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WHY DO SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Formula vs. Structure Continued

Stewart Farquhar answers a reader's email on how to get spec scripts noticed in this challenging industry.

Stewart Farquhar answers a reader's email on how to get spec scripts noticed in this challenging industry.

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For this month, rather than an article that continues our Formula vs. Structure discussion I would like to post an email I received from a reader to TheReadersCompany.comcontact email along my responses to his questions.

I am curious if you are saying that Most new screenplays fail, because someone is just trying to sell hope from their books?

How then does the first timer get their screenplays out their (sic) to be sold and made into a movie?

I have been playing around and trying to learn screenplay style of writing for the last 24 years. I think I may have read 50 or more books on screen writing?

Where do you learn then? I read somewhere that it takes 8 to 12 screenplays that needs to be written to learn the craft? it has to be the fourth draft before you show it?

Thanks for your time.

Best wishes,

To his and your concerns.

Many screenwriters come up short in the middle of their first draft because they have not waded through the specifics of their character’s story, explored their ideas in detail and/or used the development process to carve out a conclusive path from “Fade In” to “Fade Out.”

When they start their characters on a journey, a writer needs to be more interested in the process than the format. In almost all cases, a writer invariably sits down and starts writing without exploring the story concepts, characters and circumstances first in their mind before they put pen to paper (I recommend that you embrace the emotional connection that comes from handwriting your first draft). As a result, they eventually become lost along with their characters. I’m not talking about “Pantsers” vs. “Outliners.” I’m simply referring to what is the emotional rollercoaster the characters are about to experience.

Debate and Tips for Outlining a Script

The most important skill to develop as a writer is what I refer to as The Art of Story. New writers of all ilk, and especially screenwriters, don’t fail because they purchase, read and study books. I have over 130 devoted to just writing and story plus close to 2,500 reference, fiction and non-fiction texts that cover a variety of topics. The scribe invariably fails because these books, by self-proclaimed experts, contradict each other.

As with any business, there are those practitioners who claim to possess the secret formula or elixir for success. These gurus specialize in classes, books, seminars and screenwriting expos to promote their “Writing Strategy de Jour.” Many cherry-pick scripts or films to prove their method correct. This is why many films over the last 40 years appear to be from the same mold.

A novice writer should learn to tell a story that first captivates, then concern themselves with format or style. Your style will evolve the more you write.

Here are some excellent sources I encourage you to consider. They will help you study then master your own unique twist on The Art of Story.

  1. Anthologies of short stories in any genre.
  2. Award-winning scripts from before 1980.
  3. Silent movies from before 1930.
  4. Some Pay-Per-View series.
  5. Any Alfred Hitchcock film.
  6. Your life.

While you immerse yourself in research, practice writing your scripts as a 30-page or less short story. This will help you flesh out your character’s journey. A writer learns by writing. By all means you can first try out your efforts on friends and family. That, followed by a rapid move to strangers who don’t have a vested interested in your emotional well-being. Strangers are more likely to give the unvarnished truth. What you are searching for is a story that connects on an emotional rather than a strictly intellectual level.

Creating an Emotional Connection with the Reader

Don’t concern yourself with the quantity of screenplays written or the number of the draft you are on. Instead, concentrate on finding your way to connect to an audience. Concern yourself with the content, conviction and “convincibility” of your story. As a storyteller you are allowed only one lie. Your entire story world must remain true to that lie, and that story must come from the character’s objective rather than the writer’s need. When you can accomplish this, then you’ll connect with your audience.

True, various styles and genre have conventional formats. However, over time, even some of these evolve and, in some cases, make a radical change. A good story is universal and resonates through time.

As to where to learn?

Other than the six suggestions above, the best way to learn to write is to write and not worry about how good or bad it is. Flush your creative reservoir with drivel if that is what it takes. Eventually the creative pump will be primed and the stories will start to flow.

A screenwriting formula has a tendency to restrict rather than enhance and expand creativity and YOUR ability to tell a story. As I mentioned in my first article on Formula vs. Structure, certain styles, like Haiku, have a strict three-line 5,7,5 syllable format. Yet, as we all know from our own life experiences, adherence to a strict formula doesn’t always yield the most rewarding results.

Format is important. However, it is only important after you have mastered TheArt Of Story. A story that compels the audience (reader) to become immersed in your character’s journey. This is essential for all story form, including the Haiku which is essentially a story of 17 syllables in three lines.

There are two seminal books, whose authors I know but books I have no financial interest in, that will help you with screenplay “style” after you master The Art of Story.

  1. David Trottier – The Screenwriter’s Bible
  2. Paul Chitlik – Rewrite

Trottier will show how to put your story on paper in today’s accepted spec script format. Chitlik will help you through the rewrite process with how and what to trim from your tome.

These books will only help you after you create a story that will command an audience’s attention and then connect with that audience on some emotional level.

Story first. Format second.

You can consider a writing group for feedback, but beware the egos. Remember to take notes and to just say, “Thank You.”

As to how to sell your work.

Winning a reputable screenwriting contests will get you and your work noticed. (Use as a source. As a screenwriting judge I cannot make any recommendations). However, your entry into contests comes much later. In today’s market, you may only get one chance per script as entries into reputable contests are tracked. (Unfortunately, there are many less-than-honest “contests.”)

Bottom-line: Treat books as a possible reference, along with advice, including mine, with a grain of salt, and do your own due diligence. What is important is that you continue to write. Write in such a way that the audience is emotionally moved by the journey your characters experience.

More articles by Stewart Farquhar
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