WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: No Hook, Part 2

Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over 4,000 scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.

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In No Hook Part 1, our topic covered the importance of an opening hook to which the subsequent mini hooks both relate and support.

Here in Part 2, I suggest the importance of the hook must not only be “Above The Fold” but integrated throughout your story.

First, a question.

My Story - Google Images

My Story – Google Images

Why would you labor for months or even years on a story void of an inducement or a reason for anyone to read your creation from the first scene to the last?

One of the many reasons a SPEC script fails can be traced to the opening line, scene or sequence. If any of the subsequent scenes fail to maintain the intensity or relate to what precedes or follows in the story the audience feels cheated but are not sure why.

A hook cannot be a “one off”, stand alone or be unrelated to what follows. If it is, then your “hook” is a gimmick. A good hook’s justification is subtly evident as the story unfolds.

SIX SAMPLES OF HOOKS THAT ARE MORE THAN “ONE LINERS” OR “ONE OFFS” ON THE FIRST PAGE

  1. Tomorrow Never Dies.     Opening minutes. How will Bond use the demonstrated skills?
  2. Bourne Identity.               Conflict in the opening scenes. Will the man survive?
  3. Die Hard.                         Airplane landing. Why is John nervous? What’s with the toes?
  4. Lethal Weapon.                Balcony 10 stories up. What does the girl do with the plant and why?
  5. Friends.                            Definition of all characters. What took only seven lines?
  6. Avatar.                             Can and how will an ex-marine paraplegic fulfill his dream of flying?

(NOTE: The above are NOT in spec script format. Also, if you get a warning it is because some are PDF. They’re clean.)

In each of the above, the question or attitude shown permeates the actions and subsequent story behavior.

IN A SENTENCE.

  • An opening hook generates curiosity, excitement or fear; it makes us think, compare, guess or question.

The better hooks create some combination that evokes a deep emotion. This emotion builds and is reinforced by each subsequent scene through to the dénouement.

As an exercise, study each scene / sequence in the above scripts, Identify then determine how the opening hook permeates the story. How and why does the protagonist’s behavior change? Is this change foreshadowed?

Clouds Through a Window - Google Images

Clouds Through a Window – Google Images

There is a “window of opportunity” for your script or novel to impress.

What was a 10-minute window in Shane Black’s day is reduced to not much more than 10 seconds today.

The “system” is challenged with too many scripts from too many writers who have yet to develop a skill to capture then envelope the reader with story. This combined with too few people willing to invest time to find out what happens means many scripts and books, regardless of how many contests a scribe has won or placed in, may never create any “Box Office Mojo.”

Today, when your script or novel lands in a professional reader’s inbox, only small sections will be read. In these few pages, s/he forms an opinion regarding your skill level. All else being even, a polished story wins.

As I said, in today’s story environment you are no longer given ten minutes to grab the attention of the reader, agent, actor or producer. Why? Scripts are now viewed on some form of video display.

You are fortunate if you are allowed a max of 30 seconds before your script is skimmed, sampled and in most cases “tossed.” In many presentations the judgement is immediate.

Again, why?

If the initial appearance and content (i.e. hook) is subpar, from my experience, it is unlikely the remainder of the story or script will be any better. Unfortunately, many professional readers make an instant decision on how professional a writer you are. Nowadays they won’t waste time with your unpolished hard work.

Harsh yet true.

The failure to immediately interest the “gatekeeper” is a major unfortunate reason for why so many prequels, sequels, and comic book retreads are now a staple in today’s stories or films. Today, in an original script or story, you can no longer take half your pages to integrate your audience with your character’s life, challenges and faults. Financiers want a built in audience. Think one million plus Facebook / Twitter fans.

Dustin Hoffman, star of The Graduate, screenplay by Buck Henry, shares his concern in The Wrap when he posits about film: “It’s the Worst It’s Been in 50 Years.

There is a business vs. artistic decision. Today these pre-sold franchises are bolstered by what is perceived to be a guaranteed return on investment (ROI) from a built in fan base. The avant-garde theatre and the indie film environment are a shining exception when they break out of the formulaic mold. However, in all but a very few cases, they struggle for a sizable box office.

Our current “instant gratification” culture dictates we now invest mere seconds before we move on. Consider your own behavior with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, a text or your wannabe boyfriend/girlfriend and their ilk.

Google Images

Google Images

Today the person who reads your story must feel the effect of your words “Above The Fold.” They must sense this opening situation is something different, contradictory or enigmatic. Consider what it was in the books, films, TV or theatre that hooked you. Was there something puzzling or hard to explain? Maybe it made you feel weird, odd or curious? Most likely the hook was some combination.

To garner an audience requires a combination of circumstances in your story. We become emotionally bound because we empathize with your main character’s strong feelings. This bond allows us to buy into your unique scenarios.

In today’s environment, due in part to strict formulaic writing, it must be near instantaneous attraction. No more delayed gratification.

Think magazine cover, newspaper headline or the “person of interest” across the room.

As a writer, you must connect your protagonist to the audience on the first page. Forget page 15 etc. Is what I’m saying somewhat formulaic? It’s an unfortunate reflection of our times.

Today an audience wants to viscerally experience the struggle, set up in scene 1, which your hero must endure regardless of the outcome. The more engaging struggle is when it’s uncertain whether your protagonist will survive or succumb.

Pinterest

Pinterest

The most effective way to hook an audience is to hint, show or demonstrate your hero’s flaw/skill that must be resolved/used. Surprise them with what was hinted at earlier in the story then hidden in plain sight.

Your surprise will be the “aha” moment to consummate their story experience. A word of caution; unless clearly defined as such, no one wants to attend a lecture or documentary.

 

SOLUTIONS:

  1. Start your story with a hook that relates to your protagonist’s flaw and objective(s).
  2. Create a hook to propel / seduce / compel your audience to continue.
  3. Use a subdued opening hook then build with all subsequent mini hooks.
  4. Be sure your opening hook sets the tone.
  5. Use action vs. dialogue as a hook.
  6. Surprise the audience with the obvious.
  7. Integrate the hook with the story in each scene.
  8. Make your audience continue to ask; “What comes next”?
  9. Build your script / story so each mini hook is a natural progression.
  10. Make sure what comes before a mini hook is related story wise to what comes after.

                                                                                      CONSIDER THESE THOUGHTS:
No Hooks = No Connection = No Interest.
No Interest = No Emotion = No Bond.
No Bond = No Read = No Sale.
No Payday for your work.
No ROI, “por vous.”

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The Screenwriter’s Bible

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