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Why Spec Scripts Fail - Failure To Do Your Homework - Part 3

In the previous articles of this Homework series, Part 1 and Part 2, we touched on a few of the reasons spec scripts end up as “virtual garden mulch” or “recycled electrons.”

I paraphrased a quote in Part 2 attributed to Linda Voorhees that addresses paring down your script during the re-write process. With her kind permission here is the entire quote.

  • If the dialogue is 6 lines---can you get it down to 4?
  • If "" 4 "" 2?
  • If "" 2 "” 1?
  • If "" 1 line "" half a line?
  • If "" 2 words "" 1 word?
  • If "" 1 word "" a grunt, a grimace or a gesture?

Note the subtext. Use tight sentences with minimum words. Use declarative language to form clear thoughts on the page.

No Homework

This concept is so important that I recommend you cut out this quote and post it next to your current Theme in your writing space. You do have your current Theme (read as scene filter) posted around your writing space, correct?

In fact, it’s a good idea to have several posts that motivate your writing. Pictures of locations, characters’ equipment, sunsets or clouds. Specific story related posts to help keep you in the writing zone. You have to do your homework to discover what will help you write.

Paul Chitlik’s book, Rewrite, also addresses the art of paring down your script with specific examples. Both Linda and Paul have many years of experience teaching and guiding both emerging and established writers toward their writing goals.

On the topic of goals, let’s revisit the protagonist. If the main character in your story along with evidence of his or her flaw and goal is not front and center in most of the scenes (not all) the reader will sense someone is AWOL. In their mind, the story starts to unravel and they will “toss” the script. The fate of the absent protagonist is literary deletion. You may have tossed a novel or script you have yet to finish for this very reason. It is also one of the occult reasons a theatrical release disappoints.

At the start of your story, it is paramount that the audience develop an affinity with the Hero/Heroine and consciously or subliminally recognize their flaw and goal. These are part of what leads to the journey of your protagonist. This journey and its resolution are what interests the audience. Hence, the reason it is imperative you keep the audience and protagonist connected in as many scenes as possible. These scenes must either move the story forward or reveal some crucial aspect of your hero/heroine. Don’t let your protagonist devolve into a disappearing character or your spec script will disappear into the round file.

As part of storytelling, your lead is imbued with a certain skill set. To abruptly attribute a different skill set is a lie that will not fly. If you have spent the first sixty minutes of your story detailing how much of a computer wiz your socially inept hero is, the audience will not accept that s/he is able to change skill sets and become a Chef de Partie. This out of character behavior (if not adroitly foreshadowed) is one lie too many. You did know that you are allowed only one “lie” per story, right? Think Harry Potter is a wizard. The remaining stories and events in the adventures of Harry, Hermione, and Ron are true to that one “lie”.

Now that I brought up wizards, and by inference magic, let’s explore Scenes Of Convenience (SOCs) and Deus Ex Machina (DEMs). Both are magical solutions for a seemingly unsolvable script quandary. The inappropriate use of these literary tools indicate that the story / script is the work of an amateur writer. By use of these writing methods, the scribe demonstrates a lack of the understanding of story structure. Even worse, the writer shows a failure to develop the necessary skills in the protagonist so that s/he can become the true harbinger of their own fate.


Courtesy Google Images

Failure to do your homework and realistically (within the world you create – more like Harry Potter than Avatar) attribute the necessary skills to your characters, including secondary characters, leaves holes in your story. Many novice writers feel that a sudden skill revelation or SOC is a great way to develop a character’s depth. A sudden “out of the blue” ability is not only unbelievable, it is downright irritating. You have probably experienced this feeling and didn’t know why the story you watched or read didn’t ring true for you.

Recall all the James Bond movies. What does he do during the first ten minutes? He demonstrates the skill set he will draw on for his new adventure. It is true that Bond builds on previous skill sets, however, you always believe that he can do what is required to vanquish the villain and save the day. Your interest is how he uses his new skills. In recent films, he’s been assisted on his journey by an equally capable female co-star.

A close cousin to SOCs is Deus Ex Machina, Latin for God from the Machine. This is an ancient Greek plot device where the solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem is solved by some writer contrived intervention. Today, it is rarely used successfully except as a comedic or farcical device. Even then, its successful use is foreshadowed.

Many times, the writer has “Painted the story into a corner.” In Greek Theatre, to solve this quandary a character literally descends center stage and makes everything right. This device allowed the writer to move the story forward, and come to some resolution.


No SOCs or DEMs if you wish to be considered as a skilled scribe...2 A cavalry charge over the hill when all seems lost, if the cavalry hasn't previously been seen or mentioned, is the modern equivalent of Deus Ex Machina.

Do your homework. Structure your story with believable scenes and a protagonist who has a skill set where both are true to the world and genre you created on page 1 (you did create it on page 1, right?).

On the subject of created worlds, don’t forget the here and now. Failure to study the world around you, and then use it to create a “realistic” on-the-page-adventure is our next area for discussion. Notice realistic is in quotes. Any ideas why? The more realistic scripts are action-based vs. dialogue-based. Study the world around you to understand the speech cadence of various language speakers or regional English speakers. DO NOT write dialogue in dialect or a foreign language. Big hint… Don’t write real dialogue... It’s boring. Write essential dialogue in English, and indicate which dialogue is in a certain dialect or language. Then, only write what is absolutely necessary (see Linda Voorhees quote).

Motion pictures started off as silent moving (action) pictures with minimal on screen “dialogue.” When sound arrived in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, movies became talkies. It didn’t take long for filmmakers to realize that characters were better represented by their physical behavior vs. what they or another character said to or about them. Dialogue became an enhancement rather than a focus. Soliloquies are out, unless one is character and story specific. Think The King’s Speech as a story where the long speech is important. It is the crux/goal of the story. Study how people speak, not what they say.

When censorship was rampant in the late 1930’s to the mid 1960’s, dialogue was king. Occult dialogue with double entendres and crafty subtext was the only means actors, writers, and directors could portray sex, and still evade the censor’s “scissors.” Today, transformers, superheroes, and their ilk are on-the-nose video games played out on the big screen. This negates the need for thoughtful dialogue.

I digress.

However, in today’s spec scripts in order to create “realistic” entertainment dialogue, cut out hello, goodbye, well, and, but, character names, redundant information, long speeches etc. Unless any of these are a character’s attribute essential to the story, get rid of them. The more extraneous words you remove from your “invitation to participate” the more room you have in your 95-105 page script for the journey of your protagonist.

In this episode we covered the following in no particular order:

  • Linda Voorhees quote
  • Paul Chitlik’s – Rewrite
  • Protagonist front and center
  • Hero / Heroine and audience
  • Protagonist skill set
  • One “LIE” per story world
  • SOCs & DEMs
  • Set up your world on page 1
  • Create realistic vocal cadence
  • Write dialogue in English
  • Silent to talkies when dialogue was king
  • Delete non-essential words

Review this article, then explain to your satisfaction why these points are valid. As we said in Part 2, 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.

Homework To Do

Courtesy Michelle G.

If you want to break through and replace the go to writer that a producer, A-list actor, or a director has come to rely upon you have to be 110% better than your competition. A tight spec script with a story that compels the reader’s attention all the way to fade out, will mark you as an accomplished scribe worthy of consideration.

Tune in next month as we continue our discussion on the value of homework.

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