This may sound like a shocking statement, but I believe anybody can be a screenwriter. Everybody in the world has at least one interesting story in them. Life is too crazy not to have an awesome story in the vault. But the reality is, it takes a shitload of time to learn how to *tell* that story in the bastardized format that is a “screenplay.” How long it takes generally depends on how talented you are. For some people it only takes a couple of years. For others, it may take two decades to figure out. So a lot of screenwriting comes down to perseverance and a willingness to learn.
I bring this up because every screenplay is kinda like a final exam. It’s a test of everything you’ve learned *up to that point.* So while you may ace that particular exam, it doesn’t mean you know everything about the subject. I guess an analogy would be, passing the bar proves you know a hell of a lot about the law, but it doesn’t mean you’re ready to try your case in the Supreme Court.
So what I thought I’d do is help you avoid some of the more common misguided screenplay attempts I see amateurs make. I wouldn’t say these scripts are easily avoidable because if they were, I’d see a lot less of them. But at least this way you can ask the question. “Am I about to write this script?” Or “Did I just write this script?” As long as you’re asking the question, you have a chance at salvaging the material. So below are five and a half types of bad amateur screenplays I keep running into. And I consider myself an expert. I've written each one of these at least once!
THE TECHNICALLY PERFECT BUT ULTIMATELY BORING SCRIPT
This is a toughie. Even professional writers make this mistake and that’s because the line between technical and natural isn’t always easy to identify. However, these scripts usually come from writers who take the screenwriting books a little too literally and who outline every single beat of their story down to the commas. The main character has a clear goal. The act breaks come at the right time. The character motivations are strong. Twists and turns happen at just the right moments. And yet…and yet there’s something extremely boring about it all. Even if we don’t know what’s going to happen, nothing that happens is ever surprising to us. There’s no heart, no soul, no life in the screenplay. “A+” from Robert McKee and Blake Snyder. “F” from the reader.
How to avoid it: There are two main reasons these kinds of scripts happen. First, like I mentioned above, it happens when writers follow the rulebook too literally. If the reader can feel the beats of the story, if they can see the first act turn coming a mile away, if the midpoint is accompanied by a billboard, you’re not doing your job. Great writers learn that in addition to following the rules, it’s their job to MASK the rules, to cover them up so it all flows naturally. This is usually achieved by rewriting – going back into your story and smoothing out all those obvious technical beats. Second, you still have to make interesting choices. Giving your protagonist a goal is one of the most basic elements of storytelling there is. But that doesn’t mean any goal will work. In fact, 100 writers might come up with 100 different character goals. Your job is to beat out the other 99 writers and come up with the most interesting one. Take a movie like Back To The Future for instance. Imagine if once Marty got back to 1955, he didn’t have to get his mom and dad back together, but instead had to win a rock and roll contest at the high school. That choice would’ve made the movie way worse, right? So don’t just make choices, make bold and interesting choices.
THE FAUX MASTERPIECE
I’m going to give credit for this one to Jim Mercurio. When he spoke of the “faux masterpiece,” he described it like this: “That’s when you try to tackle something huge like a critical piece of history – the Holocaust, slavery, World War II – or try to set an expensive politically-charged love story against that sort of backdrop. You might be a deep thinker and have an unparalleled understanding of the subject, but as a beginning writer, your craft is not going to be able to do the story justice.” I’d expand this definition to include huge Lord of The Rings like fantasy epics, or overlong sci-fi epics like Avatar. These “masterpieces” require so much skill it’s terrifying. They need to be historically accurate on everything from the dialect to the activities people do. It’s hard enough to build a couple of interesting characters into a script. These scripts require dozens of characters, all of whom are usually thin and boring. With these extra characters come extra subplots. Weaving these subplots in and out of the central plot requires a tremendous amount of know-how for even a 100 page screenplay. There may be 10 screenwriters on the planet who know how to do it for a script that’s 150 pages. These scripts also tend to require an inordinately massive goal to keep the story interesting for such a long period of time (i.e. William Wallace’s pursuit of freedom for an entire country in Braveheart; The Marines trying to destroy the Na’vi homeland in Avatar) which amateur writers almost never include. It’s basically everything that’s hard about screenwriting times a thousand. That’s why taking on an epic masterpiece is…well…an epic mistake.
How to avoid it: I honestly wouldn’t touch an epic unless you’ve written at least seven scripts or a few novels.
THE ACCIDENTAL HOMAGE SCRIPT
Oh man, every writer is guilty of this one. The Accidental Homage script is a script where a writer goes out and sees a movie they love, then writes a script on a similar subject matter which ends up being THE EXACT SAME MOVIE. Young writers are the most susceptible to this because they haven’t yet trained themselves to recognize when they’re inadvertently copying material. The ideas flow through their fingertips as naturally as the breeze and they bang out 50 pages in 3 days, citing divine inspiration. They don’t realize that the reason it was so easy was because they were essentially writing a movie they’d already seen. This can happen with your favorite movies as well, although writers tend to be a little more aware when they’re copying those. Here’s the thing: Inspiration – true inspiration – is the best thing a writer can experience. It’s writer crack. But you have to keep an eye on it. You have to be aware of when the inspiration is coming from inside of you, or coming from the euphoric influence of that great movie you just saw.
How to avoid it: My suggestion would be to not write anything that sounds similar to a recent movie you loved. So if you saw District 9, don’t go home and write an alien invasion movie. It’s just too hard to be objective about the subject matter and you’ll inevitably use too much from the film, destroying any chance of your story being original.
THE COMEDY WITHOUT A STORY SCRIPT
Okay, I talk about this one a lot so pardon me if you’re tired of hearing it. This is the script I probably see the most of because the majority of people coming into the spec world start with comedies. It makes sense. Everyone thinks they’re funny. Everyone outside of Hollywood thinks they can write a better movie than the one they saw in the theater. You put those two together and you have a lot of writers crashing Hollywood with comedy specs. Roughly all of these attempts make the same mistake. There’s no story. OR, if there is a story, it’s so neutered as to be nonexistent. Instead, the writers come up with an idea that’s just use an excuse to string a bunch of funny scenes together. Little do they know that the second they decided to do that, any chance of writing a good script died. Why? Well, let’s say you have 10 good-to-great laughs in your script, which is a lot. That means we have to slog through 9 and a half minutes of pointless nothingness to get to that one laugh. Does that sound fun? That’s why I always say: Story first, comedy second. If you have a story, something where we’re actually interested, then those other 9 and a half pages are actually entertaining. They’re something to look forward to.
How to avoid it: When you’re writing your comedy, always put your story (and your characters) before the laughs. The irony is that the script will be funnier for it.
THE NEVER STUDIED STORYTELLING ON ANY LEVEL SCRIPT
Okay, this makes the “Comedy without a story” script look like Shakespeare. It invariably comes from a first timer and someone bold enough to believe they can write a good screenplay without any previous storytelling experience whatsoever. Signs of a NSSOALS? There is no overarching plot/character goal to speak of. The script reads as if the writer is making everything up as he/she goes along (because they are). The script often jumps back and forth between genres. Because the writer hasn’t learned how to build characters yet, the characters contradict themselves constantly (i.e. An introvert will try and get his friends to go out to a party). The writer often makes the mistake of infusing “real life” into the script, and is surprised when the randomness and lengthy dialogue scenes reminiscent of real life are categorized as boring by the reader. Instead of using screenplay real estate to develop already introduced characters, new characters are brought in as if they’re coming out of a clown car, even though they have no real connection to the story and we’ll never see them again. Seemingly important subplots will end lazily or disappear altogether. Characters tend to spend most of the story talking about their situations as opposed to being actively involved in situations. Since there’s no central goal for the main character, the writer rarely knows what to do with the ending (if there’s nothing being pursued, then there’s nothing to conclude). In short, the setup is confusing, the middle has no conflict, and the resolution is unsatisfying.
How to avoid it: Here’s the good news. These scripts are actually okay to write, as long as you don’t show them to anyone else! Your first few scripts should be for you and you only (or maybe a couple of close friends). I’m warning you, you don’t want to burn a potential great contact on one of your first three scripts. Make sure you know what you’re doing first. And hey, before you write anything, there’s nothing wrong with studying the basics of storytelling. There is an art to it that’s been around for hundreds of years. It wouldn’t hurt to study that art. Also read a ton of screenplays, both good and bad. The more you read, the more you’ll be able to spot all those negatives I listed above.
THE SURREALIST TRIBUTE SCRIPT
Finally, here’s a writer friend of mine who’s read twice as many scripts as I have. I told him what I was doing and asked if he wanted to submit any “script types to avoid.” His e-mail was cryptic and I’m still not entirely sure if he was sober, but this was his submission: The "oh-so-clever quasi-surrealist tribute to Bunuel and Fellini with a little Greenaway and a lot of Lynch thrown in amidst reams of dialogue that is nothing more than misquoted monologues taken from whatever novels the author happened to have on his bookshelf in order to impress female guests on Friday nights... and heaven forbid he should take the time to correct typos, grammatical blunders and unclear/incomplete visuals since all three are, of course, part of the 'art' of writing one of these brilliant opuses" script.
How to avoid it: I think I know what he’s talking about. These are those purposefully random scripts that are supposed to, like, have higher meaning ‘n stuff. Basically, the scripts are more about the writer proving how smart he is than they are about the story. These scripts invariably bring about a lot of eye-rolling. As always, ask yourself if you’re putting the story first. If not, stop writing.