No matter what your screenplay is about, or what genre it is, it really comes down to one thing: telling a story about the characters and what happens to them.
While some may put more emphasis on the latter part with its vast number of variables and possibilities, it’s equally important to put a lot of effort into developing the former.
You want your characters to be relatable. Let us see ourselves, or at least part of ourselves, in them. How they act and interact. What they do. Even if it’s within a completely ridiculous or unbelievable scenario.
A good example: the works of Judd Apatow. “Comedies with heart,” is often used to describe them. By injecting emotion into what might otherwise be just something silly, he adds that extra layer of humanity. Notice you never heard the phrase “wacky hijinks ensue”? Because it’s about the emotion within the comedy, not just going for the cheap laugh.
Nobody only experiences one emotion, and neither should the fictional population within your pages. If a character’s happy, sad, or angry, show us why. Don’t hold back. Put it there for us to see.
Do they act like a real person? Is this how they would act in this kind of situation? Is it a real reaction or a “movie” reaction? Getting your characters to act using their emotions makes them come across as more realistic, which makes for a better story.
“The characters are too one-dimensional,” or “He/She’s just a one-note character.” Heard those before? If your character only acts one way, or remains static and never changes, or doesn’t even react accordingly, that’s what the response will most likely be. And you don’t want that.
A savvy writer knows how to use emotion without being blatant about it. Maybe it’s a subtle action, or a turn of phrase, or the subtext within a line of dialogue.
Find the way that works best to develop and advance the character both within their own story and the story overall.
When you read a script, it’s not just about “Do I find this story interesting?” or ” Why should I care about these characters?”. There’s also “Does it look like a professional script?”
That’s where proofreading comes in handy.
This week offers up a 2-part panel discussion with professional proofreaders Tammy Gross of proofmyspec.com and Bill Donovan of screenwritingcommunity.net to discuss proofreading and its connection with screenwriting.
How exactly does one proofread a screenplay? What are some of the things you’re looking for?
Tammy Gross (TG): That’s a loaded question! For me it boils down to what I call “the language of screenplay.” Spec screenplays need to be streamlined, devoid of technical distractions and written in a cinematic style that transports the reader to the theater.
And, of course, it’s my job to fix all the “errors.” In context, misspellings and bad grammar are often intentional and work better than perfect grammar and spelling conventions. However, you gotta know the rules to break them. And there are many ways to format some things, though the best is always whatever is clearest, most economical, and relevant to the story.
My job is to make a screenplay easy, fast, and fun to read – and up to professional standards. So I look for anything that gets in the way of that.
Bill Donovan (BD): My service is a bit of a hybrid. I give some story and screenplay structure notes as well as proofread and copy edit. The proofreading/copy editing part covers:
— Typographical errors
— Spelling errors
— Grammatical errors
— Punctuation errors
— Capitalization errors
— Verb tense errors
— Sentence structure and clarity problems
— Basic formatting mistakes
— Cramming in too many words
— “Saying” when you need to show
What’s the difference between editing and proofreading?
TG: When it comes to screenplays, it usually is a matter of time and thoroughness. Proofreading should be the last step before submitting a screenplay to anyone for consideration. In a perfect world, a screenwriter will go through various phases of self-editing. Once it’s polished, it should probably receive a copy edit to have fresh eyes to catch all the formatting, consistency, and text issues. After it’s been cleaned up and the story is solid, it’s time for proofreading. And the depth of proof-editing depends on the writer’s level of proficiency.
I take it a couple steps further than most. First, I create a style sheet to ensure that preferences are observed and maintained throughout. I also work very hard to help the screenwriter understand the edits I’ve made so they can grow in their craft. I’ve seen writers improve from script to script as a result. Some have gone from disaster to master.
BD: There are key differences. Proofreading, strictly defined, is a bit more limited. It involves fixing actual errors, such as typos, missing words, missing punctuation or wrongly-placed punctuation, capitalization errors and other outright mistakes. Copy editing covers all of those mistakes and also addresses larger issues of clarity, such as fixing a sentence or paragraph which may be grammatically correct but is vague.
I have great difficulty leaving a badly-written sentence or paragraph alone even when it might be okay in strict proofreading terms. Since I make my changes in colored type, I figure that the writer can go in and change it back if he/she prefers his or her own phrasing.
For example, some of my clients write much of their scene description in partial sentences. That’s fine if you can do it well. However, most of the writers who come to me do not write partial sentences well. The meaning is clear to them because they know what they mean. However, if it’s not clear to the reader, I fix it or give the writer a note suggesting that he or she fix it.
A lot of writers might say “I can do just as good a job proofreading it myself.” Your response?
TG: In nine years I’ve read only one screenplay that was error-free, including shorts. The biggest mistake even the most experienced writers make is assuming that because they understand some mechanics, they have a full grasp of format. While everyone claims there are no “rules”, there really are guidelines that are basically rules. Very few writers can keep up with the latest standards the way I and other professionals (hopefully) do.
My favorite trick for self-editing is to simply read backward from bottom to top. But it won’t catch everything. Most quality scripts go through many revisions and rewrites. It’s bound to pick up some introduced errors along the way that you become blind to.
BD: If you’re very good at English language usage, and if you’re an experienced editor, and if you walk away from it for a while, and if you then focus on every word and every bit of punctuation for all possible mistakes from overall clarity down to missing commas, yes, you can.
But will you? For example: I’ve sent out email blasts for my proofreading service about 15 times in the past 15 months. Three times, recipients have written back, gleefully and snidely, “Ha-ha! I found a typo in your email blast.” They were right. How could I make such a mistake, in a blast advertising proofreading, when I have thousands of pages of experience as a proofreader and copy editor? I know exactly how: The mind tends to gloss over the tiniest little details of that which you have written yourself, and you become both tired of reading it and eager to get it out.
What are some common mistakes you usually see?
TG: I have a very long, and boring list of words and format issues I plan to turn into a book once I can figure out how to make it fun and simple to reference. The usual suspects: its/it’s, your/you’re, there/their/they’re, lie/lay. A baffling but common one is “draw” instead of “drawer.” Possibly the biggest peeve and most common issue is passive voice.
There’s also a zeitgeist in the editing world. One year something like “clinch” vs. “clench” needs fixing in every script (or manuscript) I read, then the next year everyone is misspelling or misusing “rifle” vs. “riffle.” It’s weird.
Also, some things in spec writing evolve, so things that were “mistakes” five years ago are perfectly normal or even preferred today. I work hard to keep up on the current trends and roll with the changes, but I’ll probably never accept “how r u” for spoken dialogue.
BD: This is the short answer. I maintain a document on common mistakes screenwriters make. It’s 14 pages of paragraphs and explanations. These are not in order of frequency, but are some of the most common:
1. The “Their, they’re, there” and possessives sort of grammar mistakes.
2. Missing commas. Commas are sneaky little creatures, always slipping away from your text where it needs one.
3. The worst, and surprisingly common, is the “Show, don’t say” mistake. John Vorhaus, author of The Comic Toolbox, summed it up perfectly:
“You could tell by his face he was thinking of Paris.”
But, of course, you can’t tell by his face what he’s thinking of. He could just as easily be thinking about a juicy cheeseburger.
4. Specifying shots. In film school, they used to say that you learn to write by directing and you learn to direct by editing. You don’t learn to direct by writing, so the decision on shots should be left to the director 95% of the time. Even when a closeup is required in order to provide closeup information, it can be done without saying “CLOSEUP” or “CU”. I don’t tell writers not to specify a closeup, but another way to do it is a separate paragraph describing the content of the closeup. The director will get the idea.
5. Run-together sentences. Even grammatically-correct compound sentences can be bad choices when they gloss over the action. They forego the opportunity to emphasize great moments. One way to “direct the director” without specifying shots is to write a separate paragraph for each camera setup.
“Jack kisses Jill and they walk off into the sunset.”
“Jack kisses Jill. Their lips lock, long and loving.”
“They break the kiss. Grasping hands, they turn, and walk off into the sunset.”
New writers tend to rush through both the blocking of scenes and the emotions of the moment. In contrast, a recent client of mine, a produced director and stage director, wrote a comedy screenplay so precisely that many of his descriptions were delivered with punch lines in visual jokes. It was marvelous to read.
6. Writing in present participle rather than present tense. A screenplay is action taking place NOW. Sometimes, present participle (“Jack is standing”) is unavoidable because it’s needed for clarity. However, if Jack pulls out a gun and then pulls the trigger, then “Jack shoots,” not “Jack is shooting.”
7. Incorrect use of ellipses.
8. Incorrect parentheticals. If a character does something before speaking or after speaking, it doesn’t belong in the parenthetical; it belongs in the scene description.
9. Failure to do research. When laws, government regulations, and historical events are mentioned, they should be correct. I’ve seen two screenplays in which the writers had significant plot turns saying that under HIPAA, they couldn’t get their own medical records because they were company secrets. It’s the other way around.
My list has quite a few more. Again, the “common mistakes” reference I’ve created is 14 pages long and growing.
Do you have a “most memorable” example of writing that was in severe need of proofing?
TG: My very first client almost scared me off from doing this. I put my website up in the middle of the night and a guy in Australia emailed me almost immediately. He sent me a Word file filled with something more like ideas or musings about some stuff in outer space. No formatting. No story. I don’t think there were even any characters or dialogue. Fortunately, my second client wasn’t high after a long walkabout (that I know of) and let me cut my teeth on a good script in Final Draft (my favorite, though I work in every program under the sun).
BD: Yes, and no. I just turn back the “most memorable” with notes suggesting to the writer what should be done before hiring me to proofread the work. For example, I recently sent back a feature script that was 195 pages with the suggestion that it be cut to 115.
When I write out a scene, I have a pretty solid idea of what needs to happen in it; how to make it follow the one before it, and lead into the one after it.
Sometimes it ends up the way I intended, and sometimes it needs a little more punching-up.
And a lot of the time, that punching-up involves making things more complicated, which does a simultaneously effective job of upping the conflict, which was already a necessity.
This whole process most recently came into play while working on a scene in the pulp spec. I’d planned out what was supposed to happen, and on the surface, it seemed okay.
And then I wrote it, but it wasn’t the same as I’d envisioned. It was still missing a vital component, and I couldn’t determine exactly what.
Did it successfully connect the scenes before and after? Was there conflict? Did it advance the necessary elements? Yes on all counts, but it still seemed off.
I read through it again. It was tight and efficient, and did what it was supposed to. But this second read also revealed the hidden problem that was nagging at me.
It was too tight and efficient. The protagonist accomplished what they were supposed to, but it needed to be tougher for them to do so.
So back I went to the planning-out stage, tossing in a few more wrinkles to make it that much harder for my hero. Although they still achieve their goal within the context of the scene, this time I made sure they really earned it.
Plus, the new complications really emphasized the overall nature of the story, which is always good.
This isn’t to say that every scene has to have some kind of monumental obstacle to your protagonist, but the journey towards their goal shouldn’t be an easy one. It might not even be a physical thing; maybe your hero has to overcome an internal or emotional problem.
It may be easier for you to keep things simple and straightforward, but unfortunately that makes for dull storytelling. Making things more complicated for your protagonist may complicate things for you in putting it all together, but it will definitely make for a better story while also improving your skills as a writer.
Don’t hold back. Put both yourself and your protagonist through the wringer. You’ll both be better for it.
There I was, happily churning out pages for the pulpy adventure spec. The daily output was respectably above average.
(Gotta say, this new practice of writing out/establishing the beats of each scene has proven invaluable.)
If I could maintain this kind of pace, dare I even contemplate the possibility of having a completed draft, if not by month’s end, then maybe by mid-February?
But like the man who operates the guillotine might say, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
Story-wise, things are still pretty solid, save for a previously unforeseen wrinkle: I need to do some emergency revision regarding exactly where and how a supporting character is introduced.
What was in the outline is completely different from what ended up on the page, so looks like I’ve given myself a few options:
Leave it as is, but come up with how to tie everything together. A few possible solutions here. Not crazy about it.
Go back and rewrite so it plays out as originally planned. It may lack some of the punch I was hoping to start with, but that sequence already has a significant amount of “attention-grabbing oomph” to begin with.
Some alternate approaches are currently under consideration, as are those of a drastically different nature. It’s also being discovered that implementing some of these changes could actually assist in reducing the number of pages, which was going to happen anyway. Only now it would be sooner. Not a bad result.
No matter which I choose, there’s some serious editing and rewriting in my immediate future.
This whole scenario definitely falls under the “kill your darlings” category because even though I really like what I’ve already written, as we all know, fixing the story takes precedence over placating the writer’s ego.
Keeping with the metaphor of this post’s title, what initially felt like a major problem is, after some careful analysis, evaluation, and plain old level-headedness, slowly developing into more of a bump in the road.
While the November writing project moves forward at a pleasant pace (but now appears to be more of a November-December thing), part of my time has also been spent giving notes on some friends’ scripts.
One in particular had a few problems, some of which were easily fixed, but what really stood out was how it committed a cardinal sin of screenwriting by having a lot of scenes where the characters talk repeatedly about something “important” they want to do, but by the end, they end up not doing anything. And I mean that literally. These were some of the most passive characters I’ve experienced.
It didn’t help that the characters also had no arc. They were exactly the same from beginning to end (with maybe the exception of one who might have been arrested, but even the circumstances involved with that are still somewhat unclear).
Let’s face it. A main character who’s all talk, no action, and doesn’t change is the death knell for your script. Why would somebody be interested in seeing what happens to them, especially if they don’t do anything?
One of the most frequent problems I’ve seen is when the main character isn’t the one driving the story forward. They just kind of hang around and watch stuff happen.
Remember, you’re trying to get your main character to their goal over the course of the story. They have to be the one making things happen in order to achieve that, or at least react to what happens in such a way that it helps them. The way these characters were written, I honestly had no idea what their individual goals were.
Take a look at your latest draft. Which character is moving the story forward? Is your main character active or passive? Are they making things happen? If not, can you see what you’d need to change in order to do that?
You definitely want your characters to come across as believably three-dimensional. Having them do little or next-to-nothing throughout the story is doing you no favors. Character motivation and actions are some of those key elements that simply cannot be left out. Audiences can forgive certain things, but a dull, passive main character isn’t one of them.