Writers and Silly Media Biases: Stories are Flexible

“This story is a movie. That other story needs to be a novel.”

One of my pet peeves is the common assumption among writers that particular types of stories are best suited to a single medium. This assumption belies either a lack of skill or a lack of understanding and appreciation for various media.

Cinderella can be a picture book, a novel, a short story, an animated short, a full-length feature, a musical, a play…. The possibilities for telling any story are limited only by the writer’s knowledge of a particular form and audience expectations. It is possible to tell the story of Cinderella without words. In fact, silent films, animations, and ballets exist without dialogue and yet audiences understand the story being told.

The basic story of Cinderella is well known in our culture. A young woman is raised by her selfish stepmother alongside two equally narcissistic sisters. A grand ball is announced, during which the Prince is expected to find a suitable wife from the nobility. The magic of a fairy godmother transforms Cinderella from a household servant into a beautiful lady, complete with fine glass slippers. For the rest of the story, I encourage you to read, watch, and listen to as many variations as possible.

A short story of Cinderella might not explain how the stepmother came to mary Cinderella’s father. A full-length novel or motion picture might explore the complex back story. A ballet would rely on the music and motion to convey thoughts, emotions, and the general plot. The original fairytale features some startlingly grotesque imagery, which contemporary children’s books and animated features have removed.

My point is that a well-known fairytale such as Cinderella can be adapted to any media by a talented writer. However, not every writer is a master of all forms and genres. I certainly could not score an opera or ballet based on Cinderella. Nor could I illustrate a word free picture book of the story. My limitations as a writer are not the limitations of the story.

Most early movies were adaptations of famous plays. Yet, I frequently hear screenwriters claim that a story is a “good play, bad movie.” Instead, a screenwriter should be considering how to tell the story maximizing the strengths of cinema.

A colleague posted the following to Facebook:
If your protagonist is a THINKER you have a BOOK.
If your protagonist is a TALKER you have a PLAY.
If your protagonist is a DOER you have a MOVIE.

The problem with the preceding simple checklist is that a main character can be adapted to doing, talking, or thinking based on the medium destination for the story. Sometimes, you must add a character or other device to allow thoughts to become dialogue. Sometimes, voiceover works well in a film and can reveal thoughts. Great directors can reveal thoughts with quick cuts and suggestive images. Never limit yourself by asserting any character is only one aspect of the above list.

We are all thinkers, talkers, and doers. Choosing which to emphasize is a choice made based on the form and genre selected by or for the storyteller.

As an aside, I also dislike the emphasis on the protagonist in the above list. Main characters may or may not be “protagonists” in the traditional sense of good versus evil. Equally important, opposing characters (antagonist, opposition, impact, muse, et al) can be adapted to any form and genre. Evil thoughts can be expressed in dialogue, or suggested through action, limited only by the skill of the writer.

When someone states that a movie was not as good as the book this can reflect either a bad movie or unusual expectations. The audiences for full-length novels might not be the same as the audiences for two-hour movies. However, it seems more likely that the adaptation is to blame for audience dissatisfaction. Nobody would try to compare the short story of Cinderella to a full-length feature film. Each medium must stand apart even when telling the same story.

Lose your media biases. Stories themselves are flexible, ready to be told in any medium by a talented storyteller, someone aware of that medium’s strengths and weaknesses. If you cannot see a story in a particular medium, maybe you aren’t the right choice for writing that adaptation. That is not an insult or a criticism. As I mention above, I’m not the best choice for any number of forms and genres. Know your strengths and tell the stories you want to tell in the medium or media you prefer.

Just don’t tell another writer that his or her story must be told in a particular medium, according to your biases.

WE SEE… Why Screenwriters Started Using WE

As a playwright, I am accustomed to “directing” the action. One of the attractions of writing for stage is the primacy of the script, as submitted by the writer to a director. Changes require the approval of the playwright, and well-known playwrights have challenged directors who felt the need to “improve” plays (and the writers win these challenges).

By comparison, the director is in charge of screen productions. Always. The writer produces a work-for-hire owned by the production company, with creative control falling to the director, except in the rarest of cases. Short of being a writer-director, the screenwriter’s “vision” of the work is nothing more than a suggestion.

In the early years, directors of films were like theater directors. They adhered to the script because a lot of movies were made quickly. Changes happened, but the early industry was focused on releasing works to meet a high demand.

Over time, directors started to exert greater control.

Up through the 1970s, spec scripts (speculative, meaning written with the hope of selling the work) and initial drafts included some camera direction, and a good deal of narrative direction. The director might change these directions, but they were included by the screenwriter to suggest a vision.

Though there had been powerful directors since the start of film and television, things changed dramatically during the 1970s. Theatrical feature directors told writers to stop directing in the spec script or initial draft. Television directors started to adopt the same policy. (It should be noted that in series television, many producers are writers, so the tensions are little different.)

Told not to direct on the page, writers have continued to bend this commandment from the film gods by writing narrative and action that attempts to direct. You often spot these non-directing directions with WE SEE and WE HEAR in contemporary scripts. You also spot the direction with objects, sounds, and other elements types in ALL CAPS, as if screaming to the director that “This must be so!”

Consider Lynne Pembroke’s reaction to these non-directing tricks of screenwriters:

COVERSCRIPT TIPS – A Heated Disagreement
July 21, 2015, Lynne Pembroke

A heated disagreement. In this case, about two teeny, tiny, itsy bitsy phrases. And a personal much-detested pet peeve. Contained wrath is the immediate reaction when I run across them….

Using these two phrases is a writing cop-out. Because it’s easy; without them a screen writer is forced to Show not Tell.

Besides, “we” are in the theater seats watching, or in our office chairs reading, not in the &%#$@% story!

I don’t disagree in principle, but directors set the standards no matter what anyone else argues. I swapped to WE SEE, but only for very specific camera changes.

TOURISTS mill about a fountain. (No need for WE SEE.)

WE SEE the feet of tourists, splashing in water. (Very specific visual wanted.)

Could WE SEE be omitted?

BARE FEET splash in the fountain.

It would then be up to a director if this is a close up or not. The old days, when spec writers included more shots, before directors told writers not to direct:


Feet splash in the fountain.

Personally, I would rather have “CLOSE UP:” in the spec script, instead of “WE SEE” or or “BARE FEET” capitalized. I suppose there’s no perfect approach to trying to direct, without being the director, short of getting rewrite and shooting script duties in your script deal. If you are hired for the shooting script, the SFX and shot slugs can replace WE SEE and WE HEAR.

As a playwright, I am the all-mighty last and final word on the direction. As a screenwriter, I have to accept my position and do my best to cajole a director to accept my ideas. Some directors will recoil at any suggest shot, WE SEE stunts, or other direction. Other directors recognize that the writer had a vision or there wouldn’t be a screenplay.

My suggestion: avoid WE SEE and WE HEAR and all the capitalization stunts unless you lack a better way to convey an absolutely essential visual or sound in the script.

Your Script is a Snitch, Part Two

Part One of “Your Script is a Snitch” explained how your script is snitching on you before the reader opens or scrolls to page one. Now, let’s examine what your script says to readers as they skim the pages of your screen gem. The message might not be the one you hoped the script would convey.

A reader doesn’t have to read much to make some educated assumptions. With dozens, or even hundreds, of scripts to read, any hint from your script that its writer wasn’t serious and professional can doom the script to the trash can, real or virtual.


“Read me, trust me, I’m from a professional.” That’s what you want your script to say.

Did you use the appropriate template?

Page One (1.) screams loudly about your ability to follow the rules for screenwriting. Assuming you properly bound the script and the fly sheet stuck to the basics, the first page is going to tell the reader if you understand how to format a script.

“Hello. I’m a well-formatted, properly written script,” the page should tell readers.

The easiest way to ensure a script is formatted properly is to use Final Draft or Screenwriter and the appropriate template for the screenplay. Both writing programs include basic templates for theatrical spec scripts, specific studios, cable networks, and broadcast series. The formatting is not the same for all screenplays! TV scripts, in particular, should be based on the right template for the desired production company or network.

If your script doesn’t look like other scripts for the same type of film or series, it tells the reader you didn’t bother to read samples or look at the available templates. And if you thought you had a “better way” to format the script, the script just revealed what a fool you are. There are sample scripts galore online. Search for them. Download the samples for Final Draft and Screenwriter. Study the standards and replicate them.

If you don’t have Final Draft of Screenwriter, you can still search for and follow example scripts. You might have to work a bit harder to match the formatting, but you don’t want your script to tell readers you didn’t know about Google.

Again, this blog post isn’t a detailed formatting guide. But, I can look at the running header of a script and often determine the writer didn’t use the correct template. TV show scripts for most production companies include the show name and episode in the header, with variations in formatting. TV shows also have teaser and act headings, indicating when commercial breaks occur in the script.

Page One is often as far as a reader gets, especially if the script says, “My writer was too lazy to do some basic research on formatting.”

Did you submit a spec script or a production script?

A spec script with scene numbers and camera angels? That script is saying, “My writer has no idea what a spec script is.” Look up the difference in The Screenwriter’s Bible or any other formatting guide. A spec script is “clean” without any numbering. The numbering is used to plan filming, and that’s a long way from the first reader’s desk.

Spec scripts also haven’t had “(CONTINUED)” on each page for some time.

Did you write a story or try to direct?

A script with camera angles, cuts, and other choices a director should make tells the reader, “My writer really dreams of directing.” That’s nice, but a script that reveals you’re more interested in directing isn’t going to be greeted warmly. If you want to direct, get behind a camera for a while. Don’t use your script to prove you have a vision.

Avoid the “WE SEE…” and “WE HEAR…” not-so-subtle attempts at directing. Sometimes this might work. One example I’ve read that made sense was, “WE SEE feet splashing in a fountain.” That narrative worked because of what came next. It really did set up a surprise, which was effectively written. But don’t write something like, “WE HEAR a PHONE RING.” No, just write, “A PHONE RINGS.”

Generally, the only camera directions are “FADE IN” and “FADE OUT” in a spec script. Respect the director and let him or her interpret the script. If a story is well written, it comes close to directing itself with shots a director knows have to be in the film.

Does the script have “curves” or is it poles, Ts, blocks, and other regular (potentially boring) shapes?

Pages of dialogue or pages of narrative tell a reader, “My writer doesn’t understand pacing.” You might believe you have a great three-page conversation, with no action. The script is saying, “This writer isn’t thinking about the visuals.” This is a screenplay, not an audio drama. Something should be happening.

A script can also have too much action without any dialogue. That’s a rare problem (very rare), because most writers do like dialogue. Why should you have dialogue during a chase scene or a tense standoff? Think about great films. They often have those memorable lines spoken in isolation, with no response from another character.

Readers look for scripts with variations in the blocks of text. There’s a mix of dialogue and action, with neither filling page after page. A script has a “shape” that’s interesting. It isn’t a “pole” (dialogue ending with narrative) or a “T” (narrative followed by dialogue). Look at your pages from a distance. Is variation obvious? You don’t need to read to see a script has a good balance.

What font did you use?

Believe it or not, this is a problem. I’ve seen scripts set in Helvetica, Arial, Times New Roman, and various monospaced typefaces such as DIN and Andale Mono. Those typefaces are wrong. Always. A script is in 12-point Courier. Not a “close enough” font that looks something like a typewriter. Come to think of it, American Typewriter was the worst face I’ve seen used for a script. You might as well use Dymo (named for the plastic impression lettering tape).

Don’t play with 11-point, 11.5-point, 12.5-point or any other point size. A script is 12-point Courier. You don’t get to cheat to reach a page count. A reader can tell something isn’t quite right with a smaller or a larger font.

Okay, I’ll pretend that every aspiring screenwriter knows to use Courier, but did you know which Courier matters to some people with good eyes for detail? Final Draft and Screenwriter include their own customized versions of Courier that are not Courier New. If you can use Courier or one of the custom Courier faces that isn’t Courier New, do so. Why? Because, and I’m not kidding, the other Courier typefaces scan and copy better.

Yes, there are differences. The screenwriting applications ship with Courier fonts that are remarkably close to the typewriter face Courier from the IBM Selectric type ball. The spacing is perfect at 12 points.

Nobody is going to reject a Courier New screenplay. But, your script should say, “I’m easy to copy, easy to share!” because if someone likes your script, copies will be made. Simply printing more from the laser printer isn’t an option because reader, directors, agents, actors, and executives make notes and comments on scripts, which they then photocopy. I’ve even had someone write on a script, scan the pages, and email those to me. Sure, that reveals a lack of tech know-how, but I’m not going to tell someone she should learn how to make comments in Adobe Acrobat. Maybe the notes were made over dinner. Whatever. Just use a nice, dark, Courier typeface.

Did you get the margins and tabs right?

As silly as using the wrong font, setting the wrong margins and tabs screams, “My writer is entirely clueless!” Once again, allow me to suggest screenwriting software. Buy Screenwriter or Final Draft. If you’re cashflow negative, at least download a template for Word, Pages, or your favorite word processor. You can type a script in almost any good word processor, but you have to get the settings correct.

No screenwriter should be without The Screenwriter’s Bible. Not consulting a good guide to formatting is the surest way to submit a script that tells every reader, “This screenplay is by a careless amateur.”

Once your script snitches on you, it’s hard to win over any reader.

Your Script is a Snitch, Part One

Your script is a snitch. It’s telling readers all about you, and what it is saying might work against you.

Some questions that readers evaluating a script will ask themselves can help you prepare and deliver a script with a better chance of being taken seriously.

How did the script arrive at the reader’s desk?

The answer to this first question determines quite a lot about the script’s chances. If the script was handed to a reader by a friend or close colleague, it’s odds of developing into a bright young movie improved dramatically. If it arrived via an agency with a solid reputation and a roster of high-wattage stars, then the odds of the script being treated with care also improved. If a professional script coverage service with a record of identifying talented writers sent the script along, usually through that friend and former co-worker network, the reader might still treat your script with some respect.

If you enroll in classes with a good film schools (USC, UCLA, Pasadena, NYU), your script might be passed along by an instructor. In the best case, your instructor is a producer or director and falls in love with the script. Yes, school can be a great path to success, assuming it isn’t some “film school” with no famous alumni or faculty. For networking, nothing beats a degree from the right university, and you will learn what studios want.

If your script arrived via a pitch fest or contest, it isn’t going to get the same attention as a hand-delivered script from an insider. Still, if it is a winner it has some promise. Contests aren’t usually the best avenue for discovery, but winning a contest gets something on a new writer’s resume. And, yes, the top-tier contests (about a dozen of them exist) do work to move scripts into consideration. Understand, though, that you can spend a lot of money on contests, money you could spend on classes and books (see above).

If your script somehow manages to arrive via email or U.S. Post, it faces pretty long odds of being read. For one thing, don’t forget there are 40,000 scripts registered each year and 250,000 or more in circulation at any time. Desperate screenwriters are sending out screenplays to anyone they can locate, and that’s rarely effective. Again, it can be, but you might as well send a query letter with a good logline and wait for a development reader to contact you.

How professional does the script appear to be at a glance?

You wouldn’t go into a job interview wearing shorts and flip-flops; don’t send your script into the world looking like it isn’t a serious candidate. No sloppy script is going to be moved up from a reader to a producer, no matter how good the story might be. And in my experience, a sloppy appearance correlates with sloppy writing.

Don’t include anything you weren’t asked to submit. A script with extra buddies along tells the reader you have no clue what is expected: a script. By itself. Not a family of documents, from a cast list to a budget. I’ve seem posters sent along. Don’t do that. Your script doesn’t need a posse along for the ride.

– Situation 1: Physical Script

In the unlikely event you are asked to send a physical script to someone, or if you are asked to bring a copy to a meeting, get the physical printing and binding right. Don’t put your script in a three-ring binder, comb binding, or anything other than the traditional two-brad loose binding. Let’s review the basics:

A script is printed on one side of the page. It is three-hold punched. On the top and bottom, serving as the cover, place 110-pound light-blue cardstock. You can use other colors, but blue is the traditional color for some reason. There is nothing, not one letter or stain, on the cover. No artwork, no title, nothing.

The pages should be good, bright-white paper. The U.S. standard is 24-pound, 94 white. You can use better, but don’t use gray or off-white paper. Certainly do not use recycled paper. Don’t use thin paper, even to save some pennies. Spend extra and buy the best paper, such as Hammermill. (Trivia: The “pound” rating refers to the weight of four reams of letter-sized paper. A 20-pound stock weighs five pounds per ream, or 20 pounds for 2,000 sheets.)

Use two brass brads to bind the script. Not three. Not one. And select the right length, so the brads aren’t three inches too long or barely holding the pages together. Do not write the script title down the spine. Please. That’s not for you to do. Let an intern do that for the reader.

A cute or “creative” binding tells the reader you’re not a professional. The script scream out, “This writer is a hack trying a gimmick.” This isn’t a scene from Legally Blonde. Cute won’t impress anyone.

– Situation 2: Email or Uploaded

If asked to email or upload your script as a file, submit a standard PDF. The “Portable Document Format” is… portable. Unless told otherwise, don’t send a Final Draft, Screenwriter, Fountain, or Word document. If a reader wants a Final Draft or Screenwriter file, you’ll be asked for the desired format. Otherwise, send a PDF.

If the reader cannot highlight text in your PDF, that tells the reader you didn’t create the PDF via Adobe Acrobat or by using the special “Print to PDF” option. Never scan printed pages into a PDF. The PDF should come directly from a screenwriting application. Don’t let the script snitch that you have no clue how to create a PDF.

What does the fly sheet reveal?

The page that is most likely to snitch on you is the fly sheet, also known as the fly page. The rest of the world, even in Hollywood, calls it a title page. Consider what is (or is not) on that page and the information sends clear signals to the reader.

If you have an agent, the agent’s name and contact information appears on the fly sheet. And if you don’t have an agent? That information isn’t there. There are different views on where to place the agent information. Some templates place it below the writer’s name; other templates place the agent information in the right-hand lower corner of the page, below the WGA registration number. My advice: do what the template calls for and check The Screenwriter’s Bible for any formatting questions.

The WGA registration matters, too. Don’t send out scripts until they are registered. Not that your idea will be stolen (that’s actually rare), but it is good form to show that you have registered the script and respect intellectual property. There’s no need to copyright a work, since studios will buy the work and own the final copyright. Putting a copyright notice on the page is okay, but the WGA registration is essential.

Update 2015-Sep-08: The best experts I know on script formatting recommend NOT including a copyright notice. They also lean against including the WGAw registration number. If you are more comfortable staking a claim, use “Registered, WGAw” without a number. You should provide full contact information, with an address for your agent being the best possibility. If you include agent information, still include your phone and email, without a mailing address. Including a personal street address (at least a mail box) is still considered good form if you lack representation.

The fly sheet reveals where you call home. That matters, unfortunately. If you option or sell a script, the producers will want to meet. Technically, the second meeting constitutes buying your story if the producer works for a major studio. (That’s beyond the scope of this post, but that’s the WGA rule.) Nobody is going to pay to fly you to Los Angeles. The closer you are, the better. That’s just the reality of writing for Hollywood. Either you are in the area or you aren’t. Some people believe you can live anywhere and write, because successful writers do live on nice farms in Vermont. Yes, but those are successful writers who can fly back and forth and stay in Los Angeles or on a set for weeks at a time. Beginners need to be available.

The email address on your fly sheet should be professional. That seems obvious, yet plenty of writers use foolishly “funny” email addresses. Again, cute and creative packaging isn’t going to help sell the script. Use an email address that is your name.

If you wrote with a partner, know the difference between and and ampersand (&) in the credits. The ampersand is a for teams. The “and” means you were fired and someone else had to rewrite the script. Don’t make a rookie mistake.

Your script has already “snitched” on you by now. If you didn’t send it in the right electronic format or tried to be creative with the binding, the script has told the world you’re an amateur. If your fly sheet says you live in Ohio and don’t have an agent, sadly that can work against you. If the script reveals you don’t have an agent at a major agency, the reader knows that recommending the script is a lot riskier.

A serious fly sheet has the script title, your byline, contact information, and the WGA registration number. That’s it. The only exception is for episodic television, in which case the fly sheet features the series name with the episode title below that in quotation marks. Do not date the script, label it a “draft” (or “revision”), or add any other information. Adding information that should be included only during production tells the reader you haven’t learned the craft’s traditions and norms.

We’re on to page one and what more the script will tell the reader.

Part Two will cover the script formatting and what it reveals, without reading the words!


My One-and-Only Beautiful Baby

“I have been working on the screenplay for 10 years.”

Few screenwriters and playwrights earn a living, and even fewer do so with only one or two produced works. To make writing a career, you must be receiving residuals and royalties from a larger collection of works that are being seen by audiences constantly. Yes, there are stories of one-hit wonders, able to survive for years on a single movie deal (few plays are that big, outside of Broadway musicals), but those are outliers.

The more scripts and manuscripts you have in your portfolio, the more likely you are to have the type of play or movie a producer wants.

After you complete a work, you should begin another project. After you type fadeout, curtain, or the end, take only a short break before beginning the next story. I do not wait to edit and refine the first work before starting the next.

Since a good writer often asks other writers and editors to review a manuscript, use the time while others have your work to brainstorm and plan the next. You might be surprised at how many ideas that did not fit in your first story will fit in a future work.

Do not let perfectionism getting your way. The more works you do write, the better each new work will be.

I cannot tell you that a screenplay, stage play, or novel should only take a year to write. I understand that many authors have full-time jobs and other obligations unconnected to writing. However, it should be painfully obvious that 10 years is much too long for finishing a screenplay.

An approach that works for me is to set a clear and realistic goal for producing more than one work per year. I attempt to complete four plays or screenplays each calendar year. Many of these will never be produced, but each script improves over previous works. When time permits, I do go back and update unproduced material, applying lessons that I have learned since the first draft was finished.

Blogging weekly and writing a monthly published column help me develop good working habits. Find a way to write on a deadline. Discipline is essential.

Most poets I know write dozens or hundreds of poems each year. They fill notebooks, experimenting and learning as they write. For many years, I filled one or more notebooks every two years with mediocre poetry, and that routine improved all my writing.

Likewise, short story authors, essayists, and other writers practice their forms and genres regularly. Again, my own experience is that blogging on a weekly basis and more frequently when possible improves all the writing on which I am working.

Unfortunately, I have met many aspiring screenwriters, playwrights, and novelists deeply attached to a single work. This is their “one and only beautiful baby” problem.

I cannot explain why these long form authors become stuck on single projects. If anything, I have far too many projects and struggle to focus on refining and marketing my works. For me, the thought of working on a single story day after day, year after year, is frightening. Familiarity breeds contempt, and I am certain I would begin to hate any work that demanded my attention day in and day out.

Writers should have more discipline than I demonstrate. Even my finished drafts should be polished and submitted to producers and publishers, but as I finish one work I am likely to begin two or three others. Therefore, a part of me does admire the writer able to focus single-mindedly on one manuscript.

The beautiful baby problem is not constructive. Spending months and years refining a single screenplay, stage script, or novel seldom results in production or publication. I have met many writers who optioned a script or had a play produced that wasn’t the work they intended to pitch to a producer. The cliché is true, producers will ask “What else do you have?”

I lose track of what I have written. When I go through my computer directories or the stacks of handwritten pages, I rediscover old works. Some writers don’t understand how I can do this, but I write so much that I could never remember it all. (I have tried to keep an inventory of projects, so I can return to old works later.)

Write, write, and write some more. Do not let your one-and-only get in the way of earning a living. Do not allow yourself to become “stuck” emotionally on the success of that one great story you need to share. Move forward and keep moving.