I was wondering if you could tell us the common errors you saw in the “awful” 99% of scripts you read as an analyst and put them down here?
Might be really useful, as right now I’m suffering from chronic self-doubt and this could help alleviate that (er, or confirm it…)
Dan from The Middle of Nowhere
Sure. First, a note on self-doubt. Many writers suffer from substantial insecurities throughout their careers. It’s part of the package. Don’t let it debilitate you. If you get consistent feedback showing real problems with your writing, just dig in and work through it. It’s all part of the process. Although certain writers have natural abilities that are exceptional, anyone with real discipline, drive and humility can learn the craft well and create a successful professional career.
To answer your question, in a previous column, I mentioned that:
In my years as a reader (a/k/a story analyst), and even today when I’m asked to read scripts from inexperienced writers, 99 out of 100 scripts are awful to the point of being unmarketable….
In that column, I attributed much of this to dialogue, but as I hinted then, bad dialogue is a symptom of larger problems. The pervasive problems I saw and still see are the following, in no particular order:
1. Superficiality. Most scripts from inexperienced writers fail to explore genuine emotions that have sufficient weight and universality to have any hope of being engaging to a broad audience. Often, these scripts are based either on what the writer believes is an engaging story premise with little attention to deeper issues or is based upon a personal experience about which the writer feels deeply with little effort to express that emotion on the page. In the latter case, the writer is probably too close to the emotions to know whether they are communicated or not. Both of these types of scripts are, in a word, immature.
2. Lack of unity. Most scripts from inexperienced writers fail to develop the story ideas into a unity of character, theme and story. In a competitive professional script, characters are expressed through actions that do all of the following at the same time: reveal deeper aspects of the character; advance the story in a necessary manner (e.g. without this action, the story would have unfolded very differently), and force the character and/or the audience to explore the theme.
3. Lack of compression. This is closely related to unity. Movies heavily compress experiences so each moment is rich and carries great meaning for the audience. In a marketable script, each moment must carry a great deal of weight – emotionally, thematically and from the standpoint of advancing the story. Inexperienced writers often settle for one or none of these – including moments that do little other than logically move the story forward. Scenes function at a mechanical level only.
4. Technical deficiencies. Inexperienced writers often have yet to master the technical aspects of a screenplay, including illogical scenes that fail to drive one another, confusing or boring action descriptions, incomprehensible story points and errors in spelling, usage, and grammar.
5. Poor Structure. I am not one to believe that there is a perfect story structure. To me, each story suggests its own structure, whether it be in acts, sequences or otherwise. However, a story must have a real and compelling structure. The story line must progress and build in intensity; the pressures on the main character or characters must increase in a meaningful way (not just from a plot standpoint, but thematically as well), there must be a few surprises along the way and the story must resolve in an authentic and engaging manner. Most scripts from inexperienced writers fail on this basic level.
6. Clichés. See this.
And, of course…
7. Dialogue. (As per above.)
That’s my top seven (at least, as I think about it now). None of them is an insurmountable problem for an emerging writer and most writers have to work through most of them in the beginning (and always). Don’t get discouraged. Just do the work….