I’m still mega-busy this week, which has eaten into my post time, but I’m determined to get articles up to make sure you guys continue to be equipped to tackle the hardest form of writing in the world! So a few weeks ago, I did a review on an amateur script titled, “Made in China.” At the end of the review, I mentioned that the script fell into that dreaded “pat on the back” category. And I got a lot of e-mails asking me to clarify what that meant.
Before I go into what makes a “pat on the back” script, let me start at the beginning. The worst kind of script you can write is a bad one. That’s the one where there are a lot of errors in the screenplay and little, if any, thought put into the concept, plot, or characters. The writer hasn’t studied screenwriting at all and it shows. From the very first page, everything’s a mess. These scripts constitute about 65% of the scripts I read.
A level up from that is the “finish line” script. This script typically entails a writer at the beginning of his journey who believes screenwriting is a lot easier than it actually is. Therefore, he ends up writing one draft of his script, maybe two, and believes he should win an award just for getting to the finish line. Like, “Hey, I wrote 110 pages. Where’s my million bucks?” This script is a step up from scripts where the writer doesn’t even know how to put a sentence together, but they are what they are: scripts whose only positive trait is that they actually got finished. There’s nothing of substance or interest in these screenplays at all. These scripts constitute 20% of the scripts I read.
That brings us to the “pat on the back” script. The “pat on the back” script typically comes from a writer who’s been putting a lot of effort into the craft. They’ve been at this for a few years at least, and therefore understand the value of a strong structure and a focused story. The strengths and weaknesses of these scripts will vary depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the writer (one might be strong in character while another might be strong in dialogue) but the consensus at the end of the script is always the same. The reader thinks to himself, “That wasn’t bad,” and then he closes the script and moves on to the next thing, forgetting about that script for the rest of his life. These scripts constitute about 10% of the scripts I read.
At first glance, this may seem unfair. You put all this effort into something and you actually managed to keep a reader’s attention for an entire ninety minutes. That’s extremely hard to do. But here’s the unfair reality of the screenwriting business. Producers and agents aren’t looking for “That wasn’t bad.” They’re either looking for “great” or “good enough to maybe make me money within a few years so I’m willing to take a chance on them.” The “pat on the back” script is just below that level, and therefore, despite the writer making it to an extremely high level in this craft (the “I can keep a reader’s attention” level), their skill is not recognized and they don’t get that coveted call back.
So what today’s article is about is getting to that coveted 5%, the writers who actually get representation, options, sales, and assignments. This is how you break out of “pat on the back” territory. It’s important to remember that the main issue with the “pat on the back” script is that nothing stands out. Everything is technically “fine,” but there isn’t a single element that raises the hair on your arms, that gives you goosebumps, that makes you sit up and pay attention. With that in mind, here are the five things you can do to avoid the dreaded pat on the back.
1) A big concept – This is the easiest way to leap frog the competition. And yet it’s probably one of the most ignored pieces of advice I give. I think I know why. Writers tend to think they’re the exception to the rule. They know that a big concept gives them an edge, but they also think their contemplative road trip coming of age story is going to turn the contemplative road trip coming of age genre on its head. So they write that instead. If you want to make things easier for yourself and not get that “pat on the back,” this is the fastest way to do it. Give us a big flashy concept. I’ll be reviewing a script that went into production next week about mass suicides due to scientists learning of proof of the afterlife. That’s what I mean by a big concept. Big concepts are like reader beer goggles. All of the mistakes in the screenplay wash away in the wake of a concept that can make someone money.
2) Something controversial – One of the best ways to avoid a pat on the back is to write something controversial. Controversy stirs up emotions. It gets people talking. And this gets to the core of what’s wrong with the “pat on the back” script. That script stirs up nothing. It’s the literary equivalent of potato soup. So anything you can do to stir up emotions and opinions is a plus. About ten years ago a script about Martin Luther King sold that painted his assassination as a conspiracy. That was controversial. A script that covered that same approach, but with Princess Diana, sold last year and is being made into a film. Controversy illicits a reaction, which is something you do not feel at the end of a bland controversy-less screenplay.
3) Something weird – This is the kind of script you hear about and people will go, “Wait WHAT?” Someone wrote a screenplay about that?” A great example is a script I reviewed a few months ago called “Bubbles,” a biopic about Michael Jackson told through the eyes of his pet monkey, Bubbles. We also saw it with the number 1 Black List script from five years ago, The Beaver, about a CEO who starts communicating with people exclusively through a beaver puppet he wears on his hand. If you can be weird, you won’t have to worry about getting that soul-crushing “thatta boy” pat on the back.
4) A super-unique voice – Unique voices allow the writer to easily stand out from the pack. The tough thing with a unique voice is you tend to have it or you don’t. It’s hard to craft a voice into something different from what you already have. It’s the equivalent of telling someone to change their personality. With that said, if you can find the more offbeat side of yourself, the side that observes the world a little differently from everyone around you, and write with that side in mind, you can craft something that should sound different from others. The king of the “super-unique voice” at the moment is Brian Duffield. He has an energetic off-beat style that isn’t afraid to go off the beaten path. One of my favorite scripts of his is Monster Problems, about an apocalyptic future where humans hide underground due to monsters taking over the planet. Oh yeah, and it’s told through a John Hughes-like comedic voice. That’s what I mean by “unique voice.”
5) A flashy key character – If you’re not into the whole “big concept” thing and would rather write a character piece, this is a nice consolation to ensure a “no pat on the back” policy. A big flashy character is actor catnip. To a producer, that says, “Ooh, I know [so and so big actor] would die to play this.” So even though your script might not be super marketable, have a huge concept, or even a unique voice, it can fetch a marketable actor, which immediately turns your script into a money-machine. There’s no secret here. Just think of a character that will pop off the page. Someone that’s fun, offbeat, crazy, won’t shut up, bi-polar, intense, unforgettable. Juno is a good example. Nightcrawler is even better. Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything. Clementine from Eternal Sunshine. The male or female lead in Silver Linings Playbook. Readers don’t forget big flashy characters. So even if the rest of your script is lacking, you can still win a reader over with character.
And that’s it, folks. Take one or a few of these tips into your next script and you’ll end up writing something a reader won’t forget. Good luck!