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Sunday, July 27, 2008

It's Dog Eat Dog

So - this judging, this weighing and advancing or not advancing scripts in the Silver Screenwriting Competition is tough. There's so much riding on it for each entrant. I want to advance almost every script so badly because I love writers and I love passion and hard work. But I can't. Some must be left behind. In fact, the majority must be left behind in this first round elimination.

Now, I figure I have read thousands of scripts at this point in my life. On a very busy day, I might read three scripts. Not these days - now I have the luxury of having readers and if I do read a script, I make sure it's one and only one so I can give it all of my energy and focus.

No such luxury when reading scripts for first round eliminations for a competition. You might review 25 scripts in one day. I say review not read because at the first round eliminations here is what happens: if we can't get through the first five or ten pages - the script does not advance. If we get to page 20, get lost in the story and then realize we gotta pick things up and move on to another script - that script will advance.

It's as simple as that, really. Interesting? Compelling? Formatted properly? Readable? Engaging ? Advance. Bad or wrong formatting? Boring, dense action lines? Confusing? Do not advance. If I ever said that I could tell you whether a script was good or not in the space of less than three pages - I reiterate and confirm that now. I don't quit reading after three pages - but I know in my gut by page three and guess what - I've not been wrong yet. If the first three pages suck - that only heralds many more sucky pages. Without exception.

Now mind you, this is first round eliminations - the broadest eliminations happen here. The scripts that advance will be examined much, much more closely. Sure the first 10 or 20 pages and the last 10 or 20 pages were good - but if there are problems with this script in the way of character arc, theme, structure, etc. that will be revealed in the next round. In the next rounds, the magnifying glass comes out and a sharp beam of light is shone on each script.

But in the first round - it's crystal clear that the first few pages have to ROCK. Why? Because your script is being reviewed among a pile of hundreds of others. Compared to them. Not in theory - actually being compared head to head. Right now.

We all know that our scripts are compared to other scripts - of course they are. We know that screenwriting is a high stakes game and that few make it into the citadel. But when you read piles of literally hundreds - HUNDREDS of scripts back to back to back - the ones that rise to the top have something very much in common. Wavers, I have been reading all weekend, all day, both days and I keep trying to think of a way to phrase just what it is about scripts that pass the test, even if initially upon a relatively surface inspection.... What is it that separates the wheat from the chaff by page three? I'm hard pressed to put it into words, exactly but regardless of genre, regardless of the gender, age or location of the writer - the scripts that go into the wheat pile after less than 10 pages are scripts that are highly engaging for the reader. They have verve. They have movement. They clip along with voice and style. They never, ever, ever bore.

Well that's just terrific, Wave-inobvious. That's what you're thinking, isn't it, Wavers? MY script IS verve-y, it DOES clip along and MY voice is terrific! MY pages do NOT bore! That's what you're thinking too, isn't it Wavers?

But we have arrived at the central problem. Can you really be objective about your script? Look, Wavers. All newborns are ugly. They just are. But not to the parents right? What screenwriter writes a script thinking oh damn, this is dull, flat, over-written and not engaging or compelling but I'm going to enter it into a script competition anyway! Oh no - you have worked hard on your script. You are convinced it's terrific - or, pretty good, anyway. Well - it's the best you could do and hey, from where you stand, after weeks and months, it is not the least bit boring. To you.

So how do you know if your labor of love, if your little beauty of a script actually is interesting and compelling to anyone outside of you and your friends? How do you know how it will stack up against hundreds of other scripts read in quick succession? Well, the answer is again fairly obvious and that is that you need to obtain objective feedback on your work.

I work with a lot of clients on a private one-on-one basis. Recently a client clasped my hand a little too tightly and I had to remind her that I am not in the business of creating a dependence on me or my business but rather of creating better, smarter, more productive and independent writers who internalize what they learn and raise the level of their writing as a result of that. Feedback is always important - at The Script Department we work with many established writers who get feedback as part of the process of arriving at a final draft. So it's not that you will arrive at a place where you do not ever benefit from feedback from a respected peer or service. Disabuse yourself of that arrogant pipe dream immediately. Getting feedback is just a normal part of the process and not a reflection on you or your writing. It's like getting your eyes checked or your knee whacked with that tiny little hammer.

But gosh darn it, Wavers, you need to recognize what good pages are and what good pages are NOT. Feedback is the cure for where you might have gone astray. But reading good scripts is a preventive for going astray in the first place.

You cannot know for sure how your pages are - you beautiful little darlings - unless you know what great writing looks like. Please, Wavers -read scripts. Read a lot of them. Make the commitment to read 2 or 3 produced scripts a week. Soon, you will come to see the patterns present in good writing. And then you will begin to emulate those patterns in your own voice and style. And your writing will begin to transform. If there is only one thing you ever learn from the Rouge Wave, let this be it. Reading good writing begets writing good writing. Learn to recognize good writing and strive to emulate it.

So raise your cupcakes up high, Wavers, raise those cupcakes and make an oath to read more scripts. That is all. Koo-koo-ka-choo.

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Luzid said...

What is your favorite source for scripts?

I've checked out Drew's and IMSDB, and the one problem I have is knowing which scripts are truly the professionals and which are transcripts -- partly because (as a former reader myself) I've read professional scripts that are not as excellent as the finished film.

I love reading scripts (Darabont's Indy IV draft was a heck of a lot of fun) and want to read the real deal, not somebody's transcript (no matter how well-written the transcript).

Screenwriter aka No Mess said...

Mine's daily script. Neither fancy, glamourous, nor exclusive, yet a tremendous resource for writers. Scripts are in PDF and HTML so you can read your heart out in either format.

I think the first 10 are very telling. Try the first 10 of Natural Born Killers, Spanglish, and Airforce One.

Verve- an interesting and effective choice of words.

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

I agree - one can tell if a script is good in the the first three pages. Acutally I could tell in the first and second page.

Just read the optioned scripts found on top agents' desk or top movie executives' desk by upcoming aspiring screenwriters. Those scripts are a labour of love. They are written like a slick "blueprint" with a sprinking of technical and prose panache.

The first, second, third pages will tell you if your script will advance, win, or optioned.

Julie, thank you for being honest and pushing us in the right direction.


Anonymous said...

Hey Screenwriter aka no mess,

"Spanglish" --- are you joking? Are you for real?

"Spanglish" -- what is so good about the first 10 pages?

The movie flopped.

The writing is boring!

Please explain!


PJ McIlvaine said...

I would add this to Julie's comments: read bad scripts too. Lots of them. Reading a bad script will let you know very quickly what a good script is and should be.

Screenwriter aka no mess said...

Anonymous said: "Spanglish" --- are you joking? Are you for real?

Am I joking- Nope. Am I for real-Yep. Obviously whether or not one likes of dislikes a script or finds inspiration from it is purely subjective. Personally, I liked Spanglish. The movie was beautifully done and the screeplay is unique. Some of the most critically acclaimed, award-wining movies are technically "box office flops". All I can say is this: as budding professional screenwriters, we should be so lucky.

Christian M. Howell said...

My favorite thing to do is to read a script while watching the movie. Thus far, only Casino has been more than 90% filmed from the script.

I watched and read "Aliens" last night and I was amazed at how crappy the script was compared to the movie. The movie had interrupted dialog, dialog in the bg, etc. The script was flat and "nosy."

Anyway I find that if I enjoy the movie my script wants to be I'm satisfied. If I have people react the way I want them to I feel like I succeeded.

The script I submitted was my favorite in terms of character contrasts and scene transitions.

What I love about it is that it doesn't pull any punches. It says what it wants to say regardless of the opinion of others but doesn't attempt to preach. In that way I guess it's like a strong person.

Anyway, I have pretty much gone through the scripts on and even read a bunch from (Not for the faint of heart) and find that there are indeed similarities in scripts that produce successful movies and even similarities in scripts that make sucky movies.

The scripts that try to be everything for everyone usually fail miserably (The Love Guru) as do complex plots hinging on hidden secrets (Lady in the Water) or too much suspension of disbelief (Super Ex-Girlfriend).

The key that I've found is to study cinema and not screenwriting. Studying cinema will prevent you from writing "unfilmable scenes," enable you to use images effectively, and even make your dialog snappier by giving you an understanding of why a line like "You can't handle the truth" is so effective. Or why a tear rolling down a face can say more than any dialog.

I'm behind on several scripts because I'm studying Bergson and Deleuze ( not to mention the discourses I enjoy on my Blog Roll). But at least I can say that I know what the duree is and why Aristotle actually meant plot when he said beginning, middle and end.

It's really that I didn't have 4 years at Tisch so I have to make up ground.

Long live the scene transition!!