Thursday, April 28, 2011

Why We're All Capable of Writing Shitty Screenplays

The thing that keeps every screenwriter up at night is the fear of boring the reader, the fear of writing a screenplay that isn’t any good. And here’s the terrifying reality. We’re all capable of writing horrible screenplays. From the guy who’s just starting out to the famous writer-director who pulls in 10 million a picture. Every single one of us, no matter how much we’ve studied the craft, no matter how many screenplays we’ve written…we’re all capable of writing a bad story.

But how can that be? You'd think that the more experienced you got at something, the better you’d get at it. Well, that’s true. The more time you put into screenwriting, the more likely it is that you’ll write something good. But it doesn’t guarantee you’ll write something good. In fact, I’ve received dozens of screenplays from writers who know way more about screenwriting than I do, and more than a third of them have been bad. So of course the first thing that pops into my head is, “Well if this guy, who’s an awesome writer, can write something shitty and not know it, where the hell does that leave my chances?” Is anyone safe? Is it that much of a crapshoot? Is there any way to minimize this horrible reality?

That’s why I’m writing today’s article. I’ve discovered some trends – or at least some red flags – that, if mitigated, can help avoid the deadly “bad script” pitfall. This is not the “end all be all” answer to this question. It’s more of a, “Be aware of these things whenever you write, as they often increase the likelihood that you’ll write something shitty.” We’ll start with one of the most common mistakes, “miscalculation.”

MISCALCULATION – Remember this: What is interesting to us may not be interesting to others. This is the number one reason a script from a good writer can fail. They’ve conceived of a story idea that they believe people will enjoy. But they were wrong. And really, everything that comes after that moment is doomed. Doesn’t matter how expertly they execute the idea. People just don’t care. Look at Spielberg with 1941 (I know he didn’t write it but he shepherded the writing of it). Look at Cameron Crowe with Elizabethtown. Look at M. Night with…well, everything after The Village. These stories were doomed from the outset because they weren’t interesting enough to be explored in the first place. The good news is, this one is correctable, and it goes back to what Blake Snyder preached in his first book. You gotta go out and test your story idea on other people. See if they’re interested. Look for that excitement in their eyes when you pitch it. Be wary when you get the polite “That sounds good.” By simply testing your idea beforehand, you minimize spending the next year of your life on a bad screenplay.

PASSION PROJECT – (Incupatisa from the comments section defined a passion project perfectly, so I'll repeat it here: "Broadly speaking, it's a script one writes without a care in the world as to whether its sensibilities appeal to anyone but the writer.") I’m not going to say that passion projects are bad. What I am going to say is that you’re playing with fire when you write them. You’re moving from the blackjack table to the dog races. As long as you realize you’re stacking the odds against yourself in a business where the odds are already stacked against you, then I’m okay with you writing a passion project. But here’s why I’d advise against it. Passion is good. It’s what keeps those page returns coming. But passion is also irrational. Passion blinds us from the truth. For that reason, whenever we’re working on our self-proclaimed “passion project,” we’re not seeing it the same way that the rest of the world is seeing it. We’re seeing this idealized perfectly constructed emotionally dazzling display of themes and symbolism and character flaws and introspection. They’re seeing a boring directionless story without a hook. The problem is (and I’m just as guilty of this as anybody), as writers get better, they’re more prone to believe they can overcome weak premises. This results in pretentious screenplays with no entertainment value. There are lottery winner examples of these scripts working (American Beauty) but more often than not, they’re never purchased or made, and even when they are, they’re both bad and lose a lot of money for people (Towelhead, Away We Go, The Pledge). My suggestion with these scripts is to know what you’re getting into. Use them as character development practice or as a way to decompress in between sequences of that monster flick you’re working on. But please don’t depend on them. I know how satisfying they are to write, as they allow you to get into your own head and tackle some of those issues that have been bothering you. But 99% of the time, they’re boring to everyone else who reads them. If you ignore this advice and want to write one anyway, please please please add a hook (yesterday’s script, Maggie, is a good example – drop the zombie angle and that script never makes it past the first reader).

CHOICE – Regardless of whether you’re a structure nut or not, whether you follow Robert McKee’s teachings or avoid him like a fraternity bathroom, your script is going to require somewhere between 5000 and 10000 choices. From the characters to the subplots to the plot points to the scenes to the individual lines of dialogue, you’re constantly making choices when you write. And CHOICE is the one thing that comes from inside of you – that isn’t dictated by a screenwriting beat sheet. From what you find interesting, to the tone you’re trying to set, to the pace you’re trying to generate, to the level of complexity you’re trying to build. Every single choice you make affects your script. And this is where I think the good scripts get separated from the bad ones. A good script is a collection of good choices. And what I mean by “good choices” is choices that are unique, that are imaginative, that feel fresh, but most importantly, choices where you can tell the writer put some effort into them. I read so many scripts where on the very first page, the writer goes with the first choice that comes to mind.  That to me signifies laziness. So I’m never surprised when the rest of the script is lazy as well. I mentioned a couple of months ago how Chinatown started with an investigation that turned out to be a lie. That’s an interesting choice. That’s what you should be aiming for. As a writer, you should be approaching your choices the same way you approach your concept. You wouldn’t write a so-so movie idea would you? So why write a so-so line of dialogue? A so-so character? A so-so story twist? I’ll tell you why you do. BECAUSE IT’S EASIER. The path of least resistance is always easiest. And sometimes we just want to take the easy way out. If you’d like to avoid writing a bad screenplay, put every choice you make to the test. Always ask yourself if you can come up with something better. Laziness, which extends from the bottom of the screenwriting totem pole to the top, is avoidable with effort.

ELEMENTS DON’T MESH – Now we’re getting into real trouble territory here. Of all the potential setbacks I’ve mentioned so far, this is the one you have the least amount of control over. Sometimes you have a good idea, and you write the screenplay, but for whatever reason, it just isn’t working. The problem is, when we work on anything for an extended period of time, we’re less likely to let it go. So we keep trying to force the elements together and make it work, unwilling to admit what we know in the back of our minds – that it’s never going to work. I’m not talking about problems in a script. Every script has problems. I’m talking about scripts where it’s clear the elements aren’t meshing the way you originally intended for them to. The 2006 movie, Reign Over Me, with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle is a good example. It had good intentions, with a man grieving the loss of his family on 9/11 and reconnecting with an old friend. I still remember seeing the trailer and thinking, “That could be good.” But the video game stuff and the stilted reconnection scenes and the uncomfortable dramatization of the still raw 9/11 tragedy and the weird woman at the dentist subplot…. That combination of elements was never going to gel the way the writer imagined it would. So the lesson here is that you gotta be able to move on. Being honest with yourself is painful, but it’ll be less painful than the drubbing you'll get when someone reads your script and thinks you’re a boring writer.

X-FACTOR – This one isn’t so much about what makes your script bad, as what makes your script average. If you don’t find that X-factor, no matter how hard you work on something, it’s never going to rise above “liked it didn’t love it” status. The X-factor is basically that indefinable “thing” that elevates a script into something special. In the above section, I talk about what happens when the elements don’t come together. The X-factor is the opposite. It’s what happens when the elements not only come together, but come together perfectly. Take a look at a movie like Zombieland. You have voice over, a set of rules for escaping zombies, four very distinct characters, flashbacks, a road trip, a unique and fresh sense of humor. All those elements lined up perfectly to make that script pop off the page. Star Wars is probably the best example of this, as it contains a good 30 central unique elements and they all come together perfectly. Had that not happened, we could’ve easily gotten Dune a decade early. The surest path to locking down that elusive X-Factor is to come up with a concept/hook that gets you excited (never write anything that doesn’t get you excited), give it a story you’re passionate about, and populate it with characters you love. In other words, you need to love the story you’re writing. If you don’t love it, people will always comment that there’s something missing, and that something is usually the “x-factor.”

Hey, it sucks that despite all these scripts we’re reading and how much we’re learning about this craft, we’re still capable of writing shit. But at least this way, you have an idea of what causes that shit. I’m sure I missed some things though, so if anyone has any theories on why the man who wrote arguably the best screenplay ever (Chinatown) can also write Ask The Dust, as well as similarly talented screenwriters stinking it up, drop some knowledge in the comment section below.