Yesterday we talked about the most common problem I see novice screenwriters wrestle with: the soft script. Today, we talk about just what to do about that:
A soft premise is the result of not really thinking the premise all the way through. Writers get stuck in their heads sometimes and tell a story which has mild emotional and usually autobiographical interest to them but not to anyone else. A woman inherits a house from her grandmother and learns that like her grandmother, she loves photography. Wha-?
But – movies are about conflict. Major conflict. Movies are uncomfortable and filled with tension. In real life most of us avoid conflict like the plague. But the movies are centered on it. Writing a script is a time to scrap being polite, proper or careful.
Movies are conflict.
Newer writers are too easy on their characters because they model them too closely after themselves or people they know. But your character is not you or a friend – a character is a symbol that represents Jealousy, Power, Innocence, Betrayal, Justice or Heartbreak.
Writers are often loathe to be too hard on their characters. They like them too much to give them a meaningful, active flaw. They start them out pretty nice and they wind up nicer. Characters must have an arc of change and they can’t wind up changed if they started out pretty okay in the first place. Something has to be majorly amiss in your character on page one. Not a little amiss like they are shy and want a date. That’s boring. We all want a date. Go. Bigger.
Soft structure is bound, hand and foot to soft premise and soft character arcs. You cannot separate these three elements. If you’re too soft on your characters, the turning points and complications will be soft too. Your pages will just blur in to one another with nothing significant moving the story forward. And you wind up with a script with the consistency, color and flavor of oatmeal instead of a script with the consistency, color and flavor of a complex yet rich and satisfying meal.
Don’t avoid conflict – seek it out. Take the gloves off. Don’t be so polite and so careful. Writing is a down and dirty occupation and don’t let anybody tell you any different.
Write down your premise line. Do you have an antagonist? A crux of CONFLICT, major turning points and a big sacrifice or choice the main character will have to make? Stare at your premise line. Is it going to get anyone outside your immediate family excited? Does it have a hook and a unique concept?
It takes courage to Go Big in your script. Writers are afraid to really think bigger and sometimes they are too lazy to do the work. That’s right, I said it. Too lazy. Where is the backstory for your character? Where is the outline for your script? Where is the killer logline that you should have worked out before you started writing the script? Laziness, timidity and a loathing to really put your characters through the wringer is the reason that the word “soft” would apply to so many scripts.
I know most writers don’t have the access to read a thousand scripts in order to gain the perspective that lends a person. But you have Just Effing and a million other resources. Ask yourself if you’re really writing about conflict, change and catharsis. Not kind of – but truly.
Watch movies that are in any way similar to your script idea. Push the pause button when you think you spot a major complication. Look at the timer on your dvd player – notice that it’s right about 10, 25 and 50 minutes into the movie that these things happen? Gain some cajones, guys – are you writing about conflict or are you writing about CONFLICT? Are you being too easy on your main character? Is your premise SERIOUSLY worth several million dollars to make? Who would the audience be for this movie? You and your family? Or millions of people all around the world?
Writers who are unafraid to really go there – whether in the premise and in the execution or whether that means going to the doctor to find out how they did – are writers who have a million times more chance of actually having a writing career than a writer who is stuck in his or her head, too timid and too vacuum-sealed to get outside perspective and to push their characters harder and further than they thought possible – or nice – or convenient.
It’s up to you whether you take the cure. We are not all getting in shape for a sprint here, that’s the good news. This is a marathon. So you’ve made some mistakes. So what. It’s never too late to get it together so you can really compete with the thousands of scripts that flood into Hollywood every single day.
Bigger, better, faster, more. It’s the way of the movies.
Treat yourself to Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas