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Why Spec Scripts Fail: Failure to Do Your Homework - Part 5

Together we explored some aspects of screenwriting homework and how the failure to apply yourself to its completion is a reason why many spec scripts fail. It’s important to understand that these should be considered less as rules and more as filters that an overworked, underpaid and, in some environments, highly stressed reader uses to pass judgment on your submission.

It has never been my goal in this homework series to promulgate a bunch of “writer’s rules.” Rather, it is to offer some insight as to why you have not and may never hear from that agent, contest, or insider friend you sent your twelve months of blood, sweat, and tears to.

Script Printer Circa 1925

Script Printer Circa 1925

In the manual typewriter era (an “antique” hand operated “single sheet printer” for the MS, Apple and Android users), most scripts received a complete read-through. Unfortunately today, everyone with a computer and formatting software feels that they can write a script. This may be true. However, where many fail is in the story department. Just copying a format found on the internet or in a book is problematic. If you copy vs understand the reason why, you are doomed. To reduce this possibility, refer to The Screenwriters Bible by David Trottier. His information is focused toward the spec writer vs the established scribe.

There has been that rare virgin screenplay scribe who gets his or her script into, through and out of the system, with a successful finished product. The unfortunate reality is that, due to the virtual deluge of material, over ninety-nine percent of all submitted scripts don’t make it past the first three scenes. This is down from the first ten pages just five years ago.

Yeah it sucks.

A fellow Script Magazine contributor, Corey Mandell has an excellent article that I would advise novice writers and even some “old timers” read and take to heart. He mentions that ninety-eight percent of spec scripts are dead on arrival. Today, a recent comparison of scripts and outlines registered with the WGAw vs. spec scripts sold, fully funded, moved into production, moved out of production, realized, distributed, that show a profit against cost or return on investment (ROI) is now less than one percent. Even some vehicles with twelve super stars tank. Can you see how it makes sense not to irritate the reader with non-standard writing and non-industry standard format?

If you still think formulae are the way to write, consider Pixar’s recent formulaic disaster. Many formulae pontifications are proscriptive vs. organic. They can’t all be the same. Even an autopsy of a story shows subtle differences. Obviously, if you are entirely self-funded this criteria changes. The use of other people’s money (OPM) requires a script that complies to industry standards. Failure to head this convention is a major reason you may never hear back from your submission.

Many of us who read for a living and or teach and coach writers in all formats are frequently asked to justify or explain the criteria or methodology we use to assess or analyze a writer’s material. I grant that I have a certain subject matter bias – I decline war stories and scripts. Others may have a similar predilection. However, ALL of the professional readers I know want the new script or novel in front of them to be a breakout product.

Ray Morton, also a fellow Script Magazine contributor and script reader, explains the analysis process he uses in this article. The points he makes regarding his process are to varying degrees, part of every reader’s, analyst’s, development executive’s, and producer’s evaluation process, A director and an A-list actor are also in the mix yet most times with slightly different criteria. A side note: Don’t blame the reader if he or she can’t follow your convoluted story on the first and only read through (this assumes the first three scenes intrigue). A dirty little secret in contests without paid feedback: Many scripts that don’t pass muster by page ten may be skimmed or summarily tossed.

If you doubt this assertion, ask yourself how long you take to make a decision on which book to read (you do still read books, right?) or what TV show or movie to watch? Let me take a wild guess – less than one minute? It’s most certainly less than five minutes (i.e. five pages). Many times it’s just a cover, one-sheet or an online review that cements your decision.

It’s the same with scripts.

The convoluted story brings me to the wandering genre syndrome. I have read some agency, client and contest work that suffers from genre schizophrenia and a host of other personality disorders. I discussed genre selection in a previous article along with how all of today’s successful novels, screenplays and TV scripts are stories first and format second. There is also a mix of genres, usually one major genre and no more than two (preferably one) additional genre. Don’t interpret this statement to mean format is not important. It’s very important. It is of no value unless you have a compelling story.

There is nothing worse for a scribe than to have a story hook the reader only to have that same story go schizoid somewhere in a dead zone of “act two” (act two in the theatrical sense, really doesn’t exist by the way).

”Your assignment, should you choose to accept it,” is to research the thirty-five major story genres and fully understand which ones can naturally go together. I mentioned twelve film and two TV genres in one of my previous articles. You can drop me an email if you get stuck. Include what you have discovered in the body of the email for a response.

Last time I promised to discuss the non-existent term, “beat.” The fact that it may exist in some production script online is no excuse for a SPEC SCRIPT writer to use it. Although some writers feel it is cool to use the term “beat” in dialogue, there is no such animal. This is where it pays to do your homework instead of blindly copying someone’s error.

Little "Bits" of Action

Little "Bits" of Action

There are those that claim that this word has a somewhat cloudy origin. They therefore, feel justified in assigning some vague period of time to it. One major source attributes the term to Constantin Stanislavski, a Russian actor /director (1863-1938). For him it was principally “A Unit Of Action” to help actors determine “The Bits” of text not a pause in dialogue. His method of deconstructing a play was a way to help the actor determine the construct of a character. His strong Russian accent morphed “Bits” to “Beats”. A “Bit”/”Beat” is a unit of action not a unit of time. Regardless, the use of the term in a script or play only serves to identify an amateur or hack writer no matter where they are in their career. To provide a clue to the actor of some character related action / behavior requires more skill than “insert beat here”. Tell me the last time you saw the term in a novel?

There are three legitimate reasons to break dialogue with a parenthetical: 1) (Soto) under the character name, indicates a change in dialogue volume: 2) (To John) the dialogue is directed to a third character and 3) (dialogue off another character’s behavior or look). The last one is problematic and is more creative if it comes from an action line. I know Dickens did it and production scripts do it, therefore a spec script writer can do it. Wrong.

Action Occupies Time?

Action Occupies Time?

One could get all Einstein or Stephen Hawking here and claim that action occupies time. Then we would have to go on and prove time exists and is not a human construct.

If you must direct the actor consider instead of “A Beat” break the dialogue with related action. This action will convey to the actor (without directing the actor) your intent. Just as you use the look of your words on the page to convey “Shots” to the director, use the content and choice of your words to convey “intent” to an actor. The use of “beats” indicates a failure to do your homework. It screams lazy writer. If all else is equal, the use of “Beat” will lower your ranking in many quality screenwriting contests.

I realize that words and usage evolve over time. I also acknowledge that words can assume a multitude of meanings or definitions – Michael Jackson’s “I’m Bad” or “Gay” or any currently non-politically correct word – however, it’s the writer’s responsibility to convey your true intent on the page by the use of succinct active and evocative words.

Give the actor something to do vs. nothing. It is a failed writer who leaves the actor or director to search for a non-existent length of time (“A Beat”) in an attempt to figure out the author’s intent. It is also a rude story interruption.

Now that we have reached the end of this homework series let me first encourage you to write in any format that works for you. As my good friend and fellow Script Magazine contributor Marilyn Horowitz says, “Don’t get it right, get it written.” After your words are on the page, you can go back and clean them up.

Most writers are, by nature, solitary individuals who “sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark, dock awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp, shock” of what will be an unfortunate and unceremonious rejection of the fruit of months of a writer’s life. That is not how they start out. It is however, the fate for those who are not 110 percent better than the current “go to” writer.

To counter this morbid thought and revitalize your muse, leave home and heed the behavior and conversations of those around you. “Write as if you are in love then edit as if you are in debt.” Conserve your words to leave more room for story. Do your homework to create that unique story that has the same support structure as every story, yet will draw a reader in to experience your brand new world.

It is always alright to disagree, it’s best to do it without being disagreeable. If you “totally, for sure” disagree with any advice “pundits of persuasion” provide then I’m sure you will gather comfort from Joyce Carol Oates, “Best tip for writers: Never listen to silly tips for writers.”

Write On Paper First

Write On Paper First

One final note: Finish your script regardless of your feelings about what you have written or how it turned out. Let the characters take you, the writer, on a journey. Who knows, they may take you and others on one hell of an odyssey.

For a change of pace, put the electronics away and take out the only computer that wont crash, brain, pen and paper then write. You can format your story later.

What we covered in this installment in no particular order are:

  1. Failure to complete homework
  2. Filters vs. rules
  3. Don’t copy on-line format use Dr. Format
  4. The first three scenes
  5. Spec script reject rate
  6. Use of OPM
  7. A reader’s and analyst’s secret longing
  8. The story analysis process
  9. A dirty little contest secret
  10. Time to rejection
  11. Wandering genre
  12. Story is first
  13. Genre association “homework”
  14. The origin of the non-existent “Beat”
  15. Give the actor something to do
  16. When to clean up your work
  17. The 110 percent criteria
  18. Conserve your words
  19. Write to agreeably disagree
  20. Finish your script
  21. Enjoy the odyssey

Get more tips on how to impress a reader with
Getting Past the Reader: A Writer's Guide to Production Company Readers