Thursday, August 2, 2012

Screenplay Article - We Can Do Better

So as you know, last week was kind of a disaster.  Actually, I wouldn't say "disaster."  But when I put together the Twit-Pitch competition, I had these grand illusions of finding the next great undiscovered talent.  And hey, it might still happen.  I've only reviewed the "maybes" so far, not the "definites," and the definites are the best of the bunch.

But what upset me was the general lack of quality in the screenplays entered.  I get that everyone is at a different point in their journey, but with the exception of Fatties, none of these scripts was even close to good enough.  As I battled with that, I began to understand one of the biggest issues facing aspiring screenwriters - They don't know what level of quality is expected of them.  How can you jump over the bar if you don't know how high the bar is?

The simple answer to this is AIM AS HIGH AS YOU CAN.  Never EVER give out one of your screenplays unless it's legitimately (no lying to yourself) the best possible screenplay you're capable of writing at that stage of your career.  If you follow that one rule, you'll put yourself ahead of 80% of the writers out there, even if you're just starting out.

Now I wish that was all you needed to do but it isn't.  This is still a craft.  Effort isn't the determining factor. There are character-related rules to learn, story machinations to ingest, plotting to grasp, basic dramaturgy you need to know.  That's why you gotta read as many scripts as you can and write as many scripts as your little fingers will allow.  With that said, here are seven mistakes that popped out at me from reading the amateur scripts from the last two weeks.  Avoid them at all costs!

BEWARE OF FORCED PLOT POINTS - What Man Of Your Dreams reminded me was that you can never allow the plot machine to become visible to the reader.  Your plot MUST BE INVISIBLE.  One of the challenges of writing a good screenplay is that it NOT FEEL LIKE A SCREENPLAY!  It has to feel like real life.  The reader must become so wrapped up in it that they forget they're reading.  If you're pushing contrivances and coincidences on us, we become acutely aware that a story is being written.  For example, in Dreams, our main character has a dream that she's at the altar marrying a doctor named Tom.  Since she's convinced her dreams come true, she's spent her entire life looking for a doctor named Tom.  As a reader, however, I'm going, "Okay well how does she have this dream and not see the guy's face?" It's, of course, a plot contrivance.  If she knows what he looks like, there's no movie.  And how is it exactly that she knows he's a doctor?  Is he dressed in doctor's scrubs at the wedding?  Does the priest say, "Do you marry...Doctor Tom?"  The fact that I'm thinking about all this stuff and not just enjoying the story is a perfect example of the plot being too visible.

MAKE SURE THERE'S ENOUGH PLOT IN THE FIRST PLACE - The Last Rough Rider was a big reminder of what happens when you don't pack enough plot into your story.  Plot can be boiled down to a series of story developments.  It might be a side mission your hero has to go on before he can tackle his main mission.  It might be that the bad guys catch him and throw him in a dungeon.  It might be the wife getting captured, so that he now has to save her IN ADDITION TO stopping the villains.  It might be that the villain who we thought was dead reemerges.  It might be subplots with other characters.  It might be an unexpected twist, where we learn an ally is actually a spy.  If all your character is doing is trying to get from point A to point B, as is the case in Rough Rider, your plot will feel too thin.

GIVE US SOMETHING WE HAVEN'T SEEN BEFORE - The lone Twit-Pitch success so far, Fatties, is a great reminder that readers respond to uniqueness.  One of the big mistakes writers make is they assume the reader has read or seen the exact same amount of scripts or movies they have.  They erroneously believe, then, that if something is unique to them, it will be unique to the reader.  Wrong.  A typical reader has read way more scripts than you have, and probably seen tons more movies as well.  For that reason, you have to go beyond what you think is "new" or "different" and push yourself to find something that's truly beyond what anybody else has thought of.  Even if a reader doesn't like a script, he'll usually commend you for coming up with something unique.  Unfortunately, almost all writers keep typing up the same stories.  And us readers have to keep reading them.

PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS AS A WRITER - Most young writers aren't yet aware of what their strengths are.  If you're writing in a genre that doesn't suit your kind of writing, it's like Clint Black trying to sing opera. The two just don't go together.  Crimson Road reminded me that if you're not a dialogue king, then you don't want to write a movie like Scream, or any teenager-driven film, as they tend to rely heavily on clever and punchy dialogue.  Be honest with yourself.  Identify what you're good at and what you aren't.  Then, cater the genres and stories you choose to highlight those strengths.

REWRITE!!!! - I said it above but I'll say it again: The one thing that should never be in question when you write a screenplay is effort.  Yet it's one of the most common mistakes I see new writers make.  They think as long as they throw something together that mildly resembles a movie, they've done their job, and you should praise them.  Yet these are the scripts readers laugh at, or cry about, or complain to one another about.  We say to each other, "Why the hell would he send this out to anyone?  There are five spelling/grammar mistakes in the first ten pages."  "There are three scenes out of the first six that convey the exact same thing." "In the first act, no story emerges."  "Characters just babble to each other about nothing.  No one's pushing the story forward."  "There are no scenes here."  "This feels like it was thrown together on a Saturday night."  If your'e a new screenwriter, don't show your script to anyone unless you've done at least ten drafts.  You heard that right.  Ten drafts.  Every draft should be better than the previous one.  A lot of work?  Yeah.  But you're going up against professional writers who know how to craft a story a lot better than you do and they're putting in twenty drafts.  So your doing ten is just to ensure you don't embarrass yourself.  Screenwriting takes just as much effort to master as brain surgery.  If you're not willing to put in that effort, do something else.

PAINTING YOUR WORLD IS GOOD - PAINTING YOUR STORY IS BETTER - One of the more common things I see is writers with a lot of talent who focus on the wrong thing.  The Mad Dogs writers are a good example.  These guys created this big sprawling imaginative world that was admittedly cool, yet they didn't spend half as much time on the story itself.  All of the imagination and focus went into the bells and whistles - the visuals and the mythology.  I'm not saying that stuff isn't important.  It is.  But the story itself is WAY MORE IMPORTANT. Characters going after goals we care about.  A story that pulls us in immediately and never lets go.  Relationships with issues we want to see resolved.  Fun story twists to keep us guessing.  People we like and want to root for.  The truth is, an imaginative world should always be the backdrop to the more important element, which is the story itself.

AMATEUR COMEDIES ALMOST ALWAYS SUCK - DON'T BE ONE OF THEM - One thing I've found is that the comedy genre is the easiest genre to come up with a movie idea for yet the hardest for amateurs to execute.  Everyone thinks they're funny.  Everyone has friends who laugh at their jokes.  So they think, "Why can't I be a comedy writer?"  It's a lot tougher than that.  You have to learn how to structure a story, how to pace a story, how to extend a story premise out to 110 pages.  You have to learn how to build a story around real characters with real problems as opposed to coming up with a string of jokes or a series of funny scenes.  Start with your main character and his flaw.  In 95% of comedies, the hero should have a fatal flaw he needs to overcome, whether it be arrogance or fear or he's too wound up or he doesn't take things seriously.  If a character is fighting some kind of a flaw in a comedy, I immediately know that the script is going to be ten times better than the average amateur comedy.  Do that and I promise you, your script won't be taken as a joke.

Look, I want everyone who reads this site to become a great screenwriter.  But it's not just going to "happen."  It takes work and effort and trial and error and patience and failure after failure after failure until you finally come into your own.  Take this craft seriously.  Every free second you have, do something screenwriting-related.  Whether it be studying or reading or writing.  Hold yourself to higher standards.  Rewrite the shit out of your scripts.  Send your scripts to friends or consultants before sending them out into the world and ask them, point blank, "Is this any good?" I've saved a lot of screenwriters from losing key contacts or embarrassing themselves because they or their scripts just weren't ready.  Screenwriting is a profession.  Be professional.  Stop giving out your work unless it's legitimately the best you're capable of.  You can do better!