WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Cautionary Advice for Writers - Avoidables

Stewart Farquhar provides a list of cautionary advice for writers to heed if they want to prevent outright rejection. Consider them a way to survive the first cut of any Hollywood executive or screenwriting contest.
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Stewart Farquhar provides a list of cautionary advice for writers to heed if they want to prevent outright rejection. Consider them a way to survive the first cut of any Hollywood executive or screenwriting contest.

Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over 6,500 scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.

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WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Cautionary Writing Advice for Writers - Avoidables

In numerous articles, blogs, books and high-priced lectures / seminars there exists a plethora of “Lists of Requirements” to follow when a scribe sits down to write. Many are just plain drivel, a select few of these lists are excellent cautionary advice to the emerging writer. I call this cautionary advice AVOIDABLES.

These are not personal preferences. These avoidables are a few of the reasons overworked editors, readers and analysts use to toss a scrivener’s months or even years of work. Argue, if you must. Don’t shoot the messenger.

If a top tier contest, a credentialed producer, an ‘A’ list actor or an established publisher provides any of this cautionary advice (see the below list) it is in the scribe’s best interest to pay attention to the “AVOIDABLES” if he or she wants to prevent outright rejection. Consider them a way to survive the first cut.

Ignore at your own peril.

Script EXTRA: Random Notes from a Screenwriting Contest Judge

As a final and semi-final judge for three of the top ten English language screenplay competitions, I recently completed a tortuous read of 95 scripts in six weeks. If not for my contract to read, I would have tossed about sixty percent of them by page five, and of that percentage, twenty-five percent by page one. I continued to read because to get past the earlier readers there must have been a gem somewhere. A few were a delight to read.

Why the toss? Not the nit-picky this happens on page xx or even fancy fonts; preface quotations (not as a crawl) or even pictures (all of which scream AMATEUR). What causes the angst and many times immediate rejection, in a contest’s final round or from a production entity, is the writer’s blatant incursion into another craft’s responsibility, the use of NON-Spec script format and the inability to craft a story that engages from page 1. From this year’s batch, it seems that many of the writers had forgotten their sole responsibility.

A writer’s ONLY job is as a succinct and effective STORYTELLER.

There are several “How To” books, articles and blogs that purport to tell the writer how to format and what to include in a SPEC script. Dave Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible is the seminal authority. Trottier helps the emerging writer write vs. direct. I don’t receive any fee, consideration or compensation for this shout-out.

I have compiled a list (ugh) of the more egregious “violations”. These are not rules. What they represent is a collection of violations to the tacit “Just Tell A Story” contract the SPEC scribe has with the reader.

Yet Another List To Consider
The “Just Tell A Story” Contract Violations
(In The Avoidable Alphabetical Order)

<p><strong>Ref #</strong></p><p><strong>The Avoidable</strong></p><p><strong>Reason or Implication</strong></p>

1.  

Actor Direction

Ignored Or Unaware Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities

2.  

Actor Suggestions

Violation Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities - Amateur

3.  

An Obvious “This Happens On P xx”

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft - Amateur

4.  

Any Style Other Than Spec Script

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft - Amateur

5.  

Audience Asides

Not A Play, Commedia Dell’ Arte Or Greek Theatre

6.  

Bad Or Excessive Voice Overs

Lazy Scribe - Poor Storyteller

7.  

Beat (Includes Pause)

No Such Item – Lazy Scribe. Replace With Char Action

8.  

Bland Language

Scribe With Limited Language – Limited Vocabulary

9.  

Bold Text

Used TV, Production Or Shooting Script Sample

10.  

Brand Reference

Rights $$ & Unaware Of Other Craft's Responsibilities

11.  

Camera Direction

Violation Of Other Craft's Responsibilities - Amateur

12.  

CAPS For SFX, Props Or Characters (After 1st Intro)

Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Standards – Not Proofed

13.  

Character Thoughts Stated (Or As An Aside)

Can’t Film Thoughts - Novelesque

14.  

Characters That Bore

Presented From The Writer’s Objective - Amateur

15.  

Cliché Plot With No Twist

No Imagination Or Copied Existing Script – Amateur

16.  

Detailitus

Micromanagement - Insecure Scribe

17.  

Deus Ex Machina

God From The Machine – Contrived Solution

18.  

Excessive Adverbs Or Adjectives

Limited Language Skills - Amateur Or Lazy Writer

19.  

Excessive Swearing

Cliché – Distracts From The Story (If Unmotivated)

20.  

Failure To Engage Reader

Weak Story Or Inexperienced Storyteller - Amateur

21.  

Failure To Use Contractions

Unnatural Dialogue – Script Padding

22.  

Fancy Title Font

Create All Text Courier 12pt – Rules Don’t Apply To Me

23.  

Format Errors

Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Standards – Not Proofed

24.  

Generic Names

Lazy Scribe - Lack Of Differentiation Or Imagination

25.  

Genre Unclear By P 5

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft - Amateur

26.  

Graphics Included

Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Script - Amateur

27.  

Gratuitous Rape

Cliché – Insensitive Scribe (Done For Shock Value)

28.  

Improbable / Impossible Situations

Writer’s Objective Vs. Charter’s Objective – Amateur

29.  

Incorrect / Inappropriate Genre Opening

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft - Amateur

30.  

Incorrect Slug Lines

Compound Or Run-On Locations - Not Proofed

31.  

Incorrect Use Of Parentheses

Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Standards – Not Proofed

32.  

Italics (Unless Song Style Lyrics Or Title)

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Not Proofed

33.  

Logic Errors

Story Inconsistent Or Invalid - Amateur

34.  

Long Paragraphs (Multiple)

Detailitus Instead Of Salient Detail - Novelesque

35.  

Looks Ink Heavy

Novelesque – Micromanage The Story

36.  

Margin Or Line Spacing Fudges

Padded Script – Conventions Don’t Apply To Me

37.  

Missing Antagonist Hint Page 1-5

Weak Storyteller - Amateur

38.  

Missing Character Descriptions

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur

39.  

Missing Protagonist Page 1

No one To Follow - Amateur

40.  

Missing Scene Descriptions

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft – Amateur

41.  

Multiple “We Feel”

Readers Only See Words - Amateur Or Lazy Scribe

42.  

Multiple “We Hear”

Readers Only See Words - Amateur Or Lazy Scribe

43.  

Multiple “We See”

Readers Only See Words - Amateur Or Lazy Scribe

44.  

Multiple “We Think”

Readers Only See Words - Amateur Or Lazy Scribe

45.  

Multiple Fade Outs

Ignored Or Unaware Of Other Craft's Responsibilities

46.  

Multiple Long Dialogues

Unable To Trust Reader Or Actor - Amateur

47.  

Multiple Missing Punctuation

Not Proofed - Amateur

48.  

Multiple Missing Words

Not Proofed - Amateur

49.  

Multiple Misspellings

Not Proofed - Amateur

50.  

Music Reference

Rights $$ & Unaware Of Other Craft's Responsibilities

51.  

Name Changes In Script

Not Proofed - Amateur

52.  

No Conflict

Weak Storyteller - Amateur

53.  

No Protagonists Goal

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft - Amateur

54.  

No Reason To Turn Page

Story Or Character Does Not Compel - Amateur

55.  

Not 12pt Courier

Industry Standard – Fudged Script Length.

56.  

Not In Present Tense (Active Voice)

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft - Amateur

57.  

Novelesque Writing

Padded Script Or Weak Story - Amateur

58.  

Obvious Exposition

Facts Before “Asked For” Or Any Interest - Amateur

59.  

On The Nose Dialogue

Not A Storyteller -Amateur

60.  

Other Major Characters Late

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft - Amateur

61.  

Over Use Of “Very”

Limited Vocabulary - Lazy Scribe

62.  

Over Use Or Incorrect Use Of Ellipses

Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Standards - Dialogue Fade

63.  

Over Use Or Incorrect Use Of Hyphens

Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Standards - Dialogue Interrupt

64.  

Phony Production Company On Title Page

Prod Co Would Not Enter Contest – I’m A Player

65.  

Pictures Included

Ignored Or Unaware Of Spec Script - Amateur

66.  

Point Of Views (POVs)

Violation Of Other Craft's Responsibilities - Amateur

67.  

Repetitive Language

Department Of Redundancy Department - Amateur

68.  

Scenes Of Convenience (Deus Ex Machina)

Story Presented From The Writer’s Objective

69.  

Spelling Errors

Not Proofed - Amateur

70.  

Starts With “Wake-Up Or Weather Montage”

Cliché – Lazy Or Unimaginative Scribe

71.  

Tell Vs. Show

Micromanagement Of Script – Amateur

72.  

Title Placement

Ignored Or Unaware Of Other Craft’s Responsibilities

73.  

Tone Or Theme Absent

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft - Amateur

74.  

Too Long Or Too Short

Not Studied Screenplay Writing Craft - Amateur

75.  

Unbelievable Environment Or Behavior

Incomplete Research - Amateur

76.  

Undocumented Location Change

Missing Slug Lines - Amateur

77.  

Verbose

Excessive Words – Detailitus Vs. Detail

78.  

Weak Climax

Unresolved Character Objective – No Outline

79.  

Widows And Orphans

Script Padded - Excessive Detail

80.  

Writer’s Objective

Writer Wants To Say Something - Amateur

Among those not included in “The List” is the failure to think and format short descriptive / declarative significant action sequences as “shots.”

Script EXTRA: FREE Download of Screenwriting Format Tips

For example

As Written (Submitted):

As the Cashier starts to count the bills, Jared looks out
the glass doors and spots another homeless man with a sign
that says "HELP ME. FOOD, MONEY, ANYTHING."

A bystander goes by and gives him a half eaten apple. Jared
watches the man scavenges the apple, barriered by the doors.

His concentration is amazing. Is he studying this man eating
the apple? Or is he figuring out how he is going to have his
next meal?

Reduced To:

The cashier counts the bills.
Through the glass door,
Jared spots a homeless man with a sign.

INSERT SIGN:

"HELP ME. FOOD, MONEY, ANYTHING."

A pedestrian tosses him a half-eaten apple.
Jared stares as the man devours it.

His concentration is amazing. Is he studying this man eating
the apple? Or is he figuring out how he is going to have his
next meal?

Seventy-seven words reduced to thirty-eight.

This style sets up each line as a shot.

Extraneous words eliminated.

Can’t film thoughts.

Reads faster.

This scriptwriting technique creates a present tense picture in the minds of the other professionals. It doesn’t TELL them how to do their job. In all but a very few cases this method eliminates the need to insert ”CLOSE-UPs”, “POVs”, “CUT TOs”, multiple “FADE INs” and “FADE OUTs”, “SMASH CUTs” or any other non-screenwriter responsibility.

The first audience is an overworked and underpaid or unpaid first level reader. He or she can only imagine, from individual memories, a picture that each scene and character you create invokes. This gatekeeper can only experience your artful character, action and reaction creations when you paint a memorable image with words. They hear, see, think or feel nothing except their emotive reaction to what you create ON THE PAGE. In a spec script it’s the scribe’s responsibility to place as few distractions as possible to this emotional journey. Anything that interrupts or slows down the pace or is not an active story element has to go. Does that mean never use any Avoidable? NO. Use sparingly if at all.

A screenwriter’s sole responsibility is to concentrate on the creative art of storytelling. Leave everything else to the other collaborators of the cinematic arts.

Script EXTRA: Tips for Making Your Script a Fast Read

Now, there will be those pseudo intellectuals who grouse - “Well Tarantino does it in Pulp Fiction”, or “Zach Helm does it in Stranger Than Fiction” or Lars Von Trier does it in Melancholia. Why can’t I do it? Or, this script or that movie is an example of this technique or that formula or has this element. Valid questions.

My answer. When you have their contacts, their experience, and their caché, plus your story is a page turner, you can handwrite in a composition book, scribble on old scripts or compose on tissue paper and someone will buy. Until that time, create a work that drives the entry level reader to your last page without distraction. In all writing, formula works for a novice when they start out. Use it, then graduate. A unique structure, with multiple creative variations therein, is what works for an established writer.

There are also those who claim to have been at “this studio script department” or that they have “written and sold on spec or assignment” without adhering to any of the “List Of Requirements.” These purveyors of mostly piffle also claim that “very few differences actually exist at the professional level of spec and on-assignment writing.” It’s true that all writers should strive to produce a professional product.

But, note the caveat, “professional”. Their advice is from the inside looking out vs. a struggling writer fighting to get in. A spec writer needs advice on how to write vs. advice from an insider on how to direct other crafts.

For the majority of today’s writers that have yet to reach this professional level, if you create a memorable story that’s a fast read and with the avoidables in mind it will be easier for you to get your foot in the door. Instructions, advice or direction for each craft will be added by others after your script is bought.

To rise above the tens of thousands of scripts registered by aspiring writers with the WGAw in Hollywood each year, it’s important to stand out in some positive way. The easiest method to accomplish this is the most obvious. Tell a great story in the most direct way without inappropriate instructions or superfluous distractions. Do your job well and invite the other crafts to do theirs. Establish yourself first as a storyteller. Innovation comes after you have proven yourself as a “Go-To Player.”

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