I’m going to share an array of ways you can make sure your screenplay sucks, but first bear with me. We have some foundation to build. This will be a multi-part series since there’s so much to discuss.
Most scripts suck. That’s just life in the industry. Picture all the films on Netflix. If you think a lot of movies on Netflix are dull, weird, or uninspired, realize those are the success stories. Imagine all the failed scripts that never made it to production. It’s like an old George Carlin joke: “Think of how stupid the average person is, then realize half of them are even stupider than that.” When anybody with a laptop can churn out a script, do you think the average screenplay floating around is better or worse than any movie you can find on Redbox? I’ll give you a hint – worse.
I offer script coverage service – a report card of your script’s qualities and areas ripe for improvement (the image above is of my working notes, never to be read by the screenwriter). I have offered this service to my friends and close associates for free for a number of years. As such, I have read dozens of screenplays of all lengths and genres. I have a filing cabinet stuffed full of scripts covered in red ink. I also have an open policy to anybody I know that I will read whatever they send me. Analyzing screenplays is a great pastime.
Reading other people’s work makes you a better writer because, after a time, you begin to identify when a script doesn’t work and why. There certainly are common flaws that pop up in everybody’s early drafts. Writing is rewriting, so the professional writer will fix the problems long before the script sees a production company.
And there’s the catch: most writers are not professionals. Rule of numbers, remember? Everyone with a laptop and a little enthusiasm can suddenly become a writer. Add coffee or other body-altering substances and you have millions of gassed-up “screenwriters” that crank out a script as fast as possible, no rewrites, and call it good. Don’t be one of those people. Best case, you submit your script to a coverage service and they tell you the truth, and you listen and apply their notes in a rewrite. Or worst case, you don’t listen and blow up your career before it starts by sending a script (unsolicited, of course) to a studio and immediately get the title blacklisted. Do it enough times and you might even get on a first name basis with the studio reader, for the wrong reasons.
Sounds like exactly what you want, right?
If so, here are a bunch of ways you can make sure your screenplay sucks:
1. Have no plot
Yes, that’s correct. Out of 10 screenplays I read in any given batch, 9 are sure to have no plot whatsoever.
How can this be? Honestly I’m not sure, but my best guess involves decades of misinformation and easy access to word processing software. When it’s so easy to churn out a script, of course the bar is lowered. Young writers get confused between a story and its plot, perhaps. The terms can be debated ad-nauseum, so I’ll just say this: think of a story as the “what” and the plot as the “why”. E.M. Forster said it brilliantly: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.” The second is more compelling because we know, understand, and accept why the queen died.
I had a script sent to me once that consisted entirely of two men sitting on a couch, smoking weed and watching old, real-world movies on television. Copyright issues not-withstanding, I drug myself through the piece to the end without having a clue what the point was. I still don’t get it, but somebody took the time and effort to write it. It wasn’t clever nor particularly artistic.
The truly sad part is that these scripts are born from a writer’s labor of love, but when confronted with the news that their script lacks a structural spine they pitch a fit. Constructive feedback on something as critical as “your movie doesn’t have a plot” should be paid serious heed.
Every movie has a hero with a goal from which the plot emerges. That’s how movies work. If your film doesn’t, then it’s an art film (which why would you care about screenplay structure, anyway?) or, more likely, your screenplay sucks. Study Field, Trottier, Campbell and Vogler if you really want stories and plots that work for film.
2. Write a boring hero
It amazes me when a writer professes to have “fallen in love” with their protagonist and yet the character reads like a phone book: boring, flat, and dull. These under-baked heroes act like wallpaper, littering the story with their presence and not much else. They float from scene to scene and just wait around for the movie to happen. Like us.
And before I get emails, yes, I’m using hero/protagonist interchangeably. The difference is pedantic at best.
A quality hero is developed and proactive. A fully developed character lives, breathes, and exists as a person. They have goals, aversions, relationships, and flaws. A good writer will be able to answer any question about any character in their story outside of the context of the script. Why is this important? Because if the characters have no goals or personality, the audience doesn’t care about them or what they do. This is an easy way to have your script die a slow, boring death.
A hero that’s proactive drives the events of the story. So the perfect test is to remove your hero. If you deleted the character, would the plot of the movie be the same? If so your hero needs work. Every major event needs to involve the hero, bonus points for them causing said events. A hero does stuff, otherwise why are they your hero? If the protagonist lets the story happen to them instead of causing the story to happen, your screenplay sucks.
3. Fill the script with vague unwatchable crap
No, I don’t mean unbearable. I mean literally unwatchable; what’s written cannot be watched by human eyes because it isn’t visual in nature. And the same goes for unhearable, but with sound. They are called “screenplays” for a reason. As in they play on a screen and through sound speakers. But for whatever reason, screenwriters forget the nature of movies more often than not. This is a big clue that a screenplay is in early draft – the writer is essentially pre-writing or discovering the world of their movie as they are writing it. Not a bad thing, unless they’re calling the script “finished”.
Consider the following example from a script sent to me:
She likes him. The way she looks at him says it all.
These two sentences are entirely unfilmable. The purpose of a screenplay is to transfer the writer’s MOVIE from his/her brain into tangible, written form. So if we were to decide to make a movie out of the above script line, what would we do? What is “the way she looks at him” supposed to be? Happy? Sexual? Who knows? Not us, that’s for sure. And the last thing you want is your reader to misunderstand.
Translate your script word-for-word into a motion picture. If there’s stuff in your script the audience can’t see on the TV or hear through the speakers, your screenplay is non-visual and therefore not a movie. Cut out or re-write the non-tangible aspects of your script and see how quickly you lose pages and gain cohesiveness.
Oh, the actors and director will figure it out, you say. Those details are hashed out in production, you say. Well in that case I have a script that’s a sure-fire smash hit, just watch:
EXT. SOMEWHERE – SOMETIME
The world’s most exciting movie occurs.
Now all I need is the financing.
4. Write a novel
If your script looks like the image, chances are the script is way over-written. Take this line, halfway down the page:
The same car drives up into an area and parks. The area is quiet as well, and without visible animal life. The car door opens up.
A good rewrite would yield something like this instead:
The car parks. No other life in sight. The door opens.
Same information conveyed in a much tighter, shorter package. If you can cut half of the words out and still understand what’s going on in the story, your screenplay sucks and needs a rewrite.
Screenplays are the blueprints for the film. Not an end in themselves. There are indeed written works that are crafted as stand-alone products – these are called novels. Scripts aren’t books, nor should they read like one. Dense blocks of text cause the script to drag on, and on, and on. This bores the reader at best or loses them at worst. The majority of screenplays are tight and quick. A wall-o-text script goes in the trash.
Writing a script like this also breaks production mechanics: a rule of thumb says that one script page will equal out to one minute of screen time in the finished film. What most people don’t realize is that rule applies to a relatively lean script, not a block of text script. Combine this writing style with the non-visual fluff from before and you have a recipe for a surprise short film. 90 pages becomes a 45 minute run time really fast. This can seriously screw up a film production.
Don’t you just love when somebody wants to tell you a story about what happened at the grocery store, but first they have to tell you all about how they got dressed and looked for their car keys and got a text from their cousin….
No? Well that’s exactly what you’re doing when you start your script way too early in the timeline. Your screenplay sucks because you don’t know what the meat of the story is.
Writers are creatives. We build complex worlds and fleshed-out characters with highly-detailed backstories all-around. Then, we forget the definition of backstory: the story that happens before the story! When you put pages and pages of backstory in your script before you get around to the “grocery store”, you put the audience in a place where they start thinking about their upcoming trip to the grocery store instead of your film. Screenplays can’t afford to dawdle on unimportant details, remember?
Please, no more scripts where the main character wakes up, brushes their teeth, has breakfast, ties their shoes, drives their car, then finally arrives to work where we think the plot’s about to start, but then no, we meet all the co-workers and the boss and the funny best friend and 45 pages later I’m screaming “What the hell is this movie about!?”
Apply the same logic to the back half of the film, but instead we stay way too long after the main plot is concluded. If your film is about a treasure hunt, it should end after they find the treasure. Simple, right? Yet so many spec scripts go on too long.
Take a lesson from the masters: Raiders of the Lost Ark rolls credits 1 minute and 50 seconds after the main plot ends. The Karate Kid ends exactly 30 seconds after the climax. Perhaps my favorite: for all the flaws Halloween H20 had, nobody can gripe about how the ending was executed. The movie ends 18 seconds after the climax, without a word of dialogue! How’s that for a snappy conclusion?
Don’t arrive an hour early nor hang around after the party’s over. Nobody likes that guy.