These days, you can’t release a movie without everyone with a keyboard mentioning its Rotten Tomatoes score. This tomato-obsession reached new vine-length on the produce-inspired site with The Last Jedi. You would think Donald J. Trump himself was writing all of these audience reviews if he weren’t such a Big Mac addict.
Oh, don’t worry. I’m not going to write another Last Jedi review (even though I really really want to). I bring this up because I’ve noticed if you read through enough negative Rotten Tomato reviews, certain words keep popping up. These words, I realized, are the definition of movie badness.
And I thought, wow, we have a verifiable blueprint for what people DON’T want to see in a movie. Why not highlight these negative characteristics and figure out what they mean so we can avoid making the same mistakes ourselves. And hence I give you, my esteemed readers, the ten most common words in negative film reviews and how to avoid then in your own work. Let us begin!
Mindless: Mindless is a trap that’s been laid out in front of you whenever you write a big action or adventure movie. To be frank, parts of these movies should be “mindless.” That’s what’s fun about them. Going on those big juicy wild action scene rides like the airport scene in Captain America: Civil War is the very definition of turning your mind off and having fun. But the reason “mindless” is used in a negative connotation is that, when those scenes are over, the “regular scenes” aren’t engaging. And this usually boils down to a lack of depth in the main characters. The solution is to treat your characters in these big genre films like indie characters. Figure out what makes them tick. Give them full-on backstories and conflicts that they’re battling within themselves and between one another. If you do that well, nobody will accuse your script of being mindless.
Formulaic: No one wants to be formulaic. And yet screenwriting is the most formulaic of all the writing mediums. You have to include acts. You have to adhere to a certain page count. Your main characters all have to arc. It’s painfully mathematical. The best way to prevent formulaic writing is to come up with a premise that doesn’t move along traditional formulaic lines. Dunkirk, with its out of order narrative, is a good example. But in most cases, you’ll be working with a traditional story setup. So for that I suggest tackling formula in a couple of ways: Diversion and Surprise. A nice way to divert attention from your formulaic plot is to give us strong or unique characters (or both!). If we’re looking at your characters, we’re not noticing the by-the-numbers plot. A quick way to achieve this is to give a character a REAL FLAW. Not a Hollywood flaw where it’s hedged, but an honest-to-goodness humanizing flaw. I was just watching Battle of the Sexes and was shocked to see them show Billy Jean King cheating on her husband. Her husband wasn’t abusive or absent. No. King cheated on him because she was weak. That’s a real flaw and it makes the character real. The other tactic is surprise. Give us 2-3 big moments in the script where, when something’s about to happen that usually happens in these types of movies, you give us something else. The obvious recent example of this would be in The Last Jedi (spoilers) when Kylo Ren kills Snoke. I may not have liked that movie. But the last thing I would call it is formulaic. And that was because of choices like these.
Forgettable: I don’t know if there’s a more damning adjective to hear about your work than “forgettable.” It’s worse than “bad.” People remember “bad.” People don’t remember “forgettable.” In my experience, forgettable is what happens when you combine a standard genre, a recent trend, and a formulaic execution. So if you’re writing a “girl with a gun” movie when three other “girl with a gun” movies have been released this year, and you’ve also given it a formulaic execution, there’s a good chance it will be forgettable. However, change just one of those elements and you might be okay. Pull a Dunkirk, creating an out-of-order “girl-with-a-gun” narrative, and you’ve got something memorable.
Preachy: Here’s the thing with “preachy.” Movies are inherently preachy. Every writer sees the world their own way and stories are their vessel to convey that worldview. And that’s good. You want to throw ideas out there, challenge people, make them think. However, there’s a reason why political movies always do terribly at the box office. People don’t want to overtly be told what to think. And there in lies the secret sauce to avoiding preachiness. You can make your point. But you do it by implying, not telling. If you want to point out that the health care system sucks, you don’t have a character monologue an indictment on the health care system. You show a hospital with more patients than rooms. As underhanded as it sounds, you have to be sly when getting your point across. Or else you risk being called preachy.
Unfunny: Look, comedy is subjective. We all find different stuff funny. With that said, everybody knows “unfunny.” “Rough Night” was a “comedy,” but I’m yet to find someone who thought it was funny. Here’s what I’ve learned when it comes to writing comedies. If the laughs aren’t hitting, it’s usually because the characters aren’t funny. Not because you need to come up with more “funny scenarios.” If a character is funny, every scene he’s in will be funny, regardless of whether you come up with a funny situation or not. Look at the socially unaware characters of Alan (The Hangover) and Megan (Bridesmaids). You didn’t need to do anything to get laughs in their scenes other than have them speak. So if no one’s laughing at your script, stop trying to make each individual scene funnier. Go to the source – the characters – and rethink them until you’ve come up with a truly funny character.
Cliche: Oh yeah. The grandaddy of all insults, right? The word “cliche” has been used so often in movie criticism that it’s become a cliche in itself. Here’s the Webster’s definition of cliche: “A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.” Using that as a reference, a cliche script is one where the number of key story choices that “betray a lack of original thought” is larger than the number of choices that are original thoughts. By “key story choices,” I mean the main characters and plot beats. So if all of your main characters (the four biggest characters in the movie) are garden-variety archetypes and all of your big plot beats (i.e., when the boy meets the girl, the mid-movie car chase, when the hero takes on the bad guy at the end) are replicas of stuff we’ve seen before, your script will be cliche. It’s simple math, guys. More original choices than unoriginal choices.
Drags: This is an interesting one because it’s my belief that 75% of WORKING screenwriters don’t know why a movie drags. Rian Johnson has been working in this business for almost 20 years and he didn’t know that his entire Canto Bight sequence dragged. That’s a good place to start. Time is relative in script reading and movie watching. If the characters are good and the story is compelling, time will whiz by. If the characters are lame and the story sucks, 5 minutes will feel like 50. So the main reason stories drag is because they aren’t any good. However, if your story and characters are sound and there are only PARTS of your script that are dragging, the simple solution is to dangle more carrots. The more things you’re putting out of the reach of your heroes, the less we’re focusing on time, and the more we’re focusing on whether they’re going to get those carrots. A couple of common carrots to use are suspense and mystery. With suspense, it could be as simple as, “Will he get the girl,” like they did in Spider-Man Homecoming. As far as mystery, why are dudes sprinting around in the middle of the night doing 90 degree turns, as was the case in Get Out. There are other ways to prevent dragging (adding ticking clocks is helpful) but dangling carrots is a good starting point.
Repetitive: I want everybody to say this word with me – VARIETY. Stories should have variety. Are your characters always sitting down when they talk? Are they usually arguing in the same manner (a critique of the recent Hitman’s Bodyguard)? Are all your action scenes car chases or shootouts? Are you bringing us to the highest of highs and lowest of lows? A good story needs variety and it’s up to the writer to mix things up. A great example of this is Good Will Hunting. The entire movie is a talky movie. It could’ve, and probably should’ve, felt repetitive. But what they did was they gave Will Hunting four totally different characters to interact with – the shrink, the mathematician, his best friend(s), and his girlfriend. And they kept bouncing around between all those characters so that no scene felt similar to the previous one. In order to avoid repetition, add VARIETY to your screenplay.
Incoherent – You don’t have to look far to find incoherent movies in Hollywood. The Pirates and Transformers sequels have that covered. Sadly, coherence is a major problem in the amateur screenwriting arena. I read a lot of scripts where I’m confused about what’s going on, what people want, where the plot is, where we’re going, what the hell just happened in that scene. There are two main things that lead to incoherence. The first is adding TOO MUCH to your script. Too many characters, too many subplots, too much jumping around. The more there is going on, the harder it is to keep up. The second main reason a story is incoherent is because the writing is rushed. Coherence comes from the smoothing out of the rough patches that are present in the early stages of story-construction. If you never do that smoothing out process (rewriting) you risk having the “incoherent” label thrown at you.
Uninspired: We all know when we’ve seen an uninspired movie. You get this overall feeling that the people who made the film didn’t care. Preventing this is actually easy. Before you write something, ask yourself, “Does this excite me?” If it does, there’s a good chance your work will feel inspired. And actually, the more it excites you, the more inspired it will feel. But if you’re only writing something because you hope it’ll make the Black List or sell, there’s an equally good chance it will feel uninspired. A great comparison here is the difference between “It” and “The Dark Tower.” In one case, the creators loved and cared about telling that story. In the other, it was less about love and more about creating a franchise.