Actors and critics often target a script out for praise, and will laud the writer or writer/director for his screenwriting skill. (The actors are talking about their specific roles while the critics are referring to the dialogue.) This script then gets nominated for awards, maybe even an Oscar, and possibly even a win. And so, as soon as it becomes available on-line, or maybe a friend gets his hands on a copy, we are eager to read the screenplay to soak up its insightful skill and craft.
Disappointment kicks in, then frustration. The script is all right, nothing special, okay. The new writer is thinking: “my script is easily better than this, how did this attract so much attention and win so many awards? There’s hope for me and my scripts yet.” The new writer may have a point but what they’re missing are two crucial aspects of the script: 1) its invisible qualities of story regarding characters and narrative momentum; 2) the visual dramatisation and performance of the piece that makes it a successful film.
The disappointment and frustration a new writer feels towards the script is understandable but it usually relates to screenwriting style (and so-called screenwriting rules) rather than actual story content. This is what is ultimately more important than rules and regulations about how a screenplay should be written. Most new writers, and some script readers, will get their knickers in a twist about format, drab writing style and general screenwriting no-nos without really assessing what the characters and story are doing around the writer’s misguided presentation.
It is certainly important to strive for an expert grasp on style and craft, and it’s definitely disappointing to read lazy writing in a professional’s work, but it’s the story that matters underneath it all. I’ve been suitably engaged in the emotion and drama of badly written screenplays. While this sounds like a paradox, the “badly written” term relates to the writer’s style and presentation rather than the emotional weight of their characters and the dramatic value of their story.
However, it should be pointed out that these scripts are rare. As a script reader, you have to keep an open mind that the writer is going to do okay, and because script reading can be a soul destroying process at times, it is difficult to maintain this optimism when the first thirty pages or so feel like you’re wading through thick-sludge.
The other day I was reading a script from an Oscar-nominated writer, and it wasn’t very good. In the first twenty pages, a lot of the scenes started like this:
“EXT. OCEAN. DAY
We see a perfectly still ocean that stretches out before us. It is a beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky. It’s June and summer’s at it’s (sic) peak. A swimmer splashes in the sea and comes into view. This is MARY. She’s twenty, got a good sense of humour and is enjoying the inhibition of life that her age gives her.”
General screenwriting advice tells us to avoid “We see”, “It is” and “This is” because it allows for lazy and convenient description. Actually, the use of these terms is fine but they should be limited so that you don’t over rely on their safety crutch. (My personal rule of thumb is that there should be no more than two instances of these terms in a script.)
But in this particular script, a lot of the scenes started in this way. The “We see” usually came immediately after the slugline, proceeded by “it is” and then the introduction of a character, “this is”, and their basic characterisation. As I progressed with the script, I tried to stem my feelings of annoyance and frustration that an Oscar-nominated writer should indulge in such lazy and flat description but after a while, I was drawn to the particular characterisation, action and emotions of the characters. These qualities were emerging with some interest, much better than the style and presentation of the actual description.
A perfect blend of style, craft, emotion and drama is the ideal, and obviously this is difficult to achieve. Making the reader feel distanced from your descriptive style and then making them work hard to get into the spirit of the story is not the best way to go about securing interest in your work. But if you get nominated for an Oscar, or are validated in the industry in some way, then this kind of work will always be ‘out there’. And because new writers will study these respected scripts for inspiration, it perpetuates a misleading standard in the business, thus leading to arguments, articles and blogs about the whole evolving scriptwriting process that, ultimately, will never be perfectly mastered…