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Well, it’s that time of the year again, kiddos.
And by that, I don’t mean my birthday, Yom Kippur or Chinese New Year’s.
I have now finished reading for the major competitions that I read for every year. And I must say, I read some pretty marvelous stuff this time round by authors who are ambitious and who have an immense amount of talent.
Okay. Enough accentuating the positive. Let’s dive for the dirt.
Now that this reader period has come to an end, I have made a list of the most common clichés, overdone and stale storylines and major mistakes that I’ve run across this year, issues that would have had me pulling my hair out in frustration if I wasn’t already bald.
First, it should be noted that just because I’ve listed something here that many writers have overused to such a degree that it makes something like the buddy cop movie the most original plotline on the face of planet Hollywood, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t also read screenplays where that very something actually worked.
After all, I’ve been around for living dead movies since they began and I no longer find them particularly interesting. For me, they are one of the most overcooked genres there are—yet every year, I end up recommending one.
So there are exceptions to everything and, as Daniel Webster said, there is always room at the top, and just when I think I’m out, a screenwriter pulls me back in, etc., etc., etc.
At the same time, c’mon, guys. Let’s be honest here. Ten to one, you are not one of those exceptions.
I also found something sort of interesting this year. When I first started reading, it was obvious that many authors were being influenced by some of the best writer/director/filmmakers in theaters at the time. Many a screenplay had structures based on Pulp Fiction, for example (not the subject matter, just the construction) and in many I could see the dark humor of the Coen Brothers.
But not this year. Well, except for maybe one too many stoner comedies and men scared of women and acting like they were still in high school (not mentioning any names here, but if the shoe fits…).
I’m not sure what that means, but it does make me wonder just what movies most aspiring writers are attending…and to be honest, the thought kind of gives me an unsettling sense of foreboding.
But at any rate and without so much as a further ado-do, these are the major honey booboos I ran up against this competition season:
STORY LINES AND GENRES
The most annoying and frustrating story line is a rom com with female leads in which the woman’s only goal is to be in a relationship or find true love or wonders why Prince Charming hasn’t come along to sweep her off her feet. Every time I read one of these, I want to tell the lead character: get thee to a life, go.
Not only do I find these stories to be overdone (and a total misunderstanding of what makes a rom com work), I think they are simply and incredibly insulting to women.
And this includes any story about a woman who can only find worth in her relationship to a man.
As well as any screenplay where a female character is doing what is normally called a “man’s job”, but can’t handle it emotionally or is a bitch.
I mean, gees Louise, guys, are you writers really that threatened by strong women?
Get over it already.
In sort of an opposite and equal reaction to this are stories about a Peter Pan/man child who has yet to grow up. Just a word of caution: if your character hasn’t grown up by the time he’s in his late 20’s, I usually won’t care.
Next are movies about people in a relationship, but I have no idea what they see in each other. The funniest variation on this is the guy who’s a loser (no job, lives with his parents, plays video games all day, smokes weed, etc.) and yet has the most gorgeous and sexiest woman in the world dating him.
And I have the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge in my pocket.
Actually, the idea that this sort of character has a girlfriend period is almost impossible to believe.
When it comes to the horror genre, the most overused plots tend to be stories about people, usually teens or young adults, who find themselves trapped in the countryside and menaced by something, whether this something is the local inbreds or some spawn of an environmental disaster or some supernatural manifestation.
(If you really feel you must do a redneck in the hen house horror fest, remember that you should have characters that are a 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to…, because the reader is probably only going to be interested in them and not the clichéd story itself.)
Found footage films. Enuf said.
Reality show/mockumentary type movies in which people are being filmed and they talk to the camera. (See found footage films.)
Next would be stories about someone whose character arc, or journey, depends on the character winning something at the climax. The main issue with this is that it’s a story line that’s almost impossible to dramatize without employing formula and cliché.
Road movies. Since these, in many ways, don’t have a strong, focused plot, they are very dependent on character and most of the time, the characters in road movies I read are flat and mediocre.
In addition, every road movie author seems to think that the goals of his characters are inherently interesting, when most of the time, they feel arbitrary and been there, done that.
And there are all of those stories about black and Hispanic characters that, because they are stories about black and Hispanic characters, are naturally about gangs and drug trafficking, because, of course, that’s all that blacks and Hispanics do, deal drugs and form gangs.
And who can’t forget high school stories in which the nerdy or unpopular teen male is enamored of the most popular/beautiful female teen.
Again, it’s not that you can’t employ any of these and make something out of them. But you must realize that these are the various genres and plot lines that I see over and over and over and over and over and over…well, you know.
An opening in which someone is being chased, especially, though not exclusively, through the woods.
An opening which is a nightmare that someone suddenly wakes up from.
An opening in which something happens and then the story jumps forward a number of years to where the central character is an adult.
An opening in which something happens and then the story goes back in time.
The above are just so overdone and clichéd that it’s almost impossible to get an emotional reaction out of me.
The additional problem here is that it often feels like the reason the author starts with a prolog like this is that he doesn’t have faith in his characters or his plot.
In fact, it’s got to the point where when I read such an opening, I let out a depressive sigh.
Having someone suddenly stop a moment and look emotionally at a picture or a set of pictures.
Related to that, establishing someone’s backstory by going to pictures and documents framed on a wall.
A cell phone not working, or getting damaged or getting destroyed (believe it or not, this is still a big one).
One of the things that I find will always bring down the veil of depression over my withered visage is when I open a file and the first page of the screenplay is almost nothing but a series of long paragraphs (3, 4, 5 or more lines each).
I mean, c’mon. How hard can it be to break them up into one or two line paragraphs?
What’s even more dispiriting is when I realize that, after reading them, it’s obvious the same information and effect could have been achieved in five lines.
In addition, fully capitalizing too many words (I really don’t know why anyone does this anymore, there really isn’t any reason for it, and it’s just distracting).
Describing in detail how people dress when it has nothing to do with plot (and since I’m not a fashionista—and most readers aren’t—it almost invariably doesn’t tell me diddly about the character).
Describing in detail the locations that, again, doesn’t further the plot or doesn’t tell me any more about the character or location that a one line description wouldn’t.
Metaphorical descriptions of characters that aren’t clear enough to tell me anything about the character; aren’t visual, but are intellectual (so I have to stop and think about them); and often can’t be dramatized or acted in any way.
This last is very, very popular now spurred by the mythic idea that you have to say something about that character that defines them in order to give a clear idea of some kind to the reader. Nine times out of ten, it doesn’t tell me anything I need to know.
AND DON’T FORGET…
I am still running into a large number of screenplay that are simply unreadable or the plot is impossible to follow. The reasons for this vary, from bad formatting and overwritten narrative, to overcomplicated and unfocused storylines, to someone who just doesn’t have enough experience yet or doesn’t quite understand the concept of how to write a screenplay that communicates to a reader.
This is a very general note, I realize, but I strongly suggest that every writer join a writing group of some kind just to see whether there is a problem with simply understanding the story and being able to follow what is going on.
AND THE WINNER IS…
The most common defect and the one aspect of the screenplay that almost invariable dooms it working is that the story is not character driven, or the characters are not vibrant, original, unique or interesting. On a scale of one to ten, for a contest, you really need to have characters that are at least an eight, and preferably better (for a studio or even to sell a screenplay, if you have a highly original concept, you can get away with flatter and less involving characters—if for no other reason that the producers might have the money to bring in another writer to try and flesh the personalities out).
And so, the reading year is dead, long live the reading year. On to next year.