Today on my blog I'm absolutely thrilled to feature author Simon Oneill's guest post on script writing...
Magic Is Murder by Simon Oneill from novel to script:
“A celebrity author goes on a bloodthirsty killing spree to protect her family secret only to be driven insane by the ghost zombies she creates. An earthy British horror comedy in the style of Carry On, Monty Python, Blackadder all wrapped up in a Hammer Film. Discover the sex lives of ghosts in a most squeamish way. After all, life doesn’t stop when you’re dead?”
Above is the pitch for my novel Magic Is Murder. Readers loved it, except one who was a die-hard Harry Potter fan and reads nothing else. The darn blurb told her it was rude crude and extremely gory, but she read it anyway. My story basically follows Bianca who discovers her lover is cheating on her and has hocked a priceless pendant. She kills him and doesn’t stop killing as she loves it. Simple enough?
Then I had this brainwave – how do I get a producer to turn it into a movie? Not so simple. First you need a screenplay adaptation. The perfect 25 word pitch. Then an interested producer. Okay, I trawled the web and twitter – hit twitter like an aggressive twitter monkey – if you check my twitter feed nearly all tweets are now movie orientated instead of bookish – and friended a guy who produces and directs. As LUCK would have it - I emphasize luck for obvious reasons - he’s been looking for a horror to make, so I offered to send a signed copy to him as a Christmas present. He accepted. His wife read it and fell in love with it, so much so, that the producer was compelled to go forward with the project.
Now the really hard part – we contacted Welsh Film for lottery funding – a small amount to develop the script together and scout locations – they refused. The producer knew they would as the story wasn’t artsy enough. Meanwhile I started writing the screenplay after I had read a dozen times his Script Cheat Guide which taught me to write only what the camera sees, if it can’t be seen then it’s not in the script.
First came the 25 word pitch, and believe me that took a week – an entire week writing 25 words. Below is the pitch and you can see how much the story has changed.
Murderous fantasies become blood-soaked nightmares, only Bianca’s first love has the power to save her from a deadly curse, but can she handle his terms.
Magic Is Murder is now all about Maldini the magician who steals Bianca’s pendant for reasons only he knows – so not in the script until much later as a reveal. Maldini is hacked to death by an insane Bianca and buried in the back garden. But being a magician he returns as a ghost to torment her into marrying him as a corpse bride – this means Bianca must snuff it. There’s the entire story there – Bianca must stop an unstoppable ghost from killing her and marrying her in the afterlife. Maldini teams up with a powerful witch who casts a death spell on her. And the only one who can save her is her first love whom she jilted years ago.
I printed out each chapter then set about using only that which complied with the pitch. Rule 1 in writing a screenplay is stick to the pitch, don’t veer off on a tangent. All characters must conform to the pitch, if they don’t then remove them. That was hard getting rid of some great characters but it would also reduce costs.
Once I had the chapters needed, I reduced a copied word doc of the novel to required chapters and pasted it into Final Draft and off I went. Below are more important rules for screen writers –
Never tell the actors how to act – in my novel I squeeze out every possible emotion – stop! In a screenplay there is temptation to use (parenthetical) to give actor directions – stop! Leave the acting to actors, so use great dialogue and scene action to give them enough to act their little hearts out. Bianca – “How the fuck can I remove his wedding ring?” She tugs frantically at it. Script – Bianca – “How the fuck can I remove his wedding ring?” The actress will do the rest.
Never tell wardrobe what to do – how many books describe clothes in detail? Unless the actor is naked or has a specific weird costume on in the scene, then don’t say anything. That’s fewer lines in your screenplay and LESS IS MORE.
Never tell the director what to do – that’s the biggest mistake – don’t use - Close Up – On – Follow – Pan Around – Zoom In – if there is a scene say for example where there is a reflection of the killer’s grin in his victim’s eye – just say that. The director will know what to do.
Never put times of day in slug lines (scene headings) – Ext. Manor Grounds – Afternoon – should be - Ext. Manor Grounds – Day – only use Night and Day – the screenwriter puts where the sun is in scene or moon rises, sun sets instead of Dawn in scene heading. Also don’t say what the weather is doing in a scene unless in a snowscape.
Never repeat yourself in a screenplay. Information must only be said once, unless it’s a catchphrase a killer likes to use with every kill. But hard info like the colour of hair – only once.
Never describe your characters like your favourite actors. Big major insult unless they are attached.
Do try to give characters weird quirks that sets them apart.
Do use upper case for each actor in every scene the first time they are in it and always have actor in action before dialogue. Many a scene has been filmed without an actor due to lower case.
Do consider budget when writing screenplay – if next scene could be done in same room with different set up then do that – moving crew is very expensive.
When an actor moves into another room then start a new scene. Here’s a tough one – an actor is in the kitchen and sees two burglars hop over the garden wall and approach the house. This is two scenes INT for actor EXT for Two Burglars. Also never use the word Suddenly – 2 Thieves suddenly burst from Bank – should be - 2 Thieves burst from bank.
Also arrive late and leave early in every scene that way you keep the audience wanting more. And if you can start your screenplay ten or more pages in and still keep the plot then cut them. Scenes that end on cutting room floor are wasted money.
Writing screenplays is extremely difficult but can be far more rewarding than novels, especially when amazing actors love your work.