Dwayne


Johnson better suited to the role? Obviously, not every project will harness
that kind of star power, but you get the point. Tone is one of the most
powerful tools that you as a screenwriter have at your disposal.
!
How exactly do you establish tone? Through the manner in which you
tell your story. Through your narrative style. The very best screenplays
have a way of pulling readers in, making us not only “see” the story in our
minds, but see it from a particular point of view, in a specific voice.
!
For example, in his screenplay for the edgy crime thriller Reservoir Dogs,
Quentin Tarantino writes, “Mr. Pink is hauling ass down the sidewalk.” Any
number of words would have worked in place of “hauling ass.” Tarantino
could have had his character “sprinting” or “dashing.” But to establish the
right tone for a clever heist film full of blue-collar characters whose dialogue
is laced with profanity, “hauling ass” feels just right.


On the other hand, with a bleak Western like No Country for Old Men,
based on the work of an author like Cormac McCarthy who is known for his
spare descriptions, the simpler “runs” or “sprints” may be the perfect choice.
And for an action-adventure or horror movie like Jurassic Park, where a
character is being chased by a monster or serial killer, it may be most effective
to use a phrase like “fleeing for his life.”

!
In his screenplay for The Avengers, Joss Whedon describes Loki’s cell like
this:

Fury presses a button, which OPENS UP a HATCH


underneath Loki's cell. Loki peers as much as he can
from the glass.!

Without seeing it, the sounds of GUSTING WIND would

!
make a man shit his pants. Not a god, though.!

Any number of phrases could have described the dizzying heights suddenly
visible (like “dizzying heights,” for instance). But to establish the right tone
for a movie that’s clever mix of action and humor like The Avengers, “the
sounds of GUSTING WIND would make a man shit his pants” feels just right.
!
On the other hand, in Christopher Nolan’s more somber superhero film The
Dark Knight, the description of the Joker’s cell is chillier and more sparse:
! The Joker sits in a holding cage. His makeup has
run, his clothes are a mess — but his calm lends
him an odd dignity. COPS SMASH their night-
sticks against the bars near the Joker's head.
The Joker does not flinch.

These examples of the different ways a writer might describe the exact same
image − someone running − or a holding cell for a supervillain illustrate the
!
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way a script’s narrative style reflects its genre and tone, as well as the role
these elements play in the reader’s experience. The words you choose convey
the feeling of your genre, the mood of your scene, and the spirit of your film.
Depending on a scene’s intent and the type of movie you’re writing, there are
many different ways to convey those images to the reader.
!
Learning to match style and tone to the genre and type of story being told is
probably the biggest hurdle that I see young screenwriters struggling to clear.
But when you find the right words to describe what’s happening, your reader
will have a clear sense of not only what the moment will look like on screen,
but what it will feel like to watch the scene play out in a movie theater.
!
How do you evaluate a script’s style and tone?
!
As a reader, I’m always impressed when a screenwriter strikes the right
balance, identifying and conveying a consistent tone and style throughout
the script without wasting time on unimportant details, just for atmosphere,
or to show off. Some writers have a gift − they know exactly how to evoke
just the right mood and sense of atmosphere in a few well-chosen words.
That’s what makes their writing stand out from the competition.

If you’re writing a horror script, the tone and style of your screenplay has to
be eerie. If you’re writing a comedy, it has to be playful. It you’re writing
an action script, it has to be intense. It’s these intangible tonal elements
that help to make your screenplay memorable. They define your writer’s
“voice” in a way that makes your work instantly recognizable to readers
and executives around town.
!
However, while your style and tone − together, your “voice” − should be
evident when someone reads your screenplay, it should never subvert your
story. A screenplay is the essential “Step One” in a long creative process
intended to produce a movie-going experience that audiences will be willing
to pay for. Your script’s potential to result in such an experience is what
industry readers are evaluating, not your skill with prose and wordplay.
!
For that reason, beginning screenwriters are generally instructed to reduce
their narrative descriptions to the bare essentials and eliminate any stylistic
flourishes that don’t directly appear onscreen. This is sound advice for a
young screenwriter. After years of churning out the term papers, essays and
book reports we learn to write in school, learning how to write in purely visual
terms can be a difficult transition to make. But once you’ve mastered the
austerity of imagery-based storytelling − after you’ve written several
screenplays − then it’s time to go back to your roots and figure out how to
introduce stylistic flourishes into your scripts that will help to set an instantly
discernible tone and feel to your work.
!
I’m going to go out on a limb now and say… Break a few of the “rules” if
it helps your story. Quentin Tarantino is notorious for his bold style, both as
!
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a screenwriter and as a director. Tarantino is a virtual encyclopedia of movies.


Thus, when he’s writing, that becomes the language he draws upon to create
pictures for the reader. Syd Field would no doubt faint if he read this
description of Minnie’s Haberdashery in The Hateful Eight:
!
It sells a few hats, and gloves, and snow shoes for the
stagecoach passengers. And it received special packages
for people in Red Rock. Like say when Carlos Robate
(Pedro Gonzalez-Gonazalez) in Rio Bravo buys those red
bloomers for his wife Consuela (Estelita Rodriguez),
but doesn’t want everybody in town to know about it.
If he lived in Red Rock, he’d buy them through the
mail, have them sent to Minnie’s and when they arrived,
Minnie would get word to him and he’d ride out there
and pick them up.

!
Big-name screenwriters are given far more license with such techniques, of
course. But if used skillfully, subtly and sparingly, you too can employ
techniques like this to make your screenplay stand out.
!
In truth, despite what many of the movies that actually make it into theaters
might lead you to believe, blandness is a death knell for your screenplay,
especially as a beginning writer trying to break in. Be a little fearless and
give us something distinctive. That way, the studio execs have something
they can make bland. After all, that’s what they get paid for.
!
I’m only kidding. Sort of.
!!
Some tips on how to create a distinctive style and tone…
!
It all boils down to what your English teachers taught you in school: use your
vocabulary. The English language is so wonderfully vast, and different words
convey subtle shades of meaning and different connotations. Some words will
serve you better than others to express the specific tone of a scene, such as
the various permutations of “someone running” discussed above.
!
Finding the appropriate words for your story world is its own exercise, and
these muscles may need a bit of stretching after you’ve learned to confine
your writing to the bare-bones prose of professional screenplay format.
To stay limber, take a stab at writing a short story now and then, just for
the liberty of free expression that fiction affords. It’s a chance to go wild
with your mood, atmosphere and descriptive flair.
!
In addition to individual word choice, broader grammatical structure and
usage are also part of your stylistic toolbox. Something as sterile and intense
as Alex Garland’s Oscar-nominated Ex Machina might call for short, simple
sentences like these:
!
!
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!! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! CUT TO:!

The monitor web-cam POV.!
!
As CALEB stops typing.!
!
He gazes at the message.!
!
Then clicks on the link.!
!
Then mouths the word “fuck.” !
!
Caleb reaches for his cell phone.!
!
This staccato sentence structure helps create exactly the kind of tension
and energy that was eventually translated to the screen.
!
On the other hand, if you’re trying to convey a sense of scope or drama, a
more poetic sentence structure may work better to evoke the proper mood
and feel of the moment. Take a look at this sequence from Birdman or 

(The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance):
! Mike places the dollar under one of the shot glasses and
begins to walk away, but then stops and turns curiously.!
!
MIKE!
Why Raymond Carver? You never told !
me.!
!
Riggan looks at Mike for a second, than reaches for his
wallet and produces an old cocktail napkin with some
writing on it. He slides it to Mike.!
!
RIGGAN!
A long time ago, I did a play back in !
high school in Michigan. He was in the
audience. He sent this backstage after.!
!
MIKE!
"Thank you for an honest performance. !
Ray Carver." What is this?!
!
Riggan looks vulnerable. He is trying to make Mike
understand the importance of the napkin, to build a
bridge between them.!
!
RIGGAN!
And that's when I knew I was going !
to be an actor.!
!
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Mike can't stop himself from smiling.!


!
RIGGAN !
Why is that funny?!
!
MIKE!
He wrote it on a cocktail napkin.!
!
RIGGAN !
So...!
!
Mike slides the napkin back to Riggan.!
!
MIKE !
He was drunk.!
!
How does that sequence make you feel? Can you envision what’s happening?
The mood of it? The screenwriter’s language doesn’t just involve us in the
story and describe the action, it gets us inside the minds of the characters and
gives a visually static scene the feeling of a rollercoaster.
!
Similes and metaphors are also great tools you can use to convey the style
and tone of your film. And keep in mind, this applies not only to description,
but also dialogue. For example, consider the language in Frank Darabont’s
The Shawshank Redemption when Red describes Andy’s absence:
!
RED!
Some birds weren’t meant to be !
caged. Their feathers are just !
too bright. !
!
That piece of dialogue might sound trite or hokey in a film noir or hard-boiled
action movie, but in a lyrical drama about hope in the most difficult of
settings, this language is extremely evocative and very effective. It embodies
the tone of the story.
!
Within the confines of a 100-page screenplay, you don’t have all that many
opportunities to use language like this, so when you come across a chance
to paint a picture in a few words, choose your words carefully. If you’re
writing a horror film, your character isn’t just “bleeding,” his blood is “gushing
like a geyser.” If you’re writing an action film, your hero doesn’t just “jump
to safety,” he “launches himself across the chasm like a Hail Mary pass.”
!
Another stylistic tool you can employ is the use of boldface, underscoring,
italics and caps. Remember that the people reading your scripts are reading
a lot of them. As a professional reader, I’ve been guilty of skimming
description from time to time myself. So when there is a specific detail in your
narrative − a prop, sound or special effect that you really want the reader to
notice − make it stand out by capitalizing the key words. This is also a great
!
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way to help you avoid dictating camera movements and the composition of
shots, which is greatly discouraged in a spec script. So instead of writing,
“When John leaves, we see a close up of his cigarette lighter on a table,” 

try, “John leaves behind his CIGARETTE LIGHTER.”
!
Emphasizing important words of dialogue with underscoring or italics can
also help your readers “hear” your characters speak. In his screenplay for
The Silence of the Lambs, for example, Ted Tally italicizes certain words
in Hannibal Lecter’s dialogue to great effect. Can’t you hear something
almost reptilian in the cadence of lines like:

! DR. LECTER!
Billy’s not a real transsexual, but !
he thinks he is. He tries to be.
!
The trick, of course, is not to get carried away with these devices. Use them
selectively. Too many words capitalized, italicized or otherwise emphasized on
a page dulls the impact on the reader.
!
In a broader sense, the manner in which you choose to tell your story also
helps establish the tone and style of your movie. For instance, in the
previously mentioned Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu and the other
writers are telling a story not just in real time, but in a single, continuous
take. This gives them license to include more camera directions and indicate
transitions between time periods. This is quite unlike Drew Goddard, who in
scripts like The Martian and World War Z tends to use a straight-forward,
conventional narrative with an equal balance between dialogue and action.
!
It’s critical to establish the proper tone for your movie right from the start
and keep that tone consistent throughout your script. Many beginning writers
fail to do this, perhaps because they don’t understand the importance of tone.
But there’s nothing more jarring than to be in the middle of reading a script
that feels like a light comedy, and have it suddenly turn into a dark thriller
on page 30, 60, or 90. A sudden shift in tone that far into your screenplay will
immediately yank the reader out of your story. It’s like a betrayal of trust.
You as the writer have established a certain genre, mood and atmosphere that
we as readers are tracking and (hopefully) enjoying. Then, out of the blue,
we’re blindsided. It suddenly feels as if we’re in a whole different movie.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t have plot twists and
surprises in your story. But if there’s something menacing waiting for us down
the road, give us a hint of that threat right up front. If we’re in for a comic
action romp, give us a sense of the fun to come from the very first page of
your script. Prepare us for what’s ahead and we’ll relish it all the more.
!
Here are some important questions to ask yourself when you sit down to
start work on a new screenplay: 


What is the genre of my movie, and what is the appropriate tone? 

!
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In keeping with that tone, should the narrative style of my script be simple
and straightforward? Clipped and kinetic? Or graceful and evocative?


Is my story grounded in the real world, or does the tone of my story allow
me to use a broadly comic or openly “meta” narrative style?
!
These questions of approach are critical in terms of defining the appropriate
tone and style for your screenplay, and it’s these decisions that will ultimately
set your script apart from the ocean of unproduced screenplays that languish
in the marketplace year after year.
!
I cannot stress enough how important it is to judiciously choose when and
where you impose your style. There are very good reasons that aspiring
screenwriters are taught not to rely on voiceover and flashbacks, to pare
down descriptions and eliminate unnecessary words and scenes. When in
doubt, “less is more.” It’s far better to keep your narrative simple and
straightforward than to “overwrite” your script so that it reads like a novel
or a research manual.
!
That said, having read many hundreds of original screenplays over the past
10 years, I’ve found it’s more frequently the absence or under-development
of style that holds young writers back, rather than an overabundance. You
have a goal more ambitious than simply filling 100 pages. Make your
screenplay yours. – VW
!

!
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!!
!
!
!
!
!
!
About the Author…

Vikram Weet has professional experience in almost every facet of the


entertainment industry from production and post-production to business
affairs and development. He has written coverage and development notes
for numerous production companies, including Kopelson Entertainment,
Outlaw Productions, Bunim-Murray Productions and Original Productions.
Vikram wrote the found-footage horror film Devil’s Pass (2013). Directed
by Renny Harlin, it was hailed by The New York Times as the “ideal midnight
movie.” Other feature credits include ImageNation’s 2017 release The
Worthy, which was directed by Ali F. Mostafa and premiered to high praise
at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival, and Storyboard Entertainment's
Darkness Rising, directed by Austin Reading and starring Katrina Law
and Ted Raimi.
!
!
!
!
!

!
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!
!
!
COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL
!
by John Evans
!
“Number one rule of Wall Street: Nobody − I don’t care if you’re

Warren Buffett or if you’re Jimmy Buffett − nobody knows if a stock 

is gonna go up, down, sideways or in fu**ing circles.”
− Mark Hanna, The Wolf of Wall Street (2015)

! 


Patrons of the arts are a wonderful thing. We wouldn’t have some of the
world’s greatest works of art if it weren’t for wealthy, discerning people willing
to pony up the cash to support the artists responsible. Everyone from Da
Vinci and Shakespeare to Mozart and Beethoven benefitted from patronage. 


Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of patrons of the arts in the entertainment
industry today, and if you write a script, you’re going to need a different kind
of support to get it bought, produced and released. Your project will need to
be a sound financial investment or it’s unlikely to obtain financing. In fact,
when you send your screenplay to an industry executive in hopes of getting
their support, it’s not unlike asking them to get behind in your proposed real
estate scheme, restaurant or button factory. The decision has more to do
with commerce than art. In most cases, you’re trying to enlist a business
person to raise funds for the enterprise you propose (producing a movie or
TV series). You want them to say to investors, “Look, if this script is well
produced and properly marketed it will deliver a meaningful ROI, and here’s
why.” And that, in a nutshell, is commercial potential. 


Does your script represent a good investment? Of course you’re a writer, not
a film producer, distributor or marketer, and that’s all right. But you do have
to understand the fundamentals of commercial potential in order to maximize
this important aspect of your work, so I interviewed several of our PAGE
judges and industry professionals to get their insights on the subject. 


According to Parker Davis, a literary agent at Verve, a script must answer
certain key questions right off the bat. “What is the hook? What is the easily
digestible concept that a marketing department can understand and get
behind? It’s important to remember that the marketing department in every
studio is critical in the green-light process. If that group does not see a path
to success, it is unlikely the studio will move forward.”
!
The first question a marketing department will ask when evaluating the
commercial potential of a project — whether it’s a feature or a series — is: 

“Will anyone want to see this?” If the answer is yes, then how many people
are we talking about? This estimate is not so much a head-count as a 


!
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demographic analysis. Is this a movie most anyone would consider buying 



a ticket to see? Perhaps it’s a series that would be appealing to older
moviegoers, or to teenagers, but not both. Are men and women equally likely
to enjoy this comedy? Is it the kind of indie thriller that is likely to develop 

a small but fervent following? Whatever the project is, the next question is, 

“Do we know how to market this content to its potential audience in a cost-
effective manner?”
!
Producer Mitchell Peck notes that the industry loves clear answers to these
questions. “If your movie has a built-in target audience — like say NASCAR, 

or dog lovers, etc. — then there’s a reasonable expectation that this audience
will come support it,” he explains. “That’s why major studios keep making so
many superhero movies and other branded content — because they know
there’s an audience for it.”
!
Career coach Lee Jessup discusses commercial potential from the writer’s
perspective. “If box office is what the writer is going for, then he or she has
to focus on the sort of universality and uniqueness that would make the project
an appealing one for a broad section of the movie-going population, and
potentially transcend culture and even language barriers,” she says.

Literary manager Andrew Kersey also notes the importance of foreign appeal
to a script’s prospects. “A good place to start is whether or not the concept
will appeal to moviegoers beyond U.S. audiences,” he says. “International box
office drives the decision-making process at the studio and buyer level.”
!
“Some genres are more reliable at the box office than others,” notes Peck.
“Action/adventure movies tend to perform well both domestically and
internationally, whereas sports movies don’t ‘travel’ well overseas. Dramas
aren’t typically regarded as having commercial DNA. Period dramas are even
tougher [to sell].”
!
If the project seems likely to resonate with a broad audience, then the
potential budget can be quite a bit larger than something with only “cult”
appeal. Some financiers would rather place a big bet, risking $100 million
and hoping to make hundreds of millions, while others love the idea of a $1
million production budget if the project comes with a reasonable expectation
that they’ll see three or four times that on the back end. But everyone is
looking for as close to a sure thing as possible.
!
“Buyers really only buy things that they intend to make,” observes Madhouse
Entertainment’s Ryan Cunningham. Ultimately, “not everything gets made, of
course, but it’s rare that they buy something expecting it to be a waste of
time and money. If they simply like a writer’s voice and want to work with
them, they’ll put a blind deal in place or hire them for something else instead.”
!
Think of it this way. If someone you didn’t know came up to you on the street
and said “Hey, if you give me one month’s pay, I will make you something
wonderful with it,” you’re not likely to part with the moolah without knowing


!
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what that wonderful thing will be worth, are you? You’d want to be pretty
darn sure it’s not a waste of money before you fork over your hard-earned
cash. Now imagine if that wonderful thing was just words on a page.


As a writer, you are proposing a business partnership. You are saying, “if 

you work with me on this project, it will make you money. I’m a talented
professional whose script will provide the basis for produced content, the
value of which greatly exceeds whatever you invest in me.”
!
Jessup acknowledges that it’s not easy for the experts to choose money-
making projects. “At the end of the day, it's difficult — if not impossible — to
reverse-engineer box office success, as it is all about the execution, and there
are so many elements that shift, change and adjust going from script to
screen. I promise you that all of those summer box-office flops were once
thought of as huge box-office draws!”
!
Cunningham suggests that part of the problem in projecting whether or not 

a film will resonate with audiences is the amount of time it takes to see
something through from script to screen. “Since even in the fastest situation
it takes at least two years to get a movie made, you have to project forward in
time to figure out if a script is viable. That means looking at under-served
genres, or looking at larger forces in the culture and the marketplace to try
and guess what will be relevant in a couple years. It’s all cyclical though, so
what was popular 10 years ago might be popular again in two.”
!
A good way to assess the value of your own content is to compare it to what’s
out there already. Is your feature spec or pilot comparable in some obvious
way to big hits from the last few years? Does it seem like it would fit right in
on the marquee at your local multiplex? Would it make a good follow-up to
whatever’s airing Sunday night on HBO, or Thursday night on NBC? If the
answer is truthfully “yes,” then you’re already on the right track.
!
Producer Mitchell Peck advises writers to know how their film will be classified.
“You should know the genre of your movie, and you should be able to identify
several movies within the genre that are comparable to it,” he says. “Ask
yourself whether these comparable movies were commercially successful.”
!
Of course, no one wants to see a carbon copy of existing work, no matter how
successful the original was. Audiences and industry professionals tend to be
in complete agreement on this point. In fact, it’s important to consciously
avoid being too similar to something else, even by accident. “Be aware of
other projects out there already,” cautions Cunningham. “If you’re writing a
script that’s too close to a movie coming out soon, or one that’s already been
out recently, that will dampen your chances of selling a new spec.”
!
Jessup also cautions writers against trying too hard to emulate the flavor of
the month. “Don't chase the market − it's a losing battle before you even
start! Don't seek out what is currently in trend; by the time you have finished
your own version of it, that trend will have passed.”
! !
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The trick is evoking memories of well-liked, financially successful projects


while adding a clever new wrinkle. Davis explains, “Look at something like
The Shallows. [It’s] Jaws, but in shallow water. A surfer on a rock instead
of a man in a boat. The saying, ‘Something new but different’ is cliché and
oversimplified, but it’s true.”
!
A bold new twist on a proven model is something Jessup values when
considering the potential appeal of a project. “You look at elements such as
concepts, characters, worlds, global themes, etc.,” said Lee. “The broader the
material and the wider its appeal, the better, but it does have to be executed in
a new, different, exciting way that shows us characters or worlds we’ve not
seen before, or explores universal themes through a new lens.”

So, what’s a writer to do about all this? How can you make your scripts more
commercially viable?


“Write an AMAZING character,” advises Davis. “If you can cast your movie,
you can make your movie.”
!
Peck agrees, “Movie stars help sell movies. If your script’s leading role could
be played by 20 different financeable movie stars, then that’s one broad
indication of its commercial viability, because their face will be on posters and
in commercials helping to market the movie.”
!
Research and knowledge are very helpful, Kersey believes. “Watch the movies
that are hits. Read the spec scripts that sell. Look for the common threads in
terms of themes, worlds, characters and concepts. Digest. Then find a totally
fresh way to tell a story that is familiar but different.”
!
“Have a simple but unique story that you want to tell,” suggests Cunningham.
“The concept needs to be clean – pitchable in a one-or-two-sentence logline.
Even if it’s well written it’ll be hard to sell if the concept isn’t simple, yet
strong. And the script needs to be structurally sound. Not formulaic, but
adhering to a three-act structure and getting into the story quickly. The
writer’s individual voice plays a role too, but if the first two factors aren’t
working, then even a unique new voice will get lost in the marketplace.”
!
Jessup believes writers can balance commercial considerations with the call
of the muse. “Write what you love, what you yourself would want to see and
have passion for, but also explore how to write it in the broadest, most
commercial and universal manner, so long as it is true to the piece.” 


“There are myriad exceptions to any Hollywood algorithm for success at the
box office,” says Peck. “Popular culture is constantly evolving. The Hollywood
marketplace is ever-shifting.”
!
The intent of this book is to help screenwriters understand the thought
process behind the “pass” or “recommend” decisions made by industry execs,
and commercial potential is certainly a key factor for an industry that keeps its

!
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eye on the bottom line. Studying scripts that sell, movies that flop and
succeed, and the ever-shifting tastes of the public will give you some idea of
where the market may be heading. But trends will change, hot genres will go
cold and dead ones will find new life. (And apparently, zombies will keep on
returning.)
!
At the end of the day, as on the PAGE Awards contest scorecard, commercial
potential is just one of many aspects that combine to make or break a script.
“I simply judge ‘commercial potential’ as whether or not the script has a good
chance of selling in the marketplace,” Cunningham tells us. “That’s connected
to, but not always totally aligned with, what gets made and what does well at
the box office.”
!
“I never worry about box-office potential when reading scripts,” says Davis.
“There are too many variables between me reading and the movie being
made. So I let the studios worry about that. All I look for is, will this script
attract top talent? Producers? Directors? Cast?”
!
“For me, assessing/evaluating the commercial and box office potential is not
my primary consideration,” says Peck of his mindset when reading a writer’s
work. ”As a producer, I’m looking for a great original script. With that as
my Archimedean point, I can attract a director, a movie star, etc., and leverage
that package of elements into financing and distribution. Realistically
speaking... whether the script will be made into a good movie that will be
marketed properly, released strategically, and ultimately find an audience is
outside of the screenwriter's control.”
!
Kersey is on the same page. “I respond more to voice that anything else,” he
says. “Rarely do I hear a concept by a new writer that excites me in terms of
‘can it sell?’ Therefore, the writer's voice — typically a good indicator of where
she/he is as a writer — is what I zero in on. A special/unique voice becomes
apparent in the first few pages.”

!
Jessup is also an advocate for great writing, first and foremost. “Challenge
yourself to find your voice, to perfect your craft, to get better from script to
script, to demonstrate superior execution and, most importantly, put your
passion on the page. At the end of the day, that is what inspires people in
this industry.”
!
So there you have it. I hope that having a deeper understanding of the
demands of the marketplace will help you conjure more commercially viable
ideas, help you decide which projects to devote your precious time and energy
to, and serve as a compass with your creative choices. Pair this industry
savvy with your most passionate writing and you are more likely to present
the industry with the kind of material that is the most exciting of all — stories
that are easy to sell, both to audiences and to those who must invest their
time, treasure, and influence in translating your vision to the screen. – JE
!

!
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!!
!
!
!
!
!
!
About the Author…
!
A former newspaper reporter, John Evans received his MFA in Screenwriting
from Boston University. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2001, he has worked
in the development departments at ABC, The Donners’ Company, Kopelson
Entertainment and Amazon Studios, evaluating many hundreds of screenplays.
He has worked as a copy editor for the Annenberg Foundation and the Deutsch
advertising agency, among other clients, and his four-book contribution to
Enslow Publishing’s “Championship Coaches” series is available to high school
students nationwide. John has been a judge for the PAGE Awards since 2005.
He is the editor of the PAGE publication LOGLINE: The Screenwriter’s eZine.
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© 2010, 2017 Production Arts Group, LLC – All Rights Reserved
Published for the PAGE International Screenwriting Awards
pageawards.com

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