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Tick-The-Box vs. Perfect Craft

So on Twitter this week came the following question – organically, rather than directly, via discussion – between myself and Dodgyjammer:

What is the difference between tick-the-box screenwriting and “perfect craft”?

Let’s look at them both.

Tick-The-Box Screenwriting. I think this is down to one thing and one thing alone: believing a formula alone can CREATE a “successful” piece of writing and/ or filmmaking. And if we’re talking about MONEY and a *certain* level of audience satisfaction/participation, those writers/filmmakers are indeed correct. There are many films on the market which follow formula very successfully. I had a boyfriend back in the mists of time OBSESSED with martial arts films. If you have ever watched a large portion of said films, you’ll know they’re very similar in plot, tone, characters, but WHATEVER! We just want to see our hero kick ass… Which we get, in spades. And I would go so far as to argue that there’s nothing wrong in COMMISSIONED, produced movies that follow tick-the-box screenwriting. Writers are working to a specific brief for a producer or company, they’re doing their job, paying their bills and doing an honest day’s work – knowing full well there are people out there who want whatever it is they’re writing, else they wouldn’t have been asked to write it. And assuming there is nothing morally abhorrent in said films or the screenwriter feels like a literary ho (and I’m NOT saying they should), then where’s the harm? I am, however, 100% AGAINST tick-the-box screenwriting when it comes to SPEC scripts. The spec is a much more “fluid” thing, led by the WRITER; not by a producer, not by a company, not by money. Whilst it’s always advisable to think about audience, in my view formula has NO PLACE in the spec pile. But sometimes writers believe craft (and when I say “craft” I usually mean “expected conventions” and/or page counting (ie. my first turning point MUST come on page 22 or BUST!”) comes above heart, or story, or characters, or anything else that may help the reader CONNECT with their material and have an emotional response to it.

Perfect Craft. In contrast then, I believe perfect craft does what’s BEST for the story – and what’s best for the story depends wholly on what the story actually *is*: one size does not fit all and formula is a poor substitute for real inspiration, either in the produced/commissioned movie or the spec in the pile. I am a great believer in what I call “intuitive script reading” – I often say to Bang2writers that certain events ***feel*** as if they come too late or too early for example. Sometimes a Bang2writer will then ask “what page” the event should come on instead, to which I always refuse to give a SPECIFIC one… Because it doesn’t work like that. Instead, I recommend we look instead to ***how*** the story and plot hang together and what would invite audience participation and create audience satisfaction. Yes, it’s vague and potentially annoying as we turn the script inside out and upside down, looking for what *feels* right.

But then, knowing what’s best for the story does not come easy.

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6 thoughts on “Tick-The-Box vs. Perfect Craft”

  1. Great post, and thank you for clearing that up. I always assumed craft and tick-the-box were the other way round!

    Although, I do think the majority of us tend to lean too much one way or the other, be it towards tick-the-box or craft, and unfortunately IMO leaning heavily on a great story but poorly executed on paper ruins it. Just as tick-the-box may read well from an analytical viewpoint but may be boring and dull as hell on screen.

  2. I think a lot of newer readers put too much emphasis on the McKee, Hague, Field or heroes journey, i.e. the cookie cutter notion of structure. In some ways, these Gurus have done a disservice to intuitive writers, and worse, they have created a whole new wave of readers who are only capable of critiquing scripts on these terms.

  3. DJ – I think all of us lean towards one way or the other when newer writers; I think as we grow in experience (and more importantly, confidence), we can appreciate the difference between the two and *how* each can work depending on the context. I for one would be VERY happy to write a martials arts film if someone wanted to hire and pay me to do it! But I'd never write that way for a spec of my own.

    Jazad – Amen to that. Nothing winds me up more than page counting/Guru-quoting readers. I got a script report last year that gave me THE RAGE – the usual problem, I had the audacity to use VO!!! VO is a fab device, but because so many readers have swallowed STORY whole, they can't separate good VOs that push story forward and reveal character.

  4. Jazad- Very true, and the problem with that is scriptwriting becomes so technical, you lose the love for telling stories because you're too busy making sure you've 'ticked-the-boxes' for those new readers.

    Lucy- re: certain stories suit tick-the-box more or craft more, agreed. And VO's are tricky. Ofc you read SC, and witnessed firsthand how I destroyed my use of VO in that. In the original copy, I assure you it made much more sense, whereas in the 2nd copy (the one I sent you) it didn't fit at all. I frown upon people who frown upon VOs and flashback use, simply because sometimes its perfect for a particular story and the last thing writers need is discouragement.

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