At various times in the history of this column, I have been known to sound off about the tricks, trends and proclivities of screenwriters that annoy, irritate or otherwise torture poor, underpaid script readers such as myself.
It’s been awhile since I penned one of these rants; but, having just been through a particularly busy period in which I have read a lot more scripts than I usually do, I have been exposed to so much bad screenwriting that I’m afraid my head will burst if I don’t vent as soon as possible. So, here’s my latest list of the things screenwriters can do to avoid driving readers (well, this reader, anyway) nuts.
Don’t put flashbacks on page two. The flashback is an expository tool whose purpose is to provide information vital to our understanding of a script’s plot or characters. It springs from incidents that have occurred so long before the main events of the story that they cannot be comfortably included in the script’s primary chronology. Based upon this definition, it follows that, for a flashback to be effective, we would first need to know what that plot is or who those characters are. Which means that, ideally, a flashback should be introduced well into the story — after the plot has been set up and the characters are established. As logical as this line of thinking seems (to me, anyway), I’ve been noticing an increasing trend lately in which key flashbacks are being introduced on page one or two of the script, before the writer has had the chance to introduce much of anything besides FADE IN. Bad ideas tend to come in waves, but this one has been popping up so frequently (in the last contest I read for, it appeared in 52 out of the 60 scripts I covered), that it seems more like a tsunami. The problem with using early flashbacks, of course, is that before the audience can figure out what’s going on in your present pages, you’ve yanked them out of that situation and plopped them down into a whole new one — in a whole different time, (often) in a whole new place and (often) with all new characters — only to re-yank and re-plop them back down into the original circumstances a few pages later. The result is usually total confusion and disorientation for the reader. Since the point of the first 10 pages is to hook your reader and pull him in, you can see why flashbacks are not good elements to introduce unless, of course, you want your reader to pound his head into the wall in frustration and scrawl PASS, PASS, PASS over every page of your script — then they’re great elements to introduce.
RULE OF THUMB: If you can’t get your script started without bringing in some vital information from the past on the first or second page, then odds are you probably should have started telling your story a lot earlier than you did. Back it up and save us all the headache.
Don’t assume I know what you’re talking about. This problem is especially popular with writers of sci-fi and fantasy scripts, scripts based upon highly technical or academic premises, or those featuring characters with highly specialized knowledge or abilities — scripts that take place in unfamiliar worlds with unfamiliar rules where people have unfamiliar abilities (in other words, scripts in which a lot needs to be explained in order for it to be understood). For some reason, many screenwriters of these kinds of scripts assume that you know their weird, arcane worlds as well as they do; and, therefore, they don’t bother to explain anything. Thus, reading one of these scripts becomes an experience akin to trying to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics without the Rosetta Stone — as cool as everything looks, you don’t have the slightest idea what any of it means.
RULE OF THUMB: Assume your reader is a dolt who needs everything spelled out for him. But spell it out dramatically, using action, character and behavior. Don’t do it the way described below:
Don’t put all of the exposition in the action line. This is an oldie but goodie. I’ve seen this problem mentioned in every “how to write a screenplay” book, article and/or class ever done (I’ve mentioned it half a dozen times in this column myself) — and yet it remains the single most common dumb mistake screenwriters make. Movies are an audio-visual medium — an audience can only know what it is shown (in pictures, action or behavior) or what it is told (in dialogue or narration). Despite these caveats, many writers, forgetting that a script is a blueprint for a film and not a work of literature, insist on putting all of the key information into the action line. For example:
INT. BANK — DAY:
BOB enters, dressed all in black and playing with a yo-yo. Born in Boston, Bob moved to London as a child and grew up to become a backup singer for The Beatles and then later a bank robber. Having just gotten out of prison after a 10-year stretch, he has come to steal all of this bank’s gold but is now having second thoughts because the young teller has a fragile beauty that reminds him of his beloved daughter, a young missionary to China who was tragically killed when she was run over by an out-of-control rickshaw.
While the information is fascinating, the only thing an audience is going to see on-screen is a guy dressed in black, standing in a bank with a yo-yo. Unless you plan to run the action line across the bottom of the screen like one of those annoying CNN news tickers, then the rest of this vital information is going to be lost.
RULE OF THUMB: If there’s something you want the audience to know, don’t write it — dramatize it. Show, don’t tell, or else this reader’s gonna PASS, not RECOMMEND.
Don’t digress. Since the coming of Quentin Tarantino, screenwriters have become very fond of stopping the action to allow their characters to launch into long, divergent speeches riffing on everything from politics to pop culture to the absurdities of the world around us. Ostensibly, the purpose of these speeches is to give us insight into a character by letting us in on his thoughts, musings and world view. The real purpose, however, is to allow the writer to dazzle us with how wry, witty, observant, insightful and/or clever he is. The problem is that most of these speeches are never as clever, original or funny as the writer thinks they are. Worse, they stop the script dead and take us way off-track as they go on for lines, paragraphs and even pages. (I read one riff on bras once that went on for — I’m not kidding — five pages. I mean, I like bras as much as the next guy, but come on!) Screenplays are about story and structure, and anything that detracts from those things is not good no matter how witty or clever it may be.
RULE OF THUMB: You know how you feel when your Uncle Louie traps you on the couch at a party and goes on for an hour-and-a-half about the weird bump on his butt that has a long, black hair growing out of it? Well, that’s the way we readers feel about these kinds of speeches.
Never, never submit a script longer than 120 pages. This is another oldie but goodie that some screenwriters never seem to get. The average script page — with a reasonable mixture of action and dialogue — takes about a minute to play out on the screen. A page with lots of action takes even longer. This means that a 120-page script runs about two hours on the screen, which is just about the right length for a dramatic feature (comedies should run shorter — ideally between 90 and 100 minutes). There are very few stories or subjects that can or should be sustained any longer than that. Despite this necessary limit, I have been receiving more and more scripts lately that top out at 130, 145 and even 199 pages. Since a script usually takes as long to read as it would to sit through as a film, when you submit a script that long, you are asking your reader to commit well over two hours of his life to your work. If you’re going to do this, you better make sure you have a story worthy of that type of commitment (hint: In all the years I have been doing this, I’ve never found one that was). Remember, you want your readers to feel exhilarated when they finish your script, not like they’ve been through a 20-mile hike in the rain and mud with a 50-pound rucksack on their back.
RULE OF THUMB: Brevity is always, always, always a virtue. (P.S. If your script runs long, don’t try to shorten it by changing the margins or reducing the font size. Readers are smart. We can spot things like that.)
Learn to use apostrophes properly. An apostrophe is used for two reasons and two reasons only — to indicate contractions and to show possession. It is never, ever used to indicate plural. This is a lesson you’re supposed to learn when you’re in fourth grade, but apparently a lot of you were absent that day.
RULE OF THUMB: Readers are like teachers — we do take points off for grammar and spelling.
Phew, that’s better. I think my head’s going to stay intact (for a little while longer, anyway). Seriously, though, I hope this list will help you figure out some things not to do to help your script make it through the reading gauntlet. Good luck and happy writing!