Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Scriptshadow Writer Scale

LEVEL 10!!!

Back when I taught tennis, there was something called a NTRP Rating. To this day I have no idea what NTRP stands for, but its purpose was legitimate. It ranked players on a 7 point scale. So a player with a solid forehand, decent backhand, and consistent serve in the 80s, might be a 4.0, while a player with a high national ranking who could pound groundstrokes consistently deep into the court with heavy topspin, might be a 6.0. This allowed us pros to group players according to their level as well as place them in the right leagues and tournaments.

That always had me thinking: Why don’t they do the same thing for screenwriters? Because I think one of the big problems with screenwriters is they have no idea where they stand. Assuming an imaginary 10 point scale, there are millions of 1s out there who believe that they’re 10s. And that’s because there’s nothing to go by. It’s frustrating not just to see these writers deluding themselves, but if a writer doesn’t know where the checkpoints are, how can they possibly know what they need to do to get better? And hence, the 10-Point Scriptshadow Writer Scale – a detailed breakdown, from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) which tells you where you stand. Are you ready to find out your level?

If you’re on your first or second screenplay, you’re probably at Level 1 status. Level 1s usually know very little about storytelling. They often start their stories with no idea of what’s going to happen from scene to scene, making everything up as they go along. They’re not yet aware that events must progress in a logical fashion to make sense to a reader, and therefore much of their story bounces around illogically. Characters are often replicas of characters from their favorite movies and therefore display no originality. Dialogue scenes can go on for 10 pages at a time with no point – they’re just people talking. Most Level 1s assume screenwriting is easy and therefore put very little effort into the final product.

A level 2 writer has typically read 1 screenwriting book (usually “Save The Cat”) and is therefore aware of the 3 act structure, giving their stories a little more form than a Level 1. The problem is, while they know where the act breaks reside, they have very little idea what to do inside of those acts, particularly the second act. Their dialogue is typically on-the-nose and feels false as a result. Also, the writer hasn’t learned the importance of clarity yet, leaving out key pieces of information that they erroneously assume are obvious. This ensures a lot of head-scratching on the reader’s end, as they’re constantly trying to keep up. For example, the writer may know that their protagonist is a recovering alcoholic, but they don’t tell this to the reader. So when that character falls off the wagon and starts drinking again, it’s supposed to be this big powerful moment, but means nothing to the reader. Many Level 2s believe that since they’ve written a few screenplays, they know everything. They don’t. Not even close.

Level 3s are still often writing personal stories with very little market appeal, making it nearly impossible to sell their script or get noticed. Their structure is getting better – particularly the first act – but they still don’t know what to do with their second act, resulting in 60+ filler pages whose only purpose is to get them to that ending. Ironically, their scripts tend to be on the long side, usually 125 pages or more, and they *insist* that they need every single one of those pages, even though more than half the pages are extraneous and/or repeating information. Another problem is that their dialogue scenes are way too long, and usually consist of two characters discussing topics that the author thinks are interesting, even if they have nothing to do with the story.

Level 4 is usually where the writer first learns the importance of a strong goal that drives the story. Not only does this give the story a point, but it makes the main character active, since he has to go after something. Because these two things are so important in creating a great story, the jump from Level 3 to Level 4 is one of the most important a writer will go through. Level 4s also write good first acts, since having a character goal makes setting up the story a lot easier. But they still falter when they get to the second act, as even though they know where the protagonist is going, they don’t yet know how to create obstacles, reversals, surprises and interesting relationships, the things that keep the second act entertaining. But if you can make it to Level 4, which can take between 1 and ½ to 2 and ½ years depending on your talent level, you put yourself in a strong position to make it as a screenwriter.

Level 5 is when a writer first *really* understands the importance of concept. They’re no longer trying to write Academy Award winning scripts that change the world. They realize that in order to get noticed, you need to write something that appeals to the studios, and a marketable concept is the best way to go. Level 5 is also where writers first typically stress “showing” (tell the story through action/visuals) as opposed to telling (characters explaining through dialogue). They’re also learning to hide their exposition more so that characters aren’t speaking so on the nose. Their story is becoming more invisible. Although they don’t add conflict to every scene, they’ve started to subconsciously pick up on its importance, and therefore have quite a few strong scenes. Level 5s will occasionally place in contests as contest runners will see the potential in their work.

Level 6 often signifies a writer who’s in it for the long run. This writer has read a lot of the screenwriting books and has taken the best from all of them to develop his/her own approach. He/she also understands the importance of reading scripts, which they read a lot of. Level 6 is also when character development first starts to become a major focus for the writer. They’re just as interested in developing characters with full arcs as they are plotting their story out. Their scenes are also much better as they understand how to get into scenes late and leave early, giving their scripts a crisp “straight to the point” feel. There’s more conflict (in the plot, in the characters, in the relationships, in the scenes) making a larger chunk of the script entertaining. The thing is, while a Level 6 KNOWS all these things, they haven’t yet perfected them, giving the scripts an unpolished feel. Level 6s will place high in many secondary contests, possibly even winning a few.

Level 7 is when a writer really begins to “get it.” They’ve had all these pieces they’ve been perfecting for so long, but now those pieces are finally starting to fit together. It’s one of the more magical times for a writer, as they’ll experience a lot of “Ah ha!” moments. Outside of a strong marketable concept, Level 7s often look to the power of irony (i.e. a lawyer who can’t lie) to make their concepts and stories even juicier. Characters become the primary focus, specifically creating characters who are relatable and who have interesting problems and backstories that need to be resolved by the end of the story. Structure is never an issue with Level 7s. The dialogue is also a lot better since they keep their scenes short and to the point and have done enough character work that their characters speak distinctly and specifically. The problem with Level 7s is that they sometimes stress the craft side of screenwriting so much that their scripts feel a bit mechanical. Everything is where it’s supposed to be. The characters are all going through transformations. And yet there’s something missing that prevents the story from connecting with the reader. The writer hasn’t yet learned how to make all of these things feel natural, feel invisible. Level 7 is usually when writers start to make money off of their work, getting small jobs here and there. A few of them will even get lucky, selling a script if they have a really great concept. This is why you sometimes see so-so professional writers. They’re Level 7s who caught a break.

A level 8 writer has almost all of the screenwriting tools at their disposal and is working on perfecting more advanced techniques, such as dramatic irony, invisible set-ups, and thematic consistency. They can easily recognize when a scene or section isn’t working and know how to fix it. This skill is essential for working in the industry since that’s what you’ll be doing most of the time – rewriting your own and other people’s work. Level 8, in my opinion, is also when you first start “moving” readers emotionally with your work. It’s when you first create characters who really resonate with people, who feel real to them. This extends to the story as well. Often when reading a Level 8 writer, the reader isn’t aware that they’re reading a script as they’re too lost in the story. Their dialogue scenes often have subtext and in most scenes, there’s usually more going on than what’s on the surface. Strangely enough, Level 8s still struggle with the second half of the second act and can get overconfident, believing that their writing is good enough that it can overcome a weak premise, ironically putting them back at Square 3 – writing an unmarketable script. Level 8s are making a living off screenwriting, but aren’t yet trolling the 90210 zip code on Trulia for their next home.

A level 9 writer has gotten to the point where they can break time-tested screenwriting rules and still get away with it, since they know how to counteract them. Level 9 writers are specifically aware of what the studios and producers want and cater their premises accordingly. They know, for example, that to get a non-book-franchise movie made, you need an A-list actor to play the lead – which means coming up with an intriguing protagonist role with a lot of meat that an A-lister would love to play. Their execution is first rate and they know how to make every single moment interesting – even that damn second half of the second act. Level 9s don’t stop at making their primary characters interesting, but make sure every single character in the script is memorable and changes in some way. These guys are the meat and potatoes of the industry and are responsible for most of the movies you enjoy. They get paid at least 500k per job and are sought after for all the big assignments.

Level 10 is master status, Aaron Sorkinville, Academy award winning screenwriter. There are only 20-30 of these writers working and they know EVERYTHING about screenwriting. They know how to manipulate every single button inside of you using conflict, irony, sympathy, character flaws, all to make you laugh, cry, angry – WHATEVER they want you to be! They know every trick in the book to keep you turning the pages as well – anticipation, obstacles, mysteries, dramatic irony. They can write a character who seems like your best friend even though you’ve only known him for a few minutes. They can make you fall in love with a woman even if women aren’t your preference. Every scene has a specific purpose. There is no fat. They can completely ignore rules and still make it work. But what really separates these guys from the rest of the pack is how fast they work. They not only give you a great screenplay, but they can do it in a very short amount of time, something only a coveted few in Hollywood can pull off. Which is why they’re paid so much money. Once you reach Level 10 status, you can quit. Cause you’re at the top of the mountain baby.

Now is the Scriptshadow Writer Scale perfect? No. There are some writers who are naturally gifted with dialogue, for example, who still might be a Level 2 in every other category. But generally speaking, these are the observations I’ve made after reading every type of script from every type of writer under the sun. So how do you accelerate your ascent up the scale? Simple: LEARN AS MUCH AS YOU CAN ABOUT THE CRAFT. Read all the books. Read a ton of scripts. Write! Trade scripts with a screenwriting group. Get constant feedback. Study! It doesn’t mean you have to listen to everything you read. In fact, I encourage writers to perfect their own unique approach to screenwriting. But you can’t perfect something you don’t know anything about. So keep at it. Hopefully this scale gives you an idea of where you stand and where you need to get to. Good luck. :)