Corey Mandell, acclaimed screenwriting instructor, has much to say about the current state of screenwriting instruction. While the old paradigms of storytelling worked exclusively in the past, times have changed.
Screenwriters do not write movies. Screenwriters write scripts. And scripts are NOT movies.
Movie audiences are people sitting in a theater, or at home, having a visual experience complete with actors, music, directing, editing and perhaps digital effects. The audience for a script is a reader. And all they have is the written word. It is essential that screenwriters understand this. You can’t run to second base without passing the first.
When Corey was starting out, I was told a script is a blueprint for a movie so you should never write anything that can’t directly be seen on the screen. Nor should you indicate how a line should be read because it will insult the actor playing the part. Nor should you describe how a scene should look because it will only annoy the director who’s going to ignore it all anyway. This is not good advice. Because we are not writing movies.
William Goldman, one of the most successful screenwriters ever, writes in his must-read, Adventures in the Screen Trade, “I write my screenplays to be read… What I mean is that, from the very beginning, I’ve tried to make my screenplays reading experiences, much like a book or a play.”
This is important because whenever a script is submitted to an agent, manager, producer, director or star, it gets handed off to a reader, who summarizes and analyzes it in a document called coverage that evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, structure, dialogue and overall writing. And unless this report comes back glowing with the highest of recommendations, the game is over. No one else at the company will give the script a look.
Now there is a point where we are writing movies. When the project is cast and we’re sitting at the table listening to the actors do a read-through, and inevitably realize some of our dialogue reads better than it sounds so we’re obviously going to change it. Just like we’re going to add, cut, or change scenes to meet the director’s vision and production realities. Because it’s now a movie.
But for a script to ever have any chance of becoming a movie, it will have to survive a whole gauntlet of readers, any one of whom can kill it with a less then stellar review.
Which is why I ask “What must the last scene of the first act accomplish?” I usually get answers like “it must significantly heighten the stakes, or it must be the first time the protagonist and antagonist square off, or it must introduce the first major sub-plot complication”. All perfectly reasonable and intelligent sounding possibilities. But for my money, none of them are correct.
The objective of this scene is to get the reader to want to read the next scene.
That is the objective of every scene. To get the reader to want to read the next scene. Until they reach the end and feel satisfied.
Too many writers forget this. They are too busy focusing on some overall structure model thinking they’ve succeeded if they’ve hit the right plot points at the right pages. Not that structure isn’t important. However, slavishly adhering to plot point conventions will suck the soul out of your script. Your script goes limp without a soul, even if the plot points are on the right pages.
This is why so many scripts fail in the marketplace.
Professional writers understand the objective is to write scripts that complete strangers will read and fall in love with—and be willing to go to bat for with their bosses. And the bigger task is to ensure that the movie you write is the same movie someone will read.
This is our job. It is our only job. Any writer who can do this has a shot at success. Any writer who cannot does not. It’s as simple as that.