Updated: Dec 23, 2019
BY DAN HOFFMANN
One of the questions I get asked often is some variation of this;
" When you were a Script Reader, what did you find was the most common flaw in Spec scripts?"
I always get slightly dizzy when confronted with this question because Screenplays written on speculation, are often a Pile, a Pool, an overwhelming accumulation of mistakes.
It's like being asked; What is your favorite grain of sand in the Sahara desert? - pick one.
But then, when I thought more about it, I came to realize that four flaws stand out as the most common ones. I thought even harder about it, then realized that all of these four flaws can be boiled down to one Flaw.
One Flaw to rule them all !!!
This is an article about that one flaw - a mistake that almost every spec writer makes that causes the script to be rejected.
But before I get into the mistake, let me first address the three others;
1 ) CHARACTER MOTIVATION
The Protagonist in many spec scripts is very often, very poorly motivated. This has nothing to do with genre. But just to name an example out of many, let us look at a murder mystery.
If the main character is a detective, his goal is usually to investigate a homicide. What
is motivation to do so? - His Boss hands him the case file.
In other words; His motivation is his paycheck. Not very intriguing. Not very dramatic. Not very personal. Not very much of anything.
He is doing it because he gets paid to do it.
In short; This story threatens to be exactly as dramatic as the life of every cashier in every supermarket. She does her job because she gets paid to do it.
This is, of course, the sad reality for many Americans. They devote their whole, life to doing something that is not personal to them and that is just my point: Motivation in a dramatic story should always be personal. That´s whats makes it dramatic. The motivation must engage the deepest emotions of the main character if it is to have even the slightest chance of engaging the audience emotions, empathy or sympathy.
Motivation is then, not just a poor excuse to kick the story into gear. It's the whole story.
If a movie is to have any emotional impact on anyone, the character's motivation is paramount.
Suspense is the reason why you watch a movie from beginning to end. It is the story mechanism that not only drives the plot, forever forward, it is also the reason why we watch it. If there were no suspense in a story, you would have no reason to read or watch it.
The problem with suspense in a spec script is often that writers seem to think that suspense is something that comes by itself. - That just because your heroine falls in love, I will automatically turn and toss in my theater seat, dying to know whether the two lovers will end up with each other. Why would I? They will probably end up together or maybe they won't or maybe they will and then get divorced. Why would I care? What is leading me to ask these questions in the first place?
Or why, for instance, would I be puzzled by a murder mystery just because it has been committed?
Suspense does not ever come automatically. Suspense is half of this craft, we call writing. It is something every writer has to work very hard at. Don't ever assume that I find your story intriguing, suspenseful or that it grasps my attention, just because you've written it.
For every scene you write, you have to think about how do you design a story, construct circumstances and situations so that I will ask specific questions at specific times in your story. Because the sad truth is this; If page one of your script does not leave me with an important question that I want to be answered, then I won´t turn to page two. Why would I?
Suspense is a craft. It is a craft that deals with constructing a story in such a way that the audience asks themselves certain, specific questions. The trick, of course, is, that we will answer those questions for them but only at the very end. And that is what keeps intrigued. that is what keeps them in their seat.
Will Gladiator find justice for his family? Will Frodo succeed in destroying the ring? These questions are not, afterthoughts that I ask, after having read the scripts. Every single beat,. every scene, every sequence in them, are deliberately written to make me ask those exact questions, which is why we watched those movies.
If I don't identify with your character, then everything else in your screenplay, including the suspense, fall flat on its face.
Everything, and I literally mean EVERYTHING in your story depends on whether I identify with your character or not.
There is no such thing as a story that is intrinsically interesting in itself. It all depends on who´s story it is. So, if I do not identify with that "someone" - your main character, then I won't care about anything else that happens to him - your plot.
A few years ago, I was asked to read the screenplay to "Eddie the Eagle"
don´t know if you've ever seen it. It came out in 2016 and stars, Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken. It's written by Sean Macalau and Simon Kelton and is based on a true story; The story of a young mans struggle to to enter the Olympic games as a Skier.
I am not going to go through the whole story, but suffice to say that a lot of obstacles, a lot of conflicts oppose Eddie on his way to enter the Olympics. But why would you care? Why do you care if he makes it or not? The answer is; that you won't. The writers could have thrown all sort of interesting obstacles his way, and it wouldn't have made any difference.
And yet the screenplay is great. It was certainly one of the best that I read, that year.
The reason is that I identified with Eddie. When you identify with a character, fictitious or real, then all the obstacles that face him becomes suspenseful. We are worried that he won't succeed and hope that he will- And for those reasons we become engaged in the story.
But if the script failed to make us identify with the hero, then nothing in the plot would have mattered. Why would I care if Rick Deckard finds the escaped androids? If it were not because I identify with his struggle?
You see, your whole plot depends on who is experiencing it.
Let me give you, a last example:
I know a guy. let's call him Jack, who had his wallet stolen with 500 dollars in it, last week.
Do you care? or rather: Do you care enough to watch a 2 hour movie about it?
You would probably say No to this. But that because I did not tell you anything about who this character is. Let's say, that this guy is a homeless man. His only companion in life, his only friend, is his dog Barney. Two weeks ago, Barney was diagnosed with cancer by a volunteer vet, working at a homeless shelter. They told Barney that they could operate him and save his life. They could even get the whole operation paid for, but they needed a simple 50 dollar co-pay. For the next week, Jack, really struggled to find the 500 dollars. It was not easy but he finally, in the nick of time, managed to do it.- Then, just as he was about to hand in the money to the vet clinic, his wallet got stolen.
You see, the plot itself, any plot, does not resonate with anyone, by itself. A plot always depends on who is experiencing it. For Jack, these events, means everything to him. And because it matters to him, it matters to me, the audience. But had it been, Warren Buffet, who had lost 50 dollar - Americas richest billionaire, then I would not have given a damn.
And yet, the events, the plot is exactly the same.
Identification, then is the foundation of everything else in your story.
The worst reaction a screenwriter will ever encounter is this; Why do I care?
Why do I care whether your hero wins or loses, succeeds or fails? like you, I only care about important things, not whether a fictitious character makes it in a fictitious story, set in a fictitious world.
I think that some spec writers believe that people actually care about fiction as though it was a real thing. We don´t and what's more; neither do you.
If I gave you the choice of whether you would like to see your sister survive a fatal illness or whether you would rather watch a Mickey Mouse movie, if you could only have one wish granted, I hope your answer would have been to save your sister. And that´s because you, like everyone else, care about important things.
The odd thing is, that this is exactly the reason why we watch fiction. Fiction is always about important things. Really important things.Things that actually matter to you.
But in fiction, these things, the important ones, are usually disguised from you. They come in the shape of, what I call "The Dramatic Signifier"
For instance; Indiana Jones is searching for the Lost Ark. But is it really an Ark that he is looking for? and why would you care about some ark that you´ve probably never heard about? why do his search and his struggle to find it, leave you at your edges seat if this Ark was, in fact, not about something that you truly care about?
The truth is; He is not actually looking for some old moldy Ark. Like all characters of fiction, he is looking for two things. - Two things that the screenwriters simply call "the Ark" but we all know that it's really about something else. Something that is important.
The first thing is what he will get if he finds the Ark. In this movie, it is nothing less than meeting God. If he finds the Ark, he will stand face to face with God and realize the mystery that eludes us all; the meaning of life.
Now, here is something that's important: the meaning of life.
Secondly there are also consequences , severe consequences , if he does not find the Ark. These consequences are equally important, which is why Indy risks his life to avoid those, possible consequences.
You see, if he fails to find the Ark, it will fall into the hands of Nazis who will then, win World war II. And who would have wanted a world ruled by the Nazis?
So, as you can see, this movie, like all movies, is in fact about something important - something so important that people, real people with real lives, would want to see it.
Most spec writers don't get it. They don't understand that fiction is about real things, things that matters to all of us. And if it isn't; who cares?
So these are the four flaws, often found in Spec scripts. There are, of course many, many more. But these are, the important ones. But the amazing thing is that they can all be boiled down to one single flaw. - An element, that if it is missing in a story, the story will be
unimportant, you won't identify with the character, there won't be any suspense, and lastly; the character will have no motivation.
So let us finally find that missing piece:
THE MISSING PIECE
Let us start with some examples.
Do you remember "The Big Sick"? In case you don't or haven´t seen it, The Big Sick was 2017´s big, unexpected romantic comedy hit of the year.
It's basically the story about Kumail, a young Pakistani -American who falls madly in love with, Emily - a girl, as american as apple pie. But, as in all love stories, there are problems. Kumail's very traditional parents desperately wants him to marry a Pakistani girl and what's more; they want to chose the girl for him. That's how tradition prescribes it. When Kumail then professes his love for Emily, rather than the girls they have chosen for him, they disown him.
I don't know if you caught the missing piece that makes this work. But before I reveal it, let me jump to another example. Perhaps you will find it there. This time, let us go with a completely different genre;
Have you seen "Prisoners" ? one of 2013's best thrillers,for sure.
This is the story about Kelly Dover, who's young daughter goes missing. Because of the circumstances, there can be no doubt that she was probably kidnapped. A suspicious RV was seen around the place where she went missing. Shortly after the police interrogates a suspicious man. He is, in fact the owner of the RV and everything about him turns nout to be extremely suspicious. We are sure he is the guy, but unfortunately the police has nothing on him and so they let him go and effectively, let the case go cold. Now, Kelly takes matters into his own hand.
Did you notice the missing piece now? - no?
What about this example, then;
A Quiet Place - In a decimated near-future a lone family must try to survive ferocious alien creatures who hunt using acute hearing.
This time, I tried to tell the story as briefly as possible. And yet, the missing piece is in there. Yes, Its importance is such that it even makes it to the Log line.
Ok. Let's get to it.
The Missing piece is: "A THREAT"
Yes, a threat is the single most important element in any plot. It is what motivates the character, it is what makes us identify with her, it's the element that forms the basis of all suspense and lastly, It is also what gives the story its importance.
You might think that threats work fine in a thriller or a Horror movie. But does it also apply to other genres? - The answer is a loud resounding, YES!!!
Threats, in any shape or form, are simply the foundation of any dramatic plot, whether its a Love story, comedy, Sci- fi or whatever genre you can think of.
Threats are the basis of any drama. In fact; that is what a drama is; someone facing a threat.
Let us look at the three examples again:
The Big Sick.
Remember how his parents threatened him to disown him, if he didn't marry a Pakistani girl? That's a threat.
If you´ve seen the movie you will also remember that Emily get sick, during the course of the story. That's another threat and a big one. It's , in fact , the threat that pushes Kumail to form a closer bond to Emily.
And what about " A quiet Place"? In this movie, the threat should be obvious. Like any dramatic plot, everything revolves around a threat but in this movie you can clearly see it. The protagonists are driven, in all of their actions, by a fear of the aliens and what they might do to them.
As for "prisoners" , I hope you can see the threat, now. If Kelly doesn't find his daughter, she will likely be killed. That's a threat, if ever I saw one.
But how, exactly do threats work in drama? Let's take a look at it:
THE ANATOMY OF A THREAT
The Wonderful thing about threats in writing (not in real life) - is that it serves so very many purposes. For a writer, it's almost like a magical device.
But let me take you through just some of the many things that a Threat will do for your plot:
One of the major problems with screenplays, as we have talked about, is the motivation of the main character. It is, indeed, a larger problem than you might have imagined. Let me explain.
All dramatic stories are based on the premise that a character is faced with a massive amount of problems. - Problems that will push the boundaries of the character to its outer most limits. In other words; we are asking our protagonist to do the near-impossible if she is going to succeed. If that had not been the case, where is then the drama?
As writers, we are then always faced with the question about why any character would freely want to put herself in harm's way.
It requires her to be more thane extremely well-motivated. To be more precise, it requires her motivation to be equal to or greater than the danger she will be facing.
And what kind of force would excerpt that amount of push? The answer is a threat. Something threatens her to dot it. If she does not comply, the consequences would be worse than the problem she is trying to solve. And that is the only kind of dynamic that would make any story work.
Think about 'Back to the future' Why would Marty McFly voluntarily want to risk his life trying to get himself back to his own time of 1985? Many people lived perfectly happy lives back in 1955, so wouldn't it have been a viable option just to stay in the '50s? That is why a Threat comes in Handy. We are let know that if Marty does not get back, his best friend, the Doc will die.
What about Rick Blaine? - the cynical protagonist of 'Casablanca' ???
- Given the fact that he is, indeed a cynical man, why would he then agree to hide the Letters of transport in his piano? If they were to be found by the Germans, he is sure to die in a Nazi concentration camp. The answer is, of course, a threat; If he fails to give those letters to Victor Laszlo, the Germans will likely win the war and the whole world be subjected to Nazi rulership. That is one heck of a threat!!!
And so it is with threats, they are the factor that motivates the main character, always.
If our little friend E.T, does not get home, he will die. If Bud Fox, in 'Wall Street' does not pay his boss back the money he has lost, Bud will lose his career. If Henry Fonda does not vindicate the little boy in '12 Angry men' he will likely be executed for manslaughter. If Body fails to capture and kill the shark in "Jaws", the shark will likely attack and kill more people and so on...
Threats are then two things; The actual threat and the consequences the character will face if he does not comply. But as said before, that is only one tiny aspect of why threats are so important. Let's look at the others.
Volumes have been written about this, the most important aspect of any story, Suspense. But for the purpose of this article, let me make it simple;
Suspense in drama occurs when a character is forced to do something he can not accomplish.
There are two factors to this: That he is forced to do it and; that he can´t do it.
If any of those factors are missing, suspense is missing.
Let me explain;
Imagine we have a story about a mountain climber who decides to climb the Everest. -
Not a very interesting premise, to say the least. Why would we watch it? why would we care? -
The problem, of course, is that he is not forced to do it and therefore could just as well have chosen not to do it. In other words, if it's a voluntary choice, it's not dramatic. Drama comes when someone is forced, That is the whole nature of a conflict.
So let us put a threat into the mix;
A mountaineer´s best friend has decided to climb the Everest. After a week, our hero has not heard anything from his friend. As there is a storm on the rise, he now begins to fear that his friend has had an accident. He notifies the authorities. They fly a helicopter to the mountain and lo and behold: They spot the friend injured near the top. Unfortunately, the weather is such that they can not reach him in any other way than by foot and because of said weather, they have to wait until the weather clears to send in a rescue team.
But since the weather is not bound to clear up anytime soon, our hero now decides to rescue his friend on his own.
- I hope you can see how much the story has improved by adding a threat. If he doesn't rescue his friend, his friend will likely die. That's the threat. But there is more.
remember how we discussed that a threat is not enough to elicit suspense? This is the reason why: How do we know that our hero is, in fact not a trained mountaineer?
How do we not know that this is, in fact, not an easy task for him?
Because, if it turns out that it is indeed easy, there is no suspense.
Remember that creating suspense is all about asking questions. In this case, the question would be; will he be able to save his friend or not? - and if the answer to that question is that he is a trained mountaineer who does this for a living, then the question is easily answered with a: YES.
and if the answer is a YES, there is no suspense. The suspense pf a story only emerges when the answer is: No, I don't think he will make it - because it is that "no" that force us to question his goal.
In short, we have to imbue him with a few handicaps. We could write in such a way that he has never climbed a mountain before. Or perhaps he has climbed a mountain but he is afraid of heights, or he has broken a leg or something like that.
And it is that inability coupled with a force that creates not only drama but also, suspense.
So why would we identify with this or any character, for that matter?
Identification comes in many shapes and forms but for the sake of brevity, let us limit ourselves to one basic definition - the definition given to us by Aristotle. He wrote;
"It is our duty both to feel sympathy and pity for unmerited distress and to feel indignation at unmerited prosperity; for whatever is undeserved is unjust
Since Aristotle wrote those words, some 2400 years ago, this principle of identification has been standard, ever since. I should, however, add that many more principles have been discovered and applied in writing, ever since. But this, the Aristotelian principle, is still the foundation of them all.
So, how does that apply to modern screenplays? and what did Aristotle mean?
Let's talk about the meaning, first: What he is saying here is that we identify with any character who is facing "unmerited distress" In screenwriting, this translates simply to, yes you've guessed it; a threat.
Whenever someone is threatened, they are in distress and when they are in unmerited distress it means that they have been forced into this situation of distress through no fault of their own. All this simply translates to a threat.
So when we root for Ripley in "Alien" it is largely because her whole livelihood, her entire existence is being threatened through no fault of her own. When we identify with Harold Crick in "Stranger than Fiction" it is neither because he is an IRS auditor, (that would have the contrary effect) nor is it because he is boring (that too does not elicit much identification) it is simply because his whole existence is being threatened through no fault of his own.
Lastly, we have the most important item of all; Importance.
If your story is not about something important to us all, then it is not important at all.
I think you know that by now but knowing it and applying it to you screenplay is two different things.
But, how do you apply it to your writing?
The answer is, of course; a Threat.
We understand that characters are fighting for important things, Love, truth, justice, health, freedom because they stand to lose those things if they do not act.
If they already had those things, they would not have to do anything and we wouldn't have a story, right? - They would have arrived at their destination even before the story begins.
So the way that these important values come into play in a story is by threatening the character.
If Ripley does not fight for her survival, she will die. If Michael Corleone does not revenge his father's death, his whole family will be slaughtered by rivaling gangs. If Tony Lip does not protect Don Shirley´s life in "The Green Book", he will be killed by southern racists. And that is how we know that Michael Corleone is really fighting for family, that Ripley is really fighting to preserve her life and that Tony Lip is fighting for his friendship.
And all of this, Identification, motivation, suspense and Importance, all come into play through a threat.
The real question then is; what is threatening your protagonist?
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Happy writing !!!