What you need to sell a screenplay, besides a good story, is a spec script. A spec script is not what is used to shoot a movie. That's called a shooting script and has all the technical directions for shooting the movie. It's not the best way to showcase your story. You want your story to be as readable as possible. So, you should only put in enough shooting directions to allow the reader to understand the story, and no more. If you're not a filmmaker, you shouldn't get into them, because you'll look like an amateur. If you are a filmmaker, you should know better already. Both spec and shooting scripts use the same format. Screenplays are from 90 to 120 pages long.
The screenplay for Basic Instinct, bought for three million dollars, contained only dialogue, scene headings, and description. That's what we'll concentrate on here. That's all you need.
Remember, you should only be putting down what can be seen or heard. Don't describe how the character feels. "He was furious. He could stand it no longer. He had to strike out" should not be in a script. Those feelings are what the character is supposed to be expressing through actions—what can be filmed.
"You having a good time?" Mario said, pushing away from the card table. "A great time," said Eddie. "That's my money you got in front of you," said Mario. "Not anymore." "Money ain't gonna help you where you're going." Mario raised his pistol. "Say good-bye to your last pot."
Although this isn't in script form, it's all visual.
There's really nothing tricky about the screenplay form. It's all perfectly logical, just another way of doing the same old thing—telling a story, another way of showing what's going on with language—the language of film. Instead of describing a setting, you say:
INT. LARGE KITCHEN-DAY
Outside the window over the sink, a DIRTY, BEARDED FACE appears. The face bobs back and forth, looking down into the kitchen sink.
("INT." stands for interior.) It's a simple matter of giving us what we need to see. In an early chapter, I said that fiction is a most visual medium. I was talking about the written story. The written story is at least as visual as film. If the reader doesn't have a picture in his head, your story is in trouble. So, in that sense, this is nothing new. It's just slightly different language for telling a story. The main thing is that you don't have to know how to make a film to write a good screenplay. You don't have to know how to use a camera, light a scene, edit film, etc. The professionals who read your screenplay see things in cinematic terms and will have their own ideas on how to film it. You don't want to get in the way of their expertise.
Don't get me wrong. You need to learn the form and know how to put your story into it. But in the end, it's your story that does the job—that sells your screenplay. If you can tell a strong story, the world (Hollywood included) will beat a path to your door.
Basically there are three elements: 1 Headings. 2 Description. 3 Dialogue.
Here's how it's done:
1 EXT. WHEAT FIELD—DAY
2 A WOMAN is running through the wheat pursued by a MAN on horseback
The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.
He leadeth me to green pastures.
2 She turns and looks at the horseman bearing down on her.
Bastard. Son of a bitch. Jesus, please. Just this once.
Those are the fundamentals of the screenplay form. There are a lot more things that you can do. Just think about it. A close-up of the rider's face. An over-the-shoulder shot as he bears down on the woman. You might come in from an aerial shot of the two characters from high above. The thing is not to get bogged down in these particulars unless you have a sense for them. Get your story out first, with scene headings, dialogue, and description, then go back and put in as many shooting directions as you think you can get away with. But be careful not to overdo it. Check out books by Syd Field and The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trotter. They both have different ways of presenting the same material and are both worth looking at if you want to get into more specifics. But you don't have to. If you're not sure that something is needed, leave it out. Both books do a good job on format, but I don't recommend them or any others for story.
In terms of type style, the standard is twelve-point Courier. You won't go wrong with that. You might go wrong with others. Don't get fancy with any of this—no pictures, no fancy paper, fancy cover, fancy binding, or fancy title page. The only thing that you have to sell is your story. Stick to that. To bind your screenplay, use a heavy, solid-color cover and bind it together with a three-hole, round-head fastener. It should be typed only on one side, on white, 81/2 x 11 paper. The title page should have the title in the middle of the page with "a screenplay by [your name]" under it. In the lower right-hand corner, put your address and phone number. That's all. Your screenplay begins on the next page with "FADE IN:" at the left-hand margin. It ends with "FADE OUT." Do not number your scenes.
The next thing that you need to do before you try to market your screenplay is to protect it. You can do that by copyrighting it and by registering it with the Writers Guild of America.
Copyrighting is easy. All you have to do is get the forms and fill them out. They're very simple. For screenplays you need the Class PA (performing arts) forms. They're free. You can get them by writing to: Information and Publications Section, Copyright Office, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20559. Request the "Application for Copyright Registration." Or you can call 202-707-3000 and order the forms over the phone. Internet: www.loc.gov/copyright.
To register with the Writers Guild, contact the Writers Guild of America, 555 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019. Phone: 212-757-4360. Internet: www.wga.org.
You do not have to include copyright or registration information on your screenplay, but it's important to copyright it.
You've written your screenplay. You've protected it. Now it's time to market it. The screenplay game is the most cutthroat of all. There's a wide range of advice. The advice covers the gamut from saying that you must move to L.A. where the action is to saying that you can market your screenplay just as easily from Peoria, Illinois. To cover the different strategies would take another one to two hundred pages, so I'm going to have to cop out by referring you elsewhere. Selling Scripts to Hollywood by Katherine Atwell Herbert is worth looking at. Writer's Market also has a section on marketing screenplays. These books will also tell you how to enter screenplay contests and will give you a list of them. The contest prizes range from $250 to $25,000. In addition, they're judged by professionals who are on the lookout for new material. Even if you don't win, you'll get exposure and have a chance of selling your screenplay that way.
A good reference guide in all of this is Writers Guide to Hollywood Producers, Directors and Screenwriters Agents by Jeff Herman, from Skip Press. This book also gives you the ins and outs of marketing your screenplay.
Another thing to consider is that it may well be easier to break into movies by writing your story as a novel. As I said in an earlier chapter, the mystery is the easiest kind of novel to write and the easiest to sell. Also, you can write a solid mystery thriller without having to get so deeply into your character's mind (the hardest part). Literary agents and publishers are well aware of movie rights that are part of many book deals. Pay attention, when you see a movie, to the screenplay credits and see how many say, "From the novel by_." A huge number of novels are turned into movies. Also, there's nothing stopping you from writing the novel and then the screenplay and marketing them together. But don't force yourself. If your heart's not in it, chances are it won't work.
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