Fast Forward Your Screenplay

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What makes some screenplays sell while others get rejection notices? There are many factors that can make the difference. Amateur formatting is a killer. Or your story can be one that’s already been done too many times or one that would be hard to film. None of those things are going to be covered here. Instead, I want to guide you through how the speed of your story can boost the chances of a sale.

Is It Over Yet?

We’ve all seen enough movies to recognize how speed affects our liking for a film. We rarely leave the theatre complaining that a movie was too short. On the other hand, movies that seem to just keep going after we’ve had enough are ones we don’t want to see again.

One thing that can make your movie drag is coming to the end of the story and not knowing enough to wrap it up. The story is over when the main thread is resolved. If there are other questions that need to be answered, wrap them up before the finale or leave them hanging. Some films leave the main theme unanswered. You can get away with minor mysteries. Real life is like that. We never solve all of our problems before new ones come along.

Too Much Information

Another way movies get bogged down is with details. We don’t go to the movies to be educated. We just want to be entertained for a while. If a device blows holes in walls, the audience might care whether it does it using a mini nuclear reactor, tnt or magic. Some of the audience may even be interested in the details. Providing those details will slow the movie down. You’ll be pulling your viewers out of the movie and into a classroom for a while. And class time drags.

You might think you’ll be giving the audience more for their money. If the movie doesn’t get made you have no audience. Every script must make it past busy readers before it’s seen by someone with the authority to put it into production. Those readers must read many screenplays every day. If they find your script is slow going it can get tossed on the reject pile early.

Every educational segue is a chance at losing your reader’s interest. The more specialized the subject the greater the chance that the reader can’t be bothered to read it. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about theoretical physics, for example. But don’t explain the theory of relativity. If the mad scientist has created a wormhole using the Einstein Rosen bridge, that’s all we need to know. Don’t explain how it works unless it helps move the story forward.

Don’t Be So Smart

Eloquent prose can also be a hold up. Big words are fine but make them common big words. If the reader is repeatedly pausing to remember what the oddball words are in your script, the story is not moving forward quickly.

Show Me, Don’t Tell Me

There’s an adage that applies to all writing – “show it, don’t tell it”. That applies double to film. Other writing uses text for both talking and action. That makes it easy to fail on this point.

With any kind of writing, it helps to keep it clear whether you’re working on dialogue or narrative. You want to choose the fastest method for getting your scenes across and propelling your story forward. You can write a lot of dialogue on a point that could have been shown more quickly. The reverse can also happen. You don’t need to insert a scene to show that a character was a genius in university when another character could just say that.

In a screenplay, the action is clearly separated from speech. As you write, constantly ask yourself if there is a way to turn conversation into action. It’s a movie. It’s visual. Nobody wants two hours of talking heads. Don’t have someone explain what can be shown. We don’t want a comment that someone has heard bad things about the new partner. Show the new partner stealing a laptop from the back of the shop.

How to Make Your Screenplay Drag

Sometimes you will want your story to move painfully slow. Steven King’s “Misery”, for example, worked because the slow pace helped us identify with the victim trapped in an unhealthy situation. Most of the movie happened in one room and the same scenarios went round and round. Both the book and movie were slow enjoyable agony, or should I say misery?

Unless you’re already famous, an entire movie that drags won’t work out for you. That doesn’t mean there can’t be scenes in your movie that run slow to emphasize hard times for your protagonist. Keep them to a minimum so your readers don’t give up on your script.

How Do You Keep it Moving?

The basics we’ve already talked about to avoid slow downs in your script will help you a lot. But what about a script that already moves along well? Can the action be ramped up even more? Yes. There are many methods to speed up a film. I’ll cover a few now.

Jumping Between Two Locations.

When you have two stories unravelling simultaneously, you can keep your audience on the edge of their seat. They will always be wondering what’s going to happen in the other story. How are the two stories connected? When the two stories are moving toward a confrontation that will be the climax of the film, the ending can come off as spectacular. Two mysteries solved at once.

There are shorter types of jumps as well. Part of your story may require a lot of narrative or scenes that show the protagonist has a loving family. Those kinds of scenes can be boring. Throw in a cutaway to the antagonist killing pigs or building a bomb. Good versus evil. Peace versus violence. Sharp differences between the two scenes keeps the flow going. Another way of jumping between locations is the flashback.

In 1950, Akira Kurosawa directed the first movie ever known to use the flashback effect. “Rashomon” is the story of a murder told from the perspective of several people. The present is just people sitting around in a rainstorm discussing the story. The flashback takes you into the action. The changes from action to narrative work well to keep any film interesting, not just those with flashbacks.

Interruptions That Propel the Story Forward.

Sometimes your story will be too predictable. Everyone knows where the conversation or action is going. You’re being boring and it’s not your fault. It has to happen that way because it always happens that way. No it doesn’t.

Start the next scene in the middle of that boring one. Have the truck that was going to hit them on the way to the mall come through the living room wall instead. Less dramatically, have the phone ring or someone come to the door and don’t return to the boring bit. What’s next? Can it happen sooner?

Read Your Script for Flow

You’ll read your script for typos, for sentence structure, for mistakes like a character’s car changing models between scenes, and for many other kinds of problems. How about reading it for flow?

Let at least a few days pass without looking at your story. Then pick it up and read it straight through in one sitting. Notice where you must slow down and jot a note there in red text. Don’t try to fix the slowdown, just note it and keep reading. Find all of the slow parts and note them. Now you have a good idea what is necessary to fast forward your sceeenplay.

Article by Ivan Izo.


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