‘Don’t spend any time trying to be original if you want your film or television script to get noticed by producers.’ OCA tutor James Richards told it to them straight at last Saturday’s scriptwriting workshop at the Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday. He compares attempts at originality to trying to build a car using British Leyland as an inspiration rather than following the shining example of the Germans. ‘It’s one of the most structured forms of writing you will ever do in your life,’ says James. ‘Just stick to the script.’
The scriptwriters’ script in numbers
4 + 4 – the things that make a film: story, character, structure, dialogue; and the number of pages in the outline of a script (page 1 – the story, pages 2 and 3 – structure and plot, page 4 – how it all turns out at the end)
6 – the combined number of acts and plot points: Act 1 – introduces the characters and situation; plot point 2 – what the story’s about; Act 2 – the main body of the story, in which something happens and a decision has to be made; mid-point – about 25 minutes in, when things get an awful lot worse; plot point 2 – confrontation and resolution; Act 3 – ties up the loose ends. (the three-act structure and three plot points build tension so the audience gets more and more involved in what’s happening)
12 – the maximum number of significant characters who should appear on screen (there are some long-established precedents for the power of 12, including Jesus’ disciples and the gods of Norse mythology)
25 – the number of minutes in to the film that something significant happens (sometimes it’s a little sooner, at 23 minutes, and sometimes a little longer, at 30)
27 – the maximum number of words in the ‘log line’ (the Hollywood term for the synopsis of the story of a television programme or film)
120 – the maximum number of pages for a 90-minute script
2 things scriptwriters should never do:
- be parted from a smart phone, dictaphone or notebook for noting ideas down
- throw any writing away as it may be useable in the future, even years later
Reading list: the 1 book scriptwriters should read if they read just one is Syd Field’s ‘Screen Play – The Foundations of Screen Writing’ from cover to cover. In scriptwriting circles is it, says James, ‘the Gospel according to John’.
Watch list: 12 films that show sticking to the script works:
- ‘Die Hard’ (log line: terrorists take over high rise building and take hostages in order to commit a robbery; only one man can stop them)
- ‘The Transporter’, ‘Star Dust’ and ‘Shrek’ (they’re the same story – some-one falls in love with a character they are taking on a journey)
- ‘Single White Female’, ‘Pacific Heights’, ‘The Hand that Rocks The Cradle’ (you’ve got your life in order and someone comes and makes a mess of it)
- ‘Batman’ (millionaire in a corrupt and dying city)
- ‘Pulp Fiction’ (Tarantino has changed the order of the three acts, but it still works)
- ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ (25 minutes in, Voldemort in mentioned for the first time as Harry gets his wand; the story is about a battle between the two of them)
- ‘The Third Man’ (Harry Lime, the main character, doesn’t appear in the first act but is talked about a lot)
- ‘Back to the Future’ (all the main themes of the film are covered in the first seven minutes but there is very little dialogue
What these films show, says James, is that you should follow the rules before you even start thinking about breaking them.
Sticking to the script: which films would make your top three?
photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcwathieu/3274461281/”>Marc Wathieu</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>