The worst scripts in the world? They aren’t the worst scripts in the world. There are scripts even worse.
Make sense? Probably not. But it will be by the end of this article.
Consider yourselves lucky. Here at Scriptshadow, we don’t let you see the bad stuff. The scripts you see on Amateur Offerings every week? Those writers have at least demonstrated an understanding of the craft. But the truly bad ones? Those don’t make it in front of your eyes. For that reason, you don’t know what it’s like to read something truly bad.
I remember a couple of years ago, I read this script where I had ZERO understanding of what was going on. This writer had the ability to write pages and pages of story where nothing actually happened, so I’d find myself having read 10 pages, but not being able to remember anything that transpired. If you put a gun to my head, I’d probably tell you it was about a goddess trying to blow up a volcano. But if the writer had told me it was about a Christmas tree who fell in love with a menorah, I wouldn’t have argued. It was that vague.
But look, the truth is, these “really bad” scripts are often the result of new writers who haven’t studied the craft and who have never gotten feedback. They write down exactly what’s in their head as they’re thinking it, believing it will make sense to us because it makes sense to them, not realizing that writing a screenplay requires a stricter kind of logic that takes some trial and error getting used to.
So to me, those aren’t the worst screenplays. The worst screenplays are the AVERAGE SCREENPLAYS.
There’s no emptier feeling I get than when I read an average screenplay. I mean, at least with a really bad script, you remember it. With an average script, it’s forgotten as soon as you put it down. It goes through you like fast food. And the sad thing is, I’ve been reading 15 of these scripts a month. It feels like this huge collective of screenwriters has accepted mediocrity. So when I see the spec market starving, it doesn’t surprise me. Who’s opening up their checkbook for another average script?
Let me give you an example. I once read a buddy-cop script (I had to go back to it to re-familiarize myself) that had the two cops who hated each other, it had the standard “witty” back-and-forth banter, it had the familiar drug plot, it had the cop who was secretly one of the bad guys. This is the exact dialogue going on in my head as I read it (“Seen that before. Seen that before. Seen that before. Seen that before.”). I must’ve said that to myself 80 times. There wasn’t a single elevated element in the story.
I don’t know what writers expect after writing these scripts. Do they think they should be praised because they successfully gave us an average version of something we’ve already seen before?
With a script, you have to stand out somehow. A series of average elements isn’t going to cut it. Readers want to see original takes on elevated material. Which brings us to the term of the day: Exceptional Elements.
An exceptional element is any element in your script that’s better than average. You’d like to have as many of these in your screenplay as possible. But realistically, you probably won’t get past 3. Which is fine, because that’s all you need to write something noticeable, and definitely all you need to write something better-than-average.
To add some context, there are three scripts I really liked over the last few weeks: Hot Air, Cake, and Tyrant. Let’s see what the exceptional elements were in each. With Hot Air, the dialogue (especially Lionel’s) was an exceptional element, the characters were an exceptional element, and the plotting was an exceptional element (I never quite knew where things were going next).
In Cake, the creation of a severely unlikable protagonist who we still ended up caring about was an exceptional element, the unusual premise was an exceptional element (haven’t seen that before) and the unique voice (the offbeat weird way the writer saw this world) was an exceptional element.
In Tyrant, the intricate nature of the relationships were an exceptional element, the lack of fear in pushing the boundaries was an exceptional moment (a few uncomfortable rape scenes, etc.) and the ending was an exceptional element (in that it revealed something shocking about our main character that we never would’ve guessed).
Before we get into specifics here, I want you to think about the screenplay you’re working on now. And I want you to take off your bullshit hat. Put your critics hat on, the guy who can tear down the latest blockbuster in a 300 word paragraph. That’s the guy we need judging your script. Now ask yourself, what are the exceptional elements in your script? What can you honestly say stands out from anything out there? Need some reference? Here are a dozen of the more popular screenplay elements to choose from. If you’re exceptional with just three of them, tell us in the comments section, cause we’re going to want to read your script.
Clever or unique Concept – One of the easiest ways to elevate your script is a great or unique concept. Dinosaurs being cloned to make a Dinosaur Theme Park (Jurassic Park). People who go inside other people’s heads (Being John Malkovich).
Unique or complicated characters – This is a biggie. If you’re going to have only one exceptional element, it should be this, because a script is often defined by its characters. Give us Jack Sparrow over Rick O’Connell (Brendan Frasier in The Mummy). Give us Jordan Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street) over Sam Witwicky (Transformers).
Spinning a well-known idea – Taking ideas and spinning them is one of the easiest ways to stand out. Instead of that same-old same-old buddy cop script I talked about earlier? Make it two female cops instead (The Heat). Or set some ancient story in a different time (Count of Monte Cristo in the future – a script that sold last year). This is what’s known as a “fresh take,” and Hollywood loves fresh takes.
Take chances – How can you expect to be anything other than average if you don’t take chances? Playing it safe is the very definition of average. So you’ll have to roll the dice a few times and get out of your comfort zone. Seth McFarlane made a comedy about a grown man who was best friends with his childhood teddy bear. Nobody had ever written anything like that before. That’s rolling the dice.
Push boundaries – This will depend on the script. But if you’re writing in a genre that merits it, don’t play it safe. Push the boundaries. That’s what Seven did when it came out. We’d seen serial killer movies before. We’d never seen them with kills that were THAT sick, that intense.
Plotting – A deft plot that keeps its audience off balance (with mystery, surprises, dramatic irony, suspense, setups, payoffs, twists, reversals, drama, deft interweaving of subplots, etc.) can put you on Hollywood’s map. Hitchcock’s big exceptional element was his plotting.
A great ending – A masterful ending is a huge exceptional element because it’s the last thing the reader leaves with. If you can give them something immensely satisfying (The Shawshank Redemption) or shocking (The Sixth Sense) and it works? You’re golden.
Dialogue – One of the hardest elements to teach and the most dependent on talent. There are definitely ways to improve your dialogue, but usually people are either born with this element or they aren’t. Don’t fret if you aren’t though, because you still have all these other elements to choose from.
Imagination – If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, you better show us something we haven’t seen before. For example, if you’re going to put your characters in yet another mech suit (Matrix sequels, Avatar, Edge of Tomorrow), why should we trust you to give us an imaginative story? These are the genres that demand originality. So if you don’t have anything besides what you’ve seen in previous sci-fi movies, don’t play in this sandbox.
Voice – If you see the world in a different way from everyone else, it’s one of the easiest ways to stand out. This is all about the unique way you write and the unique way in which you observe the world. Having a truly original voice is almost the anti-average, because if someone can identify who you are by your script alone, it means you have a unique take on the world.
Scene writing – Are you an exceptional scene writer? Are you able to pull readers into every scene? Read Tarantino’s scenes like Jack Rabbit Slims or the Milk scene at the opening of Inglorious Basterds. Or watch the scene where the detective questions Norman Bates in Psycho. The level of suspense in these scenes is off the charts.
A great villain – Typically someone who’s complicated and not just evil for evil’s sake (which is the case in almost every average script I read). I still can’t get over The Governor in The Walking Dead. The way he fell in love with a woman and cared so deeply for her daughter, only to set up a plan to kill women and children a few scenes later.
In general, to avoid writing something average, you have to be your harshest critic. You have to be self-aware enough to call yourself on your bullshit. Look at every individual element in your screenplay and ask yourself, “Is this unique?” In some cases, it won’t be. That’s fine. As long as you have exceptional elements to offset the average ones. The Heat had an average plot. But by putting two women in the cop rolls instead of men, it gave the genre a fresh take. Exceptional element success.
The truth is, readers really want to love your script. But you’re preventing them from doing so when every element in your screenplay is something flat, derivative, uninspired, or rushed. Writing a great screenplay means doing the hard work, and that means not being satisfied with a bundle of average components. Average dialogue, average scene-construction, average concept, average imagination, average characters. We’ve already seen all these things so what do you gain by showing them to us again? Get in there and raise the quality of your script by infusing it with as many exceptional elements as you can. I’m rooting for you because the better you get at this, the more good scripts I get to read. Good luck!