During all of these years I’ve been a professional script consultant, one of the things I’ve learned is that rejecting a writer’s screenplay is not unlike telling someone they have ugly children. Seriously. They’ve invested a lot in the creation of their legacy and the last thing they want to hear is that it’s just not as perfect as they’ve led themselves to believe. Maybe they’re just not cut out to be parents. Maybe they’ve read all the wrong books and listened to a plethora of bad advice. Or maybe they just feel they’ve done everything they possibly could and are hoping that someone else can see the faint glimmer of diamond-in-the-rough and happily polish it for them.
The good news is that screenplays – and, to a certain extent, children – are like waffles; it’s nothing less than a miracle if you get the first one right. With practice comes the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. The bad news is that aspiring screenwriters often focus so hard on trying to make golden waffles out of their movie plots, it never occurs to them that a better choice might be pancakes or French toast. In other words, not every great idea lends itself to the medium of film. The sooner you can wrap your arms around this concept, the sooner you can find success in a venue that matches your storytelling skill sets.
Whether you’re noodling around a new movie plot for development or trying to figure out why an existing project still hasn’t sold, there are three simple tests to help you determine whether you’ve chosen the right medium.
The first test is to ask yourself whether your idea can be delivered visually. Unlike stage plays (which are dialogue-driven) or books (which are imagination-driven), movies are driven by action. They’re called “moving pictures,” in fact, because they’re a series of images strung together to tell the audience a story. It was Hitchcock who is credited with saying that the test of a good movie is one you can watch with the sound turned off and still understand what’s going on.
If, for example, your plot revolves around characters engaged in long stretches of dialogue in static settings (i.e., a kitchen table), your movie isn’t about action; it’s about “talking heads.” The same can be said of plots that focus on more back-story and meandering introspection than on actually resolving an immediate problem. Movie audiences have incredibly short attention spans. If there isn’t enough dynamic movement and scene changes going on, they’re going to fall asleep or wander off/channel-surf in search of something more interesting.
The second test is to examine (1) what is really at stake and (2) is it a sustainable enough conflict to fill two hours. Beginning screenwriters often give their movie characters a “problem” that’s just not all that compelling.
A character, for instance, who has to compete in violent hunting games so that her village will be rewarded with enough food to survive the year is more watchable than a character who’s having a bad day because he hates his job, doesn’t have a girlfriend and spilled grape juice on his shirt. The first character has a crisis she can’t run away from and must, therefore, take escalating risks; the second character doesn’t have an ideal life at the moment but no one is trying to kill him. Big diff. If a protagonist needs to do something, it usually represents a bigger and more sustainable conflict than a protagonist who simply wants to do something.
The third test is to define whether your lead character is an ordinary individual in an extraordinary circumstance or an extraordinary individual in an ordinary circumstance. For example, Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz was just an ordinary girl growing up on a Kansas farm with her aunt and uncle and cute little dog. Life was pretty dull for Dorothy until a tornado whisked her off to a completely extraordinary realm populated with beings unlike any she had ever seen before. Whatever rules she had grown up with back on the farm clearly had no relevance in her new surroundings and she was forced to figure things out as she went along, all the while never losing sight of her #1 goal to get back home.
On the flip side, extraordinary characters often take the form of individuals that are extremely talented, extremely brainy, extremely stupid or extremely extraterrestrial. Plopped into the midst of “normal” folk, their challenge is to try to blend in, try to exercise patience with those who can’t keep up with them, and/or try not to draw unbidden attention to themselves from fear of being ridiculed, caught, killed, dissected, etc.
Where newbie screenwriters often err in this test is when they write about ordinary characters coping with ordinary situations. In other words: real life. Real life, though, isn’t why people go to the movies. They go to the movies to enjoy stories that take them away – if only for two hours – from the real lives they’re already living.