Um … wow.
Just … wow.
Apparently you guys really liked that article I wrote a few weeks back covering five under-the-radar tips to not annoy your reader. Because Matt Misetich (if you’re new here, he’s the face that runs the place) just blew up my phone …
“Writing tips, Spike … ya’ll got any more of them??” he croaked.
“Matt,” I replied, casually sipping on a golden martini from atop a sunlit balcony in Tahiti, “you want ANOTHER article from me about things writers do that piss me off? You crazy son of a bitch, I’m in!”
[Editor's Note: Matt Misetich does not necessarily "run the place," and he's averse to "blowing up phones," but the rest is probably true.]
Seriously though, if you all find these tidbits helpful, then I am more than happy to oblige. The more tips I put out into the world, the better all of your stories will be. And I am an absolute sucker for a good story (and a golden martini, apparently).
Just like last time, I’ve tried to stay away from the blatantly obvious here and instead give you some under-the-radar tips. So, without further adieu, here are five more things you shouldn’t do if you want the person reading your script to not hate you:
#1 - DO NOT WRITE OUT YOUR DEEPEST SEXUAL FANTASIES AND CALL IT ART
Let me be really, really clear here: there’s a big difference between writing a steamy, character and plot-motivated sex scene and being a pervert. And many young writers do not realize where that line is.
I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve had to read seven-page long, cringe-inducing scenes that take place between the sheets because someone decided that every little position change was necessary to tell the story. To be clear, it isn’t … even if your premise revolves completely around the sex factor.
I can still recall a particular spec I read several years back. The concept revolved around a husband and wife whose relationship had grown stale. They were looking for a way to spice things up, so they signed up for a mysterious “package” that promised to add the spark back into their love life. The idea was sort of like The Game with a married couple. Okay … I can see that, I guess. It was interesting enough to make me open the front page.
And then things went south SUPER FAST.
What unfolded was one of the worst experiences of my professional career. Because from this point on, basically every scene became something akin to a porno on the page. One had the couple unknowingly sent to the same seedy motel room and told that a surveillance camera was watching their every move. Seedy, gross, highly-descriptive sex ensued. Another had the husband come home, only to find his wife kidnapped. He had to follow a series of strange clues to track her to the basement of a warehouse where she was tied up and gagged. Gratuitous, detailed intercourse followed. The last scene I remember (and I honestly wish I didn’t) had the husband knocked out with chloroform and left in a vehicle that was parked on train tracks, with a 3000-pound locomotive barreling its way toward the car.
Do you want to guess how many positions the couple copulated in before taking the Jeep out of park?
Now, you might be thinking, “Well, that was, like, one script from several years ago. And the sex tied into the story … so, this can’t be that much of a rampant problem in the industry, right?”
And to that, I give a: 😂😂😂😂😂😂😂.
Don’t believe this is a thing? Just yesterday, I read a script where—[for privacy and content purposes, the Editor has redacted the description of this scene ... use your imagination. Then again, you couldn't even imagine it.]
My immediate reaction to this was a) why?, and b) SERIOUSLY, WHY??? Do writers think Hollywood people lead such boring, sexless lives that when we’re at our desks around 3 p.m., we’re just dying for some terrible erotica to surprise us? Cause this happens often enough where that truly could be the case! It’s an issue for people in my position, and it needs to stop. Now.
Look, I’m not saying that sex scenes don’t have their time and place in a good story. They’ve been around for a long time, and they’ll continue for years to come. But when you write one of these scenes, you need to be well-versed in how to write them. Meaning, a) don’t overload the entire script with too many intimate moments and/or make the whole narrative hinge on the sex, and b) don’t be super descriptive with exactly what happens here. Akin to one of my suggestions in my last article, you don’t need to tell me what positions the characters engage in. You don’t need to describe every thrust, every gasp, every prop they use to satisfy each other. Not only do I have ZERO interest in reading this, but also, the director is going to decide how this plays out. Whatever your kink is won't make it to screen, I can all but guarantee you, unless it’s storyline important.
Also, please, let’s be respectful to the female characters in our narratives. Because this may surprise some of you out there, but there are lots of women who read the disgusting things you write, and they have loooooong memories.
#2 - NEVER USE THE WORDS “TENSION BUILDS” IN YOUR ACTION DESCRIPTION
This one is a sneaky little poison pill. It can creep up on me when I’m least expecting it. Some unknowing writer will casually drop these two innocent little words into their script and think nothing of it. Not knowing the landmine of trouble they just got themselves in.
An example of this egregious error looks something like …Jane shrieks, falling to the ground and scurrying backwards as the monster steps towards her. Her fear is evident across her terrified face. Her back hits the far wall. Her breathing intensifies. She’s got nowhere to run now, and the monster draws ever closer. Tension builds ...
Hear me now and forever, young writers from across the globe: NEVER. EVER. DO THIS.
Of all the things I have shared with you during my time as a Pipeline Artists contributor, this is the one that irritates me the most. It invokes the most visceral reaction in me. I will literally see red. I’m not kidding when I tell you that I have put scripts down simply because of this phrase. Seeing these words on the page makes me think the same thing, every time. It’s an instantaneous hit. I can only hold a single thought in my head:
“This writer is an amateur.”
Never, ever, ever tell the reader that the tension is building in a scene. This is not something that you can just say. You as the writer need to make it so! You need to craft the tension! You need to build the drama! This is quite literally your whole job. You cannot just wave a magic wand around and make it appear out of thin air.
Whew … okay, calm down, Spike. Stop working yourself into a tizzy. Focus on your breath … always return to the breath. Just like you learned in anger management class.
Anyway, here’s the thing—
Tension derives from the reader caring about what happens to the characters. The reader needs to give a shit about who the scary thing is happening to for any tension to build. If the reader has no connection to your protagonist, if they aren’t invested in whether or not they will lose their house, job, or life in this story, then tension simply doesn’t exist. And to make this happen, you need to lay the emotional groundwork in the first and second act in order to bond the reader to your hero. Simply writing the words “tension builds” comes across like you're covering up for the fact that a) you didn’t do this earlier, or b) you don’t trust your writing enough to know if we’re attached to your leads. In either case, it’s not a good sign.
Many young writers seem to believe that tension is something that comes from shooting a scene. And while there are definitely techniques that can be utilized during filming to amplify the tension, this element has to exist on the page first. Telling the reader that it does is sort of like the story of the emperor who wore no clothes.
Everyone knew he was naked, despite his attempts to convince them all to the contrary.
#3 - DO NOT END YOUR PILOT ON A CLIFFHANGER
Of all the things I’ve written about so far, this pitfall is the one that I find most understandable. I get why people make this mistake.
You’ve spent a ton of time writing a kick-ass pilot. Your story engine is roaring, your characters are authentic and real, there’s actual tension permeating through your scenes (I’m done! I swear, I’m not going back there again. Remember the breathing, Spike!). Now it’s time to lay the hooks in your reader. How does that old saying go? “Always leave them wanting more?” Obviously, this is the perfect time to hit your audience with a huge cliffhanger at the most dramatic moment! This will absolutely leave them dying to know what happens next episode, right?
Ehhh, not so much.
To be perfectly honest, this rarely works, in my experience. Cliffhangers are great, don’t get me wrong. But not in a pilot. There are more important things you need to be focusing on.
Writers have so much work to do when laying the groundwork for a series. You not only have to craft great characters, but you also need to tell TWO stories at once. You need a clear macro story, which will span the season, and a micro story, which begins and finishes in this episode. And by ending on a crucial moment, you ultimately rob yourself of precious moments necessary to do this. Because you are (almost certainly) not finishing your micro story and pushing the conclusion into the next episode. This doesn’t leave the audience wanting more, it leaves them going “WTF?”
Think of it this way: did "Breaking Bad" end the pilot with Walt waiting by the road for the police to arrive? No. They finished the micro story (Walt cooking his first batch of drugs and getting away with it). Did "The West Wing" end with us not knowing if Josh was going to be fired for making an ass of himself on live TV? No. Martin Sheen walks in during the final scene and sternly warns him never to do it again. Both of these wildly successful shows made sure to close the narratives that began in their opening editions, rather than try to leave the audience waiting until next week.
Cliffhangers are great for season finales. These keep the intrigue high as you go on hiatus for a few months. Plus, you’ve had somewhere between 7-12 other episodes to build up your characters and plot so the audience has reasons to want to come back for more next season. You don’t have this luxury in a pilot.
Complete your micro story. Set up your macro story. Make sure there are some questions left to be answered, yes, but don’t leave your protagonist (literally) hanging off a mountainside. That’s not satisfying to anyone.
#4 - DO NOT (RANDOMLY) REFERENCE OTHER MOVIES INSIDE OF YOUR OWN
Unless there’s a really, super vital storyline reason for this one, you’re best just avoiding it altogether.
“Awww, but Spike,” you’re saying, “I love The Goonies! Why can’t I throw in a good ole ‘heyyyy youuuu guuuuyyyss!’ into my script?”
Because, anonymous writer person, this makes you look like an amateur. Actually, worse than that. You look like a fanboy.
Because, well, that’s kinda what you are.
Again, there are caveats to this one, but so many times I will read scripts where characters geek out about Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or Die Hard and it’s rarely important. It almost never relates back to the story in any significant way. It always feels like you (the writer) are a fan of this movie/series and want to sing its praises everywhere you can, and it comes across as weak. In fact, most of the time when I see these references, I just roll my eyes and glaze over to the next scene. Yes, you can want your character to be a little bit of a geek, but there are other ways to do this without crossing the streams in this way.
Now, if you are writing a comedy and you have a character who is literally obsessed with Star Wars, whose room is covered in all the posters, and he has all the collectors' toys in all the boxes? Sure, this person would likely quote Star Wars a bunch. Just try not to overdo it.
Also, if you’re writing a romance and the love interests bond over Casablanca, that makes sense, too. But if you’re going to have them fan out over this for a scene, I would make sure to bring it up multiple times; it should become a recurring theme. Like, their meet cute could involve mutual love of the same film, and then later in the relationship, we see them cuddling up, watching it. And then at the end, you could stage a scene that harkens back to Humphrey forcing Ingrid on the plane. That’s a smart way to infuse classic cinema.
But just having your protagonist drop a random “here’s looking at you, kid,” into your movie is not going to win you any points with producers.
#5 - DO NOT FOLLOW UP ON YOUR SCRIPT TOO SOON
I’ve just got to be candid here: unless your name is Guy Ritchie or Ava Duvernay, you ain’t at the top of the stack.
You need to come to grips with this reality: until you have credits, you’re going to be one of the last scripts in pretty much everybody’s pile. Everything else that comes in to people who work in the business is likely going to be moved on top of yours. Once you get some real credits, things get a little better. Then you get moved to the bottom of the middle.
This all sounds cynical, I know, but I’m being super serious. Those of us who live in this world are constantly exhausted and have active projects we’re dealing with every day. These are the scripts that take up the majority of our time and attention. We have families, girlfriends, dogs, and *gasp* some even have children who all need our attention, too. We will get to your story eventually, I promise. But in 99.999% of cases, it’s not going to be in a week.
Or two weeks.
And ... likely not three.
Honestly, my advice to all of you trying to break into the business right now is to follow up about once a month. That’s a time frame that is reasonable to check in, without being annoying. It’s just a nice little nudge to see how we’re doing and see if we’ve had time to read your work. Chances are we haven’t, but trust me, we’ll get to it.
I know these waits can seem infuriatingly long. You’ve spent a lot of time working on refining this story. You’ve stayed up nights and weekends, laboring over the dialogue. Hammering out all the character arcs. Making sure that reveal at the end of the second act lands just perfectly. We know you love it, and we’ll read it.
But the last thing you want to do is annoy us and put your reader in a bad frame of mind before turning to page one. That’s not going to help your chances or get you closer to where you want to be.
Just go take a walk, grab an ice cream cone, and enjoy the sunshine. It’ll do you a world of good.
*Feature Image: "Portrait of Marie-Joséphine Buron" by Jacques-Louis David / Wikimedia Commons