HOW TO TELL YOUR SCREENPLAY SUCKS
As anyone who has read original motion picture screenplays for a living will tell you: Most screenplays suck. And not just screenplays by wannabes. A good many scripts from accredited WGA members are equally unproducible. More often than not, they’re boring. They’re confusing. They’re riddled with clichés. They’re torpid. Let’s put it another way: If you think most of the screenplays that did make it into production stank like week-old halibut, imagine the acrid aroma of the 90 percent of yearly submissions that didn’t even make it past the initial evaluation stage.
If you’re currently banging out an original action script, period drama or modern rom-com, understand that, chances are, your end-product will suck, too. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how many “How to Write a Screenplay” books you’ve read or how many AFI seminars you’ve attended, Silverberg’s Law* demands that your screenplay be wanting in one or more critical areas.
Is there a way to tell ahead of time – before you embarrass yourself in front of friends, family, agents and producers — your screenplay actually sucks? And if so, is there anything you can do about it?
Fortunately, the answer to both questions is a resounding “Yes!”
Following are five tests you can run on your own screenplay to see if it is a likely candidate for the old circular file (or, in this age of PDF submissions, the handy-dandy “Delete” key), along with prescriptive responses should your script test positive for suckiness.
1. Try to Explain Your Premise in One or Two Sentences. The premise of a film is a statement that describes your screenplay’s narrative foundation in terms of its central character(s) and the principal problem he/she/they must struggle to solve. As I’ve stated in previous articles, a commercially viable feature film premise contains three essential elements:
a. A hero with a problem he/she can’t just walk away from. If the problem can be side-stepped, where’s the dramatic tension?
b. A “Wow Factor.” That is, something about the hero, the problem, the setting, the time-period, etc., that is original, engaging, or otherwise just plain “cool.”
c. A strong element of irony. The problem the hero faces should, in some essential way, be antithetical to his/her character.
For example, the premise of the early summer megahit Jurassic World could be expressed as, “The control-obsessed executive manager of a theme park featuring live dinosaurs faces the crisis of her life when the park’s deadliest attraction escapes and goes on a murderous rampage.” This premise hits all the marks: There’s the heroine with a problem she can’t just walk away from. She’s the boss. Lives are at stake. The Wow Factor is the most commercially potent of the last 30 years – DINOSAURS!!! And the irony? She’s a control freak who’s lost control.
Here’s the premise of a distinctly smaller film, last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Birdman: “A middle aged movie actor famous for playing an iconic super-hero attempts to resurrect his career by staging a serious Broadway drama, only to be literally haunted by the very comic book character that made him famous.” Again, the premise hits all the marks. There’s a hero facing the existential problem of irrelevance. The pseudo-Batman character is the “Wow Factor” (as is the casting of former Batman star Michael Keaton.) And the irony – one that faces many stars in the hero’s position – is that he hates the very thing everyone else loves him for.
If you can’t state your premise this elegantly – if you can’t express your set-up clearly and succinctly in just one or two sentences – and it doesn’t satisfy all three criteria, chances are your screenplay sucks. Yes, you may have wonderful characters, quotable dialogue, thrilling set pieces, etc., etc., but it’s just not going to work as a single, cohesive piece of commercial entertainment.
The remedy is to go back to the drawing board. Strip your core idea back down to its essentials and find a way to express it simply and cleanly. This can take some time. Even days or weeks. But once you’ve leapt this hurdle, you’ll find that the rest of the script’s direction and structure suddenly becomes clearer as well.
2. State Your Theme. The “theme” of your movie is its “moral” or “message.” It’s the question your narrative is trying to answer. Sometimes a movie’s theme is explicit. Other times, it’s implied. Regardless, theme is the tentpole around which your story in anchored. Some classic examples:
The Godfather (1972) – “Organized crime is but the dark side of the American Dream.”
Schindler’s List (1993) – “He who saves one life saves the world.”
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – “Without pain, life has no meaning.”
Argo (2012) – “There’s nothing more powerful than a good story.”
Can you articulate your screenplay’s theme? Does the narrative actually address the theme you’ve chosen? If not, your screenplay probably sucks.
All screenplays have themes. Even broad comedies. To make sure your theme is integrated properly into your narrative, think of your theme as a resolution about to be debated. Which of your characters has the “pro” position? Who represents the “con”? How passionately do they fight for their positions? Do their positions waver or even change over time? If so, there must be compelling reasons for them to do so.
3. Describe Your Protagonist/Hero in Three Words. Now do the same for your Antagonist/Villain. A good screenplay is inhabited by multi-dimensional characters. Usually, these “dimensions” are expressed in terms of behavioral characteristics. The more words you can use to describe a character, the more interesting that character is likely to be – especially if these characteristics are at times in conflict with one another. Test your main characters by describing each in at least three words. Ideally, these words should not be synonymous. (“Brave” and “Fearless” doesn’t count as two.)
For example, here’s a quick three-word breakdown of the main characters in the original Star Wars trilogy:
Luke Skywalker – Restless, Awkward, Adventurous
Han Solo – Rakish, Impulsive, Principled
Leia Organa – Committed, Commanding, Smart-Mouthed
C3PO – Fussy, woeful, proud
R2D2 – Loyal, Brave, Chipper
Obi-Wan Kenobi – Wise, Patient, Calculating
Darth Vader – Ruthless, Violent, Spiritual
It’s often been noted that one of the main reasons the Prequel Trilogy was underwhelming was that it was virtually impossible to describe the main characters in even three words. They were flattened into one or, at most, two dimensions.
If you can’t describe your main characters in at least three words – and those descriptions remain valid throughout most, if not all, your story – then your screenplay probably sucks. Take time to flesh out your characters in terms of their temperaments and behaviors, and then stick to those models throughout your subsequent execution.
4. Chart Your Set-Ups and Pay-Offs. In screenplays, few things are as satisfying as triumphs that are earned. The method by which we earn these triumphs is by hiding the solutions to the problems we create earlier in the narrative.
When the spirit of Ray Kinsella’s dad shows up at the end of Field of Dreams, it makes sense because we’re told at the movie’s start that the man was a frustrated ballplayer.
When, at the end of The Usual Suspects, (Spoiler Alert!) Verbal Kint is revealed to be the sinister Keyser Soze, it’s only after Customs agent Kujan has visually spotted all the office knick-knacks the criminal mastermind has used to spin his remarkable tale.
When, in last year’s Nightcrawler, freelance news cameraman Lou Bloom ends up owning a fleet of “eyewitness” news vans, we accept the outcome based on the character’s (repeatedly) demonstrated business acumen, unbridled ambition and sociopathic opportunism.
In each case, the dramatic pay-off is preceded by a legitimate set-up earlier in the story. All great screenplays use this set-up/pay-off technique to one degree or another.
To see if your screenplay is skillfully constructed, chart out all your key “payoffs” and “triumphs” alongside their respective set-ups. If you have one or more major plot twists, reveals, or triumphs that don’t have a corresponding set-up, chances are your screenplay sucks.
Go back and ensure you’ve established a legitimate foundation for these key moments. And, if possible, make sure these set-ups are hidden or subtle enough that they don’t call attention to themselves. You want your payoffs to be unexpected. Predictability is a major script killer. Only in retrospect should the set-up/pay-off dynamic be obvious – perhaps even inevitable – to the audience.
5. Determine How Much Time You’ve Devoted to Writing the Script. Here’s the dirty little secret behind all good screenwriting: It’s a goddamn time-suck. Good screenwriting is a slow, painful process that requires almost religious-like devotion and sacrifice. You’ve heard that you should write what you know? That you should always go with your gut? That’s bullshit.
Good writing requires deep research into whatever world you’re writing about, be it modern law enforcement, 19th century British aristocracy, law, medicine, terrorism, Ancient Rome or running a restaurant. It demands that you push yourself well beyond your comfort zone and delve into lifestyles, values, personality types, ethics, customs and protocols that may be completely foreign to you at the moment. Do you think that Aaron Sorkin already knew all about the U.S. military legal system when he set off to write A Few Good Men? That Craig Borton and Melisa Wallack were already intimate with the economics of the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s when they decided to pen Dallas Buyers Club? Or that Mike Judge was an expert in compression logarithms when he co-wrote the pilot for Silicon Valley? Whatever verisimilitude those scripts conveyed was the result of research.
How many hours did you devote to research before you even typed FADE IN? How many books on your chosen subject did you read? How many online articles did you absorb? How many experts did you speak with? If the number isn’t in the dozens, then you probably relied on genre clichés, stereotypes, cultural myths, “common knowledge” and wild guesses. And your screenplay probably sucks.
Likewise, “going with your gut” is usually a recipe for disaster. When people speak of “going with your gut” or “writing from the heart,” what they’re really talking about is falling back on simple answers from movies you’ve already seen. And which millions of people have already seen as well.
Don’t feel bad about this. It’s human instinct to default to the familiar. It’s how we learn language and behavior, by parroting the language and behaviors of the people around us. But it makes for sucky screenwriting.
To avoid falling into this trap and creating a work that transcends genre, you have to first write, set the script aside for a few weeks, then return to the piece and challenge every decision you originally made. Throw new obstacles in your hero’s path. If a solution worked the first time, see what happens if it fails. Combine or eliminate characters. Try playing wordy scenes with minimal or even no dialogue at all. In short, don’t settle for easy or obvious answers. And be specific, not just in the story you tell and the characters that inhabit it, but also in your language. Characters should never “go.” They “speed” or “stumble” or “amble.” No one drives a “car.” They drive a “lovingly restored ’57 Thunderbird” or a “piece-of-shit Toyota Tercel.” A character doesn’t wield a “gun,” he points a “Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum” or a “Nighthawk 1911.” Look at all the nouns in your script, and ask yourself, “Is this the most precise and descriptive word or phrase I could have used to describe this?”
Once you’ve done this. Do it again. And again. And keep doing it until you are absolutely, 100 percent convinced you’ve written the best script you possibly can. If, weeks later, you suddenly get an idea on how to improve the script, it means you let the script go too soon – and as a result, it probably sucks.
A quality screenplay usually takes at least a half-dozen rewrites. Not polishes. Page-one rewrites, top-to-bottom. The investment is usually in the hundreds of hours. And that’s even before the studios get their hands on it.
Will your script ever be perfect? No. Perfection is the goal of fools. But trying to make your script perfect – that is how you achieve excellence. – Allen B. Ury
* Silverberg’s Law, attributed to prolific science fiction author Robert Silverberg, states, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.”