Thursday, May 10, 2012

Screenwriting Article - 10 Possible Reasons Your Script Is Boring

I read way too many boring scripts. And the thing is, the whole time I’m thinking, “Aww man, if they had just done this or done that, the script would be so much better.” I want to reach through the screen and correct their mistakes for them. But I can’t. And that’s what’s the most frustrating. They don’t even know what they’re doing wrong – so they continue to make the same mistakes over and over again – and I’m helpless to stop it.

Which is why I’m writing today’s article. If there’s anyone who knows what makes a script boring, it’s me. And I’m here to reveal those mistakes so that you guys don’t make them anymore. Some of them will be easy to apply and some of them will take – gulp – years of practice. But at LEAST you’ll know what they are, which gives you a fighting chance. The biggest reason for a bad screenplay is ignorance – not knowing or understanding the mechanics of what make a story work. Well my friends, consider yourselves enlightened. Here are 10 possible reasons people are bored with your script.

Your movie idea isn’t interesting - This one seems obvious and yet it's the most ignored piece of advice I give. Writers simply come up with uninteresting ideas. They want to write about a man coming to terms with the death of his mother or a woman’s road trip to discover the meaning of life. There’s no CONCEPT there. There’s no ironic component to make you sit up and notice. You need a SPECIFIC INTERESTING IDEA to explore or else we won’t care. So please, for the love of all that is holy, test-drive your idea with a dozen people before you write your script. If nobody seems that excited (beware fake excitement – which friends and family are good at) then move on to a better idea. It doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are if your idea is boring.

You’re writing scenes that say the exact same thing - New writers take four or five scenes to make a point. Pro writers take one scene to make a point. Because of that, their scripts move faster and because of *that*, their stories are more entertaining. For example, if you want to point out that your main character is afraid to get close to people, then give us an early scene showing them pull away from an emotional moment. Do NOT then follow that scene with four extra scenes specifically showing different versions of that exact same point. That’s not to say you won’t keep hitting on your hero’s flaw throughout the screenplay. But you should only have one scene specifically dedicated to it. That’s the problem with a lot of young writers. They repeat the same things over and over and OVER again when we got it the first time. It’s MUCH more important to keep your story moving than it is to drive your point down our throats. 

Lack of a compelling/interesting/intriguing main character – Oh my God this one is huge. Your main character is who we’re going to be following for the entire movie. So guess what? If he’s got nothing going on, we’re going to be bored! Too many writers make their characters Average Joes doing average things. And yes, some movies require that type of protagonist, but you HAVE to find something interesting about them if we’re going to follow them around enthusiastically. Maybe your hero’s like Indiana Jones, who’s a professor by day and a superhero by night. Maybe he’s a janitor at MIT who’s secretly genius. Or maybe he’s just a really funny dude who doesn’t have any ambition (Knocked Up). Whatever the case, your main character has to be interesting in some way because if he’s not, it doesn't matter what your plot is. We’ll be bored.

There’s no point to your scene - Pointless scenes are script killers. I usually run into pointless scenes as early as the second scene of the screenplay. In fact, that's a pretty common place to find them because most writers know what their big fun exciting opening scene is going to be before they write their script. But once that scene is over and they get to characters actually talking, it’s like the writer doesn’t know what to do any more. It’s like they think as long as two characters are having a dialogue – regardless of what they’re talking about – that they’re doing their job. Wrong. If there’s no point to your scene – if characters aren’t trying to get something out of the scene or out of the other character, you’re just talking to yourself. One of the easiest ways to make a scene interesting is to make sure the characters in it want something. That desire (that point) will suck the reader in.

Endless action - Endless action is one of those false security blankets. Young writers believe that as long as there's a lot of action happening, the reader will be entertained. But actually, if you're giving us endless action, it’s just as boring as giving us endless dialogue. The reason action scenes work is because of what's at stake. They work because you’ve used the previous 20 pages to set up how important this heist is or this battle is or this race is. Without that prep to establish the stakes, it’s just mindless action. So if you’re jumping from one action sequence to another with little to no breaks in between, I guarantee you we’re getting bored.

Scenes without conflict – Think of your scenes as a tug-of-war. One person in the scene wants one thing – the other person in the scene wants another thing. You write the scene to figure out who’s going to win that tug-of-war. Maybe Person A wins. Maybe Person B wins. Maybe nobody wins. But the fact that something is trying to be gained is what’s going to keep the scene entertaining. New writers RARELY add conflict to their scenes which is why their scenes are so boring. Now conflict can be tricky. It’s not just two people being angry with one another. In fact, sometimes a character may not even know he’s in a tug of war. So yeah, a conflict-filled scene could be as simple as a wife and husband arguing about who’s going to pick up the kids today. But it can also be a girl who secretly likes a boy and is trying to get him to realize it. Or it can be a wife who’s trying to get her husband out of the house before her lover shows up. However you look at it, scenes work best when there’s some sort of imbalance in them that needs to be resolved. So add some damn conflict to your boring scene!

Your characters are thin - I know too many writers who don't care about digging into their characters. Some will use the excuse that they're writing an action movie. Some will just say they're not interested. But if you're not digging into your characters and learning about them and understanding how they grew up and understanding the complications they went through and what regrets they have and what their dreams are and who they still hold a candle for - if you don’t know all those things about your characters, then guess what? Your characters will be thin. And thin characters are BORING characters. One of the reasons Avengers was so well-liked was because, even as an action movie, every single one of those characters had an intense backstory. I mean look at the Hulk. If that's not a character with depth, I don't know what is. So if they can do that in the biggest popcorn action movie of all time, then you can do it in your screenplay as well.

Not understanding the phrase “stuff needs to happen” - Stuff needs to HAPPEN in your screenplay. The problem is that young writers don't know what the word “happen” means. They think it means your character going to bars and talking with their friends or going to work for yet another boring workday. Yeah, technically something is “happening” in those scenes, but nothing INTERESTING is happening. In order to make something of interest happen, have the scene push your story forward. So instead of plopping two characters down in a location to discuss their lives, have them trying to figure out something that has an impact on the story. Maybe one of them is thinking of moving to a new city. Maybe one of them is thinking of asking their dream girl out. Now there's an actual purpose to the conversation so we’ll be invested in how it ends. “Happening” basically means writing a scene where you’re pushing the story forward. If you're not doing that, your scene’s probably boring.

An unfocused story – I can tell you right now, one of the quickest ways to reading boredom is when I lose track of what’s going on. The script’s become so unfocused that I don’t care anymore. We've ended up in a house in another state with a character whose goal I’ve forgotten trying to contact somebody I don’t know about something that’s never been fully explained. Of course I’m bored. A lack of focus almost always stems from an unclear character goal. If we’ve forgotten (or never been told) what the protagonist is after and why, then the script drifts into a sea of murkiness. So the lesson here is, MAKE SURE THE READER KNOWS WHAT THE CHARACTER IS AFTER. There's never any doubt that Indiana Jones is going after the Ark. That’s why that script whizzes by. So make sure you establish that and don’t be afraid to remind us every once in awhile. Because as soon as we lose track of what’s going on, we start to lose interest.

You’re not putting enough effort into your choices - Recently I read this script I felt could easily be a movie. It was very marketable and the kind of thing a studio would want to add to their slate. But it was incredibly boring. And it was boring because every choice the writer made was the most obvious choice in the world. The main character was a cliche obvious choice. The scenes were all scenes I’d seen a million times before. The funny sidekick character had nothing new to him. It was like the writer never thought past the first thing that popped into his head. It’s your job as a writer to always ask the question: “Can I come up with something better, more interesting, more original, or cooler than this?” Chances are you can. But most writers don’t take the time because it’s too much work. Well I got news for you. Screenwriting ain’t all fun. It’s work. I would go so far as to say if writing a script is pure fun for you, you’re not working hard enough. Challenge your choices. Come up with better ones. Don’t be the guy who sends out a script where everything is obvious, general, and cliché.

And there you have it. Now get back to your current screenplays and make sure you're not making any of these mistakes. Good luck!