Why your screenplay doesn´t work – and how to fix it

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I can see your second act problem right there. Also, sorry for stealing pictures randomly from the web.

Working as a writer, people often assume that my favorite pastime is indulging in 90-120 page scripts written by people who´ve spent considerable less time than myself learning the craft. On average I get sent about 2-3 scripts a week, in addition to what I read professionally. I even get the odd offer of writing out complete scripts for no money, by people who´ve spent a few hours crafting the trailer moments of a story and just need someone to “write it out”, with offers of co-writing credits (..) and money to come. The story usually comes with a promise of being “kick ass” and “like nothing I´ve ever seen”, and I´m met with little or no understanding when I more or less politely dismiss the proposal, because 1) It´s kick ass (see above), and 2) people assume that writers are unimaginative people walking around in a story vacuum, desperately wanting to be pitched a series of incoherent action scenes with you as the protagonist so that they finally can start filling out the blanks that will make your incoherent coke scribblings on paper napkins from In & Out Burger in to an actual screenplay.

Ideas come to everybody, persistence is a gift bestowed upon the few. The art of the screenplay lays solely in its execution.

Asking a screenwriter to read through your script, is the same as asking any worker to employ their craft on their spare time. So, If you´re the kind of person who don´t mind showing the doctor at a dinner party your hemorrhoids, or ask a carpenter to furnish your house for free because it´s a kick ass house, then by all means,  send your script to the screenwriter you just met or found online. I usually read for good friends and colleagues, but for everyone else I charge a lot – a minimum of $600 for a read through and feedback. You´ll get professional readers to do it for less than a tenth of that fee, although I can´t imagine for the life of me why they´d do that. Such services can be rendered for $50 on The Black List, and I highly encourage you to contact them before you contact me, for the sake of you and me both.

If you should ever, by some freak coincidence, run into me in the aforementioned In & Out-burger or other places where I try to avoid people from the business, and still insist on me reading your masterpiece, I must insist you read these little guideline first, entitled:

Why your screenplay doesn´t work.

Written in stone, for you to misinterpret.

Here´s why.

1. Your protagonist, based on yourself, is not interesting for anyone else. 

Everybody writes their first screenplay about themselves, and react with massive disappointment when the world fails to see what kind of brilliant protagonist – and also possible lead actor – this is. The last couple of years, 90% of the screenplays I´ve read fall into these categories:

* Young, brilliant man, misunderstood by everyone around him

  • Young, brilliant man, misunderstood by everyone around him because they´re idiots
  • Young, anorectic- or overweight girl, chronically disappointed because everyone around her are idiots and not sensitive enough to her needs which she has no clue about herself, also she wears to much fucking wool
  • gangster with potential for emotional improvement, twist: Is really only looking for love
  • Person trying to make movie or finish unwritten masterpiece but fails to do so, see point #1 and #2.

Let me give you the brutal lesson I´ve learned in all my years in this business, in one even more brutal clause:

Nobody cares about you, no one is gonna pay $8.38 to see a movie about you and even less pay $10 million to get it made, so you´ll have to write a movie that the studio trusts to be seen by as many people as fucking possible or go film it yourself with no money at all.

2. You´re not interested in feedback, only praise

You won´t get any praise for your first draft of your first script. Everything in life that has any value demands an effort, but for some reason I keep running into people who´ve spent 10 years learning to play the guitar, 5 years earning an engineering degree, 30 years realizing they´re gay or 47 years to realize that they´re not happy working in a bank, who nevertheless think they can hammer down a screenplay in a week and be declared some sort of storytelling genius.

This isn´t based on some notion that you´ll have to rewrite until you´re late into retirement to produce anything of value. Hell, I even wrote the article on How to write a screenplay in 24 hours.

But, as a general rule, it should take longer to write a script than it takes to read it.

The true brilliance of a play, the wish to truly write your magnum opus, your masterpiece, really surfaces after you´ve been told a few times that you´re not good enough, considered giving up because no one gets you even though the stories you imagine in your head are way better than the ones you see on screen, and then experienced the colossal and overwhelming fear that comes with realizing you might die without having the world hear your story or have it see you as you see yourself, then realize a couple of painful things about the nature of yourself and the world that really makes you a better writer and then put everything you have into your next script, in a story that really matters to you. And if you´ve done that, you´re a way better writer than me, and really, you should be uninterested in what I, or anyone else, have to say about your script.

There, I´m rid of most of my aggression. The next pointers will be shorter.

How to avoid screenwriting cliches: Have a guy stare at a typewriter.


3. Your story dies in the second act, due to lack of conflict.

You´ve got a story with a beginning, an end and a lot of fillers in between that point in no particular direction. A three act structure is supposed to look like this:

Act 1: Your hero wants something, doesn´t dare to do it, then decides to do it anyway.

Act 2: Things go good or bad (pick one), but since a cinematic story is of a certain length, you have to toss a monkey wrench into the gears of the story about midways to keep the audience from sleeping, in a so called “false ending”, so things go brutally to hell about midways.

Act 3: At this point, neither you or your hero have any idea how to get out of the situation, so as a writer, you have to make me as the reader/viewer curious, to make us happy when – SPOILER ALERT – the hero manages it anyway, or achieves something way better than the selfish goal he set out to reach, like – let me toss in something completely out of the blue here – true love.

The point where most writers fail is around midways, where you get the so called “second act sag”. This is where all your ideas have been spent, and you really have to work to find out wheter screenplay is a real story and not just a random anecdote that you tried to getting onto the big screen to feel better about yourself.

PS: Apparently, I was lying with regards to the length of these pointers, I got annoyed again.

4. One idea per script, please

Your first script is the place where all the images you´ve had in your head since you took an introductionary course to film making in high school, and are thus without any narrative function or the slightest trace of being interconnected in any way, shape or form. The compass in your story should be able to be summed up in one sentence, and that sentence should contain the following elements: somebody wanting something, something being in the way and some sort of promise of a quest with an alternative solution.

5. Internal humor isn´t funny for anyone else than you and that dorky pal you keep talking about from your study days

Humor has it´s outspring in common references, and “intelligent humor” stems from slightly more marginal references and it´s main function is making you feel smarter than those who don´t know that particular reference. Intelligent humor does not mean referencing some Adult Swim-show from 2006 or, heaven forbid, Dr. Who, and at that moment when The Big Bang Theory beat Two and a Half Men as the highest rated comedy on television, the hard lived myth that nerd culture is niche culture was killed, once and for all. Nerd culture is the most mainstream there is, Star Wars is the most common reference point of them all and the joke that 42 is the answer of life, university and everything isn´t even accepted in the most socially ankward of subreddits anymore. Also, if you have to explain to me that the joke I just had to read three times in your script actually is really funny because your drunk buddy or support worker laughed when it actually happened and you probably had to be there, it´s not a good joke and you can go to hell.

She´s such a nerd, because, you know, nerds are cool now anyway and have been since the 80´s, now we desperatly need some stories about jocks, who are the real underdogs.

6. Go to hell

Seriously, if you´re not willing to walk a few dark paths in your script or on your way to writing it (produced screenwriters will know what I mean), you might as well drop it.

7. Your scenes are trivial

If you´ve ever written dialogue that look like this:

Gangster: Hi, how are you?

Gangster 2: I´m fine, you?

..then see point 6.

Enter the scene as late as possible, exit it as early as possible, people go to the movies to see people who live the lifes they don´t dare live for themselves. What´s not relevant to tell your story, you might as well just drop. A movie is about the dramatic high point in one or more peoples lives: The story of Abraham Lincoln when he had a flu in 8th grade or the tale of Captain America when he was frozen in ice for 40 years is not anything anybody want to see, but just as I was writing this I realized there are people amongst my readers who´d probably take that as a challenge, and I wish you all the luck in the world – I´ll even post it if I think it´s a good read.

8. Your ideas are good, but undigested

Even tough I rarely come across what I´d describe as a good script, I´ve just as rarely come across script that are completely pointless, in the regard that they usually bring one or two good ideas to the table. However, more often than not, I ask myself if a feature film really is the best vehicle for the same particular idea. If you could tell the same life lesson in 140 characters on twitter as in a 2 hour movie, I suggest you do the former. If you´ve got a script that´s based on a one-note-joke, I suggest that you tell that joke instead, and if you´re movies pitch is possible to distill down to a single picture, you might have a bigger talent for advertising than as a cinematic storyteller.

If you still insist on working your idea out in a feature format, remember that the 90-120 pages that´s the industry standard, where everything is put under the microscope and blown up a thousand times, takes the same amount of work as a 500 page novel where you can get away with literary digressions, adjective feasts or introspective passages whenever you see fit. In a movie, everything on screen happens for a reason, and if you just rushed through the last 30 pages of writing to get to your action climax, your reader or audience will have exactly as much joy of watching it as you had writing it: Exactly none.

Most half-assed scripts I´ve read is like a stockpile of half digested ideas, spread out on the floor and connected in no particular order.

To take the analogy of the laborer one step further: You wouldn´t craft a chair with three legs, not lay the floor or skip installing the window in your bathroom because  “people will realize what´s supposed to be there”. You wouldn´t build a hallway that didn´t lead anywhere or keep the posters from your teenage years up on the walls because “it was cool at one point”, or put the concrete on the roof because you felt “it should be there somewhere”. But you keep writing unfoundamented characters with single motivations or functions, skip logistical or logical groundwork, keep outdated jokes in the script or put them in the mouth of the completely wrong character or out of context, or write up to a scene that never really happens.

It´s like a kid trying to tell a joke or show a magic trick without proper rehearsal. You keep a brace smile, and look forward to when the junior performer matures to the point of not storming off and into the bathroom in protest when you gently suggest they should at least give it 2-3 takes before trying to show off. By the way, most movie professionals I´ve worked to never really get there.

I´m often asked how long it takes to write a script. Well, in my experience it takes between 24 hours and 24 months, give or take. But here´s the thing:

When it´s good enough, it´s good enough. And when it is, you really know it – as your desperate “please give compliment me”-grin has subtly been replaced by the more seasoned and hard earned “call me when you´ve read it, and let´s talk business”-smile, and you´l cringe whenever somebody asks you to read their script, because you know it won´t be good enough, and that they won´t listen to a word you say, and that they have a long, twisted and strange path ahead of them that in retrospect they wouldn´t change for anything in the world, because they will come out on the other end with a god damned beautiful piece of work that only they could write, after learning everything you tried to tell them, by themselves.

God speed.

And by the way, I´m on twitter: @Thescreenplayer

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7 thoughts on “Why your screenplay doesn´t work – and how to fix it

  1. Great stuff, I really like what your saying. I think a lot of writers will feel uncomfortable reading this because it addresses a lot of natural amateurish mistakes/behavior. I don’t agree with everything you’ve said (obviously every rule/principle/whatever has it’s contradictions or examples of times it has been pulled off) but I think you have summed up some primary traits of an under crafted story. You blog posts are great.

  2. I agree completely with what you’re saying. I just recently wrote my first screenplay, thinking it was the best piece of writing in the world, and after a month I reread it with a fresh set of eyes. Terrible… absolutely terrible.

    • Editing it as if somebody else wrote it has always been my favorite way to go. There´s a time for uninhibited creativity, and a time for left-brained editing. You´ve got to know what time is what.

  3. You probably peckid up some odd code when you cut and pasted the script. You need to be sure there isn’t any extra code included. Sometimes stuff gets peckid up even when you are being careful to just cut and paste as plain text. Compare the code you see above with what you pasted into the SL editor that created the error (the first number shown in parenthesis in the error message tell you which line to look at for the error.) You will probably see that the code pasted into the editor has some extra stuff in it that doesn’t belong.When you see a syntax error the first thing to look for is a typo at the line/character numbers noted in the error. Unfortunately the script editor isn’t always perfect and will sometimes steer you to the wrong line for the error. But at least it does give you someplace to start looking!

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