Thursday, January 6, 2011

Article - 10 Ways I Know I'm Reading An Amateur Script

When you read a ton of scripts, patterns start emerging. Little things occur here and there – red flags if you will - that indicate you’re dealing with an amateur. This article is not meant to attack these mistakes, but rather highlight them so that anyone writing a script can try and avoid them. I never give up on a script if I encounter a couple of these red flags, but when they start piling up, especially early on, I know I’m in for a long read. Here are ten common things that tell me I’m dealing with an amateur, and therefore ten things you should avoid!

MISSPELLINGS/MIS-USED WORDS (ESPECIALLY IN THE FIRST 10 PAGES) - Of the hundreds of scripts I’ve read with rampant misspellings, there have been maybe two that turned out to be good. The thing is, misspellings and misused words speak to a larger issue -- that the writer isn’t putting enough effort into his/her script. All it takes is sending your script off to a friend for a spell check, or combing through the script religiously yourself, to fix the problem. People who don’t put a lot of effort into spelling most likely aren’t putting a lot of effort into bigger issues like plot construction, character development and rewriting. Keep in mind, professionals take a lot of pride in their work. When they finish a script, they want to present it to you in the best light possible, so they make sure everything is perfect. Therefore when everything *isn’t* perfect, it’s natural for a reader to assume they’re not dealing with a pro.

BLOCKY CHUNKS OF TEXT - I get that some scripts are going to require more description than others, but when I’m repeatedly seeing blocks of text 5-6 lines long (or longer) I know I’m dealing with an amateur. Blocks of text need to be lean in order for your script to be easy to read. Pros know this. They know that taxing the reader’s eyes is going to result in a less enjoyable reading experience. So they keep descriptions lean, and when they do have to go into detail, they break those chunks up into multiple paragraphs so they’re easier to digest. Some genres get a little more leeway in this department. For example, I’m okay with paragraphs *occasionally* getting 5-6 lines deep in a period piece. But if I’m reading a comedy, you better have a damn good reason to go over 3 lines consistently.

NO CHARACTER DESCRIPTION – This one kills me, however I acknowledge that some pros are guilty of this as well, so it’s not always a guarantee that you’re dealing with an amateur. Here’s how I look at it. Your characters are your everything. They’re the lifeblood of your movie. If we don’t know what they look like, how are we supposed to connect with them? Here’s a description for you: “Gene, 40, takes in the world behind a pair of steely gray eyes. He always looks at you for a little too long, as if he’s sizing you up for some later experiment.” Here’s another: “Gene, 40, short and stocky.” Try and convince me that the reader doesn’t get more out of the first description. Obviously, you’re going to give shorter descriptions for less important players, but an attempt should always be made to bring characters to life when they’re first described.

TOO MANY CHARACTERS – Amateur writers love introducing new characters. 20-30 characters counts are normal to them. Pro writers not only understand that too many characters become hard for a reader to remember, but that by combining characters and/or focusing on less characters, it allows them to develop those characters more, therefore making them more interesting. Keep your character count down. Only introduce characters if they’re absolutely necessary to the story.

TOO MUCH “MOVIE LOGIC” – When I’m reading a script, one of the things that separates the pros from the amateurs is how they treat logic. In professional scripts, whether it be fantasy or drama or comedy, things always happen for a reason, and that reason makes sense. In amateur scripts, choices are made more because the writer *wants* them to happen. They don’t really care if they make sense or not, as long as they solve the immediate story problem. For example, is your female lead agreeing to go out with your male lead because he’s done something to impress her, or is she simply going out with him because you need them to get together? Is your babysitter going to check out that noise in the dark dangerous basement because it makes sense or because you need to kill her off? Why is your hero, who you’ve established as afraid to fly, flying his date off to Vegas for the weekend? This may seem obvious, but I read so many scripts where characters do illogical things because the writer isn’t putting themselves in the character’s position and asking if they’d really do those things or not.

SHIFTING TONE/GENRES – One second your script is a crime caper. The next it’s a romantic comedy. Once we hit the second act, it’s a thriller! I’ve actually spoken to writers about this. Sometimes, they’re not aware of it. But other times they try and tell me that they don’t want to make a “Hollywood movie,” and are instead trying to create something original, different, and cutting edge. Well, okay, you can do that. But unless you understand intricately the genres that you’re working in and have a logical and original plan as to how to jump back and forth between genres, your script is not going to come off as profound. It’s going to come off as hackneyed. There’s only one Quentin Tarantino.

PREDICTABLE – I excavated this out of some notes that I gave because I think it’s the perfect way to describe this issue. You don’t want your plot to be too predictable! Readers being able to predict every plot turn is death for a writer. It means you’re not doing your job, which is to tell a story that we’ve never quite seen told this way before. You want to use our assumptions against us. You want to think, “Okay, they think we’re going to do *this*, so instead we’re going to do *this*.” This is a great way to think while writing in general, because it challenges you to go against the obvious choice, a surefire way to make your screenplay more original.

MELODRAMATIC – New writers aren’t yet aware how much is enough when it comes to evoking emotion, and usually way overdo it as a result. Someone dies. A couple of scenes later someone gets cancer. A couple of scenes later there’s a car crash and someone goes to the hospital. It feels to the writer like they’re creating captivating drama, but the overindulgence of it all actually creates the opposite effect, making it feel ridiculous and unrealistic. Pick and choose your spots where your script gets heavy. And don’t cram too many intense dramatic moments together.

BORING ON-THE-NOSE DIALOGUE – This is probably the biggest clue that you’re dealing with an amateur. The dialogue is really straightforward and boring. Characters say exactly what they mean: “You make me so angry!’ Characters get way more specific than people in real life would: “I’m going to head over to get a cheeseburger at Portillo’s and then call my mom.” (instead of “I need a chili dog before my stomach starts eating itself.”) There’s no nuance or slang. People talk like robots. There’s no subtext or conflict. Characters aren’t hiding anything from one another (which always makes for interesting dialogue). You need to understand all of these things in order to get that dialogue to pro level.

And there you go. Those are the things that scream “amateur” to me, but if you’re a fan of this site, then you’ve read your share of screenplays as well. What are the things that clue *you* in that you’re reading an amateur as opposed to a pro?