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Secrets from a Script Reader: Myths in Screenwriting

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As we begin the new year, I know many of you are laying out your goals, committing to finishing, revising, or starting that script you’ve been thinking about. That’s the great thing that I love about the new year, the fresh energy it infuses in everyone and everything, giving you a springboard to launch from as you embark on another journey around the sun.

As you’re defining your writing goals for this year, I’d love to give you an extra boost by busting some myths I’ve heard about screenwriting from a script reader’s point of view. Below are a few myths that I’ve encountered in my work as a story analyst, some that I used to believe as a screenwriter before I was a professional script reader.

MYTH #1: “You only get one chance, so you better put your best script forward.”

My neurotic screenwriter mind still battles with this myth, because my writing and
career as a scribe means a lot to me. The truth is that you get more than one chance – as long as a draft you submit demonstrates that you do have talent as a writer. Hollywood needs scripts. No one will ever turn down a solid script and a good writer. If you’ve shown you have some talent, the door isn’t going to seal forever just because you submitted a draft that wasn’t the best ever. If you submit work that isn’t stellar, then it might be a while before your work is looked at again by that particular person or company, but the door isn’t shut. You might want to check out my column on the signs of a green screenwriter to help understand what signals to a reader that a writer is inexperienced. Also, let’s be honest, of course you always want to put forth your best work no matter what field you’re in, but the idea that you are one and done isn’t reality.

MYTH #2: “Screenplay formatting changes every year.”

This is completely false. When I first began working with one of my screenwriter clients that lives outside of Hollywood, he told me that he’d paid a consultant to give him the latest trends and updates in screenplay formatting. I felt bad for him, because he got duped by someone seeking to make money off of writers eager to learn and make sure their work is up to par. I would hate for this to happen to anyone else, and I’m telling you now so you don’t waste money on this false declaration. Screenplay formatting has been the same for years. It doesn’t change from year to year. Yes, certain things might gradually change, like “CUT TO” not being used as often as it was in the past, or occasionally writers prefer to bold and underline their scene headings, but these are more personal preferences rather than major updates to script formatting that could make you look bad if you don’t implement them. If you want to see how scripts are currently being formatted, check out the Oscar nominated screenplays of recent years to see how the pros are doing it. A couple links for that: here and here.

MYTH #3: “Music will bring forward the feeling in my script.”

Imagine a novel that’s poorly written, then in one chapter the writer states a certain song is playing. Are you suddenly brought into the feeling of the story and world of the narrative because of the song title you see in the book? Some writers put songs in their scripts, which I always recommend that you avoid for various reasons that I won’t get into here. Although that song might have brought you into the feeling of the story as you were writing, it’s not the same when reading the title of a song on the page, because the reader can’t hear the song. Relying on songs to bring forth the meaning or feeling of a scene is actually a sign of an inexperienced screenwriter. In speaking to a couple indie film producers about a script they were developing, they knew the screenplay wasn’t working and couldn’t understand why. They told me the feeling of the scenes and the theme just really weren’t there, so they were considering adding in songs throughout to bring that in. I stopped them right there and told them they don’t need songs, they need a new revision and probably a new writer. Effective word choice evokes the feeling of a situation, the demeanor of a character, or atmosphere of a scene – in other words, just good writing! Not songs.

MYTH #4: “I need a unique voice to stand out and be noticed.”

Serve the story. Always. You have a unique voice, because you are you. No one can write a story like you, because of your perspective on life, on the story, and the talent that only you possess. No one else is you. If you try to be like another writer or try to be something that’s not you, then you’ll never develop your craft. Work on your own craft. Just write, learn, and get better. What stands out is a writer that understands screenwriting and crafts the narrative to fit the story they are writing, rather than trying to stylize it to force some kind of recognition that this writer is unique. Serve the story and do that well. Focus on being the best writer you can be. One of the terrible things I’ve seen a few writers do is leave out articles, purposefully making a screenplay grammatically incorrect, to try to make their writing unique. It makes the script difficult to read. I’ve heard this was actually recommended to them. The writers are trying to stand out without actually focusing on the quality of the writing, which shows. You might stand out in a way then that you really don’t want to stand out in.

There are a lot of people out there giving advice, and I hope that the above helps you on your writing journey! If you’re curious about a myth you’ve heard, feel free to contact me and I’ll see if I can shine light on the truth of it! And if I can help you with your writing goals this year, I’m just I’m just an email away. Happy New Year and Happy Writing!

Joanna Ke

About Joanna Ke

If grace married silliness, their child would be Joanna Ke. Joanna is an award-winning filmmaker that thrives in the industry as an actor, writer, professional script reader, and producer. She champions diverse stories led by women both behind and in front of the camera. Joanna has been creating stories ever since she was a child, performing skits for her sisters and scribbling in journals before she even know how to write. She studied the craft of screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field. As a professional script reader, she is known for her ability to masterfully analyze screenplays. Joanna runs the twitter account @femcharacters, highlighting the unfortunate way women are often portrayed on screen. She also isn’t too shabby as a stunt performer and sword fighter. Wielding her broadsword is a favorite both on camera and off.