One of the most often repeated bits of screenwriting advice bestowed upon the aspiring, from the non-aspiring, is ‘make sure there’s something compelling on every page.' This seemingly innocent, helpful, and mildly obvious advice has been so thoroughly misinterpreted by writers, directors, producers, and studio executives that it’s become a major contributor to the massive problems we have in screen storytelling today.
But don’t worry, there’s a remarkably easy solution. Kinda.
The problem starts with the definition of ‘something compelling’. Far FAR too many people in the movie business equate ‘compelling’ to ‘loud’. Or ‘funny’. Or ‘gory’. Or ‘BIG’. Make every page a page-turner. Give the reader a reason to keep reading. You’ve heard it, I know I have. It’s garbage. I’m a fan of large stunts, of movies that include cinematic wonder and majesty. Loud and big have their place, and should always. But never on every page.
A truly compelling script knows how to balance the loud and big, with the small and emotional. If there’s too much of one, and not enough of the other, the movie or TV series usually fails. And the spec script by the unsigned writer definitely crashes and burns.
Let’s look at a great example of the balance I’m talking about – the Amazon Prime series The Boys. If you’ve heard of it, then you know it’s known for extreme language (the C word is common), and extreme violence – heads exploding kinda stuff. In a 60-minute episode, I would say the graphic violence probably totals about 1 minute. Yes, I said ONE. The rest of the series focuses on the ever-evolving relationships between the leading characters as they grapple with their emotional states, and all the crap unfolding around them. This is a heavy character study series, dressed up as a violent action show. They’ve had 3 successful seasons, and to much acclaim.
Do you think the Avengers movies would have earned as much if they didn’t invest heavily in the emotional journeys of the characters so people with no interest in comics were hooked? Look at Titanic – think the special effects were the reason that movie earned a boatload of cash?
I see so many scripts trying hard to adhere to whatever genre tropes the writer has chosen, whilst ignoring the emotional side of things. As if the writer is thinking ‘this is a comedy, I have to be hilarious on every page,’ or ‘this is an action movie, I need stuff to blow up all the freaking time to show how imaginative I am with stunts.’ The characters are treated more like watermelons on sticks…moving in and out of scenes serving no real purpose and adding nothing of genuine value from an audience perspective.
If you’re writing a spec, you’ve been told to be compelling on every page, and you know you’re being read by an overwhelmed manager, producer, or your Mom, you feel pressure to keep them ‘entertained.’ It takes an enormous amount of courage to write a comedy that has moments where the lead character is vulnerable, not hilarious. Or the action hero who pauses to cry/feel real human emotion. Because you’ve been told the worst sin an unsigned writer can commit is ‘boredom.’ I get it. I’ve been there. Often. But those moments define most successful projects. Fast and Furious anyone?
Let me assure you – as someone who reads 400 scripts a year, and has found writers who have gone on to representation and actual paid work – please explore all the meanings of ‘compelling’ in your script. Whatever genre.
If you load a comedy with nothing but ‘jokes’ – you are doomed. If you load an action movie with nothing but the best action ever written – you are doomed.
Explore the quiet moments. Find the courage to give your audience characters who feel genuine human emotions. Change the pace. Deliberately. You know when you go to an awesome concert – it’s not wall-to-wall anthems. Ebbs and flows. Ebbs are compelling. You need ebbs to make the flows that much better. Control your audience’s emotional experience, and your script will soar.
I know it’s scary. Jokes/action/sci-fi descriptions are easier. But the more you take your audience on a well-rounded journey with moments big and small, the more your script will become truly ‘compelling.’