#WW #screenwriting #script CSSC Writer Wednesday | Blog the 29th: Movie Myths

Did you see the CSSC is on Tumblr now?  Now you can follow The Blog on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or right here on a good old fashioned website.

In honour of the upcoming movie Lucy and the fact that I am a science teacher, I want to talk about myths that appear in film, in particular the myth that is used in the trailers for Lucy.

Humans only use 10% of their brain.

If you really think about it, this can’t possibly be true.  Why would humans have the other 90% if it wasn’t used?  The reason, of course, is that the other 90% contains all our superhuman telepathy powers!  Or that is what movies like the aforementioned Lucy would have you believe.

The reality is that humans use their entire brain, although some areas are less active at certain times.  And although humans have the potential to increase the abilities of their brain through education and training, it is not to the extent that the 10% myth would have you believe.

Think about it.  If humans only used 10% of their brain then large portions of the brain could be removed without any harm.

Now you may think that science takes all the fun out of movies because it says things like, “The X-Men’s Angel would have to have horrific looking musculature in order to have wings that could support his weight.”

But did you know lawyers can also ruin movies? They sure can because Batman is guilty of embezzling corporate funds for personal gains (which probably also leads to falsifying corporate documents).

The point is not that science and lawyers ruin movies, the point is that movies are not the same as the real world.  Films exist in their own world with their own rules. But when your entire movie is based on a myth, such as Lucy, it is not the fault of science for saying it’s wrong, it’s the fault of the movie for lying.

The lesson in all of this, is that stories have to be based on the workings of the real world in order for them to be believable.  Many times movies create their own version of the real world and therefore are not a reflection of reality yet they are perfectly believable (for example, swords make loud metallic sounds when drawn, guns make cocking sounds when drawn, cars explode whenever they crash, a stab wound always kills people).

So when you are writing a story recognize that you can push the boundaries of believability to an extent, but do not base the man plot of your story on lies or a myth.  Batman works because it is about a man seeking justice for his parent’s death, the embezzling funds is a small potion most people ignore, X-men works because the audience recognizes that these are mutants, not humans so the rules that govern their bodies are different. If I wrote a script about a man being murdered by a gun that shoots around corners I’d be told that my story is not believable because the rules that govern guns say they fire in a straight line (or an arc if you get technical).

Remember that the audience comes in with certain expectations of how the world operates and you must respect that.  If you want to change the rules, make sure it is a detail they will overlook, or explain why the rules are of your film are different from the real world.

I will have to wait till Lucy comes out to see how the audience reacts, but I suspect many will find it “unbelievable”.

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#WW #screenwriting CSSC Writer Wednesday | Blog the 28th: We See

Did you notice the title is a little strange today?  I am told that if I put a hashtag in the title it puts the hashtag in in the twitter post.  Convenient?  Of course! Turns my titles into a complete mess.  You know it does!

Another thought for you this week.  Have you realized the lingering problem caused by the missing WW post 2 weeks ago?  It’s that the blog number no longer reflects how far into the 2014 year we are.  My first post was on the first day of January so this blog served as a tally of the years passing.  Now it’s a week off.

Maybe I’m the only one that finds this annoying.

This week I have been thinking about the little details of scripts that annoy me.  In particular the use of “we see”.

A script is written to be a template for a film, and although the script does not contain any actual visuals, it does contain the blueprints to what visuals will appear in the film.  Therefore, it can be argued that the reader can “see” the film whilst reading the script.

And this leads to the use of the phrase, “we see”.

“We” in this case, are the audience, a collective group of people watching this movie (or reading a blueprint of a movie).  “We see” tells this audience what they see, or what they would see in this movie.  It is often used to highlight important information, to describe a person or object or as part of a reveal.

But despite the rationale behind it, a writer should NEVER use this phrase.

And here’s why.

1) It breaks the 4th wall.  This phrase speaks directly to the audience which can take the audience out of the story and remind them that it is just a story.  But, you say, “they are reading a page of paper, they clearly know it is not real.” To which I respond, “stop making it even harder to get absorbed in the material!”

2) It’s confusing.  “We” is not a person within the script, so “we” cannot interact with the script.  Yet here is “we” clearly within the script “seeing” things.

3) It is unnecessary.  At no time is the phrase “We see” ever the only option in a script.  “We see an eviction sign posted on the door.”  “She lies asleep, we see a shadow creep across the walls.”  In both of these sentences (and every sentence) if you drop the “we see” the sentence has the same meaning, but now it reads better.    Give it a try.

Since I am trying to be fair in my assessment of his phrase, I should probably offer you the pros as well.  But I am also trying to make a point, so I will then immediately show why these pros don’t exist.

1) It reflects the fact that the script will become a movie.  Except that is already known so the audience doesn’t need a reminder.

2) The director can now visualize what they will see.  Except it is the director’s job to visualize the script and they may not like you doing their job for them.

3) It slightly boosts your word count and makes the script seem slightly longer.  In case you need to stretch it to a specific length (which you should never do).

To sum this all up, don’t write “we see” in your script.  Just don’t do it.  It is never necessary and it is always annoying.

And don’t write this dreaded line:

The camera pans up, we see the silhouette of a man dart across the rooftop.

Don’t write “we see” and defiantly don’t write “camera”.  Your job isn’t to write in the camera movements or to direct the visuals.  Your job is to write the best story possible, so stick to that.

And if you have written the best story possible or are just looking for some feedback on your script, then why not check out the CSSC Short Screenplay Review?  Just send in your script (scriptreview.cssc@gmail.com and include the Title, Genre, Logline and Number of Pages) and it will be reviews on this site!

You can read more information about the review in Blog the 25th.

Until next week, keep writing.

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#WW CSSC Writer Wednesday | Blog the 27th: Who Writes Short Shorts?

You may have noticed there was no WW post last week.  That is because there were some website problems and I couldn’t it.  But never fear, the website is back and so is last weeks post.

It is often said that the first feature any writer writes will be terrible.  I believe this little tidbit of information is meant to keep the writer from being discouraged when they discover their first feature is not very good, but I have always found it to be disheartening.  Perhaps because I learned this before I had ever written a feature and thus I was left wondering, “So this feature I am writing is going to be terrible?  But I have worked so hard on it!”

Again, I believe this is suppose to keep you motivated and press on to write a second feature because, “every writer’s first feature is terrible.” It is just one step along the path to success so don’t get discouraged.

I think another reason the “every first feature is terrible” idea exists is because too many people rush into writing features before they gain a full understanding of screenwriting.  As I mentioned in my last post, many people see screenwriting as being an easy writing exercise because there are so few words on the page.  But screenwriting is actually very difficult to get right due to it’s inherent structure.

If you haven’t mastered this structure yet, then of course, your first feature is not going to be up to the standards you had once envisioned.

This is where shorts come into the equation.

Shorts follow a very similar structure to features and so offer a great place to practice your craft.  Sure they are more condensed and do not always feature subplots (unless you are writing a longer short) but they still follow a typical 3 act structure that follow an active protagonist who is on a quest to reach a specific goal.

By writing shorts you can start to master the structure of a screenplay before you move onto longer projects like features.

Another reason to practice your craft by writing shorts is because fixing mistakes in shorts is also much easier than features.  This is for the simple reason that they are shorter.  In a feature mistakes tend to have a domino effect wherein any change that is made will require changes later in the script, which in turn will cause more changes and so on.  These domino problems can often discourage writers from ever making these edits.  Thus the first “terrible” feature they write, stays that way.

But in a short script the domino effect is much less.  It is easier to fix mistakes and thus easier to fix those mistakes and understand how to avoid making them in the future.  You can then create powerful and creative shorts without the worry that it is simply going to end up terrible.

Once you feel you have mastered the art of writing a short and have developed the organizational and perceptive skills to limit the mistakes you make, you can begin writing that feature you have been dreaming up.  And who knows, maybe all that practice will let you break the mold and create a worthwhile and compelling feature?

And while you are at it, why not submit your short script to the CSSC Short Screenplay Review and get some high quality feedback for free.  Simply submit your script in a .pdf form to scriptreview.cssc@gmail.com and include the Title, Genre, Logline and Number of Pages.

You can read more information about the review in Blog the 25th.

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#WW CSSC Writer Wednesday | Blog the 26th: Screenplays are Hard to Write

This weeks tip comes courtesy of UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter, from his appearance on the ScriptCast podcast back in 2012.

To paraphrase the professor he says that screenplays are harder to write than novels.

At first this shocking claim seems to defy logic because novels are much longer and contain many more words, so clearly they are harder to write then the short and sparse screenplay.

Not true, as Richard Walter explains.  A screenplay is very rigid.  In fact it is so rigid that a writer can only write two things,  what a character sees or what they hear.  That is it.

As well all scenes in a screenplay also must be written in real time and a screenplay forces a writer to place all their brilliant ideas within only a small number of pages.

Then we have the novel.  Novels don’t have the constraints of a screenplay, in a novel a writer can do anything! They can go into any character’s mind and know what they are thinking, they can speed or slow time to fit the required narrative and they can write the novel to be just about any page length they wish.

Novels don’t need all of the structure and plot points that are required in a screenplay because a novel can fill the narrative with more than just what can be seen or heard, it can fill it with ideas, philosophies and observations.

Not convinced, let’s take a look at an example: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The book is written by Ken Kesey and is told from the perspective of the mute mental patient, Chief Bromden.  The story follows the new arrival R.P. McMurphy as he causes problems for the staff at the mental institution.  The book is a great read because the reader can enter the mind of Chief Bromden and experience what it is like to be him and to witness the injustices that he witnesses.

But as a screenplay it would never work.

For starters the story doesn’t revolve around Chief Bromden.  Sure he is the protagonist of the book, but the story is about McMurphy and all the things he does.  But McMurphy is the active character, the one that takes action and who pushes the plot forward.  The Chief simply observes and when it comes to a screenplay a protagonist cannot simple by an observer.

So the movie changes McMurphy to the main character and rightfully so.  The reason they did this is because a screenplay has a number of rules that have to be followed or they don’t work.

The reason I want to highlight the difference between a screenplay and a novel is because there is a mentality that screenplays are easier to write than novels.  This leads to a number of writers approaching screenwriting as something that anyone can do, something that doesn’t require discipline and something that they can do as they work their way up to being a novelist (or a true writer).  Such a mentality devalues the craft of screenwriting and the talent that screenwriters possess.  It also leads to a lot of people getting discouraged because the thing they thought was easy to write is not in fact easy to write.

Look at the last movie you watched that underwhelmed you.  Were you disappointed?  Did you think you could do better?  Did you notice that no matter how big the budget you still found problems with the story?  Well that script was written by a professional and they made all of those mistakes BECAUSE WRITING A SCREENPLAY IS HARD and even the professionals have trouble writing them.

So if you are new to screenwriting make sure you take the time to learn how to write a screenplay, because it does have a number of rules and structural elements that you need to understand.  And if you are a seasoned veteran of screenwriting, then be proud of your abilities and talents.

Because not everyone can write a screenplay.  They are hard to write.

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#WW CSSC Writer Wednesday | Blog the 25th: CSSC Short Screenplay Review

Have a short screenplay that you are working on?  Are you looking for some feedback to help make that script the best it can be?  Then the CSSC Short Screenplay Review is the place for you.

The CSSC Short Screenplay Review will take in submissions of short screenplays, which will be read by an experienced screenwriter who will then post a review/feedback in the form of a blog post about your script.  The goal is to help you create the best screenplay you can while also helping readers understand the inner workings of a screenplay.

In other words, this review is a service in which you will receive quality feedback on your screenplay from an experienced screenwriter.  And it’s FREE so what have you got to loose?

The CSSC Short Screenplay Review will work as follows:

  • Submissions of short screenplays (between 1-15 pages) in a .pdf format can be sent to scriptreview.cssc@gmail.com.  In your submission please include the Title, Genre, Logline and Number of Pages.
  • An appropriate screenplay will be selected for review.
  • The selected script will be available to other readers to read and comment on via a Google drive link.
  • The following week a review which highlights the strong parts of the script and offers suggestions to improve other areas will be posted to The Blog.
  • Discussion can then continue in the comments sections among all the readers of the screenplay.

Questions you may have about the CSSC Short Screenplay Review?
Why does the screenplay have to be posted online?
This is to help the readers of The Blog learn about the inner workings of a screenplay.  More can be learned from reading a short screenplay and the review, then just from reading the review. As well other readers can offer their own input, thus providing even more of a benefit to the writer of the screenplay.

Will the screenplay be posted indefinitely?
No, I will post it for 1 month, just enough time for the readers to read it and the review.

Will someone try to steal my ideas?
Hopefully not, though, when posting anything online it is a worry someone will try to take your idea.  However if you don’t show your screenplay to anyone, then you can never receive feedback.  It is simple a risk, but I guarantee that the payoff is worth it.
As well, all of the .pdf’s will be locked before they are posted.  This will prevent them from being copied or printed.

What if my screenplay is over 15 pages long?  Can I still submit?
The 1-15 pages is a reflection of the rules of the CSSC, however, this is just a guideline.  If the page length is reasonably close to 15 pages then it will still be considered for review.

What if my screenplay doesn’t get selected for review?
There could be a number of reasons why a screenplay will not get a review, but the most likely one will be that something else was already selected.  You are free to resubmit your screenplay if it hasn’t been selected for review.

That’s it.  And if you don’t have a screenplay that is ready for feedback, then you can just follow this Blog, read the screenplays and give your own feedback.  But if you do have a screenplay that your are stuck on, or want to share with the world, send in your screenplay to scriptreview.cssc@gmail.com and get some high quality feedback for free!

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#WW CSSC Writer Wednesday | Blog the 24th: What is your Story About? (and an announcement)

As I stated last week, I have been planning out a short horror script and though I haven’t spent as much time on writing as I should (that’s what I get for working at the Halifax Independent Film Festival) I am nearly finished outlining the story and should be starting a first draft in a matter of days.

What does this have to do with this weeks post?  Well I have a little tip for everyone out there who is in the planning stages of their script.

Figure out what your script is about.

This should seem pretty obvious, so let me explain.

What I mean by this is, figure out what message you want to communicate, or why you want to write this script?

As I went through the planning of my script I wrote out brief biographies of my characters, their personalities, their fears, their wants and needs and I plotted out my main plot points such as the catalyst, inciting incident and what the climax should be based on the want and need I had assigned to my protagonist.

But as I looked back at my planning I was left with one simple thought.

Why did I write this?

The honest answer was I wanted to write a horror script, so I tried to plan out a story that was interesting and scary at the same time.

But that isn’t enough.  I had no message in my script.  That means there was no depth to my story, no ideas to plant into the audience’s mind, no observations of the world or society, nothing.

If you find yourself in the same situation as me, I suggest you go back to the genesis of your idea.  That first thought that spark the creation of your story.  Back at that point you made a decision to take that idea and turn it into a story.  Something in that idea compelled you to write.  That is your theme.

When I went back to my initial idea I found that I had written this story because I wanted to explore the abusiveness of love.  I wanted to explore an emotionally abusive relationship between a mother and daughter and draw horror out of an emotion not normally associated with horror.

With that in mind, my script suddenly has direction.  I now understand why I want to write this script and now I can actually write it.

Before I end my post for this week, I have to take a second to make an announcement about this Blog.

I am pleased to announce the start of the CSSC Short Screenplay Review here on The Blog.  This will be your chance to get feedback on your short script and will come at the low, low price of nothing.  It will be absolutely FREE.  So stay tuned in the coming weeks to learn more about this opportunity.

Until next week, keep writing.

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#WW CSSC Writer Wednesday | Blog the 23rd: An Observation from The Evil Dead

I have recently wrapped up writing the feature that I have been working on for the last year and a half and have found myself in the process of looking for a new project.  I have an idea for another feature, but I’m not ready to make that commitment yet, so I am starting to write a horror short.

I am a big horror fan but for some reason I have never fully embraced writing a horror script.  I have tried a few times but moved on to other projects before I finished.  The only one I recall finishing was one I wrote for a 48 hour competition last fall.  Writing that script was a blast, so I’m inching to give it another try.

In honour of my endeavors to write a horror script, this week I am bringing you a tip from The Evil Dead (1981).  I recently revisited this movie and from the very start I was struck with a simple observation.

The film contains horror from the very first scene onward.

Of course this sounds like a given, but many horror films do not follow this simple formula.  Slasher movies in particular could benefit from this tip.

Slasher films often start with an opening scene that establishes the killer but then they focus on the lives of the characters.  Only later do the worlds of the killer and the characters merge.  The trouble is that in these scripts the characters are never very interesting and the writers never try to set up interesting plots because they know they will just have to abandon them when the killer shows up.

But The Evil Dead doesn’t have this problem.  Sure the characters are just as bland as slashers but The Evil Dead compensates for its barely interesting characters by making sure there is something scary in every scene.

The opening scene has the unknown force lurking in the woods, eventually finding the main characters in their car and almost crashing them into an oncoming truck.  The next scene features the rickety bridge that almost collapses under the car.  The third scene has the group approach the cabin wherein the swinging chair on the porch bangs against the wall, that is until they open the front door, at which times it stops.  The next scene features noises coming from the cellar.  And so on.

Ultimately the film could be better if the characters had more personality, but even with the low budget effects of The Evil Dead and the first time acting skills of the cast, the movie is always discussed whenever the best/most influential horror movies are discussed and I think this is because the horror infused scenes keep it interesting and give it a fast pace.

There is never a dull moment in the film, there is always something lurking and waiting for the main cast, the audience never feels they are safe.  This keeps the audience invested and wanting to see what happens next.

So if you are like me and about to embark on a horror script my suggestion to you is to be like The Evil Dead, put an element of horror in every scene.

Because the audience came to see horror, so why not give them what they asked for?

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#WW CSSC Writer Wednesday | Blog the 22nd: Description in Real Time

In Blog the 18th I discussed the use of adverbs and how I was on the fence about using them.  In the last 4 weeks I have had time to consider my approach and can now say that I have reached the conclusion that adverbs are in fact useless and should never occur in a screenplay.

By there definition adverbs are used to describe verbs, much like adjectives describe nouns.  However whereas nouns require adjectives to better describe them, there is a wealth of verbs that act just like adverbs.  Why should I say “he moves quickly across the room” when I can just use the word “runs”, “dashes”, “darts”, “rushes”, “sprints”, “zooms”, “rockets” or “zips”?  The adverbs is redundent and nothing in a script should ever be redundent.

So get rid of those adverbs by choosing better verbs.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to today’s topic.

How long to make the description?

The basic template is that 1 page of a script equals 1 minute.  Of course this isn’t exact as dialog heavy pages are shorter and description heavy pages are often longer.  But it is a good guideline and will serve as a basis for my examples.

An outcome of this template is that it dictates the amount of description you can use for a specific event.  For example, if a character is watching the sunset and you write half a page of description for that sunset then you are expecting a 30 second long shot of a sunset to occur in the final film.  As well, if you wants someone to kick down a door, fire 2 shots and crack open a safe and you write it in 2 lines, you are expecting it to all happen in less than 10 seconds.

It is important to remember that the amount of description you give an event must correspond to how important that event is and thusly correspond to the amount of screentime it receives.

I recently read a script that had two characters dance together (at a bar I think).  The dance was written in 2 lines and consisted of the characters meeting on the dancefloor and dancing for the entire song (the fact they danced for the entire song was in the description).

Since an entire song is likely to be about 4 minutes long, this interaction should have been 4 pages long if done in real time.  Of course films are rarely in real time, so I would estimate that if you had a 2 minute song the audience would not notice that the song was cut short.  So to be realistic let’s say the interaction on screen would be 2 minutes long and thus would need to be 2 pages long in the script.

You may be thinking that it doesn’t really matter how long the dance is written because if it is written in 2 lines or 2 pages it will still exist as an action in the story.  But a screenplay is not like a novel, it cannot stretch or shorten time in any major way.  In a novel I could write this dance to be 2 lines or 15 pages because I can into the character’s minds and go off into tangents.  But in a script short of doing a flashback, I am stuck watching the characters and that has to be done in pretty much real time because ultimately this script is going to become a film and must adhere to the rules of film making.

Therefore, if you must have the characters dance for 2 minutes they must be doing something else.  There has to be some other visuls involved, or a conversation or something that pushes the plot further.  The scene is going to need to be 2 pages long anyway so write something interesting.

When you are writing remember to take a moment to imagine the actions playing out in a film.  See if you have given enough time to the actions that need it or if you have given too much time to quick actions.  It will make your script more readable and translate better to film.

Until next week, keep writing.

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The Gatekeeper, by Kimberley Ann Sparks Takes CSSC 2014 Top Prize

Congratulations to all of the nominees and finalists in this year’s 2014 Canadian Short Screenplay Competition. What a year of quality scripts! The final standings as determined by the industry judges are as follows:

1) The Gatekeeper – Kimberley Ann Sparks

2) Les The Punter – Julian Williams

3) Career Day – Christopher George Walsh

4) The Donation – Liam Johnson

5) Ma (Mother) – Naina Gupta

6) Microwave – Neil Champagne

7) Where We Belong – Corey Patrick

8) Hyperspace – Taegen Carter

9) Acclimate – Sylvia Carter

10) Owen and the Whale – Jennifer Chen

11) David – Robyn Winslow

12) A Cautionary Tale – Steve Deery

13) Unchain – Yuling Xu

 

 

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#WW CSSC Writer Wednesday | Blog the 21st: Writing Supporting Characters

Well it’s been a busy couple of weeks, I just graduated from my second degree and got a full time job teaching in the fall.  I am also deep into editing a feature screenplay with the hopes of finishing it soon and gathering up science resources for my future career as a teacher.

But even with all of this, I still have found time to learn about screenwriting and this tip come from the podcast ScriptChat.

This tip is not new, I have heard it before and I am sure you have as well, but it came to me at a time when I desperately needed it so I want to pass it along to you.

Here it is: When writing supporting characters give them one trait that makes them interesting.

What makes this tip so great is that it is simple and easily achievable.  One trait, that is all they need.  They can be obsessive, they can be a dieter, they can always be the best dressed, they can play guitar, garden, be a political activist, birdwatcher, it doesn’t matter, as long as they are something.

When writing script you can often find yourselves building long bios about your main characters to give them depth, but when it comes to supporting characters it is easy to just cast them aside and say “well they’re only in 2 scenes so they don’t need a long bio.”  While it’s true they don’t need a long bio, there is no excuse for uninteresting characters.

Quite simply a script with bland characters is a bland script.  Even if your main character is the most interesting and well thought out character, if they interact with characters with no personality the script will be boring.

Here’s an example for you.

In my screenplay I have a scene where my main character brings his 2 year old into the kitchen.  In the kitchen sits his in-laws.  That’s the set up, pretty standard.  Now let’s add some characters.

My main character, James, has a trouble dealing with his anger, his in-laws are in the house because he is having financial troubles and has had to move in with them.  He was once a dreamer, but now he has been force to settle for a mediocre life.  He’s not very happy with his living situation and I want to set up his temper so he is going to burn himself while making toast.  Now the scene has some direction and I can write it.

And I did.

And it was kinda boring.

Because the in-laws just sat around eating breakfast and the baby added very little to the scene.

I had to make them interesting so I gave them each one trait.

So now the baby, Olivia, has just fallen out of her crib and hit her head, the Father in-law is preparing for an early morning run because he is a health buff, and the Mother in-law is gambling on scratch tickets and believes the baby brings luck.

These supporting characters are really only in a few scenes so their trait really doesn’t influence the plot in any major ways (though they are still going to need to pay off in some way later), however it does make the scene more interesting.  Now instead of just sitting around they all have something they are doing and something they want to accomplish.  As a bonus the scene is now a little more chaotic which is to be expected when 4 people are in a kitchen and it will help highlight my main character’s temper.

There is another reason to follow this lesson and it is a situation that is unique to screenwriting: someone has to play these characters.

If my Father in-law is underdeveloped then there is really no reason anyone would want to be that character and thus they won’t likely bring a good performance to the film.  But if the Father in-law is interesting, if he is a surrogate father to my main character, if he is a health nut that runs every morning, then there is some personality there, there is something interesting in that character that an actor could explore and bring to the film.

Good actors want to play good characters. It’s as simple as that. And the last thing you want is an actor/actress to approach you on set and say “what’s my motivation?” and you have no idea because you just wrote them as “the father who eats breakfast and says 3 lines about parenting”.

So give it a try.  Look at your characters and ask yourself, do they have one interesting trait?  If not, give them one. You’ll see that your whole script becomes a lot more interesting.

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