Screenwriting

Script Problems

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If there ever was something smarter than learning from one’s errors, that would be learning from other people’s errors too. (They can often be the same ones, granted.) Late last year, FastCo.Create and The Blackboard published an infographic displaying data gathered by an anonymous script reader. “Over 300 scripts from 5 different studios” constituted the sample. Besides some merely circumstantial stats such as genre, heroes’ and villain’s (and writers’) sex, or page count —or the surprising and incomprehensible fact that 2 of those 300 scripts were located in “the endless skies” (sic)—, the most interesting conclusions are the Recurring script problems, listed in descending order of frequency. I do this beating my own chest in the first place, because when we try to “design the perfect script” is when we usually fall in all these common places.

  1. The story begins too late in the script. The script spins its wheels; the narrative finally gains some traction after the halfway point. Often, it’s not even clear what kind of story it is until the middle of the second act.
  2. The scenes are void of meaningful conflict. Scenes come and go but the narrative and characters are unchanged. If they don’t affect anything and don’t add anything, why were these scenes included?
  3. The script has a by-the-numbers execution. A success of formula, not of storytelling. Screenplay Mad Libs.
  4. The story is too thin. 20 pages of story spread over 100 pages of script, stuffed with tone but light on plot.
  5. The villains are cartoonish, evil-for-the-sake-of-evil. Hitmen, serial killers, and gangsters; smarmy, smirking villains with sinister, affected dialogue and pretentious monologues. The best villains are those who think they’re the hero of their own story (i.e, The Joker, Hans Landa, Anton Chigurgh), but too often these villains are clearly trying to be the villain.
  6. The character logic is muddy. Often a lack of character consistency or a logically unsound villain plot. Every character action needs a reason: Why does he/she do this? The characters should write the story, not the other way around.
  7. The female part is underwritten. The Helpless Pawn, The Eye Candy, The Sounding Board, The Placeholder Wife/Girlfriend, The Badass Stoic Action Chick. Frequently killed at the end of the Second Act Low Point. The hero barely mourns her death before racing to the resolution.
  8. The narrative falls into a repetitive pattern. Establishes a plodding tempo, but not a crescendo.
  9. The conflict is inconsequential, flash-in-the-pan. Conflict arrives, is instantly solved, and the narrative continues unaffected.
  10. The protagonist is a standard issue hero. In an action movie, it’s the tough-talking badass; in a comedy, it’s the meek schlub; in a thriller, it’s the world-weary detective. If the protagonist doesn’t fit the necessary type immediately, he/she is shoehorned into it before the script is over.
  11. The script favors style over substance. The Rule of Cool for action movies; the Rule of Funny for comedies; the Rule of Scary for horror. No depth, just breadth and flash.
  12. The ending is completely anti-climactic. Feels as if the last ten pages were cut off. An ambiguous ending is fine — but it still has to end.
  13. The characters are all stereotypes. No characters, just tropes.
  14. The script suffers from arbitrary complexity. Cluttered and complex aren’t synonyms.
  15. The script goes off the rails in the third act. Either switches gears into a completely different story, or loses track of all its narrative threads.
  16. The script’s questions are left unanswered. Too many “why”s and “how come”s; narrative threads are left dangling.
  17. The story is a string of unrelated vignettes. Not a flowing story, but a rhapsody that jumps from one self-contained interlude to another.
  18. The plot unravels through convenience/contrivance. Narrative is driven through luck and coincidence; everything just so happens to be in the right place at the right time. Coincidences that cause problems are great; coincidences that solve problems are cheating.
  19. The script is tonally confused. i.e. moments of tension disrupted by moments of comedy. Script isn’t sure what kind of story it wants to tell, so it tells a handful.
  20. The script is stoic to a fault. Nothing rattles the characters or the script. Characters don’t react to moments of drama, or the script can’t deliver emotional/dramatic beats successfully. Dramatic beats fall flat, even when characters are dying.
  21. The protagonist is not as strong as need be. Hero just isn’t up to task.
  22. The premise is a transparent excuse for action. The script has places it wants to go and a flimsy reason to go there.
  23. The character backstories are irrelevant/useless. A lot of information about the past, but little of it matters to the narrative or the character’s arc.
  24. Supernatural element is too undefined. The rules of the supernatural need to be very clear. Too often, the supernatural elements follow one rule: anything goes.
  25. The plot is dragged down by disruptive lulls. Breaks in the story where nothing happens and the momentum is lost.
  26. The ending is a case of deus ex machina. Often means the characters don’t solve their own problems. The story ends simply because it needs to end. Lord of the Flies used it well, but it’s tempting to use deus ex machina as a cheat, not a narrative technique.
  27. The characters are indistinguishable from each other. They talk the same, walk the same, perform the same actions with the same attitudes. Character names could be swapped and not a single line of dialogue would seem out-of-character.
  28. The story is one big shrug. The story comes and goes and it doesn’t feel as if anything important has even happened. A vital question has been ignored: What are we supposed to be entertained/engaged by?
  29. The dialogue is cheesy, pulpy, action movie cliches. A script full of Sly Stallone quips or gangster movie zingers.
  30. The script is a potboiler. Nothing bad, but nothing special. The airport novel of scripts.
  31. The drama/conflict is told but not shown. Two characters talking about something a third character did is boring. This also inspires a lame shortcut to make a character seem badass: have other characters call him a badass.
  32. The great setting isn’t utilized. If you’re setting your story during the nanotechnology apocalypse, or in the ruins of an earthquake-ravaged London, why not use that setting to its fullest potential? If the setting were altered, would the action remain unchanged?
  33. The emotional element is exaggerated. Pure plot mechanics; no respect for the characters, only the action.
  34. The dialogue is stilted and unnecessarily verbose. Hurts the flow. Plot elements are buried under verbiage.
  35. The emotional element is neglected. Script succumbs to melodrama.
  36. The script is a writer ego trip. Includes excessive camera directions, soundtrack choices, actor suggestions, credit sequences.
  37. The script makes a reference, but not a joke. A pop culture reference still needs a punch line.
  38. The message overshadows the story. There’s nothing wrong with a message movie, unless the writer pays more attention to the message than the narrative. The narrative is the vehicle, and the vehicle needs wheels.

A thumbs-up and my thankfulness to GMO, for the heads-up!

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