Screenwriting advice can seem random, contradictory, even useless. Barri Evins gives guidance on which guidelines to listen to and those you should pretend you never heard.
Recently, a blog I wrote on query letters sparked a lot of discussion in social media. As writers shared their real world query experiences, I could hear the undercurrent of frustration, even outright resentment. They were following all the “rules,” all the proffered advice, and still getting rejected.
One resentful writer posted, “Producers have a 100 reasons to say ‘No!’ and damn if they don't LOOK for it and slam it down!”
You’re angry. I get it. The “no’s” make no sense.
Advice for aspiring writers can seem random, contradictory, even useless. Worst of all, it simply doesn’t work! Some specify a certain page length. Another cautions against too many characters. Others warn against writing in certain genres. “No period pieces ever!” comes across with the ferocity of an enraged Joan Crawford.
Often writers are in the dark when it comes to the reasoning behind the “rules.” As kids, when there was something we didn’t want to do, we all whined to our mom’s “Why?” Her reply? “Because I said so.” Here’s the “why” behind the “because I said so” of screenwriting advice. And some guidance on which guidelines to listen to and those you should pretend you never heard.
My Advice On Advice
Gurus, insiders, successful writers, professors, consultants, professional readers – all advice-givers – are earnest in their desire to help aspiring writers learn how to write a screenplay that will help them break into the film industry. They offer valuable Conventional Wisdom, but it in and of itself, that’s not a formula for success. By simply following the instructions, you will not end up with a delicious seven layer cake, a handy tool shed or a thousand paper cranes that will make your screenwriting wishes come true.
When it comes to advice, consider the source. On the Internet, misinformation spreads like a cold in kindergarten. Other aspiring writers are often the origin of the infection. Their counsel stems more from insecurity than experience. Since what works seems like a mystery, making up rules makes it less scary. These insidious myths do more harm than good. I expose and destroy the latest crop in my “Screenwriting MythBusters” blog.
There’s always a writer determined to prove Conventional Wisdom wrong. “I saw it posted somewhere that some of the ‘annoying’ signs of an amateur screenplay writer are: more than 120 pages; too many characters (20 to 30 or more) and long dialogue that goes over 3 lines. Well, I checked out screenplays of some famous movies: Jerry Maguire has 132 pages, 42 characters. I'll stick to what works for the story and let the people who read it tell me what to trim.”
This example and others like it are irrelevant for the budding screenwriter. Why? Because a script by an established, successful, writer/director (Say Anything…,Singles), begs the apples to oranges adage. There is no comparison to your breaking in script.
Do we toss a 124-page script aside? No way. But if your script is 157 pages, it makes us think you might not know the difference between a movie and a miniseries. If you have more words and scenes than are necessary to convey your story, we’re not likely to be impressed with your writing.
Do we count characters? I can’t imagine anyone reading with a calculator at hand, but if you include characters that are extraneous and don't contribute to the whole, it shows a lack of focus to your storytelling.
The three-line dialogue rule? Arbitrary Internet Fabrication. Why is there a grain of truth here? Because when we see lengthy blocks of monologue or pages of montage, we question your ability to move a story forward dramatically and cinematically.
Why should you pay attention to this advice? Because you need to prove you’ve mastered the rules and conventions of screenwriting and have the potential to be a professional. When you’re trying to break in, you can’t afford a “like it or lump it” attitude. If you don’t edit your own work before sending it out, you won’t get a chance to let the pros tell you what to cut.
We Are Not Playing Whac-A-Mole
No matter how it may seem from your side of the desk, no one is sitting on the other side with a great big hammer waiting to gleefully pound your script into the dirt. In truth we are desperately hoping to find a story we fall in love with – an exciting idea with solid writing that we think we can get made.
The film industry is a bizarre hybrid – a high-stakes business based on an art form. Our reaction to story, like all art, is highly subjective. We can go to the museum together, look at the works of great masters, and I might adore a painting that leaves you cold. Send me a script in the exact the genre I ask for, with a logline I’ve read and even a short synopsis, and I still may pass. Why? Because it's personal.
We are playing “Needle in a Haystack.” And not just any needle. One that we are passionate about. And we always keep in mind that playing NIAH is followed by “Pin the Tail on the Donkey,” our struggle to set up a project in an increasingly difficult marketplace.
When asked what a producer does I always reply, “It’s just like pushing a giant boulder up a steep cliff every single day.” Check out the location on my Twitter profile.
So when it comes to saying “no,” would you want a producer to say “yes” to your project who wasn't truly enthusiastic about it? It takes years to get a film made. You need someone who is passionate, determined, capable and shares your vision for the story.
How To Handle The “No”
You are going to hear “no” a lot this business, kiddo. Get used to it or get out.
Honestly, if you’re going to throw up your arms in frustration, rage at the heavens and give up, you are not cut out for this industry.
The hit parade of rejection is a long one in the film business, and it doesn’t end once you’re on the inside. There’s the project that goes from merrily moving forward to imploding when a new studio head steps in. The passion piece where sheer determination is no match for the relentlessly steep hill. And that illusive slam-dunk set up that dies an equally quick yet painful death.
Rejection is hard. I didn’t make up those examples above; I lived them. So I hate to say, “Don’t take it so personally,” but don’t.
Submissions are like blind dating. Most are not going to end in happily ever after.
In one thread a writer was upset that she had queried something that was just what the producer was looking for. She sent the requested material and, after holding her breath, two months later he passed.
Why would the producer compliment her writing and pass on her script because it was a period piece and would be too expensive for his company to produce since he knew it was a period piece going in. What should she do?
The first step is to accept that you just heard “No.” Even though the producer was looking for material in that vein, even though he liked the writing, the idea didn't grab him. He didn’t fall in love. It was a blind date that ended with a handshake.
We say “no” a lot in this business; far more than anything else. And we go out of our way to say it as politely as possible. Why? There’s an old saying, “In Hollywood, a ‘yes’ is a ‘maybe,’ a ‘maybe’ is a ‘no’ and a ‘no’ is an insult.”
Stephanie Palmer, author of Good in a Room, addresses this brilliantly in her recent blog, “The Lie Most Frequently Told In Hollywood.” Palmer explains, “Sometimes, the compliments you get from decision-makers about your work aren’t true. These compliments, these times when you hear a version of ‘Yes,’ often are lies – and what is actually being said is, ‘No.’ Decision-makers don’t tell you the truth because they are trying to protect their relationship with you. They want you to send them your future work, so they lie in order not to hurt your feelings.”
Ouch. You’re actually hearing “no” more often than you realize. But don’t ignore the silver lining – we want to see what you come up with in the future. As I’ve said in my blog, Getting Your Foot In The Door, we need material from talented writers. We need you!
Accept the “no” and move on. Why? Because a reasonable person would give up after a certain amount of rejection, and you need to be a bit unreasonable to survive in this business and even more so if you are going to thrive.
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