Literary Material Part Two

It’s easy to believe that there aren’t thousands of great, scary, exciting, heartwarming, sexy, thrilling, side-splitting, and important screenplays floating around in the blogosphere or some other literary Bermuda Triangle these days. And there are great stories that are not made into movies. But there are thousands and thousands of poorly written, weak stories that lack the universality that makes a story a good movie. The trouble here is that determining what is a good and bad script is subjective and based on the opinions of the beholder. In the studio system, this starts with a Script Reader.

Script readers, hired by the major studios and agencies, are the first hurdle that a writer must get past. Script readers (often writers themselves) conduct what is referred to as “coverage” on an incoming script or treatment. Coverage is quite standardized and roughly speaking is made up of a “logline” (a one or two sentence description of the story; a brief synopsis – a paragraph or two; and a full synopsis that is 1 ½ to 3 pages. This is followed by the Reader’s assessment – to pass on the project, to consider the project, or to recommend the project, as well as a paragraph or so giving reasons for the assessment. Getting a “recommend” is a major hurdle for a writer and while by no means a green light, it does have significance and generally means that the script has made it through the first or many gauntlets.

There may be lots of good ideas out there, but the ability to turn them into a screenplay that is entertaining, enlightening and/or meaningful is actually quite rare.

What makes a story work?

You should know in the first 15-20 pages, and if you don’t feel engaged in the plot and involved with the principal characters by then, you might as well stop reading. That sounds harsh, I know, but in 99% of script-reading, it’s depressingly true. Like any good story, whether one you tell while you’re barbecuing or the last great short story you read in the New Yorker, the writer needs a hook, an element that entices the audience to come along in this mutual exercise of suspended disbelief.

A great deal of time and attention has been spent (and wasted) analyzing three-act structure, and its effective employment and disastrous misuse, depending on the writer’s insight into this mystery of mysteries. Robert McKee and other savants have enriched themselves greatly in this quest, which has mostly resulted in intricately devised three-act structures that still have nothing interesting to show or say.

A producer reading a script looks at around page 25-30 for the major obstacle the lead character(s) has or have to overcome. If it isn’t there by then, or never shows up at all, that’s another point at which you can stop reading. Western narrative structure almost demands that characters learn and grow in the course of the story, and obstacles are the easiest way to dramatize and visualize this process. Whether it’s Star Wars or Superbad, the journey is identical from a story perspective.

By about page 90 (or earlier when reading a comedy), there should be some surprising incident or plot turn that throws the last part of the story into high relief, and a final conclusion or catharsis. Once again, if no such device occurs, the script may be a brilliant exception to the rule, or more probably it will join the growing stack of rejected material.

Those pages between 30 and 90 will also tell you a lot (the lengthy second act is the downfall of many an ambitious film), but if you don’t sense a third act break, the writer doesn’t really know how to end the story. Many successful filmmakers have started movies this way – Billy Wilder had no idea how he would conclude Some Like It Hot until he and writing partner Izzy Diamond, the day before the movie wrapped, came up with Joe E. Brown’s immortal closing line, “Well, nobody’s perfect,” said to his new fiancée Jack Lemmon.

The Bottom Line

Films are usually made only because the people who want to make them are passionate about the stories they want to and have to tell. If a story doesn’t make someone laugh or cry, excite or thrill, it may not be a film worth making. If one doesn’t really believe in the product, the gargantuan effort needed to have a movie made will rarely be rewarded.