A screenplay is no place to be timid, tentative, or reserved.
I've read eight spec scripts in the past few days, by unknown writers. Most of the scripts were garbage, two were salvageable (in theory, at least). One of the salvageables was a romantic comedy. The problem with the comedy was that it was good, but not great. I liked it but didn't love it.
Why didn't I love it? First, the scene descriptions were novelistic instead of telegraphic. That's easy to fix. Secondly, the dialog in each scene began "too early," with throwaway lines (the characters greeting each other); too much setup. Again, not hard to fix.
Not so easy to fix is the fact that the humor just wasn't over-the-top. The author fell in love with her characters and thought everything they did was inherently adorable and/or hilarious.
I suggested some touch-ups here and there, but frankly it's the author's job to make it great. All I could do is point out some really obvious areas of potential that were glossed over.
The hero of one script, an adorable nerd (think Forty-Year-Old Virgin), has managed to convince a beautiful woman to accompany him to Hawaii. One scene has him sulking in the bar, alone. The bartender, a burly Hawaiian, finds the hero sulking, sipping at a drink, listening to a ukulele player. He asks our hero something like: "You look like you could use a friend. Want to talk about it?" The hero says "Nah, I'm just going to listen." The bartender: "Talk to me, bro. I have a B.A. in psychology." Mr. Sad Sack says no.
Well, if this is a comedy, I don't like sad bar scenes. My rewrite of this encounter has the bartender saying: "Talk to me, bro. I have a Ph.D. in psychology." Our hero perks up. "What are you doing working here?" Bartender: "Dude. This is where the crazy people are."
Not a knee-slapper, but enough to keep the interest going. It has the ring of truth. People with doctorates sometimes do end up tending bar, in this great economy of ours. And yeah, bars are where the crazies often hang out. In the next scene, when the author has the hero wanting to comfort a young lady nearby who's crying in her beer, the bartender (in the original version of the script) warns our hero off: "Don't do it, man. She a crazy one." The line had zero impact before I gave the man a Ph.D.
At one point, the hero admits to his traveling companion (the beauty-girl) that he was engaged once. He explains that it didn't work out. Boring scene. Not at all in keeping with the character's virginity (or apparent virginity, up to that point). I suggested changing it to him saying: "Actually, I was engaged once. To the Little Mermaid." His partner says: "A cartoon character?" He says: "But it was doomed. She had this, you know, fishy smell."
Again, not exactly a knee-slapper, but the point is, this is a comedy with far too many boring backstory scenes. Why not try to make the boring parts a little more interesting? It's not an option, it's a requirement.
Turns out the heroine was also engaged (and still is) to a Fabio-like muscle dude with a cleft chin. I suggested a line or two of our hero warning her that if she marries Fabio, she's going to wake up looking at a butt-chin about 17,000 times in her life. "And if you smell inside there? There's chin smegma. No, it's true. Chinegma. Chin cheese." Etc.
This comedy's premise is that the main character (the 40-year-old nerd/virgin) has a brain tumor, and he's trying to scratch off items on his decidedly eccentric "bucket list." What the author didn't do is take advantage of the obvious liberty this guy has to do whatever he wants and say whatever he wants to whomever he wants. If he's dying, he's free to go nuts. Right? Instead, he does the most tepid, boring stuff.
It takes courage to write comedy. I told the author, the first thing you have to do is go through the whole script and exaggerate everything you possibly can. When the tattoo artist tells our guy to bring a stick to bite on, that's not good enough. The tattoo artist should tell him to bring a broom handle to bite on, or a baseball bat, or whatever. Think big, think outlandish, magnify things, make them colorful (bigger than life, as we say). We're at the movies. Let's see something fun.
Another comedy script I read suffered from the same problem of too-tameness. Everything was tame when it should have been out-of-control, outlandish. The hero, at one point, robs a bank. His stick-up line: "I know this is going to be a drag for some of you, but this is a stickup."
In my mind, I had the guy leaping onto a counter or table, firing a gun in the air, and saying (in Roddy Piper fashion) "Listen up assholes! I'm here to floss my teeth, and kick ass. And I'm all, out, of dental floss!"
Women scream. A man tries to make a phone call.
The hero points his gun at the man's crotch. "I wouldn't try it, Superman, unless you want to be a GODDAM SOPRANO!"
When you're writing for the big screen, you have to be visual (not just talk-talk-talk, which is another common problem with spec scripts) and you have to think big/outlandish. Don't be timid. Leave timidity behind. Write like you mean it. Slay the audience, or die trying.
If you're a screenwriter, novelist, actor, director, agent, or industry person and you'd like to get a sneak peek at my script, "Greeners," write to me (and include your Twitter handle if you have one). My hushmail dot com address is kasthomas. All inquiries kept confidential.