Scripting the scripty script?
May 19, 2004 9:56 AM   Subscribe

Speaking of movie scripts, recently a concept for one barged it's way into my head - without even wiping it's feet. There it was. I assume that, in such cases, it's who you know that is important. So - not knowing anyone - I wonder if I should bother (more inside), but I do feel like developing it a bit. Should I noodle out the minutia of dialogue or simply focus on the broad concept ?

This one whacked me in the head while I wasn't looking, and i sort of like "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" meets "You've got mail" meets Monty Python....a warmhearted international romantic comedy of errors, about technology, assumptions, and (of course) unexpected love - but not wholly declawed and with some sharp political edges. I dubbed it "You've got scam!". The same day it hit me, I scrawled out over thirty pages at the beach and it didn't even blow away, nor did any stray dogs piss on it. I have no idea what to do (never having even considered the thought of writing a screenplay let alone a comedy) other than to let it sulk and whine whilst I feed it scraps of time here and there. Obviously, I'm being cagey about the idea itself.
posted by troutfishing to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I like Wordplay, a movie script site run by one of the guys who wrote 'Pirates of the Carribean.' Good stuff. Brutal, but good. Browse his articles for ideas on how to proceed.
posted by Tacodog at 10:12 AM on May 19, 2004

Broad concept, broad concept, broad concept. There are two parts to a story, particularly a single-protagonist screenplay: a premise, and a climactic decision. If you ask me, these are the two things you more or less want to have worked out in your head before you start working through the screenplay in a linear way. You have a romantic comedy, which can have two protagonists, but can also have only one. Regardless, near the end of the story, each protagonist is going to have some kind of sacrificial decision, preferably intertwined, and knowing what it's going to be, and how it's going to resolve itself, will give you something to build toward. (A dead simple example of this is O. Henry's "Tale of the Magi.") All along the way you can build in foreshadowing and rhymes and reflections such that there's this string of pearls to which that climactic decision seems like a natural conclusion. And that/those climactic decision/s is/are going to, consciously or not, express something you believe about the human condition.

The premise is what keeps the reader/viewer engaged enough to find out what you think about the human condition.

When those two pieces in place -- and maybe they already are -- then you should actually consider creating something. Worry about dialogue last, and instead try to come up with scenes. An interesting scene is one in which the characters are trying to achieve contrary goals. Only write interesting scenes. Remember the climax that you're working toward. When it comes time to do dialogue, don't have anyone say what they mean, and remember that scenes are about contrary goals.

I should say that most of what I know about this stuff comes from Robert McKee's "Story."
posted by blueshammer at 10:21 AM on May 19, 2004

you could keep on going like you did -- you'll add the missing dialogue later. as soon as you have in your hands a long treatment with some scenes already included, you can just go back and finish the whole thing adding the missing dialogue

do you already have in mind three acts and an ending? (in comedy, structure and dialogue key -- check out this great Howard Hawks book -- it can be a very useful primer)

just keep in mind one pages is roughly one minute of screen time. so that you don't end up writing a nine hour movie...
posted by matteo at 10:25 AM on May 19, 2004

There are some tips to writing a good script over at Raindance - their courses are excellent too if you're in the UK (yeah, so I worked for them last summer).

I think the most important thing to figure out is your story's main selling points and the level of cliché you want to include. I mean, familiar ideas will make the view feel comfortable, but some of the scripts I've seen.. Yeesh..
posted by Mossy at 10:28 AM on May 19, 2004

By all means write a screenplay if you find the process enjoyable, but do not do so in the expectation of anything coming of it. It is very hard even to find an agent (without whose services no one will look at it), much harder to get people who make movies to give it a serious look, even harder still to get them to part with option money, and next to impossible to get the movie made... and if lightning strikes and a movie does come of it, I guarantee you everything you loved about it will have been ruined by the innumerable brainless jerks who have had their paws on it during the process. (No, I don't write screenplays, but I know someone who does, and the whole thing makes her miserable. Don't Let This Happen to You.)
posted by languagehat at 10:35 AM on May 19, 2004

Should I noodle out the minutia of dialogue or simply focus on the broad concept ?

I'm not sure if you're saying which should you do first, or whether you should bother with the dialog at all. know you have to do both, right? A this point it's a matter of what works better for you in terms of your process.

The main character should want something specific, and it should have an ending. The absence of those two qualities is what keeps most first-time scripts from ever being finished.
posted by bingo at 10:39 AM on May 19, 2004

You might want to read Billy Mernit's Writing the Romantic Comedy. The genre is extremely formulaic and this book manages to break that formula down to 7 "steps" which are easily understood. He gives examples from everything from Bringing up Baby to Notting Hill.

The currently accepted "basic" formula for Hollywood is a three act structure which, for that industry, was "created" by producer Don Simpson and then marketed by screenwriting "guru" Syd Field. I'm not a fan of the structure myself--at least, not a fan of forcing it onto a not-yet-written script, but it certainly has its uses. (For a good understanding of the purpose of acts and the function of character within them, I highly recommend James Ryan's horribly titled but simply fantastic book, Screenwriting from the Heart, which I think is the best single volume on screenwriting for anyone who already understands the basics.)

The three act structure is this:
  • Act I - Setup (Beginning)
  • Act II - Complication (Middle)
  • Act III - Resolution (End)
(Aristotle tells us that the beginning is that part which nothing precedes, the end is that part after which nothing follows. Contemporary dramatic instruction translates this to In Late, Out Early. ie, always start a script/act/scene/line as late as possible and end it as soon as possible, while still communicating the necessary elements of that script/act/scene/line.)

For romantic comedy, it is much easier to think of these acts as
  • Act I - Desire
  • Act II - Deception
  • Act III - Discovery
This was suggested by UCLA (USC?) film prof Howard Suber in his tremendous commentary to the film The Graduate (without doubt the best commentary I've ever heard by anyone)--unfortunately it was only available on laserdisc. (Can often be found on eBay. Search for Criterion Graduate).

The first act is the first quarter of the movie, the second act the next two quarters and the last act the final quarter. For a 120 minute movie that would be 30 minutes, 60 minutes, 30 minutes. At the end of these acts is usually a happening ("plot point") which reverses the action of the story.

One other very significant point in a screenplay usually happens midway through the script (page 60 in a two hour script). It's generally when the character makes a conscious effort to get what s/he wants (every character in your script should want something). Suber calls the first half the "react" half and the second the "act" half--at least in regards to The Graduate.

As matteo mentioned, screenplays are basically made up of two things: structure and dialogue. The important thing to remember is that both of these things must revolve around conflict. Narrative without conflict is like romance without mystery: dull and predictable (for a perfect example, see Tim Burton's "Big Fish," which I attempted to watch last night. No conflict. Dull and predictable.).

In my experience, most new (screen)writers have great difficulty understanding what conflict is. They think it's present in their writing, but to anyone with objectivity, it isn't. Whenever I've discussed it with new writers, I always give this example (paraphrasing) by David Mamet (found in his terrific book On Directing Film--a must read for any screenwriter, regardless of the title):

Premise: Tom owes Bob $20, which the audience already knows.

The bad writer writes this:


Bob enters the room and sees Tom watching an old movie on television and eating a turkey sandwich.

Tom, I've told you again and again, I want that twenty dollars you borrowed off me last week. I need it for the rent!


The good writer writes this:


Bob and Tom.

Where were you last night?


In Erroll Morris' film Fog of War, Robert McNamara lists as one of his rules of life, "Never answer the question they ask. Always answer the question you wish they'd asked." This is a great and simple way for characters to behave if you want to punch up your conflict.

Once the script is done, indeed, it's "who you know". The only "easy" way around the not knowing anyone part is to place highly in one of the two most respected screenwriting contests, both of which have deadlines that just passed. They are the Nicholl Fellowship and the Austin Heart of Film.

The Nicholl is the biggest in the world, with over 6000 entrants in 2002 and 2003. If you manage to make the top 5%, you'll start to get contacted by the "up and comer" agents/producers. Place higher than that and you'll get calls from more established people. Win and you're pretty much guaranteed a quality agent at a high profile agency. I know two people who've won, each make a living writing in LA though only one who's been produced. I placed top 5% last year and had emails from the various producers/agents of Soccer Dog movies to the people behind The Ring and American Pie. I hope to win this year. ;)

You may also want to workshop your script at places like However, I find the people there, for the most part, to be ridiculously amateur and, sadly, very stupid. After posting the above-mentioned script (prior to placing in the contest), i was called everything from a peadophile to a womanizer to a pornographer. If your film is at all not formulaic, they'll tear it apart regardless of it's quality. Almost without exception, they have a very rudimentary understanding of narrative, mostly gleaned from blockbusters and Syd Field books.

Depending on your cash flow and the seriousness with which you want to approach this idea of yours, I'd recommend picking up some screenwriting software. I recommend Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000, which can usually be had on eBay for about $100. Final Draft is another popular package. I've just never used it. (I've used mm2000 on windows and mac and it works flawlessly on both--their support is also excellent.) These programs don't help you plot/write your story, but just ensure that your script is in proper screenplay format (no one will look at it if it isn't) and allow you to do so as easily as possible. (The Nicholl link above has a link to a sample of the accepted Hollywood layout.)

For brainstorming ideas, it's hard to top Inspiration though NovaMind is trying real hard by adding a screenwriting element to their software (they haven't caught up yet, imo).

Good luck!
posted by dobbs at 11:33 AM on May 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

Obviously any sales pitch to a studio exec is going to rely on some synopsis. You should find out what the estbalished format is for subitting one. But I would guess that if it's accepted, you want to have it ready to hand over. As soon as someone is the slightest bit interested, they're obviously going to want to see more. A literary agent once told me to send along a full manuscript with every synopsis/pitch, because if she likes the sound of it, she wants to dig in right away.

And if you want to do this thing, anyway, what's the point of sitting around not writing it?
posted by scarabic at 11:36 AM on May 19, 2004

What dobbs wrote is great - I was putting this together while he wrote, but I think he covered most of it...

languagehat - If nobody made money from screenwriting, no movies would get made. Yes, it's hard, but that's no reason not to try. The post is pretty clear in that troutfishing is inspired to write, not make a ton of money. Yes, screenwriting is hard. That's why everybody doesn't do it. But at this stage, troutfishing should write it as if it was the next 'You've Got Mail' - because it might be. I'll bet for every person who wants to write something creative (novel, short story, script) - there's somebody in the wings (who 'knows somebody') waiting to tell them how hard it will be to make money from it. If you don't take the first step and actually write something, you'll never know. So why dwell on the marketing aspects before anything's been written?

So yes, write the script! A class can be a good way to get the basics down - even a community-college type workshop can get you started on the right track. For example, formatting is very important to people who read scripts, so you might want to get that down first - a good place to learn is a class. Script writing software like Final Draft, while not necessary, definitely is helpful in that it pretty much ensures that you'll get things in the correct format. It's not 100%, though, so definitely learn the rules. I know it's a little counter-intuitive to learn the format first, but it's easy and will save you time later.

Once you know the format, the best tool for learning to write is to read a ton of scripts and watch a ton of movies. You can find scripts all over the internet for free, usually (e-mail me if you want a list of some sites - I don't have them handy.) Remember that what you read will often not be in the 'correct' format. That's because the format has changed over time, and some more established writer's don't follow it. Sometimes what you find on the internet has been transcribed, which isn't as good - look for PDFs of the original script. is a great site and while it's honest, it's also very encouraging.

On another note, there are other ways to make money - notably contests - with your screenplay. I know somebody who wrote a screenplay, showed it to some people, rewrote it a LOT, and has finished in the top three in a few contests for a grand total of around 40k. Not enough to retire on, but not bad either.
posted by drobot at 11:53 AM on May 19, 2004

addendum: when I wrote that screenwriting is mostly dialogue and structure, I meant that those are the most obvious areas that bring a script down if a writer doesn't have a firm grasp of how to use them. Good scripts are "about" character and plot, which are revealed through dialogue and structure. However, in Hollywood's eyes, it's far easier to fix plot/character than it is structure/dialogue, and if your s/d is not good, their lacking will leap off the page. They're also not easily argued about (ie, you can always say someone misunderstood a character or plot point (though not a good idea, of course), but you can rarely make a case for poor dialogue/structure).
posted by dobbs at 12:45 PM on May 19, 2004

However, in Hollywood's eyes, it's far easier to fix plot/character than it is structure/dialogue, and if your s/d is not good, their lacking will leap off the page.

What odd pairings. Structure/dialog? Dialog is easy to rework, structure is not.
posted by bingo at 1:08 PM on May 19, 2004

bingo, I'm just talking about getting your ass in the door. Poor dialogue/structure is the first sign of an amateur. With the exception of format, dialogue is the easiest thing to fuck up and get your script tossed in the round file as the reader may not get beyond the first page or two.

In addition, dialogue is only easy to rework if it's "close" to good in the first place--meaning the words are "wrong" but the meaning is "right". However, usually when it's not good, it's not good because it lacks conflict and ambles on. Conflict is not an easy thing to "just" add throughout the script (what would need to be done to fix that kind of dialogue) and dialogue that doesn't snap can drastically throw off a page count. 120 page script with dialogue that doesn't get in and out fast can easily be 70 pages of script, which just doesn't cut it.
posted by dobbs at 1:28 PM on May 19, 2004

Okay, I agree. Thanks for clarifying.
posted by bingo at 1:31 PM on May 19, 2004

Just a pointer: if you do write a screenplay or even a complete synopsis - especially if you think its selling point is its clever story - register it with the Writer's Union. It's cheap, and it serves to prove that you had the idea first if someone steals it, which makes it easier to show it around, workshop it, &c.
posted by nicwolff at 5:44 PM on May 19, 2004

troutfishing: I read your question several times and confess that I'm not sure what you're asking. Obviously (at least I hope it's obvious) if you genuinely wish to make a go of it, you need to develop a full-blown screenplay (the standard strategy is to have at least 3-4 completed before even trying to find an agent. See, an agent is more interested in your future prospects than in one particular screenplay -- they wanna know you can produce consistently before they expend the resources to go to bat on your behalf). A novice cannot realistically hope to sell a mere treatment or synopsis. Even novelists with a proven track record of crafting compelling stories find that their material, once optioned, is (more often than not) reassigned to a screenwriter familiar to the producer. They are simply not likely to gamble milions of dollars on your belief that you can write. However, if you have an actual script in hand you at least have something concrete to point at.

So, let's say you have a great script (or 2, or 3). You've polished it, worked and re-worked it and have something capable of being filmed. Often, what happens is that you shop that script around and a producers will say: "We read the excellent coverage report on your RomCom from ICM ... sounds like a real winner. But we're developing a 'Jack the Ripper in the Old West' project that needs a lighter touch. We'd like you to picth some ideas on that." In short, your first few scripts are generally "calling cards" used to get you an assignment.

Not saying all this to discourage you. First-time scripts do break through -- but usually by an unorthodox route (eg: Rita Wilson & Tom Hanks saw a stage version of what would become Nia Vardalos's "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and approached her.) Or a first time script might get made after the writer has a rep (eg: Lawrence Kasdan's first script sale was "The Bodyguard". He got it optioned in 1976 -- but it wasn't made until 1992. But on the strength of that script and "Continental Divide" he was recruited for "The Empire Strikes Back" -- his first produced movie).

So, write your script.

Aim for the best scenario, but be philosophical (and flexible) about it. Use it as a learning experience. In the net age, you have many new resources that cann help you. I'd suggest joining an online community, like Coppola's "Zoetrope" or Kevin Spacey's "Trigger Street". Both will get you exposure and make you aware of various contests or other opportunities.

Also checkout the "Done Deal" community (a bit chatty, but some pros hang out there)
"Project Greenlight" (loved and despised)
"" (Rossio and Elliot's fantastic and pragmatic site)
"Two Adverbs" (a great site providing an industry point of view).

If you're serious about writing, you need a serious screenwriting program. You can do it in "MS Wurd", but you'll make yourself crazy and it still won't look as professional. Get something like:

"Final Draft" (the industry standard).
"Movie Magic" (#2, but moving up FAST).
"Sophocles" (a dark horse to watch)

If you want to explore software that helps you write (ie: as in organizing your own thoughts), checkout:

"Truby's Blockbuster" (extremely pricey, clunky, but loved by many)
"TotallyWrite" (a plug for my friend, Jeff Schechter -- a working screenwriter).
"Dramatica" (brilliant, but with an intense 6-12 mo learning curve.)


languagehat: Bill Martell, has something like 17 produced films without an agent. Granted, I would definitely not suggest going that route, but it isn't unheard of.

blueshammer: If McKee really says mainstream movies can have more than one protagonist, then I suggest you switch gurus. If you divide your attention that way, you are essentially telling two separate stories, slapping them together in an inorganic manner and robbing your film of dramatic focus. Stories like "Romeo and Juliet" or "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" may appear to have two protagonists -- but they don't. Each has a single protag providing the impetus and a unique unifying perspective for the entire story (in this case "Romeo" and "Butch"). The trifling exception would be situations where characters act as a single unit (eg: "the factory workers" in Eisenstein's "Strike!"). But you really won't find any commercial examples.
posted by RavinDave at 9:09 AM on May 20, 2004

If McKee really says mainstream movies can have more than one protagonist, then I suggest you switch gurus.

I'm not a big fan of McKee but I'm curious what you make of a film like Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Excellent post, btw.
posted by dobbs at 1:14 PM on May 20, 2004 [1 favorite]

Dobbs ... always glad to discuss dramaturgy, but I fear this thread has scrolled into the sunset. Come one over to Done Deal and raise the question there.

The short answer is that Allen is indeed telling two different stories. Does he pull it off? While critically hailed, it did not resonate with the public. I believe it lost money. Granted, that may not be a fair litmus test, but it isn't lightly dismissed either.

I can only think of one that undeniably pulls it off: "Psycho". Hitchcock told two movies and switched protags in mid stream -- he made it work because the shock of the 1st death propelled us into the second story.

I can also think of several attempts that didn't work: Most anything by Robert Altman.
posted by RavinDave at 5:34 AM on May 21, 2004

Yes, it's hard, but that's no reason not to try.

*rolls eyes*
Yes, follow your dream! Don't listen to those people who tell you that there are thousands of would-be actors/models/singers for every one who makes it! Spend years waiting tables/doing shitty freelance jobs with no security and hardly any money/living in your parents' basement -- don't think about what the hell your old age is going to be like -- follow your dream!

Look, if trout wants to write a screenplay, he should write a screenplay. Writing screenplays is fun. Which reminds me:

Yes, screenwriting is hard. That's why everybody doesn't do it.

Hahahaha! Everybody does do it. Give me a break. Everybody who's ever seen a movie has screenplay ideas (shit, even I have screenplay ideas), and more people than you would ever believe (unless you're an agent or have Hollywood connections) have written screenplays and are desperately trying to get them into the hands of someone who if they only saw my screenplay would realize how fresh and new it is and drop everything to make it!

Ahem. But: if he has expectations of anything coming of this pleasurable activity, he should be aware of the real world. All the great advice above (kudos to dobbs, as always) will be very useful for structuring the screenplay and will improve the odds that an agent might take him on on the strength of it; it does not address the fact that the odds of getting a movie made are comparable to those of leaping out a third-story window and walking away. Sure, it's been done, but do you want to be the guy saying "Yeah, I knew a guy who did that, go for it"?

Tell you what. If trout writes a screenplay, gets an agent, and the movie winds up being made, substantially as he envisioned it, I will apologize abjectly to anyone who offered encouragement in this thread. You were right, I was a cranky overpessimistic jerk. If, on the other hand, he spends years fruitlessly trying to make something happen and winds up bitter and discouraged, it's you who owe the apology. If I were a betting man, I know where I'd put my money.
posted by languagehat at 8:09 AM on May 21, 2004

languagehat - But you forget that there are always multiple (and sometime infinite) routes to the same end. And, many of those don't involve fruitless wastes of time.

My deepest thanks to everyone who contributed answers to my question.
posted by troutfishing at 10:37 PM on May 23, 2004

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