Jeanne's Tuesday Screenwriting Tips: You're Dead to Me

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Everyone has a favorite movie; that one that made them want to become a writer. For me, it’s Casablanca. Then there are those movies you stumble upon while flipping through channels that summon you to stop and watch, no matter if it’s the beginning, middle or end.

My must-watch films are Braveheart, Band of Brothers, Silence of the Lambs, Scarface, Castaway, When Harry Met Sally and a handful of others.

But the majority of movies don’t make me stop channel surfing.

Why?

Smart movies are few and far between, and nothing irritates me more than when a writer assumes the audience is full of idiots.

Patient, Dumb, or Just a Machine?

Last year, I watched 42 as research for my script. My assignment from my producers was to observe how Jackie Robinson handled the racism he was subjected to while trying to pursue his dreams. It was a character study. I’m all about characters, so I was excited to watch.

I rarely rant about movies or call out a screenwriter because we all know the words on the writer’s original pages aren’t necessarily what hits the big screen. But 42 was directed by the writer himself, Brian Helgeland, so I had to assume the final product was in his control.

I was so distracted, and irritated, by how dumbed down the film was, I couldn’t focus on why I was watching it in the first place. Instead, I turned to Twitter to rant about it.

I’ve tuned out the specifics of said rant, or perhaps drowned them out with tequila, but let me give you an example of what annoyed me: The writer/director successfully showed me a specific event, but then subsequently had a character TELL another character the very same event, as if I was too dumb to have caught it the first time. This happened time and time again. And don't even get me started on the on-the-nose dialogue.

I was literally screaming at the screen, “I get it already!”

Believe me, if 42 hit my remote control, I’d pass it by faster than the Road Runner escaping Wile E. Coyote.

Another example is Avatar. Sure, the film was visually stunning. A masterpiece. But I dare you to watch it again, and this time, close your eyes and just listen to the dialogue. Cameron should have apologized to those actors for putting those dumbed-down words in their mouths. I’m surprised an alien didn’t burst from Sigourney Weaver’s stomach and run off the set. If it hadn’t been for the visuals, I would have run out of the theater myself.

While James Cameron and Brian Helgeland both have made incredible films in the past that I have very much enjoyed, these two specific films made me want to never watch another one of their movies again. I no longer trust them with my $10. Why would I pay for someone to treat me like I’m stupid?

So, today’s tip is simply, don’t do that to your audience. Respect them. Challenge them to connect the dots. Make them go, “Ahhhh… wow... I didn’t see that coming!” THAT is how you keep a reader's attention. THAT is how you get a producer excited to read your next script. THAT is how you get people to buy tickets to your next film.

And I’m not talking about just drama either. Comedy can be smart too. Look at Elf. I love that film! Totally fun and unexpected.

Write smart. Trust that your reader is smart. Don’t insult them. Honor their brains.

Because when someone insults me… they’re dead to me. Period. And in this business, people’s careers rarely come back from the dead.

Editor's Note: Reading interviews of screenwriters is a great way to get more screenwriting tips. See our full list of interviews as well as read the most current one, an interview of David Webb Peoples, writer of Unforgiven, 12 Monkeys and Blade Runner.

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