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How Seasoned Writers Get Battle Weary Readers to Read More Than Ten Pages of Their Specs (Part 2)

By Rob Edwards · March 12, 2015

I read a lot of scripts. In fact, if a bum walked up to me in the street and handed me a hundred sheets of paper, I'd probably sit in my car and flip through it. Consequently, I've read a lot of crap over the past 30 years. I've read versions of the same screenplay more than I'd care to mention and I've seen the same mistakes over and over. When I judge competitions and read student materials I'll meet judges and professors who share my frustrations. This article is an attempt to stem that tide and give you guys a fighting chance to get your material past the gatekeepers and into the hands of people who can write you a check for your work. So, let's get started.

Last week I gave you the first three reasons why Rob, the grizzled reader, rarely reads more than ten pages of anything on his nightstand and what Rob, the seasoned writer, does to blow past that same malaise in other readers. Here are the other two…

REASON #4: WHY I STOP READING: THE WRITING IS RUDDERLESS

ROB THE READER

If it's a romantic comedy, I want to meet the main character, see what's great about them, and then I want to see what problem they'll need to overcome in order to find love. Bang. Bang. Bang. Those of us who read a lot of screenplays know it takes about three pages to set up the great character and another two or three to set up the problem. If I'm on page seven and I don't know your guy, you're in trouble.

But, Rob, what if I'm being "artful" and slowly seducing you into my narative? Here's the thing nobody tells you. Anytime anybody hands anybody a screenplay anywhere in Hollywood, they immediately spoil the whole thing:

"Hey Rob, take a look at this mood piece about a guy who doesn't know he's dead until the end of the movie."

OR…

"Check out this sci-fi western about a kid who finds out the bad guy is his dad."

Yes. That's the way you get it! So your coyness is just going to have me flipping to pages 30, 60 and 90 to see how bloated and undisciplined your writing is.

ROB THE WRITER

Step 1) Intention. What does my character want? His journey can't start until I've told you what he wants and how he's trying to get it… so I get right to it. The more he's driven to get it, the more entertaining he'll be.

The opening action should be an attempt to achieve it or an explanation for why he wants it. To spice up the read, I'll have my protagonist do a few awesome things along the way so I can show how much fun I'm going to have with this guy for the next 90 pages.

Step 2) Obstacle. What am I going to beat up my protagonist with for the next 90 pages? An antagonist? Forces of nature? An internal struggle? That gets a full introduction here.

Step 3) Say it! In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder recommended that we state our themes on page 5. Unfortunately, that's lead to lines like, "You know, Bill. Cheaters never prosper." Don't do that. Do this. Think of theme as a way to tee up your story and let your reader know that you know where you're going. Here's an example: in the opening of The Incredibles, Bob Parr is late to his own wedding. At the altar, Helen tells him he's going to have to be more than Mr. Incredible. Boom! Now we know Bob's arc. The rudder is fully engaged… and so is the reader.

REASON #5: WHY I STOP READING: I DON'T CARE

ROB THE READER

The quality of the writing is good. The characters are well presented. The pacing is steady but they're just words on paper. Oh no. You've lost me.

ROB THE WRITER

Don't overthink this. Know what I care about and give it to me! What do I care about? It's not science. There's a reason why three of the past four Academy Awards for Best Picture have gone to movies about movies. It's the same reason why your best friend is so much like you. It's the same reason why you perk up for some news stories and glaze over at others.

I have a list — a "palet" if you will — of things I give a crap about. Specifically, I can list the last ten movies that have made me cry and why. Why torture myself with this? Because it's my job! If I don't care about it, I'll never get you to care. My screenplay is my attempt to get you to grab a carton of ice cream and cry with me.

So, when it's time to break my Third Act (which I do first, by the way) I get out my palet and I look for that moment. First. Then I work backwards and I make sure every word of my screenplay tees you up to laugh, cry and cheer… preferably at the same time.

If you think my writing doesn't have momentum, if you think my writing is out of control, if you think every word isn't there for a reason, if you think the journey is unclear or you don't care about the story, it's not for a lack of effort on my part.

Of course, the style of my writing also helps. I get my ya-yas in as I write and I have a ton of fun pulling reluctant readers through my scripts. I love my stories and I'm eager to tell them. That comes out in my writing. I smile when I write. I try to make myself laugh and cry. I can't wait to read passages out loud to my friends. It's a party on paper.

I also avoid stupid stuff. I keep my action short. I avoid typos like the plague. When I see them, I assume the writer doesn't have friends who understand English or, worse, that I'm reading something the writer herself hasn't read.

Screenwriting is one of the great meritocracies of the universe. If it's good, nobody cares who wrote it. Conversely, there are scripts that aren't worth the electrons adhering them to the hard drive. Know the difference. Sometimes the solution is a power shredder.

Remember, it's not hit or miss. I've had tons of meetings with people who didn't like my story, but liked the way I told it and wanted to run a few ideas by me. Why? Because I write with that meeting in mind. I know the reader's job is a tough one and I not only want them to love the script they're reading this time, but I want them to look forward to the next one. Now, get back to work. Class dismissed!

Okay. I'm going to plug my Master Class now so you can stop reading if you want…

My mom used to say, "Rob, learn how to do something well and then turn around and teach it." Creating characters is something I do very well and I'd like to spend a few hours sharing my methods with you.

It all comes down to this. The job of the writer is to be the world's greatest wingman. You've dreamed up the most interesting human being ever and now you'd like to set them up on a two hour date with, in all likelyhood, a young college graduate who just beat the crap out of a few hundred other applicants for the chance to answer phones and read scripts for a major producer, director, actor or talent agency. The ability to write a document that holds her interest from 7:00, when she gets home, to 9:00, when she meets her friends for drinks, can put hundreds of thousands of dollars in your pocket.

But here's the thing. I'm not a teacher. I'm a writer who comes out of his cave every now and then to meet new writers and share ideas. So I don't look at characters in the abstract. They drive story. If your "all is lost" moment lays flat, it's because you've blown your character model and we need to look at your intro in Act One. Characters embody theme, so we'll hit that too. Antagonists drive action. I just gave you that one for free. We'll also cover pitching because it's a great method for testing the strength of your characters and your story. It's not about theory, it's about what to do with the blank page. It's about selling screenplays. And then, if you want to turn around and teach it, that's up to you.

Check out my IMDb or my Wikipedia page. You'll see I've been having a lot of fun in Hollywood for a long time. CLICK HERE to buy tickets. Thanks for sticking around and reading this. I'll see you in April!