Thursday, December 6, 2012

How To Not Write A Screenplay: 10 Mistakes Screenwriter Makes

I read an article about Carson Reeves in the New York Times. He is a blogger behind a powerful Hollywood blog, Script Shadow, which reviews unproduced screenplays. The problem with a lot of the screenplays on his blog is they sound pretty bad. I don’t think I have a complete right to make that judgment because I haven’t read these unproduced scripts. The problem is that there is big differences between saying you’re writing a novel and a screenplay. If you are writing a novel, you feel like you are being a literary person. You feel like you don’t need to qualify yourself as a true writer. If you say you are writing a screenplay, than you are more likely to get that reaction of “oh, everyone is writing a screenplay.” There are a lot of problems with people who write screenplays. Often, the vision of the screenwriter is someone sitting in a coffee shop, being “creative."  
Recently, someone I know who writes screenplays came up to me and said that writing a screenplay is easier than writing a novel. In some ways, that’s true. In other ways, not so much, but as someone who reviews a lot of movies, there is advice I wish I could give the screenwriters of America. Hollywood is such a seductive idea for a writer that often it gives platforms to people who can’t really write. After all, with screenwriting, you don’t have to be concern with prose or making someone turn pages or having someone pick up the book. Your readers are actors, producers, other screenwriters, directors, and whatnot. You don’t have to compel that general reading audience, because you aren’t turning in a final product. You are turning in a blue print for something that will look much more polished than simply a manuscript.

However, there are pros and cons to screenwriting. A pro to writing the book before the movie is that if the movie sucks, you always have that wonderfully good book. Another pro is that no one is rewriting your book, maybe except editors. Though, even if editors rewrite parts of your book, you still get that sole credit. Screenplays often are handed off to script doctors and other screenwriters, so by the time you are done; you get a “story by” credit instead of a “written by” credit. Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight books, said she would never be able to write a screenplay, because she couldn’t cut out all the stuff she wanted to say and describe about her characters. William Golden, novelist and screenwriter, sums up the difference between the magic of a book and the magic of screenplay in his book on screenwriting, “Adventures in The Screen trade,” pretty simply; If your parents read you screenplays instead of books to you as a child before you went to sleep, then I don’t really want to hear about your childhood.

Or take the joke “Community” made about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, as Abed talks on about making a postmodern movie about Jesus, Shirley says “That’s nice , Charlie Kaufman, but some of us have work in the morning.” We all praise the novelists, but tend to look down on screenwriters, and I think there’s some truth to that. A problem with screenwriters is that they fall in to a couple categories that make them sound like the hacks of the writing world. I am often guilty myself of thinking poorly of screenwriters, as opposed to those writing novels. So, here it goes. I’m going to ask the question. Are you a really good writer who happens to write screenplays or are you a “writer” who is writing a screenplay for all the wrong reasons. So, here are the good and bad reasons to write a screenplay. I call this article “Are You a Writer Who Writes Screenplays or Are A “Writer” Who Writes Screenplays.” These are the questions one must ask themselves before they write a screenplay.

1.       Does This Work As A Movie?- A lot of screenwriters have a good idea for a story, but the question the writer must ask themselves is, is this a good story for a movie or is this a good story for a novel? For example, I tried co-writing screenplay years ago with a friend. The friend and I wanted to write an epic fantasy. Half through the screenplay, I realized it probably should be a novel because we kept describing stuff in the description of the screenplay, like how their time system works, that wouldn’t appear on screen. My friend and I totally disagreed. My co-writer did not understand that the description was too much for a narration (unless the audience wanted to sit there for 4 hours of narration), and this would of worked a lot better as a novel or short story. Often a writer will have a story that works better as print. A person can read a book, put it down, come back to it, and whatnot. Not in a screenplay.

2.       Can I Cap the Story in 120 Pages?- Steve Kloves, the screenwriter of the “Harry Potter” books often says people are often upset with what he cuts out of the screenplay. Remember, though, Kloves has to take 800 pages and cut it down to 120 pages. Film is a visual medium, and the audience is looking at their watches. They don’t want to be in the theater for hours upon hours. Think about “Harry Potter” as a good example of this. The books become a lot longer as the series goes on, and while the kids might love it, I think often the parents, who might love it too, are still checking their watches. People want to be in and out of the theater, within a couple hours, not sit through hours and hours until their eyes bleed.

3.       Am I A Good Writer In General? - The problem with a lot of screenwriters is that they aren’t good writers, and they figure, well, I still want to write, so if I write something that gets made into something else, then the rules do not apply to me. Well, yes and no. No one expects beautiful prose in a screenplay. You are writing a fairly standard description such as “My character walks here, looks like this and does, this” followed by your character’s name in CAPTIAL LETTERS, and the dialogue under their names. However, the problem with poor writers writing screenplays is that they are lazy and under mind that movie going audience. Gone are the days that audiences are stupid. That being said, I have nothing against the occasional dumb movie. I think sometimes we should all go to the theater to just have a good time. However, even dumb movies need some skills. Take the “American Pie” movies, which aren’t exactly brilliant films. They still have good characters, and know how to set up jokes and scenes. This brings me to the next point…

4.       A Lot of Screenwriters Are the Lazy Writers- A lot of screenwriters believe they don’t need to read or write in regular ways. A lot of screenwriters think they just need to watch movies all day, and they need to read screenplays and nothing more. They don’t need to know about the mechanics of storytelling or take creative writing courses or even know simple literary genres.  You need to be a WRITER, and not simply a SCREENWRITER. I love movies too, but if you want to write, you need to read books. Yes, you need to read literature, and not just books on screenwriting. I can’t tell you how many screenwriters I meet who fill their book shelves with how to books on screenplays. I have nothing against the screenplay how to books, because they can be quite helpful. However, there is no better lesson on storytelling and character creation than reading stories, novels, and creative non-fiction. You cannot skip over the physical book, because you happen to think, “I’m writing movies, so why put in the work of reading? I’m not writing books!” WRONG. If you do not read anything, and just watch movies all day, your screenplay will just sound like a bunch of other movie clichés thrown together.

5.       Tell a Good Story and Create Great Characters- How many screenwriters tell a terrible story, and cover up bad writing with action and gimmicks? A lot, actually.  A lot of screenwriters don’t have good characters and totally bland ideas because they figure it’s a movie. Once again, that’s undermining your audience, and just plain bad writing. Think about the world’s most beloved screenplays? How memorable are the characters? Here’s a perfect example. Eric Roth, the screenwriter of “Forest Gump”, could have just written a straight adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel. However, how memorable was Forest Gump? Now, a lot of screenwriters make the mistake of relying on the actors. Yes, Tom Hanks made that role memorable. However, that character and sense of storytelling must have been very strong in the script. And another thing, do you think Tom Hanks would have even played the role of that character didn’t come strongly through the script? You need to pack a punch in your script, because like a novel, it goes into a slush pile if you don’t. You need to think you are J.K. Rowling writing “Harry Potter” instead of some dude writing a screenplay.

6.       A Lot of Screenwriters Want to be Rich- A lot of screenwriters do get rich, but the problem with the salaries in Hollywood is that this breeds a lot of writers who just want to be rich. Writing a screenplay just for money isn’t the way to go. Oh, I understand we all want money, but there also must be a story you want to tell. A character you want to introduce. You need to treat your screenplay as if you are writing a story, a novel, and a passion. You need a motivation besides making money because that will lead to a weak, clichéd script and the people reading that script will see right through that.

7.       You Are Not Special- This are really advice for all writers. Do you know how many people come to Hollywood with a briefcase full of screenplays without actually a decent screenplay in the bunch? Yes, that fantasy is cool but unrealistic. I think you need to really have something unique. Your screenplay, your romantic comedy, your “Harry Potter” knock off may fly but you need something unique and original too.

8.       Don’t Pander To Your Audience- One of the biggest problems with screenwriters is they are thinking of the box office and target audience before they think up a good story. A lot of screenplays pander to a crowd. A romantic comedy full of clichés panders to women. Teen sex comedies that try too hard to gross out their audience also try too hard. Torture porn? Yes, it sells, but the “Saw” movies are more than horror. The Jigsaw Killer, as evil and uncaring as he can be at times, is actually a great character. That hook that he wants to punish people for taking life for granted, actually makes him deeper. So, even if your screenplay isn’t exactly high culture, you still need to put thought into it. It still needs some depth. There is nothing worst than 120 pages of pandering and clichés.

9.       An Example of Perfect Screenplay - A good story and good characters should still be your top of your list. “Little Miss Sunshine” is a perfect example. What could have been a stupid comedy about a family taking a road trip turns into a warm film about a family pulling together for the daughter. Michael Arndt takes time with each character, and gives them all back stories. Each character has a story, each character is defined. Every member of his family is so well done; we don’t even stop to wonder what their last names are. He doesn’t complicate the story, which is key in a screenplay. The story is simple, which a story in a screenplay needs to be, because this is a movie that’s visual and fewer than 200 pages. Point A to point B. Middle, beginning and end. However, each character is defined, in a visual way that the audience can see. Remember, they can only see what you describe in the script. The dialogue is sharp and relatable. I could go through each point of why this is a perfect script, but I rather you rent it and see for yourself.

10.   The Audience Can See Your Writing- Don’t think that just because a movie screen is between you and your audience, they can’t see your bad writing. Just because they aren’t looking at a page doesn’t mean your audience won’t see your bad writing. If the dialogue and descriptions are bad, your audience will see that. Just because they aren’t looking at a page, doesn’t mean they won’t see your bad writing on the screen. Don’t be lazy. Write as well as you can, and treat it like it’s going to be published. You always write like it’s going to be published, even if that’s not your goal. Trust me, your audience doesn’t leave their brains at the theater door.