“Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.”
Franklin P. Jones
Your Screenplay Sucks! grew from an idea born while critiquing screenplays.
I’ve had three scripts made into feature films. I’m a Lifetime member of the Writers Guild. I’ve written screenplays for thirty years. I’ve critiqued scripts for friends the whole time, and have been paid to critique for twenty years or so. Not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of scripts I have shepherded through my screenwriting classes.
Through my reading and critiquing, I discovered that beginning writers consistently make the same mistakes. Mistakes which, in Hollywood, can cause the reader to… (gasp!) stop reading…
They can do that, you know.
I found myself telling writers the same things over and over: “Don’t have character names that rhyme.” “Every character’s voice sounds just like every other character.” “Your hero doesn’t have a clear goal.” Repeat ad nauseam. I decided to create a simple checklist so, before sending me their screenplay, writers could do a rewrite, cleaning up this nuts and bolts stuff, and then we could discuss plot and character and structure, instead of wasting time on generic stuff like, “run your damn spellcheck.” That short checklist turned into this book.
“I read to the first typo.”
Welcome to Hollywood.
“If it were easy, everyone would do it.”
Every producer in Los Angeles
In theory, readers have to read the whole thing. Some do. Some don’t. Producers are not bound by such niceties. While they do hope to find the next Raiders Of The Lost Ark, they’re also looking for any excuse to put it down by page 10. So don’t give them one, okay! That’s the point of this book, removing land mines from your screenplay that will cause the reader to pitch it into the trash.
And, believe me, that is what they do.
99% of people who will read your script do not have the ability to say, “Yes,” but every single one can say, “No.” They are just itching to use that power.
“Fight the power!”
Rosie Perez in Do The Right Thing
One fine sunny Los Angeles afternoon, I was sitting in an assistant’s office, waiting for the producer, and her door was closed. Probably inside her kitsch-packed office playing paddle ball. I’ll never know. Anyway, killing time, I looked above the assistant’s desk, and there were two shelves overflowing with screenplays. They ran around three walls of the room. For mental gymnastics, I estimated how many scripts there were. 1,400. One thousand four hundred screenplays, and they all had agents.
It is nearly inconceivable to an outsider, to someone at a typewriter or a computer in a city other than Los Angeles, far from the agent’s desk, or the producer’s office… it is impossible to conceive of the staggering volume of material the system has to contend with. The number of scripts that gushes over the transom of every producer, or agent, or executive, every week, boggles the mind. You’re one writer sitting in your room, or at a park, or coffee shop, writing your screenplay. There are thousands of people sitting in parks all across this great land of ours, writing screenplays too. So, what you’re writing has to be really good.
While the competition you face is gigantic, it is not monolithic. There are chinks and cracks in the armor, and a well written script can wriggle through. But it has to be extremely well written. If your script isn’t perfect, or as close to perfect as you can get it, then it doesn’t stand a chance. It is supremely arrogant to think that something you dash off in a couple of weeks, and don’t rewrite, is anything more than a waste of your time.
When you’re in a producer’s office, take a gander at the Matterhorn of scripts. Each was written by somebody just like you. Obviously, screenwriting is not for the faint of heart.
Writing a spec screenplay [writing on “speculation,” hoping to sell it] is all about the reader, not your mom, or a friend who critiques your material, but someone who is paid to read your stuff. You know, a reader with fifteen scripts to plow through each weekend. If you’re not actually in the business, you have no idea how monumentally difficult it is to find someone “real” to read your material. If you ever get that chance, you don’t want to mess it up.
While it’s true a reader really, really wants to unearth a fantastic screenplay, and opens each one with that uncrushable hope in mind, he is also dying to quit reading so he can flop by the pool with a delightfully refreshing umbrella drink. Therefore, if you give him any excuse to toss your script, he’ll take it. And, poof!, all your effort will be for naught. A big fat waste of six months of your life. Or a year. Or seven years, like one guy I know.
For some of you, this may come as heartbreaking news: the only people who want to read your work are your parents, maybe, and your boyfriend or girlfriend, depending on how new the relationship is. Remember the umbrella drinks? Readers want something that reads like lightning. Something with plenty of white space. Something where they don’t have to fight to figure out what you’re trying to say.
You are asking upwards of $100,000 for said work. You’re asking someone to spend from $100,000 to $100,000,000 to produce something you just made up. You need to get this stuff right. You need scene description that sings. You need to have lively minor characters. You need to run your spellcheck. Like that. What I’m telling you is simple to execute. It has nothing to do with talent or mythic story structure or round characters. I’m not telling you “how to write a great script.” There are plenty of good books for that. What I am giving you are guidelines to make sure the reader keeps reading.
I once sat next to a producer on a plane and watched her read six pages and put a script down. That writer spent months and months on his script but, for some reason, blew his chance by page six. Probably for a long list of reasons.
I’m going to help you check 100 reasons off that depression-inducing list!
“If the story confuses, it’s the writer who loses.”
Johnny Cochran (not really)
For the reader, reading a screenplay is like sprinting through a dark swamp across a hundred yards of floating lily pads while getting shot at by savages. The last page is the shoreline the reader is desperately trying to reach. If something breaks her concentration, even slightly, she may stumble, lose her balance and fall into the piranhas. Do everything you can to keep her on the lily pads!
Listen. I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don’t quit, I know I can make you a better dancer.
All That Jazz
written by Robert Alan Aurthur and Bob Fosse
If you follow the Your Screenplay Sucks checklist, by the time you finish this book, you’ll be a better writer. No problem.
I hope you find the book incredibly useful.