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Screenwriting Tips

Use Settings Creatively
The creative use of settings can make a screenplay exciting and memorable. Changing the place of action to an uncommon location can make the story extremely dynamic.

The film, Outland, is essentially a Western in outer space. In this film, actor Sean Connery plays a federal marshal trying to maintain law and order on a mining outpost on one of Jupiter's moons.

The film, Star Wars, takes place in the future and is set in outer space, but it contains many similarities to World War II. The antagonist, Darth Vader, can be compared to Adolf Hitler. Vader's appearance and behavior are similar to Hitler. Vader even wears a helmet that is the same shape as the helmets worn by Hitler's Nazi soldiers. And just as Hitler tried to exterminate his enemies in concentration camps, Vader tries to annihilate the Rebel Alliance by using the Death Star weapon.

To write a screenplay using a creative setting, ask yourself several questions:

1. Who is the protagonist of your story? Who is the antagonist?

2. What is the protagonist's goal? What type of conflict is preventing him from
achieving his goal?

3. When does your story take place? What is the historical time period? If it takes
place during the present day, can you set it in the future or the past?

4. Where does the main conflict of your story occur? Does it occur on Earth? Can the
conflicts take place on a distant planet or in a primitive setting?

5. Why is your protagonist able to resolve the main conflict of the story in this setting?
Does he have a unique skill or ability that helps him triumph? If so, describe this skill
or ability.

Use a 3-act structure.
With a Crisis or Turning-point in the story at the end of Act I and Act II.

Make Acts I & III about the same length with Act II about twice the length of Act I.
[Typical page allocation for 120-pg. script: I=30; II=60; III=30.] Screenplays are continuous -- don't label the Acts. They're your secret, though the pros will know where to look.

Tell your story visually with just enough dialogue to fill in the cracks.
Remember that difference: Film is a sequence of visual images; theatre is a sequence of verbal images. Dip into the Working Unit of The Seminars about this business of Visual vs. Verbal Storytelling.

Keep your lines of dialogue short.
Even in the most play-like of films, dialogue is extremely brief.

American films are about what happens next.
The technology of cutting from one image to the next has a lot to do with this. European cinema is the only market for character studies similar to stage plays.

Establish a strong Suspense Plot.
Even in a romantic comedy. Film doesn't cope well with the mild suspense plots that work well in plays.

Put the Hook [in theatrical terms, the Inciting Incident] in the first 2 pages.
If you're unproduced, go for page 1.

Keep your scenes short.
3 pages is a good absolute maximum before you cut to a new location; half a page to a page is typical.

Use less Subtext.
In film, Subtext floats to the surface of the dialogue much more often, mostly because Hollywood tends to have a very dim view of the intelligence of its audience.

Put an Emotional Pattern in the Obligatory Scene.
These things are tailor-made for film.

Aim toward a Happy Ending.
It's the norm.

Hold the manuscript to under 120 pages in screenplay format.
Most production companies won't look at a first freelance script that's over this magic number and a 100-page maximum would make them happier. A rule before you're famous: Anything beyond 120 pages is death.

Do a detailed outline of scenes before writing the script.
Steve Tesich's attitude toward outlining aside, most screenwriters do this. The next step is often a Treatment [a 20-50 page narrative of the story]. And then finally the screenplay comes third.

Practice answering the question, "So tell me, what's this about?" in one sentence and tag on a comparison to another recent [and financially successful] Hollywood film. If you can't do this easily, or if the mere idea of doing it annoys you, go back to playwriting.

Are you having trouble with your story?
Try placing your scenes on index cards, one card for each scene. Then, lay the cards out on the floor in front of you, and organize the scenes from beginning to end. It's an old screenwriting trick, but it does help many writers work out their story lines.

Fighting through the pain
Being a writer can be discouraging, as there always seems to be more work to do. There are also those days when you believe that everything you've written is a disaster, and you don't know why you started writing in the first place. Patience is a virtue for a reason. You just have to wait it out and keep writing as much as possible. If it's any consolation, we all go through it.

One important character tip
Sometimes, when we're writing a script, we forget that our characters are real people with REAL FLAWS. It's easy to fall into that trap, especially if your main character has to stand for something or fight for a cause. Don't make them goody-goody, or you'll lose the reader. Giving your characters, especially heroes, real flaws in one sure way to make them more human, and thus, people will more readily identify with them.

It sounds elementary, but it's not. Throughout history, many people have had great ideas, but how many people follow through with them. Make sure you don't let the pitfalls and occasional writer's block stop you from creating your masterpiece.

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Top Screenwriters
Hollywood screenwriters will typically receive 2-3% of a film's total gross as salary.

George Lucas
Movie: Star Wars III
Gross: $848,000,000+
2-3%: $22,000,000+ (aprox)

Bryan Singer
Movie: Superman Returns
Gross: $368,000,000+
2-3%: $9,500,000+ (aprox)

Peter Jackson
Movie: King Kong
Gross: $547,000,000+
2-3%: $14,000,000+ (aprox)

James Cameron
Movie: Titanic
Gross: $1,835,300,000+
2-3%: $46,000,000+ (aprox)

M. Night Shyamalan
Movie: The Sixth Sense
Gross: $661,000,000+
2-3%: $16,500,000+ (aprox)