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Screenwriting MythBusters



Screenwriting MythBusters

Part One

Ah, the Internet. The heck with sliced bread – this is the most incredible invention of our lifetime! I wouldn’t dream of writing an article or blog without Wikipedia and Thesaurus.com open in my browser. Plus Facebook for when I need a bit of distraction.

But it is also the most effective way to spread misinformation known to humankind. Writers aiming to break in are especially susceptible. Hungry for information, the secret formula to gain entry to the insular world that is the film business, they will cling to anything that promises to get them in the door.

In this electronic age, the endless debate over two brads or three has finally, thankfully become irrelevant. It was a massive waste of time and energy. If, by chance you are still pondering this, see my ScriptMag.com article “Does This Script Make Me Look Fat?” under “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, Sweat the Small Stuff.”

But there’s plenty floating out there in cyberspace that is sheer folly. Or worse, harmful.

Busting these screenwriting myths fills me with glee. I hope it saves you time that could be better spent coming up with great ideas or strengthening your script.

25 Words and Two Commas

Apparently there’s a rumor going around that loglines must be no longer than 25 words. I’ve also heard 27. This happens to be the most current and most insidious myth out there.

Writers are spending time and energy struggling to stick to a rule someone made up that I’d never heard of in 25 years in the business. I’ve since heard rumblings that the 25 words should include one comma. Then I heard two. Seriously? Do you think we have the time to count words? We’re looking for ideas for movies!

This kind of misinformation hurts writers. Perhaps whoever got this ridiculous ball rolling will be offended. Great! Let’s kick up a lot of noise about this one because, even if it was well intentioned, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong and deserves to be dead and buried.

Because of this myth, I’ve received queries with loglines I simply couldn’t figure out. The loglines were so brief and vague they left me with more questions than answers.

In one case, I could see there was a little something intriguing, but it was so thin I couldn’t get the story. In the other, the writer failed on so many counts that I was bewildered as to what the script was about.

One of the baffling 25 word loglines – which despite its brevity managed to include a grammatical error – left me with at least 50 words of questions. I sent them to the writer. To clarify, he added a single word.  I still couldn’t figure out who the hero was or what was going on and asked more questions. Finally, he relented and gave me two sentences that more or less made sense.  At least I could figure out what the story was about.

Want proof? You be the judge.

Version One – 29 words, two commas:

When a gigantic great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity, a police chief, a marine scientist and grizzled fisherman set out to stop it. (via IMDb)

Version Two – 42 words:, one comma:

Horror. When a Great White shark terrorizes a quiet New England beach community, the town’s police chief must overcome his fear of the water and join forces with a grizzled shark hunter and an oceanographer to hunt it down to save the town.

Which version is visceral?

Which includes extraneous information?

Which is the most effective in giving you a sense of the story?

Which communicates the tone of the film? Which has unnecessary adjectives?

Which makes it clear who the hero is?

Which conveys the stakes?

Which would make you most likely to ask to read the script out of a stack of hundreds of queries?

There is really only one Logline Law – clearly convey the story in a way that makes it compelling and expresses what the movie feels like.  If you don’t do that, you fail.

And no loglines without genres ever!

Look Ma, No Articles!

There was a freaky myth a few years back that in order to make your script a “fast read,” cut out all of the articles – no “a’s,” “and’s,” and “the’s” in the entire script. This destroys the reading experience making it a sentence-by-sentence struggle. Next cut all extraneous words, aiming for the lowest page count possible.

I was in the unique position to have read two different versions of the same script, first pre-tightening and then after following this advice. The story was set in an idiosyncratic small town and filled with charmingly quirky characters and focused on a zany romance. The offbeatness was central to the story and gave the piece its own unique appeal. In the first version I enjoyed the writing and the read.

The second version came to me as a mentor at the awesome CineStory Screenwriting Retreat. As one of this writer’s mentors, I would be spending an hour and a half with him in a constructive conversation about his script. I set out to read it again. This version was much shorter, well under 100 pages. The writing was thin. The story flat. The town and characters, colorless. It wasn’t an enjoyable reading experience. What happened?

The moment I sat down with the writer, this was the first question I asked. He admitted to having read somewhere online (red flag!) that cutting out all the extraneous words would make a script a “fast read.” What was left had virtually no articles – the “a” “an” and “the’s” that are part of normal sentence construction.

And he had cut every adjective possible. Remember what I liked about the first version? Gone thanks to this Internet advice. No adjectives = no unique, quirky charm.

This is not the way to create a fast read. It’s not about words or even page count. A fast read is any script where you simply can’t wait to find out what happens next. When as a reader, you’re so intrigued you fly through the script, burning through the pages.

More Mythbusters to Come in Part Two

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6 Responses to “Screenwriting MythBusters”

  1. Rachel May 23, 2013 at 4:43 pm #

    Super excited to read this – thanks! I read a lot of advice on the internet, and to your point most of it is not “from the horse’s mouth” so to speak (and no offense intended). I’ve found myself cutting a lot of my (I thought) clever and helpfully descriptive verbiage down in order to keep it a “fast read”. To hell with that… I’m putting it back in. I have to set myself apart right? Glad to hear that style really is considered (understanding that it has to contribute to conveying an intriguing story).

    Looking forward to Part 2, and your site is now bookmarked. Thanks!

    • bevins May 28, 2013 at 1:20 am #

      Thanks Rachel. I’m so glad this article was helpful.

      I have more MythBusters to come!

  2. Karel Segers May 28, 2013 at 1:42 am #

    Hi Barri,

    This is a great article in that it puts the responsibility back with the writer. No script advice is absolute, universal and if it is… it is often too generic and unhelpful (“entertain the reader!”).

    But the 25 words thing for loglines has a reason.

    Many festivals have a maximum in their logline submissions. And you know what happens if the writer hasn’t given that logline to the producer… S/he will make it up under time pressure – and you may rest assured it is not going to be great.

    Another reason for keeping the word count own (25 is arbitrary but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere, right?) is: it helps memorize the sentence.

    What do you think?

    Karel

    • bevins May 28, 2013 at 2:06 am #

      Hi Karel, thanks for commenting. I value your opinion.

      In my experience, the 25 word rule is hurting more than helping. There isn’t a limit in a query and that’s where I’m seeing ideas I can’t decipher. I doubt other producers would ask a writer for a longer logline rather than just passing, but as someone who writes about loglines and queries, I felt it was the right thing to do in the examples I’m referencing. And in most other situations, there is no “do over.”

      As for festivals, I say cross that bridge when you come to it. Before that happens, you have to “sell” your idea and if a logline doesn’t do the story justice in so few words its fails.

      As for memorizing, my pitch advice is practice, practice, practice and tell us a great story. After all, it is your story!

  3. Eric June 17, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    If I left out all the vowels would that make my script read even faster?

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