by Sara Tekula
Harriette Yahr teaching Screenwriting on Maui
Yesterday, I was lucky to attend part one of a film making workshop series being held on Maui called “Maui Film School”. The instructor, award-winning film maker and writer Harriette Yahr, is a respected screenwriting consultant in the motion picture industry and a great film maker in her own right. She originally started coming to Maui as a journalist covering and reviewing films at the annual Maui Film Festival held in Wailea. She lives in Miami but comes to Maui annually.
So, yesterday’s class was all about screenplay writing. The “rules of the road” – everything from how a script should be presented to the deep importance of understanding the “Hero’s” journey (Joseph Campbell).
The following are ten pearls of wisdom I took away from the class, and I’m calling them “10 Ways to Become a Better Screenwriter“.
1. When writing a film, remember the viewer is a participant. You don’t have to tell them everything, trust that they will figure it out…..and will WANT to figure it out.
2. There is almost always ONE main character or hero/protagonist. This character MUST be compelling AND on a journey to meet a goal/need. The viewer needs to CARE about this person.
Mother/Daughter Screenwriting Team from Australia
3. EDIT: Enter scenes as late as possible. This means we don’t need to see how Jennifer Aniston’s Friends character “Rachel” arrives at the coffee shop. We don’t necessarily need to see her put on her apron and wash her hands, we just begin the scene when the important action and dialog takes place.
4. EDIT: Exit scenes as early as possible. This is a partner to #2. We don’t need to linger in a scene any longer than it takes for the important impact to be felt, the important actions to take place, and then we move on.
5. Know the difference between Exposition, Back Story, and Subtext. How a screenwriter handles these three things separates the good from the bad. In a nutshell, exposition is how the facts of the story are communicated in a script. The back story is everything that happened before the screenplay’s story begins. The subtext is everything lingering underneath the screenplay/story.
6. Plot-dumping is a no-no. This is where a character tells all kinds of information about the plot or back story in their dialogue, and when this happens in a film it just screams “bad writing”.
7. There are always two stories in a plot: the goal and the need. The goal is whatever the main character or hero is striving for. The need is the emotional thru-line of the story. Example: Luke Skywalker’s goal is to become a Jedi. His need is something deeper having to do with his psychological drive.
Maui Film School in Motion
8. To promote or attempt to sell your screenplay, you’ll need (at least) a Treatment, a Synopsis, and a Log Line. Treatments can be anywhere from 8 pages to 40 pages long, and they are narrative summaries of the film, like a short-story version of everything that happens in the film. A synopsis is a really brief summary of the film, usually around 60 words or so. A logline is a one-liner that tells the basic journey of the film.
9. One page of script translates to one minute of film. If there ever was a good reason to edit, edit, EDIT yourself when writing a script, this one really resonates with me. An average film gets 90 minutes of screen time, and therefore just 90 pages of script. With the spacing and formatting required in scriptwriting, this doesn’t leave a whole lot to go on a single page.
10. Script format and presentation really matters. There is a very good chance that your script won’t be looked at if you don’t follow the rules here. A free screenwriting software is available that helps you with all document formatting, and it is called Celtx. (Other presentation rules include: 12pt Courrier Font, Proper use of Scene Headings (aka “Slug Lines”), Action Lines, Character I.D.s, Dialog, Parentheticals, Transitions, Three-hole punch, 1.25″ Brads with Washers on two of the three holes..see The Writer’s Store for proper hardware/materials.)
To sum it up, be economical and evocative with your words, and be bold with your stories! This post is followed up with some “take away” info from Part 2 of this workshop series, the second part focusing on Producing & Directing a film. Look out for the link in the next day or so.
Good luck to all of you who are trying screenwriting for the first time. I welcome anyone reading this to add to this list by adding comments. And if it’s within your means, consider coming to Maui for some top-notch filmmaking classes!