There was once a coach of a high school football team. To say that his team played poorly would be a gross understatement. Not only could his team not win, but they couldn't rush, they couldn't pass, they couldn't play defense. Every game was an embarrassment. Finally, after yet another Friday night humiliation, the coach gathered his team together. “Gentlemen,” he said, “something is seriously wrong with this team. And no amount of practice is going to fix that problem. The only way we are going to start winning is by unlearning all the bad habits you have accumulated. So, we are starting over. Forget everything you think you know, because we are going back to square one.” Then, the coach held up a pigskin, presenting it as if no one had seen one before. “Gentlemen,” he said, “THIS, is a FOOTBALL...”
When the coach said square one, he meant it. Sometimes, when things do not work, you have to hit the reset button and start over.
Sometimes, a writer has a great idea for a screenplay, but when he or she tries to put it on paper, the story simply does not work. No matter how many times the script is rewritten, no matter how hard the writer works to fix its flaws, the things simply refuses to function the way a cinematic story should. There is something fundamentally broke with it. Tweaking some plot here and polishing there will not make that script function. At this point, making superficial changes is like spending money to pimp out a car with no engine and a broken transmission. Junk is junk. The only way to fix it is to strip it down to its core.
“THIS, is a cinematic story.” - Note that I said cinematic story, not screenplay. A screenplay is nothing more than 90-120 pieces of paper bound together with words on them. It is the cinematic story told on those pages that gives it any worth. If your script does not work, it is the flawed principles behind its story at fault.
Here now is the SCRIPTMONK guide to overhauling a broken cinematic story.
The first rule: Don't cling to what you have written! Doing so just keeps you holding onto the side of a sinking ship. If need be, you must be willing to take everything you have worked so hard on so far and throw it in the trash. If it does not work, it does not work. Holding on to what you have, whether it be out of fear, insecurity, or sentimentality, amounts to literary hoarding. Hoarding is a mental illness where people are unable to throw things away, regardless of how useless those things may be. If you really want your story to work, you have to be willing to clean house.
Start by returning to the very ideas that seeded the beginning of your screenplay. The earlier flaws originate in the creative process, the more fatal the effect on the finished product. Your early ideas are called seeds for a reason. They grow and expand as the work progresses. If your original ideas are flawed, they will grow into a weed the size of a beanstock, choking everything connected to it. At this point, simply fixing superficial problems without considering the sources beneath is like placing a band-aid on a mortal wound. Real improvement starts at the foundation.
First, review the idea that inspired the story. Does it have what it takes to create a story? A REAL story? A story is defined as a series of events about a) a character, b) dealing with a problem, c) told in a structured order, d) unified by a premise. Does your idea meet all four qualifications? If not, the idea is no more capable of creating a functional cinematic story than a page out of the phone book.
Next, look at your story's protagonist. Are you sure this is your story's protagonist? Sometimes a writer will think one character as the hero, when it is in fact a completely different character who drives the narrative. Are you sure this is the best choice for protagonist? Sometimes stories fail simply because the storyteller has chosen the wrong person to tell the story through. Is it clear to the audience that this is in fact the protagonist? Sometimes the protagonist gets lost within all the supporting characters, and it becomes to difficult for the audience to figure out which one they are supposed to get behind.
How is the protagonist portrayed? Does he or she have a clear internal need? Does the protagonist have a fatal flaw that creates a difficulty he or she must overcome? Is the action is the story designed so that it forces the character on an adventure where he or she must change and grow to achieve the internal need? Remember that story comes from character, not the other way around.
Since the storyteller creates the events of the plot solely for the sake of the protagonist's journey, the choice of protagonist has a dramatic effect on the course of the plot. The choice of protagonist decides what events are possible, and how the the plot moves forward as the protagonist reacts to those events. Plot and protagonist are intimately connected. If you have created a plot that does not fit the protagonist, or vice versa, the story will not work. This is a fatal mismatch. One must be changed to accommodate the other.
Likewise, a storyteller cannot create a plot in a vacuum. Did you come up with the main character first, and then the action of the story based on that particular character? Or did you come up with the actions of the plot first, and then as an afterthought pull some generic people out of the air to carry out that plot? A plot-first approach will create an experience that is hollow and lifeless. The protagonist will not be an authentic human being whom the audience can attach their thoughts and emotions, but a hollow shell who exists simply to connect the plot's dots. The audience will then feel little emotional connection to the plot's events because there is no humanity behind them with which the audience can connect.
What is your story's premise? Does the script stick to this premise from beginning to end? Or does it suddenly abandon its established premise halfway through and veer off into an unrelated area? Abandoning a premise means essentially abandoning the entire story and trying to invent a new one halfway through the film. Audiences become confused and upset as everything they have been paying so close attention to thus far has been thrown in the garbage. Now, they are being asked to pay attention to a new story. Most audiences do not have this kind of patience.
Next, look at the script's Story Spine. Identify the forces that propel the protagonist to act. What is the protagonist's main Story Problem? What Story Goal does he or she set to overcome that problem? What actions does the protagonist pursue on his or her Path of Action to reach that goal? What is the Main Conflict that stands in the way? What are the Stakes that keep pushing the protagonist onward despite the resistance created by the Conflict? Does the Spine have all five elements? Are they strong enough to provide enough dramatic impulse for the entire length of the story? Does your script have a Story Spine at all? (A missing or incomplete Story Spine is the most common cause of failed scripts.)
How does the action of the Story Spine unfold? Does the plot develop in clear, structured story sequences? Does the protagonist advance the story by willfully pursuing immediate goals that have the purpose of furthering his or her overall cause?
Look at the script's genre. Are you SURE this is the right genre for the particular story? Do you understand the inherent rules of the genre? Does your story conform to these rules? Genre creates guidelines that help the audience understand what to expect from a story. Genre confusion creates audience confusion. A script that does not know how to handle its genre will create a muddled mish-mash to which the audience does not know how to react.
Any problem you find during this process is a major flaw at your story's very foundation. It is an enormous crack in the bedrock that radiates out into dozens of problems on the surface. Like a building with a damaged foundation, sometimes the only way to fix the problem is to bulldoze the structure, lay a new foundation, and then start construction all over again.
(BTW, I do know that the phrase "Gentlemen, this is a football" is famously associated with legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi. However, his use of the phrase communicated something different than the story of the high school coach- a story that I heard first. Lombardi's use referred to a dedication to the fundamentals, not a stripping down to start over.)