Liveblogging a script analysis

Posted on April 19th, 2009 in screenwriting | No Comments »

Many scriptreaders, including the BBC’s Writers Room, have a policy, either acknowledged or covert, of judging a script on its first ten pages. Is this accurate or is it simply a high-percentage early cut policy? Can a script be boring or incomprehensible in the first ten pages and then improve massively? Or is writing any ten pages of nonsense reason enough to reject a script?

Today, I have a script to review, and to put this to the test, I am going to record my thoughts page-by-page. Then you, and I, will be able to see if the die is cast by page ten or whether subsequent pages change my mind. I will not discuss any of the details of the script – they remain between me and the author.

First impressions – script is properly presented, and shows every sign of not having been scrawled by an outpatient (not always the case). There are a couple of minor infelicities, both the product of over-pedantry rather than lack of care. Scripts which are not properly formatted will go in the bins of some readers, unread. The script is too long at 125 pages however, especially for a comedy. Writers should aim for 90, and no more than 105. You may not think these rules are meaningful, but since they are subscribed to by others, you should at least be aware of them. PREDICTION: Script will be a little bloated.

Page 1 – opening action line is all camera instructions and no atmosphere. It’s weird that action lines are so important, since directors may very well ignore them and no audience for your movie will ever read them, but a spec screenplay is for reading not watching, and so any opportunity to say to the reader “This is who I am, this is my voice,” should be grabbed with both hands. Pedantically choreographing the camera is not telling the story. Flat, sparse action lines written in telegraphease don’t create a world. These action lines suggest that the writer has not read any other modern screenplays, which is a small black mark against them. This page also contains a number of typographical errors and some overwritten dialogue. The introduction of the characters is not clear and nor is the setting. PREDICTION: This screenplay will include a number of familiar romantic comedy tropes, but no recognisably human characters, nor any really memorable moments. The characters will not come to life in the dialogue and the writer will not create a consistent and truthful world for their story, nor will their intentions always come across with clarity and style.

Page 2 – Our leading character is being introduced to us via voice-over and flashback which is very inelegant. This smacks of first-draft – which is fine, but each reader only gets to read your material for the first time once. Never send anything out in to the world which you aren’t happy with, except in emergencies or to very trusted readers. This whole page is “tell don’t show”. The characters tell us about their relationship by talking about their relationship, and then the leading man tells us again by putting this flashback in context through voice-over. The overall effect is like hearing a story third-hand rather than being immersed in it. Openings are tough. You want to enter the story late in order to get to the good stuff sooner rather than later, but you also want to take sufficient time to provide a context for the excitement which is to come. Tellingly, I don’t at the moment know how to begin my synopsis for the report, since it’s not at all clear to me what the real situation is here. PREDICTION: The story will continue to be marred by inelegant construction.

Page 3 – brings us another persistent formatting error, and a cliche situation. Almost all the screenplays I’ve reviewed so far make the mistake of hewing too closely to an established template, or giving the reader nothing familiar at all to hang on to. Most stories – and this is also the easiest route as well as the most common – portray a single unexpected event happening in a familar world. This is true across all genres. An ordinary day in the ordinary life of a divorced New York cop becomes extraordinary when criminals take over his ex-wife’s place of work. An ordinary day in the ordinary life of photographer recovering from an injury becomes extraordinary when he thinks he has witnessed a murder. An ordinary career of an ordinary actor becomes extraordinary when he takes the risky step of dressing in women’s clothing to get a part. And so on. But that doesn’t mean you get to use Die Hard, Rear Window or Tootsie as a template. We need to see something of you on the page. Here, my first prediction is already being fulfilled – this is another version of an already successful movie, rather than an original piece of work with a unique voice.

On this page we also have a sudden cut to a new location and set of characters which is another sign of this being a first-draft. “I need to introduce the reader to Alex and Barry and Caroline and Daisy,” thinks the writer and bashes out those four scenes. But each scene needs to be a situation in its own right, and ideally, the Alex scene should make us curious about Barry, or herald his arrival, so that a feeling of momentum is maintained. PREDICTION – a slightly eccentric one – this choppy quality won’t be maintained, and the script will develop the necessary momentum, but that doesn’t make the opening any better.

Pages 4-6 – still choppy. We’ve lurched into the future, and still not shaken off the voice-over. These three pages cover enough events to fill a typical romantic comedy. Boy meets girl, boy gets to know girl, boy overcomes his fears, they move in together, they agree to marry. At this stage I have no idea where this story is going. I do know it’s his story – she has only had one line of dialogue so far. His ex and his parents have had more!! It’s a persistent weakness of romantic comedies that leading men are complex, conflicted and amusing characters and leading women are sparkly prizes to be won, but of no more interest or depth than that. PREDICTION: He will do all the changing and get all the laughs, she will be a cipher.

Page 7 – another collection of new characters, in another new situation, but no reason for me to care about any of them, or even be interested in who they are.

Pages 8-10 – aha! I think the plot has shown up at last, but this twist is more confusing than anything else. More new characters keep showing up and our leading lady has taken a course of action which is totally unmotivated by anything which has gone before. PREDICTION – story will never find a strong, clear hook. Events will be confusing and disjointed. Dialogue will not improve.

That’s where I’m leaving this for now. Join me back here for page 125 and I’ll let you know how many of my predictions come true.

Well, that was quite a long read. Unfortunately, pretty much all my worst fears were confirmed. As well as the problems mentioned above, the screenplay lurches from event to event with no structure and no clarity, is much too long,  features many supporting characters who contribute nothing to the plot, and a resolution which leaves many questions unanswered. I could easily have stopped reading after 10 pages and I would have diagnosed all the major problems with this script. But that’s not what I’m paid for – now to write the full report and look for ways to be encouraging and constructive.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

What is a story anyway?

Posted on March 4th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | 1 Comment »

There are a lot of different answers to this question, and I plan to explore some other ways of tackling this issue in later blog posts.

Here’s a couple of initial forays into this dense thicket.

1. A story is a linked series of questions and their answers. When all questions are answered, the story is over.

2. A story is a device for establishing a hero and then making them suffer.

The first answer tells you the structure of a story. The second answer tells you about the content of a story. Between them, they give you the point of the story. If either of these two elements is missing or underdeveloped, then the story will feel pointles.

Most screenwriting manuals (and many screenwriters) talk in terms of “acts”. These are fairly arbitrary divisions, a bit like chapters in a book. They describe separate portions of the story but are rarely flagged up to the audience. So one person’s six acts might be another person’s long middle act. But you can see in, for example Star Wars, that there’s an introductory bit with the droids escaping, a bit on Tatooine, a bit on the Milennium Falcon, a bit where they rescue Princess Leia and a bit where they attack the Death Star. Each of these could be called an act.

At the beginning of a story, questions are raised. What is Leia’s message? Who is Old Ben? Will Han Solo help Luke and Ben? Can Luke become a Jedi? As some questions are answered, others are raised through the middle of the story. Who will win the lightsaber duel – Vader or Ben? Answer: Vader – but what did Ben’s last words mean? At the end of the story, all questions are answered, and that’s how we know it’s the end. Acts often end when a lot of pressing questions have all been answered. If a lot of questions are answered, and then a lot of new independent questions are raised and then these are answered in turn, and this pattern repeats, then we feel a movie is episodic.

But this is all very dry and brittle. Stories don’t feel dry and brittle, they feel emotional and engaging. Most importantly, we have to have a hero of some kind that we engage with on some level. Heroes don’t have to be likeable – although you do make your life a helluva lot easier if they are – but we have to have some kind of empathy with them or why should we care if they live or die, succeed or fail? And once we know who they are, you have to get them into trouble, you have to make them suffer.

I’m generally rather wary of  statements about stories which include the word “all” or “never”. I often find myself searching for exceptions to the rule. But I’ll stick my neck out and claim the following: all stories involve somebody suffering in some way. Try this. Think of something you wouldn’t want to have happen to you. Whatever you’re thinking of, somebody would pay to see.

Different genres of story mean different kinds of suffering. Suffering in Die Hard means being trapped at the top of an exploding skyscraper. Suffering in the books of Jane Austen means being female, unmarried and over thirty, but it is still suffering.

So, artful screenwriters use the process of raising and answering questions as a framework, within which to establish an interesting hero and make them suffer in exotic ways. When these two elements mesh, we have the exquisite anguish of Jack Lemmon realising that he has facilitated his boss’s affair with the girl that he loves in The Apartment, or the horrible spectacle of Robert de Niro’s explosion of violence at the end of Taxi Driver, or the pure excitement of Indiana Jones’s pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant by horse and by truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Some of these are also set pieces which will be the subject of a future blog entry.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.