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Define and Differentiate

My private stalker Jon Peacey (yes I did get the horse’s head in the mail, thanks) asks this in the comments section of the previous post:

Would you say that, certainly at early stages of a potential career, it comes down to trying to display absolute genius brilliance while minimizing risk idiocy? Tempering idiosyncrasy/deranged outlandish foibles with reality?

This is a difficult one. Should a writer early on in their career fold to “expectations” and produce a spec that follows the “rules” no matter what? Is it possible to produce a spec that shines with “genius brilliance” if it is constricted by said “expectations”?

My take? This will surprise you but–


As I’ve posted here and here, I don’t hold with “rules”, more the fact that we should know what those “rules” are. Why? Because there are some people out there who take them as gospel, like this reader who really got on my nerves back in April when he suggested I read Robert McKee in order to improve my dialogue in a particular script. Niiice. However, even though I wanted at the time to barbeque him (whilst still alive), later when I calmed down I could write off this feedback; after all, many people had read the script in question and not one other person had had the same “problem”; as a script it had even got me a few meetings too, so I knew it had potential and I wasn’t completely deluded. But most of all, I *knew* my dialogue did not suck because I had invested in it through major redrafts, had had tons of feedback from different readers and yes, even read Robert bloody McKee anyway. In short, this was one reader who did not like my script, end of. Perhaps it was the premise, perhaps it was my writing style, perhaps something else even outside of my control. It happens. You deal with it, you move on.

But is this an argument for doing WHATEVER you want, regardless of how it might be received?

I always say to my Bang2writers that they should do whatever they think is best for their story and I stand by this; at the end of the day, any notes or reports I write for them are suggestions, nothing is ever set in stone and nor should it be. When it comes to those “idiosyncrasies” that Jon mentions, it really depends in my opinion what those are. Good format for example is about not being busted as I’ve said before; get your reader so wrapped up they don’t care about layout or black, so yes, story is king. However, in a world where the Ten Page Test exists and you are being judged from that first page, sometimes even before it (I’ll never forget the agent who told us to flick through scripts first; those that “seemed” to have a lot of black would go back, unread as did scripts that were spiral bound or on different coloured paper), is doing what you want sometimes a barrier to success? I would argue yes, it can be. Whilst there are always those mega scripts that get through despite everything, I know there are scripts – and writers -who are getting overlooked when they shouldn’t be. This peeves me greatly.

For me, it’s about writing that “great” story first and foremost. But I think it’s important to appreciate that writing that great story doesn’t always follow through, since sometimes people don’t agree that what you’ve written is actually great. I’ll never forget going to one of my first ever meetings to see a director who is a friend of mine now and he opened with, “So I read your script… I absolutely hated it.” I nearly had a heart attack. He had me come all the way up to London to tell me THIS? Before I could splutter a reply however he says, “But you’re clearly a good writer, so I thought we could talk about some stuff.” I asked him how he knew I was a good writer if he hated my script so much and he launched into why he didn’t like it… It soon became apparent that he had disagreed with the philosophy behind that particular story, but had actually liked a variety of things about the actual writing: the mechanical stuff if you like – structure. Language use. Layout, even. That sort of thing.

Sometimes producers, directors, readers etc will not like your story, but they will like your style. I think it helps then to really define yourself, differentiate from the crowd, give them something that’s “you”. It’s no good saying loads of black is “you” ‘cos guess what – that’s probably what most writers do at first, there’s no differentiation there. It’s no good either saying you’re the king or Queen of Parentheticals or weird sluglines that go on for three lines either, since they just take us out the story and you lose your defining essence, there and then. But you can be the king or queen of dialogue. Or structure. Or reversals. Or characterisation. Or scene description. Or sex and/or fight scenes. Or cool hooks and/or surprising endings. Or even getting characters into implausible situations and getting them out plausibly. Whatever you want, it’s your script.

F*** the rules but know what they are, so you don’t beat yourself up too much if you fall foul of them from time to time. Nazi readers are out there, but more likely are those readers who are just bored of bad format. Afford format what you need so you don’t get busted.

There’s only one other thing of importance: define who you are as a writer and differentiate from the crowd.

Piece of cake, right? ; )

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17 thoughts on “Define and Differentiate”

  1. The ten page test doesn’t always hold true. Many people give up after the first five pages of Torch Song Trilogy, but they miss a treat if they do. The expection that proves the rule, I suppose.

  2. Absolutely Oliver – I haven’t read the script you’re referencing I don’t think, but I don’t doubt there are scripts out there failing The Ten Page Test because of people falling into line with what’s “expected”. It’s a flawed system by anyone’s standards, plus a good chunk of interpretation has to be chucked into the equation too, then you factor in how many scripts that reader has already read, whether they’ve had a bad day, whether they hate the genre your script happens to be in… This is why it doesn’t always work.

  3. Glad you appreciated the horse’s head- I think it’s the little touches that show the care- and it’s always worth that little bit extra for the registered mail!

    When I was on my Uni Screenwriting course I would sometimes come across problems that didn’t have an answer. In these cases I’d make up a ‘new’ answer as best I could and often get clobbered for not following the Gospel of McKee or one of the other Evangelists. The problems came for numerous reasons, from story doesn’t have 3 precise acts starting at point x (0’), y (25’) and z (75’) through to ‘what on earth have you done to the format?’

    Format-wise, idiosyncrasies I have been party to include:
    -stream of consciousness image writing (similar to the sort of thing that occurs in Tarkovsky) where the image is too short to deserve a new slugline but theoretically should have one;
    -what I would refer to as flash-cut flashbacks (the most obvious example would be the ‘famous bit’ near the end of Se7en);
    -anything inspired by the cross-cut multi-temporal Roeg elephants Performance or The Man Who Fell To Earth;
    -and my big bad sin: not starting a new scene with description but with dialogue for adding impact on the end of previous scene (such as irony, shock, etc.), my next line would always be description to get it back to being like it should.

    (I do admit to laying down too much black though and this IS wrong and I’m trying hard to deal with it.)

    One of the major problems with the Ten Page test is the ‘seeming requirement’ to introduce the antagonist that early. There are many great films that don’t and I suspect this is why so many films now start with a random murder/ chase/ whatever sequence; this is becoming particularly prevalent in the horror genre.

    Personally I’m sure that McKee is fundamentally evil… well, unreadable at any rate and that’s a bit like being evil, isn’t it?

  4. I’ve read all about you horrible lot dissenting against me like the ingrates you are… I will ensure none of you work in the industry again, but first I will make you watch Casablanca until your eyes BLEED!!!!!!!! MWAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH

    Subliminal message — Please buy my book and DVD and come to my overpriced seminars — ends subliminal message

  5. Ah, but have you watched Casablanca whilst your nads are wired to the mains and your head is dunked in custard and small ants are poured into your ears? I thought not.

  6. I don’t like it any other way… what flavour custard, what size ant, what voltage mains? Inquiring minds need to be pedantic!

  7. darren (formerly eat my shorts)

    Man I really hope that IS Robert McKee, love it. When I’m not torturing small mice myself, I too enjoy Casblanca. Probably not quite in the same way as Jon though. You can have my email Jon if you feel the need to reach out and get help, Lucy’ll tell you that I’m actually a doctor, believe it or not, lol.

    Lucy, this ten page test thingy – I’ve never written anything longer than a short myself, so how does it work if it’s ten pages or less??

  8. Ok, things are getting a tad weird again, what is it with Sunday nights in this joint?!?

    Daz – you’re not actually a psychiatrist though are you? If you were, perhaps you could practice on yourself? 😉 As for the ten page test, though I read a lot of shorts nowadays through Bang2write, I’ve never read for a shorts contest or saw many at lit agents, but perhaps the BSSC works on the basis of being “grabbed” from the first page… Or perhaps they have score cards? Lots of comps do, like Bluecat.

    Robert Mckee – bring it on. I’m envisaging an eye-opening device thingy much like the one in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, am I close?

    Jon – bar your obviously fragmented mind re: custard etc, you’ve raised an interesting point re: introduction of the antagonist. When is the *best* time for this? I like to see grudge matches, so like to see them from the start, though of course plenty of films don’t even start with the protag – especially all the ones in the late nineties with Will Smith in, it would appear. Given the Ten Page Test is “out there” could there be an argument made for avoiding introducing the protag and antag late just in case of Nazi readers?

  9. No. Like you said in your article, you should do what’s best for the story. And if it comes back don’t beat yourself up, better to know that’s what could have happened than have no idea why your script is rejected.

    Can I have a gold star now please?

  10. I disagree. What’s the point in winding up people? If it’s the “thing” do it, if it’s not, don’t. It’s like working in an office… you’re everybody’s bitch when you first start, then when you go up the ladder you get more respect. That’s what I reckon anyway, but then I’m WAY down the food chain baby, anyone listening–hello? HELLO?!?

    Luv Spec Monkey Mike (aka bitch)

  11. “What is it with Sunday nights in this joint?!?”

    -I’ve been trying to release the pressure while watching the Grand Prix!

    “I’m envisaging an eye-opening device thingy much like the one in CLOCKWORK ORANGE”

    -Ugh! The custard would get in the eyes. And I bet it would really sting!

    “…especially all the ones in the late nineties with Will Smith in…”

    Ironically, I was actually thinking of Enemy Of The State at the time (and Scream).

    Personally, I prefer films containing mystery and a gradual unpeeling of characters as protag/antag. Even when they’re not revealed as such, these days it’s possible to guess who the antag is too early on just because the writer knows the ten-page test and flings the antag in so obviously that everybody’s leaving the cinema after 10 minutes! (Mentally at any rate!)

  12. display genius/avoid idiocy is about the only test, I think, whether you’re an academic or a writer (those are the only two realms I know anything about, I’m afraid)

    So, yeah, aim for something between nutcase and genius and you should be OK

  13. Enemy of the state? Was that in reference to not having the protag or antag in the first 10 pages or just a random naming of late 90’s Will Smith movies?

  14. It’s been way too long for me to say Tom, haven’t watched ENEMY OF THE STATE since about 1997, but certainly in MIB and Independence Day Will Smith does not make his appearance til quite late, though I’m not sure if it’s within 10 mins.

  15. The only script around on the net for Enemy of the State has both the protag and antag introduced fairly shortly after each other although thinking back on it, I don’t recall him appearing that early in the final film. Been a while for me too though.

    Independence Day is a difficult one to call. Will Smith is introduced quite late on but in the first 10 pages we do get to meet Jeff Goldblum’s character and Bill Pullman’s president. With Men in Black, we get introduced to Tommy Lee Jones in the first scene and Will Smith in the second.

    As an aside, I was always under the impression from reading Field, Trottier et al that the first 10 pages were to hook the reader and not necessarily set up the entire dramatis personae. By the end of the first act, sure, but in the first 10 pages? Hell, I’m not even sure in Se7en that John Doe got introduced until the end of Act 1 or possibly later, much less the first 10 pages (I’ll have to check – my copy of the screenplay explicitly says “End of Act One” for convenient reference!)

    I can say for certain that, in the original The Wicker Man, Lord Summerisle doesn’t get seen until half way through the film although he is introduced in the first exchange of dialogue between Edwarddwoodwoodwoodwoodwood and the islanders. Not that I necessarily think he’s the sole antagonist though.

  16. Enemy Of State wasn’t just random. While it’s been a while since I’ve seen it I do seem to recall that there is a (relatively lengthy) preamble about the antag before the protag was introduced. (Although now I must admit to having become uncertain in the discussion!)

    However, I just realised that there are three different possible interpretations of ‘introducing the antag’: physically or verbally or implicitly. For example, a murderer could be shown on screen either in flagrante or not (e.g. Enemy Of State, Scream); he could however be verbally introduced though presumably he may have to be implicitly made bad; or a body could turn up having been killed by an unknown assailant with the implication that there must be a ‘bad guy’ out there who will be a force of antagonism for the remainder of the film (e.g. Se7en).

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