Meet the Reader: Breaking Big

I recently finished reading for the Big Break™ screenwriting contest, something that I do every year. Over the course of this months-long assignment, I evaluated approximately 300 scripts, which gave me the opportunity to see what’s going on out there in spec-script land. Here are some thoughts prompted by the experience:

  • In general, the quality of specs seems to be getting better. While I did encounter a few of those mind-bogglingly incomprehensible train wrecks that are an occupational hazard of professional script analysis, there were a lot less of them then there were in years past. The majority of the screenplays I encountered in the course of this year’s contest were competent and professional and a higher percentage than usual was quite good indeed.
  • There weren’t too many behemoths this year. Most of you kept your scripts under 120 pages. Bless you.
  • Most of the scripts that I passed on contained good premises with decent dramatic potential. Unfortunately, the writers seemed to have trouble developing those premises into workable stories. Many went to great lengths to set up an interesting tale, but then, instead of sticking with that particular narrative, shot off on all sorts of tangents that had nothing to do with the main concept. I’m not sure why this kept happening, but it was a common enough problem that it makes me think that it might be time to do some columns addressing narrative focus and proper story development.
  • This year’s hot spec genre seemed to be the gimmicky thriller – scripts in which the plots keep twisting and turning and spinning, due either to the machinations of the characters or hallucinations on the part of the protagonist. The problem with this type of script is that it can easily go wrong, either because there are so many twists that the story quickly becomes incomprehensible, or because the twists are illogical, or because the writer spends so much time on clever construction that he/she forgets to develop characters that we care about. Those seemed to be the problems with 90% of the ones I read.
  • Another popular genre was the gimmicky rom-com. Since most of the traditional impediments to romance (strict sexual mores; class, social, and religious differences) have faded away, the writers of modern romantic comedies have to come up with other reasons to keep lovers apart for 60 – 80 pages before finally allowing them to come together for the final clinch. As any student of the genre knows, this has led to a string of increasingly gimmicky and hard-to-swallow premises resulting in more and more stilted and unsatisfying films. This is true in theaters and true in specs. Most of the romcoms that I read in this year’s contest had premises that were so complicated and convoluted that often took over half the script just to set them up, which left very little time for any actual romance or comedy. When it comes to this genre, it really seems that simpler is better.
  • There was also an amazingly high number of scripts about seemingly normal people that discover (much to their surprise) that they are really aliens from another planet who have amazing powers and also quite a few about people that get pulled into the fantasy worlds of the fantasy books of which they are fans (must be a lot of folks out there who really, really want to attend Hogwarts). I have no opinion on the preponderance of these sort of scripts, except that it always amazes me how ideas always tend to come in waves through the zeitgeist.
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    Warner Bros

  • One nice thing about the digital era is that, now that all scripts are submitted digitally, they are no longer accompanied by the sometimes-bizarre tchotchkes that contest entrants used to send along with their screenplays: homemade posters for the film they hoped would be made from their scripts (usually featuring the biggest stars of the day and writing credits in Empire State Building-sized type); refrigerator magnets featuring self-designed logos; music tapes featuring all of the songs mentioned in the screenplay; etc. One time I even received a vampire script that came packaged inside a miniature coffin, complete with a spring-loaded rubber bat that jumped out at me when I opened the lid.  While I’m glad these items are no longer cluttering up my office, I will admit that the part of me that loves goofy stuff does miss them a bit.

After seeing the same mistakes made over and over and over again, here are a few brief bits of advice for all you speccers out there:

  • If you want a character to speak with a specific accent or in a specific dialect, please, please, please don’t spell out the pronunciation of the words phonetically. No matter how well intentioned you are, this always comes off as being either comical or racist. Just write out the words and leave the rest to the actor.
  • It’s time for everyone to cut back on the dream sequences, the fantasy scenes, the flashbacks, the asides, and all of the nonlinear story construction. The inclusion of these gimmicks has reached epidemic proportions – they’re cluttering up your narratives and making your scripts hard, if not impossible, to comprehend. It’s time to go back to focusing on what your story is about rather than how it is told.
  • When you rip off a scene, a premise, or an entire plot from another movie, you’re not off the hook if you simply mention that movie in your script (“Wow, this is just like the scene in Gigli …”). An acknowledged rip-off is still a rip-off. Please put your energy into doing something original.

I look forward to seeing what everyone comes up with next year!

The semi-finalists, Top 40, and Top 10 for this year’s Big Break™ contest have already been announced. The Top 5 will be announced in October.

9 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: Breaking Big

  1. Dale Crowe

    Hi Ray, thanks for some great insight! I particularly liked your comments regarding character voice. My own idea on that is to be generic as possible. The dialogue should be open to interpretation by whoever is cast for the part. If they are from Brooklyn, you’re carefully crafted Southern drawl dialogue goes right out the window.
    Of course, if the part CALLS for a Southerner and they cast Joe Pesci for the part…re-enact a scene from “Goodfellas” with the Casting Mgr! 😉

  2. Iseult Healy

    Thank you SO much Ray for confirming to me that I am doing it right! I get to read other scripts and they are sometimes so far off the track that I start to doubt my own creations but not any more! Story will ALWAYS be king.

  3. Kathy Rowe

    Great info as usual. Hmm, reading all that is handy to know NOT what to do in a spec script. Hopefully I can avoid those pitfalls. I’m not one for flashbacks or dream sequences anyways, and I don’t like gimmicks. Maybe next year I’ll have my sci-fi script done and can submit.

    Thanks always for your sage advice to us trying to break in.


  4. Ray Morton

    Hello Dan,

    Yes, there is a difference. The kind of construction you are describing is called a “frame story” — a present day story that flashes back to events in the past. That is a fairly traditional structure and one that is usually not confusing.

    Good luck.

  5. Dan

    Hey Ray –
    There is a difference between using flashbacks, and telling a story slightly out of order, correct?
    My story begins at the end (the present), then goes back many years and trucks forward. (occasionally coming back to the present) then goes back to about where it left off in the past and keeps trucking, until eventually it arrives in the present and at the climax)

    My story isn’t a chopped up, remixed, timeline. It’s just a slightly reordered timeline

  6. Ray Morton

    Hello Ted,

    I really couldn’t say if your script is too cluttered or not without reading it (and that’s the best way to tell — give it to people to read and then ask them if they understand it and then to tell you the story back to you. If they can and if it resembles the story you intended, then you’re okay. If not, you have some work to do). But, as a rule, I feel it’s best not to use gimmicks and tricks like dream sequences and asides unless they are organic to the story you are telling and only if they are absolutely necessary to telling your story. If you’re using them only if you can’t figure out any other way to get some idea or information across — as band aids, in other words — then I would advise against using them (even you do need band aids to hold your story together, then it probably means you have bigger problems to deal with anyway). Good luck.

  7. Ted

    Hi Ray (or anyone else who is reading this,)

    The screenplay I’m currently writing contains multiple (three) storylines sort of like the movies “Love Actually” and “Little Children.” One has a dream sequence that connects it to the main plot for most of the movie (this connestion isn’t revealed until Act 3.) The other is an “aside” that happens during Act 1 that will set-up the characters ultimate purpose in Act 3. It all comes together and the end of course. But this story as a whole is admittedly a bit complex. So my question is how would I, as a writer know my story is too cluttered/incomprehensible? Also as a reader, do you think my story is falling into the category of too cluttered?

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  9. Shane

    This was so fascinating! What better way to take the pulse of budding screenwriters and find out what’s on writer’s minds these days. I often wonder if maybe all these screenwriting books and classes, which are improving some aspects of screenwriting, like the form and the structure, but are killing the originality and advancement of the film story that flourished in times before all this knowledge was so easily accessible.