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The 3 P’s Of A Screenplay Disaster [beyond structure]

Until effective screenwriting techniques become second nature, there is just too much to keep in mind for the beginning screenwriter. But prioritize core issues and you’ll make progress faster than you can imagine.


by Karel Segers

Formatting, dialogue, subtext, rising stakes, … Just too much for many newbies, so they feel restricted and decide that all this theory stands in the way of a good story. In a funny way, it does. Until you figure out the core issues, you will be wasting time and energy focusing on the detail.

From the scripts I read and the local films I watch, it strikes me that the same fundamental issues keep coming back. And if you watch Australian films, you’ll find that the problems are not limited to beginners’ scripts: these fatal flaws actually make it through production, which is a particularly sorry state of affairs.

In Australian script development circles, people cannot stop talking about the lack of character development. In my view, this is only the last one of three fundamental problems with most scripts – and, yes: produced films.

1. Poor Premise

It suffices to look at the loglines we have judged here on TSD recently to see that many scripts in development are guaranteed to fail unless the screenwriters completely rethink their premise.

This has nothing to do whatsoever with budgets or genres or writing talent. It is about simple concepts and these must be expressed clearly in terms of a main character, a goal and obstacles in the way of achieving that goal. If you cannot sell this in a sentence to someone who already has your attention, chances are slim you’ll be able to sell it to the punter who has to decide between your film and 7 others on movie night.

A main character, a goal and obstacles
in the way of achieving that goal.

Here’s an example of a logline without drama:

“When Mike Langford, a war photographer with a reputation for risk-taking, disappears inside Cambodia after its fall to the Khmer Rouge, he becomes a mythic figure in the minds of his friends. The search for him reveals the personal highways that led him to war, and to his ultimate fate.”

It purports to have the ‘cachet’ of a true story, it may teach us something about the evil of the Khmer but it ain’t a movie and surely not one that many people will want to see.

Why not?

First: Mystery doesn’t sell. This story is pitched like it will be one hundred and ten minutes of exposition. Gradually we find out the details about this Mike character, to ultimately conclude that he is this mythic figure. Big deal.

Secondly, who cares about the Khmer Rouge? Seriously. In this case, using the political angle in the logline is of no use.

This story is pitched like it will be
one hundred and ten minutes of exposition.

This ain’t a movie. It may be a book or a documentary at best.

When I read these loglines of films in development and/or production, I hope they are a poor representation of an ultimately much stronger movie. After release it usually turns out the logline was accurate. Millions spent on a poor idea.

You can develop until the cows come home, spend one, two or twenty million on production values. People won’t come. There ain’t no story.

Okay, enough ranting. We have two more to go.

2. Problematic Point of View

This one has been my number one pet peeve since I read a NSW state development document that betrayed how poor their understanding of Point of View was. They were talking about ‘omni-potent’ POV. I kid you not.

The movies that fail in the department of POV more than any other are novel adaptations. In prose, shifting POV goes largely unpunished. On the screen, it’s tricky. I remember seeing the first act of Hating Alison Ashley, a teen flic starring a (locally) big name pop singer. Even before the story is set up properly, a host of supporting characters have had their own scenes without the lead character present. By the end of Act One, the filmmakers had missed their opportunity to make the audience care for the Hero for the simple reason that too many scenes had not been from her POV.

In prose, shifting POV goes largely unpunished.
On the screen, it’s tricky.

Film is all about making the viewer not just empathise but often even identify with the main character. The story is to be experienced through the eyes of the character. For this to work, you can’t mess with who is driving the scene , let alone who is IN the scene. If you have one main character, we’re supposed to see that character on screen pretty much all the time. Yes, there are exceptions but check it out: most exceptions that WORK were written by screenwriters who had a wad of experience.

If in a single-POV story the protagonist disappears off the page, you better be setting up some jeopardy for this character through dramatic irony. Don’t know the term? Look it up. And when we do move away from the Hero, most likely we are NOT in an omniscient POV but shifting into an other character’s POV. Okay, read that sentence again because it is important.

A few years back I had an interesting discussion with Michael Hauge who admitted he had wrongly labeled a story as having an ‘omniscient POV’. Cinema doesn’t like ‘omniscient’. It’s all about identifying with one character at a time, the character we experience the story through.

In my view, screenwriters who have not yet proven to be successful in single POV should not move beyond that. And if you are not sure about how it works, study it.

Cinema doesn’t like ‘omniscient’. It’s all about
identifying with one character at a time.

3. Passive Protagonist

My kind of hard hat

Character is revealed through action only. David Mamet likes to call it ‘habitual action’. If a character doesn’t act, there’s no way of finding out what the character is about as dialogue by nature is unreliable. As a matter of fact, this is how one type of subtext works: a character says one thing but shows another through action.

Character is revealed through action only.

Many scripts I read have a lot happening. Some have an unrelenting string of events, yet the main character doesn’t respond to these in any meaningful way, with any sensible goal. In other movies, the main character formulates an objective but then remains passive and doesn’t pursue it; or pursues it with the passion of a slug on tranquillisers.

One exception here is the character who makes a statement by refusing to act. It is not the type of character audiences prefer to see but it can work and receive great critical acclaim such as Sex, Lies and Videotape and more recently Animal Kingdom.

The character who makes a statement by refusing to act […] is not the type of character audiences prefer to see.

Recently I watched the Australian film The Waiting City. A couple travel to India to meet and pick up an adoptive child. Upon arrival they realise things are not as simple as they had expected. So what do they do? They wait. You’ve got to be kidding me. Seriously, the first half of Act Two consists mostly of the couple bickering over relationship issues and killing time while waiting.

When around the mid point they traveled to the town of origin of their adoptive child to better understand where she was coming from, I gave up.

Once the goal is clear, we expect the Hero(es) to act, struggle, fight, to achieve that goal. Not wait.

– Karel Segers

[box] Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+.

Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia. Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 8-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens.

He is also the boss of this blog.[/box] (Revised on 30 April 2011.)

photo credit: TheeErin


Comments 11

  1. Steven Fernandez

    Good, fair, and practical summary of what is wrong with local features. I would go further on a more general/conceptual plane and thereby talk about general failures of local storytelling [as I have already started to do with 2 posted essays so far and with more to come]. But Karel, here, has broken three critical repeating flaws down to practical and concrete terms. Well done!

  2. Dave Morris

    Very good points. Though how about this?

    “When Charles Foster Kane, a reclusive and fabulously wealthy media mogul, dies at his private estate, the myths surrounding him have grown to obscure the man himself. A journalist’s investigation reveals the personal highways that led to Kane’s success and his withdrawal from public life, hoping to uncover what drove him.”

    Does that not work because movies have changed? Or does it reveal that the very best movies are the ones that break all rules?

    1. Post
      Author
      Karel Segers

      Thank you Dave. Excellent analogy.

      However…

      Yep, the movies have changed. Talk to a few people in the industry and they’ll have some stories for you about how the game has completely transformed, even over the past decade.

      But there is more, if you want to look at those loglines specifically:

      1. Kane was man of mythical proportions at the beginning of the movie. The man guy in this story is a photographer. Big difference.
      2. W.R. Hearst was the Murdock of his time. Langford: never heard of him.
      3. That old movie was made by Orson Welles.

      In terms of the rules (or techniques, principles) it appears to me that the screenwriters of these flawed stories aren’t even aware of them, let alone of the fact that they are breaking any.

      Sure, you can just ignore what has worked before and go by your gut. That’s called trial and error – and a ridiculous waste of resources. Surely not ‘art’ in my books.

      1. Dave Morris

        I’m with you. As Tom Noonan’s character says in Bullet To The Brain: “Picasso can’t sell us Cubism, or the Blue Period, or any of that shit, without the base, without the ability to tell it how it really is first.” So nobody should try breaking any rules until they know them inside out.

        It strikes me your original example of the photographer reads like it could be a novel. Often, novels can get away with softer hooks because there’s a lot more in the texture. Novels, of course, usually make for lousy movies…

  3. Graham Storrs

    You know, this is why I hate modern films. Most of them are empty and predictable because they don’t deal with 99% of what’s real – the waiting, the being pushed around – and you know just what the protagonist is going to do; “act, struggle, fight, to achieve that goal.”

    Having said that, this post is great. It explains clearly and concisely just what makes a film – or book – saleable these days. Thanks for that.

  4. Hamy

    I take the point… but, shouldn’t someone writing a writing blog know that the letter P is conventionally written ‘P’… a Pee is something quite different.
    While the points made are valid, if personal, they are imo undermined by a trite attempt at a weewee joke in the subject title.
    Ho-Hum…

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      Author
  5. Ed Love

    Thanks for this excellent reminder. Anytime someone puts into words what I probably already unconsciously understand as a viewer, my writing improves.

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