A few weeks ago over at the Fast Company website, a series of infographics were posted showing the statistical results of a professional reader’s coverage of 300 screenplays last year.
If you’re unfamiliar with the function of a reader in Hollywood, they are people who are paid to read and do coverage of scripts (or books, comic books, and other underlying property). Their primary purpose is to identify the best scripts in the avalanche of material a given company receives. The executives then look at the coverage that gets a “recommend” or “consider” rating. If the story seems interesting, the executive may then read at least part of the script.
Of the 300 scripts this reader covered, he recommended eight (2.7%), gave a “consider” to 89 (29.7%), and passed on 203 (68.7%). That means for more than two thirds of the scripts submitted, the company executives probably never even looked at a synopsis. When you’ve put months of work into a script, that is not the fate you want!
Fortunately the infographic goes on to list the biggest story problems the reader encountered. Today I want to look at the top five most common problems (each found in over 50 of the scripts, according to the reader) and suggest how you can avoid them.
1. “The Story Begins Too Late in the Script”
This is a failure of structure. In proper three-act structure, the story begins at the Catalyst, which is the moment when the hero and their dilemma are both apparent to the audience. Traditionally this is supposed to come on page 10 of the screenplay. I have seen it work both earlier and later, but the point is if the audience (or reader) doesn’t know who the main character is and what their dilemma is fairly early in the proceedings, they’ll start to wonder why any of the scenes matter.
Occasionally the catalyst comes nice and early, but what should be the Act One Turning Point doesn’t occur until the middle of the script. Remember, at the end of Act One, the character ought to be actively embarking on the challenge of solving their dilemma. And the Act One Turning Point generally comes about a quarter of the way into the screenplay.
To prevent this problem, make sure you are doing a solid outline. A late story start often comes when a writer launches into the first draft without properly breaking the story first.
2. “The Scenes are Void of Meaningful Conflict”
The subtitle on this one said, “Scenes come and go but the narrative and characters are unchanged.” Every scene in a screenplay should be moving the story forward. This means a significant plot change or a significant character change. In every scene! (Well, maybe not a quick establishing shot, but you get the idea.)
Early in the rewriting process you should look at each scene in your screenplay and ask what would happen if you cut it out. If the story would still work, the scene should go. And ask yourself what’s different at the end of the scene than the beginning. If the answer’s “not much,” cut the scene. Be brutal. Also, combine as many scenes as you can so they do double duty.
3. “The Script Has a By-the-Numbers Execution”
This often happens when writers focus too much on being commercial. Marketability is important, don’t get me wrong. But your reason for writing a script should not be just to make some money. You should be passionate about your story. In fact, when breaking in to the business, it’s critical to demonstrate an original voice rather than simply the ability to mimic established screenwriters. The trick, of course, is to only choose ideas that are both commercial and that you’re passionate about.
Before you start writing any idea, ask yourself: If someone else made this movie would you be first in line on opening night? If the answer isn’t an absolute, “hell yeah,” then you should probably find another idea.
Another cause of by-the-numbers execution is too slavishly following structural paradigms. Again, craft is important, but you also need to give your imagination some room. Try writing the story in treatment form, letting the ideas flow freely, before organizing them into a structural paradigm. Structure should support your story, not constrain it. And when approaching a scene, ask yourself what the most interesting way to realize the scene would be. Let your creativity loose!
4. “The Story is Too Thin”
Another outlining problem. Three-act structure works at all lengths of narrative. Simply doing an act breakdown of your idea doesn’t solve all your plotting needs. Between each act break there should be many plot twists, highs and lows for the character, revelations, etc.
If you find your story feels stretched to fill your outline, try adding more obstacles to the character’s goal, and/or a thematically relevant subplot or two. Also, watch out for a scenario where a single action solves the character’s problem. Try splitting that beat into sub-goals the character has to overcome. This is true of character arc as well. The character should go through stages of change, not one sudden change.
5. “The Villains are Cartoonish, Evil-for-the-Sake-of Evil”
Ooh, this one is a pet peeve of mine. Remember, everybody thinks of themselves as the hero of their own story. Nobody thinks they are a villain. Hitler thought he was saving Germany, not destroying Europe. Even characters who do things they know are wrong should justify that behavior.
A thief may believe he deserves his ill-gotten gains because of the unfair breaks he’s had in life. A psychotic killer may believe he’s the hand of God, or that he’s getting revenge on bad people (bad from his perspective). An insider trader may think his crime is okay because “everybody does it.” Or maybe the villain rationalizes their behavior because they have a family to support, or they think the “system is corrupt.” Make sure your villains have a mindset that justifies their actions. Then make sure their actions stay consistent with that mindset.
There are several other problems that the reader found repeated in dozens of scripts. It’s worth taking a look at the infographics and asking if perhaps you’re guilty of any of these. Then fix the problem before sending the script out. Don’t be one of the 203 passes!