THE 7 DEADLY SINS OF SCREENWRITING
by Axel Melzener
Humans learn best from mistakes, especially when they’re artists. That’s why the ability to accept criticism is of vital importance to a screenwriter striving to hone his craft. One of his biggest challenges is to find mistakes in his own stories before it’s too late – meaning, before others do.
Over the years, I’ve read and evaluated a multitude of treatments and screenplays for film students and friendly screenwriters, and the reasons many of them didn’t work were of striking similarity. As a screenwriting mentor at the International Academy of Film and Television, I developed short film scripts with about 50 students from all over the world. And here I again encounter the small and big mistakes in narrative conception that keep repeating themselves. They are old acquaintances; I’ve wrestled with them before, and I’m still wrestling with them whenever I sit down to put my own story on a blank page. My desire to bring to light, unmask and caution against the 7 Deadly Screenwriting Sins has grown steadily over the past months and has urged me to present them to you now.
Deadly Sin #1: PASSIVE PROTAGONIST
The Greek work “protagonist” means “the one who acts first,” and this is exactly what the main character of a cinematic story should do. Either driven by a deliberate purpose or unconscious need, his task is to accomplish something through action. Narrative tension results from the hero’s movement towards a goal as he overcomes growing obstacles, and the audience emotionally invests in the character because he acts. If you factor out the goal, you take away the anticipation that’s really the fun part of watching a story unfold.
Characters that are determined entirely by their environment are bound to become problematic as they are not allowed to be defined by actions. Remember that choices make people, just as people make choices. A character with an undeveloped profile and destiny will leave the viewer cold.
All too often, solutions are offered to protagonists on a silver plate or, in the worst case, the story’s hero is degraded to a minor character—the protagonist is pressured into the role of spectator in his own story. Never let your protagonist become a toy of other characters or a cue ball of fate. Remember that your main character is titled “protagonist” for a reason, so don’t let the sidekicks run the show.
Deadly Sin #2: LACK OF ANTAGONISTIC FORCE
There’s nothing more misplaced in fiction than slice-of-life or a-day-in-the-life stories. If you’re interested in those, you should become a documentary filmmaker.
The purpose of a narrative is to abstract real life, not to depict it, and a strong antagonist is the key to this process. Essentially, the hero and the villain of a story are always two sides of the same coin. The hero can only grow as strongly as the countering force of his opponent requires him to.
There’s no need to give in to the cliché of the eye-rolling madman, however. When AFI, celebrating the 100th anniversary of cinema, voted for the best movie villains, nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and HAL-9000 of 2001–A Space Odyssey ranked highly, and neither of the two quite fit the image of an eye-rolling, psychopathic brute.
To me, the best villains are always seducers–Hannibal Lecter, a perverted “priest” taking Agent Starling’s confessions, and the conquistador Aguirre, from Werner Herzog’s film of the same name, who leads a group of Spanish adventurers on a promising, but ultimately fatal, trip into the Peruvian jungle, manipulating his fellow travellers by exploiting their weakest spot: their greed for gold, which will lead them all to damnation.
Deadly Sin #3: ABDICATION OF THEME
It might be true that most moviegoers aren’t interested in a film’s theme before they go see a film, but you can be sure that after leaving the theater, you will find them discussing the meaning of the story in some way. The value of a film, its earning, is not the cast or the cinematography. It’s what the story has to say to the viewer, and the emotions it employs to make the audience experience it.
Most mainstream Hollywood movies are dull these days simply because they refuse to take a stand, and the people who make them are too anxious to speak their minds. The dilemma is that if you’ve got nothing to say, you’ll not be able to tell a gripping story. The greatest dialogue, the tightest structure, the most faceted characters will not save your narrative if you don’t have a theme to glue them all together.
Theoretically, it’s impossible to make a film that isn’t about anything because a narrative structure requires content to manifest itself in the first place. The word “theme” may sound dry and academic at first glance, but I don’t think that intelligence and sophistication stand in the way of entertainment. Quite the contrary, the enjoyment of movies can be hugely enhanced by making audiences think.
Still, beware of those writers who want to be teachers instead of storytellers–they will constantly allow the “message” to overpower the story instead of merging both, turning the narrative into a propagandistic parade. Some filmmakers want the audience to work as hard watching the film as they were making it.
Deadly Sin #4: NEGLECT OF STRUCTURE
The narrative construction of a screenplay is the only factor mastered utterly and solely by the screenwriter. Many actors can improvise snappy dialogue and a good deal of directors have great, spontaneous ideas on how to stage a scene. This leaves the writer with the structure. He controls it, and he is needed to control it. This is where his power really comes from
Designing a cinematic narrative can be compared to composing a piece of music: it’s all about bars, beats, pacing, with mathematical proportions determining the efficiency of the result. Film is movement, movement is rhythm, and rhythm has rules. Let grouchy screenwriters and scholars hurl rocks at Syd Field for the “boundedness” and “stiffness” of his good old three-act paradigm as much as they want–they can never change the fact that he’s right.
The more steady-going and smooth the narrative flow and its manifestation on the page is, the more effective the storytelling will be. Putting the first plot point around page 26 of your script is still good advice, and let nobody tell you otherwise.
Be aware that a screenplay is not a novel. It’s not literature. It’s the blueprint for a film, and if it’s not designed carefully, taking into account all the elements required of it, the resulting structure may not be strong enough to support itself and collapse.
Deadly Sin #5: DISTRUST OF GENRE
When movie genres were first being established, they were strongly influenced by theater and literature. The Western is the only genre without precedence in play or novel form. The rest, however, ranging from fantasy to sci-fi to romance to adventure, have older roots.
The genre you select for your story will influence a number of its components–several character types, themes and settings are typical of certain genres, and the audience expects them. Most moviegoers may not be consciously aware of this, but intuition leads them to be deeply disappointed when a horror film does not scare or a comedy does not make them laugh.
It’s a common mistake among screenwriters to pick a genre they’re not familiar with in the first place. Write only the sorts of films you love to see yourself. Even more often, writers lack the knowledge and stamina to painstakingly construct a story by the rules of a genre, which frequently leads to an involuntary change of genres within the story (a true deadly sin) that will result in an emotional and thematic shift destined to put off the audience. Writers have to learn to accept genres as their allies, not adversaries.
Deadly Sin #6: TELL, DON’T SHOW
Many aspiring screenwriters don’t want to become screenwriters. They want to become novelists. As exemplified by myriads of students I have taught, they want to cram pages with overly long descriptions of beautiful landscapes, human faces and the thoughts swirling about in the gray matter behind those faces.
In screenwriting, everything is abbreviated, compressed, simplified. The visuals should drive a film, other fuels like theme or dialogue are always subordinate. If that’s contrary to your liking, then you should, indeed, write novels. Or maybe radio plays–did you notice that some movies are perfectly comprehensible just through the dialogue, and you wouldn’t even need the visuals to understand them? In my opinion, those are not good films.
The craft of the screenwriter is not so much storytelling as storyshowing. The short, precise descriptions he delivers on the page have to conjure images in the reader’s mind, painting pictures with words. This is where a good screenwriter really excels.
The screenwriter, as part of his role in the filmmaking process, must know how to use the technological elements involved in the medium of film. Many fledgling writers circumvent the creative possibilities offered to them and rely on dialogue and voice-over texts instead. By neglecting cinematic techniques, however, much of what a film could have been will fall by the wayside.
Deadly Sin #7: FUMBLE THE ENDING
Many screenwriters do it, even experienced ones. For a hundred pages, the narrative flows in the most brilliant way, and the suspense keeps you on the edge of your seat–until suddenly, all of it breaks down. Very often, the third act of a script will feel disconnected to the rest, and readers wonder: “What was that all about?” There’s nothing more frustrating for an audience to emotionally invest in a story and then find themselves let down in the last few minutes.
Some films end too abruptly, not granting viewers the time to float back into reality after leaving the dreamlike state of the film. Others take much too long to wrap it all up. You already brushed the popcorn off your jacket, but as you’re getting up to leave, there’s another “last scene”… and another one.
Don’t try to twist and bend the story forcefully because you want that happy ending or you want that character to die to make the audience weep. It’s not about what you want. It’s about what your protagonists need. A smashing ending always flows from the character arc. If you don’t have an arc in the first place, of course, it may further complicate things. Always listen to your story and your characters. They will tell you what to do.
Axel Melzener is a produced screenwriter for television and films. He has been teaching the art of storytelling for ten years in his native Germany as well as in Spain and Switzerland and at our IAFT campus in Cebu.