MEET THE READER: Random Notes from a Screenwriting Contest Judge

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

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I’ve been reading for a major screenwriting contest all summer, which means I’ve been making my way through an unusually large number of specs. This process has sparked a number of thoughts and observations about certain screenwriting-related matters. While none of these items are involved enough to fill an entire column by itself, they’re still worth addressing. So here are some random notes – a sampler of screenwriting-related opinions and advice that will hopefully provide you with a few notions to chew on as we head into the dog days of summer.

screenplay contest judge
I HATE DREAM SEQUENCES

After years of reading scripts and even more years of watching movies, I’ve come to the conclusion that dream sequences are an absolutely useless storytelling device. There are really only two ways dream sequences are used in screenplays — to summarize what has already happened in the story or to dramatize the protagonist’s mental or emotional state – and both reasons are totally redundant. If you have crafted your script properly — if the characters have been well defined and properly developed and if we have been able to follow the plot – then there should be no need to recap the narrative or to tell us protagonist’s state of mind or his feelings, because we will already know these things. Plus, dream sequences are almost never done well – they are either too obvious and on the nose (a man suffering from claustrophobia dreams about being trapped in a closet) or so obscure and weird that you can’t figure out what the hell the point of them is. I’m not exaggerating when I say I have never read a dream sequence in a spec script that was successful – that added value to the story without bringing the narrative to a crashing halt and boring me to tears with its redundancy and pointlessness. With all that downside and no tangible upside, my advice is to just avoid them altogether.

DON’T BET EVERYTHING ON THE FINAL SCENE

There’s a conceptual notion that is very popular with many spec script writers that I call the “keep ‘em guessing” approach to storytelling. In this type of script, everything – the characters’ circumstances, motivations, and relationships; the events and incidents; and the plot progression and plot twists – is deliberately kept vague and unclear until the very last scene, when the meaning of everything is finally made clear in some way that is meant to amaze us (e.g. we realize that a character we thought was a villain is really a hero; we find out that our protagonist is a ghost; we find out that a story we thought was taking place in 1899 actually takes place in the present day; and so on). There are a number of problems with “keep ‘em guessing” storytelling. The first is that two hours is a long time to make the audience wait for a payoff and the odds of readers and viewers growing bored, losing patience, and tuning out well before the end is pretty high. The second is that the success of “keep ‘em guessing” scripts depends entirely on the success of that final scene – if it works, great, but if it doesn’t, then no matter what the quality of the rest of its elements, the entire script will be a failure (and the readers and viewers will hate you for wasting so much of their time). The third is that these last scenes rarely work (I’ve probably read over 3,000 scripts during my career and I think out of those I’ve found only a half dozen “keep ‘em guessing” scripts in which the final scene was truly satisfying and worked as intended).

A variation on the “keep ‘em guessing” approach to storytelling is the “what’s the connection?” approach. This type of script introduces us to bunch of characters who do not seem to have any relationship to one another. The script then spins out individual storylines for each of these characters, which are intercut but never actually intersect until the very last scene, when all of the characters come together in some way that is meant to amaze and surprise us. As with the “keep ‘em guessing” approach, the “what’s the connection?” approach is problematic because (again) two hours is a long time to keep people waiting for a payoff; the individual storylines in these scripts are usually not particularly interesting, and the payoff is almost never as amazing as the author clearly intends it to be.

With rare exceptions, “keep ‘em guessing” and “what’s the connection?” scripts tend to come off as nothing more than cheap or pretentious gimmicks. If you are going to attempt such a narrative, you need to make sure that the script leading up to the final scene is as interesting and entertaining as it can be (so the audience doesn’t have to wait two hours to have a good time) and that your final scene really is a mind-blower. If you can’t guarantee that, then my advice is to forget about the gimmick and instead put your energy into telling a tale that is compelling from beginning to end and not just on the last page

ON PATERNALISM AND TONE DEAFNESS

Every year, there are certain ideas and themes and premises that pop up in script after script after script. It’s not clear why so many different writers come up with the same notions at the same time (although I assume they are reflections of trends and tensions that are floating around out there in the zeitgeist), but it is always fascinating to which ideas are going to recur over and over again. Unfortunately, one of the major recurring ideas this year is rather disturbing. In the last few months I have read at least six specs featuring white male leads who lecture African American and Latino characters about their behavior. These paternalistic protagonists advise the African Americans and Latinos – who are always depicted as being lower class and disadvantaged – to improve their lots by dressing better, speaking properly, and improving their work ethic, their study habits, and their general behavior. As if this isn’t appalling enough, the African American and Latino characters are portrayed as being grateful for these lectures and eager for more. Given all that has been going on in the United States recently concerning race relations – and given that it’s the year 2015 and at this point we really all should know better – I am at a loss to understand why any spec writer, much less half a dozen or more, would think such condescending protagonists and attitudes would be welcome or acceptable. I truly believe that any writer has the right to write about any subject he wants in any way that he wants. But I also believe that every writer has an obligation to treat his audience with dignity and respect. And penning material that is tone deaf at best and racist at worst is certainly not doing that.


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MOVIE MOMENTS

There aren’t enough great “movie moments” in most of the specs that I read. Movie moments are those memorable bits – the great scenes (Rocky Balboa going the distance with Apollo Creed in Rocky, Han Solo swooping down out of the sun to blast Darth Vader so that Luke Skywalker can blow up the Death Star in Star Wars, Dustin Hoffman breaking up Elaine’s wedding in The Graduate) great speeches (Peter Finch’s “I’m mad as hell” rant in Network, Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis recollection in Jaws, Henry Fonda’s “I’ll be there” declaration in The Grapes of Wrath), great lines of dialogue (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” “I’ll make him and offer he can’t refuse,” “Here’s looking at you, kid”), great bits of business (John Cusack holding the boom box aloft in Say Anything, Indiana Jones running from the giant boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark, anything the Marx Brothers do in any Marx Brothers movie), great plot twists (Bruce Willis turns out to be a ghost in The Sixth Sense, Humphrey Bogart sends Ingrid Bergman away with her husband in Casablanca, Mother turns out to be Norman Bates in Psycho), and great action sequences (the car chases in Bullit and The French Connection, the truck chase in The Road Warrior, McClane’s leap off an exploding rooftop in Die Hard)– that we love when we first experience them in the theater and that stick with us long after the movie is over.

Of course, it’s not possible to predict in advance exactly what scenes and lines and business will strike a chord with audiences and therefore it’s not possible to deliberately craft great movie moments. However, all of the memorable bits in cinema history were crafted by filmmakers – beginning with screenwriters – working with passion and intensity and conviction, unafraid of painting with bold strokes in brilliant colors and expressing strong, unique ideas with a very distinct point of view.

These are things that are missing from most of the spec scripts I read today. Much of the material I have received in recent years has been written in a decidedly minor key. Present day spec screenwriters seem content to recycle old tropes, formulas, and ideas rather than break new ground; they appear satisfied to paint with timid strokes in a decidedly muted palate; they seem determined to write what they think the marketplace wants rather than about things they really care about. As a result, most modern specs lack the passion and the vibrancy that can generate those great movie moments. Many of the action and romcom scripts feature cardboard characters and clichéd plots and premises while most of the dramas tend to be impenetrably personal (as opposed to accessibly personal) and concerned mostly with trite, naval gazing themes (dysfunctional families and the problems of being too quirky), ennui, and depression. Why? I’m not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with the proliferation of by-the-numbers screenwriting instruction and the very conservative attitude of the present-day industry (which includes the big studios AND indie companies), which wants to play it safe with established material and formulas rather than try new things

So here’s my charge to all of us — write boldly and write bravely. Tackle great themes and big ideas. Create colorful characters that act with gusto and speak with poetry. Put those characters into scenes and sequences that crackle with excitement and take audiences places they’ve never been before. Tell your tales with a strong voice and your own unique point of view. Don’t be afraid to wear your hearts on your sleeves.

Movies need more great moments. Be the writer who gives them to us.

THE END

Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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2 thoughts on “MEET THE READER: Random Notes from a Screenwriting Contest Judge

  1. queenbprods

    After 20 years of learning, I’ve literally created my best script to date, with every single thing you listed in the last paragraph and have gotten literally nowhere with the competitions. I’ve quaterfinalled with something only half as good before. I don’t think Hollywood wants good, they seem to want cheap with set peices and no plot or soul. Wish mine had been read by you if that’s what you’re looking for;))

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