This week’s really for the budding screenwriters who stop by here on a regular basis (all three of you). Writers of prose… next week I promise to have something for you, but feel free to read along. At the core of it, good writing is good writing, and while I’m discussing these things in terms of screenplays there may be a general tip or two to glean here. After all, we’re all just trying to connect with an audience beyond our mom, our significant other, or that weird guy with the beret down at the coffee shop.
Yeah, him. You know who I mean.
So, anyway, you smell that? That sharp tang in the air, like hot mint? That’s contest season, that is. And it’s in full swing. Time to clean off the desk, sharpen our quills, and win an award or three. Perhaps even some cash.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve watched the contest scene from both sides. I’ve placed in a bunch of competitions– and when I say placed I don’t mean I got the honorary quarter-finalist position everyone who entered got. I’ve also read for several contests and spent long weekends going through script after script, often seeing the same basic mistakes (and a few phenomenally original ones) again and again. So I know the kind of things that make a reader cringe and shake their head. In one or two cases, only the timely intervention of booze kept me from gouging my own eyes out..
A few months back I mentioned some of the basic mistakes which quickly add up to sink a script. In a few cases, they can sink it in one shot. If you’re getting ready to send a script out to Austin, AAA, or that great brass ring known as the Nicholl, you should probably check through those first and possibly save yourself thirty or forty bucks.
Once you’ve taken care of the basic stuff, here are a few more hints of things to watch for and avoid.
The Director’s Draft
Every now and then a script shows up littered with stage direction, camera angles, parentheticals, editing notes, and so on. I saw one fellow on a message board who was furious his feedback had told him to eliminate such things, and it had been counted against his screenplay. As he saw it, he was planning to shoot this film himself with his friends, so not only were these notes in his script acceptable– they were necessary!
Alas, they really aren’t, and as a screenwriter you have no business putting them there unless they are absolutely relevant to telling the story. There’s nothing wrong with writing a screenplay to direct yourself, but that’s a different type of script than what you send to a competition. It’s kind of like the difference between a spec draft and an actual shooting script.
When your script goes into a contest, it’s just a script. It isn’t the screenplay you’re going to make with your friends and it certainly isn’t the screenplay you’re going to direct. It’s just a screenplay, one standing up all on its own against all the others in the contest. And if yours is filled with a lot of camera angles and parentheticals that shouldn’t be there, well… that’s probably why it’s going into the large pile on the left.
I talked about this in a post a few weeks back, too, so you can look at that for more specifics. For now, just remember it’s always better to get one polished script submitted to a contest than half a dozen rough ones. No one’s going to win anything with the first draft of a script. Or even the second draft. Focus your efforts and don’t get distracted by every new idea that flutters across your mind’s eye.
Yes, Paul Haggis writes almost flawless first draft scripts. Crash was a first draft. So was Flags of Our Fathers. Paul Haggis has also been writing screenplays professionally for almost thirty years. He was a writer on Diff’rent Strokes, believe it or not. So when your writing resume is that long and you‘ve got so many Oscars you’re using them to prop up crooked tables in the kitchen, feel free to send a first draft off to a contest just for kicks.
Until then, go do another draft.
There’s an interesting sub-group of screenplays that seem to have sprung out of some psychology movement or group coping session. Maybe a class exercise of some kind. Usually they involve someone telling off their mother. Or their father. Or their abusive boyfriend. Or their cheating husband. Many of these scripts involve female protagonists, but only enough so it’s worth mentioning. The overall feeling of them is you’re reading a story somebody wrote to help them work through some issues. The object wasn’t to tell a story, but to cleanse and purge or something like that.
The big problem with these scripts is there’s rarely anything to them beyond this big moment of therapeutic release. Everything leads up to that, and not much happens after it. That moment is all the character development and conflict in the script. So, in the end, it’s just a story about someone throwing out their abusive spouse or learning to trust again or yelling at their shrewish mom. And nobody wants to read that. Not even Oprah. Definitely not a contest reader.
Reality is not a Story Point
Closely related to the therapy script is the reality script. More often than not, the title page or closing cards reassure the reader this tale is, in fact, based on true accounts of me/ my parents/ my best friend/ someone I read about in a magazine article. These are tales of cancer survival (or not), orphans, Rwandan genocides, military struggles, and various other unsung heroes and villains of this world we live in. Alas, sometimes they’re also about struggling writers searching for someone to recognize their genius. Often, the fact this is a true story is stressed to give a certain validity and gravitas to what the reader is about to take in.
Thing is, no one cares if the story is true or not. Nobody. They just care if it’s a good story and it’s well-told. And in that respect, this tale of an orphaned cancer survivor in Rwanda needs to stand up against the story of a black-ops secret agent who teams up with aliens to save the world from prehistoric lizard men that’ve just reappeared with the no-longer-lost continent of Atlantis. Whether or not one is a true story is irrelevant. If one’s difficult to read and the other one isn’t, if one has flat characters and the other one doesn’t, if one’s boring and the other one isn’t– these are what decide if a script is any good or not. In the end, you are telling a story, and it’s either going to have its own validity or it isn’t. Reality just doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for the writer.
If you want a few more thoughts on this, I talked about this aspect of writing in general way back here.
Believe it or not, I’m a straight man with a long-time girlfriend who loves Broadway and even a number of musical films that have been made over the past decade or so (although she has made comments about some of the things in my iTunes library). Moulin Rouge was fantastic. Dreamgirls was fun. Across the Universe… not so much so.
The point being, though, musical screenplays are almost impossible to pull off as specs and they always make contest readers groan. Lyrics on the page are great, but you can’t assume the reader is going to be someone with a flawless sense of rhythm and pacing. Without the actual music setting the mood and the tone, lyrics are just poetry. Often very awkward and clumsy poetry. Which means they are awkward and clumsy lines of dialogue. And awkward, clumsy dialogue is the kind of thing that gets a script tossed into that left-hand pile.
It’s probably worth noting I’ve seen a few comedy scripts which tried to do parodies of other songs. However, unless you can absolutely guarantee your reader knows the song, this faces all the same issues as the original songs up above. Since most readers are also writers, that means they’re lonely, pathetic shut-ins… definitely not the type of folks you should gamble on knowing the latest Katy Perry, Audioslave, or Rhianna songs.
Fact Check Everything
Well, okay. Not everything. Any screenplay is going to have a degree of stretching the truth and perhaps even ignoring it once or twice.
However, in this wonderful information age we live in, you shouldn’t have any trouble discovering how tall the World Trade Center was ( Tower One stood at 1,368 feet (417 meters)/ 110 stories), if Karnak temple is north or south of the Sphinx (south, by several hundred miles), or when World War Two ended. And it’s important to know these things, because if you say the World Trade Center was twenty-three stories tall and WWII ended in 1951, people are going to call you on it. I know I did. A blatant error is going to stand out, and it’s going to be yet another thing that tells a reader this is not a professional, polished script.
I can admit I’m fairly well-read, and a little quirk in my brain lets me remember a lot more stuff than most people would believe possible. There are a lot of people out there with fields of expertise, though, and they’re going to spot stuff.
Consider this—who’s going to know how many rounds a standard M-16 magazine holds? Or how much it weighs? All sounds a bit obscure, right? Well, now consider in the United States alone there are over 2.28 million enlisted men and women in the armed forces (counting reserves). Let’s double that number to include retirees and folks who’ve been discharged for one reason or another. Now add in all the NRA folks and military enthusiasts who just like this sort of stuff. Suddenly there are a lot of people who are going to be shaking their heads at your “weapons expert” character.
If you can Google a fact, it should be correct. Unless you’ve got a truly spectacular reason why it should be wrong.
The Language Barrier
It’s been said England and the United States are two countries separated by a common language. Feel free to add in Australia and make that relationship a three-way. While we may all speak “English,” anyone who’s traveled (or watched BBC America) knows there are words and phrases that change from country to country.
At the end of the day, though, Hollywood is in America, which means a screenplay going there for a competition should be using American spelling, phrasings, and formatting. It may not be “proper” in your eyes, but it will to your reader. If not, your reader’s going to get distracted by words that look (to his or her eyes) like typos at first glance, and then really distracted when he or she hits an actual mistake.
This is one of the easiest things to fix, though. Through the wonders of the internet, most of us have a friend or three who live in other countries. Get in touch with one of yours and ask them to look through your screenplay. Just go over it and spot some of the odd little differences in spelling, wording, and phrasings that work differently here than they do there. If you don’t have any friends, well… I think the nice lady at A Buck A Page charges pretty reasonable rates.
Remember, two weeks after deadline is not when you want to find out “Tim was nibbling on one of Sophie’s pasties” means something very different in the U.S. than it does in the U.K.
So, polish up, revise, and rewrite. The Page contest isn’t going to win itself, after all.
Next week… I have no idea what we’ll talk about next week, past focusing it on the prose folks. I’ll just start writing next Thursday and we’ll all see what happens.