THINGS THAT PISS SCREENPLAY READERS OFF, 3/1/09


Since I am doing coverage for various screenplay/teleplay competitions as well as production companies, I thought I would use this time to write down, on occasion, my reflections and talk about issues I run across as I read the myriads and myriads of submissions. Forgive me if the pomposity bleeds through every once in awhile, but I have to put something on this blog and pomposity has never stopped me from giving my opinion in the past.

There may not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the thoughts I put down; often something will just occur to me or I’ll run across something in a script that makes me break out in hives. I will often talk generally about a topic. There will also be departments of reoccurring comments (like do or don’t do this in a narrative; know your terms; etc.). But there will definitely be one constant theme: things that PISS US OFF (and by “us”, I mean readers and providers of coverage). And believe me, there is one thing you don’t want to do to a reader and that is PISS HIM OR HER OFF. And yes, we readers talk about these things when we get together, sometimes laughing as viciously as the popular high school students do when they make comments about the uncool kids.

I thought I would start with what is probably the most boring, yet still incredibly important, in many cases the most important, issue in writing screenplays: narrative and what is industry standard.

This is perhaps the most difficult issue to raise because, based on my private consultations with writers as well as discussion in writing groups, it is the main topic most writers simply don’t want to, or can’t accept, as being important. In fact, whenever I bring it up, you can always see that raise of the eyebrow and impatient smirk the author pretends he hopes is not noticed, but at the same time definitely wants me to have seen (it’s the same look English teachers get when teaching grammar). People simply refuse to believe that well written narrative is important and that badly written narrative can make or break a script.

What’s doubly annoying here is that industry standard narrative has nothing to do with one’s ability as a writer; it has little to do with whether one is any good or not. And on top of it, it is the easiest thing to fix or get right, so easy, that it makes me want to slap that smirking eyebrow off a writer’s face the minute it goes up like a theater curtain. It’s not unusual for a writer to take it all so personally. They act as if you’re Simon Callow on American Idol and they’ve been told that they have no chance of ever making it in the movies when all he’s really telling you is that your mike isn’t turned on; yeah, you look like an idiot, but it doesn’t make you a bad singer.

And actually I understand. Believe me, I do. Before I started doing coverage and script consultation, I also would semi-secretly ridicule any feedback on narrative. But once I started reading script after script, I discovered that industry standard narrative as well as properly punctuated and grammatically correct prose was not just the arbitrary rules of a group of old guys strutting their testosterone; it actually made a script much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much easier to read and follow (much). And believe me when I say on behalf of my tribe, the last thing you want is to give us a script that is hard to read or follow. It’s annoying, frustrating and frankly, it PISSES US OFF.

So to start, here are the first of an occasional listing of do’s and don’ts for narrative. Please keep in mind that occasionally breaking the rules or simply making a mistake is not going to piss us off. And there’s always the possibility that a great script will shine through (if you really want to take that chance). But a constant breaking of these rules will definitely PISS US OFF:

1. Narrative paragraphs should never be more than 2 to 3 lines long. Narrative paragraphs in actions sequences should be even shorter. Any longer than this, especially if you have several narrative paragraphs in a row, is hard to read. And hard to read narrative PISSES US OFF.

2. Narrative paragraphs should be to the point, describing action, keeping description to a minimum. They should not be literary or metaphorical (not “the horns start beeping like a flock of geese”, but “all the cars horns start beeping”). The reason for this is that if you don’t get that absolutely perfect metaphor or simile, then we as readers will have to stop and think, now just what did he mean by that clever turn of phrase? You never, never, never, never, never want the reader to have to stop and figure out what something means. I know, I know. Your literary turn of phrase is so brilliant that everyone will instantly understand what you’re talking about. Don’t kid yourself, kid. What you’re really doing is PISSING US OFF, royally. If you have to use a literary model for your narrative paragraphs, don’t look to Faulkner or Proust, look to Hemingway.

More of what PISSES US OFF to come.

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