With all the resources literally at our fingertips—all the websites, all the books, all the formatting software—so many budding screenwriters still don’t seem to get it. DON’T SEEM TO GET IT. Yes, I’m just a little bit upset at the moment. See, I’ve just completed my one millionth script critique. (OK, maybe it hasn’t been a million, but it sure seems awfully close.) I’m doing it for a friend of a friend. Seems this writer has been sending his script around town and the response has been dismal. He figured he’d send the script to me and get my thoughts on what might be wrong with it. So today I settled in at my favorite Starbucks…and I began reading. By page six I was ready to toss the darn thing in the trash bin. By page twenty I was ready to rip the kidneys out of the first person who looked at me wrong. By page fifty I was ready to pack my bags and move to Gilligan’s Island. Yup, I was mad. So now you’re probably asking, “But Jim, what was so wrong with the script?” OK, let me start with the small stuff, things I noticed approximately two seconds after opening the envelope:
1). No brads, loose pages
2). Wrong font type/font size
3). An incomprehensible script title
And then there was the stuff I noticed on page one:
4). Improper margins/spacing/formatting
5). Overly detailed description of character’s clothing and superfluous items
6). OVERUSE OF CAPITALIZED WORDS (sound effects and inanimate objects)
But whatever. This is all relatively easy stuff and I can deal with it. Unfortunately, the subsequent 90+ pages were mind-numbingly B-A-D. How bad, you ask? Well, remember when you were in high school and had to listen to your really boring history teacher drone on and on about some incident that took place in 1750? Remember how you got glassy-eyed and you fought—fought!—to stay upright in your chair? Remember that? (I know I sure do!) Well, this is how I felt reading this script. Reading just a few pages of this calamity was like eating straw. For example, let’s take a quick look at…
The ACTION/DIRECTORIAL PASSAGES: Not many interesting visuals going on there, folks. In fact, some of the more descriptive actions were: “He nods,” “he sips his tea,” “she shrugs,” “he closes his eyes,” “he sits up,” “she stares intently,” “he laughs slightly (not sure how you laugh slightly),” “he leans back.” So…how do these descriptions make a screenplay a riveting and interesting read? THEY DON’T!!
The CHARACTERS: I didn’t care. I just didn’t care. A coma patient would’ve been more entertaining. (No offense to all you coma patients out there.)
The DIALOGUE: Not quite the worst I’ve ever read, but still pretty bad. So much of it was flat, repetitive and roundabout, sort of like watching a really tedious ping-pong game. No loops, no slices, no lobs, no rushes, no hooks, no slam dunks…just back and forth…back and forth…back and forth. Ho hum.
The STORY: This thing was thinner than Olive Oyl after a two month fast. Thinner than a German joke book. Thinner than Paris Hilton’s resume. Thinner than…well, you get the point. And the subject matter? Believe me, nobody was gonna rush out and see (or rent) this concept. (Well, it might’ve worked OK as an art house film…in Istanbul.) Also, as I was reading the script, I realized I was no further along in the story by page 45 than I was on page 30. Floundering: it’s a death knell for a script.
I’ll tell ya, I really wanted to grab this writer by the shirt collar, shake him, and say: “Have you ever read a professional screenplay? Have you? Have you read Chinatown? Have you read Lethal Weapon? Have you read Boogie Nights or The Usual Suspects? Do you see how the characters, dialogue and action in those scripts are interesting? Do you see how the dialogue and character actions in those scripts continually push the story in a forward direction? Do you see how your script is accomplishing none of this? Do you? DO YOU?”
Ugh. I don’t know why I had such a negative reaction to this script. I mean, I’ve read scripts of this ilk many, many times before. Sadly, writing of this sort seems to be the rule and not the exception. I guess what really bothers me most is this particular writer had sent the script (or query letters touting the script) to agents and prodcos. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s nothing wrong with writing a lousy script. It’s when you think that lousy script is “good enough” and you send it out into the world…that, friends, is where the problems start.
Please, please, please…don’t blow what will most likely be your only shot with the powers that be in the filmmaking community. You must learn the art and craft of writing a screenplay before you go on your quest to find (cough, cough) fame and fortune. Do your homework. Do. Your. Homework. Here’s some reading material I strongly suggest you read and study:
1). Real Screenwriting, an excellent book by Ron Suppa. It gives a comprehensive overview of the art, the craft, and the business of writing scripts.
2). The Screenwriter’s Bible, by David Trottier
3). Screenplay, by Syd Field
4). And, of course, my other popular blog: http://www.theworkingscreenwriter2.blogspot.com/
Then get your hands on some professional scripts. Read them. Study them. Pick them apart. Then, after you write your own script, get it critiqued. No, not from loved ones (unless they’re a pro writer). Then rewrite. Rewrite some more. If it takes ten, fifteen or twenty drafts, so be it. But get it as close to “right” as you can before you send it to anyone of importance in the film world. Get it right.
Rant over. I feel better. Thanks for listening, er, reading.