WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Cautionary Advice for Writers – Avoidables

Stewart Farquhar provides a list of cautionary advice for writers to heed if s/he wants to prevent outright rejection. Consider them a way to survive the first cut of any Hollywood executive or screenwriting contest.


Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over 6,500 scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Cautionary Writing Advice for Writers - Avoidables

In numerous articles, blogs, books and high-priced lectures / seminars there exists a plethora of “Lists of Requirements” to follow when a scribe sits down to write. Many are just plain drivel, a select few of these lists are excellent cautionary advice to the emerging writer. I call this cautionary advice AVOIDABLES.

These are not personal preferences. These avoidables are a few of the reasons overworked editors, readers and analysts use to toss a scrivener’s months or even years of work. Argue, if you must. Don’t shoot the messenger.

If a top tier contest, a credentialed producer, an ‘A’ list actor or an established publisher provides any of this cautionary advice (see the below list) it is in the scribe’s best interest to pay attention to the “AVOIDABLES” if he or she wants to prevent outright rejection. Consider them a way to survive the first cut.

Ignore at your own peril.

Script EXTRA: Random Notes from a Screenwriting Contest Judge

As a final and semi-final judge for three of the top ten English language screenplay competitions, I recently completed a tortuous read of 95 scripts in six weeks. If not for my contract to read, I would have tossed about sixty percent of them by page five, and of that percentage, twenty-five percent by page one. I continued to read because to get past the earlier readers there must have been a gem somewhere. A few were a delight to read.

Why the toss? Not the nit-picky this happens on page xx or even fancy fonts; preface quotations (not as a crawl) or even pictures (all of which scream AMATEUR). What causes the angst and many times immediate rejection, in a contest’s final round or from a production entity, is the writer’s blatant incursion into another craft’s responsibility, the use of NON-Spec script format and the inability to craft a story that engages from page 1. From this year’s batch, it seems that many of the writers had forgotten their sole responsibility.

A writer’s ONLY job is as a succinct and effective STORYTELLER.

There are several “How To” books, articles and blogs that purport to tell the writer how to format and what to include in a SPEC script. Dave Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible is the seminal authority. Trottier helps the emerging writer write vs. direct. I don’t receive any fee, consideration or compensation for this shout-out.

I have compiled a list (ugh) of the more egregious “violations”. These are not rules. What they represent is a collection of violations to the tacit “Just Tell A Story” contract the SPEC scribe has with the reader.

Yet Another List To Consider
The “Just Tell A Story” Contract Violations
(In The Avoidable Alphabetical Order)

 

Ref # The Avoidable Reason or Implication
1.       Actor Direction Ignored Or Unaware Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities
2.       Actor Suggestions Violation Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities – Amateur
3.       An Obvious “This Happens On P xx” Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
4.       Any Style Other Than Spec Script Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
5.       Audience Asides Not A Play, Commedia Dell’ Arte Or Greek Theatre
6.       Bad Or Excessive Voice Overs Lazy Scribe – Poor Storyteller
7.       Beat (Includes Pause) No Such Item – Lazy Scribe. Replace With Char Action
8.       Bland Language Scribe With Limited Language – Limited Vocabulary
9.       Bold Text Used TV, Production Or Shooting Script Sample
10.    Brand Reference Rights $$ & Unaware Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities
11.    Camera Direction Violation Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities – Amateur
12.    CAPS For SFX, Props Or Characters (After 1st Intro) Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Standards – Not Proofed
13.    Character Thoughts Stated (Or As An Aside) Can’t Film Thoughts – Novelesque
14.    Characters That Bore Presented From The Writer’s Objective – Amateur
15.    Cliché Plot With No Twist No Imagination Or Copied Existing Script – Amateur
16.    Detailitus Micromanagement – Insecure Scribe
17.    Deus Ex Machina God From The Machine – Contrived Solution
18.    Excessive Adverbs Or Adjectives Limited Language Skills – Amateur Or Lazy Writer
19.    Excessive Swearing Cliché – Distracts From The Story (If Unmotivated)
20.    Failure To Engage Reader Weak Story Or Inexperienced Storyteller – Amateur
21.    Failure To Use Contractions Unnatural Dialogue – Script Padding
22.    Fancy Title Font Create All Text Courier 12pt – Rules Don’t Apply To Me
23.    Format Errors Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Standards – Not Proofed
24.    Generic Names Lazy Scribe – Lack Of Differentiation Or Imagination
25.    Genre Unclear By P 5 Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
26.    Graphics Included Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Script – Amateur
27.    Gratuitous Rape Cliché – Insensitive Scribe (Done For Shock Value)
28.    Improbable / Impossible Situations Writer’s Objective Vs. Charter’s Objective – Amateur
29.    Incorrect / Inappropriate Genre Opening Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
30.    Incorrect Slug Lines Compound Or Run-On Locations – Not Proofed
31.    Incorrect Use Of Parentheses Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Standards – Not Proofed
32.    Italics (Unless Song Style Lyrics Or Title) Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Not Proofed
33.    Logic Errors Story Inconsistent Or Invalid – Amateur
34.    Long Paragraphs (Multiple) Detailitus Instead Of Salient Detail – Novelesque
35.    Looks Ink Heavy Novelesque – Micromanage The Story
36.    Margin Or Line Spacing Fudges Padded Script – Conventions Don’t Apply To Me
37.    Missing Antagonist Hint Page 1-5 Weak Storyteller – Amateur
38.    Missing Character Descriptions Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
39.    Missing Protagonist Page 1 No one To Follow – Amateur
40.    Missing Scene Descriptions Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
41.    Multiple “We Feel” Readers Only See Words – Amateur Or Lazy Scribe
42.    Multiple “We Hear” Readers Only See Words – Amateur Or Lazy Scribe
43.    Multiple “We See” Readers Only See Words – Amateur Or Lazy Scribe
44.    Multiple “We Think” Readers Only See Words – Amateur Or Lazy Scribe
45.    Multiple Fade Outs Ignored Or Unaware Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities
46.    Multiple Long Dialogues Unable To Trust Reader Or Actor – Amateur
47.    Multiple Missing Punctuation Not Proofed – Amateur
48.    Multiple Missing Words Not Proofed – Amateur
49.    Multiple Misspellings Not Proofed – Amateur
50.    Music Reference Rights $$ & Unaware Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities
51.    Name Changes In Script Not Proofed – Amateur
52.    No Conflict Weak Storyteller – Amateur
53.    No Protagonists Goal Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
54.    No Reason To Turn Page Story Or Character Does Not Compel – Amateur
55.    Not 12pt Courier Industry Standard – Fudged Script Length.
56.    Not In Present Tense (Active Voice) Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
57.    Novelesque Writing Padded Script Or Weak Story – Amateur
58.    Obvious Exposition Facts Before “Asked For” Or Any Interest – Amateur
59.    On The Nose Dialogue Not A Storyteller -Amateur
60.    Other Major Characters Late Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
61.    Over Use Of “Very” Limited Vocabulary – Lazy Scribe
62.    Over Use Or Incorrect Use Of Ellipses Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Standards – Dialogue Fade
63.    Over Use Or Incorrect Use Of Hyphens Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Standards – Dialogue Interrupt
64.    Phony Production Company On Title Page Prod Co Would Not Enter Contest – I’m A Player
65.    Pictures Included Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Script – Amateur
66.    Point Of Views (POVs) Violation Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities – Amateur
67.    Repetitive Language Department Of Redundancy Department – Amateur
68.    Scenes Of Convenience (Deus Ex Machina) Story Presented From The Writer’s Objective
69.    Spelling Errors Not Proofed – Amateur
70.    Starts With “Wake-Up Or Weather Montage” Cliché – Lazy Or Unimaginative Scribe
71.    Tell Vs. Show Micromanagement Of Script – Amateur
72.    Title Placement Ignored Or Unaware Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities
73.    Tone Or Theme Absent Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
74.    Too Long Or Too Short Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur
75.    Unbelievable Environment Or Behavior Incomplete Research – Amateur
76.    Undocumented Location Change Missing Slug Lines – Amateur
77.    Verbose Excessive Words – Detailitus Vs. Detail
78.    Weak Climax Unresolved Character Objective – No Outline
79.    Widows And Orphans Script Padded – Excessive Detail
80.    Writer’s Objective Writer Wants To Say Something – Amateur

Among those not included in “The List” is the failure to think and format short descriptive / declarative significant action sequences as “shots.”

Script EXTRA: FREE Download of Screenwriting Format Tips

For example

As Written (Submitted):

As the Cashier starts to count the bills, Jared looks out
the glass doors and spots another homeless man with a sign
that says “HELP ME. FOOD, MONEY, ANYTHING.”

A bystander goes by and gives him a half eaten apple. Jared
watches the man scavenges the apple, barriered by the doors.

His concentration is amazing. Is he studying this man eating
the apple? Or is he figuring out how he is going to have his
next meal?

Reduced To:

The cashier counts the bills.
Through the glass door,
Jared spots a homeless man with a sign.

INSERT SIGN:

“HELP ME. FOOD, MONEY, ANYTHING.”

A pedestrian tosses him a half-eaten apple.
Jared stares as the man devours it.

His concentration is amazing. Is he studying this man eating
the apple? Or is he figuring out how he is going to have his
next meal?

Seventy-seven words reduced to thirty-eight.

This style sets up each line as a shot.

Extraneous words eliminated.

Can’t film thoughts.

Reads faster.

This scriptwriting technique creates a present tense picture in the minds of the other professionals. It doesn’t TELL them how to do their job. In all but a very few cases this method eliminates the need to insert ”CLOSE-UPs”, “POVs”, “CUT TOs”, multiple “FADE INs” and “FADE OUTs”, “SMASH CUTs” or any other non-screenwriter responsibility.

The first audience is an overworked and underpaid or unpaid first level reader. He or she can only imagine, from individual memories, a picture that each scene and character you create invokes. This gatekeeper can only experience your artful character, action and reaction creations when you paint a memorable image with words. They hear, see, think or feel nothing except their emotive reaction to what you create ON THE PAGE. In a spec script it’s the scribe’s responsibility to place as few distractions as possible to this emotional journey. Anything that interrupts or slows down the pace or is not an active story element has to go. Does that mean never use any Avoidable? NO. Use sparingly if at all.

A screenwriter’s sole responsibility is to concentrate on the creative art of storytelling. Leave everything else to the other collaborators of the cinematic arts.

Script EXTRA: Tips for Making Your Script a Fast Read

Now, there will be those pseudo intellectuals who grouse – “Well Tarantino does it in Pulp Fiction”, or “Zach Helm does it in Stranger Than Fiction” or Lars Von Trier does it in Melancholia. Why can’t I do it? Or, this script or that movie is an example of this technique or that formula or has this element. Valid questions.

My answer. When you have their contacts, their experience, and their caché, plus your story is a page turner, you can handwrite in a composition book, scribble on old scripts or compose on tissue paper and someone will buy. Until that time, create a work that drives the entry level reader to your last page without distraction. In all writing, formula works for a novice when they start out. Use it, then graduate. A unique structure, with multiple creative variations therein, is what works for an established writer.

There are also those who claim to have been at “this studio script department” or that they have “written and sold on spec or assignment” without adhering to any of the “List Of Requirements.” These purveyors of mostly piffle also claim that “very few differences actually exist at the professional level of spec and on-assignment writing.” It’s true that all writers should strive to produce a professional product.

But, note the caveat, “professional”. Their advice is from the inside looking out vs. a struggling writer fighting to get in. A spec writer needs advice on how to write vs. advice from an insider on how to direct other crafts.

For the majority of today’s writers that have yet to reach this professional level, if you create a memorable story that’s a fast read and with the avoidables in mind it will be easier for you to get your foot in the door. Instructions, advice or direction for each craft will be added by others after your script is bought.

To rise above the tens of thousands of scripts registered by aspiring writers with the WGAw in Hollywood each year, it’s important to stand out in some positive way. The easiest method to accomplish this is the most obvious. Tell a great story in the most direct way without inappropriate instructions or superfluous distractions. Do your job well and invite the other crafts to do theirs. Establish yourself first as a storyteller. Innovation comes after you have proven yourself as a “Go-To Player.”

More articles by Stewart Farquhar

Your First 10 Pages: Make a Lasting Impression On-Demand Webinar

DOWNLOAD NOW!

One thought on “WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Cautionary Advice for Writers – Avoidables

  1. David White

    Stewart, thank you for this comprehensive list. It never hurts for writers “on the outside,” as you describe us, to see things from the point of view of the reader, and to be reminded that these readers are inundated with scripts that fail to adhere to the simplest of rules of formatting and storytelling.

    I used to be one of those “fudgers,” who’d try and sneak in an extra word or two on a line by adjusting the character width, or modifying the margins. After eleven scripts, I’ve learned it’s far better to just be able to say the same thing with fewer, more compelling words.

    There’s the famous (and likely apocryphal) story about Dustin Hoffman coming to the set of “Marathon Man,” looking like death warned over. Laurence Olivier asked him why he looked so bad, and Hoffman explained for the upcoming dramatic scene, he’d chosen to go without sleep, to look more haggard.

    As the story goes, Olivier smiled and said, “It’s called acting, dear boy.”

    For us, it’s called writing.

COMMENT