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By: Jeff Legge
This is no surprise, of course — when it comes to something as fundamentally precise and craft-focused as a movie script, it’s only natural that the same mistakes will crop up again and again – especially in writers that are only just beginning to dip their toes into the art of professional storytelling.
But what if I told you that most – if not all –common screenwriting mistakes stem from the same, deceptively sinister problem? A problem that is sure to plague most writers at one time or another, regardless of talent or experience.
Admittedly, what I’m talking about is not something that history has proven to be a quick fix. Nor is it anything as simple as a new way of outlining or conceiving of story beats and character arcs.
No, what I’m talking about is a common thread. A single “mistake”, so to speak, that runs through the vast majority of poor screenwriting. A nasty habit that, once effectively nipped in the bud, will invariably lead to better writing wholesale.
In a word, the problem I’m referring to is ego. More specifically, I mean that all too common lack of self-awareness that results in a severely misplaced abundance of confidence in one’s own work.
But first, consider the following sequence from the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale, in which M expresses her concern over the titular agent’s premature promotion to double 00-status.
Make no mistake – what M is talking about in this scene is not a mistaken sense of talent or ability. As far as the world of international assassins is concerned, few, if any, would denounce Bond for lacking the necessary traits. But it’s that talent, mixed with arrogance and a lack of experience, that fuels M’s fears.
A degree of ego is natural of course, and when mixed with demonstrated success, it’s not always such a problem. But when the opposite is true – when an otherwise “gifted” writer is yet to progress through the trial-by-fire that is their first several screenplays – the more likely ego will prove destructive.
So, without further adieu, let’s look under the hood of five infamously common screenwriting mistakes in order to reveal the sinister shadow of ego that drives them.
Breaking the rules before taking the time to learn them.
Storytelling is, in many ways, an innate ability. Something we humans can do naturally. Telling a story with precise rules, expectations, and requirements, on the other hand, doesn’t come quite as easily. That’s why it’s good to start simple, with a neat, finely crafted story, well told, with clear arcs and engaging characters.
Instead, many writers try instead to redefine cinema as we know it. They focus all their efforts on writing a masterpiece. A script as tricky as Memento and as profound as The Tree of Life.
The problem? You’ve got to learn the rules before you break them. In terms of raw ambition, there’s a world of difference between Terrence Malick’s first film, Badlands, and his later masterpieces.
Badlands is a more focused affair. One with a more tangible structure and a plot that isn’t quite so rife with ambiguity. In other words, it’s everything an early screenplay should be. An unpretentious, ego-free “calling card”. Something with which to prove yourself. Not as a “master” necessarily, but as a consummate professional capable of delivering a quality product.
In general, it’s a good habit to constantly challenge not just your ideas, but also the intentions behind them. Be honest with yourself. If your script’s number one narrative ambition is to go deeper than Inception, chances are your ego needs a reality check of its own.
Too cool for school.
Even in the face of declining ticket sales and shifting business models, there’s something incredibly reassuring about honing your skills as a screenwriter in 2017. After all, we have a century’s worth of material to draw upon, including hundreds upon hundreds of exceptional screenplays and a healthy body of secondary literature with which to deepen our understanding of the craft.
And all that is to say nothing of the Internet, which makes this wealth of knowledge immediately accessible, while also serving as a platform for e-courses, contests, grants, and professional script coverage services.
Yet in spite of this, there’s no shortage of writers who scoff at the process of learning to write. They’ll dismiss all rules, guidelines, formulas, and structures as unoriginal and unnecessary rather than recognizing them for what they are: a foundation on which to build upon.
That’s not to say that the rules can’t be broken, nor that every successful writer must embrace the tenants of every single screenwriting philosophy. But if you’re a dedicated, hard-working writer with even a modicum of talent, it’s never been easier to stand on the shoulders of giants.
The key, once again, is simply to not let your ego get in the way.
A lack of cinematic literacy.
This example is best illustrated with a personal anecdote from my own time at film school. At the tail end of a particularly grueling start-of-semester pitch-session, one of the more talented writers from our year offered up an idea for a 20-minute short film detailing the mysterious death of a business tycoon. The ensuing investigation would weave back through the tycoon’s life, before eventually arriving at his shockingly humble beginnings.
In other words, this writer-in-training had just pitched his own abridged version of Citizen Kane.
“To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen Citizen Kane,” admitted the writer with a smug half-smile, as if proud of the fact that he had inadvertently re-spun one of cinema’s seminal classics entirely from scratch. Not caring that his time and talent had been wasted on an idea that was, more or less, hopelessly derivative.
To extend the analogy, a lack of cinematic literacy is usually one the first things a skilled reader can sense about a writer. Whether it’s an overly derivative structure, or an abundance of cliché-ridden dialogue, scripts that tread too much familiar ground tend to come from screenwriters with an overly narrow set of influences.
The fact is, if you want to write movies, the most important thing you can do, apart from learning the fundamentals of the craft, is to actually watch movies. And not just the blockbuster of the week, either. Like a well-read author, great screenwriters must thrive off a well-balanced diet of cinema that stretches across genres, all the way back to the silent era.
To refuse to do this – to remain firmly within your own cinematic comfort zone – is evidence of an uncontrollable ego to the nth degree. It’s laziness masked in arrogance, and if your ambition is write movies for a living, it’s yet another reason to leave your ego at the door and give your craft the respect it deserves.
Complexity for complexity’s sake.
No matter how you cut it, telling a complete story in a scant 90 to 120 pages is a tall order. Given this limited page real estate, the following rule of thumb serves as a decent metric by which to plan your script:
The more complex your plot, the less room there is to flesh out your characters, and vice versa.
There are exceptions of course, but compare a film like The Matrix to Before Sunrise. The former balances its complex mythology against a cast of relatively archetypal characters, while the latter concerns itself with the complexities of a blossoming relationship over anything plot-related.
Striking the right balance is important, but in general, most films tend to teeter one-way or the other. Of course, this balance is often dictated by genre – after all, not all films require subtle, nuanced characterization to work, and conversely, not every story demands heady philosophical concepts and complex worlds.
The problem, however, is when a screenplay veers too far in one direction or the other.
On the one hand, we have complexity for complexity’s sake. Heaps of world building peppered with jargon, and layered on top of a plot teeming with convoluted twists, turns, tangents and detours. Screenplays of this nature display an over-eagerness to impress, opting for the proverbial “kitchen sink” approach that masks the lack of a beating heart.
On the flip side, some amateur screenplays swing too far in the opposite direction, placing interesting characters in a story that fails to offer any sort of engaging narrative hook. Both extremes result in screenplays that are much ado about nothing – overly ambitious at best, and pretentious at worst. Driven more by the desire to impress than to tell a simple, engaging story, with a clever twist, and a compelling cast of characters.
A distrust of constructive feedback.
This is it. Where all threads converge, and the first signs of a potential solution emerge. If there’s one area in which ego does the most to halt a screenplay’s progress dead in its tracks, it’s here.
I’m talking about the ego-driven writer’s deep distrust of any form of feedback that isn’t effusive praise. The kind of writer who writes off all forms of constructive criticism, and dismisses the suggestions of others without so much as a passing thought.
The rationale? Usually some variation of “they just don’t get it,” combined with the illusion that, somehow, the world at large still will.
Most of us writers will find ourselves at the receiving end of some particularly ugly feedback at one point or another. Whether it’s as simple as a blank stare at the end of a passionately delivered pitch, or a pointed collection of notes that carefully tear our work apart beat for beat, feedback is part of the process. An important part. It’s what separates your first draft from a polished, professional product.
Not all feedback is created equal. Still, for most writers – particularly those still in the early stages of their careers –embracing, processing, and incorporating constructive criticism can mean the difference between mediocrity and greatness.
The keen, confident writer actively seeks out feedback because they understand that their ideas must be tested in order to reach their maximum potential. By letting others in, the rewriting process becomes one of properly outfitting your screenplay in armor prior to battle. To do otherwise – to reject feedback wholesale – is akin to bringing a knife to a gunfight.
This is what makes quality script coverage such an invaluable service. For the writer committed to success, it’s a risk-free opportunity to have your ideas judged against an industry standard.
While the unrestrained ego scoffs at feedback as an unnecessary waste of time, the consummate professional understands that any advantage in an industry as cutthroat as film and television is something to embrace.