You are previewing Screenwriting Tips, You Hack.
O'Reilly logo
Screenwriting Tips, You Hack

Book Description

Screenwriting Tip #99
Voice-over usually feels like scaffolding. You know-something you left in there when you were constructing the first draft, but really should have torn out after it served its purpose.

Screenwriting Tip #120
Always remember that funny trumps everything. Your script could be written in crayon with your name spelled wrong on the cover, but if it's genuinely funny, none of that matters.

Screenwriting Tip #156
The easiest way to write kick-ass protagonists is to make them incredibly good at what they do.

Confused at the outline stage? Stuck in the swamp of Act Two? Don't know who your protagonist is or where she's going?

You might feel like a hack. But don't worry-you're not alone. Even the most experienced writers feel like this at times. Sometimes we just need a few short pointers and reminders to set us on the path again.

Xander Bennett worked as a script reader in the trenches of Hollywood, reading and covering hundreds of mediocre screenplays. After months of reading about heroic Sea World trainers, transgendered circus detectives and crime-fighting chupacabras, he couldn't take it any more. Xander started a blog called 'Screenwriting Tips, You Hack', a place designed to provide short, witty tips on screenwriting for amateur writers all the way up to journeymen scribes.

This book is the evolution of that blog. Dozens of the best scripts (along with many brand-new ones) have been expanded into bite-sized chapters full of funny, insightful, highly usable advice. Let Xander's pain be your gain as you learn about the differences between film and television structure, how to force yourself to write when you really don't want to, and why you probably shouldn't base your first spec script around an alien invasion.

Table of Contents

  1. Cover
  2. Halftitle
  3. Title
  4. Copyright
  5. Table of Contents
  6. Introduction
  7. Chapter 1 FADE IN: Before You Put Digits to Keyboard
    1. Screenwriting Tip #1: Don’t be boring!
    2. Screenwriting Tip #2: Actually read scripts.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #3: Steal dialog and mannerisms from your loved ones.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #4: Use your friends for research.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #5: Have a lot of hobbies.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #6: Read an Oscar-nominated script.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #7: Write for your friends who are actors and directors.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #8: Take your annoying friend and put him in your script.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #9: Choose the concept with the higher degree of difficulty.
    10. Screenwriting Tip #10: Watch old movies. They have the best dialog.
  8. Chapter 2 No Idea: Concept Is King
    1. Screenwriting Tip #11: Pick the right concept.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #12: Know your logline.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #13: Your screenplay is not about what happens. It’s about who it happens to.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #14: Pick a newbie-friendly concept for your first spec.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #15: Hollywood? Not so hot for historical accuracy.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #16: Check IMDB first.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #17: Spec episode? Try a Christmas theme.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #18: You have 100 pages in which to tell any story in the world.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #19: Write your dream project.
    10. Screenwriting Tip #20: Your concept is not a state secret.
  9. Chapter 3 Rebel without a Plan: Outlining Is the Best Present You Can Give Your Future Self
    1. Screenwriting Tip #21: Don’t start writing until you’ve finished outlining.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #22: You are allowed to deviate from your outline.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #23: Know how it ends before you start writing a single page.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #24: Like titles, character names matter.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #25: Starting with a flashback is overdone.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #26: Research mental illness before you give your protagonist one.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #27: Approach an adaptation beat by beat.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #28: TV characters need bigger problems than film characters.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #29: Don’t use the same trick to end every scene.
  10. Chapter 4 Inciting Incident: Away We Go
    1. Screenwriting Tip #30: Nobody likes a mopey protagonist. Moping is backstory.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #31: Nobody’s first spec is any good.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #32: The setting is like another character.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #33: Don’t overdescribe.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #34: Let your voice into the script.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #35: There should be dialog on Page One (or, failing that, explosions).
    7. Screenwriting Tip #36: Don’t open a script with a quote.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #37: If something pisses you off, write about it.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #38: The best ideas always come in the last thirty seconds before you fall asleep.
  11. Chapter 5 Structure: Learn the Rules or Get Off the Field
    1. Screenwriting Tip #39: Study structure until it becomes a part of you. Then apply it.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #40: Television structure is completely different.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #41: Stop treating your characters like precious, precious snowflakes.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #42: Find the “watershed” line of dialog in every scene.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #43: Give your romantic leads a reason to fall in love.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #44: “Raising the stakes” only works if we understand what the stakes mean.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #45: Every scene must move the plot forward in some way.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #46: When characters are moving around, make it one scene.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #47: Allowing the audience to know more than the protagonist is best used in Act 1.
    10. Screenwriting Tip #48: The best plot twists are the ones that make a shocking amount of sense.
    11. Screenwriting Tip #49: Endings are hard.
  12. Chapter 6 Description and Word Choice: Say What You Mean
    1. Screenwriting Tip #50: Set every scene.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #51: Description isn’t just setting a scene – it’s also about building character.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #52: Go easy on the caps-lock.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #53: Don’t direct through description.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #54: Don’t get too caught up in describing the special effects.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #55: “Wise beyond his years” is a character description cliché.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #56: Your characters should never “start” to do anything.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #57: Too much detail gets in the dialog’s way.
  13. Chapter 7 Your Protagonist: The Most Interesting Girl in the Room
    1. Screenwriting Tip #58: The easiest way to write a kick-ass protagonist is to make them incredibly good at what they do.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #59: Steal a trick from video games: take your protagonist’s best weapons away.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #60: The protagonist doesn’t get to be happy between pages 15 and 95.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #61: Give the protagonist what she wants … right after she’s realized she doesn’t want it any more.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #62: Lacking drama and conflict? Do the Worst Possible Outcome Test.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #63: Character growth is organic.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #64: Let your characters rage and struggle against their fate.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #65: The fastest shortcut to emotion is family.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #66: Are you as sick of the meet-cute as I am?
    10. Screenwriting Tip #67: Everyone likes a protagonist who succeeds because of her wits.
    11. Screenwriting Tip #68: Heart-on-sleeve monologues are kind of a cheat.
  14. Chapter 8 Showing Character: Surprises, Sock Puppets, and Bad, Bad Men
    1. Screenwriting Tip #69: When designing your antagonist, remember: evil doesn’t know it’s evil.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #70: Surprise us with character actions that make perfect sense.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #71: You have to make us love these characters. Sometimes that will involve hurting them badly.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #72: How you treat your minor characters says a lot about the kind of person you are.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #73: Don’t make your villain an evil corporation instead of a real person.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #74: Avoid unisex names.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #75: Every major character should have a backstory (but they don’t have to tie into the main plot).
    8. Screenwriting Tip #76: Actually give your minor characters names.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #77: Everybody lies – it’s the bedrock of conversation.
  15. Chapter 9 Dialog: We Need to Talk
    1. Screenwriting Tip #78: Action before dialog.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #79: Cut grand speeches. Subtext beats text.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #80: Less dialog is more.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #81: Too much action screws up your lovely white space.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #82: Never interrupt your characters when they’re arguing with each other.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #83: Dialog should reflect a character’s description.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #84: Don’t waste key dialog markers on filler dialog.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #85: You have to actually write background dialog.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #86: No need to put (beat) or (pause) into the dialog because you think it’ll sound nice.
    10. Screenwriting Tip #87: Imagine you were an actor and you had to read the lines that you’re writing.
    11. Screenwriting Tip #88: Don’t write phonetic dialog (e.g., “Ah coulda bin a contendah.”).
    12. Screenwriting Tip #89: Shorthand, familiarity, and in-jokes are your ticket to quick characterization.
  16. Chapter 10 Genre: Waiter, There’s a Comedy in My Thriller
    1. Screenwriting Tip #90: Horror doesn’t need to target the mind, or even the heart. Horror needs to target the hairs on the back of the neck.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #91: Jokes can’t save a scene that’s not advancing the plot or affecting the protagonist.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #92: Always remember that funny trumps everything.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #93: Write scripts in the same genres you watch, love, quote, and buy the Criterion DVDs of.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #94: Make the genre obvious on every single page.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #95: Write something in the genre that most intimidates you.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #96: Don’t start at zero and accelerate – instead, start tense and build higher.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #97: If your script’s a comedy, open with a joke on Page One.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #98: Pop culture references are not necessarily the same thing as jokes.
    10. Screenwriting Tip #99: Don’t follow comedy trends.
  17. Chapter 11 Productivity: Writing Equals Ass on Chair (So Buy a Decent Chair)
    1. Screenwriting Tip #100: The point of a first draft is just to exist.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #101: Write even when you really don’t want to.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #102: Don’t just back up your data – use cloud storage.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #103: More lottery tickets means more chances to win.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #104: Specific promises, not vague ones.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #105: Why not take part in Script Frenzy?
    7. Screenwriting Tip #106: Don’t spend more time making mp3 playlists for the project than actually writing the project.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #107: Don’t let your health go when you’re working on a script.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #108: Work on the project that excites you the most.
  18. Chapter 12 The Dark Point: Why Are You Doing This Again?
    1. Screenwriting Tip #109: Watch your favorite movie at least once a year to remind yourself why you’re doing this.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #110: Don’t worry that you’re getting too far away from the ideal movie in your head.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #111: The answers to most story problems are right there in Act 1, where you left them.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #112: “I’ve been working on this script for two years” isn’t a boast; it’s a cry for help.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #113: Remember when you were a kid and movies were beautiful, frightening, and transformative? Forget the rest of the world and write for that kid.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #114: Writing can be massively therapeutic.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #115: Keep writing.
  19. Chapter 13 Advanced Structure: Getting from Good to Great
    1. Screenwriting Tip #116: Raise questions, drop hints, leave riddles half-solved – whatever it takes to keep them turning the page.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #117: If you give me the same information twice, I will assume it’s a vital plot element.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #118: Give your scenes different shapes.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #119: “Romantic subplot” doesn’t necessarily mean “romance.”
    5. Screenwriting Tip #120: Don’t sabotage your own pacing.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #121: Unlike film protagonists, the goal of TV protagonists is often to preserve the status quo.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #122: Make a list of everything your protagonist would do to achieve her ultimate goal.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #123: Don’t start a sentence with the word “then”.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #124: Here’s a quick and dirty rule for action paragraphs: nothing longer than three lines.
  20. Chapter 14 Rewriting: Now the Real Work Begins
    1. Screenwriting Tip #125: Don’t change a few lines of dialog and pretend it’s a whole new draft.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #126: Know how to use the Find function? Great!
    3. Screenwriting Tip #127: Characters not meshing properly with the theme? Go back and change their backstory and motivations.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #128: Listen to every piece of script feedback like it’s the most important advice in the world.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #129: People will say they can tell in the first ten pages whether they’ll like your script. They’relying – they can tell by the first page.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #130: Most of the time, voiceover feels like scaffolding.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #131: 100 pages is the new 120 pages. Cut it down.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #132: One event after the other, in the order that they happen.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #133: Just as you’d cut a sentence down to its leanest, strongest form, so should you cut a scene down to its leanest, strongest emotion.
    10. Screenwriting Tip #134: Do an emotional pass … not for the protagonist, but for the audience.
    11. Screenwriting Tip #135: Almost everything in your script can serve more than one purpose. Anything that’s not multipurpose is a candidate for cutting.
    12. Screenwriting Tip #136: In the first draft, the plot has to make only emotional sense. In the final draft, it has to make logical sense, too.
  21. Chapter 15 Common Mistakes: Don’t Be That Guy
    1. Screenwriting Tip #137: The spellcheck is not your friend. The spellcheck doesn’t even have a brain.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #138: Trust the audience to figure out how your characters know each other.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #139: Don’t do that thing where one character makes a lame joke and another character points out that it was lame.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #140: Try to pick cool, weird, and/or memorable names.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #141: Don’t do running gags that run the entire length of your script.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #142: Stop telling us what characters’ faces look like.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #143: Don’t use voiceover to describe the action that we’re seeing on screen right now.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #144: “Fourteen,” not “14.” Write the actual word. This is a screenplay, not a tweet.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #145: Don’t put action in the parentheticals. That’s what the action lines are for.
    10. Screenwriting Tip #146: Characters who blurt out non sequiturs right after waking is now a comedy script cliché.
  22. Chapter 16 Extremely Specific Mistakes: Hey You! Yes, You
    1. Screenwriting Tip #147: 9/11 is the laziest of all tragic backstories, with the possible exception of “parents died in a car crash.”
    2. Screenwriting Tip #148: Protagonists who yell their epiphanies to the world are a cliché.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #149: Your character did not “pour” over the documents – not unless she just spilled her drink.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #150: If you’re going to break the rules, do it in spectacular fashion.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #151: “Ordinance” means laws. “Ordnance” means military supplies. Neither is synonymous with “bullets.”
    6. Screenwriting Tip #152: If there’s an animal in your script, it had better not be there as a lame, throwaway joke. Do you know how much those things cost?
    7. Screenwriting Tip #153: An ellipsis cannot be made longer by adding more dots. Don’t be that guy.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #154: Don’t write a scene in which somebody cracks a safe in five minutes with a stethoscope.
    9. Screenwriting Tip #155: Thunderstorms do not automatically make your third act more badass.
    10. Screenwriting Tip #156: Just a friendly reminder: the word “penultimate” does not mean “really, really ultimate.”
  23. Chapter 17 Selling Yourself: Loglines, Queries, and Managers
    1. Screenwriting Tip #157: There are exactly three reasons why someone will buy a script.
    2. Screenwriting Tip #158: Sell your ideas. Sound like you just had the best idea of your entire freaking life and you can’t wait to share it.
    3. Screenwriting Tip #159: Lead with the best parts of your pitch.
    4. Screenwriting Tip #160: When pitching a bunch of ideas at once, don’t short-change any of them.
    5. Screenwriting Tip #161: A brilliant spec script is one of the most powerful things in Hollywood.
    6. Screenwriting Tip #162: Pitching your script as a mashup of two popular films is just an opening gambit.
    7. Screenwriting Tip #163: Don’t let your agent, manager, or best friend write your logline.
    8. Screenwriting Tip #164: Do you have the life rights/book rights to go with your biopic script?
    9. Screenwriting Tip #165: Don’t self-censor.
    10. Screenwriting Tip #166: Work as hard as you can reasonably manage.
    11. Screenwriting Tip #167: “Wait and see” is not an effective pitching strategy.
  24. Chapter 18 FADE OUT: Why We Write
    1. Screenwriting Tip #168: As a writer, your highest calling is to remind us of a universal truth that we’ve forgotten. That truth might be “love conquers all,” or it might be “explosions are cool.” It’s entirely up to you.
  25. Afterword
  26. Appendix How to Cover a Screenplay
  27. Index