When writing a screenplay, a screenwriter must remember that she has two audiences. First, she has the reader of the screenplay. This reader may be her friend, writing coach, producer, actor, director, distributor, development exec, someone working in product placement, contest judge, or anyone else in the chain of people that read a screenplay before it magically gets transformed into a movie. For this audience, the writing must be good. What I mean by that is: there must be both style and substance. Substance is a good story with well-developed characters, great pacing, interesting plot twists, excellent dialog and a tightly woven theme. Style is the way all of that good stuff is presented on the page and includes visually interesting descriptions, proper formatting, correct spelling, and a unique voice that supports the content and engages the reader.
The style is for the reader only. The second audience, the movie viewers, will never be exposed to the writing style of the script. By the time they see the film, the style will have been contributed by the production team and specifically the director. In an ideal world, the director’s style will be influenced by the writer’s style, but that’s not always the case and a good director can bring style to a script that lacks it completely.
I often find that new screenwriters focus only on one or the other. Often, the scripts are written in a way that’s overly stylistic and yet the story is bland or poorly conceived. Other times, writers have a great story full of fantastic twists and layered characters, but the writer hasn’t given much thought to seducing the reader into loving her writing.
A good writer can balance both. She can create and execute a great story that will translate well to the screen for viewers, but she also presents it in a way that makes for a fun read on the page. You must be able to do both and do them well.