Okay. You've written a spec screenplay. And someone has told you it sucks. Well, that doesn't help you that much, does it?
While it seems that there is only one general way a script is considered “good” there can literally thousands of ways it can be “bad.” Let's face it. Writing a good screenplay is hard. To pull it off successfully, there are a lot of rules to follow, a lot of story elements to juggle, and a lot of tight ropes to cross
I have worked semi-professionally providing criticism and feedback on amateur screenplays for over a year now. One thing that immediately surprised me was the realization that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of ways that a script can fail. “Crap” is the widest blanket term in the world. Every time I think I have seen the worst of the worst attempts at screenwriting, I receive the next one and I am greeted by yet another in the endless ways that a screenplay can fall flat on its face.
But, as far as my knowledge goes, there has never been an attempt to break bad script down into categories to help elucidate the cause of their failure. You'd think that if someone really wanted to become a professional screenwriter and happened to write a bad script, they would wish to know why. It would be incredibly helpful to know what TYPE of bad script they had on their hands and what should be done about it.
With that in mind, I have made the effort to categorize crap. What I have listed below is by far not the only ways a script can fail. This is merely a collection of the ten most common (and sometimes the most blatant) types of miswritten scripts that I have had the misfortune to critique. Within each category I have listed the most basic cause of the script's flaws and what to look out for in your script to make sure it doesn't wind up in any of them.
1. The Wandering Protagonist
Also called the “Zombie Narrative”. One of the most common of all bad scripts, the protagonist of these scripts seems to spend the entire narrative wandering aimlessly from place to place with no good cause or reason than either a whim or some weak arbitrary short-term motive. The protagonist has a lot of uneventful conversations with people, may take part in a number of small activities, but nothing will actually HAPPEN. There is no POINT to anything. The story never develops into something more than a person carrying about their life. If you are trying to synopsize your screenplay and you find yourself saying, “And then THIS happens.... and then THIS happens... and then THIS-” you have yourself a Zombie Narrative. Excruciatingly dull and pointless.
The cause of the Wandering Protagonist? Simple. The protagonist has no goal. Moreover, your script completely lacks a STORY SPINE. People, I cannot express enough the primary importance of a strong Story Spine. If you want a story to exist in your script, the main character must be confronted with a problem. The character must decide to overcome that problem by setting him/herself a goal. There is then a line of developing action as the character makes conscious, physical efforts to reach that goal. That is a story. “Stuff happening” is not.
Look at your script and ask yourself: Does your protagonist have a clear, specific goal? Does this goal require action by your protagonist to achieve it? Does every scene in your script involve your protagonist in some way or another committing actions that are intended to reach that goal?
2. The Lazy Protagonist
The is the Wandering Protagonist's slightly more intelligent cousin. With the Lazy Protagonist, the lead character has a goal set out for him/her, but the character never really commits any meaningful actions towards reaching it. Plot events, though few there are, tend to happen through no act of the protagonist. The conflict's resolution usually falls right into the protagonist's lap and the situation solves itself. Both of these first two categories suffer from passive protagonists. They make no effort to change the world around them. Instead, they resign themselves towards being victims of whatever fate should befall them. Rather than the characters moving the story, the characters allow the story to move them. This creates a plotline that is slow-moving, boring, and usually arbitrary.
The Lazy Protagonist could be caused by a having a problem confronting the protagonist that is not strong enough to warrant immediate action. The protagonist's problem (encounters at the first act's inciting incident) must be threatening enough that it demands immediate action. If the protagonist does not start moving, he/she is doomed forever and all is lost. A second cause could be that the protagonist lacks an adequate motivation to do anything about the problem. There may be a problem, but the character feels no pressing desire to act immediately because it does not effect him/her strongly enough in a personal way. People are by nature lazy. Unless they have a pressing reason to do something, they will seek the path of least resistance. People must be motivated by something. Either by an external force or an internal need. If you haven't provided your protagonist much of a good reason to get off the couch and make some changes in the world, you don't have much of a story.
In your script, are your characters constantly physically attempting to achieve things that will get them closer to their goals? Are they always moving forward? Imagine if your protagonist stopped moving forward at any point in your script. Imagine what would happen then. Would nothing change? Or would there be dire consequences?
3. Things are Happening, but we just don't care.
These are scripts with plots that seem to have all the necessary elements: a protagonist with a problem and a goal. The story advances as the protagonist takes action towards that goal. There is conflict standing in the way. But despite all this, the audience really does not seem to care. They have not been drawn into the story and despite all the action, don't really care one way or the other how the story turns out.
This could be either a story problem or a character problem. One cause could be that the stakes are too low or there are no stakes at all. For a character's actions to have any meaning for an audience, the audience needs to understand that their will be CONSEQUENCES for the character should they succeed or fail. There should be something important for the character to GAIN should they reach their goal, and something important that they will LOSE if they fail. If the audience cares and sympathizes with your characters they will become wrapped up in the hope that the characters will win and the fear that they will lose. I critiqued one script with a premise that revolved around a contest of sexual conquest between two friends. The problem was that the contest was meaningless. The two friends never decided what the winner of the contest would get. Therefore, the whole contest was pointless. Just two guys wasting time for no good reason. Why should the audience care about a contest where there is nothing to be gained?
The second possible cause could be that you have neglected to give your audience what they need to identify with your protagonist. To care about a story, the audience must care about the characters. To do this, they must be given time to get to know them, to grow to like them and to identify with them emotionally. Somewhere around 99% of all American films open by showing the protagonist in his or her everyday normal environment. We see how they live, how they relate to people, who they are, what makes them different. We see their virtues and flaws. Often we are introduced to an ongoing personal problem in the protagonist's life that usually becomes the focus of the story's subplot. What this does is gives us time for the character to become our friend. We begin to feel like we know them and start to see this world through the character's eyes. Then, when out of nowhere, the first plot point engages and we are suddenly thrown forward into the story, we are taken for the ride with the character and experience every situation along with them because we now feel like we know them and we care what happens to them in the end.
I've encountered many scripts that neglect this necessary character intoduction. The scripts try to start the plot from page one. By doing so, they keep their protagonist a perfect stranger to the audience. The audience doesn't know a thing about this person. They do not feel emotionally connected to them. The protagonist remains distant and cold. Why should the average audience member care about what happens to a person they don't even know?
4. The Splintered Spine
A Splintered Spine is caused when the writer has failed to create a clear, singular plotline along a strong story spine from beginning to end. Instead of setting up one major story problem and follow its development all the way to the end, these scripts create a problem, spend a decent amount of page time developing that storyline, and then abruptly drop it. Suddenly, the story changes to be about something else. And wouldn't you know it, some time later the story changes again. These scripts are constantly creating brand new plotlines, putting old ones on hold, and dropping others completely. The movie at the end looks nothing like what it was in the beginning. Instead of a singular, cohesive storyline that grows a develops, there is a smattering of small, ineffective, dead-end subplots, scattered across the script like shards of broken glass.
This can also happen when characters wander off the path of the story spine into pointless story tangents. Sometimes a writer tries to create a handful of unrelated “mini-episodes” for the protagonist instead of one singular plot. Sometimes a writer makes the mistake of resolving the main conflict too early, usually at the end of the Second Act, and then must find something new for the story to be about in the third.
Writing a plot like this cheats the audience. Your script asks for the audience's attention, gets them actively involved in a storyline, and then throws it away. You have wasted their time and attention on something that went nowhere. Now, you expect them to give their attention again on a new storyline. Given the fact that you just trashed what the audience thought was SUPPOSED to be the story, do you really think they will be willing to trust you with their time and energy a second time? Maybe. A third? Never. A storyteller is responsible for a lot of trust from the audience. The audience hopes that you will not waste their time and that the situation you have set up in the beginning will be one resolved in the end.
Take an overview of your plotline as a whole. Is it a single, unbroken spine that starts in the beginning and continues to develop towards a the same, single goal at the end? Or does the central situation keep changing, throwing out one premise for a completely new one? Can you look at every scene at the end of your script and clearly see them as the natural evolution of what was set up in the beginning?
5. The Scatterf**k
The worst of the worst. This type of script is usually seen only in the most rank amateur of the aspiring screenwriters. There is a complete lack of three-act structure, much less a story spine. Events tend to happen arbitrarily, if anything happens at all. Characters usually lack goals, motives, or anything to account for their behavior. Reading these can be extremely painful since it is impossible to find any sort of clarity or focus in its story.
Take a look at your script's plotline. Does it at least have a clear 3-Act structure? If your answer to this question is “What's 3-Act structure?” then, God help you, you have a scatterf**k on your hands. The only solution to this is to hit the books. You have a lot of studying ahead of you. You need to learn the rules of how a story must be pieced together for the screen. Then, you need to scrap that scatterf**k and start again.
6. The Yackfest
Watching people sitting around talking to each other for hours on end it's very exciting. A story cannot develop if its characters never SHUT UP. Why? When a character is TALKING, that means they are not DOING. And a story advances only when characters take action. In a Yackfest, the scenes are drowned in extraneous dialogue. Over 50% of the dialogue could and should be cut while creating no significant change in the story. Characters talk and talk about things that have no significance towards developing the story. People talk and talk about taking action rather than doing it. They talk about how they feel about things rather than showing it in their actions. When a Yackfest's storyline does develop, it is usually occurs when one character dully tells information to another through dialogue.
The cause for these mind-numbing, uneventful scripts is a basic misunderstanding of the function of movie dialogue. At its most basic level, dialogue exists for the same reason that every other story element exists. Every action, every visual image, every sound effect, every line of dialogue exists for one single reason: to give NEW information to the audience in order to advance the story. Dialogue should never be used just for sake of having dialogue. Every line of dialogue should exist for a reason. Every line should be on that page because it gives important new information to the audience that either furthers the story or furthers the audience's necessary understanding of the story – whether that be about plot, character, or theme. Each line should be moving the scene closer, bit by bit, to its goal.
Look at your dialogue. Does every line of dialogue have a reason to be there? Or does your characters' speech accomplish nothing but other than filling the air with words? Is there a better, more visual way to get across this necessary information other than dialogue? One symptom of the Yackfest is the writer chooses to use dialogue to communicate EVERYTHING to the audience rather than quicker, more effective, and more dramatic devices such as actions, visual images, or sound effects. Dialogue is clearly the least effective and least dramatic device for communication. You should only resort to using dialogue when information cannot be communicated otherwise.
7. Screenwriting as a Replacement for Therapy
How many scripts do I have to continue to read about satanic blood cults, sadistic serial killer protagonists, and virgin girls getting raped by the devil? Seriously. Demon-rape. I've had to read a few of those. What is it about Satan and bodily mutilation that draws the interest of so many wannabe screenwriters? Perhaps a better question would be what is it about screenwriting that draws the interest of so many sickos?
These also tend to be some of the worst written, falling into one of these other nine categories as well. Possibly the writer thinks that by being “shocking” their script will be more commercial and thus have a better chance of being produced. The opposite is true. These concepts have very little commercial potential because any good producer knows audiences. The odds are very low that the producer will ever find an audience large enough that will be able to stomach this sh**. Seriously though, I doubt that most of these writers have commerciality in mind. Most of these writers just come off as disturbed.
Then we have the aspiring screenwriters who have suffered some sort of childhood trauma in life and, instead of getting the therapy that they need, they have decided to channel it all into an unproduceable script. People, stop doing this. It is a waste of time. If you got problems in your past, find the help you need. Your self-therapy script will never see the light of day anyway.
Because it is based in selfish storytelling. You're supposed to be a storyteller. A storyteller's duty is to serve the needs of your audience. To make it clear, what you have done is written a story for YOU. You didn't write a story FOR THE AUDIENCE. If you want to be a storyteller, you must surrender yourself to the audience's needs and give them what they need to be entertained and emotionally fulfilled. Writing a script that only has meaning to you is irresponsible and contrary to the spirit of storytelling.
8. The Genre Morpher
These scripts start off clearly inhabiting one genre, but then somewhere around the midpoint suddenly change in style and tone into a completely different genre. It is not uncommon for it to morph again later in the script. Other less extreme examples will have a main plot clearly inhabiting one genre, and a subplot existing in a contradictory one. Or, a writer may create a script that is clearly a realistic drama, but then every twenty pages or so arbitrarily throw in something that is sci-fi or horror -and then quickly take it out again.
When you write a screenplay, it is your duty to establish the story's style, tone, and genre from the VERY START. This orientates your audience. It roots their mind down in what type of world they will be inhabiting for the next ninety minutes and by what rules the world is governed. Then, it is your duty to keep that style, tone, and genre consistent from beginning to end. Each genre exists by its own set of rules. If you suddenly switch genres in the middle of your story, the audience will become confused. The rules of this world you have put them in have suddenly been broken and changed. The rug has been pulled out from under them. Just like the the Splintered Spine, the audience will become upset that you, the Storyteller, have led them down the wrong path.
9. The Excitement Killer
Here is a scene from a script I did a critique for. It was an action-adventure story about a female vigilante crimefighter. The heroine is currently racing the airport in a cab in an effort to catch the bad guy before he boards his plane. The cab arrives at the airport, and what do you think happens? Does our vigilante engage in a heart-stopping footrace through the terminal after the bad guy? Does she pull the fire alarm to shut down the airport in order to catch the bad guy in a game of cat and mouse? No. She steps out of the back of the cab. She looks around. She doesn't see him, so she GOES HOME! And where was the bad guy? Was he on the tarmac overseeing a drug deal? Was he lying in wait to ambush our heroine? No. He was waiting in line at Office Depot, buying envelopes! I assure you this was NOT a comedy.
At any moment of any given screenplay, literally hundreds of things could plausibly happen. The only things standing in the way of your imagination is simply the need to stay within the bounds of story logic. This writer had hundreds of options open to her and simply chose the least interesting of all of them. She probably chose the first thing that came to mind. When you are brainstorming story ideas, often the best strategy is to immediately throw out your first idea. The idea you think of first is usually the least dramatic or most cliché. Remember that screenwriting is a form of DRAMA. The concept of drama is synonymous with CONFLICT. If you always keeping looking for choices that create the most possible conflict, then your screenplay will have the maximum amount of drama.
10. Arrested Development
This last type of script probably occurs more frequently than all the others. In fact, it is not uncommon for experienced, professional screenwriters to fall into this trap. What happens is you have a script that has a decent First Act. The protagonist, the goal, conflict, and motivation have all been set up. There is often a clear First Act turning point. And then....... nothing..... happens......... For a long..... time. There is no story development. The plot has plateaued. Nothing changes. The situation that the protagonist is in on page 20 is the same that he/she is in on page 40. And page 60. And page 80. No new plot points have occurred. The conflict has not escalated. The protagonist and antagonist are locked in a stalemate.
Here's a big problem I have with most “how-to” books on screenwriting: they spend a ton of time on creating the set up in the First Act. Then, they spend a time on the Third Act climax. But, wait. What about maneuvering that vast, featureless wasteland connecting the two known as the Second Act? Most screenwriting manuals give nothing on this! We're left on our own. They seem to suggest that there is no trick to the Second Act. The books all refer to the Second Act as “rising action.” But how exactly you are supposed to structure that rising action in a way that seamlessly and naturally connects your beginning to your ending is left a mystery. This is where most screenplays fail. It takes up 50% of your script. These books have been cheating you. There is a structure to the Second Act that will keep your action moving forward, keep your story developing, and keep your screenplay out of arrested development.
That structure will be the subject of my next article.