3 Simple Screenwriting Solutions to 3 Complicated Screenplay Problems
What are three complex screenplay problems that can be solved easily?
Sometimes the most complex problems can be solved in the most simple of ways.
The small Italian village of Viganella is positioned deep within a valley in such a way that every year from November to early February the sun is blocked out by the tall peaks of the surrounding mountains.
For eight hundred years, the village has suffered through pitch-dark winters. In 2006, the people of the village installed a 26-foot mirror on a slope to reflect sunlight down into the valley. Thanks to mirrors and the technology that tracks the mirror to the sun's movement, the village now enjoys eight hours of sunlight per day during those winter months.
In 2012, the International Space Station had one of its four solar power distributors break down. When the astronauts went out to fix the problem, they discovered that none of their expensive and hi-tech tools could do the job. Metal shavings had built up around the bolts of the unit. Their tools couldn't get the job done. So what did they use to solve the problem? A toothbrush.
The astronauts cleared the metal shavings by using a toothbrush taped to the end of a metal grip. They removed the metal shavings from the bolts and were then able to replace the broken solar power unit to restore full power to the station.
Simple solutions for seemingly complex problems.
Here we offer three simple screenwriting solutions to three seemingly complex screenplay problems.
1. Your Screenplay Is Too Short
One of the most common issues screenwriters have at some in their screenwriting journeys is ending up with a script that is too short.
Standard guidelines and industry expectations dictate that screenplays should be anywhere from 90-120 pages long. This is taken from the old — but shockingly accurate — adage that one script page equals one minute of screen time. It's not an exact science by any means, but it often averages out that way. And most studios want or need their movies to have running times of 90-120 minutes (give or take) to allow for the most possible screenings in theaters.
And audiences sometimes have short attention spans. The 90 to 120-minute running time is the prime time window to keep viewers engaged. And if the movie falls far short of that 90-minute minimum (70 to 80 minutes), audiences often feel as if the movie is missing something — having ended far before the average movie time that they've grown accustomed to.
But sometimes you start that script, and before you know it, you've reached the ending you've envisioned far short of the suggested 90-page minimum. You may reach pages 50, 60, or 70 and have no more developed story left to tell.
Note: Yes, the script for A Quiet Place was a drastically low 67 pages. But that was primarily due to the lack of dialogue within the script. And before you attempt to use that example as a way to excuse your own drastically short screenplay, remember that those writers were already established. The script was still rejected by many, but they were seasoned professionals that already had their foot in the door of Hollywood — a place that, out of necessity, looks for any reason to say no to a script just to create a filtration process to weed through the thousands of scripts that aren't ready or worthy.
Learn how to write great movie dialogue with this free guide.
Read ScreenCraft's 7 Screenwriting Lessons A QUIET PLACE Can Teach You!
A script that falls too short, page count-wise? It happens. Maybe you've written a brilliantly paced first and second act. Or perhaps you didn't develop enough characterization or story.
To many, this seems like a complex problem that requires the writer to develop more character arc, more plot, and more story arc to fill those pages.
It was hard enough to get to 50, 60, or 70 pages — now you need 40, 30, or 20 more?
If the pages you've written are otherwise tight, well-formatted, and well-conceived, but you are still falling short, a simple solution is adding a twist that makes your current ending become a false resolution — which is what most thrillers, action movies, and horror movies employ. Even great dramas and comedies utilize this within their screenplay's structure.
All Mission Impossible movies finish that first big heist/mission, but that’s when things turn, a twist happens, and then the story and the stakes get real interesting.
Yes, it does involve some more plot, and maybe some additional character and story arc tweaking, but usually it's very simple — and fun — to add a new ending.
And let's be honest, it's a good problem to have as opposed to our next seemingly complex screenplay problem.
Shh. Don't tell anybody. But if you need an extra 8-10 pages, you can always utilize your screenwriting software. In Final Draft, you can adjust the margins ever-so-slightly by going to Document>Page Layout>Options>Line Spacing>Loose.
When you select Loose, the margins will be expanded slightly. These changes are nearly invisible to the naked eye.
2. Your Screenplay Is Way Too Long
Well, you're supposed to be between 90 to 120 pages, but you just couldn't stop writing, and now you're at 140, 150, or 160 pages. Sorry to say, but that is far too many pages for an unestablished screenwriter.
Yes, Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet scripts — as well as many other award-winning screenwriters — often push 150 pages (give or take) at one point or another, but you don't have the leeway and clout.
Again, Hollywood is forced to look for reasons to say no. And from a script reader's perspective, 99.9% of the time they see a script past the 130-mark, it's because it is overwritten.
If you find yourself in this predicament, it's intimidating and heartbreaking. Now you have to kill your darlings and cut a lot of pages. And you’ll find that when you're forced to do so, it’s like a house of cards — move one card and everything comes crumbling down.
A majority of the time, scripts are overly long because the writer has spent far too much time introducing the characters and their world. The worst screenplays focus on telling the story of the protagonist's background during the opening act, instead of what they should be doing with a film script — catapulting characters into the concept as quickly as possible.
Read ScreenCraft's How to Sell Your Screenplay in the Opening Pages!
And that is the simple solution — cut the introduction and background out and instead thrust the character into the concept early on. And from that point on throughout the script, you can reveal their characterization through their actions and reactions to the conflict that your story's concept throws at them.
Yes, you want to open the script with the character in their original world. That allows the audience to see their comfort zone or what they are accustomed to in their lives when the conflict of your movie concept hits them. But you can accomplish this with one single scene or visual, compared to twenty or more pages of buildup and backstory.
Shh. Don't tell anybody. But if you need to trim an extra 8-10 pages (give or take) out of your draft, you can always utilize your screenwriting software. In Final Draft, you can adjust the margins ever-so-slightly by going to Document>Page Layout>Options>Line Spacing>Tight (or Very Tight).
When you select Tight or Very Tight, the margins will be compacted slightly. These changes are nearly invisible to the naked eye.
3. Your Based On or Inspired By True Story Concept Has Too Much Story
True stories are challenging to take on because there are often so many facts, characters, and events in play. And the more facts, characters, and circumstances that you face, the more difficult it is to decide what parts of the story you should share and the longer your screenplay is likely going to be.
Steven Spielberg could have certainly tried to depict the entire presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, but he wisely decided on choosing a window within his administration — in this case, Lincoln’s struggle to emancipate the slaves.
The element of telling a story using small story windows offers the reader the opportunity to have less to remember and envision. And when they have less to remember and envision, they can more easily experience the cinematic core concept and story that you tell.
The more you add to the premise, the higher the risk you will face of losing the reader.
Using smaller story windows is a straightforward solution. It works so well for fictional tales too.
Instead of having your screenplay tell the dramatic story of your alcoholic character trying to go sober over the course of a year, why not focus on the last day of the last step in their 12-Step program?
Instead of having your screenplay tell the epic story of a historic World War II battle, why not focus on one soldier as they deal with the overarching conflict?
Instead of having your screenplay tell the horrifying story of a serial killer stalking and killing multiple victims, why not center the story on a single victim in their house watching the news reports of the killings and then hearing a floorboard creak from above?
In A Quiet Place, we never learn how this strange event that seemingly wiped out much of humanity happened. All that we witness are a couple of days and nights in the characters’ lives.
In a lesser screenplay draft or final cut, we could have been presented with bookends that over-explain the concept and situation. We could have seen where this family came from and where they ended up. Instead, we experience just a small window of time that allows us to be engaged by the suspense at hand without suffering through the details.
When you condense the scope of the story, you’ll find more room to focus on a tighter and more fast-paced tale.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies