Get Good By Reading Bad

Ask any accomplished writer or English professor and they will tell you that the secret to good writing is reading a lot. Needless to say this is good advice. Most of the greats in literature often built upon the works of previous literary giants. The same goes for screenwriting. Although the vast majority of people will only consume the contents of a script in its final iteration (the screen), budding screenwriters can learn much from reading a film in script form rather than going to your local theater. There are great resources online for this such as Script-O-Rama, Simply Scripts and sometimes from the very companies that produce them.

As useful as it can be reading Oscar nominated pieces of work, I’ve found that immersing yourself in the works of geniuses is only half of the journey. What I’m going to suggest will sound counterproductive, but has helped me immensely in my writing.

Read shitty scripts.

I’m being serious here. Get out there and spend some time reading scripts that could not, should not, ever make it to a screen.

If you’re wondering how reading absolute crap could possibly make you a better writer, your skepticism isn’t unwarranted. It’s not like universities assign copies US Weekly to their students along with Catcher In The Rye, but allow me to explain. The truth is it’s easier to find a turd than a truffle, or to be less analogous, bad writing is easier to detect than a rare work of genius.

Actually, a truffle kinda looks like a turd. Photo by dabblelicious / CC 2.0

Actually, a truffle kinda looks like a turd.
Photo by dabblelicious / CC 2.0

So, how can this help you in your own writing?

I’ve found that one of the hardest things for writers to do is catch their own mistakes. That’s why many great writers hand their work to their peers to look over. Like it or not, you’re biased of your own work. Handing it to a pair of fresh, trustworthy eyes can reveal errors that were originally invisible to you. But wouldn’t it also be nice to pick up on those errors before handing it over to a friend? This is where reading bad scripts come in to play.

Once you begin to recognize common issues in bad writing (and believe me you’ll notice them), it’s easier to recognize them in your own scripts. If you notice that a script fails to introduce a character thoroughly or doesn’t effectively solve the protagonist’s core dilemma (I find this to be a common one), you can then actually see the result of not doing so. This is something that you most likely won’t encounter if you spend time only reading good scripts. Just like a seasoned quarterback who can seemingly sense a blitz coming, recognizing bad writing will become second nature, allowing you to sidestep it within your own writing.

That sucks! Photo by Keith Allison / CC 2.0

“That sucks!”
Photo by Keith Allison / CC 2.0

So where do you find bad scripts?

If you’re active in your local film community, they’re probably all around you, at house parties, festivals, etc. Almost everybody has a script or is writing one that they plan to make into a film. All you have to do is ask to read it. Although early filmmakers can be a paranoid bunch, sometimes constantly in fear of having their work stolen, many others will be pleased you’re taking an interest in their screenplay. By taking an interest in reading amateur screenplays, you’ll come across a wide spectrum of good and bad scripts.

Another good way to read a multitude of good and bad scripts is by volunteering to be a judge at a local screenplay competition. Film festivals receive a slew of submissions and are always looking for volunteers to help them separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

Finally, there are also local meetup groups for amateur screenwriters that you can find online. This is not only a good place to read a wide range of scripts of varying quality, but also a place where you can receive feedback on your own screenplays.

Now comes the word of warning.

As the spirit animal of my blog would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In your endeavor to read more bad scripts, one rule you must always follow is DON’T BE A DICK.

Unless it's this Dick. Be like this Dick. Photo by Alan Light / CC 2.0

Unless it’s this Dick. Be like this Dick.
Photo by Alan Light / CC 2.0

The people who share their work with you will most likely want constructive feedback so they can also improve on their writing. Even if the script is absolutely atrocious, this is not an opportunity to ridicule someone or share their work with your friends so you can all laugh at their expense. No matter what your skill level is, there is one thing that always will be true, everyone writes shit. I write shit, you write shit, even Paul Haggis probably has bottles of shit he hides from the world like Howard Hughes. The goal is for everyone to bask in everyone else’s shit so we can all produce less shit for the world. Keep that in mind. This is not an opportunity to be an elitist or to make yourself feel better about your own shit by finding something shittier.

Now that I’ve broken my record for how many times I can plug the word “shit” into one paragraph; reading bad scripts is a wonderful way to see common writing mistakes in action. By building an instinctive recognition for these mistakes you can better bypass them in your own writing.

Film and Video Games: What’s The Disconnect?

If you’re a gamer, you’re probably just as cynical as I am when you hear about the next video game based movie on the horizon. It almost seems a rule of thumb that films adapted from video games are guaranteed to disappoint. Even successful franchises like the Resident Evil series, which is now working on its sixth installment, aren’t exactly considered film gold. Yet, this doesn’t seem to slow Hollywood down as over thirty new titles are rumored to be currently in the works. So what is it about video games and film that seem so incompatible?

Structure of Video Games vs. Film, Literature and Theater

One thing that film has in common with literature and theater is that the story structure is relatively the same. All three often follow a Freytag’s Pyramid structure. Certainly this is not the always case, all three mediums play with this structure and break rules from time to time, but for the most part, this structure of storytelling is present in the vast majority of books, plays and films we consume day to day. This makes adapting a novel or play to the silver screen easier, as you pretty much already have a blueprint to get from point A to B. The rest is simply editing out what you don’t want or adding your own artistic voice to original material.
Video games, on the other hand, particularly older ones, don’t follow this style of storytelling. In early games like Pacman, very little was explained in terms of backstory. Officially, all that’s really known about Pacman is he’s really hungry guy with no appendages, being chased by angry undead. It’s essentially what would happen if you dropped Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life into the zombie apocalypse. There are some comical cutscenes for the player to watch, but they don’t really reveal anything new to the player in terms of story. Furthermore, Pacman has no end, so what your left with is really just a situation with characters.

Later, games like Donkey Kong would begin to establish more of a narrative. The moment you play the first level it’s apparent that a giant ape with unlimited barrels and fireballs for friends has kidnapped your girlfriend. Unlike Pacman, Donkey Kong has an ending where our hero tears down the very structure of the level, causing the great ape to crack his head open. He is reunited with his girlfriend and the two look lovingly at one another while Donkey Kong exhibits the first signs of severe, irreversible brain damage.

Today’s games posses far more plot and story structure than their predecessors. Games like Farcry and The Last of Us, deal with complicated issues like revenge and the human condition. Many of their cutscenes take a page from cinema, allowing characters to express their feelings and motivations even though the player is actively controlling them.

Control Issues 

Despite the amount of progress video games have made in the storytelling department, for the most part video games are still fundamentally goal based, requiring the player to perform a set of menial tasks to drive the story forward. Even games like Gone Home, which toe the line between film and gaming, require the player to actively search for clues to tell the narrative. This affects the structure of the story in that the player decides how they want to progress. Gamers familiar with the Grand Theft Auto series are familiar with this, as it’s not uncommon to devote 20+ hours to side missions before moving on to the main storyline. Simply put, if story structure in film, literature and theater is meant to be a rollercoaster ride, video games put you in the seat of a formula one car.

Zoom, Zoom... Photo by  Julien Reboulet / CC 2.0

Zoom, Zoom…
Photo by Julien Reboulet / CC 2.0

This poses a problem when trying to adapt a game to the screen. Since the transfer from video game to film requires the viewer lose control of the character, how can you stay faithful to original source material that relies on player/character interaction to tell the story?

The Loss in Translation

People look forward to film adaptations of literature and theater because we tend to gain something from the transfer. Theater requires a certain level of distance between the viewer and the actors. Camera tricks such as close ups and point of view shots bring audience members closer, giving them an almost god-like view of the action. In literature, we give up the use of imagination, but film puts the senses of sight and sound into play that can’t fully be expressed through the written word.

Video games, particularly modern ones, interact with most of our senses, but other than maybe getting to see our favorite movie stars portray the roles, we really lose a lot when we give up the control to the actor. The desire for control is probably best illustrated by the much hated “Noisy audience member”. You know, the person who insists on directing the clueless camp counselor not to enter that cabin because we all know Jason is lurking in the shadows with a machete. Although irritating, it perfectly illustrates people’s desire for control.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that it’s impossible to make a good movie based off a video game. Still, I do believe filmmakers should attempt to make the story their own and not try and recreate certain moments from games that don’t translate well. Putting a POV shot in the Doom movie isn’t going to trick anyone into thinking they’re reliving the game any more than putting pictures in a Harry Potter novel will make someone think they’re reading in IMAX. Choices like this only serve as mindless fan service. I can only hope that cinematically inspired games like Uncharted can provide suitable enough story content to rely on, where games like Super Mario Brothers couldn’t.

Film Rant: Forget Your Screenplay. Protect Your Ideas.

I understand filmmaker’s concerns with protecting their scripts. Sometimes it’s to keep an ending secret till it hits festivals. Sometimes it’s the fear that someone with immediate resources will take their story and proceed to production before they do. It’s certainly possible that either of these scenarios could occur, but the less known you are, the less you have to worry about this happening.

Now, I’m not saying you should post a copy of your script every Starbucks bulletin board in hopes some visiting producer will read it while he waits for the barista to finish his gingerbread latte. You should take all the precautions you can to protect your work. What bothers me is how anal writers and filmmakers get over keeping their scripts a secret, yet they have no problem blurting out the entire plot of their film before the script is even written.

Let me set the stage for an example:

You’re at a party with other filmmakers maybe discussing what the best Coen movie is (Barton Fink) or which has the best universe Star Wars or Star Trek (Battlestar Galactica). Eventually someone, probably six PBR’s deep at this point, asks what you’re up to and you begin to describe your film career. Not to be outdone, your new friend begins to tell you about the idea he just came up with for the perfect film. It could be anything, but it’ll almost certainly involve aliens and a twist at the end that is totally different than a million other movies because this one has aliens.

Perfect ending

Too many people seem to have no problem discussing with complete strangers future films they have absolutely no ownership over, while sparing no expense at protecting scripts they already have copyright over through simply writing them. Nothing is stopping someone from stealing an idea. Ideas are not yours.

Hell, I’m convinced I came up with the idea The Wrestler. It’s a great film, I know, I invented it in my mind. The only difference was in my film it was a boxer and the budget was $120 because that’s all I had in my account. For all I know whoever wrote that film was sitting in the Denny’s booth behind me at four in the morning while I regaled my friends with my million dollar idea in one of my many whiskey induced tirades.

Yeah, it was pretty much this.

Yeah, it was pretty much this.

There’s nothing wrong with telling your new film idea to your friends, your family or whomever you have a long-term, genital-rubbing relationship with, just make sure you can trust them. Remember, screenplays are tangible. Ideas are not. You can’t claim thoughts.

Writing with Actors in Mind

It should go without saying that there are different types of writing. We all seem to instinctively know the difference between a poem and a novel even if we have no understanding of the structural differences between the two. Yet, yet when it comes to screenwriting there is one thing I notice many filmmakers misuse in their scripts that really doesn’t do any kind of service.


What is Narrative?

Narrative is really any sequence of words or pictures that tell a story. Your film is most likely a narrative and the way you edit it together results in a cohesive story. The same goes for writing, the way you combine a sentence like “Bill reached down, picked up the big stick and threw it to his dog.” tells us enough about Bill, a stick, his dog and how they are all connected to envision it as a story. Now keeping with the three subjects but changing it around, “There is Bill, a dog and a big stick in the air.” really doesn’t tell a story as much as just describes what’s objectively present.

Or should Bill throw me a ball?  Seems more poetic.

Or should Bill throw me a ball? Seems more poetic.

How It’s Used Incorrectly In Screenplays

Although a film in its entirety works to create a narrative, the narrative I’m specifically referring to is the type that takes place in the “Action” element or narrative description of a screenplay. It’s the big, block of words that you probably skim through quickly to get to the dialogue. It stretches from margin to margin rather than kept to the center of the page like dialogue.

An example would be:

Suddenly there’s banging and growling at the gate. The group huddles into the corner. Chad aims his gun at the gate. Suddenly, the banging stops. Chad turns to Bernie. He speaks to him slowly, like you would a child.


Are you ok?


I’m not deaf.


What were those things?


I don’t know.

What some writers don’t realize is that there are certain narratives that specifically don’t read well on film. In regards to acting, narratives describing the past or the internal emotions of characters oftentimes are worthless because we can’t show those types of things. It’s important to make sure that all narrative is, what is sometimes referred as, “Actable”, or in other words, something that an actor can physically portray and strays away from exposition or what the character is thinking.

All you mimes know what I'm talking about.

All you mimes know what I’m talking about.

Actable vs. Non-Actable


Novels read much different from screenplays for the simple reason that they are written be read, not acted out. In them, the writer often must describe the feelings or past situations of a character to tell the whole story. It is not uncommon to read a line like, “Danny loved cheesecake. Every Christmas Danny would make help his mother in the kitchen, preparing the crust as his mother mixed the cheese and milk. It was his fondest memory of her. Since then, every cheesecake he ordered, in every town he visited, was his way of honoring her memory.”

This sentence makes plenty of sense and tells the story of Danny, his mother and why he loves cheesecake. In a novel that requires our imagination to fully envision the story this type of description is fine, but if we were to film this scene we could only do so in pictures or have it explained within the dialogue. There is no way you can expect an actor to portray this. I don’t care how good of an actor someone is, there is no way you can act out cheesecake being your “favorite” food. You can act out that you enjoy a cheesecake (commercial actors specialize in this), but to act out that level of detail is simply impossible.

Still there are many scripts I read where a writer takes up six to seven lines of action to describe something like a character’s look that’s a result of his father’s physical abuse toward him that haunts him to this day, forcing him to punch kittens on the weekends etc., etc. In the attempt to describe a pivotal event in the character’s life, the writer spends an unnecessary amount of time and space on a page writing out something that can’t be filmed.

How this Effects Actors

I previously joked about how the Action element is the part of a script many people skim over to get to the dialogue. If there is any person that is going to pay a load of attention to this these sections it’s going to be the actors, because it tells them what they’re going to do. There are many actors, especially seasoned ones, who recognize non-actable narrative as useless and frustrating.

As someone who used to act long, long ago, nothing brought me greater joy then to connecting with a character written well, namely because a good script makes for a good production and I was a horrible actor. Now on the other hand, if you give a good actor a well-written character, the result is almost always a thing of beauty. So imagine how an actor must feel when a writer has created a great character, but has given them nothing to work with. It’s like handing someone a million dollars that they can only spend on socks. Sure socks are great and all but the best things are just out of reach, like high-powered sports cars and sex toys.

Yep, this is a real thing.

Yep, this is a real thing.

Actable narrative isn’t really hard to recognize. A good rule of thumb is to go by the “show, don’t tell” rule of writing, keeping in mind that filmmaking literally requires us to show things to an audience. You could also ask an actor to go over your script to point out anything that isn’t actable. Most importantly though, always keep in mind that film is a visual medium and that a script should always be written to represent that.

One Draft is Not Enough

There’s a scene in Moneyball I particularly like. Brad Pitt’s character, Billy Beane, and his first base coach, Ron Washington, are talking to Chris Pratt’s character, Scott Hatteberg, about playing first base. The washed up Hatteberg is surprised that anyone would want him; especially for a position he’s never played. Pitt tells him, “It’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash.” To which Washington responds, “It’s incredibly hard.”

It is unfortunate that I’ve heard a surprising amount beginning filmmakers reflect Pitt’s sentiment about this about the writing process. I get asked by filmmakers to look over their scripts from time to time, partially because of my schooling and partially because I’ll read anything someone shoves in my face. After I finish, the first question I normally ask is how many drafts they went through.   It’s gotten to the point that I’m not even surprised anymore when they tell me it’s the only one or the worse response, “Drafts?”

Or is it Draughts?

Or is it Draughts?

It’s not difficult to tell when a filmmaker has put the bare minimum into their script. It’s often riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, lacks any cohesiveness or the structure is all over the place.   When these things are pointed out, the most common question I get is, “Well, what can I do real quick to fix it? I plan on shooting in X number of days.”

I understand why this is the case. Just like Beane in Moneyball, amateur filmmakers suspect that writing is probably the easiest thing to get around. As a result, they write up a random amount of scenes, devoid of common screenplay structure, and simply figure they’ll fix whatever problems during shooting or in post. This lack of concern for the script is fueled further by the need to get to shooting the film (the fun part) as quickly as possible. They will come up with an idea, set a date for shooting, and rush to bang out a script a month before filming.

There’s a great benefit that beginning filmmakers often overlook when working independently. Hollywood will, at times, set a date for shooting well before anyone has written a single line of dialogue. One of the reasons for this is because they often hire more than one writer to go through the various stages of a script, adding things as they see fit. As a result, these hired writers are given deadlines they must meet to make sure the film gets to shooting on time. For the independent filmmaker that chooses to write his own film, they will most likely be the only writer. This allows filmmakers a freedom that hired Hollywood screenwriters rarely have the luxury of, the ability to take their sweet time.

George Clooney has a quote that’s always stuck with me:

“You cannot make a good film out of a bad script. You can make a bad film out of a good script – easily. I’ve seen that happen before, but you can’t do it the other way around; it always has to be the screenplay.”

This is how I believe all filmmakers should look at the screenwriting process, that if they decide to half-ass it the only result they can hope for is a half-assed film. Your film is only as good as your script because you can’t turn shit into gold. This is why it’s imperative to try and get your script as good as it can be before you get to filming.

When in doubt, listen to Ron Swanson.

When in doubt, listen to Ron Swanson.

To help you visualize the importance of a script let me give you an example I’ve always used. It has always helped me to envision a film as a living, breathing human entity. I know that sounds ridiculous, but bear with me. Try to imagine the screenplay as the base or skeletal structure of the film. It controls the plot, characters and structure of your story. As you move on to shooting your start adding the flesh of it all, the actors, the locations, all the moving and textural parts to the film. Finally in post, you piece all the parts together through the editing process and breathe life into the film. I know this sounds like something out of Frankenstein, but I’m sure many filmmakers can to relate to Victor’s obsession with breathing life into a creation.

Now, imagine the script is not structurally sound, is full of plot holes or lacks cohesiveness. Without a strong foundation all you’re left with is a formless mound of flesh and organs, something that could only be devised by the three-way lovechild of Picasso, Dali and Pollack who was then given paint and a canvas. With this in mind it’s not hard to recognize the importance of getting a script as perfect as possible. The only way to do this is to take your time and edit, edit, edit.

Professional Hollywood scripts often go through multiple drafts. For instance, The King’s Speech wet through a whopping fifty drafts before they got to shooting the film. Now I’m not saying you should go through fifty drafts, even I think that’s insane, but if it takes a seasoned writer like David Seidler, who’s been writing for over forty-five years to write that many, it should probably take someone new to writing more than one.

Another thing to keep in mind is that of all the stages of the filmmaking process, writing is easily one of the least expensive. As they say, time is money. This is often a result of rental fees for equipment, payment for cast and crew (if you choose to pay your cast and crew), electric for lighting, etc. Literally the only things you pay for during the writing process are paper and ink. Maybe copies at Kinkos and those fancy brass fasteners as well. Furthermore, any plot holes or bad dialogue that you don’t notice till you start shooting is just going to take up time that you’re now paying for. Since your time is not costing you anything during the writing process, you might as well take as much as you can now before it becomes a valuable commodity.

Fasten only the top and bottom.  The empty hole in the middle is where a piece of your soul goes.

Fasten only the top and bottom. The empty hole in the middle is where a piece of your soul goes.

I’m sure many of you might be asking what makes a structurally sound script? I’d love to get into it, but quite frankly I don’t feel like testing the character limits WordPress allows on a single post. Plus, there are far more skilled writers than myself who have dedicated their lives to teaching screenwriting. As it so happens, I know a few popular ones that I would suggest any budding filmmaker read before they attempt to write their next film.

Anything from Syd Field is good. I particularly like The Screenwriter’s Workbook.   Another book I would recommend is The Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier. Finally, although I haven’t read it myself, many people swear by is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

Believe it or not, after you get the hang of screenwriting it can become a very fun and rewarding experience. I can tell you that nothing beats the feeling of completing that first draft or knowing that you wrote a truly great scene. Not to sound grandiose, but writing is as close as having godlike powers as you can get. No other profession I can think of allows you to create unique people with their own voice and experiences, and allows you to do whatever you want with them. Reward them, hurt them, give them riches or outright kill them, the choice is yours. Furthermore, a good script will excite the rest of your cast and crew. Believe me, nothing makes an actor drool like a good character written well. With this in mind, why would any filmmaker choose to rush through the writing process?