Tough Reader, Good Advice

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Friday, January 8, 2010

Getting Ready PART 3 When to Send

This post is for the lovely Mina Zaher AKA DreamsGrafter who asks “When is a script ready to be sent out?”

It’s ready when it’s ready.

Don’t like that one.

Okay, first off you have to make sure there’s nothing really wrong with the script. But that goes deeper than just eliminating the obvious flaws; typos and formatting errors, tin ear dialogue, boring or annoying characters, tired plot devices, slow pacing. These are easy to spot by anyone with even a little bit of talent or experience. But once you get rid of all the easy to spot bad stuff, once you’re no longer bad, well that just means you’re average. And you have to be more than average. You need to be at least above average in all areas to have a chance of getting a CONSIDER. That’s the biggest hurdle going from merely competent, merely good to being really great.

And it’s something new writers struggle with or openly rebel against. They look at what’s being produced and say, “Why do I have to be so damn great? Look at all these hacks.”

True. There are hacks. Plenty of them. That’s the problem. We don’t need anymore. You have to prove that you’re not a hack. That you’ve got the potential at least to be something great.

So how do you go from good to great? If there was a surefire method, I’d be Quentin Tarantino by now. But here are a few things I have learned:

CHARACTERS: They must pop off the page. This is the most important thing next to concept. The best way to make us care about your story is to make us care about the characters. This is where so many writers come up short. They go for an everyman character and make him boring. They try to write somebody edgy and end up pissing off readers. Really good characters should be like your best friends, they may have their faults but there are reasons you keep hanging out and having a good time with them. That’s what I want when I read a screenplay. If I’m going to spend two hours plus with these characters I want to like them. And don’t give me that pseudo serious macho artist argument that you’re writing a horror or a bleak Michael Haneke style drama. Look up this IO9 article on how great horror (or bleakness) is heartbreaking. Instead of killing off your jerk face boss or the guy who stole your lunch money, start killing off your own friends and family. See how tough you are then.

CONCEPT: How are we going to sell this story? That’s going to be the first question an agent or producer asks if he’s interested in your script. Unfortunately it’s often the last question writers ask themselves. If you’ve gone to a pitchfest and seen others strike out time and again at the tables, that’s because they haven’t really thought about their story as product to be sold. And when they do they think in clichéd bad Madison Avenue terms. They try sticking as many adjectives to their long line in an effort to make it colorful. They try and create an MTV like montage of images that might not have anything to do with the main story. The best ideas sell themselves. The best commercials are the ones that tell you what you’re selling and why you should buy it. Is your logline, unadorned with any fancy adjectives, compelling? This really throws people off because it goes down to the bones of their story, even past structure. Contrary to what you may have heard, not every story can be made into an exciting logline. They don’t focus enough or they reuse a common set up. This doesn’t mean the story itself is bad. It might actually be quite good and well executed. It just means that its not very sellable and that’s a huge problem.

STORY: Here’s where the advice gets vague again. There are so many variables involved that it’s hard to cover them all. But the most important ones are:

Personal Stakes:
Your main character must have a deeply personal connection to the story. This can’t just be something he tries on a lark. This ties your best asset, your character directly to the narrative structure. Remember, plot and conflict is nothing more than a physical manifestation of the main character’s inner conflict. That’s an old lesson but everyone needs to be reminded of it.

Visual Storytelling:
As I said in scriptchat you’re not the director. Don’t write a shooting script. On the other hand don’t write a stage play either. This is a visual medium and you have to tell your story visual terms without it turning into a set of instructions for the DP. This isn’t really anything you haven’t heard in High School creative writing classes. Show, don’t tell is the mantra and that goes double for screenplays.

Brevity is the Soul of Wit:
Also an old High School chestnut. Don’t spend time describing every object on a desk, say the desk of a neat freak with lifetime supply of sterile wipes. Keep dialogue fast and clipped. This ties in with visual storytelling as a picture can say a thousand words. And you’ll need as many shortcuts as possible because…

The 10, 10, 10 Rule: Here’s the tough news. Most execs or more accurately the assistants who work for them don’t read the entire script. They’ll read the first 10 pages. Then if those are good they’ll read 10 pages in the middle. Then if they’re still interested they’ll read 10 pages at the end. Based on that they’ll write their review. Tough news but there it is. You as a writer have to be aware of that by writing 10 great pages in the beginning. If you’ve structured correctly the middle 10 will contain a vital scene that will spur the action on to the next half of the screenplay. And of course you should always end with a bang. But that first 10 is the most important. You have to blow them away. And by blow them away don’t fill it with a meaningless action sequence. You have those first 10 pages to make a reader fall in love with your characters, be wowed by your premise, and be totally invested in your story.

There we go, the best advice I can give to you on when your script is ready for the big time. It’s no guarantee. There aren’t any. But this will give you your best chances.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much Michael for writing this post. The script only has one chance with the reader so I'm keen not to send my scripts out before they're ready.

    This really helps.



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