I taught myself how to read and analyse screenplays when I started out running the Raindance Film Festival. Between 1992 and 2003 I read and wrote critiques on over 2,500 screenplays including 51st State and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
Only a handful of these 2,500 screenplays ever got made. The remaining scripts will most likely never get made, and not because they were a bad idea for a screenplay. I never once found a bad idea for a screenplay reading 2,500 scripts. I did find poor execution of the ideas time and time again.
I’m no expert. All I have is a body of experience working with rookie writers. Here is a crib sheet of the basic mistakes debut screenwriters make.
1. Not Understanding Filmmaking
The role of the screenwriter is to inspire the entire team: everyone from the director and actors down to the lowly set dresser.
Understanding how these different jobs get done and how the various members of the filmmaking team collaborate is very useful to a working screenwriter. This is the knowledge used by professional screenwriters.
You don’t need to know details about lenses and cameras and other techie issues. But a general understanding can’t help but make you a better writer.
Take a weekend out and attend the Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking weekend – the crash course that explains both production (on Day 1) and marketing and PR on Day 2.
2. No Story
Far too often screenwriters get swept away by cute dialogue or set action pieces which as individual units can be quite compelling. But if the units don’t link up to tell a story over the entire length of the piece, I get bored and fidgety.
Another common mistake is writers who write dramas. All stories are dramas, but the word drama is too general. The head of marketing for the distribution company your movies get sold to wants a few quick clues about the type of story you have. The tool successful writers use is the tool of genre: horror, romcom, thriller, sci fi and so on.
Audiences go to the movie to see a story. Tell a story! And using a genre story will help the marketing department plan the distribution campaign.
3. No Main Character
I have read dozens and dozens of screenplays with well written descriptive passes, smart, snappy dialogue and by the end of the screenplay I am not sure who the main character is.
A storytelling basic is to tell the story from one character’s point of view. Stick with it through the entire story. Weave the character into the story and show the main character interacting with each of the others in a deep and satisfying character web.
4. No Specific Goal
A common law of new storytellers is they don’t know how to create a goal that works in storytelling terms.
I will often read this script: “It’s about a guy or gal who has to leave London.” Although this is a goal, the difficulty story-wise is that this goal is too general. We’d all like to leave London. It’s expensive, damp and increasingly dangerous.
Story goals work when there is a point in time to be measured. For example, if I said “It’s a story about a guy or gal who has to leave London by noon tomorrow,” then there is a point in time when the reader can see whether or not they have been successful.
Create measurable goals.
5. No Inner Problem
One reason we go to the movies is to learn how to become better people.
Great storytellers give their main characters two problems to solve at the same time. The specific problem or goal (as above) and an inner problem.
Inner problems come in two different flavours: psychological – things we do that hurt ourselves, and moral problems – things we do that hurt others.
The challenge, storywise, is for the main character to have a series of ‘light-bulb’ moments that intensify until at the end of the story the character says “So that’s how you do it!”. It is usually right after this last self-revelation that the character secures the specific goal.
The question I keep getting asked is where one goes to find good material for inner problems. If you take the task of writing seriously, and if you follow the footsteps of great artists before you, then this answer is simple: Look into yourself. Delve into and confront your own inner problems. We all have them. Me too. Through self-exploration and discovery, if you are honest with yourself, you might actually overcome and solve your own inner problems. To make yourself a better person is reason enough, I believe, to take up creative writing.
6. No Visual Quality
When you read a really good script, the images just leap off the page. The writer’s challenge to create a highly individual writing style where every word conjures up an image.
Don’t fall into the temptation of overwriting your description. Learn how to write word pictures.
7. Not Reading Screenplays
Strange as it may seem, most new screenwriters have never read a screenplay. Can you imagine a violinist studying the violin without studying the musical manuscripts to see how the notes are placed on the staves?
Read the scripts, watch the movies and read the scripts again until you understand the pattern, the way past masters have unfolded their stories.
The thing to remember is that if you succeed with a good story – even if it isn’t ‘great’ – and follow the storytelling rules above, then you have a good chance of breaking out.
Those are all story attributes writers need to deal with. When selling your screenplay, remember the golden rule is you never ever send it to anyone unless they ask you. And the trick is, how do you make them ask for your screenplay?
More of that in my Pitching Skills Workshop.
Hope this helps,