A Script by Any Other Name? The Sale is Just as Sweet

Posted by Christina Hamlett on

You've dotted all your "i's," you've crossed all your "t's," you've read every book on how to pitch your script in person, by mail, and online. Yet there it continues to sit.


Maybe the problem isn't that it's an unsalable story. Maybe it's that you're trying to force it into a venue that's just not the right fit.

In my capacity as a script consultant, a staggering majority of the plots I've read are encumbered by the writers' lack of awareness between what makes a commercial film and what would make a much better Something Else.

Suggesting this to an aspiring screenwriter, of course, is not unlike holding up a handful of garlic cloves to a vampire. While certainly no one likes to be told that his/her project doesn't rate a "Consider" or a "Recommend," they cringe in greater horror when I advise that adapting the plot to a different medium could bring happier - not to mention faster - results.

Stage, page or cinema? The distinctions embodied in my book, Could It Be a Movie, can make a big difference in whether writers are going to move forward and have their talents recognized or continue spinning their wheels on a storyline that's not going anywhere fast. Couple this with the irony that Hollywood makes no secret about routinely acquiring the film rights to published novels, produced plays, journals, magazine articles, and short stories. In a nutshell, material that wasn't destined for the silver screen has often circuitously found its way in through an open back door.

Yours can, too. Whether you're a teen who's just starting out with shorts that you're writing for your high school or college film class or you're an adult who's been plugging away at this craft for awhile with nary a sign of validation, it's never too early to take a step back and honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller.

Even if you're reluctant just now to entertain the idea of an alternative home for your plots, the following tips may help identify why you haven't gotten past the starting gate.

FADE IN: The Wanna-be Novelist

The sound of a reddish-brown hawk pierces the tranquillity of a lovely spring afternoon in the American Rockies. The flawless azure sky has been lovingly caressed by the painter's brush with wisps and swirls of cotton-candy clouds that look down on a crescent of sturdy verdant trees from which the forest's wildlife cautiously emerges, wary of Man's presence in what was once their exclusive paradise. An unseasonably warm breeze of 5 mph ripples through the amber grasses, gently parting them as if they were fluid gold and disturbing a family of bees which angrily spirals upward like a miniature, amber and black striped cyclone. Just then, two riders on horseback emerge upon the scene, their faces bronzed and ruddy as a result of long months in the wilderness. The nostrils of the animals twitch as they pick up the riders' manly scent and, conscious of the danger that humans represent, quickly recede into the welcome protection of the shadows. "It's quiet here," says the first man who is in his late 20's, blond, and very handsome. "Too quiet," solemnly agrees the other who is about 40 with dark hair and a hook-shaped nose.

Literary? Yes. A screenplay? Nope. While there's no shortage of visual elements in the set-up, prospective producers don't read scripts for style; they read scripts for substance. The tendency of novice screenwriters to spell everything out that an audience should be looking at actually does more to jinx a read than to encourage it. Why? Because it implies that directors don't know how to direct, actors don't know how to say lines, and cinematographers are clueless when it comes to pointing a camera.

Skip the eloquent details. You're not writing a plot that's meant to be read. You're writing a story that's meant to be seen. While there are obviously occasions where specifics are needed to address ambiguity (i.e., a Martha Stewart cabin versus a crude shack), it's important to ask yourself how wedded you are to a particular likeness, representation, or camera shot before you put it on paper. Unlike a novel or short story where you're penning meticulous descriptions to paint mental imagery for a passive audience, the words of a screenplay are simply the framework which the directing, acting, and technical talent will embellish upon with their own signature style.

TEST: Go through a random page of your script and circle every adjective, adverb and parenthetical directive you've used. If you come up with more than 10 per page, you may find more success in writing novels or short stories than films. This exercise especially applies to colors; if a precise hair/eye/sweater/sock/house hue isn't critical to the unfolding plot, leave it out. For practice, use the example given earlier and rewrite it minus the superfluous descriptors.

Will This Be on the Test, Sir?

Is your script laden with lots of brainy historical references? A recent project I evaluated was obviously the product of years of research on the seamy side of 1840's London. Apparently to justify all the gritty factoids she had soaked up regarding this period, the author felt compelled to interject most of them into her storyline via dialogue. Those which weren't conveyed by conversation were judiciously embedded in each master scene as a device to indoctrinate the director on the significance of the era.

As rewarding as it can be to subliminally educate an audience, I can't think of anyone on the planet who appreciates a blatant barrage of Greek chorus explanations that would better suit a high school filmstrip or documentary. No one likes to feel stupid, especially the person who holds the power to say "yes" to your script. Don't teach us. Entertain us. If we want a history lesson, we'll go to the library or do a search on the Internet.

The exception to this rule is if (1) your plot revolves around a media, political, or military theme where a discussion of what has transpired so far would be natural, (2) you're writing a documentary where there's already a built-in expectation of facts and figures, or (3) you've written a play and are providing text for the printed program so audiences will have something scintillating to read while they're waiting for the curtain to go up.
If it absolutely tears you apart to relinquish all the material you've tried to slip in to show how smart you are, recycle it into filler items for magazines, newsletters, or home-schooling lesson plans. Such venues may even pay a few bills while you're waiting for your project to sell.

TEST: How many historical references have you plunked into your master scenes? Delete them. How many times have your characters referred to past events as a device to explain the present plot's context to the audience? Delete those that are contrived and/or don't advance the story. Have you peopled your script with historical figures whose images exist in paintings or photographs? Assume that a director will have the wits to look up a picture of Thomas Jefferson or Lewis and Clark and cast the right actors accordingly. (If I read one more description of TJ's "striking red hair and sensitive eyes," I am going to scream.)

Embracing Minimalism

Movies are driven by action. Stage plays are driven by dialogue. Has one of the criticisms of your script been that your characters yak too much? Maybe you need to give them a different platform for exploring their emotions, especially if they're engaged in what's essentially one long conversation spread over two hours of different scenery. Often in their quest to write the next great American screenplay, writers are quick to dismiss the intimacy, immediacy and spontaneity afforded by the live theater experience.

The protest that a theatrical medium is limiting because of physical space and the number of times a set can be changed without looking manic underestimates this medium's capabilities. Even the most modest production house can avail itself of creative lighting, shadow, and multiple levels to convey transitions. It's one of the reasons, in fact, that stage plays which take place in different locales have relatively generic sets that can be dressed up or down. Because the audience has already walked in with a suspension of belief, it doesn't take much to transform the counter of a diner into a bar, a ticket window or a hospital reception desk.

In analyzing whether your own script might play better on stage, consider the following two films which I use as examples in my workshops: The Mirror Has Two Faces and Pearl Harbor. That neither of them scored well at the box office invites an examination of "why."

The crux of the Streisand movie revolves around the ugly duckling blessing-and-curse of physical beauty. Having finally attracted a husband who respects her for her intelligence, she risks losing him when she transforms herself into an attractive persona his ego can't deal with. Because the film is dialogue-intensive as opposed to action-based, the multiple locations could easily be broken down to a combination of one generic set and spotlighted vignettes. Further, revealing its themes of love and acceptance in the intimate setting of a live stage would have struck a deeper and more personal chord with viewers than watching the characters thrash out their feelings on a big screen.

Pearl Harbor, of course, proved that all the special effects in the world can't save a film that doesn't have a plot. It could have had a plot, however, if the lives and feelings of the three friends had been depicted in a 3-act play. Given how familiar we already are with the visuals that have captured the horror of real-life events (September 11th being a prime example), the playwright's challenge is to communicate and interpret the reaction to those events through the characters' dialogue. Sound effects, spotlighted scenes, and the psychological impact of a minimalist stage set in shadows would have done far more to create a sense of tension and foreboding amongst the viewers than the most expensive camera tricks and CGI effects.

TEST: How many locations are in your script? If it's only 1 or 2, an audience will get bored in a movie but, ironically, they only expect 1 or 2 in a play. Likewise, a play allows them to look at the entire set at once and not just what a camera wants them to see. How many scenes are crucial as a backdrop for the conversation(s) that take place there? If there are more than can be easily accommodated with raised levels, spotlights and revolving platforms, you may want to consider writing a novel, owing to the price tag of storylines that not only span multiple countries but multiple eras involving a cast of thousands. For plots that incorporate extensive special effects, go through a spare copy of your script and X-out each one. Now read the script again. If it was dependent on all that glitz in order to work, it may not be as strong as you think. That's not to rule out a novel or short story, both of which are more economical to produce than movies or theater because everything that happens only takes place on paper and is supplemented by the imagination of the reader.

Dream Tweaks

Nine out of ten readers who finish this article are still going to want to write screenplays. There's nothing wrong with that and perhaps the previous content will even hasten that journey. History is replete with stories of dreamers who stuck to their guns, honed their craft, and aggressively outlasted the competition. History, of course, is also replete with tales of individuals whose talents were diverted to a different - and often higher - calling than whatever they originally set out to do.

In the final analysis, you need to ask yourself how you want to be remembered -as a struggling screenwriter who never made a single sale or as a successful novelist, columnist, playwright, essayist, or short story author whose work made both an immediate and long-lasting difference to all it touched.

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