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Why Spec Scripts Fail: Failure To Do Your Homework, Part 4

In our previous homework discussions, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, several reasons spec scripts fail may have seemed obvious or simplistic to some readers... As obvious as looking both ways before you cross the street. Or as basic as not falling prey to “TEXTAHOLISM” while you hold up traffic at a stop light. We must not forget those that feel the urgent need to check the latest social media news as they cross the street. Obvious? True. Understood? Possible. Observed?

Now that’s another question.

Do It or I Chew It Courtesy-cutestpaw

Do It or I Chew It Courtesy-cutestpaw

Let’s start with what constitutes an obvious success story-wise. Now that’s the one million dollar question. First Option: Resist the urge to write more of the same. Second Option: Do something different – don’t follow ‘trends.’ By the time your trend-following-non-independent-similar-story can make it through rewrite, preproduction, production, post production, then distribution, what’s hot is not. The public has moved on while the suits play catch-up with the latest retread of a comic book hero de jour and fail i.e., the Ninja Turtle retread at inflated ticket prices. A check of these stats is a great place to see what genre(s) the audience has historically paid to see. However, I contend that a spec scribe, without a proven history, will have a hard time going up against the “go-to” writer for a producer or director.

If you would rather not take a chance on the “unknown” (read original) and if all you want is immediate gratification, then by all means, follow trends and hope for the best. If not, ask yourself, is the latest super hero retread giant screen video game what you want as a legacy? Or would you rather be known as someone who wrote a story that reflects and enhances the human experience? Consider the likes of Chinatown, Rear Window,The Grapes of Wrath, 2001: A Space Odyssey or Casablanca. Each of these films represents seminal achievements of screenwriting excellence. Rather than just follow a trend, they created one. For you to achieve this level of excellence, you would do better to hone your art of writing a compelling and believable story that attempts to explain or enhance the human condition. Afterward, concentrate on your screenwriting craft or hacking out a script for cash.

In other words, why do you sit down every day to write?

Granted, it is show-business yet, consider how many times one of the more successful franchises was rejected by those who thought they knew good story. Finally, after suffering twelve rejections, The Christopher Little Literary Agency agreed to represent J. K. Rowling. They sold her work to Bloomsbury in the UK, then Scholastic in the U.S.

The rest is history.

She now has more than enough income to keep her comfortable. All because she didn’t follow trends and stuck to her guns.

Do your homework. Start with a review of classic or recent award winning short stories. A preferable choice would be one that is less than one hundred pages to understand how to develop a complete story in as few words as possible. A unique well told story that grabs the reader stands a better chance than a direction-riddled shadow copy of the latest “blockbuster.” Next, search for SPEC SCRIPTS that sold vs. revised drafts or production scripts. A copy of a spec script that sold is a rare commodity. Online scripts may help the art and craft of storytelling however, most provide little format value for a spec script scribe (say this three times fast).

Read all the scripts you can but don’t copy their format. Spec scripts from writers with no caché do not contain instructions to other crafts. This means no instructions to the director, production designer, cinematographer, actor or others. Also, they are written in present tense and driven by active verbs. Eliminate all “He begins to…” or “She thinks about…” or “She feels bad about…” this, that or the other. He or she does, or does not. Feelings, unless manifested, cannot be filmed and by then they are behavior anyway.

The skill you exhibit when you craft your story should make any such professional faux pas redundant. In this highly competitive profession, even some successful scribes now find that when they include “instructions,” it is easy to tick off collaborating professionals. Concentrate on the skilled use of your tools (words, word juxtaposition and white space) then let the others you invite to your party utilize their skills. They, and all the readers will thank you for it.

That said, the total dollars in the number of spec scripts I have read and analyzed, where each require a budget upwards of $100M, would sink a small country under an avalanche of debt. As a spec script writer, your goal to secure funds, a sale or a writing assignment, is better served when you write a tight and vetted breakout script with a minimal budget in mind. Use of car chases, explosions and CGI, create a questionable cost to value ratio for a new writer. Do your homework. Uncover those successful scripts that had a high income to cost ratio (low production cost – high return). As a scribe searching for a way into the industry, think The Blair Witch Project ($20,000 for principle photography) vs Transformers AOE ($210,000,000).


Unless you are self / crowd funded, you have no caché to convince a producer to search for, and then commit to an exorbitant budget. The more your writing reflects minimalism in both writing style and budget, assuming the craft and art of story are evident, the higher the chances of an elusive “green light.” No guarantees for sure, but at least you won’t have shot yourself in the foot at the starting blocks.

Given the above cliché, it’s an apropos segue into another reason why spec scripts fail; worn out cliché story line(s), character situation(s), stereotypical character(s) or any combination thereof.

Girl Doing Homework

Courtesy- Clipartpal

I grant that there are only ten or eleven major story genres; Comedy, Drama, Epic, Erotic, Nonsense, Lyric, Mythopoeia, Romance, Satire, Tragedy, Tragicomedy (which is in itself a combo), or 35 viable combinations/sub genres depending on whose “definitions” you subscribe to. John Truby in his BlockBuster software program and its add-ons, identifies 12 film genres plus 2 TV genres. However, as he so clearly elucidates in his book, Anatomy of Story, today’s story more than previous, requires a two or three genre combination to hold an audience.

When you delve into the anatomy of your story ask the question, what “clothes” does your story skeleton wear and in what order? How you dress the structure of your genre is what is needed to have your genre selection be the same (read familiar) yet different? Recall that all adult humans have the same 206 bones. It’s what covers these bones and to what degree that make humans unique (even twins).

As an example, just east of the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard a little over six weeks ago, I saw a man who was, by observation, an interesting character. He wore seven hats, three baseball caps with the beaks arranged one each over his ears and forehead. These were covered by three floppy sun hats. His “chapeaus de jour” were all topped off with a Lincoln stove pipe. Next to his bare chest, he wore an unfastened blue jeans jacket covered with a white V-neck tee-shirt on top of which was a shredded style tank top. His pants were in the same reverse style. Full length blue jeans covered with black boxers, then Tighty-Whities. He wore flip flops with Christmas style socks tied around his ankles. Over his left shoulder dangled a ‘Hello Kitty’ back pack.

A unique application of standard clothing to say the least. He took what was conventional and made it his own. He most definitely did not bore and the clothing served his purpose, and yet it still served the requirements of society, albeit in an unconventional way. Not Oscar material but, in his case, definitely memorable and by no means cliché. What my erstwhile acquaintance demonstrated, was a unique application of routine clothing. Does what you write create some sort of memorable impression? If not, maybe it’s time to think outside the box.

I spent a long time studying how he did what he did. How he walked, carried himself, who he talked to (not that I could always see them), along with his mannerisms. I contrast this with the subtle and demure behavior I observed from a professional acquaintance in the Starbucks at Trancas Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. She’s a famous English/American actress and at 44, has the looks and figure most women would die for. This lady was involved in a social/business discussion with an equally famous American director while they both waited for the Barista to deliver their drinks. All this couched in a distraction as a parade of jodhpurs or bikini clad and equally attractive females of all ages flowed in and out of the “coffee line.” Their discussion ended long after their drinks were delivered. When they finished, she gave him a business card and left with her two drinks.

Both observations are show vs. tell as the dialogue was inaudible. Both these observations are equally valid and may serve as a later character profile. Both are most definitely “on file.”

Boy Girl Homework

Courtesy-Google Images

Be an observant student of human behavior when you visit (warning cliché) your “favorite watering hole.” Invest the time to study how people act and interact around you. Redirect your attention away from your computer and smartphone and on to those who share your space. If you do function as an observer (not spy) of behavior and vocal mannerisms, you will then write a character from truth rather than fiction, preferably not verbatim. At the very least, this exercise is a genesis for character evolution/development. This technique holds true regardless of your story genre. Failure to invest the necessary time to observe, record then use what happens with the people around you, most often results in a one dimensional character that does not ring true. It is rare that imagination trumps observation.

While I’m on the subject of observation, it is paramount that writers perform due diligence and research their story for all the observable “facts.” This includes not only the character’s changing looks over time, but their evolving skills, flaws, needs, desires, age specific dialogue and behavior in different environments. More on these and the ubiquitous beat next time.

Some of what we covered in this episode, in no particular order:

  1. Research what is successful – Do something different.
  2. Stay in present tense with active verbs.
  3. Consider budget when you write.
  4. Use your writer’s tools
  5. Be minimalist in your writing.
  6. Genre types and combinations.
  7. Avoid worn out cliché character, story, and situations.
  8. Be a student of human behavior.
  9. Show Not Tell. (S.NOT.T)
  10. Invest the time to research story, character and environment.

Copyright ©2014 by Stewart Farquhar All Rights Reserved. No portion of this article may be copied, reprinted, or reposted without the permission of the author. However links to the article are encouraged.

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