Monday 14 May 2012

Book review: "Your Screenplay Sucks"

Bill Akers
I recently gave a copy of Academy Award-winner Aaron Sorkin's screenplay, The American President, to an inexperienced screenwriter. His response after reading it was to send me an e-mail saying: "This script sucks."

Many thoughts rushed through my mind as I read that.
But most of all, I thought of Bill Akers.

William M. Akers is a respected Hollywood screenwriter. He is a Lifetime Member of the WGA and has had three feature films produced from his screenplays. (None made a dent at the box office, but he was delighted to get paid.) He has written for studios, independent producers, and the major television networks. He teaches screenwriting at Vanderbilt University, does script criticism and motion picture consulting from screenplay to final cut, gives writing workshops and seminars around the world, and administers the screenwriting blog Your Screenplay Sucks!

He is also the author of Your Screenplay Sucks!, a book that was first recommended to me by Xander Bennett. It lists one hundred tests you can employ in assessing whether a screenplay sucks, be it your own work, that of Aaron Sorkin, or of some arrogant neophyte. Xander recommended it as a book to read when you reach second draft stage of your screenplay, which sounds about right to me. 

What follows is a small selection of quotes from the book. I highlighted many more, but we don't have room for all of them.
Readers want something that reads like lightning. Something with plenty of white space. Something where they don't have to fight to figure out what you're trying to say.
I read to the first typo. –Hollywood agent
Actually overheard by me:
Two guys in line to buy tickets for Finding Forrester.
   First guy says, "What's this movie about?"
   And his buddy says, "Sean Connery."
Don't you ever forget it.

Contrary to what you may believe, you're not trying to write a great story. You're not writing a blueprint so a studio can make your movie. You're not writing something that's going to cure cancer or win a Nobel Prize. What you're writing is actor bait.
If a person can tell me the idea [of a film] in twenty-five words or less, it's going to make a pretty good movie. I like ideas, especially movie ideas, that you can hold in your hand. Steven Spielberg
Writing is not for wimps. It takes colossal mental and spiritual energy. It's hard work. Do it long enough, you'll have hemorrhoids and a bad back. If you're only trying to make money, you'll never survive the bone-grinding difficulty of the process. So, for God's sake, have something to say.
No matter what they say, that ain't what they want. – Barefield's Law
If your idea isn't great, you're wasting your time. And I mean a GREAT idea. On X-Files, a writer would sometimes work ten hours a day for six months to come up with one idea that would become an episode. It's that difficult to do.
In science-fiction films the monster should always be bigger than the leading lady. Roger Corman
I was on the phone with one of my former students, an agent's assistant in Los Angeles, and he had a choice of two screenplays to read. He picked up the one with the cool title. He figured that if someone could think up a good title, maybe the script would be good too. From time to time, I wonder if that other screenplay ever got read.
People may or may not say what they mean... but they always say something designed to get what they want. David Mamet
We need to desperately want your hero to win. This does not mean "have a sympathetic lead character." Your hero does not have to be sympathetic. He doesn't have to be nice. 

Look at Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. Is he sympathetic? First thing we see him do is drop an adorable little dog down a garbage chute! That's not likable. When he gets thrown out of a restaurant, all the patrons applaud because everyone hates him.

I leave out the parts that people skip. Elmore Leonard
Your story needs to be "about" something. This is your theme. Tape it to the monitor and keep looking at it. Whatever your theme is, the hero needs to deal with it at the end. His character growth has to be tied into that scheme. That's the foundation of story structure.
Works of imagination should be written in very plain language; the more purely imaginative they are the more necessary it is to be plain. Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Dostoyevsky supposedly said there are only two stories in all of literature. "A man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town." The Inciting Incident is when the man starts his journey or the stranger comes to town.
Every scene is an argument. David Mamet
Each scene should end at a different place from where it began, or it serves no purpose.
Just because you're sick of your script doesn't mean it's finished.
You have to have a great story, true. But you must also communicate it to someone else—on paper. If they can't get it off your page, your story is worthless. The words on the page must explain to the reader the movie in your head. It's way more complex than you might think.

Good writing matters. Not to everyone, but to enough readers, producers, actors, and directors to make it worth your while to pay attention. Readers who appreciate good writing will notice your scene description. If it's sloppy, they're going to head toward the door. By the end of the first page, they can't tell if you know what a reversal is, but they will certainly know if you can write a decent sentence.
There is no backstory. Walter Hill
Hard to believe, I know, but producers and agents, some of whom are actually as old as I am, don't like typos. And, while this may come as a shock to you in your ivory tower, they don't like people who leave them in their scripts.

Because they think that if you're too sloppy to proofread a script, or God forbid, a cover letter, you're not going to be someone they can rely on. And, in a business where millions of dollars go flying out the door every day, reliability is a key component to hireability.
The English Patient is a three-hour movie they squeezed out of a 104 page script!
People treat writers well when the writer is at the tippy tip top of the pyramid. That's about fifteen men and women. They get treated like the dictator's brother. Other than that, and I can't figure out why, people in Hollywood aren't very nice to writers.
If I read a bad script, which takes me forty-five minutes, I can't ask for my money back or my time back and I am filled with incalculable amounts of rage–Los Angeles producer
The competition [for writers] is mind boggling. When he was fresh out of school, future Academy Award winner Tom Schulman was visiting a friend who was house-sitting for Richard Dreyfuss. After dinner, a messenger showed up with a script for Mr. Dreyfuss. If a messenger delivers a screenplay to an actor's home, that means that script has already fought its way darn high up the food chain.

Schulman's friend said, "So you wanna be a writer?" She walked down the hall, opened a door, and tossed the script in. With trepidation, Schulman followed and looked in. He saw a small empty bedroom and in the center of the floor was a four foot pile of screenplays.
One misspelled word or grammatical error is enough to stop me from reading on. If the writing of the letter isn't perfect, I can only imagine the writing in the actual script.
What's important is that you don't abandon ship. Don't quit writing something just because it's difficult. Don't bail out just because you run into turbulence in the middle of Act II. Don't stop just because you've made a mess of your genius idea. ...  It is helpful to know that every screenwriter has problems, that every script becomes a quagmire at some point, but you have to finish it.
Write a screenplay that will change your life. If you don't sell it, at least you will have changed your lifeJohn Truby

Your Screenplay Sucks! is a book worth buying. It doesn't spend much time on theme or structure, but it walks you through a ton of things you really, really need to think about before you send your screenplay off to a producer.


Kathy said...

Fabulous thoughts, Henry. I love the way you give us gems from writing books. They all seem designed to make us strive for a higher goal.

Ed Love said...

One of my first reads, and still one of my favourites!