Spec Killers #2

It always seems like such a good idea. What better way to put your reader into a story than "We See"? Example:

"We see the boxer swing his last right cross. We follow his body as it slumps to the ground.”

That worked right? We were right there with that boxer. We were right there to feel his pain, right?


1) It's Breaking the Fourth Wall

A good screenplay is like a good novel; you get lost in the world. You forget that it's only a story.

You forget you're only reading.

So when a "we see" pops up, our brains go, "We see? Who's we? I'm we. Oh right, this is a screenplay."

Thus, breaking the forth wall.

As a screenwriter, you must put the reader in your world without breaking the spell.

2) It's Still a Camera Angle

Your job as a screenwriter is to tell a story in pictures. It is not however your job to describe how those pictures should be shown. That's the directors job.

Camera angles are very much forbidden in a screenplay. It may be true that a quick "we see" is better than:


But it's only a step behind. "We see" is still a camera angle. It's still you as the writer trying to tell the director how to do his job.

Same with the use of "we follow". Yes it's better than:


But not by much. You must come up with a more kinetic description
without using a camera angle.

Once the script ends up in a director's hands, it's their story and they get to shoot it how ever they want.

A hard truth that every writer must accept.

3) It's Lazy

Descriptions can be hard work. So can orientating who is in what scene and what they are doing.

It's very tempting to slap a "we see" down and keep writing. During the first draft that's fine. It makes a great placeholder. But when the presentation script is written, you need to come up with something more active.

The thing you have to remember is, a screenplay isn't just words and paper, it's a professional document that has a price tag of at least eighty thousand dollars.

An executive has no time for you to be lazy.

Now keep in mind, I'm not saying that if you have one or two "we sees" in your screenplay your script is doomed. Used in moderation, no one will notice. The phrase is used so often in professional screenplay's that it's just white noise at this point.

It's when the phrase is used excessively when we start to have a problem. You become a "paper director". A writer who directs on the page.

In a spec script you're trying to sell not just a story, but a GRIPPING story. A story that grabs the reader and refuses to let go.

A shortcut is never gripping. It's like reading the cliff-notes of an amazing novel. You get the gist of it, but you never get engrossed.

When it comes to "we see", it's best to just let the pros have it.

Don't worry, you'll get to use it soon enough.


First Ten: The Hurt Locker

They say that a studio reader only gives a spec script TEN PAGES before they know if it’s worthy enough to be shown to their boss.

I don’t find this fair.

But life’s not fair and neither is screenwriting.

So I decided to turn the tables a bit. Instead of judging the first ten pages of a spec, let’s judge the first ten pages of a script that has already been sold.

This week: The Hurt Locker by Mark Boal

Sure it may have won the Oscar for best screenplay this year, but few people realize how independent it was. Although it was the shooting script that won the Oscar, it’s the spec script that will be studied by other writers. A script that never had to face the wrath of a studio reader.

Let’s see how it does...

The Link - http://www.mypdfscripts.com/screenplays/the-hurt-locker
[If you wish, you may read the first ten pages of the script before reading this blog. There maybe many versions of this script floating around the internet. I chose this one.]


Page 0:

* I’m not going to include the page of quotes as page 1. But I want to quickly say: Don’t do this. It comes off as pretentious. There’s a reason why only the pros get to do this.

Anything flashy will hurt you in the long run.

Page 1:

* The first thing you will notice about page 1 is the white space. And how little there is of it. It’s a little daunting.

* The details present on this first page, really kill the read:

“From this angle close to the ground we FLY down a road strewn
with war garbage: munitions, trash, rubber, animal shit --
all of which, from this odd, jarring perspective, looks
gigantic, monstrous.”

Just “war garbage” would be enough. This is a well written paragraph, but it just adds to the already word heavy page.

“We zoom towards a crumpled COKE CAN, the white ‘C’ growing
enormous on the screen, filling the screen like a skyscraper.
We SMASH into the can and barrel ahead.”

This is my least favorite detail. What was the point of this? Unless there is a bomb in the coke can, this can be cut.

It doesn’t move the story.


A few things:
1. No period after EXT.
2. A slash is used instead of a double dash.
3. The use of “DAWN” instead of “DAY” OR “NIGHT”

The first two may seem optional, but I don’t believe it is. Since the majority of scripts use periods and double dashes, not using them may come off as not knowing the industry standard.

As for the use of “DAWN”, you want to keep sluglines as simple as possible. As the writer, you just say if it’s day or night and the DP will figure out the rest.

* There is some bolding on this page. Never bold anything in a screenplay. It just looks tacky.

* Despite the issues, this page is very cinematic. It just needs to be cleaned up a bit.

Page 2:

* Speaking of bolding, this is the most bolding I think I’ve ever seen in a screenplay. And I’m not sure why any of it is bold.

Are these title cards? Will the audience be reading this? If not, this is all unfilmable. The reader might get this information, but the audience will not. There should be a “SUPER” used to show that this will be read by the audience.

* Check out the lack of white space on this page. There is less white then on page one. That’s not good.

The more words on a page, the faster the reader will skim.

* “Next to a parked Humvee, THREE EOD (Explosive Ordinance
Disposal, aka Bomb Squad) SOLDIERS are crouched over a laptop

Here is a definite unfilmable. Sure, the person reading the script will know what an EOD is, but will the audience?

My suggestion for Mr. Bowl would be:

“Next to a parked Humvee, THREE SOLDIERS crouch over a laptop computer. The back of their jackets read: “EOD: EXPLOSIVE ORDINANCE DISPOSAL.”

This way “EOD” is explained to the reader as well as the audience with very little exposition.

* “This is summer in the desert and the median temperature on
this bright clear morning is 110 degrees.”

Another unfilmable and kind of stale. How about:

“By the looks of it, it must be 110 degrees out.”

* There is a paragraph that is seven lines long.

Make sure to keep all paragraphs under four lines. It will do wonders for your pacing.

* “Before joining EOD, Sanborn was in Military Intelligence. He quit. Military Intel was too easy.”

This is background information that should be told through dialogue.

Page 3:

* “Eldridge laughs. He clearly likes the two men he’s with.”

This is a show, don’t tell problem. “Eldridge laughs” shows us that he likes these two men. Saying that he “clearly likes them” is telling. And in this situation, it’s repeating what has already been alluded to.

Page 4:

* “Eldridge is already on it, approaching with the four blocks
of C4. He’s done this enough to know what they need.”

Another unfilmable. That last bit is background information that can’t be relayed on screen.

The blast is going to roll out
there (pointing) the shell will
probably kick out there (pointing),
and most of the shrapnel is going
to rain up in an umbrella pattern.”

Make sure your parentheticals are their own lines.

Page 6:

What, you don’t like it here?”

If you’re going to use a parenthetical, for the love of god don’t use the word “wryly”. At this point, using “wryly” is a joke.

* In describing “The Suit”:

“Because of its weight and complexity it takes two men to
put it on - or one Sanborn.”

This is a good example of a working unfilmable. You’re allowed one or two unfilmables as long as it isn’t background information or a chatty aside.

Page 6/7:

* Thompson's speech is a little long.

Page 7:

* There really is some excellent dialogue in these first ten pages.

Page 8:

* “Breathing. Heat. Sun. Sweat. Flies.
Suddenly a DOG out of nowhere charges, BARKING ferociously.
Thompson is momentarily startled. Then resumes his walking.
The dog runs off.”

- Excellent suspense!

Page 9:

* The (over walkie) and (headset) usage is repetitive. Use it once and we’ll fill in the blanks for the rest.

Page 10:

The “UPRANGE”, “DOWNRANGE” works well as secondary scene headings.


The Verdict: Would the Reader Continue Reading?:

This is a tough call. On the one hand, there are enough amateur mistakes here to stop a reader by page 5 (this was Mark’s first screenplay).

But the suspense and tension found in most of the scenes will make up for it.

It’s a bumpy ride, but getting past page ten for this script is possible. It’s the next thirty or so pages that may do the script in.

It was Kathryn Bigelow’s directing that made the movie what it was. She brought out magnificent performances from her actors and created shots that can easily be deemed as classic.

The script itself is not bad. For an independent movie it’s fine, but for a studio, it needs work. The structure alone is enough to say no. There is no three act structure.

The story feels like a procedural. There’s a bomb... bomb gets diffused. There’s a bomb... bomb gets diffused. There’s a bomb... bomb gets diffused.

It’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s just not the kind of structure that works for a studio movie.

So if you’re looking to get a studio to buy your script, and most likely you are (unless you’re a friend of Kathryn Bigelow), The Hurt Locker isn’t the best script to study.

But if you’re looking to write a suspense movie, this is a good one to check out.

Next on the First Ten: A movie that took over the world... with a story we’ve already seen.


If you’d like to get the first ten pages of your script Reader Proofed for free, head on over to www.readerproof.com.

Use promotional code “Hurtlock001” to get %25 percent off of a full proofing!


The Backlash

Recently, a writer asked me kind of a loaded question: do spec scripts still sell?

In a market place filled with pre-sold franchises, do spec scripts have a chance in 2010?

The best answer to this question can be found at the most likely of places: the movie theater.

Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Marmaduke, Prince of Persia, Robin Hood, Sex and the City 2, Toy Story 3, Shrek Forever After, The A-Team, The Karate Kid and Get Him to the Greek, (a sequel to Forgetting Sarah Marshall).

Eleven movies, all part of an existing franchise.

On the spec script side, we have: Splice, Letters to Juliet, Killers, and Date Night.


According to Box Office Mojo, out of the top ten grossing films of 2010 so far, only three are not pre sold franchises. Same thing for 2009 and 2008.

Here are the #1 grossing movies of each year from 2000 to 2009:
The Grinch, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Shrek 2, Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Spider Man 3, The Dark Knight and Avatar.

So out of the entire decade, only ONE original movie made it to the top. And Avatar is not a spec script (and some people would argue, not original; but I don’t want to get into that right now).

So what does this mean to the average, not-sitting-on-a-million dollars screenwriter? It means those 110 pages that you’ve poured your heart and soul into, has a very little chance of getting made.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a CHANCE that it might get made. And an even better chance that it might sell. If you hop on over to sites like Done Deal Pro, or read the trades, you’ll see that specs are selling often.

They’re just not getting made. Hundred of specs bought per year that just sit there doing nothing. All because there isn’t a comic book, novel, or other movie already attached to it.

Studio heads are often ridiculed for not taking chances on original material. But look at those odds.

This is a business before art. And money doesn’t lie.

So the question remains: do spec script still sell?

Yes. But not how you think.

The 90’s are long gone. There’s no more epic bidding wars for that script that you wrote in a month. In 2010, a spec script is more like an audition.

Your spec script sells you as a writer, not the other way around.

Executives want to know that you can handle the big six: structure, characters, concept, dialogue, set pieces and story.

Nailing those six factors is tough. But that’s what they want. Most of the time, not even all six of them.

Let’s say your spec has excellent dialogue, and Transformers 3 needs a dialogue rewrite. Well, guess who just got the job.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t care about Transformers 3, I want to get MY script made!”

In good time.

Before you get your own script made, you have to prove yourself. If you write Shrek 5 and it’s a hit, then they’ll trust you with anything.

And then you can sell that spec of yours.

There are many people out there that can make your spec script the best it can be (me included), but in this economy, no one can guarantee your script to end up on the big screen (me included).

It’s 2010 and the spec is dead.

For now...


Keep in mind the age old axiom: “nobody knows anything”.

Mr. Goldman was right. Hollywood is filled with people who think they “know” what the public wants. And right now, the public “wants” pre-sold franchises.

For now.

But how long can the public withstand sequel after sequel? How long can they watch movie after movie based on a novel or comic book before they figure out they can cut out the middle man and just read the novel or comicbook?

There’s going to be a backlash.

Just go to any cineplex and you’ll hear rumblings of “the book was better” or “I like the first one more”.

But if you listen real closely, you might just hear someone say “I wish they’d just make something original.”

And that’s the backlash.

It won’t take long before everyone is thinking the same thing.
And it won’t take long before the studios freak out.

And who are they going to turn to?


You and that spec you’ve been writing for a year. Suddenly that spec is looking fresh and new. Suddenly, original is the way to go.

So don’t give up on that spec quite yet. Because when the backlash hits, it’s going to hit hard.

And you better be ready when it does.


Twitter Pacing

First there was Myspace. The site that put social networking on the map.

With its top 8 list, colorful backgrounds, music and video players, a myspace page could get very busy.

And then Facebook came along and stripped away all the flash. No more top 8's and no more music. Just a white back ground and some info.

And yet, it was still too much for some people. It could still get simpler.

Enter Twitter.

On Twitter, you can barely do anything. Just update your followers in 140 words or less and that's about it.


In many ways, a perfect concept.

So what does social networking have to do with screenwriting?

Well, I’ve been thinking more about pacing in the last couple of weeks.

What’s the best way to keep the pacing up?

The simple answer: white space.

And there’s a tool out there that can make sure your page is as white as possible.


Write every description and every block of dialogue like a tweet. 140 characters and that's it.

There will be so much white on the page that it'll be a joy to read.

Now of course you don’t want to write exactly like a tweet. Your characters can’t be named @Bob and @Jane.

And your screenplay can’t be called #Awesome Screenplay.

The usual tricks you would use to shorten a tweet can’t be used either.

Numbers have to be spelled out, you have to use the best grammar you can and if you have some one laugh you can’t put “lol”.

All you have to do is make sure most of the script is in 140 character chunks.

If you can do it in a tweet, you can do it in a script.

And if you don't have a Twitter account, get one. It's good practice.

The days of writing whatever you want are over.

You have to trim everything down to the bare bones and still tell an engrossing story if you want the reader to pay attention.

Long blocks of dialogue can scare the reader/executive. They scream, "Guess who's not going to lunch on time?”

But if you use Twitter pacing, they'll have time to spare.

And trust me, you can gain major points for getting an executive to lunch on time.

So here’s the challenge.

And it’s a big one.

Take every chunk of dialogue and description in your screenplay and cut and past them into a twitter box.
If it doesn’t fit, start trimming.

And just to prove that it can be done, every paragraph in this blog can fit in a twitter box.

That was a fast read huh?


First Ten: Chinatown

They say that a studio reader only gives a spec script TEN PAGES before they know if it’s worthy enough to be shown to their boss.

I don’t find this fair.

But life’s not fair and neither is screenwriting.

So I decided to turn the tables a bit. Instead of judging the first ten pages of a spec, let’s judge the first ten pages of a script that has already been sold.

This week: Chinatown by Robert Towne
The Link - http://www.sendspace.com/file/cjphyd

[If you wish, you may read the first ten pages of the script before reading this blog. There maybe many versions of this script floating around the internet. I chose this one.]


Page 1:

* First: there is very little white space. But because this is the first page where you have to establish so much, it can be allowed.

* “FULL SCREEN PHOTOGRAPH” - This could have easily been: “CU - PHOTOGRAPH”. But Towne doesn’t write that. It’s still breaking the fourth wall, but in a much more subtle way and that’s why it works.

* I’m not a big fan of Curly physically biting into the blinds. Its tone doesn’t match what has already happened and what will happen from this point.

Page 2:

* “(settling back, breathing a little easier)” - This is a little long for a parenthetical. On the page it stretches down three lines. Ideally, you want your parentheticals to only be one line.

* (almost the manner of someone comforting the bereaved) - Same goes with this parenthetical. Parentheticals need to be fast in order to justify being on the page.

Page 3:

* We get our theme on page 3. The whole “you gotta have money to kill someone” speech. It’s a good theme and a great way to introduce it.

Page 4:

* “He's now walking him past SOPHIE who pointedly averts her
gaze.” - This is an example of not active writing. Instead of: “he’s now walking”, try “He walks”. You can make it even more active by changing the word: “He stumbles past SOPHIE who averts her gaze.” (I don’t think the adverb: “pointedly” is needed).

* “He shuts the door on him and the smile disappears.” - This one line tells us EXACTLY who Gittes is. Very nice.

Page 5:

* By page five, we meet Mrs. Mulray (or do we) and the mystery is up and going.

Page 6:

* “A drunk blows his nose with his fingers into the fountain at the foot of the steps.” - Now that’s a great detail! Gross, but you get the image immediately.

Page 7:

I’m a big fan of the first six pages of this sceenplay. They’re almost perfect pages. It’s page 7 where the problems start for me.

* That speech by Bagby needs some serious trimming. You can pull a speech like this off later in a script, but before page 75, a speech like this if daunting.

If a studio reader today saw this, he would skim it faster than you can say Chinatown.

Page 8

* Towne follows up Bagby’s speech on page 7 with a speech that is almost as long from Mulray. This one even more exposition heavy than the last. And it’s only page 8!

Page 10:

And then there is page 10. If this script was written today, this page would be unacceptable.

* That first paragraph makes my brain want to pop.

In a screenplay, you never want a paragraph of description to go longer than four lines. This paragraph has fourteen! I’ve seen stuff like this in plenty of amateur screenplays (from people who just didn’t know) but this has to be the longest paragraph I’ve ever seen in a professional screenplay.

* Notice anything missing from this page? Dialogue.

Not a line of dialogue on the page. A page without dialogue reads like a text book.

* If you zoom this page out far enough, you’ll truly see how much black is on the page. It’s enough black to kill any chances of anyone reading this page all the way through (there are five or six more pages just like this throughout the script).

In a spec, you want the reader to be able to read each page in under thirty seconds. I dare anyone to try and read this page in under a minute.

* This page does have excellent use of secondary slug lines, moving us to different locations or people quickly.


The Verdict: Would a Reader Keep Reading?

Past page ten, I’d say yeah. Those first six pages are killer, and enough to entice any reader.

However, the next four pages are so slow that it’s almost hard to get through. And with almost half of the script just as slow as those pages, I probably wouldn’t give the script twenty five pages before the reader gives up and starts skimming.

Now obviously, this script was written in a different time. A time where overwriting wasn’t a screenwriting sin.

The reason these problems need to be addressed in 2010 is because plenty of screenwriting classes, teach this script to their students. Exposing them to all the nasty little habits inside.

I think that there are plenty of great scenes in Chinatown, but as a whole, the script feels so daunting. Like something you HAVE to read, just because everyone else says it is so good. But the fun factor is set very low.

To use a famous scene from the movie, this screenplay is good *slap* is bad *slap* is good *slap* is bad *slap* is good *slap* it’s both good and bad!

(note: I do not condone violence towards women, or blogs.)

Coming Soon to the First 10: The Hurt Locker


How Much Does a Reader Really Read?

A few years ago I had an argument with a writer friend of mine about how many pages I thought the reader would get through in his script. It went something like this:

"So did you read my script?"

"Yeah, I thought it was pretty good."

"Think it'll sell?"

"I don't think a reader will get past page fifteen."
"I thought you said you liked it!"

"I do. But your act one starts on page forty. Everything before that
is just two guys talking."

"Well the reader has to read it all. It's his job."

And there it was.

The big question: how much does a reader read?

First off, my friend was right. It is the reader's job to read the entire screenplay.

The studios do this because they are not looking for a "story" out of a screenplay, they are looking for a concept. Something solid for them to hold on to and develop into movie. So even if the first 100 pages are horrible in a screenplay, there could be something special in the last ten (in theory).

Is it foolish to believe that every studio reader reads every screenplay from start to finish? No. Most readers will give writers the common courtesy of finishing their screenplay.

But it would be foolish to believe that no reader skims.

When you read enough screenplay's, you start to develop a sixth sense. Every reader has it. I can tell if a screenplay is going to be good by page three. And most studio readers can tell faster.

It's really easy to tell. If on the second page there is a block of text that is thirty lines, slowing the pace to a crawl. Or if there has been two flashbacks and it's only page two. Or if the first line of the screenplay is: "A beautiful woman and an ugly man are f***ing"(all three examples are from scripts I've read).

You just know this isn't going to be good.

So they skim, not because they are lazy or because they hate you, but because the script just wasn't engaging enough. There was nothing to grab on to, right from the beginning.

And with three more scripts the reader has to get through that day, he/she don't have time to analyze every word of your screenplay.

So when asked the question: "how much does a reader really read?" there are two answers.

Answer 1: Ten pages. Most readers will read your set up without skimming. After that, if your story doesn't get going with a catalyst/inciting incident, they will assume that there is no story to be told. And start to skim.

Answer 2: All of it. If you have an exciting concept, fun and layered characters and a solid structure with excellent pacing, the reader will read it all.

Writers tend to blame the reader for not selling their script. Writers rarely point the finger at themselves.

Remember: readers are people. People with lives.

If a reader only has a few hours to read a 165 page screenplay, nothing in this world will stop them from skimming like crazy (for the love of God, don't send anyone a 165 page screenplay).

The reason I created Reader Proof was not to trick the reader into finishing your script, but to entice the reader to.

And there lies the true answer to the age old question.

A reader will read anything; as long as you make him want to.


Spec Killers #1: "Beat"

One little word.

It looks so innocent.


Often the sole owner of a parenthetical, "beat" can be found in over half of the amateur scripts out there and virtually every professional script you can find.

The word is usually associated with pausing. As in:

You know I hate it when you do that.

You know, I hate you."

The use of the word "beat" is common practice among the screenwriting elite and you'd be hard pressed to find a script without one.

So what's so wrong with a word that everyone uses? Three things:

1) It's lazy.

Instead of creating an action for the character to do, the writer just slaps down "beat" and calls it a day.

That's great if you use the word as a place holder. But as seen in a parenthetical, nothing could be lazier. Use it once or twice, and I'm sure the reader wouldn't notice. But if "beat" plagues the page, the reader might assume you don't know how to do your job.

Your job being: actually writing something.

2) It's obscure.

More than half of the time, "beat" usually means "pause". And it's usually for comedic purposes. More than half of the time.

Which means for the other half of the time it means something else.

And it's up to the reader/actor to figure it out.

That's not good.

Take this example:

What do you want to do tonight?

Maybe go to dinner."

This beat can mean anything. A pause, her ignoring him, her smiling, her lost for words or pretty much anything. It's unclear.

It's never a good idea to let the reader fill in the blanks. They don't have the time and that's not their job.

They want to read your story and that means all of it.

3) It's Annoying!

I once read a script that had nine beats on one page. Nine! What?

That means there was a "pause" almost every four lines.

That's not good pacing.

Plus it was hard to tell what kind of beat it was.

It was beat, after beat throughout the entire script. It was a script that was written by a professional that felt like it was written by a newbie.

It was annoying.


Yes, the pros use beat. But this is one of those things that is best to be left for the pros. I don't think it's cool that they do it, but it doesn't matter. They made it. They're pros. They don't have to worry about anything because they're not writing on spec.

You are.

Like I said before, if there is a "beat" or two in your screenplay, I don't think anyone is going to notice. It's a word this is used so often that most readers won't even see it.

But more then two "beats" per script is a dangerous move.

Personality, I don't allow even one for my clients. There's just so many better ways of expressing what you mean and I try to give them more active and engrossing choices than "beat". You rjust have to be more creative.

And if all else fails, just say "he pauses".

Hey, it's better than beat.