In response to a variety of emails asking me what mistakes/issues I see most often in spec scripts (TV or Film), here are my thoughts… I’ll try and do another “Research or Die” by the end of the week. Enjoy!
Sometimes I’ll find myself writing in development notes that I’m not *really* sure what is going on in a story. No doubt this will be extremely odd to a writer who can see the action clearly in his/her head – and indubitably this is most often why a writer will accuse a reader of “not reading properly”. After all, if YOU can see it in your head enough to write it down on the page once, twice, even multiple times, then said reader must be a complete thicko or staring out of the window rather than reading your script, right?
Whilst we all know about the WTF? draft in which a writer goes totally mental in exploration of their story (and often realises this the MOMENT it’s sent out, let alone read), there is the draft in which storyline threads just seem, well, UNCLEAR. A reader’s not sure who the protagonist is maybe, why they’re doing what they’re doing – or even what they’re doing at all. It all seems well… Murky. Sometimes it’s not the whole draft, but various bits about it – usually the pay off and/or set up. Who’s important? What’s the significance of this, that or the other? Why does s/he do that and not this? Etc. It’s these murky drafts then that seem to cause writers the most trouble in accepting. After all, what is murky to one reader *might not* be murky to another – and that’s where second opinions or Po3s can really count, since if it’s murky to more people than not, you know you have an issue.
So here are the main issues I see that can make drafts “murky” – none of them are more important or prevalent than any other by the way, I’m writing as it occurs to me:
Arena. I see murky drafts with regard to arena the most in the SF genre. Some writers have quibbled in the past with me by saying that I’ve admitted on the blog that I “don’t like” SF, therefore I can’t follow their scripts because of this. If writers want to believe this, that’s their prerogative, but I’m afraid it’s total rubbish. Whilst SF is by no means my favourite genre, I’ve watched a ton of it over the years (features and TV) AND I probably get more SF these days than anything else (except maybe horror or period drama as a tie). I’ve become very familiar with the conventions of SF then in the last year in particular, I’ve had a total crash course: I’ve had to. Plus I also seem to be talking to more people who like SF, though that could be accidental. But anyway: it seems to me that many writers make their drafts murky by paying MORE attention to the WORLD of the story (SF or not) than the story itself.
SOLUTION: What was important about your story in the first place, what made you want to write it? If it was the idea that you could write the next Heroes, I Robot, Alien, Bionic Woman or whatever, chances are you’re thinking more about your arena than the story right at the heart of it. Invest in your character first and their journey, the rest can follow – whereas it doesn’t *seem* to work quite as well the other way round to me.
Character. Lack of character motivation can lead to a murky script, we ALL know that – but interestingly character can have a propensity to murkify your script if you give them TOO MUCH houseroom every bit as much as too little. End of the day, you need a clear protagonist who needs to do something, end of. That’s why we watch films. If we have every minute detail of a character’s life it swiftly changes from a movie to a fly-on-the-wall documentary or worse. Characters should do what they need to to keep the story going, the story shouldn’t be fashioned AROUND characters in film, it’s a symbiotic relationship. TV obviously is slightly different – but every character should be able to “give” something to the storyline that continues, else why are they there? Similarly don’t have too many, because the protagonist seems diminished and we end up wondering who and what we’re really watching.
SOLUTION: Bring it all back S-Club Style to your main character (or what I call your “umbrella” character if you’re writing the TV – the one that is the “be all and end all”, Alex in Ashes To Ashes, Mickey in Hustle, Kate in Time of My Life, Hiro in Heroes, etc): why are we watching them? What’s special about them? Why are we watching them now and not ten years from now in their lives? Opening with your protagonist from the very first page doing something that defines them is a good trick – I see way too many scripts that start with one character only for that character to disappear from the story altogether and be replaced with a protagonist whose goal is unclear.
Structure. It’s rare that I write in notes a script has “too little going on”, though it does happen – especially in Sitcoms. Just because it’s TV and locations are limited does not mean it’s completely dialogue-led, people do do stuff, even in continuing drama. Often a script will have way too much; it won’t just have the one subplot even, but multiple threads. So what are we pursuing here? Is this a movie or TV drama about a man’s triumph against adversity when he loses his job? Or about his wife’s penchant for robbing banks? Or is this about their daughter’s desire to win a karate contest? Or their son’s bullying at school?? You may think that *no script* could ever contain four such differing strands but believe me I have read far crazier scripts than this! Whatever the case, too many threads and we just don’t know where we are – story-wise, genre-wise, even character-wise because who is the protagonist if they’re all vying for attention?
SOLUTION: Construct your plot according to convention – TV is very different to film for example. Make sure you do your research too: you might think all the theorising is junk but it is helpful to know what you’re dismissing. Structure is how we make sense of EVERYTHING around us – you need a system (whatever it is and whatever you want to call it!) for writing your script AND for making it understood.
Scene Description. This is one of the main offenders for murkiness, though it often comes hand in hand with Arena I’ve noticed! Those same Scribes who obsess on the worlds of their story rather than the story itself will go to great pains to describe every last detail of a scene. Ironically, this often means a reader is left with LESS idea of what is going on, since if there is a lot of detail, then which is the important action/object etc in pushing the story forward?
SOLUTION: Less is more. Draw a reader’s interest with well-chosen, lean scene description, cut all the fat off, don’t overwrite. Only use those descriptions that reveal character or push the story forward – preferably both at the same time. Make your script sylph-like rather than outsized and suddenly everything will come clearer with regards to what is going on.
Looking at the above list, I definitely made my scripts Murky with scene description in my early days as a screenwriter – these days my Murky draft incarnations spring from a desire to cram too many details in for a character I’ve fallen in love with – I do this particularly with antagonists. It must be my evil side coming to the fore and taking over.
What about you?
Totally with you on the scene description, Luce. If you pare it down then it makes the whole process of writing so much lighter.
Certainly is – yet I’m constantly surprised by how few writers are prepared to let their big bad black splodges of scene description go.
I actually think Dusk Til Dawn is a great example of a Fail when it comes to genre change. I've heard from more than one person that FDTD is perhaps the best vampire movie ever made until the vampires show up. Genre change can work, but both parts have to be equally as intriguing. If one part is weak, then the audience is left with the idea that the film was uneven.