As Good As It Gets? When “Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough
Back in 1973, New York theater critic John Lahr published a book titled, Astonish Me: Adventures in Contemporary Theatre. The book’s central premise was that, having “seen it all,” modern audiences were no longer content with merely “competent” stage plays. Plays needed to shock. To excite. To surprise. In short, jaded theatre-goers no longer wished to be merely entertained. They wanted to be astonished!
Although more than thirty years have passed since Lahr wrote his treatise, his maxim is more relevant than ever. Especially to first-time screenwriters. In this highly competitive industry, technical competency by itself will not secure you an agent, nor will it lead to a spec sale or writing assignment. You can structure backwards and forwards, have all your “plot points” and “reversals” on precisely the right pages, write fully-dimensional characters, sparkling dialogue, creative action set-pieces, and even format your script with mathematical perfection, but unless you can astonish your readers, chances are your efforts will yield little more than a bad case of carpal tunnel syndrome.
This demand for “genius” is a standard many unproduced writers find extremely frustrating to face. After all, with all the drek oozing its way out of the major studios and TV networks these days, one would think that competency alone would get one noticed. For if, in the Land of the Blind, the One-Man is King, then in the Land of the Bland, surely the Good Writer should be Emperor.
Alas, such is not the case. The cold truth is, agents and producers aren’t looking for good writers. They already have “good” writers. In fact, they have more “good” writers than they know what to do with. But while you may be just as “good” as any of these “good” writers, they’ll always have one thing you don’t: A track record. And in a business motivated by fear, uncertainty, and the ever-present need to pass-the-buck in the event of failure, credits – good or bad – will always trump talent.
So if “good enough” isn’t, what is a writer to do? How can you, as a writer, determine if your writing is “great”? And if it isn’t, what can you do to make it so?
Although there’s no substitute for “genius” – or any way to teach it, for that matter – here are some steps you can take to try to help your screenplay “blow the socks off” its readers:
Test Market Your Premise. In Hollywood, no commodity is more valuable than a good idea. More than 15 years after the phrase “High Concept” was coined, the demand for a premise that “writes itself” is still as hot as ever – especially in the spec market. To determine whether or not you have a “hot” idea, boil your idea down to one or two sentences (a “log line”) and test it out on your really, really good friends. (Defined as people you can trust not to steal your really, really good idea.) Tell them, “I’m writing a movie about such-and-such,” and watch their reactions. If they nod, smile politely and say, “Gee, sounds great. Good luck,” then you know you might as well move on to something else. But if their eyes get that far-away look and you can almost hear the wheels turning in their heads, or if they slap their palms to their foreheads in a “Fuck, why didn’t I think of that!” gesture, then you know you’re onto something big. Start writing.
Look for Similarities Between Your Idea and Other Successful Films. For more than a decade now, a popular way to come up with new movie ideas is to create a “meet.” As in, “It’s Titanic meets Spiderman,” or “It’s Die Hard meets Bridget Jones’ Diary.” The variation on this is the “only.” As in, “It’s Gladiator, only in space,” or “It’s The Dirty Dozen, only with girls.” If you can play this game with your premise, junk it. In the vast majority of cases, the best such a “formula” premise will produce is a “formula” screenplay, and we’re trying to do better than that, right? Obviously, your script will probably fall into some established genre category (Pulp Fiction was a “gangster film,” and Memento is a “film noir”), but you want it to be as “fresh” and “unusual” as you possibly can. You want your film to be the one other scripts are compared to, not vice-versa.
Don’t Trust Your Instincts. This may seem counter-intuitive to good writing, but the truth is that what most people call “instincts” are actually “reflexes.” We’ve all been exposed to so many thousands of hours of television and motion picture stories over our lifetimes that, when confronted with a dramatic situation, our first reaction is to solve the problem the same way we’ve seen it solved dozens of times before. (Even if the “classic” solution never really made sense to begin with.) When trying to astonish your audience, take your first instinct, examine it for flaws or clichés, then throw it out and force yourself to come up with a solution or approach you’ve never seen before. If it takes you two weeks – great. For if it took you two weeks to solve the problem, then chances are your audience won’t figure it out in the few moments they have to ponder it.
Research. Many writers hate to research. They’re writers. They want to write. And while they may write well, all anyone can write about is what they’re familiar with. Which, in too many cases, are other movies. A great way to avoid this trap is to research your subject matter. Deeply. Chances are, you’ll unearth ideas, situations, characters, problems, and solutions you would never have thought of if left only to our own imagination. Research is also a wonderful defense. You can justify even the most bizarre plot twist with “This really happened to somebody.”
Go For Broke. A problem common to even experienced writers is timidity. They’re afraid to think big. “This’ll be too expensive,” they think. Or “It’s too far out.” Don’t let practical concerns get in the way of telling a good story. These days, anything can be put on the screen. If what you’ve written is too expensive or too grotesque or too sexy, that will be worked out in rewrites. So swing for the fences. Push that envelope. Don’t write funny. Write hilarious. Don’t write scary. Write terrifying. Don’t write big. Write huge. Don’t write erotic. Write orgasmic. Take no prisoners.
Take Your Act on the Road. When your script is finished, do your damnedest to stage a live reading of your material before a substantial audience (10 or more people) before giving it to an agent or producer. If you’ve written a comedy, listen for the laughs. If you’ve written a horror film, listen for the groans and watch people squirm. If you’ve written a tear-jerker, listen for the sniffles. Has your story grabbed the audience? Are they paying attention? Are they captivated? Are they into your movie? Professional comics always test new material and cut it mercilessly when necessary. You need to be just as ruthless.
Obviously, writing “great” instead of just “good” is a daunting task. Which is why so many “good” writers never make a career in the film business. The only way to break through the walls of Castle Hollywood is to find a sponsor who is passionate about what you’ve created, and such passion is normally reserved for work that is fantastic. So write fantastic. Your audience – and your art – deserve nothing less. – Allen B. Ury