A lot of wannabe writers have taken on board the rules and regulations of many screenwriting books and gurus. This has led to some advantages. Scripts are certainly better written in terms of screenwriting style, and display a keen awareness of the structural demands of the three-act template. Great. They make my day easier as a script reader because they’re efficient and professional to a certain degree.
But. There’s something missing. There’s no heart. No soul. The main characters of the story are being overlooked. They are not given any time to breathe and develop. The plot is taking centre stage with the characters backing up the action rather than being the ones leading the narrative. The script has no theme, no discerning emotion. It may touch on one or two character moments but generally won’t develop an emotional through-line or ‘story arc’ for the protagonists to expand.
Someone, somewhere, I don’t know who I don’t know where, came up with this nugget: “scenes should be no longer than three pages”. Whoever claimed this must have a lot of clout and respect within the industry because it’s clung on to for dear life in the scripts that I read on the spec pile. As more and more scripts whiz by their plot, characters and action with scenes no longer than three pages, it seems that writers are petrified of upsetting the reader/exec too much, and keep the story moving at all costs in the fear of never, ever making a sale.
This, and I can’t stress this enough, is poppycock. My own experience, and personal preference, has led me to believe that your script will be judged and appreciated based on how much the reader/exec will engage with your characters, and be involved with their particular predicament right up until the unpredictable ending.
In my Q&A with Justin at Working Title, he refers to “the underlying, invisible qualities present in a piece of work... the ‘mythic’ quality to a film – the thing that makes a work memorable, important and dramatically whole.” While there are a lot of characteristics present in a screenplay to generate this ‘invisible quality’ - tone, pace, structure, emotion, theme - the responsibility largely rests with your characters to conjure these main emotions into your story.
Perhaps this is why there’s the never ending debate between ‘genre scripts’ and work of a more personal nature. It’s not that difficult to follow the rules of a particular genre, and join the dots of its applicable structure to make a polished and presentable piece. After all, you’ve seen the latest Hollywood blockbuster and it’s devoid of any discerning qualities. You can do better, right?
The trouble is that while it may be a workable script, the fact that you’re a new “unknown quantity” as a writer will usually prevent a production company or agent looking on your work with the favour you desire. Sure, the execs require a writer to know the demands of format & structure but far more important is the writer’s particular insight and point-of-view with regards to the characters and theme of the film. The theatre has become the first port of call for many a film company because on the stage, the writer’s original voice is clear, expressive and significant, and playwright qualities are easily transferable to the big screen.
Of course, there are notable exceptions to the ‘genre’ approach. New writer Richard Smith got his psychodrama script, Trauma, made last year with Marc Evans directing and Colin Firth starring. It didn’t make a splash at the box office but having the benefit of reading the script prior to production, it did have a unique edge and tone with regard to its style and story. Also, fellow blogger James Moran is in post-production with his feature debut Severance. I haven’t read that script but I’ll bet there’s something about it that makes it a genre flick a cut-above the rest (an attractive or unique hook, and characters you care about - check out James’s blog for a run down).
The debate between ‘commercial and mainstream’ tastes and more distinctive, emotive fare will no doubt rage on but ‘commercial and mainstream’ doesn’t have to mean that your characters get overlooked by the plot’s need to crank up the action at every turn. Think of your favourite genre films and they’re probably led by a distinctive central character who we care about and is three-dimensional with their particular personal foibles. John McClane, Indianna Jones, Martin Riggs (in the first Lethal Weapon anyway), Peter Parker...
Let your characters breathe. Give them time to talk to each other. I don’t mean pointless every-day conversation. Provide them with scenes that embellish or develop their characterisation. Something funny or dramatic or interesting, something to make us engage and raise our empathy even more. Once we care about a character, we’ll follow the story no matter what. And you can go over three page scenes to achieve this.
I think on Wordplay’s Hall of Fame posts (check them out now, I’m not going anywhere), someone said, and I’m paraphrasing, “that your first act is your set-up, and the third-act is your pay-off. The second act is where you get to write the film you really want to write - between your characters.” It’s a neat notion. You don’t have to follow this exact structural mark up of course but hopefully there’ll be a few valuable moments in our scripts that make our characters more human, fully defined and three-dimensional in order for their story to really entertain and inspire the audience.