How do you avoid having a rubbish script?
Learn how to identify what’s necessary and what’s not and throw out the junk.
What’s the junk?
Read on to find out from top L.A. teacher Jeff Kitchen.
The work of the amateur screenwriter is often characterized by the Unnecessary. Dialogue and description are often overdone, scenes tend to be overwritten, acts are bloated, and so on.
You may have entire scenes that are unnecessary, perhaps even a whole act that isn’t needed. For that matter, your entire script may be unnecessary. Don’t laugh. It may sound funny, but if you’ve ever worked as a reader in the film industry, you know it’s no joke.
It is generally acknowledged that 95% of all scripts written are just godawful (readers say it’s 98%), and a huge part of that has to do with craft as a dramatist.
Essentially your job as a screenwriter consists of two major parts – you’ve got to be a great storyteller, and you’ve got to be able to make that story work dramatically. Movies are a performance medium, so what you’re writing must be actable and it has to grip an audience.
You’ve got to be a great storyteller, and you’ve got to be able to make that story work dramatically.
Screenwriting demands total economy because a script is a very stripped-down literary form. Bernard Grebanier in his 1961 book Playwriting says, “Drama has a tendency to be stripped of matters unessential to the plot.
In the best plays everything counts. There is no place for tangential material or merely graceful ornamentation.” Creating a tight sequence of cause and effect is a great way to get at the essence of a story.
A dramatic plot in any genre should tend to have good cause and effect such that the first event causes the second, which causes the third, and so on through to the ending. Then you have a good forward flow and you eliminate dead spots that can lose your audience.
You can create this tight plotting by working backwards from the ending, building from an effect back to its cause, thereby constructing an unbroken chain of events that helps keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
To do this you start by asking: What is the Object of the script? The Object of a plot is a simple, clear statement of where you want the story to end up, the point on the horizon that you’re moving toward.
A simple, clear statement of where you want the story to end up, the point on the horizon that you’re moving toward.
The ability to state the object of any exercise can be clarifying. If you go into a lawyer’s office and say, “I can’t get this, I need this, they’re doing this to me, I – ” the lawyer will say, “Wait a minute. What’s the point?” Then you’d reply, “Oh, I need this,” and the lawyer says, “OK, now we can talk.” In the movie Training Day, the object of the script is that Jake (Ethan Hawke) defeats Alonzo (Denzel Washington) and emerges as a powerful new man.
Then we want to know: What is the Final Effect that demonstrates this Object onscreen with real actors? The Object is what we want to achieve. Now we have to actually stage it with real actors. The Final Effect in Training Day is that Alonzo is executed by the Russians and Jake goes home.
Next we want to know: What is the Immediate Cause of the Final Effect? Or more specifically, What is the Immediate Cause of Alonzo being executed? It’s that Jake takes Alonzo’s million dollars for evidence, so he can’t pay off the Russians.
Now we ask: What’s the cause of Jake taking the money? Jake defeats Alonzo in the fight, with some help from locals in the neighborhood. We’re reasoning backwards from an effect to its direct cause. The cause of Jake defeating Alonzo is that he drops onto Alonzo’s car and Alonzo gets stunned smashing the car around trying to shake Jake off. The cause of Jake dropping onto the car is that Alonzo beats the stuffing out of him and attempts to leave. The cause of Alonzo beating Jake up is that Jake tries to arrest Alonzo and a gunfight erupts.
Notice that in each instance, we ask only what is the cause of each effect, and not what comes before it. This is the major distinction that makes this tool work. Any number of things can come before it, but only one thing actually causes it.
Say that your partner embezzles a bunch of money and frames you to take the fall with the FBI and the IRS, so you’re going to kill him. What comes before you killing him might be that you drop off the dry cleaning, get a hamburger, take the kids to soccer, and buy some poison, but the cause of you killing your partner is that he ripped you off and set you up.
The ability to separate the Necessary from the Unnecessary is a crucial skill for the dramatist.
Chaining backwards from an effect to its cause helps separate the Necessary from the Unnecessary. The ability to separate the Necessary from the Unnecessary is a crucial skill for the dramatist because, as we said, the screenplay is an extremely lean literary form that demands total economy.
You can really see this if you’re turning a 400-page novel into a 110-page script. There’s an awful lot of material that simply cannot make its way into the script, and it’s your job to decide what’s necessary and what’s not.
The ability to separate the Necessary from the Unnecessary frees you from the profusion of unnecessary detail.
Jeff Kitchen is a working writer and a top screenwriting teacher. Classically trained as a playwright, he was a dramaturg in N.Y. theater before moving to L.A.. He’s taught development execs from all Majors and is a sought-after script doctor. Jeff wrote ‘Writing a Great Movie’ and ‘Script Analysis: The Godfather, Tootsie and Blade Runner’.