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Monday, July 6, 2009

Screenwriter's Guide to Success Part 4: Execution

Once you’ve got your logline and concept ready, you still have to execute.

Execution is the last part of the plan and a mistake more beginners make than you would think. I saw this a lot while judging scripts. I can think of two scripts that had good, possibly great concepts and loglines but for some reason the writers did not tell the story.

In one case (without going into too many details) the writer had a logline about a competition between two girls. I even wrote in my notes, I could see the movie poster which is something you always want to hear. But when it came to the actual story, the competition got pushed into the background. Now the writer did good work with the script. The characters were touching, the dialogue was on point, there were laughs and heartfelt moments. But the main concept that I loved so much had somehow gotten lost in the mix. This happens sometimes to writers who are talented but lack experience or discipline. Writing is all about fleshing out the blank spaces. But you can get carried away. You have to remember where your story is, what you’re there for. If you promise a story about two girls in a competition with each other, you need to tell that story.

The second case had a back-to-college-comedy logline that was one of the better ones I’d read in a while. The problem was this writer didn’t even start the college section until about page 60. I’m guessing because this writer didn’t number his pages. (Please always format correctly!) Unlike the previous example, this was a breakdown in storytelling fundamentals. You have to know when to bring the beginning to an end. This writer didn’t and as a result his script, which had huge potential, just shot itself in the foot. The college story which should have been the real meat of the script, was compressed and crowded out. New characters were introduced in the halfway mark and barely got any time to develop at all. The entire college experience for the characters was summed up in montage. You know, Syd Field gets knocked all the time, but he’s right about the first act length. If you’re writing a back to college comedy, you’d better have your characters in the admissions office by page 30 at the latest (and earlier than would be recommended.)

Sometimes you have to think of your scripts as products that you are marketing. You come up with a good name, catchy slogan, an impressive ad campaign. But when you open the box, you have something different than what you were selling. You have to deliver what you promise. If you don’t then it’s bait and switch and the readers and execs will call you on it. Don’t make the excuse of, “I was trying to surprise them.” If they wanted to read your script, it was because they were interested in what you said you were going to deliver. You can give them more than they expected. You can give it to them in a way they don’t expect. But you have to deliver what you promised.

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