Anorexic Literature – Writing Screenplays for Today’s Market

Screenwriter William MunnsGuest Post
by William Munns

There was a time when writing for movies or TV was like writing a play, with lush descriptions of a scene and robust soliloquies. If you aspire to write a great movie or TV script today, abandon that thought and face the realities of today’s market. Format, high concept log lines, formulaic story structure, and minimalist content are the Four Horsemen of the Screenplay Apocalypse you must confront. If you have written for other forms, especially classical literature, writing a script will be something akin to a head-on collision with a garbage truck.

Your first challenge is Format, the use of tabs, margins, capitalization, etc. to insure the script looks like the readers, analysts, and producers expect it to be. Highly recommended is The Coverage, Ink  –  Spec Format & Style Guide by Jim Cirile. It’s comprehensive and well-written. Why does format matter so much? Readers who evaluate scripts are often overloaded, and so they look for any immediate and obvious reason to reject some of those scripts. Format errors are instantly apparent at first glance, and thus have become the no-brainer first phase of reducing the pile of scripts to seriously consider. Apparently the thinking is that if you haven’t mastered format, you aren’t a pro, and thus you can’t write a potentially professional script somebody would produce.

You can either learn format and adjust your MSWord or text software to those criteria, or invest in a script-writing software (Final Draft or Movie Magic). But take the time to deal with the format issue as step one to any aspiring effort to write a script, because failing to take this seriously, and failing to meticulously adhere to that formatting, will likely defeat whatever literary talent you may have.

Second, you must learn to reduce your script to a log line, an absurdly truncated, almost embarrassingly simplistic, presentation of the story theme or concept. For example: imagine a story about a global beauty pageant seized by moralist fanatics, and the ten women finalists must band together to fight off the terrorist captors. The Log line would be “Die Hard, in a Bikini.”

Many avenues for getting your script noticed by industry people only allow a title and a log-line, and if they like what they read, they can ask to see the script. So if you can’t reduce your wonderfully compelling, complex story to a single phrase, or maybe a full sentence or two (at most), some doors to success have just slammed shut. You will be asked for this in any process where others may read your script, so be prepared to have one that will intrigue, enchant, or entice.

Your third consideration is Story Structure, the screenwriter’s new religion. The problem is that the emphasis on story structure has become bloated and formulaic. That’s fine for bloated and formulaic movies, but deeply personal and off-the-beaten-path stories usually get crucified by a reader who clings to the formula concept and can’t find formulaic plot points in your unique work. There are currently numerous screenwriting gurus who each have their own formula, but there are common concepts a script reader will likely want to see. Do you want to write a story that has strong prospects to sell in today’s script market? Write according to formulaic structure as pontificated by one of the prominent script-writing gurus.

The fourth and final consideration is, to me, the truly scary one, “White on the page”.

The much coveted “white-on-the-page” is emptiness, an absence of words (which are the black on the page). And if you have any experience writing classical fiction or non-fiction literature, this concept of “more white on a page” means you are admired for how little you write, how few words you use, how empty your page is. And this is anorexic literature, a bizarre worship of a literary body that is wretchedly under-nourished to the point of being mere skin and bones.

If you love classical literature, writing a script (with any potential to place high in the contests and possibly sell to a producer or studio) will be agony, because getting the much-coveted “white on the page” means you have to use cheap tricks to reduce your compelling dialogues and enchanting descriptions to simplistic passages with no more literary merit than a comic book.

Does talent matter? Is a superbly enchanting story with compelling characters and honest but vibrant dialogue necessary? Yes, but if you don’t come to terms with the four Apocalyptic demands first, chances are nobody will ever read your gem of a script.

William Munns has been writing since people used manual typewriters. One of his scripts, “Hopeless” recently was judged a finalist in the 2014 World Series Script Contest, and he recently published When Roger Met Patty, the definitive solution to the mysterious 1967 Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film. Learn more about Bill on his Author Central page.

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13 thoughts on “Anorexic Literature – Writing Screenplays for Today’s Market”

  1. I’ve been told (by people in the bus.) that my first book would make a wonderful movie. After reading this I don’t know if I want to subject it to the scythe. I’m afraid it would cut out its soul.

    1. Yvonne:

      The sad reality of movie script processes today is that about the only way you can maintain a sense of literary integrity for a book of yours you adapt to a script is if you direct the movie also, and already had someone option the novel to develop for film. But if you have to go through the script contest and spec script sales process, it would be a tremendous challenge to retain the soul with the anorexic body of writing that is considered a good script today.

  2. This is terrific information and I thank you for sharing! Back, nearly 30 years ago, I took a weekend workshop hosted by the Screen Writer’s Guild and I must say that NONE of this was in that information. So if I couple what they taught me with what you just shared, perhaps I could create magic!

    1. Annette:

      I actually go back almost 50 years (won a high school script contest at Hollywood High in 1966) so I’ve watched the evolution of the script form and so I can appreciate the kind of info you were receiving 30 years ago. There’s a whole behind the scenes phenomenon where the directors basically stole the concept of “authorship” from the writers, and the WGA has been trying since then to restore writer’s creative rights, but the DGA is just too powerful. So screenwriting has been transformed by this undercurrent. I hope to expand on that in another blog article.

  3. It’s a sad testament to the movie industry that the “gatekeepers” are so wedded to formula and redoing whatever worked last summer, but it’s almost exactly the mindset of the big trad publishers: don’t try anything new, don’t color outside the lines. Thank god for indies, both in the movies and publishing, because we continue to be the ones leading the charge into the new and interesting unknown. We may have to continually battle the old guard, but we still make exciting advances from time to time. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    1. Melissa:

      The Gatekeeper reality is often underestimated by people trying to break into any new field or endeavor, and if we study the social phenomenon, the Gatekeeper does have a very powerful role in what gets developed, what gets optioned or purchased, because the Gatekeeper is the filter through which the decision maker receives scripts to consider.

    1. Carolyn:

      Thanks. It is an intriguing and somewhat weird reality, and I hope to expand on this with a few more posts, because these are things most people are totally unaware of when they contemplate getting into screenwriting. As far as I can tell, these challenges are far more strange than most classical literature, non-fiction, or any trade publication challenges.

      So, more to come.


  4. Bill, I’m afraid I must disagree. Your assumption that only white space and minimalist writing has a prayer these days is arrived at by over-estimating the number of seriously under qualified executives out there. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve encountered more than my share, but I’ve also run across a great many dedicated people who love movies and get up every day hoping to catch lightening in a bottle. They’re looking for the script that has a special spark. For every schlockmeister, there’s a James L. Brooks, who has made a career of helping writers find the pot of creative gold. The ultra reliance on format is admittedly annoying when taken to extremes, but there has to be a lingua franca, so to speak, in an industry for which we are doing two things: writing its literature and also creating a blueprint or roadmap from which everyone from the director down to the lowliest grip can take clear guidance as to what to do. These odd terms found in scripts are generally not arbitrary, they’re related to the everyday realities of actually making films, a practice which you may or may not have had experience with (no knock, that, just the simple fact that you write as if you don’t understand at all the hard facts of how stuff actually gets done). At any rate, you’re right that it’s a sad state of affairs that most studio films are driven by financial realities to fall into a rather narrow gutter of subject matter, geared largely to teen boys. It’s also a reality, however, that every year worthwhile films are made (not enough of them, I agree) and they win awards, make careers, and implant hope in the hearts of writers, actors, and directors around the globe. Because, Bill, the other fact is that now, with the online tsunami, with the enormous variety of market opportunities available through cable, streaming, and every imaginable source for content out there, the day of the independent has never been nearer. The studios, like the networks, often find themselves slow and unwieldy, unable to break new ground and looking to those pesky, agile independents to give them their new ideas. That’s where the best writing is done. On screens of various sizes, most generally more or less in the form of television — conventional or unconventional. That’s where the best writing has gone because that’s where the writers have the most control. So get your head out of the past decades, my friend, and look at the possibilities that exist right now, and that are in fact more within your grasp than the old model ever was. Your rather sour-pussed dismissal of everything indicates that in many ways you’ve simply given up and stopped trying to see what might actually be out there. If your only possible hoped-for outcome is to write some new brand of Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedy, well, you may as well bag it, indeed. If you’d like to challenge your own imagination and that of an audience, then perhaps you ought to look around again and get excited. It’s out there and it’s not impossible. Unless, of course, it’s easier to simply say it’s impossible so you won’t have to test yourself.

    1. Tom:

      Thank you for your comments. There are exceptions to any summary generalization, and the film industry is full of exceptions. The advice is for writers who want to play the odds and take the path more likely to get ahead in today’s market. If so, they’ll need to deal with the realities I described.

      Personally, I want to direct my own scripts and many of mine that I personally love are structured in a way that would fail miserably in the contest/reader/coverage mindset, but I know the stories, as I have told them, have an inherent integrity I am confident an audience would respond to. But they’ll never reach an audience until I find a way to produce them myself.

      I was pleasantly surprised to learn my script “Hopeless” reached the finals in the World Series Script Contest this year, because it’s a story about a great racehorse who comes in dead last in the finale race, but achieves a personal victory that affirms his greatness. Not exactly formulaic ending, but that’s the story I chose to tell, about personal victories being as valuable as official or procedural victories.

      So I personally do pursue stories that excite me and challenge an audience, and I have no fear of going against the grain and telling a story true to itself. I know I’m making it harder to get produced, based on the current system, but I don’t shrink from a challenge. The essential issue is that writers should know how the system works and then pick the level of difficulty they can confidently take on. The more the story and storytelling form defy the system, the more challenging the task of bringing that story to an audience.

      Some of my scripts and projects would likely be considered virtually “impossible” by every current industry standard. but I still pursue them and work toward making them a reality as a film production. The odds are against me, but my determination is uncompromising.

      I think all aspiring script writers should know the system and the lines of least resistance to a successful script sale. Then they can decide if they want to take the line of least resistance to get a foot in the door, or take a more challenging route with more obstacles to overcome.

  5. Bill, thanks for the info. I’m not yet inclined to try rewriting any of my books into screenplays, but I’ll be looking out for these things if I ever make the attempt.

    1. Lynn:

      You might consider an exploratory effort, by simply taking one crucial plot event or one defining moment for a lead character from one of your novels, and then try to re-write that segment in script form, keeping in mind that descriptions of action should be 5 lines or less, before a break, dialogue should be also about 5 lines at most (the format rules say 10 lines max. but a dialogue line has wider margins and so only runs about half a page wide, so 10 dialogue lines is about 5 full lines). Don’t write what people think, unless you can verbalize it in dialogue, or do a Voice-Over dialogue, which must be in first person for the character thinking.

      Think in terms of what people are actually seeing and hearing as they watch a screen, and see if you can adapt that segment of a novel to this format. If you can, and still feel it has the story quality you envision, you might try a script.


  6. Very useful information, and very timely. I won a contest here in India and I’m in the process of converting my first novel into screenplay for Round 2 of the contest.

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