Claudia Johnson on Crafting Short Scripts

Exclusive Interview conducted by Jody Michelle Solis

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: What are the most challenging aspects of crafting short screenplays?

Claudia Hunter Johnson: Finding a small, specific, and significant idea/story you can tell well in a short script. If your idea or story is too big, you’ll end up with what I call “narrative cram.” Crafting a complex character and a credible character arc in a short time.

Starting your story on page one.

Hitting your scenes late and getting out early.

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: What are some common mistakes new screenwriters should avoid?

Claudia Hunter Johnson: Having a lottery mentality, thinking you’ll get rich quick writing screenplays. It’s well established in the biz that it usually takes writing five or six feature screenplays before you actually sell one. As I say in Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, “It takes five to ten years to learn your craft, if you’re lucky. So, don’t waste time seeking overnight success (which, by the way, takes fifteen years).”

Submitting scripts riddled with formatting or grammatical errors. Proof, proof, proof before you submit. This is an unforgiving business, and the gatekeepers are looking for any reason to toss out a script.

Calling the shots in a spec script. Beginning screenwriters often think this makes them seem like a pro, but it actually flags a script as amateurish. Keep it simple. Your job is to make the film happen in the mind of the reader, so don’t clutter it up.

Telling not showing. Ask yourself over and over, “How will the viewer know this?” Then find a way to let them know it by letting them see it. Learn how to render photographable human behavior that reveals inner states.

Writing “on the nose” dialogue—spelling everything out.

Having more fun than the reader.

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: What was one of the most important things you learned while working on a script?

Claudia Hunter Johnson: Screenwriting is rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. Take as long as it takes until you get it right. My longtime screenwriting partner and I are finally finishing an animated script we’ve worked on off and on for twenty years because it’s taken us that long to get it right.

StudentFilmmakers Magazine: If you could share your Top 3 Screenwriting Tips for aspiring filmmakers and storytellers, what would they be?

Claudia Hunter Johnson: Stories are patterns of significant human change, created by significant moments of change—discoveries and decisions the main character makes that make a difference and move the story forward. A story/screenplay is an energy system that starts with the inciting incident and ends at the climax (the moment when the outcome of the story is known).

Human connection is as essential as conflict to our lives and the stories we tell. So learn how to craft compelling human connections as well as conflict. And conflict isn’t some magical eye-of-newt ingredient we throw into stories. It’s a by-product of human will hitting obstacles. We create it be establishing a clear character want then creating obstacles. So, ask your main character what they want and listen to them as they tell you. Then let the story flow out of their want. The great stories are about the human heart.

As I say in Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, “Seek yourself, your experience, your unique vision and voice. In the end, that’s the most valuable thing you have to offer. Everything else has been done.”

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