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….

20 thoughts on “NINETY-NINE % AWFUL”

  1. You wrote: “anyone with real discipline, drive and humility can learn the craft well and create a successful professional career.”

    But doesn’t a successful writer also need talent? You can use your talent wisely, exploit it, make the most of it; or abuse it, squander it, piss it away. But if surely you haven’t got it in the first place, you’ll get nowhere, like you’ll never be a musician if you’ve got a tin ear. And isn’t that the big unspoken secret that the screenwritiing gurus don’t tell us:? To succeed you need talent.

  2. I agree with Greg & I think most everyone is a screenwriter, whether they want to admit it or not, does, too. But my biggest question as a newbie is (Not how do I get an agent- obvious collective “thank god”), “How do I know if I’m talented?” So, please, some working screenwriter out there, please tell me how am I supposed to know?

  3. Working writers have vastly varying degrees of talent. Writing is very hard work and the skills are often developed over a long period of time. With the exception of a few very top writers, no one agrees on whether any particular writer has “talent”. Each of us can point out ten produced screenplays we think show no talent, yet the writers are working, and ten screenplays we think represent talent we will never attain. (If you can’t, then you need to read more screenplays.) Importantly, none of our lists would be the same.

    I’m suggesting that you needn’t worry about whether you have the talent. Worry about doing the disciplined hard work to hone your craft and constantly improve it. Let someone else judge your talent. I promise that along the way, it will get judged as good, bad and everything in between.

  4. That is one thing that will never change, varied opinions of your work. No matter how wildly popular some writers are there will always be some who just don’t see it and vice versa. At the end of the day you have your words on a page. It’s such a long haul you might as well have a little faith, some discipline and be willing to grow and accept criticism.

  5. I’m not too good at faith, but I do believe that I can write poetry and short stories. Does writing in those mediums translate well into screenwriting? Sometimes, but not always? (Sorry, if this doesn’t interest anyone but myself.)

  6. I don’t believe you’ll succeed — really succeed, sustaining a career through good breaks and bad — unless you’ve got talent (and a host of other qualities as well). But I thought TW’s advice very wise: when you’re starting out don’t worry about talent, just write — your talent will show itself (or it won’t). In answer to Tn_Dreamer, screenwriting is storytelling, so writing short stories (if they really *are* stories) should help; writing poetry — a great thing to do — I’m less sure about. Maybe poetry and screenwriting both involve thinking in images.

  7. Greg, read that first part & my heart stopped. 😉

    It made me realize I’m not going to stop no matter what anyone else thinks.


  8. Dreamer: How do you know if you’re talented? Stephen King put it best when he said, “You know you’re talented if you’re paying the bills…” Something like that anyway.

    This was a great post. Thanks.

  9. Matt: But Stephen King didn’t pay the bills for over a decade; his wife did. & it was only when he threw “Carrie” in the trash that she picked it up, sent it in, & he got published.

    But it’s still good news. Stephen King didn’t get published for over a decade. What makes anyone think they could do it sooner? If I have to wait (& grow for) 20 years, then that’s what I’ll do. & If nothing I write ever gets noticed, then at least I wrote.

  10. King was getting short stories published in magazines, pretty continiously, for that decade before Carrie was published – in fact, Carrie was supposed to be a short story, not a novel.

    He wrote that while he didn’t make enough to work only as a writer, he made enough to keep going, with the support of his wife and his day jobs, and that it got really hard when he started teaching high school, mainly because it took so much out of him. But it’s fair to say that while King wasn’t paying all the bills as a writer before Carrie, he was certainly paying for some of them –

  11. I should add that King also maintains that the magazine market has changed significantly and that it would be hard for anyone to get short stories published as he did at that time.

  12. I’ll second that – in addition to being some of the best, most plain spoken advice I’ve heard. Isn’t in there that he wrote the 2nd draft is the first draft minus ten percent? If not there, then in another book – but it’s the first rule of rewriting that I live by today.

  13. Go ahead – Grotowsky once said, “good ideas are borrowed, great ideas are stolen” and I think King would agree. King wrote that he got the 10% advice from a random editor on a rejection letter and passed it on, as Karma dictates.

  14. the thing that has always bothered me most is lack of theme. without this all you have is plot (which is nothing but a sequence of events). theme informs plot and supports character

    lack of compression comes in next. ‘guy goes to bed, turns light off, ext. dawn over city, guy gets up, shower/dressed, off to work, gets fired. that kind of thing. the only part needed is the gets fired part. yawn scenes that make you look at the page number as a reflex must be axed (or combined somehow with another scene, theme, action, whatever) you could call this combining of elements or scenes, oh, i don’t know, compression

    then, tech deficiency. this really bothers me. you have to be able to write a crisp narrative sentence. multiply that out by 120 pages and you’re doing okay. works both ways: 120 pgs of clunker sentences, and – you get the picture

    the rest, bad structure, dialogue, etc, don’t bother me that much. if the above are there, i’d be willing to work with it. the above, to me, are the basics and can be attained with a bit of effort. the rest comes with time and experience

  15. If you absolutely have to have talent to write movies, then why are there so many crap-tacular screenplays made into films each year?

    It’s more about the dedication and hard work you put in COMBINED with any talent you might have. But I do believe that you do not have to be born a natural or talented writer or musician to be one. Education and dedication are more than enough for most.

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