We're midway through a week of "tips" - specific aspects of craft and creativity I've found in spec scripts that sell, based on my years of reading screenplays and doing notes on studio projects.
This one may inspire rolling eyeballs and groans, but bear with me, and I'll keep it brief.
Tip #3: Scripts that sell are models of form and brevity.
Nobody in the industry likes to read scripts, and readers - the biz's first line of resistance - are often the most curmudgeonly sticklers of all when it comes to format and length.
So ask yourself: Why, after spending anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years or more on a spec screenplay, do you want to have the first industry people who read it encounter errors in format and/or excessive verbiage, and thus want to throw the thing across a room?
You know the drill, as it's basic 101 stuff, but observe three simple rules.
One: Write with plenty of white space. Narrative shouldn't feature paragraphs of more than four lines (three or less is ideal), and dialogue shouldn't come in fat chunks.
Two: Traditional format - i.e. proper slugs, savvy use of formal conventions, etc. - is the coin of the realm. A professional tennis player doesn't want to face you on a court that has no net, and we drive on the right side of the road for a reason. Keep up with trends (e.g. The use of "CONTINUOUS" in slugs, except when specifically used to indicate we're in the same linear moment as you cut to another location, has been out of fashion for over a decade, and "CUT TO:" is being used less and less).
Three: Write shorter scripts. In our ADD-riddled culture, the average selling spec is no longer 120 pages. 110-115 is more the norm, and in comedies especially, it's under 110 (somewhere between 95 and 105 seems to be the contemporary comedic sweet spot).
Generally, less is more. Some scribe once likened screenwriting to crafting "a hundred pages of Haiku," and most scripts I've read that have sold in the past few years have a compressed, shrewdly compacted energy born of achieving the most with the least amount of words.
Don't just take my word for it, go have a look at one of 2009's most high-profile spec sales: Kyle Killen's The Beaver, which topped last year's "Black List" (a list of scripts most liked by industry insiders) and subsequently got set up with Jim Carrey, then Steve Carell, and now Mel Gibson (?!) to star.
The Beaver is about as seemingly uncommercial and indie as they come (it's about a man whose fake animal hand puppet starts talking to him and takes over his life), but here's the thing: While it does bend rules (employing a lot of voice-over and long speeches), it positively zooms in the read - white space galore, beautifully succinct, sharp, vivid narrative. So even someone who wouldn't be inclined to read it, if told the log line, is seduced into reading from its first energetic page to its last: page 109.
You can be lax and sloppy with this stuff; you can try to reinvent the format wheel. Why not do what the specs that sell do, instead?
[Beaver photos originally on: Splash News]