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Why Spec Scripts Fail: Failure To Do Your Homework-Part 2


In Part 1 of this series we discussed sixteen of the many reasons Spec Scripts fail. NOTE: spec scripts, be they hard copy or digital, are a completely different article than production scripts. The production script version is most of what you can find for free or for sale on the internet. The spec format is the focus of David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible Ver 6. However, the good news is that production scripts help you structure and craft a story even though they don’t provide you with the correct format an emerging writer needs to use in order to break into this industry. This assumes the story has value

As a script judge for several prominent film festivals, agencies, production companies, and private clients, I read spec scripts for both established and emerging writers. From this perspective, and the perspective of others who evaluate scripts, let me share with you a few more of the many “things” that will get your hard work either ignored or disqualified before a reader / judge ever gets to evaluate your story. Any one of these scenarios are because you didn't do your homework – read this as failure to perform company, contest or agency due diligence.

One of the reasons a script ends up in the virtual shredder is that the story does not reflect the budget, the style or the subject matter a company / contest requested. You would not expect Pixar to buy Fast And Furious 10, nor would you expect a faith based company to have any interest in an action, mystery, slasher story. You’d be surprised how much effort is wasted by writers who try to force a square peg into a round hole. Check out what has been produced or requested by a contest or a company, then, if you have a script that fits the story and budget parameters, submit. It also wouldn't hurt you to read or view some of their past winners or productions before you toss your 108 pages at them. This is one area where the “sling your product in the hopes that one effort will stick” works against you. It is also a waste of your entry fee.

Let’s, just for the sake of discussion, assume that proper subject matter, format, and budget are in place. You submit your material, with contact info in the left lower corner of the title page, unless otherwise instructed, and WITHOUT copyright © and WGA registration numbers, fancy fonts and borders anywhere on the pages. As we stated before, you create the wrong impression if you include any of the above. They will impress, but not in a way that will enhance your prospects of a sale.

One further item… The number of pages is ostensibly within the length requested. Why ostensibly? Here comes another reason for toss or disqualification. The last page(s) of the script is (are) missing. Some “genius” told you that this was a sure way to secure your story from theft. Way to piss-off the reader or judge. You have just wasted at least an hour of his or her time. An incomplete script will save your story, but only for your own reading pleasure. A writer’s desire to provide a complete script seems obvious. But, you’d be surprised how many contest entries have used this misguided “security” technique.

This level of paranoia marks you as someone who will be hard to do business with, or at the very least a person who cannot follow reasonably simple directions or instructions. You are asked to submit a script, not a teaser. Your inability to overcome this first negative impression, in many cases, will not brand you as a “go to” writer regardless of any demonstrated writing skills. Play smart, don’t cut your script and career short.

We now move from paranoia to omnipotence... If, as a writer, you assume the responsibilities of other crafts, then it is clear you don’t yet understand your part in this cinematic process. Hence, you create a negative impression. Yes, it is true that unless someone writes, nobody works and it’s also true that many skilled scribes are hyphenates. However, at this level, it is also true most spec script writers rarely excel in multiple job descriptions. Unless you are capable, willing, and in a financial position to do everything yourself, stop poaching the responsibilities of other crafts. Translation. NO Camera Angles, CUT TOs, Slam Cuts, Title/Credits location, Mu$ic $pecification$, POVs, Shot Instructions, Dolly Angles/Pulls, Hitchcock Zooms, Dutch Angles, etc. These aren't your job! If you are a clever and skilled writer, you write your short scenes and action paragraphs in such a way as to imply what is needed from your production partners. Music is called out as “in the style of” vs. by artist and/or title. Learn how to guide the story vs. dictate every detail.

While we’re on the subject of show and tell, let’s revisit the pomposity of excess verbosity, the profound atrocity of too much ink. Linda Voorhees, a successful writer and screenwriter who lectures at UCLA, is credited with (pardon the paraphrase) “If it’s eight words, can it be seven…” She continues all the way down to a grunt, a gesture, a look or just eliminate the item completely. There is much more to her advice on excess script verbiage. It amounts to less is more. You get the point. Consider that instead of a literary masterpiece, your job is to craft the equivalent of a “wedding invitation” which provides just the salient facts. Craft an invitation to a party that your peers and potential partners must attend. Make it a “gathering” that allows them to “strut their stuff.” Your skill as a writer will be appreciated.



To round out part 2 for this month, we have my personal POI (point of irritation)… BAD SCIENCE. I'm not alone. What is not commonly known, is many story analyst and contest readers had other successful careers in a variety of disciplines before they took up their reading or writing ventures. Many have even moved over to management levels in a variety of entertainment fields.

One area where there is absolutely no excuse for sloppy or inaccurate writing is science. I and many of my peers have lost track of the number of scripts we have read that exhibit bad writing in this area. Again,do your homework. Seek the advice of an expert in the subject or skill. Finite details aren't necessary, valid conclusions based on exhibited facts are. Any conclusions your character(s) derive must be supported by facts in evidence or reasonable assumptions achieved by a skillful correlation of seemingly disparate facts. Think of the science writing for Bones. True it’s expositional. Such is the bane of most TV writing. For those with an interest in the details for television script format, check out my colleague and fellow ScriptMag columnist, Jen Grisanti, for ways to polish your TV writing skills,

The insistence that conventions (yes they change) do not apply in “My Case” is self-defeating. First time novelists have a format that they follow, an expected word count they adhere to and a structure that fits the genre. First time script writers for feature film or TV are no different. Use the conventions as a guide to help level the playing field.

In this episode we discussed the following, in no particular order:

  1. 1st impression – spec vs. production script
  2. Spec script format
  3. Incorrect style, subject matter or budget requested
  4. Fancy fonts and borders
  5. Missing last pages
  6. Failure to understand the screenwriters role in production
  7. Poaching responsibility from other crafts
  8. Failure to guide the story vs. dictate every detail
  9. Too much ink
  10. Readers and contest script judges may not be what they seem
  11. Bad science
  12. Seek the advice of an expert
  13. Excess or under spec script page count
  14. Master the structure
  15. Create your voice vs. copy others

Review this article, then explain to your satisfaction why these points are valid. If you are the writer, director, producer and financier of your project go ahead and do what you want. What you write is essentially a series of “notes to self.” Not everyone has that luxury.

Contest or agency submissions rarely receive feedback. Some contests may provide minimal notes included in the submission fee, others for an additional fee. Novelists may receive a rejection letter. Most submissions receive no constructive feedback whatsoever.

Next month, the case of the disappearing protagonist and out of character behavior along with Deus Ex Machina and SOCs plus a few others. Tune in as the quest for valid homework evolves.

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