By and large, people take exception to being told what they can or cannot do when it comes to their own scripts. They mistrust the advice of the so-called gurus and bristle at the thought of a screenplay being guided by conventional techniques or academic terminology. Fair enough; perfectly understandable. People want to stick to their own sense of style and instincts. Great, bring it on, show us what you got. And so the spec pile grows. (un)Surprisingly, similar techniques and story elements emerge, which brings the reader to the conclusion that aspiring writers are failing to impress because of an over-reliance on cliché or unimaginative storytelling.
When a reader picks up a script, he is already starving for something original and interesting to happen in the story. Something, anything, that will tell him he’s in safe hands; that this story is going to be good, and he can sit back and enjoy the ride. This does not necessarily mean that scripts have to start with a bang, or a fast-paced sequence. If a script adopts a slow-burn approach, then it’s the writer’s responsibility to draw the reader into the world, and make him absorbed with the discerning tone, pace and drama.
Inevitably, a lot of stories share a lot of similarities with their style and approach, especially at the beginning of a script. Here’s a round up of the most common story elements that appear in the spec pile (a version first seen here, and about 'the first ten pages', here).
First, a word about format. Would you believe that people are still falling at this most basic hurdle? I’m not a “Format Nazi”: if a script isn’t in the right format but is telling a good story, I’m happy. But. If a script has a dodgy format (odd font, strange alignment, even varying font colour sometimes), it becomes easier to ‘pass’ because it’s not quite up to professional scratch. Screenplay software can be pricey, but fear not, you can get it for free on the ‘net. Microsoft has a basic template, and Celtx is free screenwriting software which I’ve heard good things about. But really, there should be no excuse anymore for poor formatting.
Getting Out of Bed/Starting Their Day
A lot of scripts open with the protagonist getting out of bed and going about his daily routine. Okay, we get it. This is his normal routine before the story’s going to kick in and really upset his life. But it’s quite a dull, boring and unimaginative way to start the story. Surely there’s got to be a more interesting and original approach?
There's nothing like the uniting emotion of grief for characters to get together and kickstart a story, right? Not really. Or someone returning home for a relative’s funeral, and facing up to their past/misplaced relationships etc. Snooze.
Inheriting Something From a Will
This often comes after the opening funeral sequence but sometimes it occurs right at the beginning. A popular choice is for the protagonist to inherit something he doesn’t want from a relative he never knew he had, and spend the rest of the story facing up to both.
Arriving At An Airport
A quick glance at the lead character in the plane, touchdown, baggage claim, and then usually proceeds to a funeral or a will reading.
Scripts in the spec pile love this one. There is absolutely nothing wrong with voice-over in TV or film. It’s an enjoyable and useful technique, when it’s done right. When it’s done wrong, it’s painful and unimpressive. Voice-over like: “That’s me, Peter, and next to me is my best friend John. We’ve been mates forever”. Ideally, the voice-over should juxtapose or neatly support what’s going on, not be a easy reference for poor exposition.
Another fave of the spec pile. Like voice-over, flashbacks can be incredibly useful and entertaining. It’s all to do with a writer’s specific grasp of craft and technique, and to heighten the drama and interest of the narrative. Flashbacks arriving at the very beginning of a script is a tough trick to pull off. It’s likely that not enough interest or attachment has been made to the character or premise, and so the flashback can feel indulgent and unnecessary. It usually represents what the writer is interested in or wants to get across, rather than what the reader is hoping for or expecting to see.
Voice-Over Flashback Narrative
“I bet you’re wondering how I ended up in this position. Well, it wasn’t always like this…” and cue into a flashback narrative. I think “The Woman In Red” with Gene Wilder (in 1984) did this kind of thing, and it was funny, but if voice-over and flashbacks weren’t tough enough to do by themselves, together they’re especially tricky and demanding. And when badly used, which is more often the case, it can feel like lazy and convenient storytelling.
They’re a bit like flashbacks in that they’re trying to establish some sort of intrigue or exposition but as an opener, it doesn’t do much to arouse appropriate interest, especially when the character screams himself awake, and then goes about his normal routine (or attends a funeral/reading of a will/begins a voice-over, flashback etc).
Quite possibly a dream. In crime thrillers, it can be the murder that the story and investigation is based on, and that sometimes works as a neat prologue. However, a chase sequence right at the beginning can feel rather plain - someone’s getting chased, big deal. A writer needs to more original and interesting about the chase, or the way it’s described, if it’s going to properly engage a reader’s interest.
Multiple Character Introduction
Sometimes, six or more characters will appear in one scene or sequence. They’ll all get namechecked and have dialogue but the reader will easily get lost as to who’s who and what’s going on. The characters may well become more defined as the story progresses but at the beginning, it should be clear and inviting as to who people are and what their role might be. Give a little bit of juice or drama so that the reader can make the right connections without having to flick back pages or re-check who said what.
Common vernacular is riddled with bad language, and not even the most liberal sprinkling of foul words is going to offend a reader. But it may put them off the credibility and authenticity of your characters. Let’s take a domestic drama, and the opening scene is Mum and Dad at the kitchen table. All of a sudden, they’re calling each other ‘c u next Tuesdays’ over the corn flakes. This can feel unsuitable and disconcerting, whereas a gangster using such terms would be expected. It’s all about context. On Radio 4 recently, Stephen Fry was asked to define the word “countryside” to which he replied: “The murder of Piers Morgan”.
You could argue that a lot of professional scripts and produced work use a lot of these techniques. It’s true, you seem them all the time, and indeed, a few of the second round shortlist for Red Planet had some of these very same elements. But they probably used them with an added bit of style, humour or originality. In the spec pile, a lot of scripts are doing exactly the same thing as you, so it’s always good to be different. A reader wants something more; a bit of spark and ingenuity to help ease them into the style and flow of the story that’s ahead. So, go on. Think outside the box. Shake it up a little. Have fun. Don’t be boring.