Next Level Screenwriting Part Two by Hayley McKenzie


Guest blog by Hayley McKenzie, founder and CEO of Script Angel

So you’ve elevated your concept, your genre execution and story. Now we roll our sleeves up and really dive into the detail.

Characters

Basic:  Your character first-meets are clear; characters are introduced with their name in CAPS the first time we meet them, followed by a brief essence statement that sums up their character (personality and attitude), not just their appearance.

You’ve got a clear protagonist.  If it’s a movie, you know who is on the poster, if it’s tv, you know which character is on the front cover of the tv listing guide.

Your protagonist is an interesting, believable person with a mix of strengths and weaknesses and you’ve dramatised those primary traits through the character’s actions and choices she makes.

Next level: Are all of your characters interesting and flawed? Have you ended up with some secondary character who are just fulfilling a plot function, without any internal agency of their own?

Have we seen those characters a thousand time before? Can you give them a twist to make them feel fresh and original?

Are your characters being forced to change and grow by the obstacles you’ve thrown at them and the difficult choices you’ve given them? It may not be the primary concern in genres such as Thriller and Action, but even in these plot-focused genres a transformational arc for your characters might make your script stand out from the crowd.

Dialogue

Basic: Your dialogue sounds like real people talking. It’s succinct and you haven’t got huge speeches running to half a page.

Next level: Great dialogue conveys meaning through subtext. Does yours? Do we know what your characters are thinking and feeling even though it’s never uttered in the dialogue?

Formatting

Basic: The formatting is correct, you’ve remembered to add page numbers, your front page includes your name and contact details. Your location names in scene headers are consistent; ‘Int. Joe’s House…’ doesn’t mutate to become ‘Int. Joe McKenzie’s House…’ halfway through.

Your action lines are clear and concise. They only describe what the director can capture with her camera; ‘Joe gazes into the distance’ and not ‘Joe gazes into the distance thinking about what Marie said to him yesterday, unsure whether to call her or not’.

Next level: You’ve thought about the reader’s experience to the nth degree, so that the final sentence or word on a page is designed to make the reader want to literally turn the page. Yes, I know a LOT of experienced professional writers who really do this, on every draft they send to a producer….

Scene Shaping

Basic: Scenes are focused and succinct. You’re coming in late and getting out early.

Next level: Does every scene turn? Every scene should be shaped like a film itself, with a clear beginning, middle (turning point) and end. Something must have changed by the end of every scene. What’s driving each scene?

Does every scene-end hook us? They won’t all be great big cliff-hangers, but they should make us want to see what happens next, raise a question that we want to see answered.

Visual Imagery

Basic: It doesn’t read like a stage play. You’ve made use of this visual medium with some interesting settings, plenty of action and maybe even a big-budget set-piece?

Next level: Have you used the visual language of cinema? Are you showing us the story in a rich, visual way, making use of every opportunity for the visuals to carry the story?

Scene Transitions

Basic: Transitions between scenes make sense – nothing jars unless you intend it to.

Next level: Have you created some interesting scene transitions using visual and aural cues to connect scenes and story strands?

Voice

Basic: There’s a consistent style and tone of writing across the piece as a whole – it feels authored.

Next level: If I’ve read a script by you before, and then read this without knowing who’d written it, would I recognise your voice on the page? Think about the screenwriters you most admire and how distinctive their writing is. That’s where you need to get to.

Writing a script that will ‘wow’ producers or agents is a process, and not an easy one. It requires way more thinking time than it does typing.  At Script Angel we work with writers over a minimum of six months (often much longer) to really hone their spec scripts because we know that developing an idea and script to this level takes a big investment of creativity and time, even when you’re an experienced pro.

Hayley McKenzie is an experienced script executive and the Founder & CEO of Script Angel; a professional writer development organisation which helps emerging writers to elevate their scripts, develop their voice and advance their screenwriting career.