BACK TO THE FEATURE
WHY “THE END” IS ONLY THE BEGINNING
After months of tortuous, enervating and, hopefully, orgasmic writing, you’ve finally finished your spec screenplay. Now you’re ready to send it to producers, find a buyer and collect your $500,000 check, right?
The worst thing you can do to yourself and your creation is to send it into the market “hot off the printer.” Why? Because writers are the worst possible judges of their own material.
After having spent weeks, months and, perhaps even years honing and refining a script, you will be “too close” to your material to make any kind of objective analysis of its merits. There will likely be plot points that only make sense to you because you conceived them. You will no doubt love every character in your story because they are, in one way or another, a reflection of yourself. The script no doubt contains jokes and zingers that you’ve concluded are priceless for no other reason than you spent an entire day agonizing over them. But the operative question isn’t whether or not you think your script is great, but whether otherpeople do. Especially people who are in a position to offer you a deal.
Some writers – especially new ones who are eager and impatient – opt to send their untested spec into the market and letting the chips fall where they may. If they’re really really lucky, their instincts prove on target and they find a buyer. But most writers who try this all-or-nothing approach encounter rejection and end up asking, “What didn’t you like? How can I make the script better?” Which is all well and good, only once production companies have seen a script and “coverage” has been written, it’s too late to make any changes! Unless you already have strong established relationships, most producers will consider a script only once. If you submit a screenplay or teleplay, even if it’s been vastly rewritten, many companies will just pull their old coverage and base their decisions on that. Even changing titles and character names often don’t help you avoid this treatment.
(You really can’t blame studios and producers for treating writers so coldly. They’r win the business of buying solid scripts, not helping desperate writers launch their careers.)
If you’ve spent any significant amount of time writing your screenplay or teleplay, you owe it to yourself to spend just a little more time making sure it’s the best script it can possibly be before tossing it to the wolves. Just as studios usually “test screen” their movies to determine what works and what’s doesn’t, you need to “test” your script while you still have a chance to make adjustments.
Here are the steps you should take before sending your spec out to agents, managers or producers:
Have your script read by at least five people whose opinions you respect. Offer your script to a mix of acquaintances – young, old, male and female. Other writers are a great place to start. If you know people who are actually in “the industry,” even better. A professional reader or producer’s assistant will be in a great position to determine how your script would be evaluated if it actually went into the market.
Although you’re welcome to give your script to family members for evaluation, don’t take their opinions too seriously, especially the positive ones. It’s virtually impossible for family members to look at something written by one of their own with a cold, critical eye. And at this point in the process, you don’t want praise, you want criticism.
Weigh all feedback before considering a rewrite. Although everyone is entitled to an opinion, one criticisms are more valid than others. For example, one person may find a joke you’ve written hilarious, while another may find the same joke flat or even offensive. One of your readers may love a character while another is unimpressed. Like a wise man once said, “Opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one.”
No, what you’re looking for are not individual criticisms, but a consensus on what works and what doesn’t. For example, if 80 percent of your readers think a certain character is flat and lifeless, chances are that character is flat and lifeless. If one reader hates a joke but three other people love it, keep the joke. You can’t please everybody. And if you absolutely, positively, from the bottom of your heart believe a certain concept, character, plot point or piece of dialogue is 100 percent perfect and everybody thinks it sucks, be ready to smash your delicate artistic ego like a bug and side with the majority. As another wise man once said, “If five people tell you you’re drunk, it’s probably time to sit down.”
Hold nothing sacred. Screenwriters often become “married” to a concept, a character, or even a joke so strongly that they insist on keeping it in the script no matter what. And this is often a fatal error. If you want to be a professional, the issue isn’t whether or not you like what you’ve written, but if other people do.
Be prepared to gut entire scenes, change whole characters, or even start from page one if you have to. Nothing in a script is sacrosanct, not even the story itself. There may be times when you’ll be forced to admit that, while your execution is great, your whole premise is off-base or simply uncommercial. Or you may have a great premise but just chose to develop it in the wrong direction. Again, it’s far better to get this information early from people who’ll still love you in the morning than from hostile strangers who’ll have no compunctions about flushing a year of your life down the toilet without so much as a fare-thee-well.
Take your time. Time is the writer’s greatest enemy. We all have bills to pay. We have obligations to meet. None of us is getting any younger, and the urge to become successful now is, for most people, almost irresistible. It takes enormous discipline to step back, give people a chance to evaluate our material, spend the time necessary to extensively rewrite a script, and maybe even put a script away for a month or two so we can attack it with a fresh eye before finally sending it off to meet its destiny.
(Those pervasive, oft-told stories of inspired scribes who dash off a screenplay over a single weekend, put it on the market on Monday and have a deal in place by Tuesday don’t help.)
But discipline is exactly what it takes to make ti as a professional writer. The discipline to write day after day. The discipline to sit alone in a little room in front of a keyboard while those around you are actually living their lives. The discipline to keep your hopes alive despite a seemingly endless stream of rejections and frustrations. So take the time it takes to make your spec the best it can possibly be.
You think rewriting your spec is tough? Hell, just wait ’til you start getting studio notes. – Allen B. Ury