Scriptcasting with John August

Ransom Riggs

I graduated from USC film school a few years ago, and one of the things I do when I'm not blogging is write screenplays (and make films, shameless plug!), but I don't blog much about writing screenplays because if I did then pretty soon I'd be blogging about writing screenplays and writing screenplays about blogging which right away sounds like some kind of bad postmodern Charlie Kaufman nightmare scenario. Also, screenwriting is pretty arcane and specialized, and quite possibly just not of general interest to people, and what authority do I have to blog about such things, anyway; I'm not a Big Hollywood Screenwriter (hereafter referred to as a "BHS").

John August, however, in addition to being a fellow USC alum, is a BHS, inasmuch as he has been paid money, actual currency, to write a number of films which were not only actually produced and finished, but actually distributed in movie theaters, several of which were actually profitable, a few of which were even lauded by critics, all of which is a very big deal when you consider that most screenwriters in Hollywood are about two missed rent checks from having to move back home to Twin Falls and live with their parents. What's more, August seems to have a knack for writing about screenwriting, as well as the screenwriter's life/career -- to the tune of something approaching 1,000 blogs at -- and to that end has recently to the best of my knowledge pioneered a new screenwriting teaching tool: the scriptcast.

A scriptcast is a lot like those screen-capture Photoshop tutorials you see everywhere on the web (and sometimes parodied on YouTube), except instead of watching/listening to some nerd walk you thorough Photoshop's warp tool or demonstrate his (or, to be fair, her) mad Warcraft skillz, you're watching/listening to a BHS as he types into Final Draft (most people's screenwriting tool of choice). Suffice to say, it demystifies the whole endeavor of screenwriting markedly to watch a writer who really knows what he's doing talk about what he's doing as he's doing it. So far there are only two scriptcasts, but each are handy, bite-sized object lessons in screenplay style, and I have a feeling more are on the way.

Writing better action
The action scene is one of the most basic units of American films, and even though you've seen a million of 'em, writing a compelling one can be tough. In this scriptcast, John rewrites an action scene that reads flat and boring to make it more exciting, without changing the action itself much. (Some screenwriters make most of their money doing just this sort of thing: it's called a "polish.")

Writing better scene description
When I said earlier that the action scene is one of film's most basic elements, I actually meant that scene description is one of film's -- or at least a screenplay's -- most basic elements. Basically, scene description is everything you see on the page that's not dialogue or the all-caps stuff (character names or scene headings). Novice screenwriters have a tendency to cram all their scene description into long, boring, hard-to-read paragraphs that look like roadblocks on the page, practically begging busy development executives who have five more scripts to read after yours before lunch to skip the whole thing and move on to the next line of dialogue. You don't want that. John tackles the problem head-on: