Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 17 books, 98 plays and musicals, and several hundred magazine articles which have appeared through the US, UK. Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Further information on her work and about engaging her services as a script coverage consultant is available online.
INKLINGS: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month: RIGHT MESSAGE/WRONG MEDIUMYou've dotted all your "i's," you've crossed all your "t's," you've read every single book the film industry has to offer on how to market your script in person, by mail, and over the Internet. Yet there it continues to sit. Unsold. Unwanted.
Maybe the problem isn't that it's an un-saleable story. Maybe it's just that you're trying to sell it to the wrong medium.
In my capacity as a script coverage consultant, over half the plots I read that might fall into the category of commercial are encumbered by the writers' lack of distinction between what makes a good film and what could make a better book or stage play.
The following FADE IN, for instance, screams "Wannabee Novelist" from the very first line:
"The sound of a reddish-brown hawk pierces the tranquility of a lovely spring afternoon in the American Rockies. The flawless azure sky has been lovingly caressed by the painter's brush with wisps and swirls of cotton-candy clouds that look down on a crescent of sturdy verdant trees from which the forest's wildlife cautiously emerges, wary of Man's presence in what was once their exclusive paradise. An unseasonably warm breeze of 5 miles an hour ripples through the amber grasses, gently parting them as if they were fluid gold and disturbing a family of bees which angrily spirals upward like a miniature, amber and black striped cyclone. Just then, two riders on horseback emerge upon the scene, their faces bronzed and ruddy as a result of long months in the wilderness. The nostrils of the animals twitch as they pick up the riders' manly scent and, conscious of the danger that humans represent, quickly recede into the welcome protection of the shadows. 'It's quiet here,' says the first man who is in his late 20's, blond, and very handsome. 'Too quiet,' solemnly agrees the other who is about 40 with dark hair and a hook-shaped nose."
Literary? Yes. A screenplay? Probably not. While there's undeniably an abundance of visual elements present in the set-up, prospective producers don't read scripts for style; they read scripts for substance. The tendency of novice screenwriters to meticulously spell everything out that the audience should be looking at does far more to jinx a first read than to encourage it. Why? Because it implies that directors don't know how to direct, that actors don't know how to say lines, and that cinematographers are clueless when it comes to pointing a camera.
Skip the detail and eloquent narrative. You're not writing a plot that's meant to be read. You're writing a story that's meant to be seen. While there are obviously occasions where a certain level of definition is required to address ambiguity (i.e., a Martha Stewart cabin versus a crude cabin), it's important to ask yourself just how wedded you are to a particular likeness, representation, or camera shot before you commit it to paper. Unlike a novel or short story where you are illustrating a character, location, or action sequence as accurately as possible for a passive audience, the words of a film or television script are simply the framework on which the directing, acting, and technical talent will build outward and embellish with their own signature style.
TEST: Go through a random page of your script with a pen and circle every adjective and adverb that you have used. If you come up with more than 10 per page, you'd probably be happier writing a novel or short stories instead of a film. Don't forget colors, either; if a specific hue isn't critical to the scene or the character, delete it. For practice, use the example given earlier and rewrite it minus all of the superfluous descriptors.
Is your script laden with lots of brainy historical references that aren't crucial to the present conflict? A recent project I evaluated was obviously the product of years of research on the seamy side of London in the 1840's. Apparently to justify all of the gritty factoids she had soaked up on this period, the author felt compelled to interject most of them into her storyline via dialogue. Those which were not conveyed by conversation were judiciously embedded in each master scene as a device to indoctrinate the director on the significance of this period of time.
As rewarding as it can be to subliminally educate an audience, I can't think of anyone on the planet who appreciates a blatant barrage of Greek chorus explanations that would better suit a high school filmstrip or documentary. No one likes to feel stupid, especially the person who holds the power to say "yes" to your script. Don't teach us. Entertain us. If we want a history lesson, we'll go to the library or do a search on the Internet.
The exception to this rule of course, is if (1) your plot revolves around a media, political, or military theme where a discussion of what has transpired so far would be natural, (2) you're writing a documentary where there's already a built-in expectation of facts and figures, or (3) you've written a play and are providing background text for the printed theatrical program. (After all, audiences want to be entertained with scintillating reading material while they're sitting there waiting for the curtain to go up.) If it absolutely tears you apart to have to relinquish all the material you've tried to slip in to show how smart you are, recycle them into filler items for magazines, newsletters, or home-schooling lesson plans. Such venues may even pay a few bills while you're waiting for your script to sell.
TEST: How many historical references have you plunked into your master scenes? Delete them. How many times have your characters referred to past events as a device to explain the present plot's context to the audience rather than credibly convey information to each other? Delete any of these that are contrived and/or don't advance the story. Finally, have you peopled your script with historical figures whose images exist in paintings or photographs? Certainly a director will have the wits to look up a picture of Thomas Jefferson or Lewis and Clark and cast the right actors accordingly. (If I read one more description of TJ's "striking red hair and sensitive eyes," I am going to scream.)
Movies are driven by action. Stage plays are driven by dialogue. Has one of the criticisms of your script been that your characters yak too much? Maybe you need to give them a different platform for exploring their emotions, especially if they are engaged in what is essentially just one long conversation spread over two hours of different scenery. Often in their quest to write the next great American screenplay, new writers are quick to dismiss the intimacy, immediacy and spontaneity afforded by the live theater experience. The protest that a theatrical medium is limiting in terms of physical space and the number of times the set can be changed without looking like a frenzy is an underestimation of the medium's capabilities. Even the most modest production house can still avail itself of creative lighting, shadow, and multiple levels to convey transitions. It's one of the reasons, in fact, that stage plays which take place in different locales have relatively generic sets that can be dressed up or down. The audience is accepting of these surface changes, allowing their imaginations to fill in the requisite blanks rather than having everything spelled out for them.
Two of the examples I like to use in workshops are THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES and PEARL HARBOR, a pair of films which-for their respective content-would have worked more successfully on stage.
The crux of the Streisand film revolves around the ugly duckling blessing-and-curse of physical beauty. Having finally attracted a husband who respects her for her intelligence, she risks losing him when she transforms herself into someone attractive, a persona his fragile self-esteem can't deal with. MIRROR is essentially a "dialogue" film. The multiple locations could easily be broken down to a combination of one generic set and spotlighted vignettes. Because the theme of acceptance is a painful one with which many people can identify, its depiction in a live format would have struck a deeper, more immediate chord with viewers than listening to the characters thrash out their feelings on the big screen.
PEARL HARBOR, of course, is proof positive that all the special effects in the world can't save a film that just doesn't have a plot. It could have had a plot, of course, if the lives and feelings of the three friends had been played out on a theatrical set. Given how familiar we already are with the visuals that have captured the horror of real-life events (September 11th being a prime example), the job of the playwright is to communicate and interpret the reaction to those events through the characters' feelings. Sound effects, spotlighted scenes, and the psychological impact of a minimalist stage set in shadows would have done far more to create a sense of tension and foreboding among the audience than the most expensive camera tricks and CGI's.
TEST: How many locations does your script utilize? Identify how many of them are absolutely necessary as a backdrop for the conversation(s) that take place there. For instance, if a scene could take place just as easily in a kitchen as it could in a café, decide which one is the more important of the two. For those scenes which have to transpire in a specific place, identify what you would have to do to recreate that scene on a stage (i.e., a full set vs. a spotlighted or platform vignette). For those scripts containing extensive special effects/CGI's, go through a spare copy of your script and X-out each one. Now read the script again. If you still have a compelling plot and characters without those glitzy extras, you've probably written a strong film. If, however, it was dependent on the glitz in order to work, it may not be as strong as you think. (That's not to rule out a novel or short story, of course, which are both more economical to produce than movies or theater because everything that happens only takes place on paper.) Last but not least, count how many pages each conversation takes up before you segue to a different scene. If your characters are talking for more than 3 straight pages at a time without engaging in some sort of action, you may want to consider rewriting their story for the theater.