screenplayjunkie5Something tells me this guy isn’t ready yet.  

Knowing when you’re ready to take that step into the professional world of screenwriting is important. Over time, you will accumulate contacts and relationships in the industry (even if it’s just a friend of a friend of a producer). And the last thing you want to do is burn those contacts by giving them a script that sucks. Every writer I know has done this (I’ve done it several times myself) mainly due to impatience. We want to sell a script NOW NOW NOW. The devastating thing about this mistake is that you usually lose that contact for life. No matter what you do, you can’t change someone’s mind who thinks you’re a shitty writer.

Now I don’t like to use that term (shitty writer). I prefer “writers who aren’t ready yet,” which is the theme of this post. How do you know if you’re ready? Well, we’ve talked about this before, but I wanted to get into a little more detail, since understanding where you’re at in the process is nearly impossible to be objective about. Everyone thinks they’re ready TODAY. And I hope you are! But if you find yourself agreeing to a few of these statements, you may need to spend some more time in the minor leagues before you’re called up. Below are ten signs that you’re not ready for a professional screenwriting career just yet.

1) You’ve never showed your script to anyone – I’m surprised by just how many writers haven’t shown their work to anyone (friends, fellow writers, family). One of the biggest keys to writer improvement is feedback. People knock the development system all the time, but the development system lets the writers know what’s working and what isn’t. You need that help as well.  I guess I understand the fear component here. Writers are terribly insecure people. “What if I’m bad?” they wonder. “What if they tell me my script’s unreadable?” But that’s the wrong way to look at it. Screenwriting should be seen as a continual learning experience where you’re always getting better. The sooner you know what you’re doing wrong, the sooner you can correct it. So send your script to a friend, to another screenwriter, to me. But in order to really move forward with your screenwriting, you have to take that first step.

2) You’ve only written one script – People who only write one script don’t really learn screenwriting. They learn how to write one script. Every script you write is unique and expands your skills and knowledge as a storyteller. Many of the things you learn from successive scripts, you’ll be able to apply back to your earlier scripts, creating a “kill two birds with one stone” scenario. Plus, the more screenplays you have, the more marketable you are as a writer. Every once in awhile, you’ll see an exception to this (Craig in last week’s Amateur Friday), but man are those exceptions rare.

3) Screenwriting is something you do casually – Recently, I met this producer who had an insane work ethic. He was always reading a new book, flying to a new festival, optioning a new script, setting up a new TV show. I was amazed by this and asked him what his secret was. He said that when he first got here, he hung out with a really successful producer who never sat still. And he asked him the same question. The producer pointed out that it’s so competitive in this industry, that unless you are giving 110% at all times, you will be crushed. That’s when he realized that only the strong survived. It’s the same thing with screenwriting. You’re competing against tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of other writers. You have no choice but to outwork them if you’re going to survive. True, not everyone has an infinite amount of time, but if you’re serious about breaking in, you better be using all of your free time to write, read, or study.

4) You’ve entered at least four contests and haven’t placed in any (and by “place,” I mean top 5%) – If you don’t place in a single screenplay competition, you can chalk it up to you and a reader not seeing eye to eye. Four competitions though? That means your writing isn’t up to snuff yet. To add some context, the biggest screenwriting competition in the world, Nicholl, has 7000 entries. 5 of those win, and rarely do any of them go on to sell. That’s less than .1% of the entries. Which aren’t even good enough to compete in the Hollywood market. So if you’re not in the top 5% of a contest, you still have work to do. But don’t fret. Again, think of screenwriting as a constant learning process. Expand your screenwriting knowledge, read more screenplays, watch more movies, then write more scripts. Don’t fret. You WILL continue to get better.

5) You’re driven only by money – Writers who are driven by money tend to write hollow scripts. The reality is, this isn’t the 90s anymore where writers ruled the roost and got a million bucks for a logline. The market has cooled down considerably. Truth be told, most of the writers who give up are the ones who were driven by money and, after writing three Taken or Hangover clones that didn’t sell, convince themselves that the industry is run by nepotism and hightail it back to Oklahoma. The reality is, the people who tend to make it are people who love movies and love telling stories. They are people who want to say something about the world, but say it within the confines of a marketable premise. What I find is that a lot of people come here wanting to sell a million dollar spec, then somewhere along the way, fall in love with the medium and want to learn everything about it. Usually, when they make this mental transition, is when they start to succeed. Do we hope one day to make a living writing? Sure. Would it be nice if the profession helped us buy a house in the hills? Of course. But that shouldn’t be why you’re writing. You should be writing because you can’t think of any other thing you’d rather be doing with your life.

6) You don’t believe – I just did an entire article about this. If you don’t believe in yourself, you are perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy which will result in you eventually giving up. I promise you. In many ways, the key to success in any field is belief, because without it, why would one press on? Sometimes I’ll encounter a writer who bitches about lesser writers having agents or who complains that the industry is rigged. I have to remind them not to focus on that nonsense. It’s all noise and has nothing to do with you. The industry is no different from life. It is what you make of it. If you believe that it’s rigged, you’ll focus on getting screwed. If you work hard, dedicate yourself, continue to create, and are positive and respectful towards others, opportunities will present themselves. I promise you!

7) You’re a comedy writer who hasn’t studied screenwriting extensively – Comedy scripts signify the epitome of how the outside world views screenwriting. They think screenwriting is easy. And they think being funny is easy. Therefore there is little to no effort from these writers to actually LEARN THE CRAFT. Comedy screenwriting is a lot like stand-up. It LOOKS easy. But that’s only because the people who do it have been working at it so hard. Jonah Hill, who I think is one of the funniest actors around, had to do stand-up for Funny People. He said he was TERRIBLE. He rambled. Nothing he said got a laugh. He realized that there’s a real craft to setting up and executing jokes that takes time to hone and perfect. The same thing is true for screenwriting. To those genuinely funny people out there who want to write comedy scripts – I promise you – If you dedicate your life to learning the craft of screenwriting (structure, character empathy, character flaw, character conflict, escalating tension, sequencing, stakes, purpose, urgency, theme, etc.), you will be unstoppable. There are so few genuinely funny comedy writers out there who know how to write a good story. The ones who do come up with stuff like The Hangover. The ones who don’t come up with stuff like Jack and Jill.

8) You don’t yet understand what “show don’t tell” means – “Show don’t tell” is one of the first things you learn in screenwriting. Instead of characters saying things, you use actions or images to convey those things instead.  If you don’t master this technique, you’ll receive one of the worst critiques a writer can hear on their script: “It all felt so… on-the-nose.”  It starts with dialogue. Instead of a character saying “I think we should break up,” have them standing by the door with their stuff packed up in suitcases holding out their apartment key. “Show don’t tell” also extends to descriptions. I can’t stand reading lines like, “Joe is elated.” This is boring, sloppy, and un-cinematic. Show us this feeling instead! For instance, Joe could pump his fist or high five a random stranger. And did you know you could even use dialogue to “show don’t tell?” For example, instead of Frank, who has a crush on Mary, telling her, “I’m nervous,” you could have him babble on nonsensically about how he adores penguins. The ACTION of babbling implies nervousness, so he doesn’t have to say it directly. Pro writers are way more adept at showing actions, and therefore this is one of the easiest ways to distinguish amateur from professional screenplays.

9) You focus more on the surface of your script than what’s happening underneath – Flashy description, mystery boxes, surprise revelations, clever dialogue, unexpected twists. These things are all great, but they’re all surface level. To provide a truly rich reading experience, you need to focus on what goes on underneath the surface. Show your hero battling something internally (an inability to love due to fear of rejection), your characters conveying their feelings between the lines (subtext), make a statement about people or life via a recurring theme (“Seize the day”– Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Understanding plot is incredibly important. But it’s just the first part of the journey. Your scripts really start to resonate once they say something about your characters and about the world they/we live in.

10) You’re not confident in your writing – Have you ever heard someone say, “Wow, the writing in that script was so confident?” It’s kind of intimidating. “Well wait a minute,” you ask. “Do I write with confidence?” Typically, if you’re asking that question, the answer is no. That’s okay. It just means you haven’t developed your writing method yet. A writer’s method is born out of all the screenwriting books (or sites) he’s studied, out of all the scripts he’s read (what he’s liked, what he’s hated), and out of all the trial and error that’s gone into his own screenplays. He uses this knowledge and experience to develop a method (an approach) that works best for him. Once a writer has a method, their scripts really take on a confidence that was previously absent. This is why the combination of reading, writing, and studying is so powerful.

Wow, that list is kind of intense. So let me be clear. I’m not saying you have to be 10 out of 10 here. But if you’re looking up at this and going, “Oh boy, I’m guilty of most of these,” then you probably want to take a step back and study screenwriting for six months. Dedicate yourself to being a scholar of the medium. There are so many books out there, and a lot of them are so good (including my own!), there’s really no excuse not to educate yourself and put your best foot forward.

Oh, but there’s one last question I wanted to address. What if you’ve already done all this? What if you’ve been writing for 10-15 years and you’re still struggling? What’s the plan then? Well, first, look in the mirror and ask yourself if you still love writing. As long as the answer’s yes, there’s no reason to stop. Writing is one of the most convenient extracurricular activities you can do. So there’s no reason to stop unless you hate it.

The next step is being honest with yourself about a harsh reality: WHAT YOU’VE BEEN DOING SO FAR ISN’T WORKING. Once you’ve accepted that, my advice would be to knock down the house and start all over again. I was reading Peter Bart’s comments over on Deadline this week and he noted that when TV started to pull away market share from movie theaters in the 60s, the studios were freaking out. They realized they were delivering the same old crap and the audiences weren’t buying it anymore. So they basically tore down the whole industry and said to its creators, “There are no rules anymore. Go do what you want.” And that’s how we ended up with the second Golden era of cinema with all those great innovative 70s films. You need to do the same thing. You’ve studied screenwriting long enough to understand all the tropes. You know the formulas. So you’re probably the most qualified to break away from them and try something different (or, if you’ve been trying something different all these years, maybe it’s time to try a more traditional approach). Good luck to you. And good luck to everyone else pursuing this heart-wrenching but wonderful craft. Every day you write, you’re one step closer to the finish line. ☺

  • Dustin T. Benson

    Great list.

    I fall into the void of #10 a lot. Usually sets me back months, sometimes not even willing to write at all.

    • kenglo

      Can’t learn to swim unless you get in the water, pete……keep on writing….sometimes I’m so confident it’s unbearable….ask my wife!!

      • Stephjones

        I’m arrogantly insecure. A charming combo.

        • kenglo

          LOL….that’s funny…..arrogantly insecure….Nice…

          • Stephjones

            Of course it’s funny. Of course it’s nice.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Kick-ass list!

    Correct me if I’m wrong, Carson, but judging by another comment I think the title of number 10 is a little misleading. When you write “you’re not confident in your writing” you don’t mean a writer feels good about what they’ve produced. You mean the writing itself exudes confidence, right?

    Many scripts you can sense the writer’s hand, and it is clammy and shaking. When the writing is confident the reader experiences this as feeling secure and in good hands; a seasoned pro is piloting the plane and it may take unexpected routes but you trust the pilot to get you there safely in the end.

  • carsonreeves1

    I’m saying there’s a chance. :)

  • Bifferspice

    one good tip. can’t remember if i read it here, or somewhere else, but it keeps going off in my head when i’m writing, like a little alarm clock:

    no matter how long you spend thinking out your plot, think longer. when you think how a character might get out of your situation, and you come up with a solution, keep thinking. your first solution might very well be your audience’s first solution too, which means you won’t have surprised or intrigued them. i like that. it’s neat.

    • MaliboJackk

      Bill Marsilii (Deja Vu screenwriter) calls it Door Number Three.
      Door #1 is the obvious choice
      Door #2 is the dreaded choice (surprises but disappoints or angers the audience)
      Door #3 — the choice that truly surprises us without disappointing

      You can read his article about it over on WORDPLAY (Terry Rossio’s blog).

      • brenkilco

        OK. And door 4 is a choice that both surprises and satisfies and remains true both to the logic of your story and the nature of your characters. And door 5 is….But wait a minute, this is advice from the writer of that eye rolling Denzel Washington time travel thing where at the end the Denzel Washington we’ve spent the movie with is dead but its still a happy ending because in some alternative universe/timeline a Denzel we’ve never met gets to hook up with a version of the woman whose life the dead Denzel saved. What door was that again?

        • MaliboJackk

          The 6 million dollar door.

          • brenkilco


    • Magga

      YES YES YES! This is THE thing that makes me fall in love with a genre piece. I liked Breaking Bad fine before season 3, but when Jesse and Walt were inside the RV, Hank was outside and there seemed to be no way out of the situation (SPOILERS) and Walt called Saul, who got his assistant to call Hank claiming to be a hospital and saying that his wife had been in an accident, it got them out in a way I hadn’t thought of, but then we followed Hank getting insanely pissed and beating up Jesse, making Jesse change his attitude and causing new problems for Walt. The solution was unexpected, it carried weight because we cared about the antagonist (!) and it had consequences, providing only momentary relief and setting up conflicts that would have to be dealt with into the last four episodes of the show. If they had found a hatch underneath the RV or driven through the fence and gotten away or someone on the outside arrived and saved them or they’d put on ski-masks and fought their way out it would have been fine, but because the writers found a less expected route to go I got ecstatic, even though in the very next episode a villain holding an axe walked away from Hank because killing him would be “too easy”, which wasn’t quite as brilliant to put it mildly.

  • Robert M

    #10 for me is the hardest thing. But i believe that’s because English isn’t my native language. You always feel you have a lack of words and you’re not quite sure if you’ve constructed the sentences in the smoothest way.

    Especially the construction of sentences is hard, because in Swedish the wording is different. For example, in Swedish the smoothest way of writing “That’s a big tree”, (Det där är ett stort träd) would be “That tree is big” (Det trädet är stort) which seems more clumpsy in english to me.

    This was a trivial example, but it very quickly becomes a problem when the complexity increases.

    Then of course you have the screen writers society saying one should construct in one way. But when I have friends, two of whom teach english in Sweden, going through the scripts for grammar, they say something completely else.
    That doesn’t make #10 any easier.

  • Jim

    In Lisa Cron’s book “Wired Gor Story: The Writer’s Guide To Using Brain Science To Hook Readers From The Very First Sentence”, the concept of show, don’t tell is given an entirely different context:

    MYTH: “Show, Don’t Tell” is literal–don’t tell me John is sad. Show me him crying.

    REALITY: “Show, Don’t Tell” is figurative–Don’t tell me John is sad. Show me WHY he’s sad.

    Crying is the effect, but what resonates with the audience and draws them in is understanding the cause. This is probably one of the biggest areas I’ve seen writer’s struggle with: they show a character grieve over the death of a loved one expecting the reader to feel it, too, however they have done nothing to invest us in that relationship, in building that foundation, to cause us to care.

    A good example of where this is done right: Braveheart. Had we not been invested in William’s early childhood up front, we would not have understood the cause for his drive, his motivation, his relationship with Murron and the importance of the Talisman she gave him that eventually plays a symbolic role of what he’s trying to achieve between the clans and their names (unity). As it is, we not only understand it – we feel it.

    • Bifferspice

      this is great. i heard an interview with an actor who said (and i’m paraphrasing) “don’t tell me how to show the character’s emotion. that’s my job.” he said if it was too literal, they’d not do what the screenwriter said as a point of principle. if it said he banged his fist on the table, he absolutely would not bang his fist on the table. it’s the actor taking ownership of the character. i guess it might make it more “show don’t tell” for the average reader, but it most likely will not be in the film.

      • Jim

        I get where he’s coming from – it’s the same as directors preaching not to direct them on the page. That being said, it’s a collaborative medium and as writers, we can’t just say “Insert Nicolas Cage’s reaction here” and hope that he comes up with this:

        • Bifferspice

          god i love the cage

        • Craig Mack

          My eyes! My Eyes!

    • MaliboJackk

      Read the opening pages of Chinatown the other day and found it odd that —
      not only were there an abundance of parentheticals but there were also a few action lines suggesting how the actor should feel.
      (Am in no way endorsing the idea.)

      Actors differ in their wants and needs.
      Harrison Ford wanted more help during Blade Runner.
      Daniel Day Lewis hates suggestions. Thinks it hinders his creativity.
      (Full Disclosure: Neither actor has asked for my scripts.
      Hey… it’s their loss.)

      • Jim

        Reading older scripts can be frustrating if not done for the sole purpose of analyzing structure/story. The “on-the-page” aesthetics have changed, and continue to, so much – it truly is stuff from a different era. I don’t know if it’s due to attention deficit disorder or the time continuum collapsing, but it just seems like, well, as Brooks would say in Shawshank Redemption, the world went and got itself in a big hurry.

        • MaliboJackk

          Most likely collapsing stars, black holes, and dark energy.

        • brenkilco

          This is how the writer describes the devastated and disappointed Lawrence in a scene toward the end of Lawrence of Arabia, a scene in which the protagonist has scarcely any dialogue.

          ” LAWRENCE looks silently back at Faisal without judgment, without even distaste, almost as though he had only just met him. Now and henceforth 90% of LAWRENCE’s energy is taken in merely sustaining the burden of his own nature, leaving only 10% for dealings with the outer world. He listens carefully and politely to everything, and reacts to nothing. And this is not a posture, but a necessary economy to which he is committed. Any suggestion of attitudenising would be very distasteful at this point. He is indeed concerned not to be any kind of nuisance. It is simply that attention and elementary good manners are all that he can possibly manage”

          That no screenwriter today would do it is obvious. But how may screenwriters today could do it even if they wanted to?

      • Magga

        Matthew Weiner said in a recent interview that his action lines are things like “he reminds her of her father”, which certainly leaves a lot up to the actors, down to deciding what their relationship with their parents were like. Sounds weird to me, but he gets what I consider the best results of our time, so who knows?

        • Jim

          I’ve read scripts that tend to do that, and surprisingly find them very readable. I think if done in moderation – and at the right moment – it can be extremely beneficial to actors, readers, directors. In the end, readability does not necessarily equate to a great story – something the book I mentioned goes into detail about (for example, Dan Brown is not considered a great writer by any means and writes at an eighth grade level – but a story like The Da Vinci Code itself sells because people want to know: what happens next?

          Read a script like Up or Toy Story 3 and see how sparsely it’s written – almost void of extraneous details which helps our brains cut through the clutter and cut to the chase of what’s really important.

      • kenglo

        Old scripts are just written different….ly

      • ripleyy

        Are parentheticals really that bad of an idea? I know they’re generally looked upon but, personally, I think they enhance the story if done in moderation.

        It’s such a divided opinion, but I think – until you’re repped and selling scrips – using a parenthesis in your story, to see how character is saying a certain word, is fine. I’d understand if you were repped and selling screenplays by the number, that your mentality would completely change (you wouldn’t use them).

        I also think using them for verbal direction is fine, but not action. For a reader, it’s important to know why a character is saying something in a certain way to fully understand the context. If you’re using them to suggest action, then that isn’t OK in my books – there’s descriptions for that.

        • Nicholas J

          Well it’s generally advised against using them as a beginner, mostly to make sure that you aren’t using them as a crutch. You should know how to convey emotion in the scene and how the dialogue is supposed to be said by using other tools.

          I think that has gradually morphed into “avoid parentheticals because they are wrong” when they are really fine especially to clarify crucial lines of dialogue. Just as long as you aren’t using them to direct the actor’s every word, and know how to convey emotion on the page without them.

          This happens all the time with screenwriting advice. Voice overs, we see, flashbacks, etc. These things aren’t inherently bad writing, they are just used by amateurs as crutches, and therefore you should learn to write without them.

        • Ken

          I think parenthesis are okay: useful in breaking up sections of dialogue.

      • brenkilco

        Check out Robert Bolt’s scripts for Lawrence of Arabia and Zhivago available online. He often has multiple parentheticals within a single speech highlighting changes in mood and attitude as a character talks. Ridiculous you say. Maybe. But then again he was dealing with characters complex enough to be worth the effort. Did the actors pay any attention? You’d have to compare the script to the finished film.

      • Poe_Serling

        Chinatown is often cited as the gold standard of a great screenplay – in terms of structure, story, dialogue, etc.

        But it didn’t come easy…

        Before production, Towne and Polanksi spent two months together working on the final shooting script.

        In an interview with Peter Biskind, Polanski talked about the experience:

        ‘[Towne’s] goddamn dog would lie on my feet in this hot room and drool. Bob would fill his pipe and smoke, and this smoke filled up the room — it was really a hard experience for eight weeks of that. Bob would fight for every word, for every line of the dialogue as if it was carved in marble.’

        And Towne agreed, ‘We fought, every day, over everything. Names. ‘What’s her name?’ ‘No, it can’t be that, it’s too Jewish.’

        • Bifferspice

          i love that idea. real passion. it fucking well mattered to these people. and so it should.

        • brenkilco

          And in the end Towne’s ending got completely changed, a grudge he reportedly nursed for years until finally coming to the realization that Polanski had been right. What’s it like to be credited with maybe the best commercial screenplay ever written and to know that the most important thing in it, the climax, was written by someone else?

        • Magga

          I remember getting a VHS copy of this film from the library as a kid, and I noticed the clever way JJ Gittes found out when a particular car left, by putting one of his many wristwatches under the wheel so it would break and stay frozen at the time of departure. I remember thinking even at ten or whatever I was that details like this is part of what makes some stories better than others

    • Dale T

      One of my favorite books ever, I advise every screenwriter to buy it RIGHT NOW. You have a leg up to 99% of the writers out there who haven’t read it yet.

      • Jim

        The Storytelling Animal is good, too. I’ve said this before here, but it’s worth repeating: screenwriting how-to books have their (limited) value – if one really wants to further themselves, they need to step away and study stuff like neuroscience and the “Why” we tell stories part.

        Learning why and understanding how they effect us, persuade and motivate us into action, gives such a greater awareness to writers – particularly with the one thing that’s often lacking: writing with purpose (as in having something meaningful to say via theme(s).

        I try to share as many articles I can on both twitter and G+ that I’ve found and read over the years on neuroscience and the science of storytelling; it’s extremely useful stuff as is a management training course I had to go through several years ago, Crucial Conversations – you want to build better characters (and improve your life at the same time), that’s a book well worth reading. You’ll get inside people’s minds and find out why they do the things they do via the stories they tell themselves that lead to conflict with interpersonal relationships. Great stuff.

        • Bifferspice

          i’ve said it before too, but Alexander Mackendrick’s (screenwriter, and legendary director of the ladykillers among others) book “On Film-making” is the best book I’ve read on the craft, and addresses the why’s as much as anything else..

          • brenkilco

            One of those others was Sweet Smell of Success, which boasts one of the best screenplays ever written. One of those scripts where the characters don’t even pretend to talk like real people. They talk like real people wish they could.

          • mulesandmud

            “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”

            My god, what a movie.


          • Citizen M

            Gotta say, I absolutely hated Sweet Smell of Success. The dialogue struck me as trying too hard for effect, and it came out fake. No one talks like that. Put me right off.

          • brenkilco

            Well, if you want naturalism who am I to argue you out of it. But are you also put off by the works of David Mamet, Paddy Chayefsky, Preston Sturges, Harold Pinter and Oscar Wilde? No one talks or ever talked like their characters either. Or maybe its more correct to say no one talks like that outside the worlds these writers create. But those worlds can be electric, thrilling and hysterically funny. And I’d give Success another try. Knowing there’s somebody interested in movie writing who doesn’t like it is messing with my cosmology.

          • mulesandmud

            Wow, CM. Not sure what to say except…avoid Shakespeare?

            From where I’m looking, that movie is film’s highwater mark for subtext in dialogue. That said, I guess if someone’s not interested in parsing the film’s verbal gymnastics then there’s no pleasure in it; I’ve certainly had moments like that with flowery dialogue in other films. Sweet Smell stands above the rest, though, because that movie is specifically about the way that words can confuse, frustrate, mislead, and hurt.

          • fragglewriter

            I hated it too.

          • brenkilco

            My left hand hasn’t seen my right hand in thirty years.

          • fragglewriter

            Funny you mention that movie. When it was on TCM a while back, I tried watching it. I got bored about 30+mins into it and turned it off.

            I think because it was way too much talking for me.

        • JakeBarnes12

          Hey, Jim,

          Keep those recommendations coming!

          • Jim

            Those are the two books off the top of my head I can think of – there are a few others, but they tend to delve deeper into cognitive science and probably aren’t as worthwhile.

            It does help to shift the focus of screenwriting though and analyze marketing and advertising: stories are used predominately here to sell a brand. There are a number of short, very well done and emotional Thai commercials out there that make one go “a-ha!”. But other than that, there’s a lot of articles out there – just google science of storytelling, empathy in storytelling, etc. Don’t be afraid to delve outside the realm of screenwriting because stories are everywhere: church, politics, advertising, etc.

    • kenglo

      Awesome….very good retort….

    • Cuesta

      More important than that is to not make anything boring. And when the writer tries making you to relate with the hero is, most of times, a shit incredibly, insufferably boring.

      As in when the blonde hero talks with his children in presence of his wife, like it World War Z… or Robocop Remake… or… Dexter… or…

      There are a lot of people who don’t like to see that. I think a metaphor for that could be this, five minutes ago I went to Lisa Cron’s website, to the ‘about’ section, you know looking for the films she wrote or something. But instead here’s the first line I read:

      “I love popcorn popped in bacon fat. I love almost every fruit (except kiwi) and vegetable (including kale) I’ve ever eaten.”

      I closed the damn website right away. And if it would’ve been a film I’d have disconnected, changed the TV channel, or whatever.
      This is in the Entertaining business. Entertaining with a capital ‘E’.

      • Jim

        Interesting. The Oscar for Best Picture this year was probably the least entertaining film I’ve ever seen. As was Schindler’s List.

    • S_P_1

      “Show, Don’t Tell” is figurative–Don’t tell me John is sad. Show me WHY he’s sad.

      I may have to use that and see how well it passes over.

    • JakeBarnes12

      Thanks for the great recommendation, Jim!

      Got the book and I’m digging into it this weekend.

  • Bifferspice

    off topic – all of tarkovsky’s films available to watch, legally, online for free:

    • brenkilco

      And a couple are available on Netflix now. Would love to see Stalker analyzed here. That would be interesting.

      • mulesandmud

        Interesting in a train wreck kind of way, you mean.

        • brenkilco

          Train wreck or epiphany. Don’t see how that review could be anything in between.

  • Stephjones

    Well, I know I’m not ready yet. I just keep wishing for the day when no one else will notice.

  • Logline_Villain

    Suggested reason 15) You’re using unfilmables… for the WRONG reason.

    Yes, there’s the conventional wisdom: “Unfilmables” are ALWAYS bad. However, reading produced scripts and quickly you realize that just about every one contains its fair share of these purported no-no’s. To clarify, the unfilmables referred to here are those dealing with tone/character – and not those purely of the expositional variety (saying solely in description that John has been retired for 10 years because he won the lottery is always wrong. Period.)…

    IMHO – Unfilmables are a key tool in the writer’s arsenal, as long as employed judiciously and for the proper reason.

    General observation from reading plenty of pro and amateur scripts as it relates to this topic:

    Too often, the inexperienced writer wastes his/her daily allotment of unfilmables by trying to be too cute in a character description or in how they describe light or water or whatever – the end result being a throwaway line in the narrative that runs the risk of angering the reader.

    The experienced writer realizes that unfilmables are priceless in terms of forging an emotional connection between the reader and his/her characters. Just about every unfilmable in a pro script invariably involves some sort of EMOTIONAL beat… beats that help to define character and serve to ultimately make characters more relatable.

    As one example, I just read the pilot script for elementary – it’s overflowing with unfilmables, yet it doesn’t impede the read – to the contrary, it results in stronger, richer characters.

    The pro knows: If you care about the characters, you’re along for the ride…

    • Matthew Garry

      The rule for unfilmables is easy.

      Do not use them, unless you have to, and then, for God’s sake, do not not use them.

      • Bifferspice

        ah come on, what is this?

    • kenglo

      There we go with ‘rules’……

      THERE ARE NO RULES…..more like guidelines!

      Like grendl says….write a fucking great script that SAYS SOMETHING!

      Write dialogue where the girl says, “Whew, it’s hot in here!” Then she proceeds to rip the hero’s clothes off!

      Write a “show through telling” line like – “Why the F*CK won’t this jar of jelly cooperate??”

      No more rants!

      Gotta go WRITE SOME MORE!!!

    • Eddie Panta

      Unfilmables are ultimately in the hands of the actor.
      A character’s mood or demeanor, registers on their face.
      Especially when they are alone in a quiet observing moment.
      Say, looking out a window, finding someone being murdered.
      Yes, they race to the phone and dial 911, but what happened in that exact moment when they saw the murder.

      The character is alone, there is no one to bounce dialogue off of.
      The challenge of using dialogue only to show not tell subtle hints of demeanor increases the amount of dialogue, thereby the page length.
      Is it wrong to say that a character is suddenly “shocked”?
      Displeased? Alarmed? Enraged?

      • Nick Morris

        I tend to do “The character looks shocked” or “The character seems displeased”. Not sure if this is preferable, but I guess it depends on who you ask.

    • mulesandmud

      Even more dangerous than writing unfilmables: spending a huge amount of energy during a writing session trying not to write unfilmables.

      Policing your format while writing is the surest way to drag your own attention away from the story, the characters, and all the details that really matter.

      In a first draft, there’s no harm in writing exactly what you see and feel. Let your ideas hit the page in the most unfiltered way possible, unfilmable or not. Don’t let word choices break your rhythm. With luck, and effective prewriting, you’ll find that sweep spot between spontaneity and focus that lets scenes feel alive.

      Then, once you’ve got the raw materials in front of you (and before you show it to just about anyone), then it’s time to go through the script line by line, not once but many times, asking yourself honestly whether each and every word is necessary. If you’re rigorous, then I guarantee that 95% of your unfilmables will seem either excessive or indicative of an unsolved problem elsewhere in the script.

      The other 5% you keep, because you’ve done the work and proven to yourself beyond a shadow of a doubt that they add value to the script.

      • Citizen M

        Let it all hang out.

        INT. OFFICE – DAY

        Joe SLAMS the door, KICKS the wastepaper basket, SWEEPS everything off his desk, FLINGS his cellphone against the wall, and SMASHES his fist against the mirror.

        He stares at his jagged reflection in the broken glass.


        You can always rewrite it, but at least you’ve got it out of your system.

      • MaliboJackk

        That’s pretty much how I operate.
        (Except for the part about rewrites.)

    • S_P_1

      Actually character descriptions are the one place a writer should truly exploit writing an unfilmable. Where else do you get to add color to essentially a technical manuscript for filming.

  • kenglo

    It’s kinda funny, and very revealing. To have to look in the mirror after reading an article like this and recognize some or all of the things in your writing. It seems like when I finish a script and feel completely confident in it, then send it out for notes and people ‘just don’t get it’ or say ‘it’s not resonating with me’ or “I can’t put my finger on it”…..instead of me saying WTF??!! I had to sit down and really, really, REALLY analyze what the heck everyone is talking about. Then I read some more ‘stuff’ and discover I haven’t read everything, or I learn something new. Little tidbits of info here and there……write some more, learn something else that is obvious to the most casual observer…..implement it into your own writing….it’s the whole package actually. Then you read a script that everyone is talking about and you see what they do, see how they write, and then look at your own ‘stuff’ and say dammit, why am I not getting this???

    In a nutshell – “The things we love/want most in life are the hardest to attain. Things we don’t really love/want (day to day job) are the easiest.”





    • Stephjones

      + 1
      I also find myself wondering why I’m stuck at this certain plateau in my writing. Why I’m not getting it. But, I keep plugging.
      I’ve done endurance sports the previous 10 years ( half ironman) and what I learned from that training is you put your head down and do the work, enjoy being able to do the work, and on race day finish with a smile on your face. Unrealistic expectations can kill the pleasure from the whole experience and render it a waste of your time.
      Acknowledge your weaknesses, try to improve them and relax.

      • kenglo

        “If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else.
        It will spread into your work and into your life.

        There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

        Bruce Lee

        • astranger2

          Bruce Lee was the first person I ever heard tell the “A billion Chinese people can’t be Wong” joke… ; v )

          • kenglo

            Me too!

      • Logline_Villain

        Half-ironman competitions AND screenwriting. I’m thinking you could benefit from a 36 hour day, Steph. :-)

        • Stephjones

          Sorry, LV. That post was a bit misleading. Since screenwriting has taken over I only train sporadically, if at all. My bike tires have been flat for awhile now, despite best intentions.
          I still use running for story development, but not very far and not very fast. I seem to only manage one obsession at a time.

          • Logline_Villain

            I can swim… run… and bike… but not in rapid succession! Having pushed your body to those extremes, I’m certain you can push your mind to the extremes that writing requires. Now that you mention it, writing is indeed an obsession… best wishes in your creative endeavors.

    • Jim

      On the flip side of that, you also have to be conscientious that not every reader responds to a single script the same way. While readers like to believe they’re giving it a view with an objective eye in the sky approach, it’s ultimately subjective – whether it’s based on their own personal likings or limitations of their experiences (or knowledge, for that matter).

      It’s a cop out for a reader to say “I didn’t get it” or “it wasn’t clear” without being able to communicate why – nobody should be paying anybody for services if they can’t clearly communicate that and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over their inability to do so, either. Writing IS problem-solving and a good reader will understand where the issues are and communicate the “why” more so than their opinion of what the remedy should be. If they can do that, and persuade you to see the errors, then they’re probably worth their weight in gold.

      • kenglo

        Yes …exactly. The only time I listen is if multiple folks say the same thing. ‘A billion Chinese can’t all be Wong”

        • silvain

          Umm. There are @ 6 billion Chinese on earth. So, yes, they can be.

          • kenglo

            When I first heard the joke there were still under a billion…LOL….and no, they can’t all be Wong…

    • JakeBarnes12


      • kenglo


  • kenglo

    What if you were #2 and did a #4 – a finalist with your first draft in a 2nd tier contest and this boosted up your #10 (which alludes to #6) so it gives you the attitude that you wanna #5???


  • Randy Williams

    If I want a list to make me feel inadequate, I can call my mother.

    no thanks

  • Acarl

    Excellent article, Carson. The more you absorb from books, movies and screenplays, adds a wider flavor spectrum for your creative stew.

  • ElectricDreamer

    “The next step is being honest with yourself about a harsh reality: WHAT
    YOU’VE BEEN DOING SO FAR ISN’T WORKING. Once you’ve accepted that, my
    advice would be to knock down the house and start all over again.”

    Accepting what you’ve been doing so far isn’t working is a tough nugget to swallow.
    I worked a high concept for two years, only got to [x] Wasn’t for Me.
    So, I had to smash the script to pieces and RE-CRACK THE STORY.

    Six months later, the script was optioned.
    And it took every scrap of knowledge I’ve gleaned over the years to get it market ready.

    • Nicholas J

      Yup, but once you accept that the script isn’t working, that can be very freeing. It opens up possibilities again, stuff you weren’t able to put in before due to story constraints you had already established. Only then are you able to smash the script and harvest the good stuff, and assuming you’re on the right track, it inevitably makes for a better script.

  • Eddie Panta

    I would highly recommend the film BLUE RUIN to anyone who wants to see how a story and character development is told visually, without backstory, voiceover, montage, or flashbacks.

    It’s a story about revenge, with extreme violence. But the film doesn’t start with a shocker, it’s slow paced, filled with tension and slow discovery. There is no dialogue for the first 10mins. The lead character, a homeless man, barely speaks. He’s almost forgotten how to.

    It’s very easy to tell this script is from a writer/director and not a actor/writer. The difference is in the visual story telling technique and the lack of dialogue.

    The exposition you hear in this trailer, is all the film needs.
    The character is already suffering from his flaw, whatever his flaw was, that’s in the story prior to when we meet him. The story doesn’t linger on his flaw, it’s too late for fixing that.

    Visual storytelling is not just about verb action, it’s also about making decisions in scene transitions. Deciding how a series of particular mundane actions add up to the character’s intention. A plan revealed through visuals. The writing will appear “confident” when you allow the scene/s to just plainly happen, in the moment. Creating a device or jazzing up a scene that is at first glance mundane only makes you see desparate for the readers attention.

    BLUE RUIN is the best film I’ve seen in 2014.

    • JakeMLB

      I just saw it yesterday. Great film. A little unbelievable in a few instances but powerful visual storytelling. Very visual, lots of action and tightly structured.

    • Midnight Luck

      That looks awesome.

      where did you see it? Sundance?

      • Eddie Panta

        No. It’s on now to rent.
        It’s a must see.

        • Midnight Luck

          Sounds like it. Thanks.

          They did a really great job with the Trailer. Really well done, definitely makes me want to check out the movie.

          • JakeMLB

            Written, directed and shot by the same guy. Funded via Kickstarter. Pretty impressive IMO.

          • Midnight Luck

            Definitely impressive.

            I haven’t heard of a Kickstarter movie getting funded (that didn’t have a huge star or director attached). It is so great this one did.

            Wow, if the same person shot, wrote and directed this, that is phenomenal.

          • JakeMLB

            Just read an interview Jeremy Saulnier. Pretty inspiring stuff. The entire script was written to fit their minimal budget and reverse-engineered to include everything they had.

            After we went to the financiers and embraced the fact that this was not happening the traditional route, then we went all in, liquidated our assets and put it all on the table. We still came up short, and that’s when we turned to Kickstarter. It wasn’t to fully fund the movie, it wasn’t to ask people for what we wouldn’t do ourselves. It was really to bridge that gap between everything we had and what we needed to make this film a reality.


          • kenglo

            That IS nice…Hmmmm…..I wanna make a movie!!

  • JakeMLB

    Screenwriting is something you do casually

    #3 is probably the most important — in fact, it could stand alone, it’s that important. I know several professional writers and the one trait they all share is their workaholism.

    They work, work, work…

    The trouble I see with most amateur writers, myself included, is how long we toil over a single script. Draft after draft. Word after world. And for what? Your script is very likely not going to be optioned. In fact, I can confidently say it won’t.

    A commentor nailed it the other day: the key is to be prolific. The more scripts you write, the quicker you learn and the greater your portfolio. The more scripts you write, the more you’re working your storytelling muscle as opposed to wasting mental energy on a single story that’s lost its charm. That doesn’t mean you should be writing vomit drafts every six weeks — but you need to be prolific. Agents, managers, producers and so on want writers who write. We leave in a twitterized, throwaway world, more in this industry is often better. The biggest red flag that a writer isn’t yet serious or professional about the craft is that they don’t write. They have one script. Not five. It sucks but there you have it. Of course there are exceptions but stop kidding yourself — you’re not the exception.

    The writers I know will write a draft and then move on to the next project. Even when working on assignment, they’ll write a drift and the next day will jump back into their pilot or spec or pitch or outline for a totally different project. Always working. Always creating. The caveat of course is that writing is their full time job, it’s what pays the bills so they have no choice but to work and have the ability to write full-time, but this is what we are up against.

    • Bifferspice

      “The trouble I see with most amateur writers, myself included, is how
      long we toil over a single script. Draft after draft. Word after word.
      And for what? Your script is very likely not going to be optioned.”
      with all due respect, i think you’ve missed the point there. professional writers do exactly that on every single script too. thing is, they do it, and they do it quick. we do it and take a year over it and talk to people about it instead of doing it. “writing is rewriting”. nothing wrong with doing exactly what you’ve written there. that’s not a problem. the problem is it’s what we SHOULD be doing, but we don’t do it fast enough because it’s horrible, so we put it off.

      • Bifferspice

        to be fair, you do say that you do need to go back to your first drafts eventually. i guess the point you’re making is to not labour over a single script forever, you have to know when to let go. i guess that’s another point. :)

        • JakeMLB

          Yeah, the point isn’t that you shouldn’t work hard and labor over your scripts — you should — just that there is a difference between working hard and working smart.

          Too many writers spend upwards of several years on a script. Years! That’s fine if it’s your tenth script and you have a handle of what your’e doing but if it’s your first? Yeah, then you’re not working smart.

          Of course that time isn’t being entirely wasted but even if that script ends up being optioned, how much trust is a manager, agent or studio going to place in you if you haven’t had experience breaking other stories and writing other characters, settings, tone, etc? How much faith would you have in yourself? Likely not much.

          The human brain needs change in order to innovate. Too much time on one story and in one world and you’ll start to stagnate, especially if the concept is weak and untenable.

          • Bfied

            I agree, there’s a huge difference between “quitting” and working smart and moving onto the next project – I’ve definitely struggled with this.

            Being honest with yourself in this scenario is tough, because you don’t want to feel like you’re just banging out first drafts for nothing, but at the same time, you don’t want to spend too much time on a script that maybe never should’ve been written in the first place.

            I just finished the first draft of my third script – which I’d like to rewrite, eventually – but I’m moving onto the next project because I think it’s the smarter decision compared to slaving away on something that I don’t even know how to approach with rewrites yet. I’m still in the weeds with it, as they say.

            I guess it’s my reason or my cop-out, depending how you look at it.

          • S_P_1

            I type with the goal of seeing my scripts produced on screen. A short I just wrote will soon be produced by the indy film group I’m in. Will I be paid – No. Will I have satisfaction of seeing a PDF file have life breathed into it – Yes. I’m also motivated by monetary factors so I don’t treat screenwriting casually or as a hobby.

            The only real cop-out is quitting permanently.

          • MaliboJackk

            Sounds cool.
            Am assuming you can always find actors eager to be in something — so other than actors, how many is in your group?
            Is there a budget? Or just pick up the camera and shoot?

          • S_P_1

            According to the website 159 members. In all honesty the most I’ve ever seen at any meeting is 30 people. Now that the weather is warmer I expect more members to participate. I’d say the average norm is 10-15 members who regularly participate. Only the main organizer that I’m aware of has spent any money. The majority of the shorts are filmed in a public access local cable tv station. Basically all the equipment they have, we have unlimited access to. The only thing they haven’t done is post-production. One member has several SLR’s and a few pro-consumer cameras and lighting equipment. Last I talked with him he was debating purchasing a Black Magic camera. The subject of pooling money has been brought up. And every meeting it gets shot down. I can honestly say we have lost mostly actors due to the non to micro budget constraints. I participate for the experience. Its actually amazing how a 5 page script takes 4 to 6 hours to film, sometimes more. Participating also lets me know screenwriting is hard. I can’t tell you how many members are PITCH masters. But when it comes to execution they’re afflicted with a severe case of PROCRASTINATION. So I take a sense of accomplishment just turning in a completed script to be selected or not. The 48 hour film organization is worldwide at this point. There’s a good chance one is in your area. Or you might have the unique opportunity to start one yourself. Hope that helps.

          • JakeMLB

            I certainly struggle with it too, I’m sure that’s normal. Being honest with oneself is always tough — but in this business it’s necessary! As far as moving to the next script after a draft, that’s not a cop-out, that’s just smart! Most writers, Stephen King included, will say to give yourself a good 6 week hiatus and move on to a new project before returning to a rewrite.

    • Eddie Panta

      Yes, but to say this is a waste of time is not correct, of course you can’t get crazed about it, in the end the script is only as good as the concept. But, you will learn from doing it and you will be able to use, words, elements of scenes, devices, descriptions, or even dialogue in other scripts. It also doesn’t mean that a character can’t live on to be in another script.

      • JakeMLB

        These are the lies we tell ourselves. You will learn from it but you’re not working smart. I’m sure there are exceptions but how much more will you learn if you put that time to developing newer, more manageable and dramatic concepts and characters rather than putting new shades of lipstick on a withered pig? It’s not like you’re disagreeing and we’re probably saying the same thing. The point is you need to be constantly thinking about concepts and developing concepts in addition to writing. It’s too easy to get so wrapped up in your one script and its world that you’re failing to build your story muscle. Once in the professional world, it’s all about pitching and constantly delivering on new ideas. That’s a skill you absolutely need to develop.

    • S_P_1

      Amateur screenwriters need to view themselves as an building architect. No architect drafts a blueprint of a building that is fundamentally unsound. I think screenwriters should aim for competence before moving to the next script.

      Tupac said in a interview when he’s in the studio he lets it all come out. He’s not focused in on polishing one song to perfection. Well the end result is Tupac does have a few classics. But Tupac also has a ton of filler and garbage tracks. If Tupac crafted his filler tracks as much as his classics how much higher up the music echelon would he be.

      It is possible to have an discography of hit records. The decision is whether you feel each effort you put forth is your best or just enough to get by.

      • JakeMLB

        Well, the counter-argument is how much worse would Tupac be had only tried to craft classics? He probably needed to create garbage in order to create his masterpieces. Art is about experimentation. In failure you learn. You’re also writing for others, not just yourself. You never really know what audiences will like. I’m sure some of Tupacs throwaway tracks — at least as he perceived them — became classics many years after. This happens in every art form. Blade Runner was received as a monumental failure at its release and went on to become one of the most influential and revered science fiction films ever.

        • S_P_1

          I have a 60 page horror experimentation that I realized was utter garbage before I stopped writing. At least my honesty meter improved.

          As far as Blade Runner is concerned only one famous movie critic made that mistake and later amended his review. R.I.P Roger Ebert. Blade Runner was an INSTANT CLASSIC. No need for me to elaborate on the film, it speaks for itself.

  • Nick Morris

    Some of the notes I’ve received (including from AOW) have pointed out that my writing feels too “staged”. But when going through revisions, I’ve had a hard time distinguishing exactly where that line should be drawn. I am fairly liberal with my parentheticals and have been known to describe character’s visual reactions as well. I’ve found that these things help me visualize the scene and can infuse vitality and life into the script. So it becomes this thing about imagery vs brevity. Does anyone have any suggestions or general guidelines that they use to help in finding the right balance?

    • Eddie Panta

      I’m not a big fan of parentheticals in horror scripts. I just don’t see it a lot.
      Sometimes I put them in knowing they will come out, it’s almost like a reminder for me.
      Part of it is the original character set-up in the first place. The better the reader understands him in the first scenes, the less you need to add in subsequent scenes.
      Horror scripts allow for extreme characters, look at something like Devil’s Hamner, which character isn’t extreme in that story. Crazed Sheriff, Bikers, Occultists.
      It is in fact a lot easier to have these extreme characters go through extreme circumstances. When you take Mr. Joe Regular Guy and put him into an extreme, violent or supernatural situation. It becomes a whole different ballgame.

      Your script was an entire drama with a horror film put on top of it.
      The “balance” is not going to be easy.
      You’re shifting between two worlds, every time you shift it reminds the reader of logic issues.

      Also, there isn’t any part of the script where you can’t use theme.
      A single event or device can tell us who someone is, moving forward, we’ll know this character, with or without emotional cues. But this gets tricky, because as you mentioned it could feel “staged”. Horror scripts are a strange beast, you want the genre beats, but you also want to subvert expectations.

      A character scene that comes off as “devicy” illicits a groan from the reader because it comes up in just the right scene, in just the right moment where it is supposed to, out of convenience.

      Be more subversive. Take me to that scene where xyz usually happens and make something else happen.

      • Nick Morris

        “When you take Mr. Joe Regular Guy and put him into an extreme, violent or supernatural situation. It becomes a whole different ballgame.” Right, so should I resist the urge to try and convey his feelings on the page with parentheticals or dialog nuances like “um”? Personally, I find these kinds of things help me to envision the scene I’m reading. But I think I’m in the minority on that, lol. Great observations all, Eddie! Thanks.

    • Poe_Serling

      “Does anyone have any suggestions or general guidelines that they use to help in finding the right balance?”

      The overuse of parentheticals in dialogue exchanges often feels heavy-handed to me. Also, it has the potential of pulling the reader out of the scene if overdone.


      When it’s used sparingly and well-placed, it can be a powerful tool to hammer home a specific point or a clever bit of business.

      So, my personal take: just use moderation. Same for voiceovers, mini sluglines, and so forth.

      • Nick Morris

        Thanks, Poe! Everything in moderation (including moderation) :)

        • Poe_Serling

          Any word yet if The Harvester is this week’s AF pick?

          • Nick Morris

            Sadly, no. But I really appreciate you guys pushing for it!
            You rock. m/,

    • mulesandmud

      Can you elaborate at all on how people are using the word “staged”? And which line are you talking about, exactly? The line between a stage play and a screenplay? Or the line between a scene that feels natural versus one that feels forced?

      I’m not sure whether you’re asking more about format or more about drama.

      A general (not dogmatic) rule for parentheticals: if a parenthetical doesn’t NEED to be there to communicate the meaning of the line, then it shouldn’t be. And even if it does need to be there, then ask yourself, “Do I need this here because I’m being unclear elsewhere?”

      • Nick Morris

        “I’m not sure whether you’re asking more about format or more about drama.”

        I was wondering more in terms of format. Things like “um’s” in dialog and (smiles), (looks around), etc. I think “staged” was another way of saying “micro-managing”, kind of like I’m trying to write the performances. So I guess my question was, how much of that stuff is too much? Is there a line never to cross? Or should I not be using things like (smiles) and (glaring) at all?

        • mulesandmud

          Gotcha. Still sounds like you’re talking about a few different things.

          “Ums” – Giving characters affectations in their dialogue is a wonderful thing, but be very cognizant that 1) you’re not making everyone sound the same, 2) you’re giving your character affectations that suit his style/personality/background.

          (smiles) – Avoid this unless it adds value to the scene. If our character is about to say something sweet or apologetic, then the line speaks for itself, no? And besides, maybe Michael Fassbender will decide to scream the line at the top of his lungs but somehow it will sound even more tender and loving than any smile might have suggested, so why limit the interpretation of the line. On the other hand, if the line is ironic or deeply sarcastic, the audience may need some kind of clue to that, so you do need to tip your hand somehow, though I’d usually prefer a juicy line of description to a generic parenthetical.

          (looks around) – Hey, if the scene requires a guy to look around, then he needs to look around. Again though, if it’s an important character action, maybe it deserves more than a two word parenthetical. And if it doesn’t need to be there, lose it.

          Drawing hard lines is less important than being rigorous and honest with yourself. Personally, I apply the same rules to these format details as I do to good writing in general. Don’t make the choice because it saves you work: make it because it’s the best possible way to communicate the essence of what you’re imagining.

          • Nick Morris

            Perfect. Some really great advice here. Thanks, mules!

  • Dale T

    7) You’re a comedy writer who hasn’t studied screenwriting extensively

    I think that more than any other genre out there comedy requires more structuring than others because comedy is highly subjective and ephemeral in isolation. What’s funny now is no longer funny a year from now.

    However a comedy that develops its own gags and fires them off in perfect execution can be timeless. Recently I was watching both Cheers and the Dick Van Dyke show because I needed a good sleeping aid and thought, what would bore me faster than an old comedy? Surprisingly, I laughed, and I ended up sleeping at 3am watching those shows.

    I think comedy writers would benefit a lot more from studying sitcoms than movies. They’re significantly shorter and are easier to dissect.

    • Nicholas J

      “I think comedy writers would benefit a lot more from studying sitcoms than movies.”

      Yeah, but then you write a feature and get the note back saying it feels like a sitcom episode. :/

      But yes, the #1 thing sitcoms can teach you about comedy is SITUATIONS. They are, after all, situation comedies!

      • wlubake

        Biggest difference is that characters in sitcoms remain static. Characters in features change.

        The reason people love Friends is because Joey is always stupid and loves sandwiches. Chandler is always neurotic and insecure. Monica will always be a control freak. But people love Liar Liar because Fletcher learns to be a better dad. He becomes less selfish.

        So I would say, learn to write a great movie first. Then study sitcoms to learn to find the humor in situations. Then take that sitcom knowledge and apply it to the movie structure you mastered early on. Then you get Meet the Parents.

        • Nicholas J

          They do change in one way, which is they become more extreme versions of themselves. Joey in Season 1 is kind of dumb, Joey in Season 10 is barely functioning.

          And typically they go through some sort of change/realization from the start of an episode to the end, but then it’s pretty much reset the next week.

  • fragglewriter

    I love Thursday articles.

    I was guilty of a fe above. I started screenwriting to win a scriptwriting contest that would allow me to finance my Masters degree, without doing anymore student loans, in Creative Writing or Sociology, so yeah, I was doing it for the money at first. (Not millions, but enough to get me a better job, hopefully)

    But then I started to remember what I always wanted growing up. I’ve always wanted: to travel, have my own place, and work. What if I can study the craft, and make a living. So I put the sucky scriptwriting ( I wrote two horrible scripts), on-hold, and studied the craft for a year.

    I bought books, visited writing sites, watyched movies that were acclaimed or below the radar, went to a comedy class to learn how to do stand-up, to find out how to tell an interesting story. Within a year, by writing has improved, and I felt that what I write is understandable compared to last year.

    I’m still a work-in-progress, but after writing my first script from learning what storytelling, scripts and movies entails, I’m writing the outline to my second script. I’m so excited about my second script because I’ve learned how to apply story telling to screenwriting.
    Now, if It’ll generate interests or I’ll place in contests, it’s still early to tell, but I do appreciate interactive sites like this that provides hints, tips and guidance,

  • jw

    Love the honesty C!! I don’t know what it is about writing (maybe it’s just art in general) that creates this difficulty in people to acknowledge reality, but this is a great first step in approaching it with a bit of the real world, while simultaneously saying ‘head to the grindstone’!

  • Eddie Panta

    ” I can’t stand reading lines like, “Joe is elated.” This is boring, sloppy, and un-cinematic. Show us this feeling instead! For instance, Joe could pump his fist or high five a random stranger. And did you know you could even use dialogue to “show don’t tell?”

    Is the below action line un-cinematic?

    Jay enters from the hall. He is shocked and displeased to see Arthur.

    Should Jay say something instead, does he not have a look on his face, should he do something like slam the wall to “show” his displeasure? Do actors have facial expressions?

    Rather than remove adj, that show demeanor, in the instant. What I find more troubling in amaetur scripts is the lack of understanding how powerful a good actor will be, how much will come across on his face, without the dialogue. Once you add a dialogue line to “show” feeling, it requires another dialogue line in response.

    PROS has seen actors, act their dialogue, they has sat in EDITING ROOMS, they know which lines of dialogue are really unnecessary. How little it takes to get the point across.

    Is this action line unfilmable?
    Arthur stares at Jerome in mute confusion. Before he can
    find words to express his disbelief, there’s a KNOCK at the door,

    What if: Five soldiers are in a jungle, the Predator shoots out towards them.
    Should each one take a moment to do a “dance” of confusion and fear? Is there time for that?

    Or do you describe the demeanor of the entire group as a whole, with a adj.

    How many times have seen this
    Mac, suddenly freezes. His face contorts into a mask of confusion.
    Confused, Sam moves to the window and peers out.
    Horrified, Sam runs blindly down the road. Reluctantly, he looks back.
    He is shocked when he finds —

    Do the above lines show how Sam does something, or tell?

    • kenglo

      “And did you know you could even use dialogue to “show don’t tell?”

      YUP! Use dialogue to show don’t tell – or just show…

      “Jay enters from the hall. He is shocked and displeased to see Arthur.”

      could be

      “Jay enters from the hall but stops in his tracks at the sight of Arthur.”

      And that’s it. With dialogue –

      “Jay stops in his tracks at the sight of Arthur.

      You pompous wanker.”

      Or something like that. Show him shocked, voice his displeasure.

      What the hell is a “wanker” anyway?

      • gazrow

        “What the hell is a “wanker” anyway?”

        It’s the British equivalent of a “Jerk off.”

  • jw

    Yo C, I think it would also be a good idea to create another article around, “Identifying Universal versus Subjective Feedback’. Although examples could be argued as identifying as both, I think it’s important for (especially newer) writers to understand the difference between the implications of the comments, such as, “your first 5 pages need to be quicker” versus “identifying with your main character is difficult because he shoots a midget in the first act”.
    There is this tendency for all writers to attempt to justify the decisions they make, even when comments are made and one of the difficulties in writing is understanding what comments to take and what comments to sit on for the time being. Identifying which comments are more impactful (sooner) could really impact a writer’s trajectory.

  • Midwestern Guy

    Carson, I didn’t give you permission to use my picture.

  • silvain

    I heard the dude in the picture above just got his project set up in Cannes. Apparently Leo D and J Law are attached and Fox is staking out all territories.

  • Citizen M

    On ‘unfilmables’, I’ve always said, ‘if it’s actable, it’s filmable.’

    A surprisingly large amount of information is actable, whether by posture, gesture, facial expression, body language, clothing, scars, etc etc.

    Let’s say you have a sentence in your screenplay “Joe is sad because his dog just died.”

    Now it could be argued this is an unfilmable because you cannot convey the information that his dog just died.

    But maybe what’s important here is that the actor be a person whose mood is affected by his dog just dying. He can convey, and we can sense, this mood, even though we don’t know the reason for it.

    And a sadness due to the dog just dying is a different kind of sadness from an empathetic sadness in sympathy with a child whose puppy has just died, or a wrenching sadness of someone whose child has just died.

    If it is necessary to convey the information that the dog has just died, Joe can always say, “I guess I won’t need these chew toys any more.” or someone can ask him, “Why so sad?”

    • klmn

      Joe walks in, dragging a dead dog by its leash.

      • Midnight Luck

        that might work…

        • klmn

          Or maybe this.

          Joe throws a frisbie. His golden retriever, REX chases after it. As he opens his mouth to catch it, a drone falls from the sky and mashes poor Rex flat as a pancake crepe, which Carson spreads with nutella and eats.

          • Midnight Luck

            too wordy:}
            I like the first one.

            Simple. To the Point.

          • Eddie Panta

            “oh my god, it smells like a dog died.”

            Is that too on the nose?

    • mulesandmud

      Some thoughts on your example:

      – If Joe’s dog has actually died, and it’s germane to the story, then this is probably a wasted opportunity. Why not wait to reveal this information when it comes up at some point in the story, via conversation, a trip to the pawn shop to sell the leash, etc? On top of the added value of dramatizing the information, in general a screenwriter is doing his job better if the reader is learns information at the same pace as a viewer would.

      – If no actual dog is relevant the story, but you’re simply trying to describe Joe’s appearance in an evocative way, then a variation of that the line might be: Joe sits slumped in the corner, looking like his dog just died. I know that kind of color commentary description doesn’t sit well with everyone, but if it suits the general tone of the piece, then it’s a great way to suggest sadness without saying “sad”.

      – “Actable equals filmable” is a perfect way to frame the subject. Leaves room for interpretation but doesn’t totally literalize the screenplay form.

      • Citizen M

        I was trying to think of an example that looks like an unfilmable but isn’t.

        The ‘dog died’ line might be used in a situation like e.g. Joe walks into the office and there’s a major crisis and he has to deal with it immediately and his colleagues don’t notice or don’t care about his sadness or misinterpret it as work-related, but a perceptive secretary asks him afterwards why he’s so sad and he reveals his dog died, which on top of other things going on his life leads to blah-de-blah…

        • Citizen M

          To clarify:

          Say you are holding auditions for actors. You give each actor the same scenario: they receive a phone call. It is bad news. They pour themselves a drink, then sit down and contemplate what they have just heard.

          They repeat the exercise three times: as if they heard their dog died; or their elderly parent died; or their young child died.

          Would an actor be able to convey the three varieties of grief just from facial expression and body language? I think so.

    • Midnight Luck

      I think a lot of people here are WAY over thinking things.
      Here is how I would approach something like the Dog Dying scenario you describe:



      Joe hesitates at the open front doorway. Not in, not out.

      An empty leash wrapped tight around his hand, the latch dangling in the open air.

      He tentatively takes a step forward.


      Looks back at his car parked in front.


      He turns and slowly moves across the wood porch and down the steps.

      Opens the car door,

      reaches in,

      pulls out a worn and dirty collar.

      Dog tags JINGLE as he makes his way back up the steps.

      Again, crosses to the front door.


      Hesitates, not seeming to want to go in.

      He stares down at his hand wrapped in the leash. Hand and fingers white from his tight grip.

      Turns back to the car again.

      God damn it.

      This time he almost runs across the porch and then

      leaps down the stairs two at a time.

      YANKS the car door open.

      Reaches in,

      Pulls like crazy at something.

      Nothing is happening.
      He strains. He can’t seem to get it out.

      Come on damn it, come on!

      A TEARING sound as a dog bed is yanked out from the back seat.

      He FLINGS it out across the yard and SCREAMS.

      The bed spirals like a big pillowy donut, flutters, final flops onto the grass.

      Damn it!

      He stares out at the dog bed lying in the front yard, pulls at a bit of fabric still stuck in the car’s door jamb, and

      SLAMS the car door.

      Trudges back up the wood stairs, across the deck to the open front door and


      this time he makes it through.

      He looks at the coat rack by the front door.
      JINGLES the dog collar, then hangs it on a peg.

      He looks into the empty and quiet house.

      Puts his hand onto the dog collar and rubs his fingers softly across the dog tags.

      I miss you already.


      I believe something like this could get the idea across that the dog has just died, without having to say anything about it. Without having to spell it out.

      Now mind you, i am sure it needs some editing, rewording, etc. I just wrote it on the fly when I read your guys’ post. But still, the basic idea comes across I believe:
      He is grieving. His dog isn’t there. He misses him, most likely he has died.

      I could be wrong. But I am pretty sure most people reading this would go away with that feeling.

      • Citizen M

        “He is grieving. His dog isn’t there. He misses him, most likely he has died.”

        An actor can put this across with a look. There’s no need for a scene.


        Joe gets out the car and walks up the path. He stops. He’s seen something on the lawn.

        Angrily he stomps across to the doggy-do on the grass. He pulls out a Kleenex and picks it up and crosses to the garbage bin.

        He opens the lid. He pauses. He sniffs. Tears run down his face and he is overtaken by DEEP, WRACKING SOBS.

        Recovering himself, he dries his eyes, tosses the Kleenex, and walks inside. He doesn’t realize he has doggy-do smeared all over his face ;o)

    • Eddie Panta

      “A surprisingly large amount of information is actable, whether by posture, gesture, facial expression, body language, clothing, scars, etc etc.”

      You, are correct sir.

      Elation, Confusion, Sadness, Shock, These are all instantaneous feelings.

      You can’t go into a whole song and dance about the character experiencing them every single time.

    • klmn

      And now for a musical interlude.

  • Midnight Luck

    One of the main things I love about writing, and about this profession, and a big reason why I have chosen to be part of it is:

    There Are NO RULES!

    Yes there are guidelines, and there are suggestions. Yes some of these things help to get you there Faster, or Better, of make the journey simpler or more fun and interesting.

    Overall though, no one can say THIS WORKS! or THIS DOESN’T WORK! (someone else will always show that in fact it can be done)

    Everyone is giving their impression, their theories, their ideas. Some based on a lot of experience, most based on retold stories down through the ages.

    I love that as a writer, for the most part, you can make your own hours, live where you want (this seems to be a point of disagreement for many), do everything you need to do without getting out of bed.

    I am a fan of Rebellion, Anarchy, and Innovation.

    This in mind, I love what a writer can do, and how they do it.

    No Rules! Storm Ahead!

    By the way Carson, regardless of what I just said, This was a fine and interesting Thursday article, as all of yours are. Thanks.

    • Casper Chris

      I don’t think writing is that different from any other job once you’re in the studio system. Sorry to say.

      • Midnight Luck

        That may be true.
        One can always hope it will be different.
        As I have said before on here, right or wrong, my want isn’t to just write scripts for other people. I don’t want to be a day laborer for others’ ideas and work.
        Maybe it isn’t possible to do mostly your own work. But maybe it is.

        If not, I am quite adept at walking dogs and drawing caricatures.
        or maybe I will go deep sea diving and try to find the real ABYSS.

    • astranger2

      Lay siege to the castle! Ready the ballistas!!

    • jw

      And, here’s where it becomes interesting. Where the psychology of a writer (many writers) comes into play. Your prose above is fantastic, albeit a bit recycled, and it has life and energy and POP, then you write the scene below and it’s literally “just” a scene. There’s really nothing special about it. And, I don’t say that to be a d!ck, I say it because it’s entirely true. There is the world we create to put ourselves in, which casts us in the role of Office Space Braveheart, but it has to translate to the page and so many writers have that huge discrepancy between prose and screenwriting that it’s as though something gets lost when they type FADE IN… finding what drives your prose, and being equally enthusiastic in a script may be the key… regardless, a great topic to be explored by any writer here. Stop describing yourself or your world or how great or not you are in it or how you want to tear it down or jump over it or hammer it in the head or swim in all its glory — WRITE. THAT. SH!T. IN. YOUR. SCRIPT!

      • Midnight Luck

        hey, I think you wanted to make a point, then fell in love with tearing me down and blasting my writing instead.

        But it wasn’t necessary.

        You can attack me if it makes you feel better about yourself, and you can tell me my writing is shit, I really don’t give a crap. I wasn’t writing it to impress you or curry favor with you.

        I was only trying to point something out about that scene, and what the two posters below (Mules and Citizen) were talking about.

        I didn’t write that scene below for any other reason. It was done in 5 minutes or less, I didn’t sit and work it over in my brain or spend a bunch of time and crunch it until it was a perfect baby. I was pointing out that no one needs to have a character say “Ma dog jus’ died”, or to show it as an unfilmmable in an obvious way, or to put what the character is feeling down as a parenthetical. That is all I was showing. I wasn’t trying to open the floodgates with a scene I wrote in less than 5 minutes and only went through and edited quickly once. I wasn’t imagining the doors of Hollywood would burst forth.

        Sometimes someone just writes an idea down, good or bad, and throws it on the page. This isn’t what I always write, it isn’t even how I typically write. It was an exercise with one purpose.

  • Guess Who

    Can we have another golden era of cinema? I’m getting sick of superhero movies and sequels no one asked for every week. I don’t see anything original coming out this summer.

  • Robin the Boy Wonder


  • lesbiancannibal

    Chuck Palahniuk on show don’t tell. Pretty damn helpful even if needs slight adaptation for screenwriting.

    • Midnight Luck

      just awesome

    • Citizen M

      That made me think.

      A little drool gathered on my lip as I leaned forward. The small type and the blue, non-contrasty color forced me to lean forward and squint. The drool dripped onto my note book. I didn’t care. This was revelation! Palahniuk had pointed out something I had never noticed before. Excited, I thought… oh fuck, there I go again.

      • lesbiancannibal

        I now have to stay up all night and read 36 essays – the first one, about, erm, his balls and authority, is genius.

    • Citizen M

      In homage to Palahniuk’s “Fight Club”…

  • Citizen M

    Hey, a newsletter!

    Okay Carson, I’ll pull the pins out of the doll.

  • Citizen M

    Withholding information is a technique to be used with caution. Most amateur scripts I’ve read where information is kept from the reader would have been better if we knew up front what was going on.

    It’s often used as a device to paper over the fact that the plot is weak or the characters passive. As if at the end we will go, “Aha! Now I understand why it was so boring and ordinary.”

    No we won’t. No last-minute trickery can rescue a boring and ordinary script.

  • MaliboJackk

    Just ordered WIRED FOR STORY and ON FILM-MAKING based on recommendations here. Will be sitting out on the deck of my Malibu beach house this summer and reading these books.
    (Ok, It may take a bit of imagination on my part,
    but hey — isn’t that what screenwriters do?)

    Found another book titled STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE.
    Going to take a look at it (even though it’s geared toward novels).
    Like the way it talks about the emotional heart of story.

  • Ambrose*

    Regarding #9, I think it might be more accurate to say that “Seize the day” is originally from ‘Dead Poets Society’ by way of ‘Ferris Bueller’.
    Even Ferris would cop to that, I think.