Thursday, December 1, 2011
So earlier this month I was reading a screenplay and about 30 pages in I just stopped and thought, “I’m bored.” The script itself had quite a few of elements that I preach on the site - a clear goal, high stakes, urgency. But something wasn’t registering. So I decided to take a harder look at that feeling – boredom – since, as a writer, it’s the worst crime you can commit. But what causes it? Is it some invisible force that one has no control over? Or can it be systematically shut out via a carefully designed approach? That’s the question I set out to answer. And as I looked back at the recent scripts I was bored by, I came to a hard truth. The most influential factor in a reader being bored is something that the writer has no control over – subject matter. If somebody hates baseball, you’re probably not going to win them over with your baseball script. On the flip side, if somebody loves slasher movies, you probably have a good shot at entertaining them with yours. However, assuming all else is equal, these are things you absolutely CAN NOT DO in your script, as they almost always lead to a reader being bored out of their mind.
1) Take forever to set up your story – This is just a killer. The writer is using 4-5 scenes to set up their hero when they could’ve done it in two. It takes them 30 pages to get to the inciting incident. The story doesn’t seem to be pushing towards anything – setting anything up. That’s when you know you’ve failed, when you’ve bored your reader before you’ve even hit the main storyline. So set up your story quickly. Move things along faster than you think you have to. Avoid slow burns unless you have a LOT of experience writing and know how to build a story slowly while keeping the audience’s interest.
2) A passive main character – If your main character is spending the majority of the script waiting for things to happen instead of going out there and pushing the story forward himself, it's easy for us to lose interest in that character and, by association, their story. Whether it's the guys in The Hangover actively trying to find out where their friend is, Jake Sully actively trying to infiltrate the Na’vi, Edward Asner (Up) trying to make it to South America to keep a promise to his wife, or Colter looking for the bomb in the train in Source Code, readers like characters who go after things (are ACTIVE). Those tend to be the most exciting scripts. Now there are great movies where the main character is reactive. The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is a good example. Our main character isn't really doing anything. However a lot of things are happening to her, which keeps the movie entertaining. But if you don't have a scenario like "Cradle" where there's a lot of conflict and danger affecting your main character, then you probably want your hero to be active.
3) Boring writing - We are taught as screenwriters to give the reader exactly what they need in order to understand the story and nothing more. And that’s good advice. Nobody wants to read six line paragraphs dominated by pretentious thesaurus-laden prose. But if you take that advice too literally, you risk becoming too sparse and boring with your writing. Then by association, WE get bored. An analogy might be a guy telling a story at a party. If that guy's staring at his shoes and mumbling the whole time, it doesn't matter how great his story is, it's going to be boring. But if he’s excited and into it and vocal and looking everybody in the eye, that story's going to have life. So the trick is, within the confines of a minimalist style, adding flavor and atmosphere to your writing. "Joe walks over to Mandy and looks at her with a mean stare and then walks away, ” is robotic. "Joe charges towards Mandy, rage emanating from every pore. They come face-to-face. Silence. So much unspoken here. He finally shakes his head and pushes past her.” Not Oscar worthy but definitely more visual.
4) Unexciting subject matter or concept - There are certain stories that inherently lack drama or entertainment value. It is your job to avoid telling these stories. I’m talking about spiritual journeys, plot-less stories, characters in a house discussing life. I'm not saying it’s impossible to make these movies work, but it's the difference between having the Yankees payroll and the Oakland A’s payroll. Theoretically, the Oakland A's could win the World Series. But with 200 million dollars more, you're going to have a much better shot with the Yankees. A movie about a mother taking care of her son lacks drama and entertainment value. A movie about an unstable fan who’s imprisoned her favorite author in an isolated house in the mountains (Misery) is an idea jam-packed with drama and entertainment value.
5) Thin characters – You’ve heard this so many times it probably makes your head hurt. But this is probably the most misidentified reason for people being bored while reading a screenplay. That’s because when someone is bored, they tend to look at the immediate issue. This scene is empty. This dialogue is stale. But the reality is, it has nothing to do with either the scene or the dialogue. It has to do with the characters, who were never developed into interesting people in the first place. You’ve given us no reason to sympathize with them. No clear goal they’re going after. They’re not battling any internal conflict or flaw. They don’t have any interesting relationships in their life that need resolving. Their backstory is nonexistent. Everything about them is empty. Once you’ve made that mistake, it doesn’t matter how good your story is. We won’t care because your thin characters have sent us into a near-vegetative state. So get your character development on. Or else you’ll end up in Boringsville.
6) Scenes that don't push the story forward. - The more scenes I read that seemingly have nothing to do with your story, the more bored I get. This is why I tell you to have a clear goal for your main character at all times. If you have a clear goal for your hero, then you always know what scenes are necessary and what scenes aren’t. If your character has to deliver a droid to Princess Leia's father for instance, he’s going to need a way off the planet. So obviously, he’ll need to go to a cantina where a lot of pilots hang out. If your scene isn't *in some way* pushing towards whatever the current goal for your character is, then it isn't necessary.
7) Obvious choices - As readers, we read all day. That's what we do. We read scripts. By the time you finish your script, we’ve probably read 30 to 50 scripts just like yours. That's your audience - people who read variations of the same thing over and over again. So if all you're doing is making obvious choices with your scenes, your characters, your plot, your twists, then we’re going to get bored with your story quickly. Your job as a writer is to assess every one of the major choices you make in your screenplay and ask the question, have I seen this before? If you have, consider altering it and making it something that you haven't seen before. You're not going to be able to eliminate every cliché in your story. And quite frankly, you don't want to (we need some sense of status quo to latch onto). But the idea is to constantly push yourself to come up with enough different ideas or spins on old ideas that your script feels fresh.
8) Generic action scenes (especially if they’re endlessly strung together) - This is a common amateur gaffe. Amateur writers tend to mistake "keeping the story moving" for "keeping everything fast." So they throw action scene after action scene at you, believing that it's going to keep you interested. But here's a little secret you should know: The majority of action scenes are actually pretty boring on the page. There aren’t too many ways you can write a car chase or a gun battle that we haven't seen before. For that reason, all of the bullets and the race scenes and the battling and the fights eventually become one giant blob of generic action. I actually skim through a lot of action sequences because of how predictable they are. What you begin to learn as you get better is that the best action scenes are carefully set up ahead of time. The stakes have been established. The motivations are clear. The dynamics between the characters have been carefully planned out. That way, when we reach the action scene, it's not so much about the action itself as it is you caring about what's going to happen to the characters inside of that action. So it's essential that you’ve set up everything ahead of the action scene instead of focusing on how cool you can make the action scene itself.
9) Lack of clear motivation -This is a huge one. There is nothing more frustrating than losing track of what the hero is trying to do. This happens a lot in plot-heavy stories, since the hero is constantly jumping from new situation to new situation. The second we lose track of what the hero’s role is in these situations – what their objective is – we’re no longer participating in the story. We're simply trying to figure out what's going on. And if we're trying to figure out what's going on for too long, boredom sets in. So your job is to include “checkup” moments, lines or scenes that remind the audience what we’re doing and why. Imagine, for example, the final Death Star sequence in Star Wars without the "mission breakdown" scene beforehand. X wing fighters would be flying all over the place with us cluelessly wondering what the hell the point of it all was. This is why you get so bored watching sloppily-written movies like Transformers 3 and Pirates Of The Carribean 8. You rarely know what the characters are going after or what they’re doing in a battle. Since we don’t understand what the character’s motivation is, we simply don’t care what’s happening, and that leads to boredom. But this extends far beyond action scenes. I can go through 50 pages and a dozen scenes sometimes where I'm not clear what the hero's motivation is. That's when a script becomes really boring.
10) Zero surprises/reversals/twists - Never forget the power of the unexpected. Audiences have grown up on TV and movies. They know every trick in the book. So if your story is too predictable for too long, the audience starts to get ahead of you. And if the audience is ahead of you too frequently, they're probably bored (except for the use of dramatic irony which I won't get into here because I don't want to confuse anyone). So your job as a writer is every 15 to 30 pages, depending on the type of story you're telling, to throw something in there that that we aren’t expecting. Maybe it's a character dying who we never thought would die. Such as Colter in the first 10 minutes of Source Code. Maybe it's the introduction of a new dangerous character, like Mila Kunis’ character in Black Swan. Maybe it's an action from a character that we weren't expecting, such as the babysitter in Crazy Stupid Love taking naked pictures of herself to send to Steve Carrel’s character. It doesn't have to be some mind boggling nuclear-level surprise every time out. But you do have to throw things in there every now and then that the audience isn't expecting in order to keep them honest. If you don't, they're going to get way ahead of you, and once they're ahead of you, the boredom sets in.
So now what you need to do is go back to your latest screenplay and assess if you're making any of these mistakes, because if you are, you're boring the reader, and as we've established, that's the worst possible thing you can do as a writer. I’d also love to hear what you bores you guys when you read scripts. Feel free to vent in the comments. :)
Posted by Carson Reeves at 8:10 AM