Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1
My job is to evaluate screenplays – to read them for my employers and to recommend either that they be considered for development or passed on. While it is always my goal to find material I can recommend, the truth is that I pass on 90% of the scripts I read.
It’s not always easy to identify the reasons why I recommend a screenplay – it’s usually some alchemic combination of a good idea, a well-constructed story, interesting characters, and clever dialogue. It is easier to identify the reasons why I do not recommend a script because there are eleven very common problems that derail the majority of specs that come across my desk.
1. The script is terribly written.
If the writing in a screenplay is so bad – if the word choice, sentence construction, and punctuation in the stage directions and dialogue are so poor that I can’t comprehend what points the author is intending to convey (something that happens way more often than you might think) – then I have no choice but to pass.
2. The script has no premise.
A premise is the dramatic seed of the story – the key narrative kernel from which all of the narrative’s main element grow. It is impossible to create a successful dramatic narrative without a solid premise. Despite this essential truth, many spec writers submit scripts that lack this essential bit. These scripts are often well-written, with interesting characters and clever dialogue. But nothing happens in them – nothing of dramatic import, anyway. These scripts tend to present a collection of scenes rather than tell a compelling tale. The results are usually deathly dull if not downright tedious. Many writers try to excuse these scripts by claiming they are “character-driven.” Unfortunately, there is no such thing. Nor are there “plot-driven” scripts – to be successful, a dramatic narrative must have good characters and a solid plot. These plots can be small – with intimate, personal stakes rather than big, global ones – but they must be present or else the script will be a no-go.
3. The script has too many premises.
Some writers err in the other direction – they come up with lots and lots of story concepts for their characters. Unwilling to cut any of them, they cram them all into the same screenplay. While it’s easy to admire their enthusiasm, the results are inevitably a mess. Dramatic narratives certainly do require a premise, but they require only one premise – a single core concept generating a single protagonist, antagonist, dramatic arc, theme, climax, and resolution. When a script contains more than one premise it will also have more than one protagonist, antagonist, dramatic arc, theme, climax, and resolution. At best, such a concoction will read like a series of short films placed alongside one another in the same set of pages. At worst, it will be a confused, incoherent muddle. And confused, incoherent muddles rarely earn a “CONSIDER” and certainly never earn a “RECOMMEND.”
4. I can predict every beat of the story.
Most films are genre films and genre films come with a number of built in narrative tropes and structures that must be present in order for the movie to be considered part of that genre (for example, a romcom must contain a “cute meet” or it ain’t a romcom). The danger, of course, is that without some very creative thinking, this set of expected elements can too easily become a very predictable formula. A predictable formula is boring and boring scripts don’t get recommended. If I am reading a script and find that I can guess with 90% or more accuracy what’s coming next on each and every page, then I know that the writer hasn’t been able to find a way to bring something creatively fresh, original, and/or new to the party and so I have to pass.
5. I can’t follow the story.
On the other hand, predictability is preferable to incomprehensibility. All successful dramatic narratives have a clear progression: A leads to B; B leads to C; C leads to D; and so on as the story builds in momentum and tension until that progression finally reaches an explosive climax. If that progression isn’t clear – if A leads to B but we don’t understand why or if A leads to C or D leads to 7 – then that build, momentum, and tension will be lost and the climax will never be reached (or if it does it will fizzle rather than pop). Plus, we will all be mightily confused. In many of the problematic specs I read, the connections between the narrative beats is not clear – things happen, but it’s not clear why they happen or how they are connected to the other things that are happening. This does not mean that stories must be told in linear fashion, it just – it just means that great care must be taken to make the connections between narrative elements clear and understandable no matter what order they are being presented it. If I find that I am putting more energy into figuring out what is going on rather than enjoying what is going on, then I’m going to bail.
6. I hate the characters.
There is a never-ending debate in the film world over whether or not protagonists need to be “likeable” for a script or a film to be successful: studios say yes; writers, actors, and directors say not necessarily. As I’ve stated many times, my position is that protagonists do not need to be likeable, but they do need to be sympathetic – we have to care about them in some way (we have to understand their motives, identify with their flaws, or support their goals) if we are going to emotionally invest in them and their stories to the degree necessary for the script and/or film to click. Writers love to create “dark,” complex protagonists in their scripts but often forget to include that sympathetic element. Without this element, we at best don’t care about these characters and at worst (when too many negative or off-putting traits are piled on) we hate them. Neither reaction result in RECOMMENDS. But unlikeable protagonists aren’t the only ones that generate passes: foolish, remote, cold, or simply uninteresting lead characters can also result in negative reader reactions.
7. The script does not deliver what it promises.
Comedies have to be funny. Dramas have to be moving. Romances must be emotional. Horror movies must be scary. Thrillers must be suspenseful. Action movies must be exciting. If scripts in these categories do not meet these expectations, then there is no reason to proceed with them.
8. All of the effort has gone into the text.
Both William Goldman and Shane Black are known for making their scripts extremely entertaining to read – their stage directions and descriptions are casual and witty and filled with clever asides to the reader describing the effect they hope their scenes and action and business will have on screen, often in very humorous ways. Both writers are very good at this sort of thing and have inspired thousands of aspiring screenwriters to attempt to do the same. Unfortunately, most that do fail – many because they are not as funny or clever or witty as Black and Goldman, but most because they (unlike B & G) put all their energy and creativity into the stage directions and asides and none of it into the actual plot, characters, and dialogue. The result is scripts that can be very entertaining to read but still not be very good.
9. The script is not a movie.
Some spec screenplays tell their stories primarily through dialogue spoken by a few characters in one or two sets – in other words, they are plays. Some tell their stories primarily through long descriptive passages written into the text of the stage directions, with very little attention paid to the characters, dialogue, and action – in other words, they are novels. Some consist mostly of characters sitting around discussing ideas and issues in long (long) passages of didactic, expository dialogue – in other words, they are essays. I have nothing against plays, novels, or essay, but they are not movies and so when I receive one of these masquerade jobs, I must pass.
10. It’s unfilmable.
Some writers really let their imaginations go. Most of the time this is a good thing, but some writers let their imaginations go too much and create scripts with dozens of characters set in hundreds of locations and filled from beginning to end with myriad props and effects both practical and visual. These overstuffed epics would cost billions of dollars to produce, which means they will never, ever be made. Other writers go too far in different ways – filling their scripts with extremely explicit sexual material that would make most San Fernando Valley pornographers blush or violence so graphic that it would be out of place in a snuff film. Like the big-budget extravaganzas, these extreme hump and gore fests will never, ever be made and so there is no point in passing them up the development chain.
11. It’s insane.
There is a theory that all creative people are touched with a bit of madness. This is certainly true of spec screenwriters – some of them, anyway. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I receive a script that can only be described as bonkers. Most of these nutty pieces are harmless – several hundred pages (crazy screenwriters never write tight) of random ideas and images (often sci-fi or fantasy tinged – crazy screenwriters love the unreal) that make sense to no one but their author. However, some of these off-the-wall scripts are much more disturbing. Suffice to say that there are a lot of unhinged people out there with some very dark and graphic ideas of the things they would like to do to their fellow man and for whatever reason feel compelled to write screenplays to detail them. None of these loony screeds make me want to recommend them, but a few of them do make me want to take out restraining orders.
How can you keep your script off this list? The usual – tell a good story about a sympathetic character. Tell only one good story about a sympathetic character. Put an original spin on it. Develop it with care. Make sure it’s clear. Make sure it’s cinematic. Make sure it’s practical. Make sure it does what it’s supposed to do. And take your meds.
Copyright © 2016 by Ray Morton
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- More articles by Ray Morton
- Meet the Reader: How I Do What I Do
- Meet the Reader: ‘Unlikeable’ Characters
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Getting Past the Hollywood Gatekeeper