I’m not an expert scriptwriter by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a published playwright. Becasuse of this I get a lot of hopeful writers giving me their scripts, asking for my honest opinion. Sometimes they’re grateful to have their work torn apart, sometimes they just wanted platitudes.
For all those people who don’t ask me. Here’s the five pieces of feedback I give most often in handy article format.
Problem 1 : It’s about you.
I get it. You’re fascinating. You’re the central protagonist in your own life. You’ve seen shows on TV about people. You’re a person. Ergo… you are an interesting subject for your own script.
Sometimes this manifests as therapy. I get given a lot of scripts that are about a disgruntled young writer who has just left University and who is misunderstood by society. They always have epic battles with their housemates and a slightly spicy partner.
In many cases the central character is very interesting. They feel real, they feel grounded. Every other character in the script is a two dimensional facsimile. Those pesky housemates who never do the washing up. The ex-partner who swoops in like a pantomime villain. This is therapy.
SOLUTION: Everyone is special to someone. Your story is special to you. Save it for the autobiography. Challenge yourself to write outside of your comfort zone. It may also be a matter of time. There are exceptions to the rule, but many writing careers don’t kick off until much later in life. There’s a reason for that and it has everything to do with life experience.
Problem 2 — Your characters aren’t real
So you’re not writing about you anymore. You’ve got a great plot. You know exactly what happens. You might even have done a beat board. You’ve got the whole plot worked out in your head and you write it. You think it’s brilliant because the plot is brilliant…. but it gets a lukewarm reception from others.
Chances are your characters don’t feel real. They are acting as a function of plot. In order for the story to work your characters behave in ways that don’t feel real. They seem to make odd choices, do bizarre things or behave in strange ways.
Sometimes you might’ve contrived your plot to make them this way. You have a character take a load of drugs and behave in a way that allows you neatly sidestep a plot hole that audiences could drive a truck through.
SOLUTION: Plot and characters are caught in an age old battle for supremacy. Your job as a writer is to act as an arbiter and find the happy middle ground. This takes practice. Write some scenes that don’t add to the plot. Write backstory for your characters in a separate document. Breathe life into them.
Problem 3 — Your dialogue is on the nose
Your characters are constantly explaining the plot to each other. They’re forever telling each other stuff that they both already know. They’re doing that so the audience can follow what’s going on.
This means that either your plot is too complicated, or that your dialogue writing is clumsy. There are clever ways to hide the exposition. With film scripts, can you find ways of hiding information in the visuals? With stage scripts, can you pepper your exposition throughout the first third of the play.
SOLUTION: You’re not going to like this. Practice. Dialogue takes a lot of practice. It will take a while to find your voice and you should read widely.
At the one end is the hyper-realistic hesitant and broken dialogue of someone like David Mamet. At the other end the beautifully crafted sentences of Oscar Wilde or Aaron Sorkin.
Both types of dialogue work, you just have to find out where you fit on the spectrum.
Problem 4 — Your structure is wrong
You might have sorted the dialogue and dimensionality of your characters. Your script might be taking shape and reading it leaves you with a warm glow. At this stage, the lay-people you’re giving your script to are super impressed.
Other industry professionals are more hesitant. They say things like… ‘it’s good but…’
And then they don’t put their finger on it.
They talk around the problem and there’s a reason for that. Something is fundamentally wrong with your script. Not necessarily with the scenes, but in the way that you’ve chosen to tell the story.
SOLUTION: If you hated the last piece of advice, you’re gonna hate this. Go back to the drawing board and start again. You have all the basic ingredients to make the cake good writing, you just have too many eggs, or not enough milk. Or possibly you put everything in the oven before you mixed them.
You might have to start your script in a different place. You might have to take out a subplot. You might have to kill off a beloved character. If your structure is wrong it’s going to be a long road.
Get some time with another writer, throw ‘what ifs’ at each other. What if this was a historical epic. What if this character dies on page one. What if… what if… what if…
Somewhere in those sorts of questions is the answer. I promise.
Problem 5: You’re not exempt from the rules of storytelling
Sure you could invert structure and subvert the order of storytelling. Tarantino does it all the time. Beckett did it with Godot. Art is only pushed forward by mavericks.
I get the appeal. You’re a maverick. You’re going to blow the Universe away with a brand new form and a brand new story style.
The difference between you and Tarantino and Beckett is expertise. Tarantino is a walking encyclopaedia of film knowledge, Beckett was an existential philosopher.
They knew and understood the rules they were breaking. Only after understanding the rules, they broke them. The art world works in the same way. You have to learn your craft first to forge new territory later.
Nine times out of ten when the author is convinced of their own genius, the script is awful.
SOLUTION: Learn your craft. Practice writing in different genres, practice writing to different lengths and practice practice practice. Learn the craft of writing and practice humility.
If you’re the sort of writer who insists on your own genius when you get the following feedback: ‘It’s clear from reading your script that you know what’s going on, but I don’t, and I don’t think the audience will either’. Then you’re exactly the sort of writer that nobody will want to work with.
I’ve met a few. None of them were savant geniuses, agents won’t touch them and their scripts will never get made.
If you recognise any of these problems in your writing then welcome to the world of professionally storytelling. Don’t be disheartened everyone gets this sort of feedback, especially when they’re starting out.
I got it last week from my agent on a pilot spec script I wrote.
In a parallel world there’s a Me who patiently explains to his agent exactly what’s she’s missed in this wonderful script. A Me who attempts to justify his bad writing as part of his craft. I wish him well.
In this world I’m doing re-writes. If my agent missed what I was trying with the script, so will all the TV-commissioners she sends it to. The Me in this world constantly has humble pie for dinner and does re-writing when he gets stuff wrong. Which is often.
Having re-read my spec script this morning, it’s clear that my agent is right. My structure was wrong and my characters were fulfilling the function of the plot. Luckily, I know what to fix and how to fix it. And that’s fine. It’s on the to-do list for today.
It’s a full script re-write. All 90 pages of it. This is the life that I signed up for and one that will be familiar to anyone who wants to forge a creative career as a maker of worlds.
All writing is re-writing. You only get better with practice.
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