Your Screenplay: The Sum or the Parts?

When I interviewed Jewerl Ross, renowned literary manager (who is these days celebrating the immense success of his longtime client, MOONLIGHT writer/director Barry Jenkins), for my upcoming book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, he told me of the screenplays he reads and the content he sees: “If it’s not good enough, I think it’s terrible. And keep in mind that I throw out the word terrible a lot.”  While those words sounded extreme to me in the moment, I found myself being reminded of them this week.

Let’s start by stating the obvious: No one likes to have his or her work torn apart. No one likes being told that his script just doesn’t work. And for the most part, I really don’t know anyone who likes delivering this message. You never want to be the bearer of bad news, especially when you know how hard writers work on their craft. While it is a part of the job, it very much SUCKS.

I usually avoid writing about craft because, frankly, that is not my business. There are plenty of amazing consultants out there already doing just that. And while I do develop content with a select few of my writers and am always happy to vet concepts, brainstorm ideas and delve into treatments and outlines, I leave the rest of it – the heavy lifting, if you will – to consultants, teachers, writers groups made up of experienced writers, and writing mentors who are much, much smarter than me. But what I am entirely happy to write about is the experience of reading. After all, I read ALL. THE. TIME. On most nights you will find me sitting in my bed, reading screenplays and pilots on my iPad (except for those times when Nate drops off a hard copy. You know I love it!).

Here’s the story: Some time ago, I met a new writer that I had never worked with before. In preparation for our session, the writer sent me a script to read, and when we hopped on the phone, he told me that he was eager to hear my thoughts on the material he sent. Crap. Not that I didn’t know this was coming, but… That was one conversation I dreaded the entire morning before we hopped on the line. Because here is the problem: I struggled through the read. REALLY struggled. Through the first 52 pages that took place in all of three locations and consisted mostly of overly expository and sometimes aimless dialogue. I wrestled with the passive, unlikable, un-relatable protagonist, who was without, what consultants and story experts would call, a driving goal or active pursuit. I fought with the absence of story to organically drive any semblance of plot along. And I wrestled with the verbose writing style, scenes that spanned pages upon pages, the lack of economy on the page.

While I enjoyed the protagonist’s peculiar and eccentric nature, the reality was that beyond that… I had very little good to say, which, understandably, offended the writer to no end. There was a secondary character who began to pop more in later pages. An unexpected element that to me felt misplaced and obviously written into the material to set it apart from the rest. But because the anchor of this particular story was one that I could not get behind or get invested in, none of those other elements mattered. In the simplest of terms, I couldn’t get past the script’s significant missteps. The material was mired by so many first-act and protagonist problems, that everything that took place in the second half of the second act and beyond did not deliver much of the writer’s desired impact.

Now before we go any further, let me be the first to admit that I am a character person. If the character has not been developed properly, if he doesn’t have a solid, relatable goal that is rooted in need and therefore meaningful stakes, if we don’t have a clear feel for who he is, what he wants, what his wound is, what is getting in his way and what he stands to lose, it’s going to be tough to win me over on craft. Possible but not probable, as I like to say. While movies and television shows are entertainment and present a spectacular experience, the great ones are always driven by a specific character, its needs and its stakes. In BREAKING BAD, Walter White suffers chronic mediocrity, from never reaching his potential. He wants to make sure that his family is provided for in the case of his death, but he is also driven by the need to finally and conclusively rise to his potential. To be great. In SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK Bradley Cooper is trying to recover from the perception that he is unstable and strives to put his life back together and get his wife back before Jennifer Lawrence gets in his way and causes him to reverse his goal. And in INCEPTION Leonardo DiCaprio just wants to find a way back to his children, making inception the path to getting there. I can go on and on but… I’m sure you get it.

Anyway, back to our story. After a long call in which I did my fair share of balancing honesty with squirming (because, let’s face it, no one likes telling a writer that they had a REALLY hard time with their script), the writer sent me an email complaining that I couldn’t have entirely disliked the screenplay because there was some “great stuff in there.” In other words, because of the various elements built into the script, the script could not have been entirely disliked. But a screenplay is not just a collection of parts. It is very much their sum, and all parts are NOT created equal. If the writer fails to captivate the reader on page 10 or page 20 or page 30, it really doesn’t matter what happens on page 70 because the reader will no longer be invested (that is assuming that, like me, he is still reading, which most agents, managers and executives will not be). If the journey that the screenplay takes us on is not interesting, organic and meaningful, we are not going to care what happens along it. And if the protagonist we go on the journey with is entirely unlikable and un-relatable (and sometimes even downright annoying), driven by baseless goals and entirely misguided ambitions that make little sense, we are not going to care who else shows up along the way.

For me, this is where the great story consultants come in. Everyone from Robert McKee to Pilar Alessandra, Jen Grisanti, Michael Hauge, Tawnya Bhattacharya, Corey Mandell, Ruth Atkinson, Hayley McKenzie and so many other brilliant minds that help screenwriters work on their craft and their pages every day. It is their job to help the writer find those meaningful elements and write a screenplay around them, so that when it gets to someone like me, or – more importantly – someone with both feet in the industry, be it an agent, a manager, a producer or an executive, there is no question that – despite each person’s unique taste level – the work itself is sound. In these cases, you will hear “it wasn’t for me,” or “I didn’t connect with the work,” implying that the material and the person reading were not a fit, rather than “I had a really hard time with the material,” or “I couldn’t get past the first 5 pages.” If you’ve done your job to make sure that the structure of the material is strong and the bones are there below the surface and above, then it will be about whether the executive connected with the material, rather than about whether or not you can actually write.

Of course, not everyone can afford a consultant to help him find his story, to identify and elevate the screenplay’s very best parts, and augment others so that they deliver the necessary punch. In lieu of input from a story consultant, look to industry screenplays to inform you about what is expected from the work in today’s industry environment. Break down the scripts and study protagonists, motivations, plot structure and an economical writing style. To become a student of the craft you don’t need to have a lot of money in the bank; you can start with access to Google drives and dropboxes housing pilot scripts and scripts that made it to The Black List (that is, the list rather than the listing service/website). And enough knowledge and drive to start studying those scripts and breaking them down in order to really understand what they did wrong and what they did right.

No every script is perfect. In fact, very few ever are. And certainly not everyone is going to love what you write, or, for that matter, how you write. But if the bones are sound, if the craft is smart, if the protagonist is wounded and active and properly motivated by powerful stakes, and the plot is effectively driving us along, the story told in an interesting, unique style, you stand a good chance of your script landing in the GREAT, rather than TERRIBLE, pile.