I was reading away last weekend, burning through script after script, each one in a different genre, becoming more and more frustrated as each script ended.
And I was wondering why I was getting so worked up.
by Carson Reeves
I go through bad stretches of scripts all the time. It eventually turns. So why was this bothering me more than usual?
And I realized that in each script I’d read, some basic common mistake was being made. These weren’t unique problems that only pop up once every hundred screenplays or so. These were genre-specific mistakes that I see over and over again. So I thought, hey, if I knew the number one mistake to avoid when I started writing a screenplay, wouldn’t that give me an advantage over other writers?
So lo and behold, that was the genesis for this article. I marked the 15 most popular genres and the most common mistakes I run into while reading those genres. Other readers may have different experiences, but this is mine. So either silently curse me for pointing out, once again, what NOT to do in a script, or use this advice to topple your competition. Here we go!
Number one mistake I see in period pieces is writers getting lost in their work. We’re cutting to a king in France and a peasant in Russia and a little known uprising in Austria and dozens of years pass and the old characters die and new characters are born and blah blahblahblah blah blah blah. Jumping around to 15 different characters in 18 different countries for 2 and a half hours isn’t going to entertain a reader. It’s going to frustrate them. Instead, find the focus in your period piece. Make the main character’s journey clear.
Number one mistake I see in period pieces
is writers getting lost in their work.
The King’s Speech is about a King who must overcome his speech impediment before giving the most important speech in the country’s history. It’s clean and it’s simple. If you do want to go “sprawling,” remember this: The more sprawling you get, the clearer your main character’s goal has to be. So the story of Braveheart encompassed dozens of years, but the goal (obtain freedom for his country) was always as clear as day.
Many writers believe drama is a license to lay everything on thick as molasses. Cancer, death, car crashes, disease, abuse, addiction, depression. If you have more than a couple of these going on in your drama, consider taking them out now.
Dramas are at their best when they
pick and choose which moments to explore
Dramas are at their best when they pick and choose which moments to explore, not just hurl it all down in one giant depression sundae. It’s a delicate balance and by no means easy to navigate, but I always subscribe to the theory that less is more in drama.
ZOMBIE / SERIAL KILLER / ROM COMS
What the hell are all three of these doing in one category? That’s easy. All three inspire the same problem. Writers never do anything fresh with these genres. Zombie: Group of people gets chased by zombies, usually in a city.
Rom-Coms: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again. Serial Killer: Serial killer leaves cryptic puzzle behind for detectives to try and figure out. I see these plots over and over and over again.
You have to come up with a fresh angle! Look at Zombieland. They added comedy, silly rules, a voice over, and a road-trip story to the genre. It was fresh. Look at 500 Days of Summer.
It mixed the whole damn relationship up. As for serial killers, I don’t have an example for you because since Seven NOBODY has done anything new with the serial killer genre (NOTE TO ALL SCREENWRITERS: IF YOU WANT TO CASH IN, FIND A FRESH ANGLE FOR THE SERIAL KILLER GENRE). Remember, all three of these markets are super-competitive. So beat em by coming up with something new.
since Seven NOBODY has done
anything new with the serial killer genre
Most new writers get into sci-fi and fantasy for the wrong reasons. They’re more interested in the macro than the micro. In other words, they care more about the world than their hero’s journey.
I remember reading a really ambitious incredibly detailed sci-fi script that didn’t have a lick of story to speak of, and the writer’s one big question to me afterwards was, “Do you think the disappearing mech suits on page 25 are realistic?”
Of all the questions they could’ve asked, they didn’t want to know, “Was my main character’s motivation strong enough?” Or “Do you think the connection between these two characters worked?” but if a singular tiny sci-fi geeky machine that had nothing to do with the rest of story was realistic.
This is representative of how writers think of these scripts. They’re focusing on the wrong things. Focus on the character’s journey first (The Matrix is more about Neo believing in himself than it is about cool wire-fu) and everything else will follow.
Focus on the character’s journey first
and everything else will follow.
Coming-of-Age is a commonly encountered amateur genre because most writers are in their 20s when they begin writing. Naturally, they start writing about their own confusing directionless lives. Unfortunately, this confusion almost always translates to NO STORY!
The writer feels content to just let their character wander about, experiencing life and all its eccentricities, believing that the “realness” of the journey will be enough to capture the audience’s imagination. It isn’t. It just makes everything directionless and boring.
If you want to write coming-of-age, give your script a hook and a story just like any other genre. A perfect example is Everything Must Go – very much a coming of age story, but structured so as to keep the story on track and so we always know what’s going on.
If you want to write coming-of-age, give your script
a hook and a story just like any other genre.
COMEDY and HORROR
I’ve said this a million and one times on the site. The biggest mistake comedies and horror films make, is to focus on the laughs and the scares as opposed to character development.
Comedy and Horror plots don’t tend to be that complicated, which is fine. As long as you have a good hook, you’re okay. But the characters in these scripts are a different story. The audience *has to connect* with them in order for the script to work. Yet writers refuse to dig any deeper into those character’s lives than the width of a tic-tac.
So figure out what makes your hero tick. What are they afraid of? What’s their biggest flaw? Then use your story to explore that flaw. Happy Gilmore had major anger issues. The story was just as much about him learning to overcome that anger as it was about winning at golf.
So figure out what makes your hero tick.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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13 thoughts on “The Biggest Mistakes I Encounter In Each Genre (1/2)”
I’m going to recommend “Brigham City” as a post-“Seven” serial killer movie that did something new with the genre–it took the serial killer formula and used it to explore a tight-knit community (small Mormon town Utah, in a similar way to how “Witness” looked at Amish life), biblical ideas of innocence and wisdom, and redemption. It’s a thinking man’s slasher movie, and, while there are some aspects that don’t totally work, it’s one of the best American independent movies I’ve seen from the past decade.
(Unfortunately, it didn’t cash in at all–it had a budget of one or two million and it still lost money.)
Thank you for that Davey. I’ll see if I can find it on Quickflix.
Any idea why it didn’t make money?
Richard Dutcher made all kinds of waves in Utah and Idaho with “God’s Army” (2000), a movie about Mormon missionaries that was both a very good movie and also very appealing to Mormon audiences; it cost something like $300,000, and was one of the biggest (could be THE biggest, can’t remember) money-maker in Utah of the year.
Dutcher followed it up with an even better, more thoughtful, more nuanced (and much, much darker) film about Mormon culture and belief–“Brigham City.” It cost quite a bit more (still low-budget, but something like a couple million) and, honestly, it’s too challenging and too dark a film to be expected to do well if it’s marketed to Mormon audiences (which it was); it’s also probably too quiet and mournful and too religious a film to have worked as a mainstream thriller. It’s a tricky movie to sell, but I’m really, really glad it was made (Dutcher’s other work is well worth checking out, too, if you like it: “States of Grace,” a slightly more grown-up sequel to “God’s Army,” and “Falling,” a crazy, unhinged force of nature kind of movie).
“Zodiac” and (especially) “Memories of Murder” are some good additions to the serial-killer-but-so-much-more genre of the past decade.
Fact Based Adaptations …
Again, writers who are so glued to the facts that they cant consolidate characters/organisations/locations etc nor find their main character nor his/her motivations, amongst the factually accurate detail overload which is of overriding importance to the writer … but confusing or plain boring to 99% of the readers/viewers.
Location based stories …
Where the language is so “authentic” that it doesn’t translate to international contemporary audiences – aka lost in translation.
International english please.
Drop any jargon or colloquialisms that don’t translate literally – otherwise find another turn of phrase.
Do your homework – use international readers from several countries to get dialogue specific feedback.
What about thrillers?
Revealing too much too early – leaving no path of discovery,
Holding back so much that the final reveal doesnt make sense, or is ridiculously out of the blue.
Best thrillers build up with an original combination of intriguing circumstances/situations, character motivations, time critical information reveals, intelligent red herrings, twists and turns, escalating stakes etc which ultimately push thru to the lead (and therefore the audience) “knowing” who/what is the threat and attacking it head on.
Leave the Dr Evil (why I dunnit) climax speeches for Mike Myers. (unless of course you are doing a parody)
Is it just me, or is that just the same problem for all genres?
Story is first. Everything else is just a consequence.
I think ‘Mr Brooks’ made an honest attempt to mess with the serial killer genre, with varying degrees of success. Whist it wasn’t sensational, it was definitely an enjoyable change.
I believe ‘Zodiac’ was an excellent take on the genre, choosing to focus on the effects a serial killer has on people not directly related to the murders. It also exposed us to the frustrating ambiguity of trying to track down such a killer and the maddening discovery that you can never really be sure you’ve caught him/her. In this vain if I’m reminded of a great Korean film called ‘Memories of Murder’. If you liked ‘Zodiac’ check it out.
Thanks for yet another fascinating post.
The biggest mistake I see made in period pieces is writing action and dialogue as though the characters know way more than they could possibly know about the situation they are in. It seems that when someone knows a lot about a particular period or environment, they tend to imbue all of the characters with all of that knowledge. Science fiction writers tend to do this also.
Great article Carson!
You make a fascinating point about Zombieland. (I loved that film!)
I think it points to a bigger issue as well:
The emergence of The Hybrid-Genre film – as an inevitable consequence of narrative exhaustion across all Genres. It’s just a factor of time passing, and history.
Arguably, the `most interesting’ films these days, are not within a single major Genre, they are hybrid-Genre films.
It’s because we’re now 100 years into cinema…
ie – Imagine trying to do a `straight’ Western today… (It would seem odd. ie Is this a satire?)
Compare `Cowboys vs Aliens’ to that… (bearing in mind – it was Gene Autry in `The Phantom Empire’, and also `Radio Ranch’ to do this first)
eg – Radio Ranch (1935) “Singer Gene Autry discovers a race of advanced humanoid aliens living beneath the Earth.”
I also went to a brilliant `Writing The Hybrid-Genre Film’ 3-day class once, and realized that – after a while – each Genre is bound to get exhausted, which also explains your own weariness of `reading the same boring tropes’ in the various genres… It’s actually kinda tricky to `stay ahead of where each genre is at’ (but you still need to do it, as a Writer!)… There are soooo many films in each genre (there are over 500,000 feature films in existence… – Who has time – in their short life – to watch all the films that exist, both successful and not, even in: just ONE Genre? lol)
Anyway – arguably this is exactly what `Creativity’ is, anyway: Pick 2 things that haven’t been `combined’ before (at least, not in a film that was popular, otherwise it will seem cliche, before you even begin) and: See what happens. (Hybrid vigor.) Smash 2 memes (ideas) together – and: see what happens.
Random bad examples:
– A doco – and a Serial-Killer-Thriller. (Man Bites Dog)
– A Western and a space opera (whoops, Star Wars already did that, as did Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon)
– a monster movie, a cop movie, and an adultery story (whoops – JAWS – though Jaws the film, kinda `snipped’ that last adultery bit, lol)
– Coming of Age / Zombie / Period Movie – I dunno – `Pride and Prejudice & Zombies’? Maybe.
So, anyway – what you say makes perfect sense… Its not enough to use the same old Genre tropes. Gotta `mix in’ something different. (I did this in a screenplay that was optioned twice – combining: a giallo film – and a romance.)
Arguably Tarantino (just as an example) does this heaps as well. The Hybrid Genre film.
But yeah – the tropes aren’t enough now, in this age of pop culture narrative exhaustion. Its harder to do: NEW/FRESH/ORIGINAL…
(Then again, if you start by thinking `Hybrid Genre’, it’s also: incredibly easy. But it takes more research and thinking beforehand. i.e. Which 2 or 3 (or 4!) Genres to blend, and which tropes within them, to choose/use?)
Anyway, great article.
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