So Many Bad Scripts in Screenplay Competitions, So Little Time

Nicholas Cage in AdaptationWho hasn't sat back during some big, dumb Hollywood blockbuster and said, "Heck, I could write something better than that!" Of course, it's another thing to sit down and try. As any agent, executive, actor, or lowly script reader might tell you, the vast majority of scripts that are written are bad, Bad, BAD.

Earlier this year, I was asked to be a first tier judge for the Washington State Screenplay Competition. That meant I had to sift through 25 submissions and find the one or two gems that might make it to the next round. More often than not, you can tell from the first page or two whether a script will be any good at all. Consequently, for this first tier of judging we were only given the first 20 pages of the scripts along with a synopsis so we know where the story goes.

True to form, most of the scripts I read were bad. Some were worse than others, and there were only two that I liked. One of the good ones dealt with the complex issues of gentrification in a less than conventional manner (and was subsequently pulled from the competition for some unknown reason) and the other was a more formulaic romantic comedy that was well executed.

But this article isn't about the rare instances of people doing things right. No, it's about the train wrecks, the disasters, the unfilmable mistakes and the misguided notions that find their way into too many scripts.

COMMON MISTAKES

*Blatant Thievery:

It's one thing to be inspired by a classic movie, and another thing entirely to change the names but not the plot. I read one submission that was so shameless that the only way the script would have worked was as a parody, which it was not.

*Passive Protagonist:

Both in life and in stories, it's hard to care about a guy who doesn't do anything but mope about and watch the world go by. It's even harder to believe an attractive outsider girl would be drawn to him, which only happens in indie scripts and not in life.

* Unlikable Protagonist:

This is similar to the passive protagonist, but it's harder to self-diagnose. Just because a character is central to the story doesn't mean the reader will be on that character's side. The bitch or bastard who learns a lesson by the end can completely turn off an audience if there's nothing redeeming about them or something that we can root for in the first 10 or 20 pages.

* 14 Main Characters:

Ensemble pieces are tough to pull off because audiences are trained to identify with one character instead of a bunch. In order to work at all, an ensemble script needs to be able to attract top level stars. That wouldn't happen for one script I read where at least eight characters were introduced on the first page. Even after reading the plot synopsis, I had no idea who or what the story was about, nor did I get the point of it.

* Too Much Back Story, Not Enough Story:

Flashbacks are boring. Characters who go on and on about what happened in the past are boring. Stories take place in the present tense. Just because you created a back story for your characters doesn't mean you need to put it all in the movie.

* Unfilmable Descriptions:

Screenwriters often try to slip notes to the actors by saying things like, "She looks at him while remembering her all-consuming high school crush on him." It's a risky move that tends to annoy readers. Ultimately, that kind of writing works better in a novel because no actor can convey that information with a look, and if the information is important to the plot then the script is already begging for a rewrite.

* Unfilmable Science Fiction:

The fun thing about writing is that you can let your imagination run free. Shape-shifting creatures and space travel and complex alien cities are all fair game. The downside is that all this unchecked imagination tends to distract from basic storytelling and no contest (or Hollywood studio) will reward a script without a good story at its core. Special effects tend to be a much tougher sale than character-driven pieces, and character-driven sci-fi pieces don't tend to dwell on the special effects.

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Andy Spletzer co-runs the Seattle International Film Festival's year-round Screenwriters Salon program.


VMAs 2017