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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Snapshots of a Script

Readers are different from you and I. Well, different from you. Not I. The Wave-inatrix doesn't read boxes of twenty scripts at a time anymore but I do read a good six to eight scripts a week, easily. And something happens when one has to read that kind of volume. Writers on message boards encourage one another to read scripts - and that's damn good advice. But really, one just cannot imagine the sheer volume of reading that has to be done on a daily basis in Hollywood. It changes you.

Have you ever had that weird, mildly crushing, existential feeling of impending death when, at a public place you overhear someone conversing about something totally inane and then you realize it's you talking and you are in fact just like everybody else? And you panic for a moment because you thought you were different?

When one reads boxes and boxes of scripts a pattern becomes clear - and that is that there are truly only a limited number of stories, types of writers and levels of execution. And yes, you get jaded.

Is this just another blog post about how we readers are ever so sophisticated and in-the-know? God, that would be tiresome, wouldn't it? No, readers are just overworked, underpaid struggling writers who just happen to be the janitors in the hallways of production companies, sweeping up the piles of scripts and putting them into some kind of order for rejection or consideration.

No, this is a post to help put things into perspective for aspiring screenwriters. It's a harsh thing to say but if you think you and your script are all that amazing and special and genius - you're wrong. There are a lot of better writers and a lot of better scripts. Whoa - that's an awful thing for the Wave-inatrix to say! Well, it's bracing, isn't it? But think of the worth of the realization that your story is NOT utterly original and freakishly unique. Raises the bar, doesn't it?

Sure, you could believe that your writing is good enough, and deserving of accolades, money and fame - but if you're wrong - and depending on where you are as a writer, you probably are - then how far are you going to get laboring under that misapprehension? Overestimating your writing is an easy trap to fall into. It comes from that strange dichotomy of thinking borne of mixing confidence and stick-to-it-iveness with a fear of failure. Stir that up in a beaker, pour over the crackling, white hot mess that is Hollywood and the steam that arises smells an awful lot like failure and frustration.

So what is a writer to do? Know that writing anything is expiative and transformative and beautiful. But know that getting paid for it is another animal altogether. Know that there are plenty of writers worse - and better - than you. Know that your script can always be better. Know that your writing can, must and will improve. Know that every journey begins with a single step and that if you believe in anything, believe that you love this messed up thing called being a writer. It's bittersweet, it's absolutely awful - and we couldn't imagine doing anything else.

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AJG said...

True, it's somewhat sadistic to intentionally become a writer, but 'tis far worse to try to squelch one's own creative spark. I'm plenty critical of my own work, so you won't be seeing a screenplay from me for a long time! =)

You've reminded me of something, though. Perhaps, as a reader, you'll indulge me in this fun little exercise?

By process of elimination, somewhere in the world is the best produced script ever written. Arguably, this may be "The Godfather" or "Citizen Kane," but choose whatever picture you feel is as close to flawless (scriptwise) as you can think of for the sake of the exercise.

We all know the first submitted draft is never the final draft. There are countless drafts, rewrites and polishes, and whoever submitted the first draft may not be the person whose work ends up on the screen.

Here comes the hypothetical part. I'll use "The Godfather" just for the sake of illustration. Say two unknown scribes, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo submit a first draft spec for a movie called, "The Godfather." The script, for the sake of the exercise, is word-for-word the script that ended up being shot.

So here's a script that has stood up for 35 years and been considered among the best ever written, only in this case, we're going to make it a first draft by a couple of newbies.

These guys aren't totally confident they've done the best they could do, so they send it to you for coverage.

Is the perfect script still flawless then? Do you send them a note saying "Great work - wouldn't change a thing" and affix a little smiley face sticker on it or do you pick the script apart?

Assuming you do the latter, take whatever film you chose as your favorite script, pretend it was submitted to you by a novice writer and share your story notes.

Every script can be better, so what would you change about your favorite?

Jake Hollywood said...

And when some reader comes across something unique and truly different and unbelievably special and genius, and that reader bumps it up the chain of command, what's the comment most made by the guy who can greenlight the script?

I'll give you a hint:

(it starts with the phrase)

No one will pay to see this...

Is it genius they're after or something else?

Given that an awful lot of crap that gets made in this town, I doubt the movers and shakers are looking for genius.

DSC said...

I've been deluded that my work was worthy of winning a competition. Reality set in when I didn't get past round one. Inside I knew what was wrong with it, on the outside, well, I showed this falsehood that it was good enough. We always struggle with the reality of the situation, not accepting the truth, that is why there are so many poor writers and very few pros - it's hard to take criticism.

So I changed by first 10 pages and sent it to a producer, he saw a lot of the problems, so his assistant recommended a book which deals with story and theme structure. By coincidence my next script was better, in thematic terms, than the one the producer read.

You don't learn anything by taking leaps, you learn by taking small steps. Essentially you are building knowledge of the craft, layer by layer.

Sure you want success now, but it's more important to have the intricate knowledge and be able to articulate it in any form at any time than take the money and have superficial understanding. With the latter you'll get found out on the big stage and your career in tatters.

Julie Gray said...

AJG I'm not entirely sure I understand your question but you seem to be saying that it ain't fair because a pro writer or one who is in some way esteemed has the edge over a total novice - even if they submitted what is in essence the same script. Is this true? Absolutely, yes. I have read scripts for consideration at production companies written by A-list writers like William Goldman and John Sayles - if those names had been blacked out, would my notes have been different? I'm sure. It's human nature. That's why it's so hard for aspiring writers; they have to jump through a lot more hoops because they have so much more to prove. At a certain level of examination though, when reading an A-list script, for example, do I see things I'd change or comment on? Well, we get paid to find something - anything - to comment on so sure, we have to find something. But I find that when a script really sings, the overall impact is so fantastic that I could only think of notes if pressed to. It simply works, from stem to stern. What becomes the issue at that level of writing is not which bit you'd change here or there but whether the story is appealing full stop. Appealing on a personal level to the exec, and appealing from a business standpoint for the production company.

AJG said...

Oh, no, I wasn't crying foul about known versus unknown writers. I'm no whiner. A writer without a thick skin is in the wrong business.

My long, drawn out comment could have been better stated, but it was literally an exercise. Basically, what notes do you give when a script is already great? You answered that from where you said, "...we get paid to find something...". Sort of like an auditor, I suppose.

What I was trying to get at was that if draft #25 is hailed as genius, wouldn't that same script be picked apart if it was draft #1?

That said, back to the exercise - What is your favorite produced script and what would you have changed about it (if anything)?

JPS said...

Some years ago in Britain, a journalist, by way of an experiment, typed Jerzy Kosinski's award-winning novel Steps onto a ream of nice, fresh paper and a few years after it was published submitted it under a different title and name to most of the major UK publishers. Every one passed on it, some saying that the work was unpublishable.

More recently Doris Lessing, this year's Nobel Laureate for Literature, engaged in a similar experiment with one of her own works. It, too, was turned down. Julie is quite correct that a manuscript, whether a novel or a screenplay, is certainly judged in the light of the author's reputation and previous work.

kingseyeland said...

Totally agree with Jake Hollywood, but to that I'd add, the reason there are only so many stories is that the industry only buys certain kinds of stories: the ones that make money. What will sell and what is “good” aren’t always the same thing.

Plus amateurs all over the world are learning the Lew Hunter model or the Blake Snyder model or whatever, or they're attending film programs that teach along similar lines. Writers learn the Lew Hunter way to construct a story or Blake Snyder’s ideas of what engages an audience and you end up with the same stuff over and over. Maybe bad writers are all the same, but they're aiming for something they think is "good." That idea of “good” came from somewhere, and with the glut of “Screenwriting Secrets” and “Writing the Script That Will Sell” books on the market, it’s no wonder you’re getting the same crap again and again.

Full disclosure: I teach screenwriting part-time in a flyover state. I see the same stories over and over -- split personalities, unexplained time travels/parallel universes, ghosts of dead lovers who follow their living lover around to "protect" them, etc. I feel your pain (on a much smaller scale, yes, but I know what you mean).

Need to indicate a dead lover? Have a girl standing at a gravesite, holding a photo of her and a guy, and make sure she's crying. Then have the dead guy standing behind her, but she can’t see or hear him.

When in doubt, make your main character the killer, but make his other personality the real culprit.

To be edgy, kill your main character. For no reason. At all. No reason you can articulate like a real writer with a plan. Just that it’s cool.

Plus you get stuff like this:

There are lots of explanations as to why the same bad writing never goes away. I don’t envy your job, but I hope you’re not so jaded that you overlook good stories. They’re still out there.

Julie Gray said...

GREAT comment, Kings. So you feel my pain - cyber high five. You'd think that readers would get very jaded - well, we do, sure, but for me anyway, when I read a good script - I just go out of my mind with joy. I get really excited because it is finding the needle in the haystack and it is so damn rewarding after searching for so long. If the script came through my business you better be damn sure that writer is going to get a back pat that will thrust them across the street and more than that, the encouragement and connections to the industry that will help them continue on that path.

We all have to write those first two or three terrible scripts - we've all done it. And we read. And we learn. Might be Blake Snyder, might be Lew Hunter, might be Vogler, Hauge or Soth.

But at the end of the day a writer's success hinges on two things: determination, which is a mindset and a discipline, and
talent - which cannot be bought, taught or emulated.

There's no silver bullet. The writing life is hard. But I do think that sometimes inexperienced or younger writers have to get those crying-girl-by-the-grave stories out and down on paper as almost a rite of passage before they can dig deeper into themselves and into the universal.