Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Makes a Script Work?

Yesterday I read, and wrote coverage for, four spec scripts by unknown writers. I don't want to go into too much detail about the specifics, but let's just say this: Doing coverage is hard. It's hard under good circumstances. But when the scripts are stinky (as most are) it's actually a punishing experience all the way around.

One script I read was a lighthearted comedy set in Manhattan. The premise was just plain silly. A privately owned publishing house that churns out romance novels (written by people sitting at cubicles!) struggles to remain solvent. A young couple working there tries to save the ailing firm. Hijinks ensue.

Another script involved a card game with a demon-in-disguise. The hero finds a way to chase the demon into the demon's alternate reality, where he must master the rules of the Other World before doing battle with the demon in order to save a sick child whose soul the demon has claimed.

A third script was a substance-abuse comedy a la Cheech and Chong.

All three of these were terrible in various ways.

The least-sucky of the three, the comedy involving the Manhattan "paperback factory," had wooden characters, zero conflict, almost no plot, and for a so-called comedy it had vanishingly few laughs. 

The demon fantasy was mercifully short (88 pages); that's the best thing I can say about it.

The Cheech and Chong epic was dismal, with super-verbose scene descriptions, long speeches, and frequent references to specific song lyrics by specific artists (a no-no).

All three suction-enabled scripts had a few things in common. First, the characters were bland (the opposite of unforgettable) and sounded alike. The publishing-world comedy had no ethnic characters at all (in New York City??) and the characters sounded as if they came out of the same womb and attended the same prep schools. Secondly, the scripts relied far too much on dialog to tell the story. Often, the dialog was horribly stilted. ("My sister, you are a nincompoop" is funny, but for the wrong reasons. The author wasn't trying to be funny.) Most of all, though, the dialog was just incessant, often with "(beat)" inserted to control the rhythm.

The bad scripts had cardboard characters who simply existed, with no backstories, no texture, no complexity, no personality, and minimal (if any) character arc. They were the same lifeless characters at the end of the tale that they were at the beginning.

What you quickly realize when you start reading scripts is that all of the elements of a story play off each other: colorful characters say and do interesting things that both generate conflict and make their response(s) to conflicts all the more interesting. Strange synergies happen. When all the elements are working, they reinforce each other in remarkable ways. Conversely, when you start with flat characters and low stakes, nothing interesting can happen. It's strange how, in a good script, everything tends to work, whereas in a bad script nothing tends to work.

The fourth script I read was a winner. It was a psychological noir thriller in which a 25-year-old cab driver with a 6-year-old sister goes in search of the sociopathic father who ruined their lives. The characters were vivid, the dialog was some of the best I've ever read, the scene construction was crisp, and basically you could tell in the first five pages you were in the hands of an expert. (So yeah, it's true what they say. Ten pages is plenty of time in which to judge the expertise of the writer.)

Now here's the interesting thing. The author of the A+ script made a few boo-boos. He didn't mention until page seven what part of the world the story takes place in (Detroit). On page one, he had a line of dialog that said "Alright, lets go then." I don't know how you feel, but as a professional writer I've always hated the non-word "alright." There's "all right," or there's "okay," but there is (in English) no "alright." Also, "let us" contracts to "let's," not "lets."

The writer used "alright" about 30 times in the script. He also used the f-word way, way, way too much, greatly diminishing its impact. And at the most critical point in the action, he lapsed into passive voice!

And yet, I absolutely loved the script. The level of craft was so undeniably high, the dialog so crisp and believable, the scenes so superbly crafted, the timing and pacing so deft, the plot's twists so unpredictable, the characters so memorable, the ending so poignant, I couldn't help but throw my hands up at the end and go "Yesss!!!"

Bottom line, you can commit a certain number of sins and still get a rave review. But your script better sing. It better do the important stuff so incredibly well that the reviewer is ashamed to give you anything but an A+ grade. That's what happened with the knockout script I read. It kicked major ass. Flaws and all.

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.