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MARTIN SIMPSON'S TEN COMMANDMENTS of screenwriting

There are really ten thousand commandments of screenwriting, but that’d take a book or three.  Hitchcock’s main piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers was, “Stay out of jail.”  And there are many other extremely useful tips that will not appear here. But to write a readable screenplay, I believe you really do need to know the following basic information.  So here is my top ten.

 

1. DON’T GET IT RIGHT, GET IT WRITTEN.

Thou shalt write.

“I’ve got this great idea for a film.” 

Good, get it down on paper. Because an idea can only become a movie by being a screenplay first.

A screenplay may have a range of monetary values from no dollars to some hundreds of thousands of dollars. An idea has only one monetary value. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

 

To add value to an idea, put fingers to keyboard and write. And write. And write. Every day you can. Half an hour at your computer will do. Ten minutes in your little notebook when you’re waiting for the dentist to torture you will help. Bit by bit will get you there. A page a day will have you a screenplay in four months. No pages a day will have you a screenplay never.

 

Keep going. To the end. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or not. If it feels great, keep going. If it feels like crap, keep going. Don’t go back and edit. What matters is that you finish it. An unfinished screenplay will never sell. Crap sells every day. Take heart from Hemingway’s dictum: “A first draft of anything is shit.”

 

2. AMATEURS WRITE, PROFESSIONALS REWRITE.

Thou shalt revise.

 

So, you’ve made it to the end. You’re exhausted by the process, but you’ve got your hundred pages done and you’ve written FADE OUT. Your mother thinks it’s great; your boyfriend likes the opening.  Do you send it out to every producer you’ve found on Google?

NO.

Because (see 1) it’s crap. If Hemingway’s first draft is shit, yours is unlikely to smell any better. You can improve it. You must improve it. You will improve it.

 

Put it in a folder and have a rest. Not from writing!

You still have to do your daily, but you can have a break from that particular screenplay while you move on to another, or dash off a poem, or a write a short story, an article, or maybe some notes on the nature of beauty in skateboarding.

 

Then after a week or several, come back to your great opus and read it. Right through - without stopping. A bit dull in spots, is it? Doesn’t make sense here and there? Read it aloud to someone you’ve tied to a chair. When they yawn or start asking for mercy - stop. It’s time to pick up your tools and re-write. You’ll have fun. New ideas about how to add interest and emotion will come floating into your brain, you’ll make bits of dialogue sparkle through cutting and revising. Yay! You’re a writer!

 

Finished? Not yet.

 

Repeat the process. Once, twice, seven times. Maybe more. As often as necessary to get your screenplay brilliant!

 

3. TEARS, FEARS AND LAUGHTER

Thou shalt not be boring.

 

People don’t watch movies to see things happen. They go to movies to feel -- their own hearts race, tears spring to their eyes, to hold their breaths in anticipation as they become the hero in their own movie.

 

How do you create emotion in the audience?

 

You give us an empathetic hero, someone the audience wants to identify with, to become, because in our own small way we’ve all been where the hero’s been.

 

We can identify with:

Someone who suffers undeserved misfortune.

Someone in danger of losing something or someone they care about, their husband wife or job, maybe even their own life.

Someone who is kind to others.

Someone who is liked by others.

Someone who makes us laugh.

Someone who is good at his/her chosen task.

 

When a person with a couple or several of these traits wants something so much that he or she will struggle against enormous opposition both external and internal, to win, lose, or draw, we will want to be on their team, shouting out our encouragement as we sweat on them to achieve their goals.

 

4. THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE

Thou shalt honour thy promises.

 

Your great idea for a movie is its premise: What if?

 

Most screenplays fail at this first hurdle.

 

‘What if Henry broke a teacup?’ is probably not a great idea for a movie. It may be art, but it’ll be hard to sell because it doesn’t promise much will happen if he does.

 

Here are some premises that sold:

What if someone extracted the DNA of dinosaurs from the blood in mosquitos trapped in amber for millions of years?

What if a cop with a failed marriage went to his ex-wife’s office Christmas party to try and get her back, and terrorists took over the building?

What if a guy was still a virgin at age forty and his workmates decided to get him laid?

 

The ‘What if?’ is a promise.

Because of the premise, something is going to happen. Dinosaurs are going to eat people, the cop is going to fight with guys with guns, the virgin is going to bed with a woman. Unlike a politician, you, the writer, are obliged to deliver on this promise.

 

If the dinosaurs become easily managed pets, if the cop runs away, if the virgin stays that way, your script goes in the bin, along with your dreams of seeing it on the screen.

 

5. DON’T JUST STAND THERE!

Thou shalt create an active hero.

 

This movie’s about a guy who watches football on television. I don’t think so.

This movie’s about a girl who gets jilted by her lover.  And?

This movie’s about a kid who can’t spell. Yawn.

 

Somebody do something!

Unless the guy gets an inkling his life is boring and gets off his couch, or the girl takes revenge or another lover, or the kid wants to win a spelling bee, you ain’t got a story.

 

A story is about a person who wants, needs or longs for something, and struggles to get it. They might start out paralysed and inactive, in fact they often do, but once they are prodded into action they go for it with passion, courage, and determination.

 

6. WHY KRYPTONITE?

Thou shalt create a vulnerable hero.

 

Because if the hero can’t be beaten, why are we watching this tennis match? We already know the ending. 

And, if the hero feels no pain, we can’t identify. (See 3).

Result – read no further in this screenplay.

 

7. GIVE ‘EM HELL

Thou shalt make life hard for thy hero.

 

An easy life is something to wish for, but not fascinating to watch.

 

We want to know about people. Are they courageous or cowards? Are they honest or liars? Will they love us or betray us? We can’t know until they are tested and their actions reveal them.

 

My hero’s a great swimmer. So you say.  But we can’t know that until she’s beaten off the opposition in the Olympics, or ‘til he’s free dived to the stricken submarine with the flutter valve they need to make the engine work.

 

People only show their true natures in conflict. Conflict with other people, conflict with society, conflict with God, conflict with the weather or the natural world, or even conflict with the machines we’ve constructed to make life easy. The harder you make your hero’s life, the more we can see her true qualities and the more involved we will be with her.

 

8. TALK IS CHEAP

Thou shalt write a silent movie first.

 

A movie moves forward by characters’ actions.

 

A husband’s look at a blonde in the street will tell his wife, and us, a lot more about their relationship than a page of dialogue. If the wife sees his glance and slaps him, the story moves forward in one way, if she puts up with it, the story moves in another.

 

The husband’s look of disgust in the mirror after she leaves, or his anxious wait at the train station hoping for her return, doesn’t need words.

 

Writing what happens in the movie first, you will connect cause and effect by actions, and you can leave the dialogue to do what it does best – cover up feelings. When it does that, we have a genuine sense that the characters are real people who have inner feelings to protect. And your reader will keep reading to see your plot force them to expose those feelings by acting on them.

 

If you write dialogue first, you will tend to burden it with carrying the plot of your film. You will make it tell us exposition that has nothing to do with human emotion or how people really speak, and it will drain the reader’s interest and take your screenplay down with it.

 

Only when a character’s actions are clear is she ready to talk.

 

Hitchcock said, “After we’ve written the movie, we add the dialogue.”

 

9. HELLO, AS YOU KNOW, GEORGE, YOUR PET ALIEN IS FROM ZARG.

Thy dialogue shalt not be on the nose.

 

To get your characters to speak like real humans, you might listen to real humans and note how they speak. Cut the ums and errs and unfinished sentences by all means, but get that feel of reality into your dialogue.

 

Don’t have the characters in your screenplay tell each other what they already know. For instance, people don’t use each other’s names much in real life. Why? Because they already know them and are not trying to broadcast their names to an audience.

 

And cut the: “Hi, Jill. How are you?” “I’m fine Nigel,” introductions around the time you’re cutting out the bits of people entering and leaving doors and getting in and out of cars. The audience will work it out.  And if they don’t that’s fine. What’s the lead character’s name in Avatar? Who cares?

 

If you are writing a dialogue scene in which one character hands the other a tumbler of water, and he says, “Here’s a glass of water,” be aware that in the miraculous event of it ever being shot, the actor will drop the line. Why? Because, apart from being dull, it says what we can already see happening. This is called ‘on the nose’ dialogue and will get your script in the recycling bin quicker than you could spill that tumbler.

 

Don’t bore us with Q and A.

Instead of:

“Say, John, did the police catch those thieves?”

“Why, no, Mary, and do you know why?”

“I don’t, John, can you tell me?”

“Because they weren’t honest themselves, Mary.”

“Really, John?”

Erk.

Good dialogue moves us forward. In your re-write, you’ll come up with something better, along the lines of: (From The Devil’s Own)

“Did they catch the fuckers?”

“They were the fuckers.”

 

Give us subtext.

When Mr. Domestic has spent the afternoon cooking, and Mrs. Power-dressed rushes into the kitchen and says, “Gotta go, I’ve got dinner with clients,” and he shrugs, “That’s okay, I was just testing a recipe for fun,” we know that he’s lying about it being okay and that their marriage is on the rocks, because she never even noticed he was cooking for her. The characters are hiding their true feelings and we, the audience, figure it out. This draws us into your screenplay, which will inch you towards a sale.

 

10. DON’T TALK WITH YOUR MOUTH FULL.

Thou shalt be kind to the reader.

 

Good manners make you nicer to have dinner with.  Good writing manners make a reader more likely to stay at the table of your screenplay. Writing is difficult, but remember, so is reading.

 

The reader of your great opus is up against it from the get go. He or she doesn’t even want to read it, but her boss has given her a pile of scripts to plough through over the weekend. She is only obliged to read up to page ten of each, after that she can chuck them. She needs to speed-read your script in time to get to her boyfriend’s barbecue before sundown. Help her!

 

Don’t make grammatical errors, typos or spelling mistakes, so she has to stop and figure out what you mean. And don’t rely on your spell check, it can’t tell ‘bear’ from ‘bare’, or ‘your’ from ‘you’re’, or ‘to’ from ‘too’, or ‘its’ from ‘it’s’…

 

Give nice clean succinct descriptions your reader can race through.

 

Make your character names different enough to tell apart. Julie and Jilly and Jude will run together into one character in your reader’s mind, and that’s confusing, and confusion is -- death.

 

Don’t direct the camera or the actors, just state what the characters say and do.

 

Get the format right. Use Movie Magic, or Final Draft (Warner Bros. style) or some other program, but learn how to use it. And learn for example, when to capitalise a character’s name (the first time only), the difference between three dots (pause) and two dashes (interruption), how to intercut a phone conversation (use INTERCUT SCENES in the first line of description of the second person’s location), the difference between O.S. (someone speaking on location but off screen) and V.O. (a voice-over by someone not in the scene). There’s a lot more of this tricky stuff. Study format, because if you get it wrong, your reader is going stop and go “Huh?” She’ll think you’re an amateur, and worse, she’ll think if you can’t be bothered getting the format right, how are you going to get storytelling right. Right?

 

11. IT AIN’T ALL COKE AND PUSSY

 (I know, I said ten, but this one’s about life)

Thou shalt only write because thou enjoyest the process.

 

Breaking into the big time is more difficult than ever. Agents have the drawbridge up, and even if you get in the castle, they probably won’t take your call. Studios only want franchises. Independent producers want you to work for free.

 

You may never sell your work, even for nothing, and see it on a screen. The odds are way against you. So if you’re in it for the money, go get a dental degree.

 

But if you have to write because you’re driven, because these stories are inside you eager to get out, and writing is the best way of expressing your feelings, and above all you love doing it, then the process is its own reward.  Even if you stay poor and unknown, your life is enriched.

 

So go to it.

 

Have fun!

 

 

 

MARTIN SIMPSON Sydney 2010

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