Today, we answer the questions posed by the illiterate for centuries.
No, no, I’m just kidding – no one pays attention to those lazy bastards who are clearly just lazy and don’t WANT to read, because reading takes effort and they’re lazy, and also it has nothing to do with a diseased modern social contract in which we’ve systematically stigmatized the illiterate as merely “dumb” and “incapable” and brushed them under the rug like casually eschewed navel lint. No. Not at all.
Where was I?
Right! We’re going to kill two birds with one stone here because I feel like these questions – that I and many others get all the time – are directly related. And it all basically comes down to: “What works? Tell me what works. This is the thing I must know.”
I’m telling you up front: this is one of those mystical things that I absolutely can’t tell you. However, I can hopefully get you thinking in the right direction, and when you get there, you’ll know it. Kind of like Shangri-La, or some bullshit like that.
Reader Clint asked, “Reading screenplays is a good way to learn how to write screenplays. But how do you critically read a screenplay? What should you be looking for — or — For what should you be looking? I must admit it is confusing sometimes. Sometimes I’ll read a hyped script and say to to myself, ‘OK, I get it. I can see that as a big blockbuster.’ But other times I’ll read a screenplay that becomes a sensation and just go, ‘Huh?’
But people in the business love some of these scripts so I must be missing something. What am I missing when reading screenplays? What should readers really be paying attention to?”
It’s a great question, and one that, in my opinion, has both a very direct answer and no answer at all.
First of all, I recommend to ALL writers, whether they’re just starting out or have been at it for a while, to read SCREENPLAY by Syd Field. It’s the only screenwriting book I’ve ever read and, I’m convinced, the only one anyone needs to read. It doesn’t tell you *how* to write a script, and it doesn’t dare to tell you that if you follow all of its rules, you’ll sell one. Rather, it breaks down the method that 90% of commercial screenplays use to tell their story: Three Act Structure. It’s a roadmap of the clearest, most popular way to tell a screen story, nuts and bolts included.
Once you read that…throw it out the window. Because if you write a script in just the way Mr. Field explains, it will blow goats. You will have a Jennifer Lopez movie. No one wants a Jennifer Lopez movie, including (and possibly most fervently) Jennifer Lopez. What you want is an understanding of what Three Act Structure is and not only HOW it works, but WHY. Once you’ve gotten there, you’re ready to start reading scripts.
When you start reading scripts, the worst thing you can think to yourself is, “Well, everyone else likes this one, and everyone else hates this one, so must follow suit.” No. Wrong. Bad dog. When you’re reading scripts, you cannot necessarily correlate I Will Like This Script to This Is a Good Script. Because that’s not always the case. There might be a great script out there that you hate for various reasons. There might be a bad script that you love for even more. The point is that whether or not you respond to a script is almost – not quite, but almost – inconsequential. What is important to take away from reading a script is “Why would this or would this not make a script that would make a profitable film?”
I advise readers to take on all kinds of scripts – produced, unproduced, award-winning, award-repellant, good, bad, everything in between. If you’re doing that, and if you’re calculating in your head as you go along, you will start to see certain trends. What’s common about scripts that have sold recently, no matter the genre? What’s common about scripts that I loathe? When I’m interested in something, what’s keeping me so? When I want to put it down, what is the writer doing that absolutely cannot connect?
More that you won’t want to hear: there is, most of the time, no “right” answer. Yes, “good” scripts will often have mechanics in common and “bad” scripts the same. But think about yourself – what are YOU responding to? What are YOU making notes about never to do? Pay attention to this more than anything else – it’s going to inform a lot of your writing in the future, and you’re going to need to know these things to hone your own work.
Once again, I personally have my own recommendations, and on this I recommend that you read at least 100 scripts of varying quality before you even open up your pirated copy of Final Draft. You can do that in a couple months if you’re willing to put in the effort.
Once you DO get ready to write, the question often becomes, “Well how do I know WHAT to write? And what should my process be?”
This answer is really, really simple: whatever the fuck you want to write, and however it works for you.
One of the biggest mistakes writers can make, in my mind, is writing for a trend or “for the market”. The infinitesimally small chance that this would ever work should drive you away immediately. When I was reading back in the day for New Line Cinema and PASSION OF THE CHRIST came out, I must have read fifty Jesus scripts. They all sucked. All of them. Why? Well, because most writers are shitty to begin with. But that’s compounded by the fact that most of them probably never WANTED to write a Jesus script, but they saw one movie blow up, and they figured that was what people wanted to read and buy. They couldn’t have been wronger.
The best weapon you have as a writer is your passion – what you care about, what you love, what you can’t stand to NOT put on a page. When you’re writing that, you’re writing your best, no matter your experience level or skill. So you HAVE to start there – you have to tell a story that moves you, that pleases you, that is either too much fun or too important to ignore. That’s why I say to write whatever the fuck you want to write – when you do that, you’re writing your best.
And when you’re writing your best, you are putting yourself in the optimal position to make people notice. Writers often complain, “Well, no one wants to read my period piece about syphilitic dragonflies who don’t know they’re trapped in Limbo.” OK, first of all, if you’re writing that, no more drugs for you. But second of all, I can say this with authority: EVERYONE wants to read something that is AWESOME. If you write the most incredible script about syphilitic Limbo-bound dragonflies ever, people are going to notice. There WILL be someone out there that wants to buy it and make it if it’s a great screenplay or, worst case scenario, you’ve written something that lands you an agent or a manager (or both) and gets you meetings and opportunities and a big ol’ battering ram to knock down that wall you keep butting up against.
Write what you want to write, and you give yourself the best chance to write great. “But Geoff,” you ask like a mewling plebe, “don’t you have to write in a certain way? Don’t you have to hit plot points and act breaks and inciting incidents and all that crap?”
And my answer is: you certainly can. And it might help. But you also don’t have to.
Now, that’s not to say you can write a script that’s 80 pages of first act, 10 of second and 10 of third. That ain’t gonna work. You have to have believable, interesting characters, a goal that the audience understands, and an engine to drive the story along. But remember when I said before to throw Field out the window?
Industry buyers read cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers tripe every. Single. Day. They vomits themselves onto their desks with wanton cruelty and, as long as they continue to work, never let up. Because conventional is BORING, and most writers are BORING. So for God’s sake, shake it up. You’ve read the book, you know the basic parameters. Play around with them. Toss them up. Think you HAVE to have an act break on page 30? YOU DO NOT. Think you character must be the most likable being to ever inhabit a fictional Earth from Page 1? IT IS NOT SO.
In fact, readers LOVE something that doesn’t adhere to the norm. They’re begging to be dazzled, to be tricked, to read something they’ve never read before. That in mind, here are your only two jobs as a screenwriter:
1) Keep the narrative moving forward.
2) Keep your reader interested.
Fuck everything else. Seriously, fuck it. Kill it with fire. If you can glue someone to your script from Fade In to Fade Out, it absolutely doesn’t matter how you’ve done it. It just matters that you did. So stop worrying about, “Well Writer A says to…” and “Writer B told me I have to…” It’s all highly personal, highly subjective drivel. If something works for you, great. If it doesn’t, no big deal. Gather a hundred different writers and you’ll find they have a hundred different processes. If you don’t like note cards? Don’t fucking use them! Can’t get into writing without first writing out your story in prose form? So what? It works for you! Can’t write fast? THEN WRITE SLOW!
No one can tell you the one thing (or things) that will “get you there”. YOU have to figure that out. YOU have to sit down and write and develop the stories you want to tell and the best ways to tell them. A billion writers can tell you how they did it, and that’s great information and can absolutely be valuable. But no one can sell you the secrets, and no one can show you the “way”. Because neither of those things exist.
And yeah, it’s not that awesome to say that “Write Great” is the way to get it done. No doi, we all know that. But that’s what separates great writers from the mediocre, working writers from the wishers: great writers learn, and then they figure out how to get there. So stop spending money on books and seminars and all that crap. Read a bunch of good scripts, figure out what works for you, and write it. As it is often in life, the “answer” is simple; it’s the execution that’s the hard part.