Meet the Reader: The Lies Screenwriters Tell (Themselves)

Courtesy Warner Home Video

"But we're Goonies!"

Screenwriters are great at telling stories. Most of the time that’s a good thing — after all, spinning amazing yarns is how we have fun, how we find creative satisfaction and, if we’re lucky, how we build great careers. The only time it’s not such a good thing is when we con ourselves with comforting but unsound mendacities designed to help us avoid dealing with the more difficult aspects of the creative process. This is something all artistic people are prone to doing, but something that is to be assiduously avoided if we are going to make our work the best it can be.

Here are some of the top fibs that screenwriters love to spring on themselves:

1. “As long as the idea is good, the quality of the script doesn’t matter.”

This is what some screenwriters tell themselves when they lack the confidence and/or the energy to tackle the enormous amount of work required to transform a rough initial draft into a polished final. They rationalize this excuse to settle for an inferior product by telling themselves that there’s no point in putting a lot of effort into refining their work because the studio is just going to bring in a bunch of other (high-priced) scribes to rewrite it anyway. While this position might have had some validity during the great spec boom of the ’80s and ’90s, when producers and studios were sometimes willing to spend time and treasure to develop a promising notion into a viable screenplay, it certainly doesn’t any more, when the industry as a whole has cut back drastically on development and is only interested in acquiring scripts it deems to be ready-to-go (this doesn’t mean that these screenplays aren’t going to be rewritten, only that the powers-that-be aren’t willing to hire all of those pricey rewriters unless they think that the core material is already in excellent shape).  But even if all studios did care about was the core idea, are you really comfortable adopting a position that advocates doing less than your very best?

2. “It just needs a little tweaking.”

No, it doesn’t — unless you have already done four or five thorough revisions, had the script assessed by professional analysts and/or experienced colleagues to determine if there are any significant problems (and there always are), and held a few readings to see if the material plays, then your script is going to need a major rewrite. How do I know this? Because, every script needs a major rewrite — that’s simply the nature of the process (“writing is rewriting,” etc.). Many writers — especially anxious beginners — are so eager to get their work to the marketplace so that they can make a desperately-needed sale or get a career going that they try to persuade themselves that their work is ready to go when it absolutely isn’t. If you do that — convince yourself that all you need to do to your initial draft is make a few cosmetic changes and futz around a bit on the edges — then you’ll certainly get your script out faster, but I can almost guarantee that you will be disappointed by the results. Take your time. Do the work. It’ll be worth it in the end.

3. “It’s okay to steal as long as you acknowledge the theft.”

While there is a long and noble tradition of scribes finding inspiration in the elements of older films, I’ve noticed an interesting trend developing over the past few years in which an increasing number of spec script writers have been brazenly recycling material from other movies — nakedly appropriating everything from gags and set-pieces to entire scenes to complete plots — with little or no alteration or reinvention. These writers seem to think that this sort of blatant theft is okay as long as they acknowledge the larceny by inserting lines into their scripts such as: “Wow, this is just like that scene in Avatar;” “The same thing happened to Will Smith in Independence Day;” or “I feel like I’m one of the Goonies.” The thing is, it’s not okay — acknowledged or not, stealing is still stealing and calling attention to it in such an obvious manner only makes the thief look pathetic as well as guilty. (“Wow. Not only did he steal someone else’s idea, but now he’s telling everyone that he stole someone else’s idea.”) It also begs what I don’t think is an irrelevant question — why undertake a creative endeavor like screenwriting if you’re not going to be creative?

4. “It’ll make sense when you see it on the screen.”

I hear this one a lot when I tell authors whose work I have analyzed that there are elements in their scripts — usually concerning a character’s interior life: his/her thoughts or feelings, state of mind, motivations and intentions, etc. — that I have found to be unclear, either because some important pieces are missing or because the existing ones are fuzzy. These writers tell me not to worry and assure me that the director will find a shot or the actor will give a “look” that will make these missing or confusing concepts clear. What this rather choice bit of delusion leaves out is the fact that directors can’t find shots if there’s nothing to shoot and actors can’t produce looks if there’s nothing to act. To put it another way — if it ain’t on the page, then it ain’t gonna be on the screen. As the author of the screenplay, it’s your job to spell out everything the audience needs to know to understand the plot and the characters in some effective combination of action and dialogue (because, after all, cinema is an external medium, not an internal one — we can only know what we see and hear. Novelists can tell us what a character is thinking or feeling; screenwriters have to find ways to make those thoughts and feelings tangible.) Don’t worry about being too blatant or obvious — the director and the actors can always pull back (that’s where those shots and looks come in), but only if you have first given them something to pull back from.

5. “I’m the exception.”

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call them rules, there are a number of well-established guidelines out there regarding what most professional screenwriters, development and creative executives, and script consultants generally agree are no-nos when it comes to screenwriting: tenets such as “scripts shouldn’t run longer that 120 pages” (although these days it’s really more like 110); “don’t direct on paper” (i.e. don’t include overly detailed shot descriptions or instructions for camera moves, edits, credit placement, etc.); and “avoid indicating specific music selections or cues.” These guidelines are not hard to understand and they are not obscure — they’re outlined in most of the “how-to” screenwriting literature and instructional courses. (I myself mention them and others like them quite often in this very column.) Despite the consensus that these guidelines are important ones to follow, many (mostly aspiring) scribes violate them on a pretty regular basis. When I discuss these transgressions with the writers that I consult with, their response is almost always the same: “You don’t understand. My script is different.” In other words: “I’m the exception. The rules don’t apply to me.” And my answer is also almost always the same: “No, you’re not. And yes, they do. These guidelines were not arrived at arbitrarily just to give you a hard time — they reflect common industry practices and wisdom and if you can’t abide by them – if you really need 178 pages or endless shot descriptions or specific songs played at specific times in order to tell your tale — then the odds are that there’s something wrong with your story or your script that needs to be fixed.” Not surprisingly, most of the folks that I have this conversation with don’t listen and then spend a lot of time wondering why they’re not getting anywhere.

6. “They just don’t get it.”

This is what a lot of writers tell themselves when their work fails to receive the response they had hoped for — when people don’t laugh at their comedies, aren’t thrilled by their thrillers or scared by their horror scripts; don’t cry at their tragedies and aren’t roused by their inspirational dramas; or fail to appreciate the formal and thematic brilliance of their latest indie/art-house quirkfest. If one reader doesn’t get your script, then it may indeed be them — but if a majority of those that peruse your work don’t get it, then it’s not them, it’s the script and you have to accept the fact that you have not accomplished what you set out to do. And while we can certainly understand how hard this can be to do after so many months and even years of work, you have to. Because if you do, then you can get back on your horse and get to work analyzing your script and the responses so that you can figure out where you went awry and make the changes necessary to bring the result in line with your intentions. If, however, you put all your energy into denial and defensiveness, then your script will remain a dud and your dreams for your project will never be fulfilled. If you believe in your idea strongly enough to turn it into a first draft, then hopefully you will believe it enough to keep working on it until it finally has the effect on the audience that you wanted it to have from the very beginning.

The truth, while not always easy to hear, will always set you free — in life and in screenwriting. Be straight with yourself and your work will only get better.

24 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: The Lies Screenwriters Tell (Themselves)

  1. christina

    I have to be honest, ever since Script Mag started their series of articles about what screenwriters do when they’re not writing, I skip those few pages, where I use to read every single page (no kidding). I would love more informative articles on TV writing (hint hint). Just a thought.

  2. Chuck Cavanaugh

    Excellent advice. The responses sometimes voice that there are exceptions to the rule, but the writer is wise to keep in mind that they are exceptions, as every rule has. Do “bad” scripts get made into films? Of course, but I notice that even with weak comedies, e.g., they still follow the rules – three act structure, character arc, have plenty of jokes (even if juvenille), etc. I’ve learned from being a member of LA’s oldest screen writing group that a writer is really embroiled in one battle – that with his own ego. Accept what is required to succeed, or it’s a long, fruitless battle.

  3. jim

    @Mike: People frequently put money into something even if it’s not a “complete, well thought out, vetted piece of work.” And they put money into it b/c they don’t realize that it’s a piece of junk.

    @Alexander Gregori: Here’s a good example of how important standardized writing is to getting your script read… you can 1) write your heart out, and tear your heart to shreds as you rewrite, and rewrite again… or 2) you can be a weekend golf-buddy of a studio executive who will order his henchmen to read your unpolished first draft. They both can get your story read. So the power of writing is as valuable/worthless as the connections you have… basically.

    @Greg: I have to disagree strongly. Two things you wrote that I know are not universally true:

    1)”…your script *does* need to be really, really good–great, even–to get that studio job…”
    2)”No idea is so hard to conceptualize that it can’t be clearly illustrated in a script.”

    My response to the first:

    No, the script doesn’t have to be great. The script and the idea has to be something that can make money. If there’s an idea and a story that will bring in a viewership (whether or not the script is “great”), it will be made into a film. Guaranteed. The reason is very, very simple. In market-capitalism, the ultimate objective is to grow margins, not quality (though quality can help in that objective, it’s really not the causality… it’s the correlation, a side-effect). So the quality of a script *TRULY* doesn’t matter, as long as there’s an audience that’s willing to buy the ticket or the DVD. If (as you propose) all scripts had to be “great” why is there so much junk out there? As you suggested, do you mean that *EVERY* bad movie actually was a “great” script that got fumbled up in the development process? I think those bad movies were likely bad scripts from the beginning, w/or w/out developmental intrusion. I’d even argue there are more bad movies than good. There are many production companies that pick up projects just to get a production credit; just to have something on the market; just to sell a B-flick that’s going to fund their next hopes of a success… on the flipside, the guys who are at the top of their game rightfully will expect a “great” script… but a great script doesn’t make money for everyone, nor does it make the most money. To illustrate that: The Shawshank Redemption is currently ranked #1 on IMDB’s top 250 films. It opened at $700,000, grossed $58,000,000 over 17 years. Epic Movie opened at $18,600,000, grossed $86,000,000 over 4 years, and it ranks #65 on IMDB’s worst 100 films. To add insult to injury (to the story/artistic crowd), Shawshank didn’t even get a full opening, it was limited… and the wider opening raked in a laughable $2,000,000). What does that tell you? I think it’s obvious… market capitalism doing what it does best… $…

    My response to the second quote:
    Whether or not the idea is “clearly” conceptualized in the script is only *half* of the point; the other half is whether or not the reader will “get” the “clearly” illustrated idea… it’s the writer/reader interface. So, in the examples you gave of “Memento” and “Inception”… yes, those were clearly illustrated ideas- AND- they were made into films… it doesn’t mean they were made into films- BECAUSE- they were “clearly” conceptualized. It means someone saw what it had to offer, regardless. A well written script obviously gives body to the idea, but the reader might have insight to read passed “poorly” conceptualized ideas to see something great… that insight comes with experience. It’s a collaborate art. It takes more than one person, or one department to get it made. Someone CAN see through a poorly written script. Frequently? Probably not. But again. Whether or not the idea is clear, or good, or bad, market considerations have to be taken into account. There are many well-written ideas sitting on a studio shelf somewhere b/c they did a focus study and found there was no market. A studio picks up something they think they can sell, and if they change their mind, they shelve it or let the option expire. You have ten or twelve executives deciding what’s “good” and “bad” for millions of people, whether it’ll be shown in 200 theaters or 2000. Those executives are an *extremely* small representation of the population. What’s the point of a huge focus group, if in end those few executives decide against the grain? Sometimes when a movie reaches a focus group that says it’s terrible… the studio has invested too much into the film to withhold a release… they have to recoup their losses. Shamefully.

    So, again… writing is awesome. I love it. And there are writers who write to write. And there are writers who write to live. And I would argue that most writers do both, or want to do both. But. Writers, ultimately, *write.* They don’t produce or decide what gets produced; a writer/producer does, but not a writer/writer. If you want a bigger voice in the market… challenge yourself to head the project on your own directive. That’s the problem I referred to earlier about the few executives making the decisions for the rest of us. For a better representation of what’s out there, we simply need more voices making the decisions. I think there’s an audience out there just waiting to be awakened by great films with great stories… and the studios just need to see that it can be profitable. Long live independent film! And lastly (to cover my a*), the studio system works. It makes money. That’s why it’ll never ever be uncompetitive. And that’s not entirely bad, b/c they do make some really fantastic movies… not just *mature* stories, but also things that families and friends go to just to spend time with each other… but they still make some really bad movies too… uh oh, I’ve rambled…

  4. Mike

    A very good article. Being on the other end of funding decisions in the business I own, I can agree with the points Ray makes. No one will put money into something, especially today, if it is not a complete, well thought out, vetted piece of work. And, outstanding to boot.

    It is like “bad” songs that get released. Those bad songs are generally far superior to the ones that didn’t get recorded. The point being that a truly good song is far more difficult to achieve than you think. And, that a very good song on paper or demo will translate to a bad song in reality. Same for a script. It takes an outstanding one to translate to simply a good movie.

    At first, I certainly fell for the “get it out fast” concept, and my mentor, a long time, high level script doctor, had to tell me over and over to slow down, write and re-write. After the fifth time through, I finally understood what he meant. And, I finally realized that anything could be improved, no matter how many times it had been rewritten.

    With the array of possible projects to select from, only the outstanding ones will get my attention in my “day” business, and I am sure it is the same for scripts. Don’t kid yourself.

  5. Janice

    Ray – A very nice piece that hit home with me even though my writing resembles Salvador Dali more than anything at the multiplex. Of course, there are exceptions to many of the the things you say –i.e. there’s NOTHING in a Tarrantino movie that isn’t stolen from another movie –including the soundtracks –but his is a brilliant conceit filled with exciting creative wrinkles. The bottom line is –if you want to succeed as a writer –you’ve got to work your ass off. No excuses. You’ve got to rewrite until you bleed, and then rewrite some more. Keeping intact a sense of yourself, you’ve got to pass your script around, do readings and then try to make some sense of the responses and WHO it is that’s giving you that response. And then rewrite again. And again.

  6. Richard P

    “Don’t worry about being too blatant or obvious — the director and the actors can always pull back (that’s where those shots and looks come in), but only if you have first given them something to pull back from.”

    Now that is good advice, Ray. Pragmatic. Helpful. Not as severe or patronizing (in tone) as many of your other comments.

    But you don’t think script readers, analysts, and studio execs can ‘tell themselves stories’. I think it would be equally as useful to read about that now.

    RP

  7. Nico

    I think what it comes down to is who you’re trying to sell to. If your script is the kind of thing that will only blossom under creative collaboration (of a director or actors visions) then you’re writing a script to attract the help of those collaborators rather than a studio. That’s your “standard.”

    Then once you have Ashton Kutcher and the corpse of Stanley Kubrick onboard, you rewrite for the next person you need to sell… having incorporated Ashton’s and Stanley’s ideas.

    If you want Christopher Guest to direct your script, the Michael Bay version won’t fit. But I think if you’re tossing a script into the top of the meat grinder, the standard it has to meet is the one that gets it past the intern without distracting him or her. That’s your “standard.”

    If there’s an investor that’s comfortable with (or even attracted to) the quirks or looseness of your pitch/story/script, then it’s fine! She’s got the checkbook. She’s the one that needs to get it. That’s your “standard.”

    Quentin Tarantino can write just about anything he needs to remember what and how to film (or pitch) what’s in his head because he’s directing. It could be in shorthand or stick-figure sketches.

    I guess the worst lie you can tell yourself is, “I only need one version of my script from spec, to pitch, to casting, to shooting.”

    Clear as mud?

  8. Greg

    Film_shark: The major fellowships & contests: The Nicholl, the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, ABC/Disney Fellowship (TV specs only), Warner Brothers Writers Workshop (TV specs only), and NBC’s Writers on the Verge–are definitely all worth your time. Those are very legit programs that can help launch your career to the next level. Ray will probably have a couple to add to the list. Most of the other contests *won’t* attract the attentions of agents or managers, which is what you need, so I wouldn’t recommend submitting to those.

  9. Greg

    Jim–a caveat. The reason there’s so much crap has more to do with the studio *development* process–Thomas Lennon & Robert Garrant talk a lot about this in “Writing Movies for [Fun And] Profit”; how one mid-level development executive can screw up a really good script. The main point is, though, that your script *does* need to be really, really good–great, even–to get that studio job, whether it’s production of your own spec, or (more likely) a studio rewrite of an existing script.

    No idea is so hard to conceptualize that it can’t be clearly illustrated in a script (if this is something you’re struggling with yourself, I’d check out “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Memento,” or “Inception” to see how Kaufman & Nolan pulled it off). The thing is, clear illustration of your idea could make the difference between getting the $5 million it takes to make your own Memento, or having the script go into the discard pile.

    I think what Ray’s saying (though I don’t want to speak for him) is that some people will always *get* a great script, no matter the complications of the idea, and that if you’re consistently getting a confused response from readers, it indicates that the script may not be ready for primetime. Better to know now than when you send it out to the studios, or try to raise money from investors.

  10. Howard

    I think that the comments on people not getting something is a valid point. It is difficult to tell the difference between people not getting something because the writing is the problem, or because the author is trying to do something different (and studios are notorious for not getting things because they don’t want to get things; that want things they’ve already gotten). But I also take issue with the idea of “stealing”, mainly because, as described here, the things that people are stealing are often things that were “stolen” as well from earlier movies, dramas, books, etc. By this standard, nothing Shakespeare did can be any good since he stole so much of what he did when it came to plots and structure of scenes.

  11. Alexander Gregori

    Guys…

    The WHOLE point is THIS: You wanna get your spec READ??? Have an ‘IN’???? Get with the ‘program’. Once you got that ‘IN’, knock yourself out. Just my two cents… Starting my (screen) writing career, working with Coverage Ink to get my work ‘polished’… At the same time I have a friend, nay, acquaintance, who DISREGARDS every SINGLE ‘rule’, BUT CLAIMS to have his works ‘picked up’… still waiting to see it produced though?!? So what the fuck… we’re ALL idiots???

  12. Film_Shark

    Very good advice. I have a question regarding all those script writing contests out there. I’ve done the contest thing for some past scripts. Are these contests a waste of time? Point-blank. I’ve entered the Nicholl Fellowships in screenwriting contest which I believe is one of the few credible ones but what about the rest of them?

  13. Ray Morton

    Thanks for the great remarks, everyone.

    Jim — you bring up so many interesting points that it would take pretty much a whole column to respond to them all, so that’s what I think I will do (since many of the points you raise are ones that I often get in response to columns like this). Look for a long, detailed response in a few weeks’ time. and Tim, I will address your questions then as well (and if anyone else has any questions/responses, send them in and I’ll tackle them all at once).

    Thanks for reading,

    Ray

  14. Tim

    Heya, reading through this artical has really opened my eyes, but as Jim said actors can put more into it then is just on the page, otherwise they would be out of a job. also if you are wrighting a script and you NEED to include a FEW camera movements then is it ok to? because you may want to focus on someone in the bushes then pan around to the main scene. or is this wrong and should it all be decided by the director?

  15. jim

    Hi Ray,

    I agree with most of what you wrote, but just my opinion- as important as writing is in the production process, I think directors DO pull things out of the hat that aren’t in the writing (for better or worse); and actors DO contribute emotions and context that aren’t in the writing… at least some of the good directors and actors. Since film making is a collaborative art, weakness in a script CAN be hammered out by other people downstream in the process. Also, I think the market plays a significant roll in deciding how good or bad a script can be and still get optioned. In the end, no matter how standardized the writing is, the studios and audiences decide what makes money. And I think a significant proportion of the audience just doesn’t care. That’s why there’s so much crap out there. So should a writer sell him/herself short by just “settling” for a decent first draft? No, that’s not what I’m saying… but there are ideas that ARE hard to conceptualize, and there ARE exceptions, and there ARE people who just don’t get it. Sometimes (albeit rarely), there ARE ideas that studios just don’t get… how many Star Wars, Matrix, and “almost didn’t get made” stories are there that turned out to be a success, where the writing wasn’t the problem? I feel like you’re emphasizing standardization at the cost of creativity, and shorting the market considerations. Writing is just one dimension of the process.

    One of the things I’ve noticed is that successful screenwriters adhere to the rules while they’re climbing the ladder, but once they make it… they start writing whatever they want, however they want. And it still gets made. That tells me that the inherent value of standardized writing isn’t the driving force; that tells me that it’s the value of the project to a studio that decides what gets made and what doesn’t. So, as important as it is to getting your foot in the door, standardized screenwriting is just that- a standard. There’s always room to raise or change the standard. I’m sure a lot of pros have said “no” to an idea they thought was bad, but turned out great. Will Smith turned down The Matrix to do Wild Wild West.

    William Goldman comes to mind, how he’s written things like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” without traditional slugs, and how Quentin Tarantino writes obtrusively large description passages. Sure, they’re giants in the industry so they can do what they want, but that’s just my point. They could write crap and have it in editing tomorrow. Making your script tip-top is of course an objective as a writer, and writers shouldn’t sell themselves short for just a “decent” first draft, but at the same time market considerations always trump writing, whether it’s a good or bad script. I think standardization is just an artifact of the business and doesn’t have any inherent value, in and of itself. And sadly, sometimes the writing just doesn’t matter.

    Jim

  16. Sandy Corkins-Schmidt

    Very helpful advice. I especially like “it will make sense on the screen”. As you say in your article, if it isn’t on the page it won’t end up on the screen.

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  18. John Washco

    Very good article Ray! I finally realize that this whole process takes a considerable amount of time and effort. Things are starting to come together in the 3rd draft. I’m definately open to suggestion from those in the know. Thanks for the continued information you share in these columns…. John

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