To ensure your screenplay sucks:
Be inconsistent in tone and/or genre
Read the following action line:
Carl makes his way up the poop stairs.
What’s the image that comes to mind here? A slippery brown staircase? Toilet humor? This must be a line from a bizarre gross out comedy script. Well no, in fact, this was from the middle of an exciting scene in a 17th century horror script I read recently. The piece takes place at sea, on a cargo ship. Hence, poop deck. Obviously it’s unintentional, but the result was the same: reading the script at 4 am I laughed audibly despite the seriousness of the scene.
Each line of your script must reflect the tone of the film. Don’t put video game quotes in your horror film, naked fist fights between racist caricatures in your action thriller, nor pages and pages of brooding dialogue in a comedy (all examples from scripts I’ve read). If you don’t understand or care about the tone of your story as it relates to the genre, your screenplay probably sucks.
The plot should not induce tonal whiplash, either. When Dorothy discovers the villainous Lion is cowardly and actually a friend, that’s called a plot twist. When Alexander the Great discovers time travel to a 19th century farm where former WWII pilots have an encounter with aliens – this is complete genre and tone mayhem.
Make your title page look like this:
There’s nothing like starting a read looking at a fresh off-the-press default title page.
Even better, do this:
Everybody cares about your WGA registration information, right? Your copyright disclaimer makes you legit right? No, it makes you paranoid and your screenplay probably sucks.
There’s nothing wrong with character. Scripts should be full of character. The title page is not the script. It’s the title page. You don’t need fancy fonts, clever quips, or “based on” anything, unless you indeed hold the rights to a best-seller book or play. Notice how the book and screenplay are by the same author? Yeah…your unpublished novel isn’t a selling point. Just give us the title, your name, and a phone number/email address for contact purposes. Anything else screams amateur hour. Big goofy title fonts don’t do you any favors, either.
Speaking of cute extras….
Include cute extras
Your script is complete, but how do you catch the reader’s attention? Wrap it a bow? Bind it in leather? Hmm, perhaps put a foreshadowing quote on the first page before the film actually begins. These are all good, but an even better idea is to include a four page encyclopedia about your script’s lore and hinge your screenplay’s clarity on it.
Your screenplay probably sucks if you rely on gimmicks, extras, goodies, or supplemental material. You’re merchandising a film that hasn’t even been made. The script doesn’t need your pre-writing material stapled to the front like some sort of reading companion. The reason is simple: the work should stand on its own.
Whenever I get a script that has a bunch of extra crap attached, I toss or ignore it completely. Harsh! No, it’s actually for the best. If the story relies on outside material to make sense, the film isn’t going to work. Is the screenwriter going to stand in the theater and explain or hand out all the supplemental material before the film?
Cutesy stuff like colored photos, ribbons, fancy bindings…what’s the point of it all? It just costs extra money, won’t be seen by the audience of the film, and does nothing but say “look at me look at me” for all the wrong reasons. Don’t be a look-at-me screenwriter.
Hide your writing with storytelling gimmicks
Don’t write a straight-forward story. Improvise! Twist, turn! Obfuscate! Everybody likes to puzzle their way through reading material right? It’s new, it’s creative. It’s ART.
No, it’s boring and confusing, and your screenplay probably sucks. New writers utilize complex screenwriting mechanics way more often than they should. I think the reason for this is twofold: the writer saw the technique in a movie and they’re emulating it (consciously or not), and non-linear storytelling is considered more artistic or deep for some reason.
Here are a few of the most common gimmicks one by one:
I love it when scripts open on the first scene and immediately flash back to something else. What’s the point? Just start the film in the earlier scene. Do we really need to watch the character wake up, go to the mirror, stare ponderously, then FLASHBACK TO…whatever?
Flashbacks are effective when used sparingly and decisively. To be quite honest, most stories present neither opportunity. Flashbacks get used as plot dump cutaways by lazy writers who can’t figure out how to incorporate exposition into the narrative smoothly.
Most “montages” I’ve read in scripts are actually “series of shots” sequences. The difference may seem trivial, but to someone who knows what they’re looking at, it becomes obvious the writer doesn’t understand the purpose of either mechanism.
A series of shots is just that, a series of shots. This is often used to establish a setting or mood – a classic technique is two establishing shots and then a third of the subject. A montage tells a story over a passage of time with a series of shots, essentially. Think the Rocky training sequence. The point of a montage is to give the impression that Rocky has trained for weeks, without the audience having to watch for weeks. The training is an important plot point, and visually exciting, but we don’t need endless scenes of weight lifting. The montage delivers the information in a short time.
Yet writers put “montages” of characters watching TV, going to the bathroom, and driving to work in freeway traffic. If the screenwriter wants to fast forward through this stuff, why have it at all? It eats page space and kills momentum.
Why not just write what happens instead of half-baked editing directions?
No. Please God no. No more voice-overs that run the entire plot. Show, don’t tell!
Exposition, character development, and plot points should be woven into the action of a scene. Instead writers try to get away with explaining everything about their story through a narration voice over. Some character, or maybe an omnipresent narrator, speaks about character motivations, past events, and philosophy. It’s a way to move the unfilmable parts of the action text into the story without actually filming it. In other words, it’s lazy at best, and deathly boring at worst.
What is it with ham-fisted exposition anyway? Write your story that’s HAPPENING NOW, not a story that happened before page 1 of your script.
Wrylies, or Parentheticals, get their name because they look like this:
What’s for dinner?
Never have I ever read a script where I was so confused that I required a parenthetical to help me understand. Never have I ever met an actor that was so lost on a character’s personality that they needed to be told to deliver a line a specific way by the screenwriter. This is directing the actors on the page at its finest.
No. I dare say, 100% of parentheticals are unnecessary, because the action text that precedes the dialogue should make the parenthetical redundant. If it doesn’t, your script probably sucks.
Skip the easy ways out and write a clear story!
Make sure nobody but you reads it
Perhaps this should have gone in previous chapters because it is so critical. I’ve saved the best for last.
To ensure your screenplay sucks, don’t ever show it to anybody. Don’t let anyone read it. In fact, don’t ever tell someone you’re working on a project, lest they hold you accountable or give you objective feedback. You see, other people…they just don’t get the story, right? The don’t get art.
Writing is rewriting. How’s that for an overused phrase? It’s overused because it’s true. Revision, editing, rewriting, whatever you call it…this is how to form a masterpiece statue from a wet lump of clay. But after the countless hours of working your story, you lose objectivity. That’s just how it goes. You’ve lived with your characters for so long you no longer see the forest for the trees.
You need detailed, professional outside opinion. Not your mother, who will just tell you it’s great no matter what. Not even your film buddies, unless they have studied the discipline of screenwriting and story structure and you trust their judgment in such arenas. Show it to everybody, sure, but ensure you ask other screenwriters for specific constructive feedback.
Also, you wouldn’t want anybody to steal the fruits of your toils, right? If somebody reads it, they could steal the screenplay! Nevermind that movies cost thousands of dollars simply to start developing, and that producing a film from a script the production company doesn’t have the legal rights to opens a huge can of lawsuit worms including forfeiture of profits. Studios love when courts compel them to forfeit profits! Or the fact that you’re so impossibly talented yet undiscovered and unrepresented that every studio is itching to rip off your homerun film to avoid paying you.
Or, you’ve probably watched Big Fat Liar too many times, and your screenplay probably sucks.
That’s all folks!
That’s it for our trilogy of how to ensure your screenplay sucks! I do hope the musings have been helpful. I give them in jest and good humor with the intent of helping other writers do their best work.
Comment below to let me know the worst screenplay sins you’ve seen, or ones you’ve done yourself! We’ve all been there!