THE TOP 40 COMMANDMENTS
FOR EFFECTIVE SCREENWRITING
By Craig Kellem
1. If the story doesn't work, then the script won't work. If at any given time,
your reader is not wondering, "What's going to happen next?"--you've
got a problem.
2. Author Julia Cameron says, "The singular image is what haunts us and
becomes art." Think about that! At last "a place" to put all of
your little insights, moments of truth, fascinations and unique experiences that
previously lacked a "file." If you access that "file" while
preparing your script and use these hot little tidbits as springboards for scenes,
your script is going to be buzzing with honesty and life. This is what audiences
3. There is no such thing as a throwaway or a transitional scene. Scenes should
not only add value to the overall story but should also have intrinsic entertainment
value as well.
4. Writing a script is relatively easy. The real work is in preparing, building
and "arc-ing" out the story and defining the characters. Once the "blueprint" is
in place, the writing itself is usually a welcome enterprise. Many writers have
trouble being patient enough with this process and it can cost them dearly in
the long run.
5. There are many "techniques" for creating and developing characters
some of which are effective. However, the single most important thing you can
do is to have a strong emotional connection with your character. Intellectual
platitudes and techniques are OK, but audiences want characters who are alive.
Find your most visceral emotional connections. Don't settle on a character until
6. The difference between good and great material? SOUL. There are some fabulous
technicians out there and some great storytellers too, but the bottom line is
the emotional impact of a writer's work. When a screenwriter's vision is razor
clear and deeply, exactingly rendered, it can have such impact that you the reader
feel changed, personally shifted having experienced their art. GREATNESS HAUNTS.
7 "Who is your hero? What is his/her goal? Who or what is preventing her/him
from reaching that goal?" (Intense pressure on your hero in an atmosphere
of conflict will help keep your story mobile and entertaining).
8. When I've written screenplays, it always STARTED WITH WHAT I THOUGHT WAS A
GREAT IDEA. Something that gnawed and nagged at me and that I felt needed to
be expressed. I was savvy enough after a while to realize that sometimes you
can have a great idea that has no business being developed as a screenplay, so
I knew it was important to take a good long breath before investing myself in
an idea that might take me the better part of the year to fully execute. After
determining that it was a go, my approach would be to start collecting "hot" ideas
for scenes, character elements, moments, character arcs etc. and just put them "on
the board" without giving them continuity and form...yet. This process involves
the collection of assets without the pressure of having to do anything else than
collect them. Inevitably, these ideas would spawn more ideas, which would then
spawn a sense of trajectory and order. At some point when the quiver felt full,
I would get into more advanced stages of identifying placement over the acts
and giving it all a sense of storytelling. I would avoid writing at all costs,
letting the passion to do so percolate while I did my critical spade work. Once
I had a fully developed game plan; full stories, a real sense of a beginning,
middle, end and scenes that could "write themselves, "I'd happily get
into the writing process as if it were my wedding night.
9. Surrender to this fact: writing is rewriting.
10. EXPERIMENT: take a couple of pages out of your script. Are your characters
distinctive enough that, if you REMOVED THEIR NAMES from the pages, you could
tell who they are JUST FROM the dialogue? If not, you need to do more work.
11. Rule of thumb: get into scenes as late as you can and get out early. Forget
about the "glad to meet you's" and the "what would you like for
dinner's." "How can I start a scene as close to the end as possible?"
12. Before writing anything, you should be able to tell someone the story (and
have it worked out so smoothly) that it's practically ready to “write itself.”
13. Planning a script is an act of simplifying rather than the opposite. And
above all it's a blueprint for a practical, doable approach to getting something
down on paper.
14. When it comes to dialogue, less is better. Pick up the most successful screenplays
and you'll notice great economies when it comes to words.
15. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW or about what truly fascinates you. Recognize and take
advantage of those areas of experience and interest for which you are the sole
proprietor! This will give you an automatic leg up in your writing. However you
may inevitably need to shape and dramatize the material in order to make it entertaining
for the rest of us. (It doesn't have to be based on 100% of the truth. It's enough
that the truth is your inspiration and catalyst). Remember there are certain
things that you've been “researching” for your whole life.
16. As you bubble and percolate, AVOID the temptation to write at all costs!
Instead, let the DESIRE to write build up as you dabble. Let your energy be expressed
in the proliferation of creative nuggets randomly thrown on a page or on index
cards. Collect them and give them form but don’t start your script until
you’re truly ready.
17. ACCEPT THE FACT that the only writers who get the chance to write without
grueling preparation are those who are not getting paid. The typical Hollywood
writer has to jump through preparatory hoops before she/he will get the chance
to initiate the actual writing of the script. Many pros spend about 70% of their
time prepping and 30% writing. Many newcomers do the exact opposite. This is
a big mistake. Prep thoroughly.
18. STRUCTURE: Screenplays are big and unruly. You can get lost in their breadth.
Three (or four acts, (ie: an act 2 break) help to ground it, make it more bite
sized. Additionally, it also gives you at least three moments in the script that
are going to be extra climatic (ie: the end of act one; the end of act two (part
one); the end of act two (part two) etc. Finally, it gives you something to go
for. (For this reason TV movies can be much easier to write than features because
they require seven acts (that's six act breaks - plot twisting, climatic, breathless
moments to look forward to). Think of each of them as an oasis).
19. STAGE DIRECTIONS ARE OKAY. Someone spread a FALSE rumor that you shouldn't
tell directors and actors what to do. Physical actions/gestures/attitudes/reactions
etc. described in narrative or parentheses that enhance subtext and cinematic
action are called stage directions. Don't hesitate to use the very tool that
can help make or break your script.(IE stage directions)
20. The predicate of all successful films, plays and TV episodes is CONFLICT!
JEOPARDY, OBSTACLES, AND ANGST will also bode well for you.
21. STORY ARCS (ie: meaning the plot points in any given main story or subplot):
Checking them out before writing or revising can produce handsome rewards. Once
story arcs are completed, look them over. Look at each story on a microscopic
level. Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Is it fat or skinny or just
right? Is it balanced? Does it have a surprise or two? Does it have a payoff?
Has it fulfilled whatever thematic idea you're going for? Can you tell the story
to someone clearly, confidently and without their eyes glazing over? Do the scenes
work? Is it ready?
22. RESIST the temptation to start marketing your idea to Hollywood before it's
ready. C'mon, you don't need an agent yet. Nor do you even need a query letter.
The impulse that Hollywood must be alerted must be muted. You must remain in
the role of the mad scientist mixing his/her elixir and letting it brew.
23. SELLING a script is a magical experience but the route to success can be
unpredictable, mercurial, often maddening and it usually doesn't happen on your
timetable. Thus in this effort, ATTITUDE is paramount. Writers are often made
or broken in how they handle this effort! If your expectations are too high and
your timetable is too ambitious, you're probably going to derail yourself. Agents
and producers are important only AFTER the material is READY.
24. SOME MAY THINK, "c'mon, If my script isn't perfect, surely the industry
bigwigs will see the potential. Whatever's wrong can be fixed in the rewrite
AFTER the big sale." Wrong! The notion that if your material is "almost" there,
surely smart professionals will recognize the potential just doesn't happen.
Material must be HOT and READY or you're wasting your time!
25. Spend a percentage of your time pushing the material and the majority of
the time working on your NEXT SCRIPT. Taking all that wanting and energy and
projecting it into the next project is a lot healthier than agonizing over the
inevitable frustration of wanting and waiting. Under these conditions, time is
on your side. You're dug in for the long haul, the battle will be on your terms.
26. REMEMBER, the business of screenwriting is not a lottery. It's a process.
You get better. You develop an inventory of material and ideas. If lucky, you
begin to get compliments. You start to experience breakthrus that, at first,
only you notice. People start to genuinely like your stuff. You get turned down
but someone asks what else you might have. The stakes are raised--you get romanced
by the wrong people but it's proof that someone's interested. You almost get
a deal. Finally, you may get lucky. The point of critical mass has been reached.
It's happening now. This takes time. It can be a circuitous process.
27. APPRECIATE and covet any sign of life (re your writing).
28. KNOW that it's hard for everyone.
29. BE AWARE that people do sell scripts.
30. WITHIN REASON, continue to write from the heart and not for the
31. In life and art we RELY ON ANCHORS, predictable and reliable structures we
can hold onto that permit us to relax into an often chaotic and nonsensical reality.
Screenplays demand that no matter how avant-garde, experimental or conventional
your writing, there be some basic elements that hold us inside of your fantasy.
32. The mind is a funny thing. Sometimes what we perceive to be true is not true.
This happens often with screenwriting when writers think that there’s something
on the page that isn’t on the page. We must closely examine our manuscripts
making sure WHAT’S IN OUR MINDS AND HEARTS HAS ACTUALLY BEEN WRITTEN.
33. There is hardly a situation in any movie, dysfunctional or otherwise, that
can’t be justified by some movie somewhere that got away with it. But consider
the other 2000 MOVIES IN WHICH IT DIDN’T WORK!
34. Developing ideas is an interesting activity. Two things happen when you do
it on a regular basis. One is that your relationship with your subconscious and
your “creative guide” gets keener and ideas begin to flow. If you’re
lucky, you begin to flow to such an extent that you begin to “WRITE ON
THE WALLS.” The other is that as you grow ideas, some take flight as if
on their own. This is powerful stuff.
35. If you have to stretch reality, do it judiciously and surround it with a
bedrock of credibility and truth in other issues.
36. Succeeding as a screenwriter is a PROCESS. It's less about hitting a home
run with the big script and more about doing the next right thing that propels
you and your material a step further up the ladder.
37. Although it's natural for writers to do what they do best, it's necessary
to also use other methods to accomplish our creative tasks. The humorist may
need to access real drama in order to steady his screenplay and give it a realistic
foundation. The sci-fi aficionado might be Einsteinian in her imagery but still
has to find a way to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. And so forth.
The point of this is simple. It’s imperative that you sometimes turn your
back on your “A” weaponry and take care of business in areas of craft
that may not be your first love. For many writers, particularly those who are
not working under the lash of producer or studio, this kind of discipline can
38. Have another (nice) way of making a living while you're trying to make it
as a writer. This will give you space to grow and create without going nuts.
Waiting by the telephone is a prescription for despair.
39. The funniest writers on God’s earth still need a keen sense of reality,
relatability, normalcy and even poignancy and drama in their scripts. Is this “rule” ever
broken? Sure. But most of the time, the result of these digressions is failure,
and often just on a developmental level, since material that’s gratuitously
funny and lacks the other needed elements usually ends up on the dust pile. The
trick is to create multidimensional situations and amply utilize the honest tragic-comedic
human condition as the predicate of things to come. In other words, reality is
very much the comedy writer’s friend.
A FINAL NOTE--MIRACLES DO HAPPEN
40. I have witnessed and personally experienced miracles in this business, namely
when good things happened for long shot projects and people. I remembered that
these good tidings ALWAYS came as a result of a “patron’s” (ie
agents and producers etc) pure and infectious belief. And how winning a combination
it could be; the supportive individual paired with projects which with a little
TLC, seemed to take on lives of their own. Observing otherwise “tough as
nails” movers and shakers softening and supporting when their hearts were
touched, was always a sight to behold. Passion, the magical ingredient in all
of these cases, is surely the decisive factor. And it’s nice to know that
it’s still alive and well and making things happen. Stars-to-be, scripts
that will find a home, and other worthy product can find warmth in the prospect
that after all is said and done, it still can be about deserving talent and material
getting caught in the throat and the heart of folks, finding ways to break through.
My own personal experience has borne out this truth. Perhaps it has something
to do with deep energy which transforms into something tangible. If you believe,
like many do, that all things are ultimately created from one’s most passionate
beliefs and desires, then maybe “being on fire” has inevitable physical
consequences, even in a seemingly impenetrable world.
©2006 Hollywoodscript.com, LLC All
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