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Writing a Great Screenplay

Stage direction, sometimes called the "business" of the scene, is most often referred to as simply direction. It may consist of scene and character descriptions, camera cues, sound cues and various other bits of information needed to facilitate the action, ideas and story line of the script. It is important to note that stage direction need only include the essential information necessary to create the desired effect. 

When a character is first introduced and has lines of dialogue, the name is initially capitalized. This capitalization only occurs the first time, after which the name will be in lower case. 

It is important to point out that if a character is introduced but has a silent/non-speaking role, their name is not capitalized. Other stage directions, which should be capitalized, are ad lib, titles, voice-overs, beginning and ending titles, and freeze frames. However, whenever a character enters or exits a scene, it is not necessary to capitalize the words "enters" or "exits."

The First Page and Beyond
Most producers flip through a script to get a feel for it: Is it thick with scene description? Is it shorter than a hundred pages or longer than 125? Is it designed in theatrical play format (a mistake for a film script) or is it neatly typed? Good, experienced writers know that writing an action or chase sequence will be different than writing a scene that takes place in one location. More scene description should of course occur when there is a chase scene, where as a scene located at, let's say a party, will require much more dialogue.

If the writer knows the importance of the design of the page, then the important dialogue or scene concepts will not be buried within long scene descriptions. No matter what the setting of the script, each act must always begin with FADE IN and must always end with FADE OUT. Even where there are no acts, the first page must begin with FADE IN and the last must FADE OUT.

If a script is typed and designed well, then agents reading the script, and in turn producers, studios and other decision makers will have a better feeling that the writer has a hold of good content, style and dialogue techniques. On the other hand, if the screenplay is written with the wrong design, this may be a good indication to decision- makers that the writer is new and not ready to be taken seriously in the industry.

Another important concept to grasp while writing is that all screenplays are typewritten rather than handwritten or typeset. As mentioned previously, words are placed in specific positions on a standard 8 " by 11" page. The page consists of Scene Headings, Scene Descriptions, Character Names, Dialogue, and Optical. In very few cases personal direction is added, although it is frowned upon because generally actors and directors want to use their own interpretation of the dialogue.

Every component of a script has its own specific placement.  Opticals have their proper placement while dialogue has it's own placement. Component placement can not be changed, it is standard formatting used by the entire industry. Depending on how and where content is placed on a page will determine the length of the action and generally where the emphasis is placed in the scene.

Is the Script Fished?
With the story structure in place, the characters well defined and the theme woven throughout, the initial wave of pain and anguish is over. The first draft of the script is complete. However, the great script rarely appears right away. Once the first draft is complete, there are the inevitable rewrites. "The life of the writer is rewrite," explains Fredda Rose. "The first draft sent to us by a new writer, should be what they consider their third or fourth draft. We want to represent the writers who write because that is what they do."

No matter how good the writer is, it is difficult to be objective about one's own work. Often, a producer and or director can pick out areas of a script that are not as clear to others as they appear to be to the writer himself. Something that may seem funny to the writer will not make sense to others.

Ideally, rewriting is a process of new discoveries for the writer. With the initial draft completed, the writer may now feel more confident and move to strengthen or sharpen a character. Perhaps a new theme has emerged during the writing process that needs to be explained. More often than not, the painful rewriting process will yield a script with more depth and greater insight.

The screenwriter usually sells control of his script, giving the producer or studio legal permission to change it
There are various versions or rewriting patchworks done to a script after it leaves the hands of a writer. The screenwriter usually sells control of his script, giving the producer or studio legal permission to change it. In the most basic terms, the first version of the script is generally the author/screenwriters version, which is sold to a studio or producer.

The second version is usually the director or producer's version. This script may contain various camera angels that the director has added. Producers may cut out certain sequences that appear to be too expensive for a set budget. 

Version number three is the studio version, in which the producer will try to obtain financing by having a certain actor or director affiliated with the script. With this in mind, it may be necessary to change certain parts of the script to accommodate for these new elements.

The next version is the Set version. Through the process of filming scenes are sometimes improvised. Sometimes studios will ask that a typed version of the improvisation be established as to have a historical log of the shooting of the scene. Version number five is the legal version of the script. Once the film is in its proper release form, the studio may request a copy typed up from this version. This particular version is done on legal sized paper and a copy is deposited in the library of congress.

Finally, there is a published version of the script. This version is the form that is viewed by most people not affiliated with the industry. Unfortunately, the published version generally ignores proper formatting and beginning writers who rely on this to format their own screenplays are lead in the wrong direction.

William Goldman, a well known screenwriter of such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride has seen and been through virtually all the trials and tribulations a writer can go through during a career in the film industry. 

Goldman explains, "One of the problems inherent in any screenplay book is this: which draft do you publish? With a novel or a piece of non-fiction, what happens is I write the book, then I meet with the editor, talk, make changes. My stuff is pretty close to the published version when it comes out of the typewriter, because I can't write until I know what I'm doing, so it's often in my head before I can put it down. I make the changes and then I fiddle. That can take weeks, months, whatever. But the second draft is pretty much it. Totally different with a movie."

Over a period of eighteen months, Goldman wrote 21+ drafts of the screenplay to Misery. Each draft was not an entirely new screenplay, more than likely a scene or two was added or deleted.

Maintaining the original version of the screenplay is somewhat easier if the writer is also the director. In 1965 Woody Allen wrote and acted in the film What's New Pussycat. He was hired to write the script, and after writing what he felt was a pretty good screenplay, the producers took it and rearranged it. 

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