How To Improve Your Spec Screenplays

by Michele Wallerstein

I’ve read and worked on spec screenplays for about a million years. During these years I’ve discovered that almost all new writers (and some old ones) seem to make the same mistakes in their work.  There are some things that don’t seem to become clear to writers in their screenwriting classes or the books that they read or even the seminars that they listen to.

I’d like to share some hints with you to make your work better.  Perhaps you will even find that this information will help you get your work finished and sold more quickly.

In terms of story, most new writers seem to want to complicate their work to make it stand out and be “different” from the rest of the pack.  They will add flashbacks and flash forwards; they will add dream sequences and throw in lots and lots of small character roles to advance the plot structure.   They will add lots of twists and turns in the plot to make the script seem more unique and interesting.  Indeed many movies you see will have all of the aforementioned and can be wonderful.  They are complicated and busy.  These films may have dozens of extraneous characters that seem to enliven the project.  These screenplays and films have absolutely nothing to do with your spec scripts.

A spec script is a world unto itself.  There are unwritten rules that apply and should be strictly adhered to if you want to get through those Hollywood doors.  Your spec scripts need to do two things:  (1.) They are your calling cards to show your writing prowess, and (2.) They are available for potential option with the possibility of a sale and eventual production.  For the most part the former is more likely then the latter.  Selling a spec that gets produced by a major studio is a one-in-a-zillion chance.  These specs need to get you meetings so that you can make the right connections.  These connections can lead to representation by agents and managers as well as to possible writing assignments.  That’s how you build a writing career.

Here are the most common trouble spots that ring alarm bells for the reader:

  1. Too much description.  This, alone, can destroy your chances of the reader going past page 4.  When you write a spec it is not necessary to describe a character’s mood, the basic décor of a room, the size of the building, the color of their clothes, the weather and their facial expressions.  All of this information, if you feel it is important to the script, can and should be told in dialogue.
  2. Too many stage directions.  A reader doesn’t need or want to know that the main character poured a cup of coffee, walked across the room, looked out the window, made their bed, opened the door and walked through it or exactly how many punches were thrown in a fight scene.  We don’t need to know the lyrics to the background music or any steadicam shots.  All of this type of information simply stops the reader from a smooth reading flow.  It is deadly to your project.
  3. Too much exposition.  We don’t want to know the ages of peripheral characters or what they are wearing or even if they are male or female.  The cashier at the drugstore is simply “the cashier”.  The waiter is simply “the waiter”.  Do not direct the movie.  Leave that to the actual Director.  These small choices are not really yours to make, nor will they enhance the story or get the reader involved in the characters and plot.  Too much explanation of the scene is a bad thing.
  4. Watch that dialogue.  It is the most important part of your spec work. To catch the attention of the agents, producers and development people there is only one thing that will make them take notice of you.  That is your dialogue.  Using dialogue simply to advance the story is not enough.  Give those main characters interesting personalities.  Make them into fascinating individuals with fears, foibles, interesting character traits and flaws.  Give them a sense of humor in a dark scene, make them sensitive or overly crude, have them suffer from sinusitis or headaches… and tell all of this in your DIALOGUE.
  5. Stop describing the character’s moods and/or attitudes prior to each piece of dialogue.  We want the dialogue to express their feelings.
  6. Keep your page count down to 109 or less.  Remember that this is a show piece not a shooting script.

Your script should be simple and fun to read.  You will be remembered and you will get that phone call.  Every script is rewritten along their way to production so lean writing is your key.


Michele Wallerstein is a Screenplay & Novel & Career Consultant and author of “MIND YOUR BUSINESS: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide To Your Writing Career“.

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