Meet the Reader: The Lies Screenwriters Tell (Themselves)

Screenwriters are great at telling stories. Most of the time that’s a good thing -- after all, spinning amazing yarns is how we have fun, how we find creative satisfaction and, if we’re lucky, how we build great careers. But here are some of the top fibs that screenwriters love to spring on themselves.
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Courtesy Warner Home Video

"But we're Goonies!"

Screenwriters are great at telling stories. Most of the time that’s a good thing -- after all, spinning amazing yarns is how we have fun, how we find creative satisfaction and, if we’re lucky, how we build great careers. The only time it’s not such a good thing is when we con ourselves with comforting but unsound mendacities designed to help us avoid dealing with the more difficult aspects of the creative process. This is something all artistic people are prone to doing, but something that is to be assiduously avoided if we are going to make our work the best it can be.

Here are some of the top fibs that screenwriters love to spring on themselves:

1. “As long as the idea is good, the quality of the script doesn’t matter.”

This is what some screenwriters tell themselves when they lack the confidence and/or the energy to tackle the enormous amount of work required to transform a rough initial draft into a polished final. They rationalize this excuse to settle for an inferior product by telling themselves that there’s no point in putting a lot of effort into refining their work because the studio is just going to bring in a bunch of other (high-priced) scribes to rewrite it anyway. While this position might have had some validity during the great spec boom of the '80s and '90s, when producers and studios were sometimes willing to spend time and treasure to develop a promising notion into a viable screenplay, it certainly doesn’t any more, when the industry as a whole has cut back drastically on development and is only interested in acquiring scripts it deems to be ready-to-go (this doesn’t mean that these screenplays aren’t going to be rewritten, only that the powers-that-be aren’t willing to hire all of those pricey rewriters unless they think that the core material is already in excellent shape). But even if all studios did care about was the core idea, are you really comfortable adopting a position that advocates doing less than your very best?

2. “It just needs a little tweaking.”

No, it doesn’t -- unless you have already done four or five thorough revisions, had the script assessed by professional analysts and/or experienced colleagues to determine if there are any significant problems (and there always are), and held a few readings to see if the material plays, then your script is going to need a major rewrite. How do I know this? Because, every script needs a major rewrite -- that’s simply the nature of the process (“writing is rewriting,” etc.). Many writers -- especially anxious beginners -- are so eager to get their work to the marketplace so that they can make a desperately-needed sale or get a career going that they try to persuade themselves that their work is ready to go when it absolutely isn’t. If you do that -- convince yourself that all you need to do to your initial draft is make a few cosmetic changes and futz around a bit on the edges -- then you’ll certainly get your script out faster, but I can almost guarantee that you will be disappointed by the results. Take your time. Do the work. It’ll be worth it in the end.

3. “It’s okay to steal as long as you acknowledge the theft.”

While there is a long and noble tradition of scribes finding inspiration in the elements of older films, I’ve noticed an interesting trend developing over the past few years in which an increasing number of spec script writers have been brazenly recycling material from other movies -- nakedly appropriating everything from gags and set-pieces to entire scenes to complete plots -- with little or no alteration or reinvention. These writers seem to think that this sort of blatant theft is okay as long as they acknowledge the larceny by inserting lines into their scripts such as: “Wow, this is just like that scene in Avatar;” “The same thing happened to Will Smith in Independence Day;” or “I feel like I’m one of the Goonies.” The thing is, it’s not okay -- acknowledged or not, stealing is still stealing and calling attention to it in such an obvious manner only makes the thief look pathetic as well as guilty. (“Wow. Not only did he steal someone else’s idea, but now he’s telling everyone that he stole someone else’s idea.") It also begs what I don’t think is an irrelevant question -- why undertake a creative endeavor like screenwriting if you’re not going to be creative?

4. “It’ll make sense when you see it on the screen.”

I hear this one a lot when I tell authors whose work I have analyzed that there are elements in their scripts -- usually concerning a character’s interior life: his/her thoughts or feelings, state of mind, motivations and intentions, etc. -- that I have found to be unclear, either because some important pieces are missing or because the existing ones are fuzzy. These writers tell me not to worry and assure me that the director will find a shot or the actor will give a “look” that will make these missing or confusing concepts clear. What this rather choice bit of delusion leaves out is the fact that directors can’t find shots if there’s nothing to shoot and actors can’t produce looks if there’s nothing to act. To put it another way -- if it ain’t on the page, then it ain’t gonna be on the screen. As the author of the screenplay, it’s your job to spell out everything the audience needs to know to understand the plot and the characters in some effective combination of action and dialogue (because, after all, cinema is an external medium, not an internal one -- we can only know what we see and hear. Novelists can tell us what a character is thinking or feeling; screenwriters have to find ways to make those thoughts and feelings tangible.) Don’t worry about being too blatant or obvious -- the director and the actors can always pull back (that’s where those shots and looks come in), but only if you have first given them something to pull back from.

5. “I’m the exception.”

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call them rules, there are a number of well-established guidelines out there regarding what most professional screenwriters, development and creative executives, and script consultants generally agree are no-nos when it comes to screenwriting: tenets such as “scripts shouldn’t run longer that 120 pages" (although these days it’s really more like 110); “don’t direct on paper" (i.e. don’t include overly detailed shot descriptions or instructions for camera moves, edits, credit placement, etc.); and “avoid indicating specific music selections or cues.” These guidelines are not hard to understand and they are not obscure -- they’re outlined in most of the “how-to” screenwriting literature and instructional courses. (I myself mention them and others like them quite often in this very column.) Despite the consensus that these guidelines are important ones to follow, many (mostly aspiring) scribes violate them on a pretty regular basis. When I discuss these transgressions with the writers that I consult with, their response is almost always the same: “You don’t understand. My script is different.” In other words: “I’m the exception. The rules don’t apply to me.” And my answer is also almost always the same: “No, you’re not. And yes, they do. These guidelines were not arrived at arbitrarily just to give you a hard time -- they reflect common industry practices and wisdom and if you can’t abide by them – if you really need 178 pages or endless shot descriptions or specific songs played at specific times in order to tell your tale -- then the odds are that there’s something wrong with your story or your script that needs to be fixed.” Not surprisingly, most of the folks that I have this conversation with don’t listen and then spend a lot of time wondering why they’re not getting anywhere.

6. “They just don’t get it.”

This is what a lot of writers tell themselves when their work fails to receive the response they had hoped for -- when people don’t laugh at their comedies, aren’t thrilled by their thrillers or scared by their horror scripts; don’t cry at their tragedies and aren’t roused by their inspirational dramas; or fail to appreciate the formal and thematic brilliance of their latest indie/art-house quirkfest. If one reader doesn’t get your script, then it may indeed be them -- but if a majority of those that peruse your work don’t get it, then it’s not them, it’s the script and you have to accept the fact that you have not accomplished what you set out to do. And while we can certainly understand how hard this can be to do after so many months and even years of work, you have to. Because if you do, then you can get back on your horse and get to work analyzing your script and the responses so that you can figure out where you went awry and make the changes necessary to bring the result in line with your intentions. If, however, you put all your energy into denial and defensiveness, then your script will remain a dud and your dreams for your project will never be fulfilled. If you believe in your idea strongly enough to turn it into a first draft, then hopefully you will believe it enough to keep working on it until it finally has the effect on the audience that you wanted it to have from the very beginning.

The truth, while not always easy to hear, will always set you free -- in life and in screenwriting. Be straight with yourself and your work will only get better.