"So, I guess you're wondering why I called you all here tonight ..."
A bolt of lightning illuminated the room at that very moment. And a booming crack of thunder sent shudders down everyone's spine.
I was standing in a large dining hall with about seven of my closest industry friends, all wearing our fanciest clothes. I'd known these people for years ... they were individuals I had "been in the trenches with," so to speak. This was a group I could unequivocally trust, and I had a very important question for them. Innocent lives depended upon their answers ...
OK, pause for a second. I gotta come clean. Because, like, only twenty percent of the above paragraph is true. And I still believe in that whole Abraham Lincoln thing of "I cannot tell a lie ..."
Yes, I had actually gathered a bunch of my Hollywood buddies together, but no, we weren't in a dining room. Hell, we weren't even in-person (we were on a Zoom call). And most of us were wearing sweatpants and hoodies, not suits and cocktail dresses. Oh, and the stakes of this conversation weren't life or death either ... so, yeah. There's that.
Anyway, back to the scene:
"You said you wanted to interview us, right?" piped one of my friends, "For an article that you're writing for Pipeline Artists?"
"Correct," I beamed, "I'm finally going to pull back the veil on one of the most asked questions in Hollywood history ... I'm doing a piece on what readers wish they were allowed to say to their readers."
DUN. DUN. DUNNNNNNNNNNNNNN!!!
(That part isn't dramatic hyperbole ... one of the attendees literally said that. Everyone laughed.)
There was a buzz of excitement amongst the group. Everyone was keen to spill the beans, especially because they knew this was a safe space to do so. With that, we all filled up our wine glasses and got to gabbing. And boy, did these folks have a lot to say ...
However, before I continue, let me take this moment to lay down some ground rules.
1) None of the names you're about to read are real. Identities have been changed to protect the innocent and all that.
2) I won't be mentioning people's companies or what level they are. Y'all are just gonna have to trust me on that part. But I promise you, everyone on here reads screenplays and pilots as part of their job. They analyze material for a living. Either they A) are currently a contest reader (for actual, legitimate organizations), B) are working in a writer's room, or C) actively work in development as an assistant or have recently gotten a huge promotion (note: congrats again [name redacted ... you know who you are!].
3) Everything that follows is what they actually said, whether you like it or not. The only parts I somewhat changed were any flavorful language ... because I know some of that is gonna get pulled by my editors anyway. [Editor's Note: he's right, lol]
With all that out of the way, let's dive into the conversation.
The first thing that came up was ...
1) THE VAST MAJORITY OF SCRIPTS ARE JUST SO DAMN BORING!
"Like, sometimes I really do wonder if writers know they are supposed to be entertaining us," said Sam, a 29-year-old development assistant, "I just can't get over how lame most of what I have to read is. Even some agency-repped writers can't keep my interest."
There was an almost unanimous nod of heads here. Damn near everyone felt this statement in their soul.
"I couldn't agree more," said David (31). "It's one of the reasons why upper-level writers are so sought after. The same top percent of people keep getting jobs because crafting a good script is rare."
"Why do you think that is?" I asked, prodding them to open up. "What's missing from the stuff you get sent?" For the record, I had my own suspicions about this, but the whole point of this exercise was to hear them say it.
"Because, for the most part, structure is terrible," added James (35). "A story needs to build drama in order for it to work. Most of what I read is a bunch of bullshit. Storylines that go nowhere, or never have any tension. People do realize their scripts are supposed to have conflict in them, right?"
I couldn't help but smile at this, because literally that morning I had just finished up an article on this very topic. You can read it here.
"Absolutely," piped Justin (33). "Way too many writers are trying to do way too much. They include eighteen different storylines, all of which cannibalize each other. Or they will have 30-person ensembles where I can't connect to any of the characters. All that's guaranteed is that I'll be exhausted by the end of it!"
2) SIMPLE STORIES ARE OFTEN BETTER THAN OVERLY COMPLEX ONES
"Yaaasss!" screamed Jasmine (36). "I absolutely HATE scripts that do this."
The conversation devolved a bit here, because everyone had an opinion on this (and they all tried to add in at the same time), but the general consensus was the same:
1) Too many characters in a script is an absolutely terrible thing.
2) Too many subplots, too early, is equally as confusing. People here would MUCH RATHER be engaged by ONE GOOD STORY than for a writer to poorly craft five.
"How many characters is the perfect amount?" I asked, trying to get the convo back on track.
"Between five and seven," announced Josh (32) definitively, "any more than that and I lose track of them."
"I prefer even fewer," said Shannon (28). "In a feature film, I really don't want more than five main leads I have to keep track of."
Obviously, this particular point is going to have a variance of opinions, but the general idea was clear: far too often writers go way overboard on the number of people in their stories, rather than building up the ones they already have. And as readers, it gets tiresome to perform all of these mental gymnastics.
Moving on, the next thing we brought up was ...
3) GENRE MATTERS FAR LESS THAN EXECUTION DOES
And what we mean by that is—we would much rather read a solid, well-structured script in a genre we don't love than a bad one in our favorite category.
"I'm not a sci-fi girl at all," said Jasmine, "but that makes it even more impressive when I read a sci-fi that grabs me. What that says is 'this script is actually good, and none of my internalized bias is seeping through.'"
"People get really caught up on the 'hot' genre," said Sam, "but what's good becomes what's hot. Just because you see three spec sales about mermaids in a year, doesn't mean studios want to buy a bunch of mermaid scripts. It means that there were three mermaid scripts so good that they demanded to be purchased. Chasing trends is usually a zero-sum game."
"Yes, absolutely," added David, "I hate period romance, but I'd much rather read one of those than a poorly written action script where I didn't care about the characters at all. People getting shot isn't meaningful if they're all cardboard cut-outs on the page."
4) EMOTION IS SO ABSO-FREAKING-LUTELY CRITICAL TO YOUR SUCCESS
Off that, I asked, "How many scripts would you say evoke an emotional reaction out of you? How many make you actually feel something on the page?"
"Maybe, like, one a year?" said Josh.
"If that ..." responded Sam.
Therein lies the problem, and it's something newer writers should be really keen to work on. When you're pitching to studio executives, producers, agents, or development people, you need to recognize that they read a ton of material. And most of the stuff they read is bad. The way to differentiate yourself is to truly connect the audience to your characters based off emotion.
I won't go into exactly how to do that in this article (there are others where I talk about it), but it's a critical piece for you to recognize and grow from.
At this point, we'd all been talking for well over an hour. But there was one more talking point I found interesting that I'll include ...
5) THERE’S ONLY SO MUCH “DEVELOPING” YOU CAN ACTUALLY DO
“If you really want to piss people off, Spike, tell them this cold hard truth: I’ve worked in development for almost 10 years, and I’ve realized that there’s only so much I can do to make a script better. Most times, it comes down to: can a writer execute notes, and can they expand their vision from what they first say, into what the marketplace can manage?”
What Justin was really trying to say here, in a roundabout way, was that sometimes an idea just has a ceiling. Not every film is going to be Fight Club or Shawshank levels of good (and if you don’t like those examples, insert your favorite film here). Having worked in development, too, I can attest that our job is to take every project we’re given and make it great … but that’s not always possible."
“We’re limited by the skill of the writer,” added David. “I might see a way to make the concept work at a really high, HBO-esque level, but if they can’t produce that type of show, it’s never going to work.”
Sam and Jasmine both piped in here with understanding frustration. We’ve all been there.
“So, knowing that, how do you think writers should adapt?” I asked.
“Pivot,” said Sam. “Some ideas are just never going to be A+ quality … or if you realize you don’t have the skills to get it there, shelve it for a while and work on something else while you get better. It’s the sunk-cost fallacy. People don’t want to abandon projects that aren’t getting it done because they’ve put in twelve drafts already. But sometimes they have to. Even the best of notes givers can’t salvage a project if you’re not ready to write it.”
Damn. I’m the king of hard truths around these parts, and even that one shook me.
Does this all sound daunting? Yeah.
But hey, at least you know what readers really think. And that's a step in the right direction.
Godspeed y'all, and happy writing.
*Feature photo by Ron Lach (Pexels)