Meet the Reader: More on ‘Lies’

A few weeks back I wrote a column called “The Lies Screenwriters Tell (Themselves)” that provoked a lot of interesting responses from readers. Most of the reaction was pretty positive, although Richard P. took me to task for what he felt was a somewhat severe and patronizing tone in the piece.  @Richard: I’m sorry if it came across that way; that certainly wasn’t my intention. It was my goal to be funny and definitely to be pointed, but most of all I was just trying to be helpful. I’ll try to do better next time.

Reader Howard didn’t like the section of the piece in which I criticized some spec writers for stealing elements from other films. Howard wrote:

“…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.”

To clarify: I fully understand and have no problem with the fact that writers often are inspired by elements from earlier works and sometimes borrow those elements for use in their own scripts – that’s something that’s been done since well before Shakespeare. But in most such instances, the writers in question adapt the borrowed ideas – adding their own fresh twists and interpretations and using them in new and unique circumstances. What I do have a problem with is writers lifting ideas from other writers’ work and plunking them down in their own scripts without changing them or adapting them in any way. That’s not inspiration or even borrowing – that’s just plagiarism.

Reader Tim asked if it’s okay to include camera moves in a script if you really need to. @Tim: You can do anything you want – there are no hard and fast rules about this sort of stuff. Just be aware that it is general industry preference that you not do this and so ask yourself if that camera or editing or music description is really necessary. If it is, then put it in, but if it’s not (and in my experience, 99% of the time, it’s not), then don’t. The example you cited — panning from someone watching from the bushes onto the main scene – seems like an unnecessary one to me. You could easily accomplish the same end by simply indicating that the hedge-dweller is looking at something happening in front of him.

Film Shark asked about the value and credibility of screenplay contests. @Film Shark: I wrote a lengthy article on this for the print edition of Script last year.

A reader named Jim responded to my “Lies” column with a long and thoughtful note that raised a number of points that I felt it were important to address, since they are ones that come up whenever I discuss topics like this. I’ve reprinted his response below and will address it point by point:

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.

This is true – directors and actors do contribute an enormous amount. The issue is the quality and/or appropriateness of what they contribute. If you as the author of the screenplay are able to clearly communicate what your intent is for a scene, then you give the director and actors a strong basis upon which to invent things that will communicate and enhance that intent. If, however, your goal for a scene or a story is vague or undefined, then you are setting up a situation in which the helmer and players may devise things that distort or confuse your narrative rather than enhance it.

Since filmmaking is a collaborative art, weakness in a script CAN be hammered out by other people downstream in the process.

This is also true and sometimes (perhaps even frequently) happens, but I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make here — are you saying it’s okay to have weak areas in your script because other people will eventually fix them? If so, then my response to that would be that I don’t want other people fixing the problems in my writing – I want to be the one to do that so that the final result is as close to my original intent as possible.

Also, I think the market plays a significant role 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 …

Once again, I’m not sure what point you are trying to make. Of course the market is the deciding factor for every script that gets optioned/sold/produced. Movies (even cheap ones) are extraordinarily expensive to make and producers, studios, and investors are only going to back projects they believe will make them money. And yes — the quality of writing may not always be the deciding factor in choosing those projects (or in the response from the audience), but does this mean that you as the writer shouldn’t always try to make your script as good as it can possibly be? I sure hope that’s not what you’re saying, but it kind of sounds like it is.

There isn’t a producer out there that wouldn’t rather option/buy/make a good script than a bad one, even if they are working in commercial genres that are decidedly less than highbrow. For example, the action and horror and broad comedy genres aren’t generally known for their high-quality screenplays, and if you offer a genre producer a crappy buddy cop, slasher, or fart joke script, he/she will probably choose it over an exquisitely-crafted Jane Austen adaptation every time. However, if you can offer these producers a Die Hard or Lethal Weapon over a Bad Boys or a Cop Out; a Halloween or a Scream over a Hostel or a Friday the 13th, Part Whatever; an Animal House or a The Hangover over a Freddy Got Fingered or a Zookeeper, which ones do you think they are going to choose? So why not aim high all the time? You might fall short, but wouldn’t you rather aim for greatness and achieve something that’s at least acceptable rather than aim for mediocrity and hit a bullseye every time?

You also need to remember that a spec script serves two purposes. The first is to provide the basis for an eventual film; the second is to serve as a writing sample that showcases the writer’s skills in order to secure him/her an assignment. These days, when the industry is primarily interested in branded or pre-sold material and so is buying and producing fewer original specs than at any time in the last 40 years, the second purpose is probably more vital than the first. This means that your work has to be really good, because when producers go looking for someone to adapt a comic book, old TV show, or a board game into a film, they’re going to choose the best writer they can find. If all you are generating is mediocre stuff, then you’re not going to be that writer.

… but there are ideas that ARE hard to conceptualize …

Yes, there are, but if you want to be a professional (and produced) screenwriter, then you better figure out how to formulate your concepts in ways that are comprehensible, dramatic, and cinematic or else you’re not going to get very far. That is, after all, the job, and if you can’t manage it, then maybe screenwriting isn’t the right medium for you.

Besides, what’s your alternative? Write a script with an unclear or unformed concept? To begin with, that really isn’t possible – you can’t write well about something if you don’t have a clear idea what it is you are writing about. Even if you could, why would you want to? Do you enjoy seeing movies filled with fuzzy, incomplete notions? Do you think other people do? And if you’re incapable of making your own ideas work, then who do you think is going to do it? Another writer? The director? The actors? If you’re going to leave all of the heavy lifting on your projects to others, then what is it you expecting to be paid for – generating a bunch of half-baked ideas?  Anyone can do that. Producing a fully-baked product complete with triple layers, creamy filling, luscious frosting, and a decorative garnish is what separates the professionals (and those who aspire to be professionals) from the amateurs.

… and there ARE exceptions …

Sure there are, but by definition, they are very few and very far between and you can’t build a career on being a one-in-10,000 long shot.

… and there ARE people who just don’t get it.

A few, but not as many as you might think. Some struggling writers like to tell themselves that the people out there evaluating their work – the readers, story editors, development and creative execs – are soulless cretins that are incapable of recognizing true creativity and talent. The truth is that most of the development people out there are pretty sharp, smart, and savvy and, while their agendas may be significantly different from yours, do indeed “get it,” so it is probably best not to fall back on the myth of dull-witted receptors if your work is not being well-received. As I said in the original column, if one or two people don’t understand your script, then it might be them, but if a majority of those that read your screenplay have problems with it, then it’s probably the script and you need to fix 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?

You’re contradicting yourself here. Since these films did get made, obviously the studios did get them.

I feel like you’re emphasizing standardization at the cost of creativity, and shorting the market considerations.

I’m not sure what you mean by standardization. Do you mean standardization of format? Of story material? Of writing quality? I did point out that there are certain conventionss of technique and presentation that should be observed because they are common throughout the industry, but that has nothing to do with the quality or originality of your story or your storytelling, which I have said many times in this column should always be of the highest and freshest level.

Writing is just one dimension of the process.

Yes it is, but as screenwriters, it’s the dimension we should be most concerned with. As professionals, we should always strive to do the best we possibly can within that dimension, no matter what those responsible for the other aspects of a film are doing.

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.

I’m not sure what rules you are talking about, but your notion that a successful screenwriter can get anything made is simply incorrect. Success will often earn a writer a chance to pitch material that is more risky or outside the mainstream and some of those projects do get made, but many do not. There are never any guarantees and you are selling yourself a false bill of goods if you convince yourself that there are.

That tells me that the inherent value of standardized writing isn’t the driving force …

Again, I don’t know what you mean by standardized writing. Do you mean writing formulaic genre content? If so, I have never advocated that. I do think Hollywood is often interested in producing formulaic films, but when looking for writers to script those films, they look for the freshest and most original voices they can find. And if all you write is by-the-numbers specs that bring nothing new or innovative to the genre you are working in, then it’s likely that you won’t be considered for those assignments.

… that tells me that it’s the value of the project to a studio that decides what gets made and what doesn’t.

As previously stated – yes. But that does not mean you can get away with (or should ever be satisfied with) doing shoddy work.

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.

Still not sure what you mean by standardized screenwriting. I agree that there’s always room to do better and more innovative work, but there’s no guarantee that everything you do – especially if it is too far outside the mainstream – will be embraced and you can’t get mad at the industry if it isn’t. Also, just because something is different doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good – I’ve read a lot of material over the years that was very unusual and also very bad.

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.

I’m sure they have, but what does that have to do with writing a good script?

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.

We’ve already addressed this – no they couldn’t.

You also have to be careful using big names as example.  Yes, William Goldman has a little more leeway because he’s a known entity – people hiring him know they’re going to get a good script, so they’re more comfortable letting him go his own way (also, you need to remember that there’s a big difference between a presentation draft, a published script, and a shooting script, all of which can be formatted differently. As an aspiring spec writer, you should be trying to produce something resembling a shooting script, as Goldman himself does when the time comes). And Tarantino is a bona fide auteur whose scripts don’t go through the development process – he deals directly with his backers and can format any darn way he pleases as long as they are okay with it. Unless you are planning to raise your own money and direct your own script independently [always an option], then your work will be going through the development process, so you have to plan and format accordingly.

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 …

There’s no such thing as a decent (meaning ready to send out and shoot) first draft. The best you can hope for is a draft that provides sufficient material for a good revision.

… but at the same time market considerations always trump writing, whether it’s a good or bad script.

No they don’t. Commercial considerations certainly do influence the choice of subject matter that a production entity may opt to make, but the better the writing in a script about that subject matter is, the better the chances are that the project will be made and that it will be successful. Ideally, the two things go hand in hand.

I think standardization is just an artifact of the business and doesn’t have any inherent value, in and of itself.

Once again, not clear what you mean by this.

And sadly, sometimes the writing just doesn’t matter.

Sometimes, but not as often as you think. Just because some projects don’t turn out well doesn’t mean that people don’t care and I think it’s a big mistake for writers to think that they don’t, especially if those writers are using that rationale as an excuse to not do the very best that they can.

To be a successful screenwriter, you can’t be okay or even just good – you have to be great. Don’t fool yourself into thinking anything otherwise and you’ll do just fine.

12 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: More on ‘Lies’

  1. Barry J. Moskowitz

    Hi Ray! Your point-of-view is both straightforward and logically substantiated. The English poet, Robert Browning, challenged us with his famous words, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp / or, what’s a heaven for?” A screenwriter, then, should reach high up beyond his grasp in striving to create – in essence – art which not only entertains but inspires the human heart! “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” and, to paraphrase, not plagiarize, “Garbage by any other name would smell as foul!” With continuing admiration of your knowledge, professional insight and pragmatic advice, Barry

  2. Ray Morton

    @ Howard:

    Lucas sold the idea for Star Wars to Fox based on a pitch of the concept (following the success of American Graffiti — UA and Universal had rejected it prior to AG’s release), which included a rough treatment and a number of illustrations. It took years for Lucas to develop a comprehensible script, but the deal to make the movie was already in place (and made rather quickly). The point: it was not a spec script sale. I’ll address this further in a future column.

    As for plagiarism, I understood your point perfectly. And to answer your question, I come across scripts containing plagiarized elements (not whole scripts, but scenes, bits, etc.) often enough that I felt I should mention it. It’s not an epidemic, but it’s certainly a bad head cold.

  3. Robin C. Weigel

    I’m a fledgling screenwriter and seasoned novel writer: A writer! It’s all about the writing. It’s about passion for writing. If someone’s willing to churn out mediocre writing because they think it’s enough to get them a paycheck, then that’s what writing is to them: A paycheck. In my book, this apathetic attitude toward the craft of writing and a love for telling a story will not garner success. Anybody successful at anything is such because they have passion for it, and they HAVE to do it. Not only that, but they want to be the best they can be and to strive to be better. My advice to Jim is to consider a script he writes as a calling card. Good luck!

  4. Howard

    I’m also surprised about your response to my statement on borrowing and Shakespeare. I read for five screenplay competitions and two of them I’ve read for more than five years each. I’ve also read for a production company for the same amount of time. I have never read a script that plagiarized. Do you really get that many scripts that plagiarize? I get scripts that borrow as Shakespeare does (though almost never with the same amount of originality or talent), but never plagiarized. How many plagiarized scripts do you run across on a yearly basis?

  5. Howard

    I think you misunderstood the example of Star Wars when it comes to people not getting it. My understanding from all I’ve read is that it took years to get Star Wars made because no one got it. The fact that no one got it didn’t stop Lucas from continuing to try to find the people that did get it. Lucas realized that just because people didn’t get it, didn’t mean it was the script that was the problem. He just had to have faith in it. After Star Wars got made, it was a huge success and Lucas wanted to do Raiders of the Lost Ark, which again took years to get made because again people didn’t get it, in spite of the Star Wars issue.

  6. Ray Morton

    @ Sidney and Russ — thanks for your very kind words.

    @Simon and Garth — I will address some of your points in a future column.

    @ Jim — thanks for raising all of the points that you did. Many people approach me with similar comments and I thank you for providing a vehicle with which to address them.

    @ Everybody — thanks for reading.

  7. Garth Jenkins

    I don’t agree with the statement to be a successful screenwriter you have to be great. I’m great, but I’m not successful. I’m joking. Or am I?

    You can get round the annoying problem of being great, so I’ve heard, by simply networking with people into similar stuff, or on a similar level. Why not find a director who is into making crappy straight to DVD movies and make some money that way? Not everybody wants to sit down and watch a masterpiece every time – sometimes we just want to watch some trashy pulp – and there are plenty of independent companies pumping it out. The Asylum for one.

  8. biancaelyse1

    “To be a successful screenwriter, you can’t be okay or even just good – you have to be great.”
    This, to me, is the most important sentence of the whole article. Thank you for saying it so directly and so clearly. The rest of the article is very interesting as well. Though I’m not sure about all of these rules and regulations– because I’m not sure that they ultimately matter because movie making or screenwriting (or any other type of art for that matter) isn’t logical. Art gets made because the artist feels compelled to make it.. point blank. Its a certain kind of magic, and one that doesn’t really take the ‘rules’ into account, or at least not past a certain point, because the compulsion to create story is ultimately what (and all that) matters.
    With the internet, HD Camcorders, movie cameras, DVD’s, etc. becoming ever more accessible, low cost, and high quality, film (and the arts in general) are becoming democratized in unprecedented ways. With all the talk of studio systems, standards, formats, etc. I think its also important to point out that all scrips are ultimately story– and every movie (at its core) is an individual, a camera, and the desperation to tell a story.

  9. Garth Jenkins

    Poor old Tim – hope someone’s at his place giving him a cuddle.

    In regard to the point about The Tree of Life, I would say that this is actually a pretty salient point for writers to pay attention to. To my mind there are two types of films. The first are written by writers and made by directors. The second kind are written AND directed by directors. It is impossible for The Tree of Life to have come from a writer who is not also a director.

    I personally have no director ambitions myself, I have no social skills whatsoever, and, as much as I admire films like The Tree of Life, I don’t look to them for pointers on how to write a script. They are too ‘directory’ and would only confuse. Terence Malick got away with it because he can see and execute the vision. And he’s a genius. Much better to look at the movies written by the greatest screenwriters and pick away at those.

  10. Russ Lea

    Thanks Ray,
    Your quote on greatness should be every artists motto who doesn’t have the money to produce their own work. I’m curious to know how many books on the craft has this man read, how many pages of notes has he taken, and how many ideas has he applied to his work. As a script reader, I’m very tough on writers, because the studio shouldn’t have to pay out more money to a second writer to fix what should have been addressed by the first. If there’s any debate on what’s accepted by some, but not by others, leaver it out. You can’t tell a reader how to interpret your story or expect him or her to just ignore the distractive technical points within it. A writer has one job – to tell a visual story in simple screenplay structure and let the director, cinematographer, and editor do their own jobs. If you want to do it your way, then pay it your way.

  11. Simon

    “Commercial considerations certainly do influence the choice of subject matter that a production entity may opt to make, but the better the writing in a script about that subject matter is, the better the chances are that the project will be made and that it will be successful.”

    Hmm this is all very subjective and ambiguous. Also, very easy to state without any evidence to back it up. The reason there’s no evidence is because everyone has a different taste – one person’s masterpiece is another person’s garbage.

    Take a recent example – The Tree of Life. As a screenplay consultant, how would you deal with a script which has large passages of description of the universe being created? I thought it was pretty lazy and patronising. I really don’t need anyone to show me how big or awe inspiring the Universe is – I mean, so what? Yet, it won the big award and I know a few people who think its the best film they’ve seen in 20 years.

    A couple of days ago, I by chance saw a Hungarian film made in the 60s called The Round-up. There were no characters as such. People entered the story then died or vanished at seemingly random moments. This film is viewed as something special by certain. I’d never heard of it before. But I know exactly how that screenplay would be viewed by most consultants – ‘you don’t know who your main character is – who’s your protagonist? – you need to develop the characters more – here’s a copy of The Hero’s Journey’ to keep you going’ etc.

    As far as making money or a script getting made – the truth is, there’s just not enough money to spend on everyone’s script. Like, 1 in 1000 or worse. To start, you need to understand what you’re trying to achieve. The majority of people writing scripts believe someone’s going to recognise their ‘talent’ and make them an offer they can’t refuse.

    And that’s probably what it boils down to in the end. Someone with some clout thinking you have talent. The talent will show, no matter what. You can write your screenplay on toilet roll and if you have talent, I’ll read it to the end.

    But even if someone recognises your talent, they’ll still most likely chose the writer they’ve worked with before. The safe option. So you have to find a way to get to know the right people.

  12. Fey1IsleofSkye/Sidney Peck

    All I can say to Jim is maybe this isn’t the right craft for him as a writer. It seems like he’s more interested in lowering the bar, than delivering exceptional product. What I gathered from his comments to you is that he wants to be/or fancies himself as the “exception” to the rules that the rest of us respect and follow. From reading what he said to you, I, for one, would not be in a big hurry to read his work. You, on the other hand, clearly have a good handle on both the creative side of the business, well as what the suits are honing their radar for. As a former development executive, I want to compliment you for your work here. Well done!