Thursday, March 06, 2014

Things NOT to do when writing a script

Here are some handy tips on what NOT to do when writing a script:

Don’t put extra pressure on yourself unnecessarily. I once had a writing teacher who said, “Think of each page of your sitcom as being worth a thousand dollars. Then say to yourself, ‘is this page worth one thousand dollars?’” This teacher should be shot. First of all, his math is off. And secondly, there will be some pages worth five grand and others worth sixteen bucks because you’re just describing a character driving away to end the scene. Don’t put monetary values on pages or jokes or anything. It’s arbitrary and destructive.

Don’t feel every line has to be perfect before you can go on to the next. The end result will be a rather stilted very calculated script. Get a flow going. You can always go back and revise. Don’t let one difficult line completely stall the process. And here’s the dirty little secret: The lines won’t be perfect anyway.

Don’t clog up your pages with lots of stage direction. A reader sees a giant block of direction and best case scenario – just skips it, and worse case scenario – tosses the script away. Do the bare minimum and then cut that down.

Likewise, any big speech can be trimmed. Don’t fall in love with your rhetoric.

Characters rarely articulate just how they feel and exactly what they want. In fact, most people go out of their way to NOT express what they’re really thinking. They convey their feelings in behavior, innuendo, denial, misdirection, a smokescreen of humor – pretty much anything other than stating the obvious. It’s your job to find ways to get their feelings across in an artful not bald way.

Take the time to research and put your script in the correct format. This is especially important if you’re writing a spec for a specific show. Put it in their template. Final Draft offers a variety of existing show templates. Use the right one.

PROOF your script. Spelling counts more than you can imagine. Sloppy spelling, missed words, words juxtaposed – in all likelihood the reader will discard your script immediately. I can not stress the importance of this enough. It's not like a blog. 

If you’re writing a comedy, get a big laugh on page one. You need to grab the reader. If you leisurely build up to the first big joke on page three you’ll find that many readers will stop at page two.

Be very sparing with interior direction. Don’t have (apprehensive), (wistful), (joyous), etc. assigned to every line of dialogue. Actors hate it and you come off amateurish.

Don’t make the character names too similar. Don’t have a Jen, a Jan, a Jessica, and a Jessie in the same script. It will confuse the reader.

If you’re writing a spec for an existing show, focus on their main characters. Don’t hinge your show on a guest star role. And especially, don’t write that big guest part for yourself.

Don’t just give one character nothing but questions. You’d be shocked at how often this happens.

Don’t have every character sound the same. You’re not Aaron Sorkin. And he shouldn’t do it as much.

Dole out the exposition in dribs and drabs, not all at one time. And if possible, in a comedy, couch a lot of the exposition in jokes.

Don’t make the script too long or too short. If MODERN FAMILY scripts are roughly 35 pages and you turn in one that’s 55 it goes right into the recycle bin.

Don’t write exaggerated accents phonetically. In other words: “I just et a biggole slice a dat pie ya’ll been bekkin.” If your script reads like a Pogo comic strip, you’re in the trash.

This is not rap music. There’s no “sampling.” Don’t copy a scene or character from another show and call it an “homage.”

Puns are death in comedy scripts. You’re going for laughs, not groans.

Service all characters in a scene. Don’t let a character go three or four pages where he’s just standing around with no lines. If a character is in a scene he needs to be there for a reason and he needs to participate.

Every scene must move the story forward. If you can lift a scene right out without it affecting the narrative of the story, it doesn’t belong there in the first place.

If you’re writing a drama, don’t assign a song to create the mood while the characters just reflect. That’s a lazy cop out. Your emotional impact needs to come from the characters and needs to be created by you, not Norah Jones.

Again, for a spec from an existing show – don’t kill off any of the main characters.

These are just a few of the things to avoid.  But if you can avoid these booby traps you'll be ahead of the game in a very competitive field.   As always, best of luck.


Anonymous said...

Quick typo alert. In the 'proof your script' paragraph, should be imagine, not imagination

Gim said...

Writing a spec script in the preferred format of the show is (obviously) good advice, but how would one go about finding out the format for, say, Hannibal or Brooklyn Nine-Nine?

Gim said...

I must add, thank you for the advice post!

Joseph said...

Thanks for the great advice. I have a nasty habit of perfectionism that I need to get rid of.

Grim: the website has scripts in pdf form for a lot of shows including Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Also, if you're in Los Angeles, the WGA library has hard copies that you can read their. More information can be found at

Tom said...

Re: Characters' names that sound alike. Maybe for a Friday question: On the Mary Tyler Moore Show, they had a Mary (understandable), a Murray and a Marie, sometimes all in the same scene. This always seemed unnecessarily confusing, do you know why they did that?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Can you do this for a treatment? I am struggling what a treatment should and should not contain.

Famous! said...

I know you've seen the first, second and last pilots of what became "All In The Family". The startling takeaway from that is: same (essential) script, same principals (Archie and Edith) but different supporting cast and DIRECTION.

Note the audience reaction, as well as your own. By the time they had it ready for prime time, the laughs, for essentially the same material, were twice as prevalent and twice as large.

A good script always needs great support, in order to fly (which, I also assume, you already know).

blinky said...

Hey could you send that to Quentin Tarentino? He must think each sentence he writes is worth a thousand bucks. Then again maybe he just needs an editor that will stand up to him.

GlennE said...

Friday question for the Cheers Dept.: In May 1993, The Tonight Show had a live show with the Cheers cast in Boston after the last episode. Kirstie Alley was out of town, so Jay interviewed her on a monitor and she shared a song for her Cheers cast mates. Her lyrics were as follows... “Did you ever see a dick?, Did you want to see a dick?, dicky dick dick dick dick”. The Cheers cast in Boston were hysterical and Jay quickly went to commercial promising the viewers “more May madness” after the break. Jay did not look pleased. My question: Where were you during the final celebration (and any memories of this classic live Kirstie moment)?

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more.

Hamid said...

Don't just give one character nothing but questions

Keanu Reeves' character spent the entire Matrix trilogy just asking questions in his leaden monotone, to which he got long, pretentious answers. And now the geniuses behind this are apparently going to make a prequel trilogy. Here's a question Reeves could ask: who gives a fuck?

Bob said...

I'm no expert Ken, but didn't you just give away information that sells for hundreds of bucks in screenwriting seminars?

Larry said...

"Service all characters in a scene. Don’t let a character go three or four pages where he’s just standing around with no lines. If a character is in a scene he needs to be there for a reason and he needs to participate."

But if you do have a character standing around doing nothing the entire scene, try to get Patton Oswalt.

Igor said...

Ken, a question:

You wrote, "Don’t clog up your pages with lots of stage direction. A reader sees a giant block of direction and best case scenario – just skips it, and worse case scenario – tosses the script away. Do the bare minimum and then cut that down."

OK. But then... What about a scene such as the Niles silent scene?

Yes, I realize that many of us may think we're writing a scene of that sort, when in fact what we're writing is mere crap.

But otherwise, are you saying we new guys shouldn't include a scene with lots of direction - good or bad - because it simply makes a bad impression on the page, because it's a big block of type?

Liggie said...

Igor, for practical reasons, large descriptive blocks are discouraged as directors, cast and crew like a lot of white space so they can write notes on the page. Script readers also like smaller blocks and fewer directions because it makes the script easier to read, and you want scripts to be a quick and easy read.

I read the original script for Terry Gilliam's "Brazil", and he had some pages which were completely filled with text, without paragraphs even. Pain to read, and took me a while to keep straight exactly what was going on. (Gilliam got away with it because he was also the director and didn't need anyone's approval of the script; a writer on spec can't get away with it.)

Another reason for concise stage direction? Actors and directors like freedom to add their touches to a scene, and they don't like writers telling them *exactly* what to do. Just give them the basics ("Lisa unhappily gets up from the couch and answers the door" instead of "Lisa scowls, tosses her phone aside, yanks herself up off the couch and stomps angrily to the door") and not much more. If there are exceptions, it would be if an intricate detail is needed for a key plot purpose (no need to mention the tossed phone unless Lisa later needs to call someone and can't find her phone).

As for similar character names, do that only if there's a good reason. I'm writing something where a character is engaged to a "Sandra" but finds himself falling for a "Sarah"; think you can figure out how that will trouble him later on?

Liggie said...

Oh, BTW Igor, if you have silent scenes like Niles and the apartment fire, use very short paragraphs of not more than three sentences. Even one-sentence paragraphs are fine. It breaks up the material, is easier to understand, and gives enough space for actors et al. to write their margin notes.

Graham said...

The recommendation to keep stage directions to a minimum always seems to confuse people, who seem to interpret it as "stage directions are bad." Stage directions are a necessary part of script writing. The recommendation comes from the tendency new writers have to use far too many of them, and in far too much detail. To some degree, that's a learning curve issue. Experience gives you the confidence to pare your script-writing, whether dialogue or stage directions, to a minimum.

I wish I could reproduce stage directions from the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and I LOVE LUCY scripts I've got. They contain wonderful examples of stage directions that can be both extensive and detailed, but at the same time very lean and not over-written.

Mark said...

Thank you very much Ken.


Paul Duca said...

As Jack Warner said upon seeing BONNIE & CLYDE for the first time, when Warren Beatty described it as "a hommage to the classic Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930's"

"What the f%@$ is a hommage?"

mdv1959 said...

As a former reader one of my pet peeves was typos. It's distracting and immediately (maybe unfairly) makes me question the professionalism of the writer.

As for keeping stage directions to a minimum. I think the point is describe the action but don't go into detail about staging.

"John and Mary are sitting at a table having a spirited discussion" not "We start with a tight shot of a table and slowly pull out to reveal John and Mary having a spirited conversation" If you're writing a spec script you're not the director. Staging the scene is their job.

Cap'n Bob said...

A hommage is a misspelled homage.

(Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Marcus said...

A Friday question that just occured to me: Thinking of that sentence “Think of each page of your sitcom as being worth a thousand dollars. Then say to yourself, ‘is this page worth one thousand dollars?’”

How much IS a page really worth? I always wonder how the writer gets his money. Is he payed once for the episode? Does he get his share from broadcasting and DVDs etc. by percentage? Anything else?
Just as a simple example: Someone writes a complete episode for a big show, like Two And A Half Men or Scrubs or Big Bang Theory. How much and from what sources would he get paid?
(just curious, no envy or personal interest involved :-))

Breadbaker said...

I don't often comment on Ken's writing columns (I know him from his work for the Mariners). But the discussion about the Niles silent scene made me think of my first day of advanced composition in high school. Our teacher told us that she would mark down any composition that did not use complete sentences. She said that not all composition should be done in complete sentences, but until she had enough confidence that a student knew how to write, she wanted us all to follow the basic rules. When she told a student he or she was a "stylist", they were licensed to use incomplete sentences when appropriate.

If a writer had submitted the exact script for the Niles silent scene, or the Lucy-Harpo scene, as a spec script, it is unlikely anyone would read it. They aren't looking for people who can write skits for Marcel Marceau; they're looking for dialogue writers. Once you're hired, they'll read your stuff the way my dear late Mrs. Citron did for students she denominated stylists. But until you're hired, they want to know you can follow the rules.

Dale said...

Hi Glenn.
There's a post about the cheers after party on this site. You should be able to find it easily enough.
Apparently a few drinks had been consumed... :-)

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I've written scripts before. To my untrained eyes, they look as if they could be the Real McCoy, but I'm sure the eyes of Levine & Isaacs, or any other writers for that matter, they're probably a joke (not in a ha-ha sense, more like an are you serious sense).

I will say this though: I've seen what the scripts for SESAME STREET look like (not first hand, just in behind-the-scenes footage and photos), and they look nothing like what scripts usually look like. Times New Roman fonts instead of Courier, no formatting, and they often times abbreviate as well (like if Big Bird is in the script, he'll be put down as B.B.).

I think I've been guilty of too much stage directions in scripts before, but I have a problem: I'm a very detailed person. I've heard that some actors actually appreciate that, though. Danny Stern praised John Hughes' script for HOME ALONE because of how specific he was in all the little details in each scene, as opposed to just writing a direction like, "And then the bad guys get the crap beat out of them."

Anonymous said...

It's easier to have a script run a few pages too long and cut it down to length than to have a script run a few pages too short and try to pad it out.

Likewise, it's easier to trim the excess from stage directions than to try and make sense of nonexistent ones.

Garry Marshall tells a story about the first script he and Jerry Belson wrote for Dick Van Dyke. They wrote a stage direction that said:


Carl Reiner called them into his office and told them that wouldn't work. They needed to describe, specifically, what it was about Rob putting on his tie that was funny. He told them if they went into too much detail they could always trim it out when they revised their draft, but that it was always better to start with too much than with too little.

D. McEwan said...

"Don’t make the character names too similar. Don’t have a Jen, a Jan, a Jessica, and a Jessie in the same script. It will confuse the reader."

Could you please go 64 years back in time and tell that to George Burns? All my life spent trying to figure out if "Harry" refers to Harry Morton or Harry Von Zell. Admittedly, when Gracie got her Harrys mixed up, as she often did, it was a reliable plot complication, but still. Even when I was 5 years old I thought: "Well Harry Morton is really just [one of three} and actor[s]; they could have named him Norman Morton, or Douglas Morton, or Salty Morton." (I was 5. You want good jokes, catch me at a later age.)