Eva van Emden, Freelance Editor

Certified Copy Editor and Proofreader

eva@vancouvereditor.com

May 15, 2011

Screenwriters can teach you a lot about fiction editing

I’m not a big movie watcher. When people ask me “Have you seen—,” the answer is usually “no.” Why then the interest in screenwriting? Because I am fascinated by stories, and good screenwriters know how to tell a story. (They also write a pretty good how-to book.) Here are some books on the subject, as well as an introductory note or two on writing screenplays. Thanks to Melva McLean for information about screenplay structure, scriptwriting software, where to find scripts online, and the screenwriting gurus (but any errors are mine!).

The screenplay format

Don’t mess with the format: twelve-point Courier on standard letter-sized paper. Character names and scene headings are in all caps, dialogue and action in upper and lower case.

Screenplay style guide

The Hollywood Standard

Screenplay writing software

Celtx is free and pretty kick-ass. It handles the formatting for you and saves you a lot of typing. A “movie” project will store the script, the novel, and the schedule, and integrates the screenplay with the schedule so that you can see which locations and characters are needed on which days. Best of all, there are a number of sample projects loaded, including the Wonderful Wizard of Oz screenplay and novel. Besides the movie project, there are a number of other project types, including novel and comic book.

I hear Final Draft is good too. Demo version available.

Sample scripts

Unlike novels, which tend to be guarded by their copyright holder, screenplays are often made available online. Fill your boots. I just hope you like monospaced fonts.
Simply Scripts
Script-O-Rama

How to structure a screenplay

This is where the gold is. How long should a screenplay be? What makes a satisfying story arc? Where does the climax go? How soon should the inciting incident come? Following the right structure in developing your story is essential to creating a satisfying experience for the viewer.

Of the authors I list below, Blake Snyder is the one who provides the most step-by-step formula for putting together a movie. Just to give you an idea, here’s a rough outline of a script, mostly based on Snyder’s beat sheet:

  • Length: about 90–120 pages. The rule of thumb is that one page of script comes out to about a minute of screen time.
  • Three acts: Act 1 introduces the situation; Act 2 complicates the situation; Act 3 resolves the situation.
  • Inciting incident (page 12 in a 110-page script): If it’s a murder mystery, a corpse has to be found. If it’s a love story, the lovers have to meet. In a hero’s journey story, the hero is presented with the call to action.
  • The transition into Act 2: The hero accepts the call, or something else happens to turn the plot in a new direction.
  • Fun and games, first half of Act 2: Action that results from the premise of the story. Most of the stuff that’s in the trailer comes from this part of the movie.
  • Second half of Act 2: Complications build until the crisis.
  • Transition into Act 3: Hero confronts his demons and turns the situation around using tools and lessons from earlier in the story.
  • Act 3: Climax and resolution.
See “Three Acts or What?” for a nice comparison of the Syd Field, Blake Snyder, and hero’s journey story structures.

Books about screenwriting

  • Save the Cat by Blake SnyderSave the Cat!: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need—Blake Snyder. He has a nice list of genres and screenwriting devices (like the title “save the cat” trick), always with examples, and then discusses in detail his plan on how to set up the three-act structure that he believes is essential to delivering a satisfying experience. I certainly notice the structure he describes jumping out at me in movies like Avatar and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. A very fun book.
  • Story by Robert McKeeStory: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of ScreenwritingRobert McKee. Excellent book. McKee is another script guru who consults and runs workshops. He’s also got a good list of screenwriting resources on his website.
  • The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting—Syd Field. Interesting, not as fun as Blake Snyder’s book, but it covers some different points, including more on the nuts and bolts of selling scripts.
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade by William GoldmanAdventures in the Screen Trade—William Goldman. Very entertaining. An analysis of the workings of the movie industry, from what makes a star (it’s someone who will bring people in to see the movie open) to the role of producers (he hasn’t the foggiest, although he knows they’re essential). There’s also plenty of concrete advice on screenwriting: how to write beginnings, how to write endings, how to protect the star—and how to protect your soul.
  • The Great Movies—Roger Ebert. He goes through about 100 movies that he thinks are important and talks about why they’re good and what they mean to him.

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