Things I Wish I Knew
You know those moments where life just reaches out and smacks you square in the face? Those little reality checks that suck in the moment, but you can look back on years later and say, “You know, I needed that. I didn’t like it, but it was valuable and important.”
Please consider this article that reality check.
Hi everyone, my name is Spike. If you haven’t met me before, let’s do a brief introduction. I’m sorta known as Mr. “Hard Truth” at Pipeline. I worked in the development side of Hollywood for nine years before joining this staff and have been reading scripts professionally for almost eleven now (damn, I’m old). I’ve spent multiple years working at a TV network, a mid-level agency, and a production company which oversaw dozens of TV projects, plus a superhero franchise.
In layman’s terms—I know what I’m talking about when it comes to screenwriting.
I’ve read scripts that have moved me to my core; literally, some even made me cry. I’ve read others that have bored me to tears. I’ve read Oscar winners and wannabes. I’ve given notes on active features/series and passed on others by page 30. Hell, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that I passed on one of your scripts in my past life. I’ve read that many screenplays by this point.
And yet, all these years later, I still see so many people making the same mistakes. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like every coverage I write is basically the same. And I don’t think it has to be this way. But something needs to change. Clearly there is a knowledge gap out there … there’s something that a hell of a lot of writers out there need to know, and they don’t know it right now.
Let’s fucking fix it.
Some of what I’m about to say may seem blatantly obvious. But I wouldn’t be spending my free time writing this article if the majority of scripts I read were doing these things.
So, without further delay, here are some super critical things I wish writers knew:
The Core Objective of Your Script is to Be Entertaining
Seems basic, right? Yeah, I think so, too. But then why the hell are so many scripts these days boring?
I feel like many writers have forgotten why we watch movies and TV in the first place. It’s escapism, yes. And yes, it’s art, too. But first and foremost, it’s entertaining. It’s engrossing. It grips you and compels the viewer to come back for more. Your script should inspire the same feeling on the page.
If a script is boring on page 30 … or 20 … or even page 10, how is the producer reading it supposed to think it's a viable project? How much confidence is this going to inspire in them? Will this make them think the material is something a studio or network would be interested in acquiring?
The answer: it won’t.
There’s a reason Hollywood is literally called the “entertainment” business. Your story needs to entertain. Which means you need to have an active story engine. Your characters need to have a problem and a goal with which to solve that problem. There must be a narrative.
(NOTE: This article is not meant to teach you how to create that narrative engine … I’ve written plenty of paragraphs on that topic already, but the fact remains that this is still a requirement to have a great screenplay.)
My point is, your script must make people want to turn the page. You have to make the reader need to know what happens next. And a big reason why most scripts don’t do that is because …
It is Not My Job to Find a Reason to Like Your Characters. It is Your Job to Make Me Care.
I feel nothing for your characters. If there is any note I give over and over and over and over again, it’s this one. It is not my job to find a reason to like your protagonist. You must make me like them! You have to actively do the work in order to bond them to me. The onus is on you to make me care.
It’s been said many times before that you don’t get in great physical shape without a plan. Similarly, most people don’t get rich without a plan either (don’t @ me bitcoin bros, you all got lucky and you know it). Similarly, readers do not just like characters on a whim. You, as the writer, need to have a plan for exactly how you are going to spur these feelings within your audience. You need to plant the seeds early on in the first act. You have to show us likable traits within them. You need to give us a reason to care about them.
And this leads to yet another thing you need to know ...
If You Don't Connect to the Reader Emotionally, Your Chances of Success Are Negligible
In his book On Writing, Stephen King talked about how writing is telepathy. As the scribe, you are taking images that are inside your head, putting them to paper, and then inserting them into a reader’s mind. Neither of you are moving your mouths at all, and yet this transference occurs seamlessly. In a lot of ways, it’s like modern day magic.
You need to do the same thing when it comes to emotion. You have to make me feel something for your characters. You need to take an emotion that you have inside your soul, transfer it to paper, and allow me to pick it up and experience it myself when I consume your story. This is how you get my attention. Period.
Why am I, for example, supposed to be affected if a person I don’t care about is being chased by a monster? What effect would it have on me if they die? The answer is: it wouldn’t. If they get eaten by this vicious beast, and I won’t feel sad about it, what’s the damn point?
I repeat: why am I supposed to care?
Substitute that instead for a character whom I know is going through a lot of shit in their life. They’re behind on all their bills, they got screwed over by an old business partner which put them in poverty, and their mother has cancer. This person got the crap end of the stick … and yet they still find a way to be positive, donate to charity, and be a good person. This is someone I’m invested in now! Especially if their main goal in the story is to make it back to the hospital so they can say goodbye to their mom one last time before she passes.
If you can’t get me to care about your character on an emotional level ... if you can’t make me feel the things they feel on the page … then the chance of me caring about anything that happens to them is basically nil.
Plot is cheap, anyone can write one. You need to go above and beyond that level in order to stand out from the crowd.
Remember Who You Are Submitting to ... Tread Lightly
Sigh … I can’t believe I’m about to actually write this but go back to my note in the preamble. It happens enough where I need to, for some reason.
Look, I’m sure your TV pilot with explicit child abuse on page one seems awesome in your head. Or that feature you’re dying to write about the college guy who objectifies every female character in his dogged pursuit of getting laid. Or that one about the Gen Xer with all the racist, ableist, transphobic tropes that you think are super important to the core of your material. I’m sure you have a great vision for how this piece of “art” is going to rock the world …
And yet, you still submit it to Hollywood companies. For professional consideration.
*crickets* *crickets* *crickets*
Need I remind you that Hollywood is located in sunny California? One of the bluest states in the U S of A? A place that has such a polarized media landscape that people are getting canceled just for posting pictures with their friends on Instagram (sorry Patton Oswalt, I’m calling you out). And yet you’re really shocked when the script you submit that has sexist scenes gets rejected after 15 pages?
If you dream of having your work make it to the silver screen, then you need to remember who is most likely going to read your script. Is it possible that you’re going to send it to someone who isn’t politically active, motivated, and/or isn’t bothered by some of these things? Yeah, I suppose that’s technically imaginable.
But on the spectrum of possibilities, it’s not likely.
Even if you do find this unicorn of a reader, they’ll need to show it to their boss … who will need to show it to their boss … You get the idea.
For the record: it is not someone else’s problem if they get offended and pass on your script. If you are the one who dreams of being a produced writer, that is decidedly your problem. You can go on Twitter and complain about it all you want, but that definitely doesn’t change my advice in any way. Expecting outdated tropes like this and expecting to be successful in the modern-day Hollywood landscape is naïve.
Don’t kill the messenger here, either. I’m just telling you like it is. I’m Mr. “Hard Truth” for a reason.
Yes, I Can Damn Well See When You Expand the Margins
Let’s end this one right here, right now.
To anyone who thinks “Oh, I’ll just shift the dialogue margins a little to the right to save a few pages. Nobody will ever notice …” you are dead wrong. I notice. Other readers notice. All of my industry friends notice. You are not getting away with anything. This is not that trick I used to use in college where you could change the punctuation marks in papers to a higher font and add a full page or more to your essays (you're welcome, college-aged writers who are reading this).
All you’re doing is hurting yourself by trying to cheat the system. And no, before I hear this argument again, this is not a harmless trick. It absolutely influences the finished product.
Screenplay format has been honed over years and decades to be the best approximation there is on how long a written piece will be once it is translated to film. When you start to mess with that metric, it has an effect on the actual product. You know, the one you are trying to sell to people. For money. Lots of money.
Producers, executives, directors, actors, and even assistants know screenplay format by heart. We live in this medium every single day. Trying to pull a fast one on us so that your 130-page script looks to be a more reasonable 122 pages at first glance doesn’t gain you any points. It just annoys us.
So, don’t do this. Just don’t.
Godspeed y’all, and happy writing.
*Feature photo by Skitterphoto (Pexels)