Wednesday, January 06, 2010

How Does This Happen?

For those of you who read a ton of screenplays from wannabes ...

How is it that many screenplays sound like a commentary from somebody watching their first game? Nothing tells me the writer even understands the depths of what his own characters are experiencing. The story feels forced and out of touch with itself.

"A guy in a red shirt with the number 5 is throwing the ball to his left. Nobody there. A tall guy in a striped shirt throws a yellow square of fabric onto the grass near where the ball hit the ground."

It's not just amateurish flat writing. It's something more.

Since nobody knows the story better than the writer and nobody knows the characters' fractured worlds of pain and wonder better than the writer, this Dick and Jane casual observer writing is an enigma to me. It's easy to spot but I don't understand how it happens or how to recommend a fix. "You suck at writing" seems like cruel over-simplification.

Does it boil down to "anyone can write but not everyone can tell a story"? I can't come up with an academic explanation.



Unk said...


Works for me...

Having said that... No offense but what you're saying SHOULD be true but OFTEN IS NOT TRUE.

Most of the newbie screenplays I read and have read reveal to me that the writer DOESN'T know his or her characters... Doesn't know the world that their story takes place in.

Very RARELY do I ever see ANYONE take it that far but you'll know it when you see it.

Most people see a zombie movie and decide to write a zombie story. Plain and simple. Their characters are derivative of other zombie stories and of course their zombie story is derivative of other zombie stories.

You know the old adage... Give me the SAME only DIFFERENT?

Not many writers actually know HOW to do that.

Just my meager 2 pennies.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

So it boils down to the writer not being ready and/or able to create their own universe...

Scott said...


I found your blog via Mystery Man on Film. Your latest post hits on a good point and there's this, too: Many producers and even studio execs are, shall we say, 'lacking' in their understanding of story.

To paraphrase Robert Towne, there are 3 kinds of people in Hollywood: People who can read a script and not identify what's wrong with the story; people who can determine what's wrong, but can't fix it; and people who can see what's wrong and know how to fix it.

I've added your blog to my Friends blogroll (

Good luck with your writing!

Scott Myers

mernitman said...

What they said.

And I'll add my two cents from a parenthetical angle, born of teaching many classes in both screenwriting and creative writing. Here's the awful truth: Many (I won't be bold or cynical enough to say "most") pre-pro screenwriters are not interested in being WRITERS. They're interested in selling a script and getting a movie made.

I've found that most pre-pro fiction writers, conversely, are in for the long haul. They don't intend to write one thing and strike it rich. They comprehend that their craft and practice will necessitate a lifetime of work and learning, and they seem much more committed to exploring character and story.

But don't get me started...

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Billy, how do readers do it day after insane day? Must feel like thousands of pieces of glass pricking your writer's soul.

Steve, thanks for the visit. I guess some people really can spend months of their real breathing lives in a world they've created and still write as if they have never been there before.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Scott, I accept that producers and studio execs may be lacking in undertanding of the story. They're filmmakers, not necessarily authors of their own universes. But if they are both, then I don't get it.

Brett said...

It's one thing to love a fine meal, it's another to know how to actually prepare that meal.

Lots of people enjoy movies, but it's a damned difficult thing to create the basic recipe for a movie. I'm continually amazed by how many people really seem to have no ear for dialog, no sense of pacing, no eye for imagery, no clue what structure is about, yet continue to clatter away at keyboards, churning out gray lifeless meaningless pages which do nothing, say nothing, express nothing.

And then I hope and pray that I'm not suffering the same delusion that blinds these people to their own shortcomings and deficiences.

And then i go back to writing.

Anonymous said...

I see the same thing in lots of finished movies - pretty characters moved around like pawns on a board, no feeling that these are real people with real issues at all. Screenplay books promote formulaic writing of one kind or another, too. So how are new writers supposed to get the idea that what they want to do takes effort and thought? By all accounts these days screenwriting's a business, not an art; the marketability rather than the quality of your work determines your value as a writer. Aaaaaarrrrggghhh!

Scott said...

I think Billy's point is probably the most salient: You have to want to be a writer, not just sell a script. And being a writer is about digging into the story and characters to such depth - and finally caring about them - that the end result goes well beyond formulaic to create a living, breathing world, plot, people, etc.

As far as I'm concerned, the key to getting to that 'place' - being a writer - is not a big secret, it's hard work: Read scripts, watch movies, write pages.