Wednesday, May 13, 2009

No more, I beg you - plots/characters done to death

About a week, and a few hundred screenplay reviews later, I have ever increasing respect for the work it takes to finish one, as well as my own writing skills. Then again, as a contest, I wasn't necessarily skimming through the cream of the writing world.

So this blog is about things that will have you tossed in a heartbeat(or have a reader who is paid to read and critique the whole script banging their head against a wall).

Watch out for genre. If you're a stellar, original writer, you'll be able to take any premise and turn it on it's ear. This is actually harder than it sounds. There were a couple of scripts that were written pretty well, but everything in them was such old hat, that it felt like I was reading a couple of other movies mashed together, down to 'this scene was from x, and that one was from y'.

And everyone's favorite plotlines:

1. The absolute most common one involved a writer with a problem, talking to a character in their mind or God. Whether this other character was a disembodied voice, object, therapist, whatever, this other character's sole purpose seemed to be either to taunt the protagonist with 'clever'(read, the writer found it clever, just like the other 6,000 writers) dime store existentialism, or to feed the protagonist lines in order for the main character to spout the same dogma.

If your character or your 'voice' really has something interesting or unique to say, it could work - don't bank on it. The one thing that each of these scripts had in common(the actual storylines varied greatly) was that it looked like a mental masturbation session. Each writer plodded through the tired themes and eye rolling 'revelations', wallowing in their own perceived cleverness until I wanted to bash my head through the monitor. I'm sure every one of them genuinely thought they had something fresh and innovative to say - at least 40% of the scripts I read featured the same themes, addressed in exactly the same narssisistic fashion.

Oh, and each of the writers(characters) in these screenplays were either struggling drunks, or wildly successful. Please, please, keep your personal fantasies or angst out of the characters, unless you're sure you really can hit new ground.

2. The Chosen One.

I'm not sure whether to blame Bruce Almighty or The Matrix for this. The reluctant hero is chosen by some higher force to either deliver a message or save the world. So what did the two movies mentioned above have in common? They took this storyline and presented it in a new and innovative way. That does not mean that you can rip from either of these and be new, now its been done before. So your small town hero/messenger/Messiah damn well better be different, or have something new to say. And please, please, let the 'evil' character be something exciting. After wading through all of these evil, hot women trying to seduce the protagonist, I was dying to see an old fashioned demon. Or something with horns. Which leads us to -

3. Demonic Temptation.

Old hat, but a sure one. Everyone loves that whole cosmic good vs. evil deal. There's nothing even wrong with your character wanting fame/fortune/sex - classic desires. But again, the presentation HAS to be fresh! What makes your protagonist different than the hundreds before, who have had the same desires, only to reach a point of enlightenment about 60 pages in, to realize they were better off before?

4. Da Mob

I like a good Mafia movie, I really do. What I don't want to see is, however well written, a rehash of every Scorsese movie ever made, to the point that I can pick out each scene, and the movie it came from. Accents are tricky to write well. If you don't have the chops for it, readin' sometin' dat look like dis or worse is tough to get through, stilts the script itself, and does nothing for the sense of character. Say the person has a Brooklyn or Bronx accent, then let it go.

5. 'Action' scripts with no action!

This is more of a writing thing than a story thing, but a heavy dialogue 'action' script where fight scenes equal 'they fight'??? C'mon, you weren't even trying with that one.

On to the writing/character things that drove me nuts:

1. Stupid characters.

I'm not talking about writing a character with Down's here, I'm talking about just plain stupid. Heads of state that don't know their pronouns. 'Brilliant' scientists that don't know the formal name for their own specialty. 'Genius' villains that are no smarter than the average teenager, with an attempt to make them look smarter by making every other character sound like a grade school dropout. 

This can be used as a technique for parody, such as in Idiocracy - where US culture looked down on being smart for so many generations, the brains were just bred out of people. Almost every character was a complete idiot, but for a reason. 

Otherwise, if you can't write 'smart' characters, don't. If you want a criminal mastermind, please don't make every other character stupid. Being average in a script full of idiots is like winning the grand prize at It's just weak writing. Think of some great criminals - Hannibal Lecter, for instance. He didn't escape because the guards were stupid; he escaped because he was just that much smarter. Die Hard - how boring would that have been if the criminals had been dumb? It was gripping because John McClane was just a touch smarter, more resourceful, than the believable international criminals.

I cannot emphasize enough how dull, bland, flat out LAME it is to see a script with an incredibly simple 'puzzle' or 'twist' and have the characters puzzling over it, when the average eight year old would be yelling 'It's x dumbass!!'

Thrillers, action scripts, and horror movies seem to be most guilty of this.

2. The not so secret 'secret' symbol or clue

How hard is it to come up with an original or obscure symbol for the characters to puzzle over? Helpful hints: neither the Eye of Horus nor an Ankh is mysterious enough for a group of teens to be flummoxed by, let alone a group of scientists.
If you're not clear on the symbol, trust that a concept artist will be able to come up with something suitably cool.

3. Poorly explained away 'science'

Often, in something with sci - fi overtones, there will be a technology that does something impossible. A lot of the time, if that machine is not the central object in the story, the audience won't really care how it works, such as Eternal Sunshine or The Prestige. Those bits of tech were never really explained, but within each respective world, they were buyable, accepted, and the story went on. Give enough hints as to how your tech works to make it believable, and move on. Or don't address it at all. Please, don't mangle current scientific concepts, or have a character say something to the effect 'you wouldn't understand' when another character asks. Either one is obnoxious.

4. Opening with a dream, or worse - the whole thing was just a dream

The first is not always a deal breaker, the second, almost completely. I'm not sure what more to say about this. The reason being, that the viewer/reader becomes invested in the characters as they are presented, only to have to start over again after the dream 'ends'. How annoying is that?

The exception comes when that opening scene is over the top in some way, either visuals(shimmering landscapes, morphing cars) or premise(a song and dance number on the moon, a 12 year old leading a guerilla militia) that's no more than two pages long. Long enough to understand why this dream is happening, short enough that the viewer isn't annoyed about being drawn into a storyline, only to have to start over.

The whole thing was a dream just never works, here's why. The payoff will never be enough to have sat through over an hour of people, places, and events that didn't actually happen.

Proviso: if the events are occurring within the mind of the character, and there are allusions to that throughout the work, then the reveal can be satisfying - because there's a puzzle of sorts involved. See Identity, for example. No spoilers here, but this is an example of a movie that uses the dual reality to great advantage.

5. Characters doing something 'out of character' for no reason, and characters without flaws, or only flaws

These are vague enough to find your own example, but let's hit the second two for a moment.

Have you ever met anyone without flaws? Or someone who implies that they have none? How dull would that person be?

Likewise, a villain who's just evil. What motivates someone to do things just because it's wrong? How much more interesting a character who either has chosen greed over virtue, or one who, like Magneto, for example, genuinely believes that they are doing the right thing?

So, those are my top five peeves in the plot/character category. Feel free to add your own, or discuss any of them further.


  1. I have a few technical peeves to add. Scripts that have a lot of directorial comments (most ofen seen by writer/directors). Those are not for the screenplay but your personal notes as a director! Also, why would you want to influence a cold read by talent; you want to see what they can bring to the table.

    Scripts with way too much detail, most often found when the writer has an actual location in mind (what if you don't get it? it also doesn't add to the story which in a screenplay is action to move the plot forward). Detail should be succint and to the point, even with char descriptions. It's a collaborative medium and the script is merely the spine. Most of those other elements the writer may be tied to are malleable and not under their complete jurisdiction. It's not a novel!

    Speaking of action, I've also read quite a few scripts that are more literary in nature and not suitable to be filmed. Too much narration substituting for internal monlogue and the like.

    Also want to recommend the movie Primer to you (it's on Netflix instant if you have an account). Smartest indie sci-fi I've seen in a long time that takes the machine plot-device to a new and exciting place.

  2. Awesome commentary, Andrea! Thanks for stopping by, and I'll definitely add Primer to my 'must see' list.