The Road Ahead: 10 Tips for the Screenwriter

Photo © iStock
Photo © iStock

Joseph McBride is an internationally renowned film historian and biographer and a veteran film and television writer whose decades of experience have brought him a Writers Guild of America Award, four other WGA nominations, two Emmy Award nominations, and a Canadian Film Awards nomination. McBride was one of the screenwriters of the cult classic punk rock musical "Rock 'n' Roll High School" and co-wrote five American Film Institute Life Achievement Award specials for CBS-TV. Here, he shares some of the key dos and don'ts that help define the craft of screenwriting.

1. Don't write what we can't see or hear.
If I can leave you with one basic rule about screenwriting, this is it. Once you keep this point firmly in mind, you will be writing in cinematic terms. Cinema can't show the invisible, and a script should avoid nebulous concepts. So don't tell us about what happened to characters in the past (the backstory) or tell us things about them the viewer can't glean from the images or dialogue.

2. Don't tell us what people are thinking or feeling or remembering unless you can show it.
Descriptive passages in a script that delve deeply into a character's feelings or thoughts risk irrelevancy. They are usually a crutch for failing to dramatize your story. How do you convey the interior life of your character without spelling it out in dialogue or resorting to a crudely explanatory flashback? This is one of the most complex questions facing a screenwriter.

3. Don't overdo dialogue.
Robert Towne advised students at the American Film Institute, "Generally speaking, the process of writing a screenplay is figuring out how to keep the dialogue as spare as possible." Try to think of a scene first in visual terms and only resort to dialogue when it is truly necessary. Not that there's anything wrong with strong, colorful dialogue, as long as the narrative keeps moving. But it's too easy to fall into the trap of turning your movie into lifeless and static-looking scenes. Alfred Hitchcock complained that most movies resemble filmed plays; he scorned such works as "pictures of people talking." What he preferred - and what is hardest to create - are pictures of people thinking.

4. Don't underdo dialogue.
It's unfortunate that many films today, especially action films, seem to regard actual conversation as an audience turnoff. Characters who don't talk much can be interesting, if the talk is well chosen and expressive. But inarticulate characters can also be cartoonishly dull. Even the characters in an action movie can talk with wit and brio, as James Bond movies have been demonstrating for decades. Because we have become so accustomed to thinking of cinema as "a visual art form" and to exalting directors over writers, we tend to downplay the importance of words in filmmaking.

5. Keep scenes short (usually).
When I started writing feature screenplays, I tended to write twenty-page dramatic scenes, no doubt influenced by the fact that I'd read a lot of stageplays and only a few screenplays. Scenes in modern films tend to be short - two or three minutes is a substantial length for a scene, and some scenes can be only a few seconds long. Occasionally a scene can run longer than a few minutes. The length of the scenes should not always be the same, because that quickly becomes monotonous and predictable; structure your script with a musical rhythm, varying the pace and decelerating or accelerating it as the story demands.

6. Don't show everything that happens in the story.
As William Goldman puts it in John Brady's interview book The Craft of the Screenwriter, "Rule of thumb: You always attack a movie scene as late as you possibly can. You always come into the scene at the last possible moment."

7. Use the helpful devices available to writers in the professional screenplay format.
Clear and creative use of scene headings keeps the script easy to follow and gives a sense of visual variety and movement. Transitional devices ("CUT TO:," "DISSOLVE TO:," "FADE OUT," etc.) should be used when you go from one place to another or from one time period to another. These devices are some of the ways that have evolved over the years to make a screenplay a quick read. Screenwriter Sam Hamm says that's the first job of the screenwriter, "to keep the reader's eye moving down the page."

That's the virtue Alfred Hitchcock stressed most in directing. The same applies to screenwriting: If your script is not clearly written, it won't tell the story in a way the reader can follow. Clarity is the quality most conspicuously lacking in most bad writing. Put a sign above your desk reading "CLARITY."

9. Write good English.
If your script is riddled with writing errors, the reader will quickly lose confidence in your abilities and become distracted from the story you are trying to tell. Many professional screenwriters are not the most polished writers, but there is a certain minimum standard of legibility that must be maintained in the professional world, or the script will be cast aside.

10. Don't write an epic unless you're working for Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese.
When I arrived in Hollywood, I found myself witnessing a strange native ritual. The first thing a producer or reader would do with a script, instinctively, was to pick it up and "weigh" it. Literally weigh it. Professionals develop a keen sense of how a professional script should feel in their hands. If it's too heavy, the script starts life with a strike against it. It has little chance of being read with care or read at all.

More about the author: McBride was a film critic, reporter, and columnist for Daily Variety in Hollywood for many years. His books include the acclaimed biographies Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Steven Spielberg: A Biography, and Searching for John Ford. The French edition of the Ford biography won the Best Foreign Film Book of the Year award from the French film critics' organization in 2008. McBride has also published a celebrated book of interviews with director Howard Hawks, Hawks on Hawks, and three books on Orson Welles, including What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career. That book is partly a memoir of McBride's experience working as an actor for Welles for six years, playing a film critic in the director's legendary unfinished film "The Other Side of the Wind," for which McBride cowrote his dialogue with Welles.

McBride is an associate professor in the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University, where he has been teaching screenwriting and film history since 2002. In 2011, he became the subject of a feature-length documentary on his life and work, "Behind the Curtain: Joseph McBride on Writing Film History," written and directed by Hart Perez. McBride lives in Berkeley.