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Why Spec Scripts Fail: Ignorance vs. Arrogance

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 4,000 scripts for private and studio clients.

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Courtesy Google Images

"Knowledge makes people humble. Arrogance makes people ignorant." I wish I knew the correct author of that thought. The desire to write a successful spec script is an amorphous endeavor and it is best done from a position of knowledge. When writers think they have “The Formula,” it’s then the requirements and/or the needs change. I’m the first to admit that no writing coach or reader, including me, is an arrogant expert on screenwriting or for that matter writing in any form. Opinionated maybe, arrogant no. We can only share those writing requirements expected in today’s market. Many of us may be ignorant in a variety of subjects. However, we are on a constant quest to expand our knowledge base to meet the needs of our clients. What many coaches can do with alacrity and clarity is identify the subject matter flaws and story skill ignorance of a scribe.

Many writers have created a single masterpiece, and some very few have made a moderate to successful career by their continued desire to focus on the craft of writing as it evolves. The ultra-successful scribes are adept in creating characters and worlds that generate a strong emotional connection to the audience. If there is a Holy Grail for writers a successful bond with an audience is it. Their story facts are true to the original premise that created their story. They are not arrogant; they are confident. They know and understand the rules and how to bend them. Their characters live in a world that entices the reader or viewer on a visceral level. These successful writers quell their ignorance by an insatiable desire for knowledge. While it is true some authors and scribes create an outline and expand it with a variety of different names and situations over and over again they are skilled enough to include several twists and nuances to make their story seem new and fresh.

Then there are those who choose to guide emerging writers and, by experience, know what works. Many of these guides came from other successful careers. Several of them are also accomplished writers.

That said, why does the reader, writer, or coach bother to teach, write books, lecture or pontificate ad nauseum on the subject of writing? One reason is that we feel for the scribe who spends months or years in the creation of something that is destined for failure. In many cases to an experienced reader or analyst the value of a script is evident at the title page and page one.

Courtesy Google Images

Courtesy Google Images

What all of us do, to varying degrees, is share what we have learned over the years in various aspects of the business and in life. Even the value of that knowledge evolves. An ink heavy script like Sunset Boulevard would not pass a first level reader today. In fact, when Casablanca was renamed Frank’s Place and recirculated to entry readers it failed to pass muster. The style that worked for Cecil B. DeMille or Billy Wilder may not work in today’s market. It’s a juggling game that even the “execs” sometimes master.

As a spec scribe, your responsibility is to use writing as an opportunity to learn and become proficient in the art and skill of story. Use this time to overcome the blunders that mar your break-out tome. Create a continuous stream of product because you have the need and desire to become proficient at what your passion tells you to write. Give yourself permission to be ignorant yet temper that ignorance with the desire for knowledge. Resist the urge to chase the current trends and/or money.

The lack of industry knowledge is okay as along as it is accompanied by a burning desire for information. Do not be arrogant and assume you have the caché to buck the system. Even if you choose the indie route with Other People’s Money the rules still apply. Play by these rules, gain recognition then write your version of Lethal Weapon, Pulp Fiction or Die Hard (these overused formats are not recommended).

If you choose “Gnomes in the Garden” as a topic, become the resident expert on Gnomes and their garden habitats, but don’t let us see how you “fabricate” their relationships and world. If you write with arrogance and assume that just because you write the story that’s enough you will soon realize that it’s not. You must first succinctly entice the audience into the new environment with just enough salient details to help said audience convince themselves what they see or read is real. You will get “fact checked” (read as ‘are you consistent?'). You must set up your world in advance. All this means is that you must impress the reader with the scope and pertinent details (resist “detailitus”) of your story world. Everything that emanates from the seminal “lie” must follow in a logical manner.

At times a novice writer may feel like Sisyphus, only in this case steeped in desire and clouded in ignorance, destined to commit the same unfortunate writing faux pas ad infinitum. By the way, all of us are, to varying degrees, ignorant. It is the failure to acknowledge this fact and blindly push ahead that defines arrogance. All writers regardless of genre, style or experience continue to learn. In these times with the ubiquitous access to instant facts a writer can easily get lost in a mired of competing “experts." Just a note: A one-time sale or success or a contest win does not an “expert” make. In the same vein a knowledgeable coach need not have been a former player. Just look for a writing coach with substantial recommendations on their website or LinkedIn rather than one with a slick book cover, lecture series, DVD cover or a website with a whole lot for sale.

To my knowledge, none of the contributors to Script claims to be an arrogant expert. What many of us are is the proud possessors of some modicum of knowledge that will assist writers of all levels as they navigate along their tortuous journey to eventual success. Your job, as an emerging scribe, is to filter and distill this collective knowledge to assuage your ignorance and forward your careers. Don’t be arrogant and say, “I’ll just do it my way, thank you.” Use the available combined knowledge to your advantage.

Courtesy Google Images

Courtesy Google Images

You can always look up the latest grammar fad or rule de jour. The trick is knowing where to look and what to use. The majority is not always correct. One time in our not too distant past debtor’s prisons and ‘witch’ dunking were espoused and supported by the majority. The real challenge for a writer is to stay true to the genre (majority) yet turn the story around in a unique way. This way you give the audience what they need as well as what they want.

There are books, tapes (yes, still available), CDs, DVDs, live seminars, college courses, and columnists galore all of which have something valuable to impart. Learn as much as you can, write as much as you can, then apply as much as you can. Absorb what you can and make your own the wisdom from as many teachers as you can.

Understand that one formula does not fit all genres. Writing to page count is like saying all cakes have the same recipe. Although both are cakes, the recipe for a Bundt cake is not the same as one for a sponge cake. Neither is an action, myth, mystery, formula/structure/“recipe” the same as a wartime love story. Similar elements exist but story evolution is different in both timing and content while the structure remains similar. No, I’m not talking formulaic writing. What I am asking you to do is shelve your arrogance. Arrogance does little more than perpetuate ignorance. I invite you to learn the craft of writing inside out from as many diverse sources as possible then bend the rules (Pulp Fiction, Crash, Babel).

As I wrote in the last of the Homework Series strict attention to formulae without concomitant attention to genre and story related structure is a waste of time for both you and the reader. By all means create an original story that demonstrates both your skill as a storyteller and your mastery of the written word. One caveat: do it in concert with industry conventions to reduce the possibility of an immediate toss. Understand that these conventions exist as filters and are widely adhered to by entry level readers. Also, understand that if you create a story that compels the reader to turn the page, he or she will look for a way to pass your script up the line vs. just pass on your script. A story that involves the reader means that minor errors may be overlooked. However, don’t count on it happening.

Courtesy Google Images

Courtesy Google Images

I ask many of my clients and students to practice writing in other forms. Some of the more independent insist that they can write their “Modern Haiku” in seventeen syllables instead of seventeen morae. It took a while but they all now understand the value and importance of the correct format (granted English syllables do not translate well). A Haiku is the original “Twitter.” My point is that while both verse in seventeen syllables and seventeen morae are poetic forms, they have distinct rules/conventions/requirements. The only option is the content. And yes, the modern haiku format/structure has evolved. It is also presented in a different way in English and Japanese. Your major choice is to know how to bend the rules in order for your story stand out from the maelstrom of formulaic meanderings that suck at the market's energy daily.

First and foremost assure that your concept is fresh or a fresh approach to an old experience and not just a blatant rehash of a previously successful endeavor. Witness how fast the public tired of the most recent Transformers debacle. Forgo the urge to drag out the worn out cliché plot /characters. Instead introduce some unique twists. If you haven’t seen The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, written by David S. Ward, I strongly encourage you to invest the time in both the movie and the script. Note how the sequel, The Sting II also written by Ward, did half as well. One guess why?

Unless you are the “Go To” writer or showrunner, it is in your best interest to adhere to established conventions. Thanks to Louis B. Mayer in 1932, gone is the era of a writer with rights. All that remains is a writer who has options. The first of which is TO WRITE, the second is to WRITE WITH PASSION and the third is to WRITE WITH PASSION AND CONVICTION vs. with ignorance and arrogance.

Courtesy Google Images

Courtesy Google Images

I do not imply that original is arrogant. Original is the artful and informed portrayal of the essence of the human experience we all share. You, the writer, are encouraged to relate a story in a world of your own creation. However, regardless of the world you creat,e and no matter the “lie” you base the story and characters on, everything else that happens in your world MUST be true to that one “lie.” We all accept the fact there are no wizards, however J. K. Rowling was always true to her original “lie” and related an original story based on shared human experiences.

Your explanation will never trump a reader’s imagination. Don’t be arrogant and assume that you have to explain every detail and nuance to a “neophyte uninformed” reader. As I mentioned earlier many readers have advanced degrees. Let your audience buy into your story. Allow them to remain “ignorant” yet full of soon to be answered questions. Encourage your audience to fill in the blanks as your script unfolds. Everyone loves a mystery that they can solve, even when they get the answer wrong (The Sting). What they resent are the non-sequiturs and unfounded conclusions based on illogical facts.

Invest considerable effort to understand what your characters think and feel. Know your character in every detail, what motivates them and why. When you are true to the seminal story “lie,” your characters will guide you. This is when you will create from knowledge vs. exhibit the need to hide your ignorance with arrogant writing. The story then flows with actions true to that one “lie.”

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

  1. No one claims to be an expert
  2. Learn rather than copy from those who have gone before
  3. Create an internal burning desire to write
  4. Connect with your audience
  5. Quench ignorance with knowledge
  6. Acknowledge then satiate ignorance
  7. Create a continuous stream of product
  8. Don’t be like Sisyphus
  9. How to forward your career
  10. Majority does not always equal correct
  11. Learn your genre recipe vs. formulaic one size fits all.
  12. Create a page turner
  13. Originality is expected and encouraged rather than a rehash
  14. Write with passion and conviction
  15. Make your passion and conviction shine
  16. Know your characters inside and out
  17. Let your audience participate in your guided creation
  18. Stay true to your one story “lie”
  19. Encourage the audience’s participation
  20. Understand your character
  21. Create from knowledge

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