Jurgen Wolff



1: A Boring Opening

 Both in the studio system and the independent sector, people who choose which scripts are made don’t have a lot of time. Basically they are looking for a reason to reject your script and if you don’t capture their interest fast that’s exactly what will happen. Don’t assume, though, this means your script has to start with a chase, explosion, or violent murder. Here’s the one thing your first scene has to do: To make them want to keep reading. That’s it. And that’s the basic requirement of every scene that follows. That means you have to arouse their curiosity. That can be done with a powerful image, an intriguing action, or a great line of dialogue. For example, imagine a scene in which a woman opens a refrigerator door. She looks in, turns pale and whispers, “Oh my god!” Immediately we want to know what she’s seen. Make her line, “Oh my god, not again!” and we are even more curious. If you then cut away to another scene without revealing what’s in the fridge, you build the suspense. Of course all this has to be done elegantly and in a way that makes sense for the plot and the characters, but fail to do it and there’s a good chance you have sealed the fate of your script within the first five pages. 


2: Flat characters

 You know the kind I’m talking about: the rule-breaking old cop and his new partner, the idealistic young rookie. Yawn. Seen it before. You’d better bring something fresh to these two, and fast. The same goes for the timid nerd, the smooth yuppie, the grumpy boss. Unless you give them an extra dimension they will be dead on the page, empty stereotypes that will defeat even good actors. Avoid the easy route of having them be the exact opposite of what we expect: the jock who reads poetry, the grump with the heart of gold, the granny who rides a motorcycle—that’s just laziness taken to the next level. Instead, think about the people in your own life and how complex they are once you get to know them, the little secrets we all harbor. Bring in some of those complexities and contradictions—even if you only hint at them—and your characters will come alive. 

3: Changing genres halfway through

 If it’s going to be a comedy it had better be funny from page one.

If it’s going to be a thriller, you’d better foreshadow some element of dread or suspense early on. Yes, you can mix genres and of course you want to build suspense or jeopardy as the script goes on, not reveal everything in the first scenes. You can also shift the tone somewhat. But if the audience settles in to enjoy a comedy and halfway through it turns into a non-ironic gore-fest, chances are they will not be happy. 



4: A story that sags in the middle

 Some writers call it “the second act swamp.” It’s that point in the script where things have gotten off to a great start, the characters have embarked on their adventure and had one or two obstacles to overcome, but it’s a long way to the highest point of the conflict. This is where a lot of writers start padding. That makes it the part where the reader who was captured by the power of your opening starts to check his or her watch and flip forward to see how many more pages there are. It is where the inexperienced writer suddenly devotes ten pages to an inconsequential subplot. Or where the new scene is pretty much the same as the previous one. Or lots of stuff happens but it doesn’t advance the plot. Where the story sinks and so does the reader’s attention. Here’s a clue: if the middle doesn’t work, your real problem is in the beginning. You haven’t set up things up to give your characters enough to keep them very busy—in a meaningful way—in the middle of the script. 

5: A predictable story

 Sure, there are only 36 plots. Or maybe it’s 17, or 9, or 42. We’ve seen it all before, but we’d better not have seen it in exactly the same way. Your secret weapon in overcoming this problem is your characters. Think of three of your friends or family members. They go to the city (separately) and have their wallet or purse stolen in the same circumstances. When they come back, they tell you the story. Will each story be exactly the same, or will they vary because there are three different personalities involved? I’m guessing it’s the latter. The same thing helps your screenplay. If you have created unique characters even a familiar experience can seem new. Of course that’s not an excuse for not being innovative in how you construct the story, it’s just an element that often is overlooked.


6: A story that’ ’ is not about anything
The most satisfying films have a theme. The plot is what happens, the theme is what the story is about. In Avatar the plot was the attempt to conquer a planet in order to mine its valuable minerals; the theme was our relationship to nature. It’s not essential that you know the theme of your script before you start writing, although it helps; in some cases you feel driven to write a certain story and only when you’re done do you recognize what it’s about at a deeper level. Once you know it, all the major scenes should reflect that theme in one way or another. Not too overtly, though, or it’ll feel like a sermon. 

7: Clunky dialogue

 Dialogue can be bad because it’s clunky exposition, saying things the other characters already know: “James, as my brother I expect you to support my decision despite our differences over the years.” Or it can be clichéd: “How long have we known each other?” “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.” “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you.” (If the line could be the refrain in a pop song, probably it’s not a great line of dialogue.) Or it can be stilted or wooden, or melodramatic: “Martha, I feel compelled to tell you about Charles’ infidelities.” Or it can be too on the nose. “I find your conspicuous consumption reprehensible.” It’s rare that we actually say what we’re thinking. More often we squeeze the meaning between the lines or send a passive-aggressive or ironic message. (“Wow, you have a lot of stuff! You must be very happy.”) It’s an old piece of advice but still valid: read your dialogue out loud or have someone else read it out loud for you. You’ll spot the clunky bits much more easily. 


8: The “ ” * the plot made me do it” * moment

 We’ve all seen it: the scene in which the protagonist or (especially) the villain does something because the plot requires it, not because it’s true to the character or the moment.

Here’s a typical one for the villain: “I’ll kill you in a moment, but first let me explain, with bad exposition, the reason behind every evil thing I’ve done so far.” There’s got to be a better way, a way that is motivated logically, to get to the plot development you need. Your job is to find it. If you can’t, change your characters or the plot.

9: The disappointing payoff
You have a great opening and a middle that moves the story along, maybe your character undergoes an interesting change, and you have set up the reader for an exciting yet unpredictable ending. Oh oh. Easier said than done. That’s why so many bad scripts have a payoff that comes out of the blue—“Yes, Joe, you thought I was one of the bad guys but in fact I’ve been working for the FBI all along!” Or the intended twist is a whimper rather than a bang. Want to see a staggeringly good payoff? Watch M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense.” Want to see an ending that should have been the middle? Watch M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable.” Want to see a crappy payoff? Watch M. Night Shymalan’s “Signs.” Want to seen an even crappier payoff? Watch M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.” 


10: Bad spelling and punctuation

 Your grammar school teacher was right: spelling does count. So does careless punctuation. A script that looks like you couldn’t be bothered to proofread it is a turn-off. The mistakes distract the reader’s attention and that can be deadly. If you’re no good at spelling and punctuation, find a friend who is and have him or her go over the script for you. 

Yes, some movies break these rules!

 “Wait a minute,” you may be saying, “last week I saw a movie that broke at least three of these rules and got made anyway. It’s even making big money at the box office!” In more cases than you might suspect, the script was better before the producer, the director, the star, the star’s girlfriend or boyfriend, or the money men got their mitts on it and made changes to show they had a hand in the process. In other cases the scripts were flawed to begin with but they got made anyway, maybe because the backers had to spend their $50 million fast to get a tax break so there wasn’t time to rewrite the script, or because the producers have a low opinion of the intelligence of the audience, or they wouldn’t know a good story if it bit them in the backside. Sometimes the special effects are good enough that the audience is willing to overlook story problems. Sometimes they love a star so much they’ll put up with a lousy picture in order to see her. Sometimes there’s one great scene that overshadows the weaknesses. All I’m saying is that if you avoid these ten mistakes, your script is more likely to be bought—and to be a satisfying experience for the audience when it gets made. Good luck, and for more help in creating a great script, sign up for my Screenwriting Success newsletter at the website (www.ScreenWritingSuccess.com) and also visit there often for informative blog posts, articles, and the screenwriting podcast. 
 Best regards,


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