In some ways, a script is like a computer game. You’re writing a bunch of code in the hopes of providing the end user with a seamless enjoyable experience. If you get a line of code wrong, you’ll see a small glitch in the game. Get a few lines wrong, the game gets “glitchy.” Get a lot of code wrong and the game becomes unplayable.

How do you fix the game? You troubleshoot. You figure out where the glitch is occurring, what the corresponding lines of code are, and you rewrite them until the glitch goes away. Screenwriting isn’t that different. If the solitary McCall from The Equalizer is singing karaoke, that’s a glitch. All it takes is one reader to note, “That doesn’t match up with how McCall acts for the rest of the screenplay.” This observation helps the writer make a simple fix.  He drops the scene where McCall is singing karaoke. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, you don’t always have the advantage of feedback. It’s hard to get friends to read your script and give detailed notes. And forget about someone doing it twice on the same screenplay. They may not say, “I’d rather kill myself than read this a second time” but you can tell by their expressions that that’s exactly what they’re thinking. Therefore, script reads must be saved. They cannot be burned.  So in the meantime, you’ll be your own troubleshooting your stuff. But lucky you. I’m here to help.

The first thing you want to do when troubleshooting a draft is to get some distance from it. The more time you can spare (1 month is preferable to 1 week), the better. Essential for good troubleshooting is objectivity. And you can’t have that if you just finished a two month rewrite. It’s impossible for you to see anything objectively at this point.

Once you’ve created enough distance, read your script. Now when you do this, don’t worry about technical things (your sluglines or your description). That’s not what’s important. What’s important with any script is how it makes the reader FEEL. If the reader is swept away by the material – if they’re riveted or excited or sad, these are all good things. What you’re trying to do when you read your script, is act as the reader. You’re gauging how it makes you FEEL.

There is one particular feeling you want to pay attention to above all others: Boredom. Boredom is the biggest baddest enemy to writing. Scripts can survive angry readers. Scripts can survive frustrated readers. But no script can survive a bored reader. So every time you feel bored, write it down. Write down your other feelings as well (anger, happiness, shock), but boredom should take a 10 multiple priority over the other stuff.

Now keep in mind, you’re not a true reader of your script, since you’ve already read it dozens of times yourself. There’s going to be some reader-fatigue every time your read your own stuff, making you an imperfect test subject. But generally speaking, you should trust your feelings. If something feels boring or stupid to you, it’ll probably feel boring or stupid to others.

Once you’ve done this, look through your notes, and find the 4-5 biggest reactions you had. Like if a 20 page chunk was boring, that’s important. If you hated a character, that’s important. If a plot point or a plot twist felt really stupid to you, that’s important. We pick the five biggest reactions because we don’t want to be overwhelmed. You don’t want to try and fix every little thing yet. Besides, when you start fixing the big things, you’ll notice that a lot of the smaller things will correct themselves.

Now here comes the toughest part of troubleshooting. Once you’ve identified that a section of your script is boring, you need to figure out why. And why isn’t always clear. For example, let’s say Frank is writing a Die Hard-like movie that takes place on an oil tanker. Somewhere around the midpoint, Frank realizes that he’s bored with his script. The story is lifeless. What’s wrong?

I might read Frank’s “Die Tanker Die” and notice that at the midpoint, there’s a big four-scene chunk, 10 pages in total, of Frank’s hero, McChucker Doogan, talking about his backstory to his French love interest, Nadine Steauxpede. All four scenes are essentially saying the same thing. McChucker lost his family in a fire and he’s depressed about it. I might then tell Frank to combine all four of those scenes into a single one (or tell him to get rid of them completely). Instantly, the pace picks up, and all of a sudden the midpoint isn’t dragging anymore.

But it’s typically not that easy. Usually, a script issue is due to choices made long before the problematic scene (or sequence) was written. To figure our where the problem originated requires you to be a bit of a detective. And you don’t have to be an expert in screenwriting to crack the case. You just have to be perceptive. So let’s get back to that midpoint of Die Tanker Die. The new scene where we realize we’re bored is when McChucker’s hiding in a cabinet in the mess hall to evade the villain, Crooks Caravelli.

Why are you bored? This should be one of the most exciting scenes in the script! McChucker is inches away from being discovered by Crooks!

Look deeper into the scene. Instead of focusing on your general feeling of boredom, ask yourself, “What specifically is making me bored?” I don’t mean in “screenwriting-speak.” Speak plainly. What’s making you bored? You might realize after awhile that, “You know what? I don’t really like McChucker in this scene.” Okay, now we’re on to something. Just like a good detective, keep asking questions. Why don’t you like McChucker in this scene? Think hard. After a few minutes, you realize that it’s because McChucker’s hiding.  But it’s not just that.  It’s because so far, that’s all McChucker’s been doing throughout the script – is hiding.   Unlike John McClane from Die Hard, who goes out there and actively kills the terrorists, McChucker is a hide-o-holic.  He’s an inactive hero.  Oh my god, you realize.  No wonder I don’t like McChucker.  He’s a wimp!

Now you have your first directive on the rewrite – Rewrite McChucker’s character. Make him more active. Make him braver. What’s important to note here, is that the scene where you realized you were bored wasn’t the reason you were bored. You were bored because of choices you made a long time ago – in the design of McChucker’s character.

But let’s say McChucker wasn’t the problem. Heck, McChucker’s your favorite part of the script!  What then? Here’s something that might help. Try to locate that exact moment when you became bored. What was the exact scene that did it in for you? Treat it like a murder mystery. Look for the clues to solve the murder.

Say for instance the scene that really did you in was when Crooks Caravelli went on a three page monologue to his cronies about the parallels of their plight to the Greek Gods. Something bothered you about that scene but what was it??  Was the monologue badly written?  Not really.  Then it hits you.  Why does Crooks have so much time to ramble on for three pages???  Shouldn’t he be, you know, enacting his plan??  Aha, you realize. If he’s got all that time, it means he’s not in a hurry. If he’s not in a hurry, then three’s not enough urgency in the story.  That’s the problem.

So you go back to the drawing board and you add a plot point where the coast guard is on their way to the oil tanker. They’ll be there in 30 minutes. That’s how long Crooks has to finish his plan. Under this new setup, the writer realizes Crooks doesn’t have time to spout out empty 3-page monologues because he needs every second he’s got to complete his plan. Problem solved.

It’s important to remember that there’s never any ONE WAY to solve a problem. I could look at this same problem and come up with a completely different solution. For example, maybe McChucker sneaks into the bridge when Crooks isn’t there and notices that they’re heading towards a small unidentified body of land, land that shouldn’t be there. Before McChucker can find out more, Crooks comes back, and McChucker has to sneak out. We may not have the urgency of the Coast Guard on our tail in this version, but we now have some good old fashioned suspense driving the story. What’s this mysterious body of land?? Why are they going there??

Keep in mind that extended feelings of boredom (like beyond 20 pages) are indicative of much deeper problems that are usually due to one of three things: concept, structure, or character. If your concept is boring (2 guys fishing on a Sunday afternoon), it’s going to be hard for even the best writers to find 2 hours of drama in it. Make sure you have a concept that’s constantly putting your characters in trouble, is constantly forcing them to act.

If concept’s not a problem and large swaths of script are still boring, check your GSU. Make sure your hero and villain always have a goal, that there are high stakes attached, and that there’s a sense of urgency behind the objective. It’s fine if the goal keeps changing as long as it continues to meet the GSU criteria (every new goal is coupled with stakes and urgency – or the previous stakes and urgency are still in play).

If your structure is fine, ask yourself if your characters are interesting. Do they have compelling personalities? Are they fighting something inside of themselves (a flaw, a vice, good vs. evil). Are they fighting something with another character (can this marriage work, can this broken father-daughter relationship be salvaged, can we win this battle even though we have completely different opinions on how to fight it). Are the characters unique? Are they likable? Are they unpredictable? A lot of times a plot isn’t working because the characters inside that plot are boring as shit.

You’ll find that if you fix the 5 biggest problems in your script, your script will instantly be better. But note that with these new changes come new ideas, new additions to your script. And therefore, after you make the changes, you’ll go right back to the troubleshooting stage again. Figure out the five biggest new problems in your new draft, come up with solutions, and write a new draft. You’ll keep doing this for however long your process is (for some people it’s 5 drafts, for others it’s 20), until you finally feel confident that the script is the best you can make it. Now, my friend, you can send your script out there for the world to see and hope all that hard work paid off. I’m betting it will have.

What about you guys?  How do you trouble shoot your scripts?

  • SendHimtoBelize

    Another point is that a script can be boring because of predictable execution. The problem is that writers are just repackaging stories they’ve seen before with a couple of minor tweaks. As well having goals, stakes and urgency, you need a plot that takes unique turns, some unique set pieces, a unique protagonist (for the genre), unpredictable character arcs (these can be too obvious sometimes). Writing good original material in any genre is hard. More likely than not the execution will be predictable – you will fall into the rhythms of earlier movies, or you will be original and lack GSU or believability.

    Writing is hard.

    • carsonreeves1

      You hit it on the head. It’s so confusing for writers because they see weak material sell and they say, “Well wait, I thought you said I had to do all this stuff to sell a script. This script didn’t do any of that and it sold. What’s up?” What’s up is that sometimes bad material sells because of relationships or the producer loves the concept and thinks they can get it the rest of the 40% of the way there. It’s an investment for them. Just like turning a small company into a big one, they’re trying to turn an okay script into a great one. But you can’t aim for that as a writer because, chances are, you won’t be one of the lucky ones. Write something that’s imaginative with original characters and everything Belize says and you’ve got a shot.

    • brenkilco

      And troubleshooting a basically sound script can be really hard. Good scripts aren’t just a collection of detachable parts. It’s not like adding RAM to your laptop. If changing something significant in your script doesn’t open a can of worms forcing numerous other adjustments than the whole structure may be deficient. Inorganic, contrived. And probably boring from the ground up.

  • Magga

    I’ve been doing this to my script for a long time now, and every time I feel it gets much, much better, which leads me to believe it must have been pretty miserable a while ago when I thought it was flawed but really good. Right now there’s one thing that really bothers me: If a character has done something bad, like say assaulted a police officer (in self defense), he is released on bail, right? There’s no way they’d keep him locked up until the trial, months later, unless they think he’s really dangerous? I need him locked up in order for the last fifteen pages of the script to work, but it doesn’t seem quite believable that he would be.

    • carsonreeves1

      Not if the bail is set high enough and he doesn’t have the dough. And assaulting a police officer is going to get you a really high bail.

    • charliesb

      Carson’s right a lot of people can’t afford bail and have to wait for their trials in jail. I’m not sure what the tone of your script is, but I think it would be really easy for the assaulted officer to concoct a reason for the bail to be revoked. Like a small “confrontation” outside his house, a bar or his workplace. You could show the confrontation, and then jump straight to him back in prison.

    • brenkilco

      Bail for a serious assault could be in excess of 100.000. Most bonds are surety, which means a bail bondsman can pledge the money, for which he typically charges 5 to 10 per cent of the total bond. If you’re character doesn’t have the ten thou your problem is solved. The court could require a cash bond which would force the character to put up the whole amount himself. And I suppose if your character is affluent you could always fudge it a little with the police pressuring the bondsmen not to deal with him. The whole theory of bond is a little dubious, creating an assurance that a defendant will show up for his court appearances. In practice, the rich get out and the poor languish, frequently copping a plea for time served just to end the pretrial incarceration.

      • Magga

        Thanks a lot to all of you, sometimes the brain goes into a lockdown, but of course he can’t afford it! I’m Norwegian and that kind of thing isn’t an issue here, so even though I’ve researched the hell out of the differences between the countries and probably know more about the politics etc over there than I do about my own country, some things clearly slip through the cracks in my consciousness. This goes beyond solving a problem and actually adds another layer of conflict.

        • OddScience

          The cop he assaulted could also be friends/related/dating the judge who sets the bail, so they make the bail bigger than it should be.

          Or, if the cop is somewhat dirty, when he got assaulted he could plant a knife/gun on the guy (or at the scene). That would escalate it to a hell of a higher level.

        • rickhester

          The overwhelming number of poor defendants in the U.S. are released on bail, even in the case of assault. There’s a bail bondsman available for just about any circumstance. Short of murder or violent priors, just about everyone is out on bail relatively quickly.

  • Montana Gillis

    When I find a “gosh, that sucks” moment in my script — I look to the third or forth idea I come up with (pretty sure Carson has preached hard on this) to fix it. The scripts also get to sit for a while between flurries of rewrites. Also I carry a recorder around for those flashes of insight that hit while driving (two hours of commute each day) so those ideas/fixes don’t get lost. I think the best way I approach any of my scripts (although I’m in love with my characters like most writers) is that I view the script itself as a product. I know it’s MY story until it sells then it’s someone else’s to do what they want. But while it’s totally under my control, it is a stand alone product and I have to take what ever actions to make IT the best IT can be. I’ll change characters – cut scenes – cut characters – reduce locations – whatever will move the story in the direction of “salable entertainment”. After I exhaust my perspective – I give to a trusted reader or two – then back to hammering out a new version — do this a couple three times — then pay for a proof read and or notes — then make a few more passes for dialog — description readability — motivations and so on…

  • leitskev

    Boy, important topic, but a tough one. Good suggestions. Still hard to do. While I don’t promise to have solved the problem in my own work, I can touch on some things.

    – dialogue for the sake of dialogue…one of the biggest problems I see. Now, there is a way to do dialogue for the sake of dialogue and have it work. Let’s take Inglorious Bastards opening scene, where there are minutes of this stuff and it works. It works because tension has been both introduced to the scene, and then taken up a notch right when needed. There is natural tension because of the situation: nazis questioning a farmer whose family hovers nearby. We know the stakes. And those stakes go up a notch when we get a glimpse of the Jewish family hiding under the floor. Within this framework, the scene has our attention, which gives QT room to play with his dialogue about rats and milk.
    – forced conflict…we are rightly encouraged to have conflict in almost every scene. But forced and over the top conflict is beyond annoying. I mean one guy will suddenly shove another guy against the wall for no convincing reason. See it a lot.
    – confusing plot lines…rock, paper, scissors…simple clear plot vs multiple layers of complexity. Well, simplicity generally trumps complexity. I made the mistake in my early scripts, and sometimes still do, of making things complicated. Maybe I think the readers finds it entertaining to figure out my crazy plot. They don’t. And chances are the won’t with your script either. Stick to simple until you have the luxury of directing your own, then you can do what you want…and still should probably stick to simple.
    – exposition…Billy Wilder(I think) said that you can begin a film with a court room scene, but not a script. This is important. The simple fact is that people have to read your script and fall in love with it for it to be made. And reading is a very different experience than watching. To write a properly formatted court scene there are going to have to be a lot of character introductions. Which ruins the feel of the scene. Personally I think this also highlights the need for more flexibility in script format, but people really cling hard to rules in this screenwriting world. Rules are comforting I guess. For example, if I were to open with a court scene where a lot of characters are present that we will eventually meet later, I might be tempted to skip the intros in the opening and focus on the important parts, in order to keep the reader focused on what’s important. But then I know the rules people will shout down “though shalt nots” and so maybe I just decide not to open in the court. And it’s a shame that our story choices are limited by format rules. But it is what it is, and the same goes with exposition. As you introduce us to the story world, make sure it’s done in a way that won’t overwhelm the reader. Another reason why simple is better.
    – story goal always in focus…this can be the same as making sure the character always has a goal, though in some circumstances it’s not. But there should always be something we know the story is focused on. A problem the characters have to solve, a mystery, a challenge. Let’s say our story is about a submarine that has sunk to the bottom. A situation ripe for character conflict. It’s important that there always be tasks for the characters…and the audience…to focus on: plug the leak, restart the engine, open radio communications, and find the spy who sabotaged the sub. The sub is probably on the bottom for the entire second act and part of the third. Long time. At any single time in that part of the story the audience should have a sense of what the focus is, or focuses(foci?). Within that you can have your conflict. BUT…if at any point…any point…we don’t know what the focus is, we get bored, and the conflict will ring hollow.

  • grendl

    Instead of approaching it from a how do you keep from being boring perspective I view it more from a glass half full POV. How do I make an audience or reader lean in to a story.

    There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude intrinsic to storytelling although an audience does not want to admit to sadistic tendencies, but it’s a fascinating thing to us to watch people struggle with problems. You’re not going to watch a news program which strictly entails interviews with lottery winners. Well, you might watch Entertainment Tonight, which is the same thing, but when Mad Mel goes off on a drunken rant about Jews in Hollywood, you’re more likely to pay attention to that than a story about Taylor Swifts new Miami digs.

    There’s something about misfortune of others that’s just compelling, and when it’s fiction it’s okay because no one’s really getting hurt. When a nurse contracts Ebola its interesting for other reasons. Not because its entertaining but because our own lives are involved ( and yes we feel sympathy for her ). But when someone gets bitten by a zombie, its more fun to watch that, because its not real.

    When you see a trainer at Sea World attacked by a killer whale on You Tube or in a documentary like “Black Fish” you’d have to be truly demented to take joy in her death. When you see a girl clinging to a buoy with a great white shark swimming around her in a film like “In the Deep” or “Jaws lite” as I will refer to it as, that’s fun.

    And what’s more fun is watching a character you’ve gotten to know and like in such a situation. Because if you saw someone jump from the Golden Gate Bridge you didn’t know, the feeling would one of shock and maybe sympathy, but if you saw a friend of yours do it, it hits a lot closer to home. Then it becomes a “that could have been me had things not gone right” feeling.

    Movies make us like the protagonist. They make them our friends. And then they put them in harms way and by doing that we vicariously experience what they experience. That’s the fun of a movie. We’re tortured alongside that protagonist.

    But there’s something we have that the protagonist doesn’t have. We are not them, and have the ability as fly on the fourth wall to buzz around a story and see what’s going on elsewhere.

    If we stayed with Clarice Starling for the duration of ‘Silence of the Lambs” it would be a much more boring story than if we fly to the scene of Buffalo Bill’s abduction, to his basement dungeon, watching him sew a suit of human flesh with moths fluttering about. We want to know what the bad guy is up to. That’s why we cut away from John McClane and spend some time with Hans and the boys. Because momentarily we begin to connect with them and their plot to rob the building vault.

    When we cut to the Joker robbing a bank, and don’t see the protagonist, it helps build that hero’s power over the course of a story. We don’t want to be sitting inside the houses of the three little pigs the entire story. We want to see what the big bad wolf is doing outside. We want to see him climbing into the chimney of the brick house. It’s fascinating to watch an evil mind at work, because its aberrant behavior for one thing, but also from a logistical stand point. How is the Joker going to pull off a bank heist when he’s killing all his own men?

    So this is why we cut away from the protagonist. When your story starts to drag it might be because you’ve stayed with the wrong character for too long. Your scene selection is crucial. If you don’t have a legitimate reason to have a scene, other than “well, that’s what happened next” then lose it. We’ll assume that’s what happened next if its logical.

    You have to give the audience credit. They’re not as dumb as they look. When a character asks another ” you know what we have to do, right”? you don’t need to have them verbally answer that question. You can cut to what they needed to do instead. That’s the way a movie flows.

    And sometimes it’s even better when what they needed to do surprises the audience. Sundance suddenly jumping off the cliff with Butch Cassidy despite the fact that he just admitted he can’t swim for example.

    It’s a tricky thing storytelling. You have to mix anticipation with uncertainty. You have to keep surprising. You have to get us to believe that Bob Harris is going to seal the deal sexually with Charlotte in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo, and then pull the rug of expectation out from under us when he doesn’t.

    That’s some storytelling there. Because the story then makes sense. A man suffering a crisis of conscience, a mid life crisis who has ignored his family in lieu of his Hollywood career doesn’t need to cheat on his wife again. He needs to forego what he wants, do the right thing, get on a plane back to the States and let Charlotte figure out what to do with her own life.

    I know I’m rambling but I don’t care really. The troll patrol can come and sling all the mud they want to. They’re a sadistic bunch anyway who get off on mocking others and they’re a sad lot in life. My points, as convoluted as they are, are make your audience lean in to the story by cutting away to other characters, the antagonist preferably to let us see what they’re doing.

    Don’t dawdle in the mundane. Don’t repeat what countless films before have done better. I was watching that clip of the boy asking the girl out at the movie theatre from “Whiplash” and I could swear I’d seen it before. And I had. When Mark asks Stacy out at the movie theatre counter in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”.

    And as I watched JK Simmons berate the same kid, slapping his face asking him if he was dragging with the tempo, I couldn’t help think of Lee Irmey bullying Private Pyle in “Full Metal Jacket” with some John Houseman, Searching for Bobby Fisher Great Santini thrown in for good measure.

    Think about your scenes. Where have you seen them before? Emulation is one thing, artistic theft is another. You can’t steal from other writers. Or if you do you’d better be damned good at it.

    Anyways…cut away to the antagonist, don’t copy other stories, only incorporate scenes which advance the plot or enhance character, ( preferably both ) and you must pull all this off while remaining authentic. None of it can seem contrived. You must be invisible behind the scenes pulling the strings. Keep your ten dollar SAT words out of your stories if they’re not organic to the character. And out of the action lines for chrissake. If I ever read the word “ephemeral” in a writers action line, I will come to their learning annex and kill them.

    But I digress…

    None of it is easy. I’m not saying I’ve succeeded at it. Nor do I think the people Hollywood pays to do it have succeeded every time out. Often they don’t. But we’re both trying, I assume. At least I am.

    • brenkilco

      Cut away to the antagonist

      I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. Roman Polanski, for instance,is a firm adherent of sticking with the protagonist. Chinatown, Frantic, Ghostwriter, Ninth Gate, even Rosemary’s Baby. We never leave the main character. Most of the time we’re right behind his shoulder, seeing what he sees, discovering things as he does. And for the types of narratives Polanski favors it’s an effective strategy. In the Ferry scene in Ghostwriter the pursuing bad guys are barely more than shadows. We never see their faces. It’s all about the protag’s reactions. To show stuff from the villains’ point of view would reveal them as ordinary and dissipate tension. Of course, for this sort of real time, you are there approach to suspense to work the protag must be particularly interesting and he must be doing interesting things all the time. But writers should be shooting for that anyway.

    • mulesandmud

      Yep, that about covers it. But since we’re talking about drawing people into a story in fresh ways, and you mentioned the three little pigs…

      • Magga

        I’ve watched that so many times, and it might just be the greatest ad I’ve ever seen.

      • Casper Chris

        Thanks for posting that. Brilliant.

    • leitskev

      Good post, made it to the end! I will gently challenge one aspect: “none of it can seem contrived”.

      It’s worth giving that one some thought. True, in an ideal world, the story moves us the way it should AND none of it seems contrived. But that’s hard to pull off. Often you have a choice: pull the audience’s emotional strings using some contrivances, or skip the contrivances and end up with a story that doesn’t create strong emotional responses. Given the choice between these two, keep the contrivances and in order to keep the emotional stimuli in place.

      Don’t take my word. Rather, look at successful films. Even the classics. Especially the classics! Most of these are filled with contrivances. I mean almost any movie you watch you can list the contrivances. The difference between great movies and bad ones is not the lack of contrivances…it is the ability of the film to get the audience to buy into the contrivances. To look past them. That’s the secret formula to figure out.

      One possible clue to the secret formula: David Mamet described it as a “confidence game”. A con. That intrigued me. A confidence game draws its name from the tactic. The con artist gets away with convincing the victim to buy into things he would normally never buy into. How? By first winning his confidence and then maintaining it. Normally smart people get snookered this way.

      Comedies and rom coms are obviously constructed of contrivances. But there’s usually a heavy dose in any action thriller too. Not to mention fantasy or sci fi.

      Watch a great movie and you will find contrivances. But you will find yourself willing to look past them…and you will find that these contrivances were absolutely necessary to create the emotional response. The key thing it discover what makes you willing to look past them in those stories.

      Respectfully submitted.

      • mulesandmud

        Good thoughts about contrivance in film, but you’re slightly misquoting David Mamet in a way that impacts your argument, I think.

        Mamet argues that the most critical exchange in a con game is not the confidence that the con man WINS FROM the mark, but rather the confidence that he GIVES TO the mark. A good con begins with the establishment of trust, and nothing builds trust like telling someone “I trust you.”

        Similarly, in storytelling, we need to give our audiences our trust and respect their intelligence before we try to fool them with contrivance. Otherwise, they’ll see right through the game. Which is to say, contrivance, sure, but never unearned.

        Mamet says it better:

        • leitskev

          Thank you, good point.

          I want to emphasize: Grendl is not only wrong on this contrivance issue, but he has unintentionally isolated one of the main sources of boredom in story and script.

          A film has to move an audience and it has 2 hours to do it. In most stories, there is no way to move an audience without a level of contrivance. What happens in many scripts is that writers are so determined to avoid contrivance that their story doesn’t move the audience. That means boredom.

          When I first watched Mamet’s comments on this, to be honest the only part I found useful was the general idea that we have to play a confidence game with the audience to get them to buy into the contrivances. Beyond that he said little that interested me, and the idea of winning an audience’s trust by giving it the sense that the writer trusts it seems very limited.

          Except in this sense. If an audience believes it’s in very competent hands, it will buy into things. There is a kind of wink wink where both the audience and the writer/director understand the contrivances are necessary and they both buy into everything for the sake of the story. When we see characters of depth, great acting, competent story telling, we know we are in good hands so we are more apt to buy into everything. A plot that asks its audience to think an understand CAN be a part of that…but that’s also risky ground.

          This discussion has a chance to be particularly fruitful once we accept that notion that the problem is often not ridding story of contrivance…it is one of finding ways to get the audiences to buy into it. I did some research a while back on how a confidence game is often run. And it’s not just a matter of wining confidence. The main tactic is the same as with a magic trick: you distract. In the case of a con game, you keep the victim so focused on something else that he takes his eye off the ball. The best movies do this. For example, we might be so absorbed with how Superman will save Lois Lane that we might overlook more troubling questions. This is why it’s so important that we generate big questions and create mystery boxes or big challenges…if these are done well enough we look past the contrivances.

          • JakeMLB

            Yes, I think your latter point is key. One of the greatest tools to handling contrivance is to simply keep the story moving such that it’s easily forgotten (distraction). So many films are layered with contrivance but the filmmakers present the contrivance with confidence and plow through it such that the audience often doesn’t have the time to reflect and is basically manipulated into going along with it.

            I also feel that contrivance is easier to accept in a film than on the page. Leaps of logic or plot holes are much more apparent on the page, which is unfortunately disadvantageous to the amateur writer.

          • leitskev

            Yeah, never thought about that, probably true that it’s easier in film than on the page. Or also, people that read scripts are very different than a film audience. They are more trying to probe and test for weakness.

          • JakeMLB

            Right and you’re also in a different frame of mind when reading. You’re more attentive to the actual dialogue or the story beats since the story is obviously stripped of sound, setting, visuals etc. It’s something you’ll notice if you pay attention to it. Contrivances in film are quickly presented and then boom, we cut to the next scene and we’re off and running again. Look at car chase escape sequence in Jack Reacher for example. It’s ridiculous. The police don’t think to stop the bus? But whatever, we buy it. And if you listen to McQuarrie talk about that sequence, what helped to sell it so much in the final film was the actors they cast for that sequence and a few subtle actions.

          • brenkilco

            Yeah, on screen you can blow past contrivance with fast cutting, fast talking or something blowing up. The reader can absorb the material at his own pace, and even-the horror- reread it.

          • Levres de Sang

            Orson Welles, of course, is always the master illusionist in this respect. Near the beginning of F FOR FAKE he claims: “For the next hour I will tell only the truth…” Needless to say, the film runs around 85 minutes!

    • gonzorama

      I had another comment I wanted to make, but when I read this I realized this is all that needs to be said. Grendl, this is brilliant. Thank you.

  • mulesandmud

    My biggest problem with reading my own work is that I almost always catch myself getting lost in the small stuff – tweaking grammar/syntax or noodling with descriptions – when I should be looking at the bigger picture. This turns the read into more of a copy edit than an honest read; I get so distracted by the flowers and the curtains that I only have half an eye on what I should really be looking at: the architecture.

    I find that reading a hard copy helps. The first read, I’m not allowed to take notes, or else notes in margins only (macro thoughts, impressions, etc). Only on the second or third read am I allowed to go in with red pen and fuck with the words. I tend to do each read with a different colored pen, putting a date on the title page for each color of notes, so that I can track my own thought process.

    A few years back, a producer showed me a feedback method that really blew my mind; I’m still not sure if it’s brilliantly functional, hopelessly cynical, or both. He would give a script out to lots of people, not asking for any actual notes, just asking them to rate their degree of interest on each page on a scale of 1 to 10. Then he would collect all the scores and make a graph of reader interest over the course of the script. The feedback is incredibly nonspecific, of course, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; more specific feedback is often misleading anyway, i.e. they complain about the faucet when the problem is in the plumbing. To date, this is the best method I’ve ever seen for gauging the boredom factor.

    • brenkilco

      Like those dials they use for focus groups during political debates. Interesting. And I suppose it has a hidden benefit. If the person has to rate every page he has to think about every page, which is more than a causal reader is going to do.

      • mulesandmud

        And yet, since the method doesn’t ask for any actual notes, it’s much less of a commitment from the reader than other forms of feedbacking. I’ve experimented with it once or twice, and found that people are far more willing to rate pages than to give a full or even partial set of notes.

        • brenkilco

          But you can only get worthwhile notes from people with an appreciation of narrative and a capacity for critical thinking. A subset of the total prospective audience, most of whom couldn’t give you much more than I just didn’t like it. So as a somewhat callous producer’s tool it’s probably useful.

    • klmn

      Could those people judge the impact of those scenes from reading the pages? The resulting movie would have actors, cinematography, music, sound effects, all sorts of stuff that read flat on the page.

      The more I write the less impressed I am with many people’s comprehension.

    • klmn

      “I find that reading a hard copy helps.”

      I used to do that. Now I open the original and start a new blank file. I paste in the parts I like and rewrite the parts I don’t.

      • mulesandmud

        Yeah, I only use the hard copy for reading through and taking notes.

        For actual rewriting, I start a new file and force myself to rewrite every single word. For scenes I want to keep, I transcribe them, rather than just pasting them in, which keeps me more in tune with the rhythm and pacing of the story, I think.

  • Brock_Rox

    I find myself getting caught up too much in the language/wording, so I recently banned myself from using the thesaurus while reading. I’ll be writing at a good clip until I can’t think of the “perfect” word to describe something. Before I know it, I’ve spent 20 minutes looking at synonyms for “sauntered.”

    Having that time separation helps, but I think this also shows the importance of having an outline. It’s easier to look at the broad picture when your script only exists as a broad picture.

    • Casper Chris

      Having that time separation helps, but I think this also shows the importance of having an outline. It’s easier to look at the broad picture when your script only exists as a broad picture.

      Good point.

      • klmn

        I’ve got into the habit of doing an outline after the first draft, before the rewrites start.

  • ElectricDreamer

    GSU needs to be introduced to its Act Two cousin, the DCG…
    DECISIONS bring about COMPLICATIONS that exacerbate the protag’s GOAL.

    How do I keep my characters on the DCG straight and narrow? HUMAN BEHAVIOR.
    It works every time. Learn psychology. Freud is a big help on the page for me.
    Tony Gilroy, the Bourne maestro, has the best quote on this subject…
    “The quality of your writing is absolutely capped at your knowledge of — human behavior.”

    Once I know what drives my protag, I use it against him to complicate his journey.
    For me, the protag’s INTERNAL CONFLICT is the gasoline that I pour on all my scenes.
    Create an environment that provokes your protag into making emotional DECISIONS.
    Those decisions should be made in haste while things are HAPPENING in your story.
    It’s the only surefire way I know to “make” things naturally go sideways in every scene.

    • klmn

      When are you going to post one of your scripts?

      • ElectricDreamer

        I’m already a card-carrying member of the Wasn’t for Me club. :-)
        Pre-AOW, that is. I’m working on a new spec right now.
        But thanks for asking! Here’s a link to the latest short that I wrote…

        • Poe_Serling

          THE WIDOW’S WALK…

          Just what we need around here to kickoff the upcoming Halloween season!

          OT: Over on Turner Classic Movies, it’s ghost story Thursdays until the end of the month. Featured tonight are the ghost comedies:

          >>Old Dark House (1963), an offbeat horror comedy from William Castle that’s a departure from his darker, better known scare fests like
          The Tingler.

          >>TheGhost Breakers (1940), with Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard chasing laughs while investigating a haunted castle in Cuba.

          • brenkilco

            Goddard: Aren’t you afraid of big, empty houses?
            Hope: Not me. I was in vaudeville.

          • Poe_Serling

            That’s a great line.

            I’m definitely gonna watch The Ghost Breakers tonight. When I was a kid, I also remember really enjoying the Martin and Lewis remake Scared Stiff.

          • brenkilco

            It features a supporting turn from an African American actor named Willie best aka Sleep n eat, who, though doubtless talented, plays a character so cowardly and dimwitted he makes Mantan Moreland look like Denzel Washington. Not exactly PC and even for the time sort of jaw dropping.

          • Poe_Serling

            Yeah, the Hollywood landscape is littered with more than its share of politically incorrect films.

            The one I hear most often mentioned is Breakfast at Tiffanys, which featured Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi.

          • brenkilco

            Or Song of the South, never released to TV or on any video format and more or less disowned by Disney.

          • davejc

            Lol. I had a bootleg of Song of the South. It was pretty easy to see why they wouldn’t release it :)

          • klmn

            I think it has been released in Europe. Maybe some of our foreign correspondents can speak to that.

            I saw a bootleg a few years ago on a cable access tv show.

          • Midnight Luck

            I wish I knew what happened with the Disney animated movie THE BLACK CAULDRON. Would you happen to know?
            I know they disowned it after it failed at the box office. But it seems odd when they made so much of their money off of DVD sales vs. Theatrical release back then, that they would not release it until 1998 on video. Seems counter productive.

            It was a Really Dark tale (which is why I liked it), that absolutely disappeared. It was Disney’s first PG rated film. I know it was probably too dark compared to most of their stories, but it went M.I.A. for years and years. You couldn’t buy it or find it. Then a few years back it reappeared with a dorky cover and looking all sweet and innocent, and frankly, lame. The cover used to be ominous and dark.

            I wonder if there was some kind of P.C. issue or if it was just too dark and garnered poor reviews and a cold B.O.

            Now it is a cult hit.
            I haven’t seen it in forever, and am a bit worried about trying it again. I might hate it or think it is lame or cheese ball.

          • Poe_Serling

            Hey Midnight-

            Here’s an article that might just answer a few of your questions regarding The Black Cauldron’s journey through development to release and beyond:


          • Midnight Luck

            Hey thanks Poe for the article. I had a feeling you might know of, or have some connection to something about it.
            You are an awesome collector of all kinds of info about films. I really appreciate that.

          • Levres de Sang

            Hope was funny right to the end, too. Aged 99 on his deathbed, when his wife asked him where he’d like his ashes to be scattered, he replied “Surprise me!”

            The Cat and the Canary (1939) is also a great horror comedy.

          • klmn

            Leno may be following in his footsteps, at least per the USO shows. He just got back from Afghanistan.

          • klmn

            I caught the last half hour of Ghost Breakers, then watched Old Dark House. I think that’s the first thing I’ve seen Tom Poston in, other than Newhart.

            Back to my computer.

        • Casper Chris

          The French short film guy decided not to make it or?

          • ElectricDreamer

            Thanks for the pachyderm-like recall there!
            Max loved my writing, but wanted to develop an original story.
            So, I pitched him a couple of ideas, but he passed on them.

        • klmn

          I’ll read it later and email my notes.

        • leitskev

          I remember this story from 2010 one week challenge at simplyscripts.

        • Adam W. Parker

          Thanks for sharing. Nice visualizations, I could see everything.

          pg. 8 *You’re the one… (on my copy it says “You the one…”)

  • brenkilco

    Happy note, sure. Rosemary ends up with a fine, healthy baby boy.

  • brenkilco

    Papering over contrivance; with authentic detail, misdirection, genuine human reactions in unreal situations, is essential to all fiction writers and I think particularly tough for screenwriters who are allowed a lot fewer words to paint their world and establish their characters than novelists or playwrights get.

    • leitskev

      Yeah, and the trick is to figure out how. For one thing, a film gets to establish its own universe with its own rules. If the contrivances make sense within that universe, and if the character actions are consistent with the nature of the characters, people will buy into.

      One contrivance that is commonly used is the coincidence. But coincidences are sometimes a necessary product of condensing. And a story is a condensing of the key moments in the characters lives, or in a central dramatic moment in those lives.

      • JakeMLB

        I was just going to say something similar. The papering has to be in the tone and spirit of the story and film.

      • brenkilco

        One of those screenwriting axioms is set it up early, pay if off late. You can avoid the charge of coincidence if you prepare the audience for it. And they’ll accept most anything early on. Nothing short of a bear trap will stop your Michael Meyers type villain. Well if your protag just happens to come up with one at the climax the audience will groan. But if he sticks it up on the wall as a decoration in the first scene, you’re covered.

        • JakeMLB

          The anthropic principle:

          When the coincidental event springs from the same action that created the need for the coincidence, the coincidence is killed.

          We’re also more apt to accept coincidence if it favors the antagonist.

          • brenkilco

            Wow, that column takes the long way around the cosmological barn to make a fairly basic point. The writer might also have pointed out that our conditioning to expect stories to be composed of essential elements means that potential coincidence can be transformed into dramatic necessity. AKA Chekhov’s gun


          • JakeMLB

            Yeah that article isn’t one of their best but the point is still a good one. It’d be a useful exercise to find some more, complicated examples, as the examples they point to are rather simple. While it’s a simple concept, the execution of it can be quite complicated so it’d be fun to examine in depth.

  • E.C. Henry

    Final Draft has an audio playback feature. Hearing your script read back to you really helps find “bad” sentences. Dragon Naturally Speaking also has an audio playback feature, I use that when editing the novel that I’m currently working on.

  • Lennox Snow

    OT: Wondering if anyone has a copy of INK AND BONE they would be willing to send to lennox.snow(at)

    Thanks in advance!

    • Linkthis83


  • klmn

    Carson, you should write an article on naming characters. McChucker Doogan, Nadine Steauxpede and Crooks Caravelli certainly stand out.

  • brenkilco

    Actually if memory serves, Cameron does take some pains to tell us Ripley has had experience with these things. Even before she tells the sergeant she can run one and we see her do it, there is a conversation with Burke about loading being the only job she could get. But it is a perfect example. By the time the thing becomes relevant we’ve almost but not quite forgotten about it.

  • Dale T

    Taking a long break from your script won’t automatically give you fresh eyes. It’s about experencing new things in your time away from your script, or revisting old advice. You should be reading new scripts everyday which’ll ground your perspective, or going through past screenwriting lessons to gain a better understanding of the material you were taught. If you spent 6 weeks doing nothing, then that long absence of not writing will do nothing for you.

    As Stephen King said, write write write, read read read, write write write, read read read.

  • JakeMLB

    I think he was referencing to the “none if it can be contrived” statement. Things can be somewhat contrived if you can find ways to minimize the damage.

  • Odogg32F

    I look to see if I gave away the conflict. I want to make sure I develop conflict and play it out over several beats. Today television does a great job of this. I also want to make sure I have the reader/audience focused on future action.

    Anticipation is one of the most important emotions to have in your narrative. We anticipate a certain happening and we have two available outcomes: 1) if the event happens as we anticipated we have fulfilled expectancy and 2) it another event occurs instead of what we anticipated we are surprised (see GONE GIRL, a flawed film, but very entertaining because of the surprises, which you don’t see in many films).

    “Alfred Hitchcock, the undisputed master of suspense drama once said, ‘There is no terror in a bang only in the anticipation of it.’

    Another key emotion I try to employ is suspense, which you can only have if you have clear goals (clear intention to achieve goal) and real obstacles in the way.

  • walker

    Unusually high quality discussion today, [xx] worth the read.

  • leitskev

    No no, you are not wrong on that. What I meant was in your original post saying avoiding contrivance was important to avoiding boredom. It was an excellent post, and I only raised an objection to that one thing. Of course, if a film really SEEMS “contrived” to an audience, then you are 100% correct. But from my experience, when it comes to amateur scripts, the problem is that the writer tries so hard to avoid contrivance that THIS very avoidance is what results in the boring story. The sharp turn of events in a story that is usually one of the levels for creating emotion usually involves heavy doses of contrivance. Without that tool, the story is more likely to be boring. I enjoyed the rest of the post, though, and I think this contrivance discussion is useful.

  • rickhester

    Patience is key to turning out the best possible draft of a script. For me anyway. I get as far away from the script as possible for six weeks, then read it thru in one sitting. And I trust my instincts. If I stumble through a paragraph, I smooth it out and note that I need to read it again fresh in a couple weeks, starting at least ten pages before that section.

    After I’m completely satisfied with a draft, I give it to the smartest people I know. I used to work for a studio and I learned some really important lessons from screenings. Really listen to the very first thing people say to you about your story. And there’s a lot of information you gain as well just from the difference between a reader saying it was ‘good’ or I ‘liked’ it or ‘loved it.’ And I really watch body language.

    Again, for me anyway, other than the most basic information, I won’t say anything about a movie I’m writing to someone I know will later read the script. . And I’m particularly careful never to telegraph to any reader where I think there may a problem. I always ask if there was anything you had a problem with, anything that didn’t work for you or was unclear. Make people comfortable and give them time. Nine times out of ten, they’ll eventually focus right on a problem you’re concerned about, and you’ll know you have to work on that section or character.

    So for whatever it’s worth, that’s my process.

  • maxi1981

    Elmore Leonard once said, a story is real life with the boring parts left out.

    I am currently reading a book tiled Wired For Story by Lisa Cron, and its incredibly insightful and entertaining. She says at one point that, “a story must have the ability to engender a sense of urgency from the very first sentence. Everything else, fabulous characters, great dialogue, vivid imagery, luscious language – is gravy.

    She notes learning to write well is not synonymous with learning to write a story. And of the two, writing well, is secondary. Because if the reader or cinema goer in this case doesn’t want to know what happens next,. so what if its well written?

    Her example is the Da Vinci Code, which she notes many have said it is awfully written, with with fellow author Phillip Pullman noting Browns language is ‘stunted, flat and ugly’ and his books are ‘full of two dimensional characters’. So why have Brown’s books sold millions of copies and are best sellers?, its because they keep the reader wanting to know what happens next constantly.

    Brilliant book on how writing works and hooks readers.

    • Kirk Diggler

      True about The Da Vinci Code. Pedestrian writing but a page turner nonetheless. But it’s also a book never worth reading a 2nd time.

  • fragglewriter

    Great tip to tackle the small parts that make the whole. I understand that we should take time apart from our script to view with fresh eyes, but what about during rewrites. Should we still take time apart during drafts or that isn’t necessary?

  • carsonreeves1

    merci. :)

  • steveblair

    The most productive way for me to troubleshoot is, like you said, asking myself questions and answering them honestly. This is best done away from the computer, outside of the script. Have a Q&A with yourself in long-hand, with a real pen, on real paper. Sounds old-school, I know, but it’s very helpful.

    Writing longhand in this manner comes from one of the exercises in Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way”, what she calls Morning Pages – free-form, free-flowing, longhand writing by you, for you. No one else sees this pages. In fact, I trash my three pages after I’m done. Morning pages are a great way to purge your brain of all the crap we like to collect there, and clears it for the real task of writing. Utilizing this same exercise to play detective on your own script works wonders as well.