As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve written script coverage in LA for a couple of different production companies. What this means is that I get to read a lot of scripts by a lot of lot of writers with varying levels of talent and experience. It’s taught me a lot – both about how to write a screenplay, how not to write a screenplay, the sorts of things people think they can put in a screenplay to make it sell, and the myriad of ways writers have found to make sex scenes cringe inducingly awkward.
From my experience, here’s some parables for those of you who may be interested in writing a screenplay - for the record, all examples in this update have been kept vague to protect the creative juices of the writers who got on my shit list in the first place:
You know in media res? When you start your movie at the end, briefly, and then flash forward to the beginning to show how you got there? Just because it was cool in Sunset Boulevard, Fight Club, and The Hangover doesn’t mean you need to do it in your script – it was a cool device because it was unconventional, but now everybody seems to want to start their script in a weird place and immediately flash back to how we got there. I recommend drawing viewers in by having the beginning of your script be interesting, and then progressing from there.
Please try to have had sex at least one time in your life before writing a sex scene. Descriptions like ‘she sexily grabs his crotch’ or ‘he takes off his shirt and starts making love’ will only get you laughed at.
Likewise, never use the phrase ‘explores her body’ – too creepy.
When the lead character is a young professional who rides a scooter and loves French New Wave films, you’re not allowed to derisively refer to the people outside the nightclub as ‘a crowd of hipsters.’
If it’s page twelve and the protagonists have boned four times already, you’re writing a porno whether you know it or not. If you want to make a porno, make a porno – just don’t make me read the script.
Characters nonchalantly shitting themselves is not comedy.
If after reading your script one of the most glaring plot holes to me is, “Wait – why didn’t she just use a dildo?”, your script might have some problems.
The only people who will ever read your screenplay is the cast, crew, and me, so don’t write the fucking thing like you’re William Faulkner – the first assistant director doesn’t care about ‘the sun shimmering beautifully off the surface of a pond flat like a pane of glass, waves softly lapping at an ancient dock constructed in a bygone era’; he cares about what the setting is and who the characters are so he can shoot the fucking thing.
Once and awhile, your characters should have sex not standing up. Just for variety. It’s cool the first time the hero fucks a girl up against a wall; the fourth time I think even the girl is getting tired of it.
If your screenplay is a faithful, autobiographical account of some trying time in your life that you wrote as therapy to recover from your hardship, I can almost promise you it isn’t going to be very interesting to anybody but you. It’s great that you wrote it – writing is a wonderful way to exorcise demons and get your head straight. What you shouldn’t do, though, is try to sell the disjointed contents of your soul. No matter how eccentric you think your friends are or how inspiring you think your story is, it’s probably not good enough to be a movie because your midlife crisis probably didn’t have snappy act breaks, a car chase, and a couple of engaging subplots.
Two characters can only fuck each other so many times before we start getting impatient to learn who they are and what the movie is actually about.
The proper number of exclamation points is one. Once in a blue moon, you may use two exclamation points. More than two exclamation points will make you look like a jackass – that’s not me talking; it’s science.
Less than half of one percent of American women use a diaphragm, so you should probably stop having the female characters in your movies use them. Nobody’s impressed that you’re a scholar of contraceptive history, or (more likely) that you saw that episode of Seinfeld.
Your script should be about one thing. If your script starts off being about a dorky guy pretending to be gay to get hot chicks, it shouldn’t end as a buddy cop horror film – it should end as a script about a dorky guy acting gay. If it’s a teen house party movie, it shouldn’t become a casino heist movie halfway through. This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen it happen in multiple scripts. Star Wars didn’t morph into American Beauty on page 52 – it was about spaceships and aliens the whole time.
Just because Tarantino movies are chock full of pop culture references doesn’t mean you need to do it too. That’s just how he rolls – he likes to mix little chunks of other movies into his movies. It’s his thing now. He owns it. When you do it, it’s not going to be cool – it’s going to be an excuse for you to not come up with your own content and instead use somebody else’s work as a crutch, which makes you a jackass. When you rip off Tarantino by using pop culture references to Tarantino films, you’re an Inception jackass.
Truman Capps awaits the inevitable onslaught of bullshit when people realize how many of these rules he broke with Writers.