All right, champ, that’s the end of the round! Bring it in. Take a break. Grab a Gatorade if you need one, but I really need ya to listen up, and listen good.
‘Cause frankly, you’re getting your ass handed to you right now.
That’s right, Coach Spike is gonna have to pull an Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday and deliver a game-saving pep talk here.
Listen, you’ve put countless hours in to being a screenwriter. You’ve worked your butt off, I know. You’ve toiled over this screenplay, spending hours on that last rewrite, fallen asleep to endless writing podcasts, scoured the web for any article that might give you the slightest edge over the competition. Eat, Sleep, Write, Repeat, has been your motto for months now. I’m proud of you for that—really, I am. But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re losing the battle with that reader over in the corner opposite of you.
I mean, seriously, look at him! He just started your script, and he’s not even paying attention to your story! He’s glancing at his phone every two minutes, logging into Facebook every three. You better hope he doesn’t pull out that controller and start "Red Dead Redemption II" for the thousandth time, cause if that happens, there ain’t no chance of him picking up your script again. That’s a knockout punch even the best writer can’t withstand!
You need to stop thinking that this is a game, kid. It’s more than that. It’s a fight … a war. A war for the reader’s attention. And you’re losing. And it’s all your fault.
Huh? You’re asking if I rewatched the whole Karate Kid saga before writing this article? No! … maybe … So what if I did? The point is, I’m holding the imaginary spit bucket, not you, and that means I’m in charge! So sit down on that little stool right there and let me talk at you for a second.
The fact is that you’re trying to do too much! This insane first act you’ve constructed that has an unreliable protagonist, multiple time jumps, and seven different POVs isn’t drawing him in. You’ll be lucky to even make it to the middle rounds of this contest at the rate you’re going, because that guy across from you is likely gonna put down your screenplay before the inciting incident. And once that happens, it’s back to the showers for you.
Now, don’t beat yourself up too much here. We can still fix this! But in order to do so, you need to change the whole game plan. Stop throwing wild haymakers that have very little chance of landing. Don’t worry about spinning kicks and dazzling him with your super obscure cobra stance.
You’re focusing on the wrong things!
You’re trying to distract him with all this complicated pizzazz instead of setting him up for the classic knockout blow! No. In order to win this fight, we need to go back to basics.
In boxing, this is called “working your jab.” In writing, it’s called focusing on the fundamentals. I don’t want you to try and wow that reader … I just want you to tell a fundamentally sound story.
Look, as a reader, I would ALWAYS (repeat: always) rather read a simple story executed astoundingly well, than an overly complex one that is done so-so. And I feel the same no matter where I’m working (whether it’s an agency, studio, production company, you name it).
You want to know why?
Cause one option is told astoundingly well, and the other is just average! You don’t get extra points for trying to reach for the stars and missing in this business. You only get them if you succeed in entertaining me. That’s the name of the game. And it’s easy to forget that sometimes (er … oftentimes, actually) the simplest story is the most entertaining one!
You don’t need an over-the-top, crazy plan in order to hook me into your screenplay. You just need a solid narrative. You need sound storytelling. You need to hit on the classic markers that make a narrative good in the first place. You have to establish your hero in a clear and obvious way. You need to show us the hero’s "normal." And then you have to give him, or her, a problem to solve, etc.
Writers have been using this method since the beginning of time, and you want to come along and change that? I don’t think so. Not under Coach Spike’s watch.
So many of the young writers I work with are too concerned about writing their “masterpiece” before they’ve learned how to write a basic tale well. And when you break down this line of thinking analytically, it really makes very little sense.
Example: you walk into a gym for the first time in years. Are you seriously gonna try and deadlift 400 pounds? If your answer was yes, please make sure the ambulance is on standby, ‘cause you’re going to hurt yourself. Similarly, if you step on the mat for your first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, does it make a lot of sense to try to tap out a black belt? No! You’ll get wrist locked into oblivion and drive home in pain (trust me, I’ve been wrist locked by black belts enough to know).
You need to learn to crawl before you walk, and you need to walk before you run. It might be boring to start slow and easy, but it is, without a doubt, the proper way to learn.
Let me ask you this: is Finding Nemo a masterpiece? Or if you don’t like that word, is it considered a classic? I think a lot of people would argue in the affirmative … it’s a film that’s still talked about fondly today. It’s never really left the public zeitgeist. Well, when you break good ol' Nemo down, it’s not a complicated narrative. In fact, it’s actually, *gasp*, rather basic.
It follows the typical “protagonist, problem, goal,” method. Pretty much exactly what I teach my students. It’s very straightforward.
The hero (Marlin) encounters a problem (Nemo gets taken by humans), and creates a goal (find Nemo), which he spends the entire movie doing. There’s isolated sequence method in the second act, an all-is-lost moment in the third, along with a climax and obvious character change by the end.
When you boil it down to the core elements, the structure is incredibly formulaic.
And you know what? NOBODY IS COMPLAINING ABOUT THAT! Because the writers execute on this formulaic structure so well that the movie is phenomenal! It’s one of the most beloved Pixar creations of all time!
“Yeah, but Spiiiiike,” you’re whining right now, “I don’t want to write children’s movies! I want to author actual films! For adults! And adults need more to keep them entertained! They need you to vary your structure, hide things, and be all around more sneaky in order to impress them!”
OK, first off … I’m still holding the imaginary spit bucket. He who holds the bucket gets to talk.
Second off, no, they don’t need more to be entertained. That’s completely false. While there are definitely many, many films out there that wow you with the way they tell their stories, if you look at the vast majority of them, I think you’ll see that a lot of them still come with the fundamental building blocks in place. Almost all of them follow a somewhat basic structure.
Rocky, for example, has the “protagonist, problem, goal,” method.
Rocky Balboa is a bum fighter in Philly who never made it big. Then one day, he gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot to fight a world champion. But here’s the thing—he knows he can’t knock out Apollo Creed! He’s the freaking world champion. So he sets an obtainable goal—he just wants to go the distance with him, and he’ll train his freaking butt off to get there.
Bam. There’s your movie.
Tired of my fighting references? Okay, look at Se7en. Same method of storytelling.
Summerset comes into work to find he has a new partner, and a demented killer on the loose (establishing of protagonist, injection of problem). Their goal is simple—find this killer before he can murder any more people.
Simple story. Stellar execution.
Hell, even freaking Inception does this, and that movie was so complicated I had to watch it like five times to pick up all the themes (and I’m probably STILL missing something)!
Cobb wants to return home to be with his family after many years away, he’s promised that if he completes a mission for Saito that he’ll be able to do so. He agrees and pursues his goal. The rest of the film is him trying to get what he wants.
There are layers and layers and layers of window dressing on this film, and at the very bones of the narrative, it’s a very simple story. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
What I’m really trying to get at is this: you don’t need to be flashy to be good. You don’t have to step into a ring, throw a bunch of high kicks, flying knees, spinning backfists, or even the damn People’s Elbow in order to be successful.
Success often comes from being a fundamentally sound writer.
I tell every scribe I talk to at the beginning of their journeys to start by writing three-page short stories. I’m talking like the “See Spot Run” variety. It’s easy. It’s simple, and you can do it in a day (or night). The first page is your first act. That’s it. If you run out of space, you run out of act. But you need to establish your protagonist, what he wants, his problem, and his goal all in that page. The second act is the second page—this is where the character struggles to get what he wants and has to overcome adversity in order to do so. The third page is the climax, where the hero has to see if he actually gets his goal.
I like this idea because it leaves no space for anything superfluous. You don’t have time for subplots, love interests, or scenes that go nowhere. You just have time to tell me a very basic story. If you can complete this little exercise, congratulations. You’ve earned the right to write a six-page story now. After that, nine pages. Then fifteen.
After you’ve conquered that mountain, we’ll see about unleashing you for a full screenplay. But not a moment before … not until I know you understand what actually makes a good story.
So many screenwriters suffer because they try to reinvent the narrative formula. They think that we, as readers, are bored with well-executed, simple stories. Well, let me tell you this, y’all: we ain’t. We'll never be.
Getting a script submitted to you that even tells a simple story well is a rarity in Hollywood these days.
You don’t need to be the flashiest writer in the world to impress us. But you do need to do the little things well. You need to understand the basics of what you’re doing.
All right, you feeling better? Yeah, you are. I can see it in your eyes. Eye of the freaking tiger, right there. Hands up! Looking tough! Go get ’em, champ.
And don’t forget to work your jab while you’re at it.
Godspeed everyone, and happy writing.
*Feature photo by cottonbro (Pexels)