Meet the Reader: Blueprint for Disaster

Between my regular gigs and my participation in a few contests, I’ve been reading a lot of specs lately and have come to realize an essential truth: good scripts are like snowflakes – each one is unique. A terrific screenplay unfolds in its own fresh and original manner – it doesn’t follow any sort of pattern and you can never predict where it is going or how it is going to get there. Bad scripts, however, are entirely predictable – they tend to follow a pretty specific pattern, you can always tell where they’re going, and you usually get there way ahead of them.

Here’s how all the bad scripts I’ve been reading lately tend to go:

               FADE IN:
               On an establishing shot of whatever city the story takes
               place in.

OR

               On some small detail of a bigger picture that we are as yet
               unable to comprehend.

                                   OPENING VOICEOVER
                         In which the protagonist (whom we
                         haven't met yet) either says
                         something folksy to let us know how
                         "real" and "regular" he/she is OR
                         says something cryptic that is
                         meant to intrigue us and pull us
                         into the story OR says something
                         snide and sarcastic but allegedly
                         perceptive so we will know how
                         hip/ironic/cool/jaded and deep the
                         protagonist is (this last is by far
                         the most common).

               The voice-over leads into: 

               INT/EXT. SOME PLACE – DAY/NIGHT
               Because we all love J. J. Abrams so much, we open with a
               scene from the middle of the story that introduces us to the
               PROTAGONIST in a precarious, "how's he ever going to get out
               of this one?" situation. As this scene reaches a tense
               climax, we 

               CUT TO:

               SEVERAL DAYS OR WEEKS OR MONTHS EARLIER
               Because it is now a federal law that no screen story can
               unfold in chronological order and must include a flashback on
               the very first page of the script. This flashback is always
               accompanied by a 

               SUPERED TITLE: That tells us is it several days or weeks or
               months earlier.

               The MAIN CHARACTERS are then introduced, usually in
               individual vignettes that are meant to give us a sense of
               each character's personality and that frequently end with
               freeze frames of the characters in the midst of some defining
               action, accompanied by 

               SUPERED TITLES: That tell us the primary characters' names.
               This gimmick is absolutely required if the characters have
               cool/goofy nicknames that mean nothing to us, such as Funky
               Dave, T-Dope, and The Master.

We then move on with the actual story, which will unfold in one of two ways:

               There will be 30 - 40 pages of narrative that sets up a
               specific narrative that will then be dropped and the script
               will them veer off into a completely different tale that has
               nothing to do with the one that we just invested a half hour
               in reading.

OR

               There will be 30 – 40 pages of material devoted to developing
               a character that, as it turns out, plays either a minor or
               completely inconsequential role in the overall plotline
               before finally setting down into the actual story.

Each scene in the script will then be introduced by an overlong slug that forgets that the purpose of a slug is simply to tell the key members of the production team where a scene is set, whether that place is inside or outside, and whether or not the scene needs to take place during the day or at night. Instead, slugs in a bad script will attempt to tell part of the story, fill us in on character backstory, and/or set a particular mood while never, ever making up its mind where the scene is supposed to take place. Here’s an example:

               INT/EXT. DAVE'S CAR – AN OLD CLUNKER HE BOUGHT FROM HIS
               GRANDFATHER JUST BEFORE THE OLD MAN PASSED AWAY – DRIVING ON
               THE FREEWAY THAT LEADS FROM HIS HOUSE IN HARTFORD TO HIS NEW
               JOB IN BRIDGEPORT – IN THAT TIME EARLY IN THE MORNING WHEN
               THE LIGHT IS JUST BEGINNING TO APPEAR IN THE SKY AND YOU
               CAN'T TELL WHETHER IT IS DAY OR NIGHT – CLOSE SHOT FAVORING
               DAVE AND THE ROAD SHOULDER PASSING BY OUTSIDE -- DAWN/DUSK.

The script will contain lots of important story information written into its action lines but that is never dramatized in any way that will allow that information to be communicated to an audience. For example:

               As Dave drives, he thinks back to that day fifteen years ago
               when he last saw Kristen standing on the front steps of their
               high school. Since then many years have passed during which
               Dave has traveled the world, fought in three wars, and
               married a woman in Tanzania who died tragically in a freak
               jeep accident, after which Dave suffered a nervous breakdown
               and spent time in a French mental hospital. After being
               released and earning a degree from the Sorbonne, he returned
               to the U.S. to look for work. As luck would have it, he was
               hired by the same company where Kristen works. As Dave nears
               the company h.q., he wonders if his first love will be happy
               to see him or if more tragedy awaits.

                                   DIALOGUE
                         In homage to Quentin Tarantino
                         (yes, as hard as it is to believe,
                         we're still paying homage to him),
                         there will be lots of long
                         digressive speeches in which the
                         characters discuss pop culture or
                         offer observations about people,
                         life, and society that have
                         absolutely nothing to do with the
                         main story.

OR

                         Lots of long speeches filled with
                         awkward exposition that the author
                         was not otherwise able to work into
                         the story. For example, "So Dave,
                         how have you been since you got
                         back from France six months ago."
                         "Pretty good, Steve." "How were
                         conditions in that mental hospital
                         you got committed to after your
                         girlfriend died in a freak jeep
                         accident?" "They were pretty good.
                         The nurses were nice and helped me
                         get the books I needed to study for
                         the entrance exam I had to take to
                         get into the Sorbonne." 'You got
                         in, didn't you?" "Yes, I spent
                         three years there studying
                         political science and art history."
                         "That should make you a shoe-in for
                         the political art historian
                         position at that company in
                         Bridgeport where Kristen, your old
                         girlfriend, works." "I sure hope
                         so."

               Characters will do all sorts of things, often for reasons
               that are not the least bit clear or understandable. 

               There will be lots of action scenes.

               All of them will be written in short, lone sentences.

               So that they will be easy to read on the page.

               And give a sense of fake urgency mean to approximate the
               hoped-for intensity of the eventually-filmed sequence.

               We will read lots of sentences.

               That use the word "we" to make us feel like "we" are in the
               action.

               The scenes will go on and on, filled with so much detail
               about the geography of the location…

               …and the physics of the action that it will be impossible for
               "we" to tell what is going on.

               There will also be lots of DETAILED SHOT DESCRIPTIONS and
               CAMERA MOVES indicating how the writer wants the film
               directed. There will be so many that the storyline will
               frequently get completely lost amid the clutter.

               Lots and lots of songs will also be indicated. In some cases,
               the writer will indicate the exact lines of the song he/she
               wants playing over the exact actions occurring onscreen.
               If this script ever gets made into a film, all of these shot
               descriptions and musical choices will be totally ignored by
               the filmmakers. 

               About 3/4 of the way through the script, the story will catch
               up to the first scene and carry on from there - a structural
               choice has become immensely popular in recent years but that
               has no narrative logic whatsoever.

               All of this will build towards a climax that can turn out in
               only one of two ways. Despite this, the story will turn out
               in some third way that makes no sense and is completely
               unsatisfying.

                                   CLOSING VOICEOVER
                         Summing up what we have seen and
                         telling us what lesson we're
                         supposed to take away from
                         everything that has just happened.
                         Most of this will be completely new
                         to us.

                                                              FADE OUT:

                                   THE END
               Written promise (threat?) that the saga will continue in a
               sequel script that the author is already hard at work on.

21 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: Blueprint for Disaster

  1. Surfercharlie25

    As I read this, I cringed at the amount of mistakes I realized I made in a lot of my early scripts, several of which I thought were “ready to send out.” Thank goodness I stopped myself. Thanks to people who were willing to tell me “You screwed up” and to reading and studying lots of books on writing and screenplays and movies, I like to think I’ve improved. I probably still have a long way to go, but I pride myself in knowing I’ve never made the same mistake twice, at least, not that I know of.

    One question about music, though; let’s say that maybe you don’t care what particular song is played, but you might want the music in the scene to have a certain feel. Would it be wrong to include a sort of reference point, something like “The music has a Sinatra-esque feel to it” or something like that, or should that be avoided as well?

  2. ruth

    hey Ray – totally get that you’re going for humor here but the tone of your piece seems uncharacteristically um, edgy (maybe it’s all the “bad” scripts!). I’m a professional script consultant and have read my share of “bad” scripts too but the bottom line is that writing a good script is incredibly difficult. It requires a “perfect storm” of many different skills and can take years to perfect. I’m guessing the “bad” scripts you’re reading are from new writers. So while it’s important to point out the pitfalls that new writers are apt to fall into (so they are more likely to avoid them) it’s equally important to recognize that “bad” writing is often part of the journey to good writing.

  3. Martin

    A great article and very funny. I suspect most of it’s true, which is why I’m squirming.

    Please write more columns like this. It helps me not take myself too seriously.

  4. Q.T.

    “Goodfellas” uses all these blueprints to perfection. But is a great film!

    Overall, a very depressing article. You’re damned if you do follow a specific pattern and you’re damned if you don’t.

    “Hangover 2” Same exact blue print from “Hangover 1.” Trailer looks exactly the same.

  5. Anne

    Hi – I agree on that the logic of having an opening sceene and pick it up again 48 or so pages later is boring. What about a dream-sequence that goes to the core of the story and the heroines dillema? Not spelled out of course? You do want to set the tone and colour of the story.
    Thank you for a very interesting article .-)

  6. Paul Millward

    I don’t think it makes a blind bit of difference how you write as you cannot get your screenplay read by anyone anyway.

    Approach a producer. ‘Have you got an agent?’

    ‘No’

    ‘Piss off then!’

    Approach an agent. ‘Have you ever had a film optioned/produced etc or have you got a professional reference?’

    ‘Erm, no’

    ‘Piss off then!’

    You might have it read if you enter it in a contest but if you haven’t got a couple of thousand laying around, it’s a touch difficult.

    I’m an ex-journalist on my third screenplay at the moment and figure that when I die, I will probably have a couple of hudred unread scripts.

    And, as for that plonker on about degrees – that’s just plain stupid.

    Enjoy!

  7. Pete

    I agree with the cliche comments, and must confess I used a few of them in my unique story I just submitted to several contests.

    Yes I wanted to submit a unique story, but used elements that had been used before only to be accepted by the industry standards.

    So its like a double edged sword. You are either going to be cut one way or the other. If you play by the rules you fail, and if you go outside the box you don’t follow what the industry expects.

    FADE OUT

  8. Gino

    Mr. Grisham is a d*bag. I would like him to make an legitimate list of the top ten screenwriters of all time and tell us how many have a film degree. A degree won’t make you a good writer, only passion and dedication to telling a great story will. And as for learning the technical aspects like structure, there are many books, blogs and example scripts to learn from.

    And finally, Hollywood is a business and what gets their attention is stories that can sell; structure and execution can always be fix. For example, Robert Rodriquez was very successful selling his El Mariachi story, based on a poorly executed $7,000 film. Why, because the story was sell-able.

    Good article, great discussion!

    Thanks,
    Gino

  9. Stacey

    Oh YES, YES, YES! (Meg Ryan). Now I’m not saying that I haven’t fell victim to some of the classic mistakes you’ve so humorously pointed out (yes that editor will stick to my musical reference…please?) and I’m not saying I won’t again (did I say please?). But thanks for the laugh and the opportunity to review my choices with an enlightened perspective.

  10. steve

    Well I’m glad my first script that I submitted to the contests did not fall into (most of) these pitfalls – but in imagining a new play I doubt few, if any, can be so original as to not have some carry forward of moments from a prior film. As over 45,000 films have been produced (just look at the number following the movie) I doubt even Shakespeare would be able to humble us with a totally original script. Hence the need (brilliant need) to make a movie about Shakespeare’s life and loves and how that may have been his inspiration for Romeo and what’s her name. (Hey maybe that could be a comedy.)

  11. Karen

    Just read this as it popped up in mailbox. Very much enjoyed the article but, oh so depressing.
    I am ready to get back into my pajamas and bring out the watercolors and take up painting.
    And then I go to the movies and get so irritated trying to find the good ones this season that I think even I could write a bad script better than that.

  12. Ray Morton

    @ Garth and Mike — I don’t disagree that you see a lot of the devices that I mentioned in the piece in a lot of films — major and minor — but that doesn’t make them any less hoary and it’s not an excuse to do bad work. The point of a spec is to show off your skills as a writer and you don’t do yourself any favors by simply imitating what everyone else is doing, especially if you don’t do it well (which is the point of this piece — it’s not that these devices are inherently bad, but that they are easy to do badly). There are already too many bad, cookie-cutter spec scripts out there — if you want your work to stand out, then it can’t be just like the work done by everybody else. If devices such as the ones I mentioned are organic and integral to the story you are telling, then by all means use them. But if you are using them simply because you’ve seen them in dozens of other films, then please don’t. Always try to be as fresh and original as possible. It’s the only way you will ever get noticed.

  13. Garth Jenkins

    You know, I’m not sure about this article at all.

    I could list countless films I’ve seen in the last two days (I’m having trouble sleeping) that do all those things. I say all those things, I read the first few paragraphs and got angry.

    The reason you get those spec scripts is because these shit devices are still finding their way into movies i.e. J.J. Abrams is still coming up with these God awful sci-fis.

    The industry is forever pumping out advice that encourages this, like some laughing, farting cash cow, so of course people are going to write it.

  14. Tom Grisham

    This is just horrible. No wonder it’s so hard for dedicated wtiters to get thier stuff read by good people.

    Maybe a resume indicating a degree in film plus proof might filter out these stoned-out flakes.

    I despise these people. They are destined to long lives of hopeless despiration. The worst part is, they are all very young with tatoos and piercings.

    Tom Grisham

  15. Chris

    Great, humorous article!
    It’s funny though, a lot of the clichés mentioned here kept making me think of Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”…a film I found immensely enjoyable.
    Interestingly enough, the movie is very self-aware, and at times it seemed to be spoofing the typical “Hollywood” formula.

  16. Mike Donald

    You’ve just described pretty much every large budget movie that any newbie would kill his grandmother for to be associated with…especially The “A” Team, all of the comments and views you subscribe to go out the window when Brad or Tom say, I’d like to do this…so your point is? You’re bored of reading the same ‘ole, but yet, the same ‘ole keeps getting made…unless you are Christopher Nolan, in which case the petty readers views don’t figure 🙂

  17. Ray Morton

    @ John — for not incorporating all of those elements into your script, I and all the other readers I know thank you.

    @ Michael — thanks for your kind words about the piece. Just to clarify, I’m not complaining about traditional basic structure and storytelling. I love traditional basic structure and storytelling and wish I could read/see more of it these days. I was complaining about the predictability of the elements that bad screenplays seem to contain, which are as dependable as night turning into day. Maybe I wasn’t clear.

    @ Ingrid — there are certainly rules of dramatic writing that need to be followed, but there aren’t any surefire formulas, no matter what all the gurus and experts out there tell you.

    Thanks for reading — Ray

  18. Ingrid

    This is great, got some good laughs.
    I’d assume most of the writers of such scripts are either people who’ve never formally studied screenwriting, or have experienced inadequate teaching.
    This is all the kinds of stuff you learn not to do when you study a screenwriting course.
    These scripts also appear to be written by the types who aren’t innovators.
    I’m always surprised when I’m told the quality of the vast majority of manuscripts and screenplays submitted are crap; it makes me feel good about my current writing skills.
    But with every little thing more you learn, you realise you were a hack yesterday, and tomorrow you’ll be even better again.
    Yet I keep meeting screenwriters whose work never shows improvement.
    They’re working in retail now. They had nothing new to say.

    Oh, and thanks for saying good scripts don’t follow a formula. All these screenwriting books get me panicky. Your inciting incident doesn’t have to appear on page 25. It’s total wank.

  19. Michael FerrisMichael Ferris

    Ray,

    Great article! I agree with 98% of what you wrote, and as a former screenplay judge for a major competition, I’ve seen thousands of these types of scripts. The two things I would disagree with are:

    1. Short action description, especially durIng action scenes. First, in the current spec market, it’s important to make specs as quick a read as possible. As well, terse action scenes play much better than ones bogged down by long action paragraphs – case in point the brilliant opening to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.

    2. While I agree with your central hypothesis that great scripts are like snowflakes, and bad scripts all fall into the same predictable rhythm, there are exceptions that rule all over the place. Superbad was one of the funniest scripts I ever read, but it followed basic storytelling and structure rules, and we all knew the ending from a mile away – but it didn’t matter because it was the humor and characters that carry us through. Same for the first spec I helped sell, Travis Beacham’s KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW, which was basically THE FUGITIVE in an original steampunk setting. So boring structure or storytelling aren’t bad things at all, and don’t always foretell of a bad script.

  20. John Torma

    Love it! As someone who just submitted his first spec to several contests, I can gladly say mine does none of these things except maybe the short sentences in action scenes. But hey, after reading this I must be ahead of the pack.

    Thanks for the tips on what not to do.

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