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Odd can be good, though rarely so

In her blog for Script Magazine [ ] way back in 2013, Jeanne Veillette Bowerman wrote:

‘I have used professional script consultants in the past, and I will again. Why? Because sometimes I need an opinion from someone who has experience developing screenplays and/or a fresh set of eyes. However, I typically do not use a consultant until I have hit a block or exhausted my personal network of readers. When under a tight deadline, however, I will absolutely use one if I need professional notes fast, so I can finish a rewrite efficiently and meet my deadline. Sometimes I simply need someone to tell me, STOP THE MADNESS… this baby is ready to go out into the world… or get your ass back in the seat; this is crap. My consultants give it to me straight, no sugar-coating and no bull. That’s how I roll.’

OK Jeanne. Thanks.

So what makes a good script consultant? It’s obvious, right? Intelligence, experience, humility, talent, honesty, subtlety, experience … all of which combine to produce a great and wonderful thing called EXPERTISE.

Oddly, I think script consultants’ expertise can be a problem. That’s a strange statement; but let me try to qualify it.

A script consultant’s expertise can be a problem because the script analysis is, or should be, impartial and objective; yet film audiences experience films subjectively. A good script consultant will factor audience subjectivity into their script report or script consultation; but this is hard to do. And surely it’s the director’s job to ‘subjectify’ - enable an audience to establish emotional bonds with characters in - a film, right?

Not right. Screenwriters and directors (and everyone else) must work in harmony to establish a connection with film audiences. Do they always do this? Clearly not.

We can be sure that a screenplay that is bad on the page will become a bad film. We can also be sure that an unusual screenplay will turn out to be an unusual film. Jonathan Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN script was never going to be commercial fodder like TRANSFORMERS.

(There are 'good' unusual screenplays and 'bad' unusual screenplays, however; but that’s another story.)

Let’s rewind a bit.

I think a good screenplay is ‘seen’, not read. Graham Yosts’s screenplay for SPEED (1995) made this clear to me when I was just getting started as a screenwriter (and I read the script before I saw the film) in 1995. Yost’s words didn’t get in the way of the meaning/story. They enabled the reader to experience it 'cinematically'.

So many screenwriters use words in a way that prevents the reader from experiencing the story cinematically. A basic and frequent problem is that they use too many words to write their script. Too much dialogue is a very common issue. Overlong action text is another. The two issues are generally found in the same scripts. The screenwriter is verbose. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit.

By and large, good scripts – both feature film and TV – use words economically. ‘White’ scripts (in which there is a lot of white page visible that is not covered by black words) are popular with script readers and development execs. This is because a) the read will be quicker and easier (FYI: all script readers turn to the last page to see how long the script is before starting to read: less than 100 pages produces a warm tingly feeling; more than 100 pages can induce foreboding, and 120 + is script reading hell unless there is a clear need for excessive length, or the script has been written by an outstanding screenwriter - and the script reader is being well paid.)

So called 'white' scripts are also popular with script readers because b) there is a landscape (the page) on which to exercise the imagination as (hopefully) stimulated by the story of the screenplay.

With his script for SPEED, Yost demonstrated his ability to write a screenplay from a film audience’ POV. He knew then and no doubt knows now how to engage and please a film audience - and manipulate them in a way they want to be manipulated. So many screenwriters lack this ability. This lack of ability will be obvious to a script consultant if said script consultant is any good.

What odd is that script consultants can be blinded by the formal and expected/demanded craft of screenwriting, however. He or she may be so busy being objective and impartial that the potential for impact on audiences of an unconventional script may be hard to see.

A key script consultant skill is knowing if the screenwriter knows how to get an engaging story across to an audience. This ability to translate to the screen well is a subtly different thing to by-the-book script writing.

Boiled down: scripts that are in some formal sense, bad, can turn out to be cults classics. Yes, that’s to do with the production; but the potential is encrypted in the script.

This potential is a tricky thing to spot. And we tend to play it safe, i.e. the script fails on this and that level, and there are this, that and the other issues. Recommend: pass. That way there's less chance of come-back. A good script consultant shouldn't worry about come-back of accusations of culpability for a film's failure, however. Honesty is essential to good script consultation. You write the script report of have the conversation and you tell it like you see it. Nothing else is acceptable. Forget politics. Forget reputations. We. Must. Be. Honest.

What all this boils down to is that opinions generally can be tricky because they are the product of conditioning. They manifest something called Confirmation Bias, which is an aspect of Cognitive Bias. So: I think this script sucks because I’m Jane Doe. I think the same script is a masterpiece because I’m Joe Blogs. Who should the screenwriter, producer, director, or development exec believe? They must make a choice.

Subjectivity is all too often an impediment to good philosophy. While that may sound a bit highfalutin, good writers are good philosophers, and good script consultants are good writers. Their skill is (or should be) such that they can disengage from a screenplay and see it from the POV of an audience, which will, typically, lack screenwriting expertise. Film audiences assess on instinct. Harnessing that instinct means forgetting everything you know as a script consultant and screenwriter, and judging and writing on instinct.

If all this sounds somewhat difficult, it is. Good script consulting is difficult. Good film screenwriting is extremely difficult, and all too often spoilt by the involvement of those who can’t do it. This is one of the very many reasons so many films fail.

I placed an ad as a screenwriter for myself once which ran, ‘I write with my bum on a seat, not my head up my ass.’ My bum is still on the seat. And I’m getting numb legs. And I love it. Why? Because I adore good films. As a medium for sharing emotion via narrative, film has no equal. Perhaps only great writing can match it.

And that’s as rare as great film.

Happy screenwriting.

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