The Critique of Impure Reason

Though perhaps pale compared to the experience of writing one, particularly if for hire while taking notes from development execs, it can be a pretty painful experience, reviewing screenplays. Often, when you’re an aspiring screenwriter such as myself, you’re reviewing a script at the request of a friend or peer, usually someone you like as a person, but, it may so happen, not so much as a writer.  It’s not so bad when you, as the reviewer, don’t feel compelled to write a whole lot in the reviewing process. If you can sum it all up in a few words such as, “Great! When can I expect to see this in theaters?” then you’ve actually enjoyed a rare and privileged treat.

But, it usually doesn’t work out that way.

It never happens that a screenwriter cannot benefit from having others who are knowledgeable about the craft (or art, I would dare say) review their work and relay their critical impressions. Writers will often spark great ideas off one another, and it can be exciting on both sides. Sometimes I’ve read a piece of work that was so tight I had to fight back feelings of envy: “I’ve worked so hard to get to be as good as I am, and look — this writer’s better! Boo hoo!” But, it’s not only obligatory but better for one, just as with eating one’s spinach, to transcend petty jealousy and give the excellent screenwriter whose work you were just privileged to enjoy the kudos they so richly deserve, while, perhaps in the very manner of a development exec, proceeding to add a few bright ideas of one’s own about how that script might yet be, somehow, improved upon.

The usual kind of script review, in my experience, is a voyage of discovery leading to the conclusion that the writer’s got it about half-right. The characters are strong, but the plot’s missing some logic. The dialogue shines, but the story structure is malformed. The theme is strong, but the delivery is a bit preachy. And on and on it goes. Screenwriting is a field mined with explosive verbosity, a place where a little goes a long way, including a little boo-boo.

So, it’s no wonder writers are dreaded creatures, easy enough to visualize as emaciated, cancrous lepers crawling out of the sewer, trying to pick your wallet and waste your day in the process. A writer can never seem needy for this reason. If you are needy and you show it, you can count on everyone around suddenly being out of arm’s reach.

It so happens that right now I don’t know how I’m going to make a living. My soul is whispering in my ear that my years and decades of serving as this or that corporate entity’s employee are over, whether I like it or not. Well, I do like it, I just miss the income. But I intend to see life as an opportunity to make things happen. I’ll keep dabbing makeup over the cancres for as long as possible, now, gambling on making a breakthrough before the final breakdown.

And now that I’m scrambling as a freelancer, I can honestly say, I’ve never been busier. Research, prospecting, servicing the one small client account I have at the moment, and networking eat up nearly all my waking hours. I do still save a bit for the pets, canine and human, with whom I’m, so far, privileged to share my domestic life. They’re what living is about, what the attempts to hustle up some kind of living are for.

Yet, despite this largely un-productive, cash-wise, busy-ness of mine in my current life’s course, I agreed, a couple of weeks back, to carve out several hours to devote to critiquing an online friend’s screenplay.  I did so because I like this person. I did so because this person came back for more, in spite of the fact that in my reading one of this person’s prior scripts about four years earlier and feeling compelled to write about FORTY PAGES of criticism, carefully trying to mesh the many nit-picking corrections that were needed with my version of the big-picture screenwriting guru structural/plot/character/dialogue advice, the writer was coming back for more, in the knowledge that I am “honest.”  So, okay, not only had several years and quite a list of projects come and gone for this writer, but there was a co-writer this time, too. I accepted the request in the hope that a lot of ground had been covered, and I could be more sparing, more positive,  more kind, and less in need of dispensing advice this time around. In fact, given all I knew so far, the premise, this script was going to be my cup of meat, an action screenplay involving abuses of power and global conspiracy, rooted in a sibling rivalry. As above, so below! It sounded promising. I was hoping I might even experience one of those moments when I would leap out of my seat and cheer for the other writer’s success. Because there is a flip side to that envy thing I mentioned. We writers like to know it’s possible to get from our current, wretched position outside the Pantheon of Idols to the inside, there to be immortalized in cinematic stone.

Alas. Ohmigod. In spite of the fact that I like this person, in the course of the critique, Mr. Brassfield became Mr. Brass Knuckles. I found myself experiencing what a Hollywood reader must go through every – single – day: burning resentment. The precious sands of the time of my life were trickling through the hourglass; I could practically feel my skin atrophying and peeling away from the skeleton as I puzzled agonizingly over nearly every line of description and dialogue in the piece, trying, mostly in vain, to glean the dramatic impetus which was supposed to be there.  Torrents of digital ink flew from my fingertips until I realized that, once again, I was writing more than I was reading.

And what was I reading? Inconsistent character referents. Stiff, yet unclear, dialogue. Imprecisely defined settings. Lapses of logic. Bad character “blocking” in the scenes. Four times as many scenes as anyone could hope to have the budget to film. One-dimensional characterizations. Branching conflicts, with a feint in one direction, a thrust in another. And then another. Rival antagonists with different plans but no goals. A relationship between the hero and the villain that never played out as having any significance whatsoever. No rising tension or sense of actual advancement to the plot. No direct or palpable threat to the hero arising from his opposition to the villains(s) or their plan(s). Minor characters that could have been absorbed into the actions of major characters. Wholly unnecessary scenes that did not advance the story (insofar as anything in it could be said to advance it). A hero who is wounded well past the mid-point and spends most of the rest of the screenplay convalescing. Then, he fails in utter irrelevance. To all intents and purposes, the world of the characters is, at the end, as it was in the beginning.

And, on the title page, the draft number appeared. I’m not going to tell you the exact number, but this co-written draft was numbered in the mid-teens.

I’m not even trying to brag when I tell you there’s no way I would produce a first draft with anywhere near these problems. I sucked when I started out. I suck a lot less hard now. It’s been a point of pride for me to pinpoint and overcome problems. Each time you go up to bat with screenwriting, you want your chances of hitting a homer to be much better than the time before. We all make mistakes. There was an art axiom I learned as a college student, and I believe it derived from New York’s turn-of-the-20th-Century Ash Can School painter, Robert Henri, in his book, The Art Spirit. Whatever the source, it was to the effect that one should go ahead and commit the first 1,000 mistakes in one’s work as soon as possible, to learn how to correct them as soon as possible.

So, what was this writer doing? And, I have to say, the co-writer here was hard to detect. I felt the exact same awkwardness reading this second script as I had the writer’s prior one, years earlier.

I’m going to hold back the things I wrote down as I went through this script. I’m going to take off the brass knuckles and place ’em in a drawer, at least for now. I made that decision as I wrote this blog post. Instead of laying out all those ways I am convinced this script sucks, despite the promise of its premise, I am going to provide the writer with a set of questions, instead. And I am going to ask that this writer send me the answers.  I’ll tack on a handful of suggestions about a few good resources that ought to be helpful, too. (May heaven forbid this writer replies that he or she has already been using these resources!)

Here are my questions for the writer, and maybe for you, too, if you’re attempting this daft endeavor known as speculative screenwriting:

1. What is the story you want to tell?

2. Who is the protagonist?

2a. What is your protagonist’s goal?

2b. What is your protagonist’s inner need?

2c. What is your protagonist’s best quality?

2d. What is your protagonist’s flaw, or blind spot?

2e. How does your protagonist’s inner need conflict with his outer goal?

2f. How does your protagonist realize this mid-way through the script?

2g. How does your protagonist adjust to his new insight?

3. Taking the questions about the protagonist, answer all the same questions about the antagonist, except “f.,” the realization at the midpoint.

4. Why is it impossible for the protagonist and the antagonist to both continue beyond the end of the movie?

The goal has to hold the answer here, and the answer will define the stakes. What each is trying to achieve must be directly opposed and mutually exclusive to each other. The world is rid of __________, or ____________ triumphs and the result is ____________.

You can even have your protagonist be destroyed if it’s a “noble defeat.” He can make arrangements that amount to a stunning strike back at his antagonist from beyond the grave. See The Constant Gardener for an example of this type of ending. The theme of that movie might be stated as, “Power can crush you, but it cannot crush the truth.”  Everything in that movie created the suspense that things might turn out as they did. The viewer dreaded the crushing of the hero, but hoped that, if it turned out that way, it would not be in vain. Since it wasn’t, despite the hero’s unjust death, there was satisfaction for the audience.

5. What is YOUR movie’s theme?

6. What is the ending?
(Five and six are twins, though distinct entities.)

7. Could you have avoided using a flashback?

8. Can you tell this story in 45 scenes, instead of 1xx?

9. Why will someone want to see this movie?

10. Who will want to see the movie? Who is the audience?

11. In what way specific to itself will this movie be entertaining to this audience?

12. Why do you want to tell this story?

Suggestions – use any one of these, or all four, to rewrite this script before you try to market it:

Buy a copy of “Contour” software and rewrite the script according to the structure it provides.

Read Eric Edson’s book, The Story Solution.

Use Save the Cat‘s genre guide and structure principles to determine how you’re going to rewrite the script.

Use Karl Iglesias’ Writing for Emotional Impact for reference to character and dialogue.

If you want to go one step further regarding the dialogue, buy a copy of the inexpensive but fabulously helpful “Great Dialogue” software program and deliberately choose some of the techniques when rewriting.  It has the dialogue techniques in the Iglesias book, plus about sixty more.

Your life can disappear down a black hole if you pursue screenwriting without a clear and detailed plan of execution on your projects. Remember the old axiom, “Measure once, and cut twice.”

Screenwriters should definitely avail themselves of some of the best free advice on the internet and read the columns at Über-successful screenwriters, Terry Rossio & Ted Elliott’s website, Wordplay.

Okay. Now, the only question left for me is, if I’m so freakin’ smart, why ain’t I rich?

Peace out.

– Ron

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