Excerpt from my book “Long Night’s Journey Into Daybreak.”
Here’s what I want you to remember about the screenplay whether you are the writer, the director, or both: know the story inside and out; know the characters inside and out. Make your decisions in order to serve the story and its characters.
Most screenplays employ the traditional three-act structure. Act I (30 pages), first turning point; Act II (60 pages), second turning point—main character at his lowest point; and Act III (30 pages), the climax and resolution. Every story has its own rhythm and its own needs but don’t wander too far off from this basic story-telling template. If the first turning point occurs at page 40 and Act II runs 15 pages, you’ve got some rewriting to do: the story structure is a mess!
Serve the story! Edit out scenes that are not absolutely necessary to the story. Trim the fat. Get to the point. Do the scenes begin somewhere in the middle and do we get out before the end? I kept writing scenes where someone always exited at the end: scene over, I’m leaving… No. Don’t do this. Keep it moving by capturing the essence of the moment and move on!
Serve the characters. Each character must have a point of view. They must speak with their own voice. I find that too often all characters are written with the same voice. They just sound the same, as if lines of dialogue are interchangeable. They should be well rounded and come with some surprises, have weakness as well as strengths. What makes them laugh or cry? What do they fear? …And why? Everyone is different, so make sure that your characters are, too. I recommend writing extensive background notes on each of the main characters. Identify their main flaw. What do they want in life? What prevents them from getting it? By knowing what makes your characters tick, you’ll be able to place them into the story and allow their actions and dialogue to spring forth naturally and believably.
Here’s a quick overview about screenplay format. (If you’re not familiar with how a screenplay looks, find some of them on-line or and read them.) There are certain basic rules and characteristics of a professional-looking script starting with Courier font, 12 point, with one-inch margins. Avoid the temptation to make yours unique or cool. Remember that appearances count! The best written screenplay will not even get read by a professional if it looks anything but traditional.
Each scene has a slug line such as: EXT. FENNER’S SERVICE STATION – DAY.
Action is written across the full margins explaining to the reader what is taking place.
Michele pulls into the gas pump island. She steps out of the car and looks towards the office.
Dialogue starts 2.75 inches from the left edge and is no more than 35 characters wide including spaces. The character’s name is always capitalized and centered. Below that is the actual dialogue.
Sit down and shut up!
A parenthetical indicates how a character is saying the dialogue.
Sit down and shut up!
Word to the wise here: avoid using parentheticals! They can really get out of hand and, truthfully, many actors scratch them out wherever they appear. They will decide how the dialogue is spoken as they interpret the character. Of course, sometimes you have no choice but to include a parenthetical or two, but easy does it.
Finally, I advise you to write what you know. Write from personal experience. Write with truth and honesty. Give it your personal view of the world, your message. Break the rules if you have to. Do what you must to best serve your story. If your instincts tell you it must be this way, then follow through with it. Trust your instincts above all else, against all advice. No one else knows exactly what you’re striving to accomplish better than you. Trust yourself.
I’m just saying…