An Inconvenient Screenwriting Truth
by Bill True – Writer and Dept. Chair & Head of Dramatic Writing at the Scottsdale School of Film+Theatre
There’s a writer pal of mine. They get pretty good ratings on services like Coverfly, and they’ve placed in the semifinals in AFF and the Nicholl. Their writing is solid, and their scripts explore big, cool ideas. They lament, though, that they’re trapped in the Sisyphean screenwriting Hell of people seeing their writing as that of a really, really good amateur, instead of that of an up-and-coming pro.
If so, let me tell you a little more about what I think my pal’s issue is, in hopes the insight helps you in your quest to finally get that damn rock over the hill.
My friend’s biggest problem is they get it in their head their story has to unfold a certain way, and they won’t budge from that position. “This is the way I saw it in my mind when I came up with the idea,” they assert. “You’re just not seeing what I’m trying to do with the story.”
It’s not the reader’s job to decipher your intention. It’s your job to lay a clear path for them to that connect with that intention.
Like my friend, so many writers “see the movie in their head,” and write it that way. Of course, they do. We all do that. But, for some reason, it gets set in stone for my friend once it hits the page. They’ll be courteous and listen to notes about how you were confused, or how you had a difficult time engaging on an emotional level with the characters and their journey. They’ll give lip service to “appreciating your thoughts,” but when they go back for revisions, the fixes are all cosmetic. They’re unwilling to do any meaningful structural heavy lifting because they can’t shake that original vision for the unfolding of their story, even if that vision doesn’t clearly convey what they’re really trying to say to the reader.
Listen…I’m not saying writers have to act on every note they get. What I am saying, though, is I’ve seen too many writers get caught up in that original structural vision that was the impetus for writing the story. Once they commit it to script, they fixate on this specific telling, certain it’s the only way (much less the best way) to convey their message. And if you, the reader, don’t get it, they blame your inability to understand their vision instead of their inability to effortlessly invest you in their story.
If folks are giving you notes that start with “I don’t understand why…” or “I didn’t get…” or “It wasn’t clear to me…,” these should be treated as red flags. More important, underlying problems associated with notes like this usually aren’t solved by fixing a line or tweaking a scene here and there. These kinds of notes speak to possible deep structural issues that may require rethinking your story on a more foundational level.
Doing that requires courage and a willingness to let that original image of your story go, in favor of a new one that connects with your reader.
Are you unwilling to scrap everything you’ve written and go back to outline to rethink your story from the ground up for the sake of greater clarity? If so, then you might be like my pal. Your pages are awesome, and your scenes sparkle. Your concepts are commercial, and your voice is cool. But, in the end, your script misses the mark because the material isn’t “accessible” (the term folks will likely use when they pass on your script) to the reader.
It’s an inconvenient screenwriting truth, but an unwillingness to see or act on your reader’s confusion is one of the key differences between folks who do okay on read sites and contests, and those who are perceived as pro-level writers.
Bill True’s debut feature, Runaway, was hailed by critics as “Brilliant” and “Hitchcockian” as it premiered to universal accolades at Tribeca and Toronto. Bill also took the top prize at the Austin Film Festival for his work on Runaway, which was subsequently released by eOne Films. He has since developed feature and television projects with The Film Collective, NBA Entertainment, Warner Horizon Television, Veritas Entertainment, More/Medavoy Productions, eOne Television, and more. He is currently in development at Echo Lake Entertainment on his original drama series, Way Beyond. He also working with Rom Com Pictures to produce his original drama series, Hope Springs.
In addition to his work in Hollywood, Bill is Faculty-in-Residence for Dramatic Writing and Department Chair at the esteemed Scottsdale School of Film+Theatre.
Appreciate Bill even more after he shared this article. Wonderful use of the word Sisyphean! Adding it to my vocab. Ha~!