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?