Monday, November 10, 2008

Maybe We Can Fix It In Post...

So, last week I gave a rant that was mostly designed for the novelists and short story writers who regularly look here (all three of them). This week I thought I’d put something out for all the would-be screenwriters who’ve become loyal followers of this blog (both of you).

The rest of you... I have no idea why you keep coming here.

Over the past few months I read scripts for three different screenwriting contests. Two of them are fairly well known. I’m not sure of the exact number, but I probably read well over 200 screenplays in that time period, and I was just helping out part-time.

Seeing this many scripts is, in some ways, a wonderful learning experience. Not only did I get to see the same mistakes made again and again and again (thus reinforcing the fact that I will never commit the same mistake) but I also got to see the entire review process through the eyes of a reader and share my thoughts with other people on this side of the line.

That being said, two important things to remember as I go into this list...

First, readers are human. They generally have to read about a dozen scripts every day (The Stand by Stephen King has fewer pages than a single day’s worth of feature scripts), and they’re usually only making fair to average pay doing it. They get frustrated, they get bored, and they will make snap judgments even when they’re trying to be as fair and impartial as possible. Every time you make it easier for them to render that judgment—one way or the other—you’re doing them a favor.

Second, reading scripts is not about mining for gold, it’s a weeding-out process. For most readers, the job is not to find the best of the best, but to clean away the worst, the barely-adequate, and the mediocre for the higher-paid people above them.

As an additional side note, I’ve determined a simple truth I call the 50% rule. It holds for screenplay contests, and I bet it also counts for anthologies, job applications, and blind dates.

If you take any body of submissions, about half of them will have no business whatsoever being there in that group. These are the submissions where the reader knows by page two there’s no point in turning another page. Maybe it’s because they submitted a western to a sci-fi contest, or vice-versa. Perhaps there’s a 120 page cap and it’s a 200 page screenplay. It could even be handwritten in crayon. One way or another, when you look at the odds for a contest, remember that half those people aren’t even going to be your competition. Or, awful as it may sound, you won’t even be theirs.

Here’s ten of the most common reasons why.


Yeah, can you believe I’m harping on this again? When I first wrote the “Contest Beat” column for Creative Screenwriting (recently resurrected as “Eyes on the Prize”) I interviewed dozens of contest directors and asked each of them what were some tips for aspiring entrants. Across the board, the answer that every one of them gave was spelling and grammar.

Now, a random typo is not going to sink your chances. We all make mistakes, and readers know that, too. If I’m going through your script and there’s a typo on every page, though... Heck, there were a few screenplays I looked at where I wasn’t even thirty pages in and I’d lost track of how many there were.

Whenever you hand off a manuscript you’re trying to convince the reader that you are an advanced writer. You’re ahead of the average Joe or Jane, someone who can do more with words and letters than just sign their name, send a text message, or scribble a shopping list. The absolute, bare-bones basic tools of writing – any writing-- are spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. If you aren’t a master of the basics (you, not your word processor’s spellchecker), how can you hope to do anything advanced?

Apostrophe S

You could argue this goes under typos, but to be honest it’s in a class by itself. Messing up an apostrophe S will stand out on the page like a flare. There is no worse mistake you can make. Seriously. None. As I said above, we all make mistakes now and then, but it’s obvious when a writer’s just throwing down random apostrophes and getting a few right by sheer chance.

Knowing the difference between a plural, a possessive, and a contraction is past basic—it’s a fundamental part of the English language. Stop writing, go get some grammar books like Eats Shoots & Leaves or even just the MLA Handbook and actually read them. Promise yourself, as of this moment, no more guessing or taking wild stabs in the dark. A real writer has to know how apostrophe S works.

Excess Title Info

You would be stunned how many scripts were submitted to these contests with things like MY TITLE—crap draft right on the first page. One didn’t even use the crap, but a more vernacular form. No, I’m serious. Sometimes they’re in the file name with electronic submissions, which is also a bad time to see MY TITLE—(other contest’s name) Submission. Even just plain old MY TITLE—1st draft. Only your first draft? And you thought it was ready for a contest? Well, okay... I guess that’s better than the script that was copyrighted back in 2001 and probably hasn’t been changed since...

Don’t give a reader any reason to prejudge your script. Strip off any and all draft numbers or extraneous comments to yourself before you send it out. I’ve got over a dozen screenplays to read today, and honestly, if you’re going to hand yours off and tell me it’s crap right up front... well, you’re saving me some time, thanks.

The script is about a writer

Seriously, you would not believe the percentage of scripts that are about novelists or wanna-be screenwriters. Out of 150 scripts I read for one contest, nineteen of them had writers as a main character. That’s almost one out of every seven--over 14% of them! They were all awful and not one of them advanced.

Not to sound harsh, but no one cares about the day-to-day struggles you go through as a writer. Trust me, I do it for a living, I know. They also don’t care about the day-to-day struggles of a thinly-fictionalized version of yourself. And they also don’t care about the sheer joy of the creative process, the way impossibly beautiful women and handsome men are drawn to creative types, or the wild, quirky, and outgoing nature every writer has.

And for God’s sake, it’s the worst ending in the world when the writer-character finally sells their book or screenplay, everything is now wonderful and perfect in the world, and they win the Pulitzer/ Oscar/ whatever...

The story never addresses things

It’s okay to have mystery in your story. It’s okay not to reveal everything. Heck, it’s even okay to have wild, absurd coincidences. Many movies and shows have had success by not fully explaining who that cigarette-smoking man is, why that girl down in the well is so evil, or what the heck is going on on that damned tropical island. We all like this sort of stuff, and when it’s done well it what makes your story the one people talk about and remember for ages.

However, these things still need to be acknowledged. A story can’t just get away with “it’s a secret” and expect that readers (and an audience) will just accept it. A reader can see the difference between a real mystery and a bunch of awkwardly-withheld information. It’s also apparent when a writer is keeping a secret and when they’re just trying to be mysterious because... well, people like mysterious stuff.

You can get away with a lot of bizarre stuff if your characters at least acknowledge the mystery or absurdity of it. On the show LOST we found out that someone on the plane was travelling with a pregnancy test. Yet before the audience even had a chance to mock this little bit of deus ex machina, one of the characters did. “Who travels with a pregnancy test?” laughed Kate, trying to calm her friend Sun. And with that, this ridiculous coincidence was addressed and allowed. A few years back in an issue of The Incredible Hulk, writer Peter David had sidekick Rick Jones saved from an exploding Skrull warship because he always wore a mini-parachute under his clothes in case he had to escape from an exploding Skrull warship. When Bruce Banner pointed out how absurd that was, Rick looked up at the sprawling cloud in the sky and said “ What do you mean? I needed it, didn’t I?”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with mystery and coincidence. Just make sure it really is a mystery, not just an attempt to look like one.

Crowd scenes

I read one script that introduced twelve characters in the first ten pages, plus a handful of minor ones. The record was seventeen in the first five pages. As I recently explained to a friend of mine, this is like pouring out a truckload of gravel and asking someone to take note of what color stones they see.

Pace the introduction of characters. If you tell me ten people walk into a room, you don’t need to give me all their names, genders, physical descriptions, and character quirks all at once. We can get to know them as the situation arises.

Confusing names

This may sound a little foolish and obvious, but if your story has characters named Paul, Paula, Paulina, and Paola (and one short I read did) it’s going to be very, very difficult for a reader to keep track of who’s who. Confusing as all hell, to be honest. I mention it because I saw a double-handful of scripts that all suffered from this problem and it was one of the factors that kept most of them from making it to the next level of the competition. If you look at many published novels, you’ll see it’s actually rare to get multiple characters whose names start with the same letter—it just makes for an easy mnemonic. You’re more likely to see Andrew, Bob, Cedric, and Dave than to see Andrew, Angus, Bob, and Bill. The Matrix had Neo, Morpheus, Smith, Trinity, and Cypher. Casablanca has Rick, Elsa, Victor, Louis, and Sam. Raiders of the Lost Ark had Indy, Marion, Belloq, Sallah, and Toht. Even with the huge squad of Colonial Marines in Aliens, the only double-up is Hicks and Hudson.

On a somewhat similar note, if you have a wedding planner named Leslie who’s male, make sure it’s plain and obvious he’s a man. Likewise, if your grease-covered auto mechanic Charlie is a woman, it needs to be clear up front she’s a woman, with no ambiguity at all. Nothing frustrates readers more than to get ten pages in and realize they’ve mentally assigned the wrong gender to a character, because it means they have to go back over everything they just read. So be careful with names like Pat, Chris, Sam, and so on.

Nothing ever happens

Most professional script readers will give you to page ten and then stop reading if they’re not gripped by your words. If your writing in and of itself is phenomenal, they might go along with you until page twenty or so. However by page twenty if there isn’t a definite, solid story happening, your script ends up in the large pile on the left. One script page is roughly one minute of screen time (a little less, actually), so try to find a movie where at least the basic story hasn’t been set out for the audience by twenty minutes in.

If your story (your real story) hasn’t begun by page twenty, look back over your script and see what is happening in those pages. Is it vitally important to the character? Is it advancing the story? If not, you may want to trim it out, or perhaps move it to a later scene.

Pointless changes

A common storytelling device is to take a known story (either fictional or historical) and change an element to put a new spin on it. Disney used to do this quite often with their animated versions of stories like Robin Hood. Another way to look at this is the “What if...” method of storytelling. What if aliens did build the Egyptian pyramids? What if a time traveler killed Kennedy? What if someone won the lottery?

The catch here, of course, is that such a change implies other elements of your story would change. If your team of agents find evidence Kennedy was killed by a time traveler and then continue to deal with the OPEC crisis... what was the point? Why bother to have your main character win the lottery if winning it doesn’t change a single thing in their life?

If you’re going to have a major tweak like this in your story, there should be a reason for it. If you’ve decided to tell the history of the Maya with cgi geckoes acting out all the parts... it should be apparent why.

Short brads

Yeah, this is stupid and it really shouldn’t have anything to do with how your script is received... and yet...

Few things are more frustrating than having a script constantly fall apart while you’re trying to read it. You turn the page, the brads bend, and suddenly you’re holding a pile of fanning papers. And the last thing you want is for a reader to be going through your screenplay and feel constantly frustrated.

If you’re alredy investing forty or fifty bucks to enter a contest, go the extra few feet and get the right size brass brads. You want the big, beefy ones that are over an inch and a half long-- enough to go through 120 sheets of paper and have plenty left over to bend back.

There they are. Ten things that crop up again and again, most of which will guarantee you a place in that large, left-hand pile.

So go look at your writing, and make sure that doesn’t happen to you.


Samantha N. said...

I laughed when I saw the bit about "Excess Title Info" - not because I can't believe anyone would do that, but because I have given class papers working titles like "Donnez le papier les SEXYTIMES de derriere pardieu!" (no, really!), and I can only imagine how mortified I'd be to find I turned one in that way. I will try to stick with something more nondescript, like "Untitled," from now on!

I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of your post, but I do have some reservations about your wording of the "Script About a Writer" portion. I think the metanovel can work as a premise, provided there's some gimmick - for example, Flann O'Brien's "At Swim-Two-Birds" is a novel about a young student writer writing about another writer who is physically drugged, tortured and nearly killed by his own fictional characters. So long as the writing of the novel is not the primary conflict, I think the protagonist being a writer is no impediment to the draft being a good one.

Rakie said...

"Even with the huge squad of Colonial Marines in Aliens, the only double-up is Hicks and Hudson."

good point - it was even drawn attention to in the movie itself, when Gorman gets Hicks and Hudson confused.