Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

5 Scriptwriting Tips that Will Make Any Story Better

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From Jeff: This is a guest post from Lia London. Lia is a writing coach, author, and blogger. You can connect with her at her blog or follow her on Twitter (@LiaLondon1).

Whether it’s a work of fiction, a poem, or the narrative of a soul, good writing pulls the reader into the reality of its words and imprints an experience in the mind’s eye as real as any staged play.

After 30 years of scriptwriting, I’ve found a handful of  techniques that can help tell any story.

Script Writing

Photo credit: Karen Cox (Creative Commons)

1. Establish and maintain a clear voice

In a well-written play, each character has his own speech patterns.  Some ramble; some utter grunts. Some use flowery language; others are coarse. If they all sound alike, none feel genuine, and the audience senses a disconnect.

Likewise, our voice — our character, if you will —should not sound like everyone else. We may admire the way another person writes, but if we emulate too closely, we rob readers of diversity and run the risk of presenting only a stale copy.

If we are writing a work that requires more than one voice, we should be careful that no given speaker flips back and forth between sounding like Dr. Spock and Anne of Green Gables. That gets very distracting. Each voice should be distinct and consistent to ensure fluidity and credibility.

This is not to say that a writer cannot be poetic and verbose in one essay, and practical and concise in another. But within a given text or persona, we need to make the voice clear.

2. Speak in vernacular

Characters on a stage need to convey their personalities through the way they speak, and the more natural the speech is, the more accessible the character. That is partly why plays are not written to sound like chemistry text books.

Depending on the venue, grammar rules can and ought to be flexible. Avoiding split infinitives, for instance, is a rule left over from Latin where infinitives are one word, not two. Is it really going to thoroughly unravel the message if I say I need to quickly run to the store for more eggs? Of course not. And half of you probably didn’t catch the “mistake” anyway. ;)

In casual writing, following stuffy, prescriptive rules, with all those “to whoms” and “with whiches” feels like legalese, not a blog post from a friend.

Intentional disregard for a rule can create a timing or mood effect that enhances the writing. Conscious use of fragments, for example, can direct pacing or add emphasis. And it’s how people talk. (Anyone who has ever had to transcribe candid speech can tell you that. Some sentences contain more switchbacks and drop-offs than a hike in the Gorge.)

A word of caution: “natural” is not the same thing as “sloppy.”

It is a mistake to think that grammatical conventions are unimportant. They provide clarity. A communication world without proper punctuation gets messy and confused very quickly. (You’ve all seen the “Let’s eat Grandma!” vs. “Let’s eat, Grandma!” example, right?)

Thus we need to know the rules of grammar well enough to know when and how we can break them.

3. Give stage directions

In a script, there are often cues given to the actors as to how they should say their line: 

[Sadly], [Hesitating], [While toppling off the desk].

Sometimes we need to tell our readers how to “hear” the lines we are delivering. In casual writing, this usually involves things like bolds, italics, CAPS — em dashes — or ellipses…

These tools, like the tweaks in grammar, aid in a sense of timing or emphasis, which in turn help convey the intended mood.

That said, we can overuse these tools easily. We should write the first draft without all the doodads, and then read it aloud to find out where the natural words of emphasis are.

Are they obvious? Or could someone logically punch up a different word, and thereby change the meaning? If so, add the cue.

But if it is 99% likely that the average reader will interpret the sentence the same way you do, then leave out the markers. It gets too visually busy and pulls away from the import of the words that do receive special font treatment.

4. Show, don’t tell

Although it is occasionally necessary to have a Narrator explain exposition in a play, that’s usually deemed a cop-out for a script writer. Audiences should ideally be able to pick up on the context from the dialog and action.

A well-placed line can give attentive listeners information about the past and clues about the future.

Likewise, we don’t need to say, “This is a story about a youth coming of age blah blah blah…”

We need to paint the story of growth and self-realization through the events and images in our writing. Our readers are smart enough. They’ll figure it out.

We can get our message across without stating and restating the obvious.

5. Leave ‘em hanging

No playwright wants that 15-minute intermission to turn into an opportunity to slip out the back door.

Well-crafted scripts make sure that questions are left unanswered and conflicts left unresolved at the end of each act so that the audience will keep coming back for more.

When writing, we need to be aware of the adrenaline levels of our readers. Are they up? Are they metaphorically on the edge of their seats, wanting more? Good. Time to end the chapter.

Because then they have to start the next one… just to see what happens next, of course. And then they’re hooked for the next umpteen pages because no one wants to put the book down in the middle of a chapter. It isn’t right.

Every writer wants to hear,

It was a page-turner.  I couldn’t put it down!

So don’t let them put it down.

Except sometimes you really ought to. One can have too much of a good thing. There are times when you should grant a degree of resolution, a glimmer of understanding, a moment of rest.

But always with the feeling that there is more to come.

Even when there isn’t.

What writing lessons have you learned to make a story better?

*Photo credit: Karen Cox (Creative Commons)

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About Jeff Goins

I help people tell better stories and make a difference in the world. My family and I live outside of Nashville, TN. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. To get updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

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  • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

    I see a bit of a dichotomy between your points #3 (“Give Stage Directions”) and #4 (“Show, Don’t Tell”). 

    Methinks “Don’t Give Stage Directions” would be more in the spirit of “Show, Don’t Tell,” for what are stage directions but a manner of telling that which should be ascertainable from the text itself? 

    I would argue that the need for stage directions decreases in direct proportion to the playwright’s level of literary prowess.  That’s why beyond the occasional “aside,” you won’t find many stage directions in Shakespeare. (There might be other reasons for this, but I am inclined to believe Shakespeare would have considered it a flaw in his writing if he thought a line needed extra-textual clarification, and he would have recast the line or the passage until he deemed its meaning self-explanatory enough without parenthetical crutches.) 

    Unless used sparingly and to prevent serious confusion only (e.g., to indicate that the speaker is addressing the audience or God rather than the other fellow on stage), stage directions quickly take on a quite patronizing quality that reflects poorly upon the playwright. 

    Actors and directors are notorious for ignoring stage directions anyway. In fact, one former acting teacher of mine recommended that the first thing an actor, especially a beginner, should do upon receiving a script is to grab a black felt pen and cross out all stage directions to the point of complete illegibilty so the actor won’t even feel tempted, subconsciously or otherwise, to squelch his own impulses and playfulness in favor of adhering to commentary the playwright had included so as to guard against interpretive bastardization of his precious text by the performing department (an endearingly ineffective precaution). 

    For instance, if the actor or director feel that delivering a particular line in a slow and menacing whisper is the most powerful way to deliver it, it won’t make a whit of difference if the playwright’s stage direction reads “screams angrily.” And if they feel that delivering a line in a happy and upbeat manner imbues it with an extra layer of tragedy (because, perhaps, they’ve decided to portray the character as someone who uses external cheerfulness to hide his inner desperation), then the playwright’s “gloomily” flies right out the window. 

    So why even bother including stage directions in the first place? 

    In fiction, writers can wax descriptive to their heart’s content. But the whole fun about dramatic works is to glean meaning from the lines and play around with them—after all, plays are called “plays”—rather than having the line readings spoon-fed by some neurotic playwright. 

    I, for one,  immediately think “control freak” (meaning the writer) when I see stage directions in a play, and I know I’m not alone. 

    Admittedly, half the time that’s not fair, because often the stage directions you read in a print copy from the store were added by the publisher based on a life run of the play and may hence reflect the director’s and actors’ choices rather than any instructions included by the playwright in his original script. 

    Long story short, my recommendation with respect to giving stage directions in a script: 

    Don’t do it! 

    • Introv

      Haha, you should see tip 2

      • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

        Cyberquill (calmly yet visibly struggling to conceal a flicker of impatience): I’m not writing a play here. 

        • Lia London

          I see what you’re saying, Cyberquill.  I think part of the confusion is that this article is not intended for playwrights, but rather provides lessons from scriptwriting that can be applied to other forms of writing–like blogs or stories.

          That said, as one who has done a fair share of acting, I absolutely agree that too many stage directions  can feel controlling.  In this article, however, I’m referring more to the use of font tools like italics or bolds to make sure a certain word is punched up if various interpretations are possible, but only one is correct.  Note that I do suggest using them sparingly.  Blog posts, unlike plays, are not performed by various actors; they are typically read only once.  Because of this, the author may direct the interpretation.
          Your comment that the need for stage directions (in a play) decreases as the skill of the playwright increases echoes what I said in paragraph 1 of point #4.  I completely agree with you there!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      I saw this comment this morning and have been thinking about it.

      I actually don’t think these two conflict at all.

      In many ways, stage directions show, not tell. For example, instead of having your character say, “I am sad about my father’s death,” or having a narrator say this, instead you write in the stage directions, “[Soandso looks at the family photo frame and starts bawling.]”
      Stage directions are cues for the actors to SHOW not tell. Likewise, in other forms of writing you can use subtle cues to help emote a feeling instead of imposing it. It’s subtle and often very effective.
      Great post, Lia. Good points, Cyberquill.

      • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

        Ideally, though, in lieu of either a stage direction or the character saying “I am sad about my father’s death,” she’d be saying something that exuded this very sadness without reporting on it outright, which in turn would provide the cue for the actor and the director to add whatever physical life they deem most appropriate and effective, whether it’s to have the character break down in tears while looking at a photograph or whatever. 

        I just have this notion about a well-crafted script that the lines themselves (= the stuff the characters say) should hold all the clues about what’s going on by using the words to show (“Where is he?”) rather than tell (“I’m sad because he’s gone”). 

        • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

          I think that’s one way to write.

          • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

            Yean, it’s a way to lessen the odds that parts of what you wrote will subsequently be tossed and replaced with something else by those involved in the performance of your material.

  • http://www.facebook.com/responseboost Marcelino Latorre

    Great stuff, stories sell.

  • Gardo

    “Leave ‘em hanging” is such a valid point.  There needs to be a “to be a continued feeling” to a story. Thanks for the tips!

    • Lia London

      Life keeps going.  So does our story!

  • http://Mazzastick.com Justin

    Hi Lia,
    If we emulate too closely, we rob readers of diversity and run the risk of presenting only a stale copy. I know of way too many new bloggers that sound like carbon copies of their favorite blogger.

    #4. Show don’t tell is also one that I resonate with. When I read a post, I want to feel and know how to do something and not just receive a “data-dump” on how to do something.

    • Lia London

      “Data dump”!  I love it!  I recently wrote a post called “Inspiration, Not Information” on just that theme.  We can get information/data so easily.  We definitely need more “how to” and “why to” and “go to” type blogs.

  • Kendih

    I’m so glad plays are not written like chemistry textbooks!  I love to read a blog that sounds just like the voice of the blogger, when I know them…(Lia London)…you are terrific! 

  • Tony

    Hey Lia London, great points you make.  So important to be true to the characters you have brought to life through the tip of  your pen.  To the reader who has befriended your well-developed character there come expectations of behaviors and reactions to situations.  Some will even bend their own personal course to emulate that character and make themselves braver or more confident or just happier.  What a potential for good…all from the depths of the writer’s imagination as skillfully dictated to the flying fingers on your keyboard.

    • Lia London

      Wow, thanks!  When we create characters that others can find friends, we’ve done something right.  I love that you hold expectations on these characters because it holds the author accountable to be true to the people he has created.

  • Chrisjajdrs

    Very helpful

  • http://thompsonkelly.wordpress.com Kelly Thompson

    I’ve learned a lot from you and your guest bloggers, so much so that I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Details here: http://thompsonkelly.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/and-the-nominees-are/. Thanks for a great blog!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, Kelly!

  • Lookouutwife

    Great article, Lia. I believe understanding and studying  acting is important to being a good director, so is being a director has helped me become a better writer. When directing I tend to ignore stage direction, unless the playwright is specific or spells out that is the way the play must be done. . . I my eyes, I have my own vision of how I see the action, scenery, etc. 

    The most important lesson I have learned is to be a spy!!  Observe people, listen to conversation, learn speech patterns and mannerisms and beg, borrow and steal those ideas into your writing, directing or acting. 

    • Lia London

      Writers do look at scripts differently than actors, I think, so it’s always fun to try your hand at acting, directing and script writing to get a full perspective.

  • Hummingbird710

    Lia,
    I like your point about using grammar that is not too “stiff” but also not too sloppy.  It is a fine line and it is an important part of script writing.  Thank you so much for your sharing.

    • Lia London

      Thank you.  I’m a big advocate for speaking and writing naturally.  As with music or art, what we create has to appeal to the senses.  Stiff, artificially correct language can jar the ears.

  • Roy

    Lia -

    Great insights! No wonder you are a successful author!

  • http://twitter.com/DianeCapri Diane Capri

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing it with us. 

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  • Kitty lover

    This was super helpful! I’m taking a “Writing for Stage” elective, and some of these kids think that I can’t do well and I’m too stupid and I have no knowledge for writing a script. I want to prove them wrong and do very well… so I’m researching. x3 even if my grammar is horrible.
    Thanks again for this article! <33

  • Setsu

    I just read the maniesto, “Wrecked”. I have always felt that my life was lacking, that I did not connect to the world at large. I am at somewhat of a crossroad in my life right now and wonder if I will ever find purpose. Love reading your stuff! Thanks.

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