Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Your Mark... Get Set...

Hey! It’s contest season again, isn’t it?

Technically it’s always contest season, yeah, but it’s the start of the year and a couple of the big ones are opening their doors for new submissions. So, as I often do at this time of year, I was going to offer a few insights into things that make all those contest readers want to put a gun in their mouth.

Well, that’s probably a bit extreme. There are some really awful scripts out there, but you can rest assured none of them are going to drive a reader to suicide. Murder, maybe, but not suicide.

Now, as I’ve said many times before, none of these mistakes are sure-fire ways to lose. But they’re all things that make readers roll their eyes and reach for the Captain Morgans, which means it just got that much harder to impress those readers. So keep that in mind before you fill out an entry form and maybe give your masterpiece one more good look. I mean, really look at it

Spelling -- Yeah, I’m harping on this again. There’ll probably be a whole post coming up sometime in the near future.

Because it matters, that’s why.

Over the course of a few years I wrote two different contest columns for Creative Screenwriting, interviewed dozens of contest directors, and asked each of them about tips for aspiring entrants. Across the board, the first thing most of them said was spelling and grammar.

Now, a random typo doesn’t mean you blew it. We all make mistakes, and readers know that, too. If they go through and find a their on page 42 when it should be there, they’re going to cluck their tongues but keep reading. If 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’re a real writer. Someone who can do more with words than just sign their name, scribble a shopping list, or send a txt mssg (ROFL LOL STFU). The absolute, bare-bones basic tools of writing – any writing-- are vocabulary, spelling, and grammar. Which means you need to master them, not your spellchecker. If you establish early on that you can’t handle the basics, why would a reader look any farther?

Apostrophe S -- You could argue this goes under spelling, but speaking as someone who’s read a thousand or so scripts by aspiring screenwriters, I can say it’s in a class by itself. Messing up an apostrophe S stands out like a flare to anyone who knows how to use it. As I said above, we all make mistakes now and then, but it’s painfully 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 a grammar book--even a fun one like Eats Shoots & Leaves (look at the carousel down below)--and actually read it. Promise yourself that as of this moment there will be no more guessing or wild stabs in the dark.

Logic holes -- A friend of mine called me once, laughing in hysterics. He was reading for a contest and was halfway through a sci-fi script where human colonists were struggling with the affects of a war that had taken place 200 years earlier. The enemy had released a bio-weapon that wiped out pre-pubescents, so every generation of colonists had lost all their children for the past two centuries.

Give it a second. You’ll start laughing, too.

You’ve probably heard of “movie logic,” a term which also applies to television and even prose. It’s when the writer bends the laws of common sense to solve an issue or a problem. As long as you don’t look at it too close, movie logic can usually get skimmed over and carry you to the next scene or paragraph.

The flipside of this is a complete lack of logic, which makes readers call their friends to share the joke. A lack of logic knocks the reader out of the story, which means it breaks the flow of the story. And that gets scripts put in the big pile on the left.

Fortune Cookie Talk -- Also sometimes called Confucius-speak by another friend of mine. This is when a screenwriter tries to cut down their page count by cutting all the articles, “small” words, and transitional bits from their script. I think there’s also a misguided belief that this gives their writing more “punch.”

Neo walks streets. Man pulls gun. Neo dodges. Drives kick into man’s chest. Man out cold. Neo is One.

Trust me, there are only two things this leads to. One is annoyance as the story slowly edges into unreadable. Two is laughter. Not the good kind of laughter. The “all the kids die every generation for 200 years” kind of laughter.

The Squashed Script -- Sometimes the writer refuses to make any more cuts (for conscious reasons or sheer denial) and ends up with a 170-or-so page script. So they change the font size or the margins or the line spacing and crush the script down into an acceptable number of pages. After all, going from 12 to 9 point Courier can shrink a 170 page script down to 130 pages. That’s a fine length for a script, right?

This is annoying on a bunch of levels. First and foremost, if any writer is manipulating their script like this, it means they know their script is unacceptably long and they’re making no real effort to fix the problem. Second, it shows that the writer is assuming the readers won’t realize what’s going on (and why), which is kind of arrogant if you think about it.

Believe me, readers love arrogant writers who assume they’re idiots. It makes the job soooo much easier.

(not in a good way, in case the sarcasm wasn’t showing...)

Reality is What You Make It -- More often than not, either the title or final page of this screenplay assures the reader that this tale is, in fact, based on the true accounts of me/ my best friend/ my brother/ my parents/ my grandparents/ someone I read about in a magazine article. These are tales of cancer, disease, genocide, military struggles, marital struggles, crises of faith, and various other conflicts of this world we live in. Alas, sometimes they’re also about struggling writers searching for someone to recognize their genius. Often, the fact this is all true is stressed to give a certain validity and gravitas to the screenplay.

Thing is, it doesn’t matter if the story is true or not. Nobody cares. They just care if it’s a good story and it’s well-told. And in that respect, a tale of an orphaned cancer survivor in Rwanda needs to stand up against the story of a black-ops secret agent who teams up with prehistoric lizard men from Atlantis to save the world from a zombie apocalypse. Whether or not its true is irrelevant. In the end, you’re telling a story, and it’s either going to have its own validity or it isn’t. Reality just doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for the writer.

Frankenanite -- A large percentage of genre scripts involve nanites which somehow go rogue and endanger mankind. Don’t know what a nanite is? No problem--a couple of these writers don’t either. If you’re writing a genre screenplay about nanites (or something indistinguishable from nanites like genetically-altered bacteria or something) think carefully. If I had to pick the ten most overused plot devices, these little guys would be in the top three.

Epic -- Avoid the word epic. The only time the word epic should appear in your script is if someone in the script is telling a very overblown story. It’s a word for critics, publicists, and producers. Screenwriters can use it in interviews, but not in their writing.

Orbs -- No orbs. You would not believe how much this word is overused. People throw it in everywhere because they think it’s better than pedestrian words like round or sphere. Much like mellonballer is guaranteed to get you a Nicholl Fellowship, using the word orb to describe eyes, mystical stones, the sun, or pretty much anything else will make the reader shake their head and pour themselves a second drink. Then they will pour a third drink onto your script and set fire to it.

To Be Continued -- You get one script to impress someone with. One. Nobody wins anything with the first of an epic trilogy (see above). That one manuscript has to stand on its own. Ending a screenplay - especially a contest entry screenplay- with “to be continued” hammers home the fact that this is an incomplete tale. It tells the reader you had no idea how to end this story in 120 pages.

Remember, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Highlander were not written as trilogies. Despite everything you may have heard, neither was Star Wars. Every one of these films was conceived of, written, and shot as a lone entity. They had to stand alone and succeed alone. If they had to do it that way, don’t think for a minute that your story won’t have to.

And there you have it. Ten ways you can make a reader sigh and shake their head in disdain. Which really means this is ten ways you can avoid getting the head shake, and that means your manuscript is that much closer to dodging the big pile on the left and ending up in the right pile.

Next time... well, I’m not sure what I’m going to rant about next time. But there will be a point to it, I assure you.

Until then, go write.


Anonymous said...

For screenwriting, See Kal's deconstructions (The King's Speech and Black Swan etc), accessible from

Virtual Stranger said...


See, this is exactly the reason I can't stand 95% of all gurus. You must understand this. You can't succeed without that. You cannot write a screenplay without this. And it backs these claims up with a bunch of very loose parallels between summaries that were written to create those parallels.

Seriously, look at those "summaries" of Star Wars and Harry Potter. They ignore half the plot and tell a disjointed account in order to make it seem like there's a point-for-point correlation between them. Heck, the Casablana/ When Harry Met Sally one randomly switches characters to create parallels. At different points in these summaries, Sally is "paralleling" Rick, Ilsa, and/or Victor Lazlo. Heck, why didn't he mention the end of the film, when she also stands in for Louis, Major Strasse, and the Maltese Falcon?

Yeah it's from a different movie. So what? If you don't understand how it counts you cannot write a screenplay!

Kal Bashir (not one single credit of any sort on IMDb... or anywhere else aside from his self-published eBook) apparently thinks these loose connections are worth $200. And I'm sure he's conned a few people into giving it to him.

Here's a much more telling link. Vanity Fair did a piece on Robert McKee, one of the most respected screenwriting gurus in the world. And they show how his claims fall apart under scrutiny, too...

(note to self... do rant about self-proclaimed gurus sometime in the near future...)

Virtual Stranger said...

And don't post spam on my blog and think you won't get slammed over it.