Screenplays that suck
A friend of mine is a reader for a local production company. I once
remarked to him that rarely do people outside showbusiness get to see
bad screenplays, as the ones you find in the media section of your local
bookstore tend to be very good ones. After offering me a few hundred,
he commented that there is one thing that 99% of the bad screenplays
have in common: They have no story.
What's a story? That's not an easy question to answer, and it will
require a few articles to get across the general ideas, so we won't
even try to answer it succinctly now. We might as well as well deal
with the two most common misconceptions, one is committed by novice
screenwriters and the other is committed by seasoned screenwriters.
The novice mistake: A story is not an idea
Picture this: A director has an idea that he wants to make a movie with
nazis in it. A producer has a picture of a room full of crates. These
are ideas. These two people locked themselves in a room for two weeks
with a screenwriter, at the end of which they came out with a synopsis
for the film we now know as Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It's not always so obvious as this. Many would-be screenwriters seem
to have the impression that they can write a script based only on an idea.
This is similar to the impression that many had during the "dot-com"
era that they could get venture capital for an idea. (Many did, of course,
but that's another story.) Venture capitalists don't pay for an idea, they
pay for a business. Similarly, producers don't pay for an idea, they
pay for a story.
The expert mistake: A story is not "Hollywood", and a story is not "art house"
The stereotypical "Hollywood" film has exciting action, stunning
visual effects, clever one-liners and no substance. The stereotypical
"art house" film has beautifully cinematography, lavish costumes,
a magnificent score, subtle allusion and no substance. The
"substance" in this case is a story.
"The idea of story is like the idea of music. We've heard tunes
all our lives. We can dance and sing along. We think we understand
music until we try to compose it and what comes out of the piano
scares the cat."
-- Robert McKee, Story
Where stories come from
Given that stories are subtle, it's
probably best to adapt an existing one. Note this does not mean you
should make an "adaption", that is, taking an existing novel, stage
play, historical event or whatever and turn it into a film. In fact,
for the beginner, this
is an extremely bad idea, because it's much harder than coming up with
something original. There are several reasons for this, but the most
important for the beginner is that it constrains your thinking too much.
The temptation is there to make it too "faithful". It takes an
experienced writer to know how to keep, say, a novel adaption "faithful"
and still make it a good screenplay, as opposed to a good novel. Don't
try this to start with. Write an original screenplay instead.
What I mean by adapting stories is best illustrated with a few examples.
Fairy tales are a
particularly good source of story material.
Take Cinderella. It's
the story of an abused and misunderstood woman who, by various means, gets
to outshine those who oppressed her. Every
geek's fantasy, surely! Indeed, most modern teen movies are based
on Cinderella. They feature a kid
who is not in the "in" club, who turns out to be better in the end. Many
even have a "ball" scene (at the school prom).
The Three Little Pigs is the basis of most serial-killer films.
One notable exception is Psycho, which is actually based extremely
closely on Little Red Riding Hood. The "wolf" even goes to the
trouble of dressing up as a woman.
Classic plays, novels and so on are excellent sources of stories.
Shakespeare plays are one of the most popular. It need not be as
obvious as Baz Lurhmann's version of Romeo and Juliet, or Ten Things
I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew). Consider Disney's
animated film The Lion King, which is a loose adaption of Hamlet, or
Othello, which has been used for several films based around the topic of
prejudice, especially racism. Jane Austin or Bronte sisters novels are
good sources for romances, such as Bridget Jones' Diary, which is
basically a straight adaption of Pride and Prejudice.
In each article in this series there will be homework exercises. For
some exercises, I will ask you to post something as a reply to the article,
and others you should do on your own. The "on your own" part will
probably be to see a movie and notice some things about it. Please do
this! You will learn a lot from this, I promise you that much.
The collaborative exercise is to suggest a story. Use the pattern
"[existing story] for [new scenario]",
such as "Cinderella for ballroom dancers" (Strictly Ballroom) or
"Rumplestiltskin for rich businessmen" (Ransom). Post your suggestions
below. The highest moderated suggestion will become the story that we
develop in future articles in this series, within reason. I may veto
an idea if I think it will be infeasable. For example, a story set in
Mediaeval Romania may require too much research for a collaborative
The "on your own" exercise is to see a movie that you haven't seen before.
It need not be in the cinema. You can hire one or buy a video/DVD if
you want, or watch it on TV, but if you choose this one, please ensure
that you see it without commercial breaks, because for this exercise,
timing is critical.
Start by looking at the trailer,
movie poster or DVD/video cover. What does it tell you about the movie?
There will be a "tag line" or "log line". (Example: The log line from
The Matrix is "The future will not be user friendly".) This is usually
not written by the screenwriter, but rather by the marketing department.
How does that set you up for the mood of the film?
Now start watching the film. Check your watch when the movie starts. Check
it again when you've made a decision whether or not you're going to like
this film. How long did it take?
In part 2 we will look at the structure of a screenplay with reference to
the ideas that people have thought up in response to this article.