Updated: Dec 23, 2019
By Dan Hoffmann
A few minutes ago you finally pounded the words "Fade out" onto the last page of your screenplay and naturally, you are excited to have completed a whole screenplay. And, in a few days, when you are done celebrating, you are ready to take the next step; Selling it.
Unfortunately, the movie industry on the west coast is a lot like popping a can of soda. Once, you've popped the can and the fizz is out, the fizz is out and there's no way of putting it back in. So, if you happen to be among those many who pitch a screenplay before its ready, you can't go back at a later time and re-pitch it again, even if you've re-written it.
I can not tell you how many times I've sat through pitch meetings with producers, in my capacity as a script consultant. If the screenplay had been pitched before and rejected, they would refuse to even read a script the second time around
- Even if the writer had re-written it.
You, see when a studio invests time in reading a screenplay, they aren't likely to go back an re-evaluate their first rejection, even if you have re-written your screenplay, since last. They've spent time and money on evaluating the first time - money they are never getting back.
First impressions, as they say, do last. And that's why it's so important to make sure your screenplay is ready before you shop it around.
But how do you know if your screenplay is ready? This series of articles will give you some pointers in the shape of questions and answers. - Questions that I urge you to ask yourself honestly if you want to improve your chances of selling your script.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT GENRE YOUR SCREENPLAY IS?
You might think this is a silly question. Of course, you know what genre your screenplay is!!!
But do you really?
During my years as a Studio reader, more often than not, we wouldn't agree with the screenwriters' genre label. And, that's a very bad thing.
So, you've written a Horror script. And your reason for labeling it that way is obvious to you. Your story has demons, ghosts, vampires or zombies and you have innocent victims being slaughtered in gory ways, so, it's automatically a Horror screenplay, right?
A Horror screenplay is supposed to be scary. very scary. And monsters of any stripes is not gonna do it for you. Don't think that just because you've added monsters and gore and scenes wherein people get killed in gory ways, make it scary. It doesn't.
Writing stories that scare is a craft that involves a lot of things.
It's about the slow build-up of the atmosphere. It's about timing, charging the situations the right way, setups and payoffs, knowing the difference between shock, suspense and surprise and orchestrating these things carefully and more than anything it about knowing your sub-genre, your plot-form, and your subtext.
Let me break it down for you:
So, let's say you've written a Horror story. What Horror plot is it?
There are 8 horror plots in existence. Which one is it?
It makes a huge difference because each of those plots is structured in specific ways and if your screenplay fails to understand that, it won't be scary.
And then there's the issue of Subtext. The subtext is what makes a horror movie scary. If you don't know what that subtext is, I can tell you right now, that your story is not scary.
The bottom line is that Horror is supposed to be scary. Comedies are supposed to be funny, thrillers are supposed to be suspenseful and so on. That's what genres are. Labeling a movie as a comedy when it's not funny, makes no sense to a studio because the comedy is the selling point, not the genre.
However, all these things are just symptoms. Let's look at the real problem.
The real problem is twofold.
1) As most writers you do not know what your writing looks like to others, least of all to professionals.
2) You do not know your genre intimately enough.
And here are some solutions to those problems:
When you work alone, It's very easy to get wrapped up in your own bubble of self-deceit.
Every writer who works alone thinks that their writing is great.
The good thing about writing alone is also, that no-one gets to decide, but you, what to write.
The downside is that you don't have a clue about how your writing appears to others. And since screenwriting is an art form designed to appeal to audiences, not knowing what how your writing appears to others, is pretty much a catastrophe. It's like having your food prepared by a chef without taste buds.
When you write by yourself, you are very susceptible to fooling yourself. You want your writing to be good, right? and so, it's very easy to let your only critic (you) tell you, over and over again, that what you are writing is pure genius, even when it's not.
Everybody does that, which is why we, in the professional industry, never, ever work alone.
That is indeed why Studios have a whole host of readers, producers, screenplay analysts, script doctors, whose job it is to read every single draft of a screenplay and offer constructive criticism.
If you are lucky enough to be a professional screenwriter and you are working on a contract, you can be sure that everything you write will be scrutinized, criticized, commented on, every day of your life.
And as a writer is your job to listen to that criticism, change your writing accordingly or face being replaced. That happens every single day in the world that I live and work in.
But if you're a spec writer, you have no-one to make sure your writing works. And if you present something to an executive that doesn't, then you've blown your chance on that screenplay.
And the thing is: No writer can really know for sure what your writing looks like.
So what do you do?
Here are a few tips:
Use your friends and family. But use them the right, not the wrong way.
Your family and your friends can be a great help to you, but you have to remember that the real problem here, is your own willingness to praise yourself. So, when you hand your screenplay to your mom and ask her if she doesn't think it's great, what do you think her answer will be?
Do you think she will actually say: No. I hated it.
Or will your best friend say that? or anyone you call your friend?
Of course not. They're your friends for a reason. They love you and want to offer you support and that is why, they will agree with you that it's great, even when it's not. Thatøs why they are your friends.
The thing is this: You can not let anyone know what you want them to say. You can not ask them if they think it's great because then they know that you are seeking compliments and will offer them.
You have to be keenly aware of what you need. You need criticism, not praise. Only criticism will enable you to fix your writing before you expose it to the industry. Only criticism will help you become a better writer.
You can't ask your friends for criticism, either. Because that will just likely trigger all sorts of other things that you do not want.
And besides that, your family are not likely to be literary experts, so how would they know what the problem is and how to fix it?
What you can do however is this.
Forget about seeking praise. You are never going to get an answer to the question: I am a great writer, anyway. Even the best of writers are hated by certain people and that's how it is with writing. As a professional, you have to live with the fact that some people think your writing is the worst, ever written. So, once and for all; forget ever getting an answer to the question: Is my writing great.
In the professional world the term; great writing, is non-existent. It makes no sense to talk about taste, because as I've said before: some people love it, others hate it.
Taste is then, a non-issue.
What we are concerned with is not taste but the question about, whether it works or not. Does the screenplay work? - is a great question because there are answers to that. But the question: Do you like it? is a question to which there is no good answer.
So, do yourself a favor an forget the question; Is your screenplay great.
Try instead a focus on the much more useful one; Does it work?
Is your thriller, thrilling? Were you surprised by the ending? or did you see it a mile, away? Were you shocked by the sudden kill, in your Horror script? These questions and more are useful because they focus on whether your different aspects work or not.
But there's a problem here and its the same problem we have faced before; If you ask those questions, as stated above, you are not likely to get an honest answer. Your mom will probably say that: Yes, sweetie. Your script was the most frightening she ever read.
That is why, if you want honest, constructive answers, you have to do these things:
1) single out the passage that you are questioning. It can be a scene or a sequence but never let it be the whole screenplay.
2) Decide, within yourself, what your intention with the scene is, in terms of effect ( Scary, funny, suspenseful..and so on)
3) as your friend to read the passage but don't give them any hints or pointers as what to look for.
4) Once your friend has read the passage, now is the time for constructive questioning.
5) Ask specific questions that will reveal whether your intention has been met but without ever revealing your intention.
Let me give you some examples.
Let us say that you've written a mystery. Naturally, one of the major concerns here is that the audience will guess the identity of the killer. (That should always be your concern, by the way)
So, here you are with your friend. You've given him, let's say, 30 pages to read from the second act. But you haven't told him what to look for.
Now, that he's read it you can then ask him questions such as:
"When Detective Barnes discovers that clue in the old church, in scene 45, what did it made you think?"
"So, from what you've read, so far. who do you think the killer is"
If your friend says either; I don't know, or if he suspects the right killer, then you know that your thing doesn't work and you have re-writes to do.
But if he puts his money on the wrong guy, and if that is your intention, then, you've done your job well.
Or, let us say that you've written a Horror movie and here is a scene that is supposed to be scary.
A boy is playing with some old toys in the attic of an abandoned, old house. As he is playing, all of a sudden, a red plastic ball rolls up to him, by itself.
Your friend has read the scene or sequence and now you pop the question:
"So, when that ball rolled up to the kid, what did you think?"
And if he says: I was wondering, who threw the ball. " or " Is that ball on sale at Walmart?"
-Then you know that you have re-writes to do.
And so, now you know how your writing appears to others, how it appears to professionals as well as outsiders. You might be in for a surprise but in my book it's a good surprise - a surprise that tells you how you can improve your writing.
And that's all that matters.
But don't be discouraged if you experience surprising reactions to your writing. You should encourage that. When I work with professional writers who are on studio contracts, that happens all the time. And that is what I do. I tell writers how their story appears to an outsider and then I offer them solutions on what to write to get their script work. That is quite a natural process in the industry.
And then there's the other problem about not knowing your genre well enough.
Let's say that you wrote a movie that does not meet the demands of the genre. What do you do?
First of all, I suggest that you put your screenplay aside for a while and dedicate yourself to do an in-depth study of the genre you are writing.
Make sure that you've seen all the most important movies that belong to that genre. Don't just watch movies just because they are new. Watch movies that have defined the genre.
And when you watch them, make it a high priority to study them carefully. Look out for common traits, plot devices, plot-forms and most important of all; subtext.
Go beneath the surface, make lists and study as many as you can.
And once you are done with that, prepare yourself for extensive re-writes.
THE RULE OF THREE
Lastly but most importantly:
Limit your payoff to about 3.
What that means is this: A horror movie should have 3 major scares, a comedy 3 major laughs and so on.
The mistake that most spec writers make, is to think that more payoffs make for a better movie.
Completely and utterly wrong.
A great thriller basically has, at the most, 2 great thrills. The rest is buildup, and so it goes for every genre.
A great thriller basically has, at the most, 2 great thrills. The rest is buildup, and so it goes for every genre.
This has been the first of a series of articles that will address the all-important question of whether your screenplay is ready for market or not.
If you have any screenwriting questions, that require a professional answer, click on the free signup button on top of this blog page to receive free lessons, newsletters and shoot me a mail with your questions.
Happy writing !!!