A Contest Reader Discloses What She's Seeking
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
We are philosophers looking at new ways to interpret our world. This includes you, the maverick scriptwriter. As a script reader at Cinequest, I’m looking for that script that knocks me out. It’s the kind of script that starts out deep in emotion, falling on itself with rapid speed motion to leave me saturated with layers of conflicting ideas and multiple moments of awakening to a new horizon. Or, I want to find the script that is so funny it makes me cry, to feel the turmoil of conflict with Janus. I seek a good story told in a way that has never been told on the screen. It’s relatable yet breaks conventional thought. I seek maverick scripts.
This all being said, I look at traditional aspects in the script such as format, structure (plot + conflict + pace + twists—although I don’t necessarily like this last term, and I’ll explain why later), dialogue, character development, and the idea. And, I still follow my gut intuition as would the maverick scriptwriter. I share the space they do: Anything is possible, anything is believable, anything goes; just keep your readers on the duration of the ride so they, too, can experience your world. Imagination is our mother ship; ride her to the unseen underbellies of the universe! However, what are some ways to keep your reader on for the ride? Well, let’s go through the aspects I previously mentioned.
The most important thought to remember about formatting your script is being consistent. If your format doesn’t follow any particular screenwriting or television format, that’s okay. Just make it as understandable and consistent as possible.
Part of your maverick sensibilities may be that the world you’ve created on the page needs to adhere to its own format. I’m good with that as long as I’m not interrupted by confusion. It’s agonizing for a reader to have to go back a page or two because they are trying to understand your action descriptions or inconsistent formatting. Keep it precise. Confusion affects the momentum of your script. If you do use a specific traditional scriptwriting format, this shows that you have learned the rules. This is letting the reader know that you have learned the craft of scriptwriting, and it’s important for you to prove you are serious about your work. This builds confidence in the reader that they will be investing time in reading your script just as you have invested time in writing it.
The second important thought to remember is that you are writing a script NOT a novel. Don’t write in the action descriptions of how an actor is feeling or thinking. My early background is acting, and nothing bothers me more than reading a script that tells me how my character should feel and think! That’s my job as an actor, and if I need help with those two things I’ll ask my director. Keep all those feelings and thoughts inside the dialogue and in what your characters are DOING with the dialogue. It's the subtext: it's what your characters want but can’t have in the course of the script. Save your word count by knowing your characters without having to explain them with detailed descriptions.
The third important thought to remember is to check for grammar errors. Invest time in rewriting. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite! Have someone you trust read your final draft for comprehension, spelling, and grammar. If the script has more than a handful of errors, it comes across that you don’t care what you wrote, but you expect someone else to read what you don’t value. Your pig won’t fly when your reader is stumbling to understand what you meant when you write, “Spear the pig” instead of “Spare the pig!”
When I’m reading your script, I’m not looking for structural answers in the sense of is there a beginning/middle/end, is the storyline linear or non-linear, is there a rise in action, etc.? I know the maverick scriptwriter isn’t thinking about these elements at all when their fingers are stabbing fonts onto a blank page. They are desperately trying to catch up with their imagination overspill to put down whatever emotional conflict that is going on between the characters they hear in their head.
The maverick scriptwriter writes emotional conflict. Emotional conflict is what creates your script’s structure. Here is a dynamic emotional conflict: emotionally charged protagonist wanting something out of someone who wants the opposite within an urgent time restraint, but they can’t get what they want out of each other because of obstacles, and the consequences are matters of life-and-death circumstances.
Write from the character’s emotional world. Write dialogue through their objectives. Build conflict from their wants and desires. Watch them struggle with inner conflict while dealing with their outward conflict. Most importantly, allow them to have emotional and intellectual changes throughout their struggle to get what they want. Your whole script could be a two-person dialogue like many Bergman films or Albee or Beckett or Shepard plays, but it will be one that captivates your reader/audience because these two people are struggling to get what they want out of each other and that may lead them to insanity or self-destruction. This is emotional conflict and it will build your structure, your plot, your pace, etc.
Don’t think of twists as a way to surprise your reader. You’ll get caught up in wanting to shock or impress with cleverness. Make your choices with organic authenticity. The real key to “twists” come from the objectives of the character and has nothing to do with plot. If you dive deep into the character’s desires, twists will come. A twist may be a surprise to your reader at first, but the reader will realize that it was essential to the character’s motives. They’ll say, “Oh, yes! That character would do that! It makes sense.” And it will make sense because the “twist” was necessary in the overall objective of your character’s life (as you have discovered through emphasizing with your character). Don’t write for twists, write for character choices!
“The foundation of acting is the reality of doing,”
-Sanford Meisner, On Acting by Sanford Meisner and Dennis Longwell.
I would like to say the foundation for character is what they are doing in the reality of their world; therefore, dialogue is not about what is being said but about what the character is doing. Learn to have every one of your characters speak in subtext. Subtext to a maverick scriptwriter is everything. Mavericks love to dive into their character’s psyche, leaving only clues to what the character is up to through subtext. However, if you drop clear clues to what you desire, that person slowly gets tangled up as they uncover your clues. Excited by this intrigue, they may help you get what you want, what you desire.
As a reader, when I read a lot of cliché, on-the-nose, non-active exposition, or repetitive dialogue in a script, I suggest to the scriptwriter to go back to the character’s motives. Again, what does that character want at this time in the script, in this scene, in this very moment with this other character or characters? How would that character subtext their wants, needs, and desires? How would they subtext with a particular character compared to another character in the script? Discover your characters and get to know them inside and out.
Just remember, dialogue relies on these main factors: who the character is, what the character wants, who the character is talking to and how the character will try to get what they want out of the character they are sub-texting with.
What the maverick scriptwriter takes to heart is authenticity. Yes, the same stories have been told over and over again but they will never be told through your authentic life and insight unless you write it. So sit down and write out your big idea, your high-concept script.
Not every script will begin a certain way every time. An idea may come from a poem you wrote or a painting you saw in a museum. As a maverick scriptwriter you may keep a journal of conversations while riding public transportation or going down aisles at the grocery store. Or you will record inspirational prompts on your phone to later incorporate into a script. Every script will not start out the same; there is no formula to what inspires you.
Any rules about scriptwriting will be used only in the case of writing-blockage or suggestions for problem-solving aspects of your work. Otherwise, stick to your intuitiveness and gut emotions while creating your authentic and original script. Using what you know from real life experiences will only be enhanced through your powerful, unleashed, uncontrolled imagination.
The biggest challenge to your big idea? To develop and finish it. Complete your script in the way you want it to be presented. Don’t sell it short—rewrite. Celebrate when you complete it. And for every draft completed thereafter, invite friends over and celebrate again and again.
Don’t try to be original; it will only come off strained and contrived. What you can do is tell a really good story with well-defined characters chasing their desires in as much specificity from the mapped out world you created in your mind.
A good story often comes from capturing authentic moments that penetrate our emotional reservoir. As a reader, I’m not looking for clever or witty or shocking material. I’m looking to feel deeply. I want to empathize on a level that changes who I am.