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Matriarchal Script Paradigm: Ralphy Reads

Kristy over at Matriarchal Script Paradigm has a post up introducing her friend and co-writer Ralphy, who happens to be a professional reader, the post is called Ralphy Reads … she asks him a series of questions about what he does, I recommend the whole thing, but in particular I highlight the following:

5. You’ve done some contest reading, what are the most common mistakes you see in amateur scripts?

It’s funny, because every writer fancies himself an idiosyncratic snowflake, but I do see a number of common weaknesses. When combined, these weaknesses lead to a screenplay that doesn’t read like a movie. And that, in fact, is the most common mistake. Now, I’m of the belief that you can write a screenplay about almost any topic, and if you do it well, it will evoke the experience of watching a movie. So subject matter is not necessarily the big stumbling block (heck, I liked Butter); the problems for me most often come in the execution. Here are a few major common weaknesses I’ve noticed:

1. Dialogue that is just pages and pages of conversation about the plot or life in general. No real conflict, no distinct character voices, no use of dramatic ammo, no overriding tension or ominous situation—just conversation, most of which is exposition- rather than conflict-driven. Not to say that conversation is bad in a script. My Dinner with Andre is a brilliant two hour conversation. But if you take a look at that movie, you’ll notice that Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (who wrote the script together) have very distinct viewpoints and rarely if ever agree. Also, they use dialogue to tell intriguing stories in a way that makes you forget you’re basically watching two characters talk.

No, what I’m referring to are conversations where the characters are mostly in agreement and are either revealing their exact thoughts about a situation or are talking about the plot itself (in which case the dialogue is doing all of the heavy lifting as far as telling the story is concerned). I’ve even run into scripts in which the characters were talking about what they were doing on screen as they were doing it. “I’m sorting through the bananas, trying to find a bunch with ripe ones. That’s how I choose bananas. I’m now picking up this bunch and studying it.” In some cases, characters tell each other not only what they would already know but what the audience/reader already knows.

Even worse than conversations are a number of long speeches about the plot or about what a character is feeling or thinking. In general, if I flip (or scroll) through a script and see huge blocks of dialogue, I know I’m in for a tough read. This is not to say that conversation-driven scripts can’t be amazing (a la the aforementioned My Dinner with Andre). But if a writer is going to go that route, the conversations must be interesting, lively, entertaining, creative, and original. And each character should have his or her own voice.

Note: It’s fine to have a character who says exactly what’s on her mind, like Cordelia from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She was a great source of conflict. The problems arise when every character says exactly what’s on her mind, and none of what’s on any character’s mind conflicts with what’s on any other character’s mind.

2. No real genre. Not even a hybrid. I’ve read scripts that had me scratching my head wondering exactly what I would be watching on screen. This is actually an extension of the first weakness because generally these scripts are speech/conversation-driven. In a lot of cases, I think writers believe that by eschewing genre entirely they’re developing their own voice and giving the reader something that is uniquely them. Unfortunately, just the opposite is true. Most of these scripts are identical in tone, so, voice-wise, they all “sound”/read the same. With scripts like these, I usually label them dramas, but even that isn’t really accurate. (Note: I’m not talking about innovative scripts that play with genre conventions or combine genres in a neat way. I’m talking about scripts that are genre-less, which means that they’re pretty much tone-less.)

3. A whole bunch of characters but no focused point-of-view—no particular character or characters we’re supposed to “go along for the ride” with. No anchor for the reader or audience. I’m not referring to deftly written ensemble stories; I’m talking about scripts that never give enough time to any of the characters. None of them are ever developed. I’ve read scripts that introduced thirty characters in the first fifteen pages and never established a point-of-view of any sort, thematic or otherwise.

4. Not pushing scenes and individual beats/moments within scenes far enough. Terry Rossio has a great column called Scene Character (http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp51.Scene.Character.html) in which he talks about the importance of giving each of your scenes flavor, uniqueness, and an identity of its own, the same way you would your characters. A lot of newer writers have an idea for a scene and what the scene is supposed to accomplish but write it in a very linear manner, communicating all of the basic points and moving on. These scenes lack depth of conflict, the creation of hope vs. fear in the audience, a “back and forth” rhythm between characters and each other and/or between characters and their environment. As such, these types of scenes are bland; they don’t really burst to life on the page. I’ve seen a lot of obvious missed opportunities to add some emotional depth to scenes because the writer was content just getting the major idea or conflict across. A series of scenes like this (most commonly exploring clichéd territory, especially in comedies) add up to a screenplay that feels more like an outline for what could be a good script than an actual script. The important moments don’t resonate. And a lot of individual beats within scenes aren’t mined for conflict that is obvious within the context of the scene. In many cases, the resolution of the conflict is one dimensional: either the character overcomes the obstacle easily or the obstacle gets the better of the character easily. Either way, it’s not really a dramatically viable scene—there’s no push and pull to it.

A crude example off the top of my head: Let’s say you have a character who discovers that his best friends, a married couple, have been murdered in their apartment. Now obviously this would play differently in different genres, but let’s pretend we’re writing a thriller. A common way to approach this scene would be to have the protagonist bust down the door to the apartment, see that his friends have been slaughtered by The Killer, reel back into the hallway and throw up. Okay, that’s a scene. In a way. But as Terry Rossio says, the screenwriter hasn’t really done his job there. It’s an outline beat. A suggestion for a scene. Even if it’s worded beautifully, it’s still not really evocative of a movie. What if, instead, you start with the protagonist, who already senses that something is amiss with his friends, attempting to open their door but finding that it’s locked. He then tries to call them with his cell phone and hears a distinct ring tone coming from inside the apartment, but no one answers. Since the protagonist is not one to bust down doors (you’ve already established that he’s a cautious type), he wakes up the grumpy super and has to argue with him to get him to unlock the door because the super doesn’t believe anything is really wrong. But the protagonist finally convinces him, and as the super is opening the door, he mumbles something about how those kids are always out partying and how they probably just forgot their phones… and then he blanches when he sees what’s inside, which the protagonist doesn’t see right away. (Note how you now have another character for the protagonist to play off of). The protagonist then pushes past the super and rushes into the apartment, only to see his two best friends butchered in the most grotesque manner. He’s in shock, but he nonetheless spots something next to their bodies: a key piece of evidence—a payoff to a plant from earlier. Something that might tell him who the killer is, perhaps. So now he’s forced to approach the mutilated bodies of his two best friends in order to get a closer look at that object. He does, repulsed every moment he remains in that apartment. But when he sees the object up close, it confirms the killer’s identity (or so he thinks at the time). Now in a state of utter revulsion, but with a new piece of the mystery puzzle, he spins around to get the hell out of the apartment and slips in a pool of blood (okay, that’s a cliché—you can do better), dropping face first to the floor. In a frenzy, he slides and scrambles past the still stunned super and out into the hallway, where he loses his shit.

Now, that’s a crude, quick example, but note how it dramatizes the scene rather than just plays it out. The protagonist is struggling with his environment, he has tasks (open the door, call the couple, convince the super to open the door, get a closer look at the object, get the hell out of the apartment) and obstacles (the door is locked, the cell phone rings but no one answers, the super is grumpy and unwilling to help the protag at first, the object is right next to the corpse of his best friend, the pool of blood makes his exit hard, he makes an important discovery at the worst possible moment). And with more brainstorming, a writer could come up with a version that’s better than that.

In other words, what I see in a lot of scripts are writers putting down what was most likely the first version of a scene that sprang to mind. The problem is that the first version is often flat, superficial and reliant on clichés.

5. A complete lack of conflict, from the premise on out. This one sort of speaks for itself, but essentially I’m talking about scripts in which the characters are developed/drawn in such a way that there is no inherent conflict in any scene. Either they overcome obstacles too easily or they’re not at odds with their goals and obstacles in any way, shape or form. Whatever you may think of Liar, Liar, one thing you have to admit is that it’s dramatically sound. You have a chronically lying lawyer who has made a career out of dishonesty whose son makes a birthday wish that his father won’t be able to lie for twenty-four hours. The wish magically comes true, and the lawyer has to win the biggest case of his career (this is hugely important from a dramatic point-of-view) without lying. A lot of amateur screenwriters don’t think their premises through from a “how is my protagonist the worst possible person to go through this?” standpoint, and as a result, they don’t push their protagonists; they let them off too easy.

6. There are a bunch more, like characters with no distinct personalities, entire sequences that lag, etc., but I see a lot of these in scripts written by professionals, too, so they’re not necessarily common amateur mistakes.

6. What sets pros apart from amateurs do you think?

Depends on the individual pro and the individual amateur. The biggest issue is the one I mentioned above, which is that a lot of amateur scripts don’t read like movies, whereas just about every script I’ve ever read by a pro writer was essentially a movie on the page. Whether or not it was a good movie is another story.

7. How do you think your notes will benefit writers?

My goals differ depending on the level of the writer. For newer writers, my goal is to inspire them to write something that could be a movie and that plays out on the page like a movie. For more experienced writers, my goal is to give them an idea of how a reader at a studio would view their scripts and to provide them with development notes to help them make those scripts as strong as possible.

One thing I absolutely have to mention right now is that every script is a unique case. The more you try to shoehorn a script into some predetermined structural formula based on whatever dramatic principles are in vogue at the moment, the more you risk losing what might make that script stand out. So each set of notes will be its own entity.

8. What sets apart mediocre characters from great ones?

Mediocre characters tend to come in bland archetypes that can be summed up in one word. So you have characters that are “ambitious” or “stoic” or “neurotic.” They’re one dimensional and serve the plot rather than drive it. You don’t get the sense that each character has his or her own agenda and is actively pursuing it. In the worst cases, the characters have no distinct personalities and blend into one another (usually thanks to dialogue that is exposition- rather than conflict-driven).

Great characters are multilayered and are memorable because of their actions rather than whatever adjectives you could come up with to describe them. They might be consistent, but there’s a lot of complexity within that consistency. Take a look at Showtime’s Dexter, for example. It would be so easy to make a sociopath one dimensional, but the writers on that show, bless their hearts, have created a character who is empty inside… yet is about as three dimensional as they come.

9. Nothing can turn someone off faster than bad dialogue, why do you think this is?

In any good story, the goal is to draw the reader into the world you’ve created and make him forget he’s reading something someone has written. Bad dialogue kills that connection by destroying verisimilitude and taking the reader right out of that world and back into his own, where he’s just looking at words on a page (or a computer screen).

Read the rest at Ralphy Reads.

Ralphy and Kristy are offering a deal for notes for your scripts, so if interested, go to Kristy’s blog and inquire, tell ‘em Josh James sent ya.

One Response to “ Matriarchal Script Paradigm: Ralphy Reads”

  1. Kristy at MSP Says:

    Thanks for the plug Joshua! I caught this on my Facebook news feed :)

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