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Excerpt from "Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make it Great"

By William M Akers

I've been doing exactly what you do, writing, for a long, long time. I've taught and critiqued screenwriters for almost that long, and, lo and behold, I discovered that all beginning writers make the same mistakes. So I wrote a book, a checklist of stuff to do to your script before you send it out.

Here's an excerpt from Your Screenplay Sucks!, 100 Ways To Make It Great. I hope it proves helpful as all get out.

***

One fine sunny Los Angeles afternoon, I was sitting in an assistant's office, waiting for the producer, and her door was closed. Probably inside her kitsch-packed office playing paddle ball. I'll never know. Anyway, killing time, I looked above the assistant's desk, and there were two shelves overflowing with screenplays. They ran around three walls of the room. For mental gymnastics, I estimated how many scripts there were. 1,400. One thousand four hundred screenplays, and they all had agents.

To someone at a typewriter or a computer in a city other than Los Angeles, far from the agent's desk, or the producer's office, it is impossible to conceive of the staggering volume of material the system has to contend with. The number of scripts that gushes over the transom of every producer, or agent, or executive, every week boggles the mind. You're one writer sitting in your room, or at a park, or coffee shop, writing your screenplay. There are thousands of people sitting in parks all across this great land of ours, writing screenplays too. So, what you're writing has to be really good.

Writing a spec screenplay (writing on "speculation," hoping to sell it) is all about the reader, not your teacher, or a friend who critiques your material, but someone who is paid to read your stuff. You know, a reader with fifteen scripts to plow through each weekend. If you're not actually in the business, you have no idea how monumentally difficult it is to find someone "real" to read your material. If you ever get that chance, you don't want to mess it up.

While it's true a reader really, really wants to unearth a fantastic screenplay, and opens each one with that uncrushable hope in mind, he is also dying to quit reading so he can flop by the pool with a delightfully refreshing umbrella drink. Therefore, if you give him any excuse to toss your script, he'll take it. And poof!, all your effort will be for naught. A big fat waste of six months of your life. Or a year. Or seven years, like one guy I know.

For some of you, this may come as heartbreaking news: the only people who want to read your work are your parents, maybe, and your boyfriend or girlfriend, depending on how new the relationship is. Remember the umbrella drinks? Readers want something that reads like lightning. Something with plenty of white space. Something where they don't have to fight to figure out what you're trying to say.

For the reader, reading a screenplay is like sprinting through a dark swamp across a hundred yards of floating lily pads while getting shot at by savages. The last page is the shoreline the reader is desperately trying to reach. If something breaks her concentration, even slightly, she may stumble, lose her balance and fall into the piranhas. Do everything you can to keep her on the lily pads!

That said, here are tips from my snarky little book!

You have not paid attention to image order in scene description!

As someone reads your scene description, they create images in their mind. Image after image pop into their head, telling your story -- in the order that they read it. You have to give it to them in the right order, or they won't see it the way you imagine.

Here's an example of confusing image order: "During the American Revolution, Andrew Jackson was captured and wounded by British soldiers." Does that mean they grabbed him, handcuffed him, and then shot him? Probably not.

Laura and Dutch race monster trucks at a video arcade.

Here's how it appears in the reader's mind as he moves image by image through the sentence:

Laura and Dutch race monster trucks WOW, WHEN DID LAURA AND HER GRANDPA BUY MONSTER TRUCKS?! I THOUGHT THEY ONLY RACED HORSES. OH, WAIT, NOW I SEE. at a video arcade. I GET IT. FINALLY. OOPSIE.

Say it this way:

At a video arcade, Laura and Dutch race monster trucks.

I think about the reader, standing beside the camera, their feet on the edge of the frame, watching the story unfold, image after image.

THE STREET
Frantic Vietnamese drop from the struts as the Huey reaches treetop height.

The first image is of Vietnamese dropping from helicopter struts. But we don't know anything that allows us to place that image in context. After rearranging, it makes better sense.

THE STREET
As the Huey reaches treetop height, frantic Vietnamese drop from the struts.

If we don't know a helicopter has reached treetop height, it's confusing to prematurely talk about people dropping from the struts.

The best way to unearth this problem is to read your work out loud!

This counts in sluglines too. Tell us what we need to know as we need to see it. Here's a mistake I made.

Original slugline:

EXT. CHAOTIC STREET - XUAN LOC ("SWAN LOCK") NIGHT

REFUGEES stream past. The CREW rapidly sets up, The reporter, ELLEN, exuberant, healthy, in her thirties, is a total pro. One crew member, TU, is a young Vietnamese man.

And, a slugline on the same page:

EXT. U.S. MARINE - SAIGON AFTERNOON

A young black MARINE GUARD looks out unblinking from under his white cap. He sweats with the heat.

Uhh, stupid.

I should have had the wide shot first, then the close up. Tell us we're in Xuan Loc and then say it's a crowded street. Tell us we're in Saigon, then tell us we're looking at a Marine.

EXT. XUAN LOC ("SWAN LOCK") - CHAOTIC STREET NIGHT

REFUGEES stream past. The CREW rapidly sets up, The reporter, ELLEN, exuberant, healthy, in her thirties, is a total pro. One crew member, TU, is a young Vietnamese man.

And, on the same page:

EXT. SAIGON - U.S. MARINE AFTERNOON

A young black MARINE GUARD looks out unblinking from under his white cap. He sweats with the heat.

Makes more sense this way, and every little bit helps.

Remember, scene description is only what the camera sees. Don't say "a manila envelope filled with a stack of papers" until he opens it and you reveal to the camera that it's a stack of papers. You can say "a bulging envelope," but you can't tell us what's inside unless the camera can see it.

Here is an example of incorrect image order:

EXT. SIDEWALK - DAY

American gothic-like Gary and the SOD SQUAD are on a billboard
reading, "Got Grass? Grassguru.com."

Interesting writing problem here. When you re-read what you have written, you have to keep the readers in mind. The first words they see are going to be the first picture they put in their head. "American Gothic-like, Gary" makes me imagine that Gary is standing up straight on the sidewalk with a pitchfork.

Then I see the words "sod squad." I am thinking he is standing next to a bunch of people, all of them on the sidewalk. Then, and only then, do I see the word "billboard." Suddenly, I have to rearrange the picture in my mind. This is confusing. You must be aware of the picture you're creating for the reader. The reader can only get information in the order you give it.

EXT. SIDEWALK

High above them, on a billboard, Gary and the SOD SQUAD, American Gothic-like. "Got Grass? Grassguru.com."

Final example:

The stake hits the rock floor as Francis rolls out of the way.

Francis has to roll out of the way FIRST. Then the stake can hit the floor. Don't make us imagine the stake hitting the floor and then try to conjure up Francis rolling out of its path. If it's hit the floor, why does he have to roll anywhere?

Image order. It matters!

Again, and not for the last time, read your stuff out loud!

Your sense of entitlement is in overdrive! a.k.a. "Don't fight the notes!"

No one owes you a read.

"If I read a bad script, which takes me forty five minutes, I can't ask for my money back or my time back and I am filled with incalculable amounts of rage."
-Los Angeles Producer

No one owes you anything. Just because you took the time to write your fabulous screenplay doesn't mean anybody Out There is honor bound to read it. It may be the greatest screenplay on earth, but there are plenty of scripts floating around and if they miss out on reading yours, they won't lose sleep over it.

Remember the massive amount of stress and time involved to be in the movie and television business. When you approach someone "real," be aware of their schedule and what you are asking them to do. If you ask someone to read your script, you are begging for a couple of hours out of their life, that you can't give back. You can give them a nice present, a cool book, or a Starbucks gift card, but listening to their advice, and taking their suggestions, is not a bad idea either.

If someone agrees to read your screenplay, you must treat them like a precious jewel and never assume they'll get to it this weekend, despite what they say.

Be sweet. Be patient. Be tolerant. And don't act like an idiot.

The last thing you want to do is come at somebody, guns blazing, put out that they haven't gotten to your phenomenal screenplay quickly enough to suit you. You're lucky they'll take your calls, so act accordingly.

And, if perchance, they are thoughtful enough to give you notes, take them!

"No one is as arrogant as a beginner."
-Elizabeth Ashley

If somebody reads your script and doesn't want to canonize you as quickly as you'd like, but they have notes, then dutifully write them down and act interested. I get this a lot with writers who have never had anything produced. Newbies are often less open to criticism. Maybe they figure the advice is worth what they paid.

Do not fight the guy giving notes. Do not say, "but the act break is there, you just can't see it." Do not claw for every yard like it's Omaha Beach. Copy down what they say, murmur gracious acceptance, and say "thank you" at the end. Don't act like you know more about screenplays than they do. Don't act like they're idiots because they don't understand what you've so generously taken the time to have written!

When I was in film school, we showed our pathetic little first projects and one guy's was terrible. It happens. So, we were going around the room and giving our most afraid-of-being-hurtful comments, and he said, really put out, "It's a personal film! You're not supposed to understand it!" He vanished soon thereafter.

If you find someone to read your script, the door to Hollywood opens. Slightly.

If someone reads your script and is kind enough to give you notes, but because of some insane sense of entitlement, you fight them on the notes, that great golden door will begin to close. You won't see it close either, because these guys are smooth, like the Flusher in college fraternities -- the pleasant guy during rush who leads the loser to the back door, all charm and grace and understanding. He gently explains to the dweeb that perhaps he might try his luck at a frat house down the road, and the guy leaves all smiles, unaware he's a dead man walking. That's how it is when the Hollywood door closes. You never feel the needle enter your brain.

These people read twenty or thirty scripts a week. They have no time or tolerance for arrogance. Remember, it only crosses the reader's mind how long it took to read, not how long you took to write it.

If you refute the notes, he or she is absolutely going to think, "Dude, I took an hour of my weekend to read your script. You're a guy who has never done anything, and there's a shot I could know what I'm talking about - at least listen!"

And the great, golden door will lock. The producer will go off to her production meetings and casting sessions and free lunches and massages and first days of principal photography, and you will be left alone on a raw, windy sidewalk, clutching your screenplay, looking at the high wall and the closed steel door, wondering why it's got no handle.

Meet the Author: William M Akers