Sunday, 1 December 2013

Recurrent problems with spec screenplays

You've probably seen this already, given the way it blasted a path around the internet: the infographic compiled by Reddit user profound_whatever.

profound_whatever is a freelance reader of spec scripts, who took it upon himself to record certain information about the scripts that were passing over his desk.

Here's a more accessible version of his infographic:


This is the bit that has attracted most comment, the summary of reasons given for rejecting scripts:

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory. However, profound_whatever expanded some of his comments on the Reddit site. Part of that extended commentary is reproduced below:
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THE NARRATIVE FALLS INTO A REPETITIVE PATTERN
It goes back to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's advice: the story isn't strong enough if it's just a series of "and"s. This happens, and then this happens, and then this happens... Their advice was to replace "and"s with "but"s and "therefore"s. The heroes do this, therefore this happens, but then this happens, therefore the heroes do this, but then this happens..." A good story, like a good piece of music, evolves and builds as it moves along.

Pretentious analogy: Check out Beethoven's 7th, Op. 92: II. Allegretto and hear it start slow, before the momentum starts building, the different instruments coming in and out, joining together, until the piece reaches its climax. Beethoven's 7th is a great illustration of a story's crescendo and climax, so it's no surprise that it's already been used as such.

THE VILLAINS ARE CARTOONISH, EVIL-FOR-THE-SAKE-OF-EVIL
As much as I love Die Hard, I don't want to read another script about a Hans Gruber knock-off. It's really tempting and so much goddamn fun to write big, hammy bad guys, but it's a shortcut. I can't count the number of times I've quoted The Incredibles while reading a script: 

"He starts monologuing! He starts this prepared speech about how feeble I am compared to him, how inevitable my defeat is, how the world will soon be his... The guy's got me on a platter, and he won't shut up!" 
If you're worried your villain is too corny, imagine Dr. Evil saying his lines: if you added jokes, would your scene fit perfectly in Austin Powers 4?

THE FEMALE PART IS UNDERWRITTEN
There's no easy solution for this: it's hard for guys to write girls, and vice versa. That's just human nature. Maybe a trick is imagining the actress' reaction: if the female role is so one-dimensional, why would an actress want to play it? How could you strengthen that role to give an actress something to sink her teeth into? Joss Whedon and Woody Allen have a pretty good track record for writing female characters; there's lots to learn from their work.

THE SCRIPT FAVORS STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE
In my opinion, Lucky Number Slevin [released in Australia as The Wrong Man] is the perfect example of style over substance. I love it, but it definitely tries very hard to be cool, in story, in twists, in character, in dialogue. There's nothing wrong with making your script zing, but don't make it empty zing: have the goods to back up the style. The Matrix, in my opinion, combined style and substance very well: the movie had flash, but damn did it ever have a story too. It varies from genre to genre: the balance between style and substance is harder to maintain in different types of stories.

THE ENDING IS ANTI-CLIMACTIC
Casino Royale ends with a fitting anti-climax: not everything is solved onscreen, but you're still left with a sense of closure (i.e. "The name's Bond. James Bond."). It may not be the best example, since the story continues in the Bond franchise, but I didn't need to see Mr. White die to feel satisfied. The Matrix, to a lesser extent, ends with a minor anti-climax: the bigger problem isn't fixed, but it's sure gonna be.

THE CONFLICT IS INCONSEQUENTIAL, FLASH IN THE PAN
It's like the writer knows the heroes' plan needs to hit some obstacles, so he throws in a quick problem that takes one page to solve, and then continues on without a hitch. Inception negotiates it well: whenever a problem arises during the heroes' plan, that problem lingers (e.g. Saito getting shot, Fischer having armed subconscious projections, Fischer dying in the snow level, Mal sabotaging Cobb's scheme). The problem is never gone within a page; it remains until the end.

THE PROTAGONIST IS A STANDARD ISSUE HERO / THE CHARACTERS ARE STEREOTYPES
If your characters don't have their own TvTropes page, all the better. I will stand by my claim that Galaxy Quest is one of the smartest movies ever made, in part because the characters aren't just characters.

THE SCRIPT SUFFERS FROM ARBITRARY COMPLEXITY
I read a lot of scripts wherein the writer threw in an armful of plotlines to keep the story busy and the waters swirling. The problem is, the writer is aware that not all of these plotlines are important, but will ignore it because he needs the pages. But I can tell when I'm reading it: if I'm keeping track of a dozen plotlines and muttering out loud "Well what does this have to do with anything else?" to half of them, the script's in trouble. The Prestige and Glengarry Glen Ross both have three or four plotlines to manage, but each of them has a purpose in the greater story. All the plotlines eventually converge dramatically, and that's what matters. If you keep your plotlines separate, and parallel, I'll end up asking "What's the point of Plotline #9 here?"

THE PLOT UNRAVELS THROUGH COINCIDENCE/CONTRIVANCE
John August explains it better than I can.

THE SCRIPT IS TONALLY CONFUSED
Sometimes writers are afraid to really get their hands dirty. You've just killed a character, everything is going wrong for the hero, and you're worried that all this drama/chaos/pain will turn people off, so you add a joke to lighten the mood. If people were indeed unhappy with the drama, they're going to be doubly unhappy that you just invalidated all that drama by capping it off with a joke. The Ice Harvest and No Country for Old Men mix heavy drama and black comedy successfully. I have no idea how, but they do.

THE PROTAGONIST IS NOT AS STRONG AS NEED BE
Meaning the protagonist is basically just a vehicle through which to view the story. He/she does what's required of them, scurries along, but isn't at all memorable. As much as I like the movie, Hollywoodland falls into this trap: Louis Simo fulfills his role as protagonist, but that movie's strength lies elsewhere. Hell, even The Dark Knight encounters this problem: Batman does what he needs to do, but kinda pales in comparison to the Joker.

THE PREMISE IS A TRANSPARENT EXCUSE FOR ACTION
Frankly put: the writer has shit he wants to see, and has pulled together a bare bones premise to allow it. Writing for yourself (as opposed to writing for the audience) is great advice, but it can be taken too far. You may have to kill your darlings: if a sequence/scene has nothing to do with the premise/story/theme, it has to go, even if you love it. It's a script, not a sizzle reel.

THE SUPERNATURAL ELEMENT IS TOO UNDEFINED
If the ghosts/demons/aliens/vampires appear to be omnipotent, then what's stopping them from ending the conflict immediately? Even supernatural creatures need boundaries and limitations. That's why werewolves have the full moon/silver bullets, vampires have garlic/daylight/stakes, ghosts have the boundaries of the haunted house: there needs to be something preventing them from slaughtering the heroes at the first sign of trouble. What can the supernatural beings do, and what can't they do, and why?

THE STORY IS ONE BIG SHRUG
After a few scripts, I've literally said out loud, "Well what was the point of that?" Sometimes it's unclear what we're meant to be entertained by, or captivated by. This is definitely a case-by-case problem; it's hard to explain in vague terms.

THE SCRIPT IS A POTBOILER
This doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad story; The Lincoln Lawyer is a great potboiler movie. But sometimes a script just hits all the necessary beats, tells a doable story, and comes and goes without much excitement. The script might be a nice distraction for two hours on a Tuesday night, but I want something more.

THE SCENES ARE VOID OF MEANINGFUL CONFLICT
David Mamet said it best.

THE SCRIPT MAKES A REFERENCE, BUT NOT A JOKE
aka the Seltzer-Friedberg Model of Comedy.

THE DRAMA/CONFLICT IS TOLD, NOT SHOWN
I see this a lot in action movies: the villains will be discussing the hero who's coming to kill them, and will describe the badass feats he has accomplished, to sell the idea that this guy is not to be fucked with. He took down three black ops mercenaries with a pencil; he blew up Big Dino's office and burnt him alive; he slaughtered the Chinese triads with a half-empty revolver. It's all very colorful, but we're not seeing it happen and it doesn't matter, because it happened in the past, outside of the current story. The Usual Suspects did the same thing to Keyser Soze, but it worked in that movie because Keyser Soze was more than just a character: he was a mystery, and one that drove the story. But in these scripts, making a character badass by having other characters call him badass is lazy.

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2 comments:

Ed Love said...

That list of recurrent problems is pure gold. Well worth revisiting regularly. Thanks.

Kathy Smart said...

You've opened up the poster so we can read and think about it, and added explanatory comments. This guy isn't writing how to, he's writing how not to, but it's brilliant.