This is one of the most common questions screenwriters ponder after “How do I sell my screenplay?” The screenwriting bar has been raised many times over the years, so a strong grasp on the writing craft is vital. Your ability to create solid characters with defined goals and formidable obstacles, write scintillating dialogue, and have a definable voice as a screenwriter are essential to building your screenwriting career. However, it will only take you so far.
Why do script readers pass on your film or TV script with a declaration that they weren’t engaged with your screenplay.? What gives? Think of it as a first date. You like the other person, they have solid credentials, you share some common interests, they’re not certifiably insane, but they don’t want to go on a second date. They simply weren’t connecting with you on a deeper emotional level. This happens to your screenplay.
What causes these reactions?
Too Much Perfection
Screenwriters are told that their screenplay must be perfect before sending it out to be read. We are also told that every character’s decision making process must be logical and perfectly consistent with their story goals. Every story strand must be neatly resolved; not necessarily tied up with a cute bow. The desire for clinical perfection is killing our screenplays. How so?
Here’s the thing. Every living creature is designed for self-preservation. Our learning mechanisms rely on repetitive patterns. The more consistent a pattern, the less we consciously focus on it.
Our lizard brains process every piece of incoming information as such. Will a behavior or action cause us harm? Is it good or bad? Our evolved cortexes holistically filter this endless stream of data points in terms of whether we need to take notice or not. The more familiar, the more information is filtered out. If we experience a new or unusual situation with an unpredictable outcome, we further engage with it until we understand whether it threatens us or not. Manipulating these patterns creates focus and interest.
Back to our script reader who is burdened with more screenplays than they can physically read in any given day. What does it really mean when they say they didn’t fully engage with your screenplay?
Much like our cognitive process with its inbuilt filtration mechanisms, a script reader, filters out what they perceive to be a common, predictable story with an overly-familiar set of story points. They may a skip a few pages here and there until they reach the end to confirm whether their story predictions came true. If a screenplay is too formulaic, they may disengage either partially or wholly. Consider it like the drive to and from work every day. After a while, it becomes repetitive, monotonous and you don’t need to focus on your journey as much as when you first started making this journey. Apart from the traffic lights and traffic itself, you stop noticing things you once found new and exciting. After a while, you don’t even notice the drive.
You shouldn’t strive for clinical perfection. This is not an excuse for sloppy screenwriting. A conflict shouldn’t doesn’t always need to be fully resolved. It could result in an impasse, an agreement to disagree, or even an uneasy compromise. The underlying tension is still present.
These slight writing imperfections must be measured carefully to avoid ruining your screenplay and disengaging your reader with your amateurish screenwriting. If your story simply ends without a clear resolution (yes there are exceptions) your reader will become confused.
Too Much Authenticity
This is topic I love discussing with screenwriters who spend inordinate amounts of time researching certain procedures such as an arrest, courtroom proceedings or a rocket launch. Adequate research is a good thing. Too little and a story feels weak and too much… there’s our need for perfection again.
Some scriptwriters believe that overly researching a subject compensates for their lack of personal experience. There is some merit in this mindset. However, consider those movie scenes about a computer geek with endless technobabble. Does this engage or disengage your audience? Imagine if a well-respected computer hacker called a mouse a “click thingy?” This subversive and inauthentic dialogue might create engagement as the reader’s predefined notions of how a computer hacker speaks are shattered. They will question whether the hack is a fraud, a jokester, an imposter or quite possibly drunk. Alternatively it might have the opposite effect.
Consider who you are writing for. What are the hooks, or devotions from the well-trodden screenwriting path that will keep them turning pages until the end.