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  • Stefano - CEO & Producer

5 Tips to Make Your Screenplay Instantly Better

Updated: Oct 21


Though I haven't been in the industry as long as some other producers, I've been sent A LOT of scripts. Some of them are wonderful and some of them I can't stand trying to read.

And if I can't stand trying to read them, imagine what studio heads, sales agents, and grant judges and panels are thinking.


The good news is, you're here... and if you're ready to put a little more work into your screenplay before you submit, you can make a better impression on producers such as myself. Here are the five ways you can instantly improve your script:



1. RE-CHECK FORMATTING, SPELLING, GRAMMAR, AND PUNCTUATION


Yes, this bears repeating. Double checking your work for errors is the key to looking professional and being taken seriously. A producer won't care what software you used to write your screenplay. If you have a lot of spelling, formatting, and punctuation issues, it will come off as if you are claiming to be a screenwriter that doesn't know how to write a screenplay. Grammar gets a little bit of pass in screenplays, but mainly for a character's dialogue, as there are multiple dialects spoken within particular regions or socio-economic classes. But do take another pass at your screenplay, or better yet, have a friend do it, and check for:

  • Periods: make sure they are there in the dialogue as well as the descriptions

  • Spelling Errors: take those 5 min and run the spellcheck feature. It feels so good when those red lines aren't there any more.

  • Scene Headers: should be....

INT./EXT. - MAIN LOCATION - (Specific Location w/in Main Location if needed) - DAY/NIGHT/SUNSET - (FLASHBACK/PRESENT DAY/etc. if needed).


***AND ALL OF IT IS IN ALL CAPS, ALWAYS.

  • Transitions: should be in the bottom right of the scene. Remember they are visual cues to be used sparingly. Masterclass has a great page if you would like learn more: 10 Types of Screenplay Transitions.

  • Montages: There are so many different ways to write a montage, but the main thing to ask is will it make sense to the reader? Have a friend read your screenplay and then ask them to describe the montage back to you. If they understood it the way it was intended, chances are you've done a good job! Want more on montages? Check out Screencraft's "How to Write an Effective Montage" Page.

  • Formatting After Exporting - Does your title page show up in the pdf you are about to send? Does your character's dialogue cut off at the end of the page? Definitely fix these and any other formatting issues before sending it to anyone.


This isn't texting your family, this is basically a book you've worked hard on for what has probably amounted to months, if not, years. You might have lost sleep, dinner dates, parties, season finales, and championship games, all so that you can complete this script. Putting the finishing touches on it before sending it to a professional will certainly increase your chance of success.




2. SHOW, DON'T TELL (Cut as much as possible)


It's best to remember that film is a visual medium and because of this, scripts are completely different from books. Giving some details to convey the setting or mood is great, but try to focus on advancing the story. Action paragraphs are literally for actions and movements and a writer should always strive to never make them more than 4 lines.


I recently received a script where the screenwriter was describing the actor's facial expressions, what they are feeling inside, and the way I was supposed to feel about it:

--------------------------------------

KAREN

My phoooonnnne! What did you do?


We see Michael's stern face to Karen. Karen pouts, crossing her arms on the ground. She looks like a baby and certainly shouldn't be doing this at her age. Michael gulps at the thought of cutting her off.

MICHAEL

No more Tik Tok videos. You're too old for this!

------------------------------------


As a reader, I don't need to read these highlighted lines. The dialogue already implies what is happening on screen and I can imagine what it would look like. Try reading it again, without the paragraph in the middle:


KAREN

My phoooonnnne! What did you do?

MICHAEL

No more Tik Tok videos. You're too old for this!


This makes it more fun and easier to read. Unless it's a super big moment in the plot, try not to slow the reader down. When the time comes, the actors will convey the emotions that bring the scene to life.


3. TAKE OUT CAMERA MOVEMENTS


Now that your script reflects what we will see on screen, and moves the plot at a good pace, it's time to to take out the camera movements. Remember, you are the screenwriter, writing for the very important reader! Camera movements in screenplay are reserved for:


1. Screenwriters who will Direct as well.


OR


2. Essential to understanding the plot.


Let the reader focus on just the critical elements. Sentences like "The camera zooms in slowly on Tony...", "Drone shot of the boat on the Lake Erie.", and "We follow Maria from her perspective walking through..." take away from the reader's imagination. Since you only have so many pages to fit your entire story (more on how long screenplays should be below) every single line matters. Imagine using each line to describe the scene instead: "Tony puts a cigarette to his lips", "The calm, grey waters of Lake Erie", "Maria eyes the man walking towards her". You give more information when you take out the camera movements.


However there are times when that camera movement might be needed. That zoom might be the moment Tony drops an important piece of paper while pulling out his cigs, or the drone shot of Lake Erie might demonstrate how far away a person is from shore, or Maria's perspective might reveal that her vision is failing. Read the script again, and see where you can take out camera movements without making the script too much longer or shorter.

*Notice in the sample above I didn't put, "We see through the binoculars..." but you might have visualized it naturally or you were more concerned with what Shawn saw.


4. TAKE OUT SCENES THAT DON'T ADVANCE THE PLOT


Now that you have completed these steps, you're probably feeling good about your script (and you should feel good about it because you made it!). However it's also common that a lot of writers feel it's still off and they don't know why. Chances are there are scenes that you love and scenes that you don't love. This is the time to be real with yourself, get critical feedback, and start making some important cuts.


If you don't know this yet, there are screenplay standards in the film and television industries. All scripts are supposed to land within a certain amount of pages in order to fulfill a specific amount of time on screen. Generally 1 page = 1 minute of screen time. This means:


Feature Films = 90min = 90 pages

TV Series = 30min = 24 pages (6 min reserved for commercials)

TV Series = 60min = 50 pages (10min reserved for commercials)

YouTube Series = 8min = 8 pages (no reserves for ads)


Use these page lengths as goals when you write, but know that this is a general rule and going over or under 1-2 pages is not going to affect the reader. BUT if you are having trouble fitting your story within these ranges, you should look at your screenplay again and ask yourself if all the scenes are necessary. Are there any you can take out? Are there any missing? For every scene, ask yourself does this advance the plot or give any information that the reader NEEDS to know. Can some scenes be combined? Or for the super advanced writers, what's the simplest way to convey this information visually?


Cutting scenes will personally be hard, as you have spent a lot of time on these characters, plot and subplot points, twists, etc. It's your baby. Who hurts babies?!?! But just like real life, you have to let your baby grow and evolve on their own. Once you have cut some scenes and simplified others, the plot will move faster, making it a more exciting read.


(You notice a water theme to this post, huh?)


5. CHECK YOUR THEME


If you've got good pacing and the page length fits, but readers are blasé or you're getting turned down, there might be a problem with the theme of your story. This is an element that can easily escape your mind when writing, or be too bright of a spotlight. Your theme is the message you want to say with the story, a perspective on the main conflict. Here are some examples:


Don't Look Up - The U.S. prioritizes capitalism over climate change.

The Godfather - Never side against your family.

Titanic - True love endures even after death.

King Richard - Even in the face of racism, perseverance will always pay off.


It's important to ask, "What am I saying with this screenplay?" and "How am I saying it?". Making sure that your screenplay coveys your theme is the heart and soul of your masterpiece. However, there is a very delicate balance between whispering themes and hitting your reader over the head with it. When communicating your message take into account that the reader has a mind of their own. There are certain assumptions everyone can make without even reading your screenplay. The title alone can give away most of it. Titanic? Why did we even go see that movie if we knew the ending? We did it for the love story. And pick any super hero movie, we know the super-heroes will win.


The theme is what makes us think about the the screenplay long after we are done reading it. It is the fascinating part that makes us question our own perspective on life. More often than not, it is snuck into the screenplay, in the background and alluded to. Nope (2022) questions the reality of UFOs and how seeing is believing (or is it?). Vacation Friends (2021), challenges of the notions of long-lasting bonds of friendships that are not equal. Even the biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021), spotlights the hypocritical religious leaders. Just spewing new movies here, but you get it. Every movie says something, so make sure yours is clear, but not loud.



Remember, producers have read tons of scripts and you need yours to stand out. Following these tips will put you at the forefront of the game. Want me to look over your script? Feel free to reach out! stefano@transgressstudios.com or text 415-580-2066!



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