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This week's question: 

What’s the difference between a good and bad script?

Darren from England

This week's Answer: 

“Getting” A Script

About six figures.  Not really.  Well... actually, sometimes that’s true, but not always.  Thank you for the question, Darren, you who come from the land from where many a “good script” has emanated.  (Or, at least, you may be just be visiting merry ol’ England.  And, if that’s the case, get back home on the double and get to work on your six-figures script, that is if you’re not working on it there at this time, possibly having sent me this e-mail via your laptop while sitting in front of Buckingham Palace, using it as an inspirational setting for your next thriller, “Who Changed The Guards And How The Heck Did They Do It?” which would be probably closer to an English Mystery rather than an English thriller, something that the master of suspense, Mr. Alfred, himself, was quite adept).

If you’re willing (and I’ll assume you are since I’m unable to know your opposing view of “No I am not willing and don’t assume that I will agree with you about anything you may opine from now until perpetuity.”), instead of using “good” and “bad” (because, if it’s a bad script, then I’ll have a compulsive urge to scold some of my old ones lying around on my shelves, tell them that they’ve been very naughty and have to stand in the corner.  And, since, the corner is occupied by my good scripts, which I praise daily, telling them that they’ve been well-behaved and promise to get them optioned or sold soon, although the latter condition also causes my little paper-and-brads family a bit of a problem by prompting them to be afraid of being left and unloved in another way.

I do my best to offset this dilemma by bringing in a script therapist, who works with all of my favorite screenplays, helping them to work through their abandonment issues, issues that started early when I would write a scene and then not write another for three months, or write half the script and not come back to it for six or seven years.  You may have heard about this new addiction that more and more screenwriters that are at long last coming out of denial are willing to admit they have.  But thank God there’s a place for some of us to go now and get help:  SAA.  Story Abandoners Anonymous.  It’s a little different than some other meetings.  It only has one step.  “We, Story Abandoners, have found that following this step is the road to our recovery.  Step One (and the only one):  Write.”  That’s it.  It’s a great One-Step program.  If you’re a writer, you ought to try it.), let’s use the adjectives “effective” and “less effective” (or, if you insist, considering that you may vigorously not be agreeing with me at all at this venture, “good” and “less good.”  I can just imagine studio story analysts employing this new stamp of non-approval:  “Well, Clarence,” says the studio exec looking for the next Underworld to his top reader.  “What’s your overall take on The Attack of the Forest Gnomes from Hell?  “Less good, sir.”  “Clarence?”  “Yes, sir?”  “You’re fired.”  And there goes Clarence, driving past the security guard and off the studio lot.  But worry not because our Clarence may very well be back a year from now for a pitch meeting with the same studio exec (unless there’s been a changing of the guards – and not the kind in England) and he’s now a studio custodian, Clarence having just signed a three-pic deal because after he was “released” from his reading duties, he proceeded to write a six-figure “good” script.)

So, what is the difference between an “effective” and “less effective” script?   Well, one way of describing an effective script is calling it a “page-turner,” (although, considering how often scripts are now read on computer monitors, we might soon be hearing script readers extolling the virtues of a screenplay by referring to it as a real “scroller”).  But what makes us want to keep turning those pages? (or fingering that mouse? – the inorganic one, of course.  I’d never do that to a mouse.  Unless it ate my last piece of cheese.)  As with any effective (we can use “good” here) writing (poetry, prose, newspaper articles, recipes for chocolate mousse – and not “mouse.”  I would never eat a mouse.  Or finger it.  Well... maybe if it was chocolate... ), the reader is brought into a very close relationship with the writer’s world.  You, the reader, can “feel” the writer, your mind and emotions being stirred and guided by his or her unique observations and sentiments and means of expressing those observations and sentiments.  Think of the last movie you saw that you really enjoyed.  You most likely “got it” (and I’m not talking about some weekend life and mind-numbing training course’s ultimate resulting words that thousands of its gleeful graduates spout as they walk through the doors Sunday night, finally being allowed to get off their chairs and go to the bathroom – and make those important cell phone calls to people that would rather not be bothered.  Hey, maybe that’s what those glass-eyed self-made optimists were talking about when they said, “I got it.”  Sore buns.  That’s what they got.  Now I’m enlightened.), really went through some type of transforming experience that was initiated by a screenwriter.  He or she can’t reach you as directly as, say, a novelist or a poet, because there are so many people “in between” he or she and you, an audience member, people such as a director, actors, set designers, caters who can’t for the life of them make a good chocolate mouse – mousse!, etc., who, at times, have prompted a screenwriter, who, after finally seeing his work on the big (or smaller) screen after a thousand others have put in their two cents, including studio execs (many of whom are as close to knowing how to write a good screenplay as you are to becoming president of these here United States), say “That’s it!  I’m getting out of the business and running for the presidency of these here United States.  Although... maybe, first, I should become an actor.”

In conclusion (Writers use this catchall phrase, especially when they think they’ve lost their reader and don’t want to admit it.), after I’ve read what I consider to be a good and effective screenplay (and not a “less good” one), it feels like I’ve been in the same room with the author, respecting him or her, loving what has been offered from the deepest part of himself or herself, and (and this is essential), loving the way (read:  “story, structure, characterization, dialogue, milieu, tone, pace, etc.  All those words you find we story analysts throw around a lot.) it was offered.  A good script gives you the feeling that you somehow know the author and (most likely) like him or her.  Why, you could like him or her so much and what they stand for that you might even be willing to sit next to them at a SSA meeting (or in a hotel ballroom with a thousand other people who are trying to “get it.”)


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