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.

  • Poe_Serling

    Oh Yeah!

    • Avatar

      Any relation to Poe Dameron?

      I only look at a few of the reviewers I trust like Richard Roeper. At least they will give their feelings without being pressured by the studios. That’s why I miss Roger Ebert. Ebert gave you what he thought (even if he was a bit old school). You have to click on the top reviewers button because some of the guys they have on the critics section you don’t even know who they are. But, reviews rarely influence what I will watch as far as the tentpoles…I still watched Justice League and Pirates. It’s stuff like Downsizing or 3 billboards where that comes into play.

      • Poe_Serling

        “Any relation to Poe D?”

        I had to look the name up… so I guess the answer is no.

        ;-)

        • Avatar

          He’s a commander of the Resistance. Slight resemblance to Oscar Isaac. :)

      • Nick Morris

        Another cool thing about Roger Ebert; he always took into account a film’s INTENT. He was able to identify what any given movie had set out to be or wanted to accomplish with its own existence and he would judge them based on whether or not he felt they succeeded in that regard.

        Well, except for the “Friday the 13th” films. He was notoriously hard on that franchise and could find no redeeming qualities within those movies whatsoever, lol! And I’m not saying he was wrong necessarily. Just that I didn’t agree in that particular instance. :)

        • Nick Morris

          But I’d sure love to know how Ebert would have felt about “The Last Jedi”!

          • Avatar

            I think he would have probably liked it, though not as much as the original trilogy…it poses the types of questions and ideas that Ebert likes to think about. I think the thing I miss most is just watching passionate film lovers discuss movies on an actual tv show. I hate watching stuff online so I never check out any online reviews… You don’t see movie reviews on tv shows anymore, other than very cursory 30 second blips. Whether I agreed with him or not, I respected the fact that Ebert’s opinion was his own, no agenda to it other than his love of him. It was fun watching him get into a lather arguing about films. Richard Roeper is a little too all over the map with his tastes–I can’t really pin him down… I would have liked to see Ebert paired with a female reviewer to get a different point of view.

          • Poe_Serling

            Hey Nick-

            Last night I caught this new horror flick on one of the streaming
            services and thought it might be in your wheelhouse:

            The Vault

            An elaborate bank heist takes a terrifying turn into the realm of the supernatural.

            Nothing to write home about … but still quite an intense ride with
            some surprising twists and turns.

            The cast includes James Franco and Francesca Eastwood (Clint’s daughter).

            And no, I didn’t check Rotten Tomatoes or any other similar site
            before checking out.

            I just liked the sound of the basic setup.

            And I feel my bet paid off.

            ;-)

          • Nick Morris

            Cool. I’ll try and track it down. Is it on Netflix?

            I miss Blockbuster sometimes…

          • Poe_Serling

            Yeah, Netflix.

  • Adam McCulloch

    I’m number two! This time zone thing is really working for me.

  • Avatar

    You know a quiet money maker that went under the radar is “Murder on the Orient Express.” I was surprised to see it’s made 327 million on 55 million budget. I know studios want to go for the home run, but certainly this movie will be more profitable than Justice League, which you still can’t get a straight answer on profit/loss. They already greenlit the sequel.

    • brenkilco

      There is a line from Pauline Kael’s review of the hit 74 version that I recall. ‘Audiences are so hungry for this sort of entertainment that maybe it doesn’t matter that it isn’t really very good.’ It is nice to know that there is still an adult audience out there for a quietly intelligent genre movie even if this one is considerably less good than the 74. Hollywood is out of practice at this sort of stuff.

      • Avatar

        I was so ready for an ambience murder mystery on a train, I pretty much would have been happy if it was decent. I am a little worn out by comic book hero team ups.

    • Adam McCulloch

      I think my father went to see it a hundred thousand times over the break so, without him, the box office would be significantly lower.

      • Avatar

        I saw it twice, so maybe I saw your dad there one of those times.

      • brenkilco

        A movie that can get an adult moviegoer to behave like a fifteen year old moviegoer. Now, that’s what I’m talking about.

        • Avatar

          There are probably underserved markets where they can make a profit. I like steak, but I don’t want to have it 3 times every day, 7 days a week…which is what the studios are force feeding us every summer and Christmas holidays, with the same sequels.

          • brenkilco

            Well, I’d describe em as leftover pot roast. But I get your point.

    • Scott Serradell

      It’s a shame that — aside being a very good-looking movie — the script was simply awful, and it ended up not only being forgettable but a numbing bore to watch.

      • brenkilco

        You think that was a bore. Check out the recent three hour BBC remake of Ten Little Indians. Yeah, it’s a three hour miniseries. A brisk little mystery stretched to epic length. Mindbogglingly slow and dull. Good cast though.

  • carsonreeves1

    this is the thursday article. :)

  • https://twitter.com/deanmaxbrooks deanb

    Meanwhile, some of the positive characteristics are reflected in words/phrases like: ambitious, refreshing, captures the zeitgeist, effective, efficient, relentless, masterpiece, compelling, fast pace, innovative, and smart.

  • Dimitri

    Funny thing is The Last Jedi can only be called incoherent. The other bad trades don’t really work for the movie.

    By the way, I never really understood the big deal about Rotten tomatoes. I think the rating system doesn’t really make sense. I go to Metacritic to get a feeling for the quality of a movie.

    • Nick Morris

      Agreed. Metacritic is way better.

  • Dimitri

    What is meant by “2. Script is episodic”? That the story is too much beat for beat story telling?

  • Maarten Bosmans

    Carson thanks for reminding me The Dark Tower sucks. Since it was a forgettable movie man i so wished it was good. I loved the books not all of them equally but they hold a dear place in my heart. They so badly fucked this up, Matthew and Idris were great but i completely forgot about the kid Jake in the books this is the heart of the story in the movie it was Forgettable…

  • andyjaxfl

    Let the folks making $100k a week rewrite your script into the above categories!

    • Scott Crawford

      100 grand?! In the 90s.

      More like quarter of a million now.

  • andyjaxfl

    This has no bearing on screenwriting whatsoever, but the final fight between Jet Li and Riggs/Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon 4 is my favorite hand-to-hand fight ever.

    • Scott Crawford

      Setup: van goes into the water.
      Payoff: Riggs finds the gun in the water.

      Classic. It works because the van going into the water works as a stand-alone moment, then when we see the van in the water we remember and make the connection… yeah, yeah, yeah… it’s just a great scene.

      T(e highway chase was also very good.

      • andyjaxfl

        Oh yeah, almost forgot about the highway chase. Pretty ridiculous, but a lot of fun.

        The movie might have the quickest “principal photography to a theater-near-you” timeline of the last thirty years of less than six months. But if anyone could do it, it’s Richard Donner.

  • brenkilco

    As most know, Rotten Tomatoes is only useful for determining if a movie is truly rotten. Given the variable nature of the ‘critics’ included, it’s a rare film that can’t muster a passing grade from a few of them. Otherwise it’s worthless. A blah, not terrible, gets the job done, hit and miss, formula pic can get a 100% while something challenging or smart is bound to leave a few of the dimmer reviewers in the dust. If it has any effect on the industry at all it’s to encourage more MOR, lowest common denominator junk. Like Tinseltown needs the nudge.

  • Levres de Sang

    Great idea for an article! Kind of working backwards to the source of awfulness. I guess “cliche” and “incoherent” are the two I find myself coming down on with some of the AOW scripts.

  • brenkilco

    Mindlessness covers a lot of ground. But most mindless movies involve characters who act and speak nothing like actual thinking human beings, mostly in a world where logic and the most basic rules of cause and effect do not apply. Simple solution. Always be looking to create characters who are smarter than you are.

  • Erica

    “1. Protagonist is unlikable”

    I see this a lot and I’m wondering why there is this Anti Hero or just plain unlikable main character?

    Is it a statement against the system? Not sure, but you really don’t see a lot of good movies in which the main character is unlikable. To me, writing a story like this really limits the selling potential.

    Maybe this might be a good subject for Carson to tackle. The Unlikable Protagonist.

    • brenkilco

      If unlikable protagonists really were verboten Michael Fassbender would never work again. I don’t think likability is the key. A protagonist is either compelling or he’s dull. As an example, could you make a Dracula movie from Drac’s point of view? He’s got all the power of modern technology arrayed against him. All he’s got is his wits to evade these space age Van Helsings closing in on him. And the poor guy is helpless and paralyzed ten hours a day. Could audiences be made to root for him, to admire his daring and smarts? Of course.

      • shewrites

        When I hear that characters have to be likable, I always think of Melvin Udall played by Nicholson in As Good As It Gets.

        So yes, Brenkilco, I agree with you, characters only have to be compelling.

        • Avatar

          That movie was a masterclass in writing….they went right up to the edge, but didn’t tip over. Melvin was pretty lovable towards the end. They made his harshness funny and softened it by making him have all these problems and also that cute puppy. A guy can’t be that bad if they’re sweet to a puppy.

          • shewrites

            Agreed. His awfulness had just the redeeming qualities he needed to make us keep watching him and want him to come out winning the girl.

          • Avatar

            That’s what made that movie so great…it had one of the biggest arcs I’ve seen, where they took what you would think is a horrible human being and by the end of the movie you think he’s a great human being (rough around the edges) and you love him. That puppy really helped. And the fact that he’s secretly rich.

        • Erica

          I think that’s where a lot of amateur scripts fall apart. Making the Character compelling.

          It is a challenge to write a character that is unlikable but compelling at the same time.

      • Poe_Serling

        Speaking of Drac in a somewhat likable light…

        I always thought Frank Langella’s performance in John Badham’s
        pic had a certain elegance not found in all of the other film versions
        of Stoker’s most famous character.

        From what I’ve read is that Langella honed his take of the count during a popular Broadway run.

        Favorite scene from the above flick:

        The dinner party when one of the guests accidentally cuts her finger
        and the way Langella’s eyes kind of jiggle eerily at the sight of the
        red stuff.

        • brenkilco

          Yes, I understand Langella was the toast of Broadway for a while for his matinee idol take on Dracula. Badham’s movie version doesn’t seem to have much reason to exist except to showcase Langella’s performance, and is generally pretty lame.

    • klmn
  • Marija ZombiGirl

    Done! My short story is finished. Now to let it rest for a day or two and then I’ll rewrite/polish what’s needed, send it off and cross my fingers :)

    • Nick Morris

      You know where to find me if you want someone to take a look. :)

      • Marija ZombiGirl

        I would but it’s in French ;) And I’m reluctant to run it by Google Translation :D

        • Nick Morris

          Ah. Being Canadian, I have, like, high-school level french comprehension but I’ve never had to use it much and it’s sketchy at best. Sorry. :(

        • shewrites

          Marija, I can read it if you want. French native I am:-)

        • klmn

          I could read it but I wouldn’t understand it. High school French I suffered through.

          • klmn

            And why talking phrasing like Jar Jar Binks we are???

  • Scott Crawford

    There are two criticisms that often come up that I, maybe not take issue with, but would just like to qualify.

    PREDICTABLE

    A frequent and lazy comment, usually aimed at genre films following the conventions of the genre. Worse, saying something is predictable when it’s merely SET UP. Of course, things can become TOO predictable, but I’d urge caution when some amateur calls your script predictable.

    UNORIGINAL

    I hate, hate, hate the way so many people miss out on making money because they’re too busy trying to different and someone else is earning doing familiar. Of course, something can be TOO unoriginal, but with enough original ideas you’ll be fine. People WANT the familiar (including genre conventions).

    • brenkilco

      Rather than being different perhaps people should concentrate on being better. Something better will always be sufficiently different.

      With regard to setups sometimes you have to do the predictable A,B,and C to get to the D where your talent shines and you turns things on their head. But if the audience can predict B and C from A, maybe there’s a way to dispense with B and C altogether.

    • Justin

      Another thing I’ve noticed with recent amateur scripts I’ve read is that it’s just plain… boring. Things are happening (especially in spy/action scripts), but it’s the typical scenes that have been used in every action movie since the beginning of time. No twist, no originality — essentially the best of the worst. Cliche dialogue. Predictable. The best friend or CIA director turns out to be the antagonist all along. Stuff like that.

      Because of all that, it’s impossible to discern the writer’s voice from these scripts. They all read like they were written by the same person. Flat, uninspired, boring.

      I agree with the “unoriginal” comment — especially how something can be too unoriginal.

  • JasonTremblay

    “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 wasn’t my take on it. Billie Jean King cheated because she began to realize she was a lesbian, was no longer attracted to her husband, and couldn’t continue living a lie. I didn’t see any weakness there, quite the contrary. She was finally able to be her real self in defiance of the mores of that time.

    • Thaddeus Arnold

      But cheating on her husband is still living a lie.

      • JasonTremblay

        If you saw the movie, her husband wasn’t dumb. He knew what was going on right from the beginning. Not much of a lie.

  • shewrites

    Great article.
    Whenever I have an idea for a movie, I check RT for reviews of similar movies to see what people liked and didn’t like about it. It is very eye-opening.

  • brenkilco

    Course, everything’s relative. Claude Rains is the villain in Notorious. He’s an unrepentant Nazi who tries to poison his wife to death. And we’re not sad to see him buy it at the end. But from a certain angle he’s the most sympathetic character in the piece. A short, aging, insecure guy genuinely in love with his younger, taller wife who betrays him and cheats on him with Cary Grant. Plus he’s got this really terrible mother. Likeability in a movie context is pretty elastic. A good enough writer could make an audience identify with Hitler.

  • Malibo Jackk

    You also have to ask yourself – who are the readers
    and what do they really mean.

  • Midnight Luck
    • Scott Crawford

      Not strange. Couldn’t keep his hands OFF.

      • Justin

        Yeah. It’s so sad how men ruin their careers (which other people would kill for) just because they can’t control their urges.

        (This is assuming you’re talking about the sexual assault allegations).

  • Poe_Serling

    In the San Fernando Valley section of LA (at least in Encino)…

    It’s the DAY OF THE DOORS.

    An event to celebrate the release of the band’s self-titled debut LP on January
    4th back in the day.

    It’s a rare occurrence when a movie and TV show about the late ’60s doesn’t
    feature at least one of their tunes.

    The music of the Doors has definitely become the go-to soundtrack of that
    particular time period.

    • BMCHB

      January 4th is the anniversary of Phil Lynott’s death. (1986 at only 36)

      The second coolest Irishman of all time. RIP Philo.

  • Scott Crawford

    Ot: this makes me want to see the movie. And I really didn’t want to see it.

    https://twitter.com/anselelgort/status/948932812928897024

    • wlubake

      Maybe I don’t have a great feel for your type of film, but I would have guessed Baby Driver was it. Non-stop fun, IMO. I think you should see it.

      • Biju B

        I saw it recently. Not sure though what the hype was all about.

        Could see through a few things very conveniently set up by the writer. It wasn’t a bad film but didn’t find anything great about it either.

    • klmn

      Don’t know if it’s available in your country, but the Discovery Channel occasionally shows something titled Demolition Theater – basically a collection of insane crashes of various kinds (cars, skateboards, motorcycles, off road vehicles…)

      This video looks like the beginning of one of those.

  • klmn
  • cjob3

    Carson gave the script a good review back when it was called Bastards. But yeah looks awful.

  • cjob3

    If there’s one cliche I’m tired of in modern comedies, it’s corny white people montage-ing to some gangsta rap. I’m thinking of the Hall Pass trailer when they walk into Olive Garden or wherever like slow motion thugs. Except they’re not thugs, they’re corny. Get it? There’s probably a million better examples. Anyway, I just read that again in one of the new Blacklist scripts.