Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Advice for Aspiring Screenwriters

I’m linking this piece by screenwriter Josh Olson because it is likely to become a classic. Olson himself writes very well, and good writing is always worth reading.

(Warning: if you do not like coarse language, this article is not for you.)

It’s a cautionary note for those who are aspiring to break into movies on your writing talents.

You might know that just about everyone wants to be a screenwriter. And just about everyone thinks he has the talent to become one.

Olson suggests that just about everyone is deluded about his or her ability. Surely, he is correct.

So, Olson recounts what happened when a bare acquaintance asked him to read a two page synopsis. It’s not like he was being asked to read a completed script. What harm could befall him for having to read two measly pages.

His assessment of the synopsis: “You may want to allow for the fact that this fellow had never written a synopsis before, but that doesn't excuse the inability to form a decent sentence, or an utter lack of facility with language and structure. The story described was clearly of great importance to him, but he had done nothing to convey its specifics to an impartial reader. What I was handed was, essentially, a barely coherent list of events, some connected, some not so much. Characters wander around aimlessly, do things for no reason, vanish, reappear, get arrested for unnamed crimes, and make wild, life-altering decisions for no reason. Half a paragraph is devoted to describing the smell and texture of a piece of food, but the climactic central event of the film is glossed over in a sentence. The death of the hero is not even mentioned. One sentence describes a scene he's in, the next describes people showing up at his funeral. I could go on, but I won't. This is the sort of thing that would earn you a D minus in any Freshman Comp class.”

He continues: “Which brings us to an ugly truth about many aspiring screenwriters: They think that screenwriting doesn't actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie. Screenwriting is widely regarded as the easiest way to break into the movie business, because it doesn't require any kind of training, skill or equipment. Everybody can write, right? And because they believe that, they don't regard working screenwriters with any kind of real respect. They will hand you a piece of inept writing without a second thought, because you do not have to be a writer to be a screenwriter.”

Aspiring screenwriters who think that they do not need to know how to write a coherent sentence are insulting the real screenwriters who spend all of their time and energy perfecting their craft.

Be that as it may, Olson tried to be polite about it. He wrote a thoughtful reply, not encouraging, but certainly not saying what he thought… namely, that this guy had no talent for writing and should start trying to find out where his real talent lay.

Naturally, the synopsis-writer was sorely offended. He badmouthed Olson to mutual friends.

As the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.

1 comment:

CatherineM said...

Olsen's description reminds me of the work of an 40 year old aspriring writer from my office. She passed on her work (10 short stories) to everyone to comment on. Everyone told her it was "great." I didn't respond. Some stories were 20 pages long and the first 5 were of the main character waking up, which put me to sleep. Olsen's description of the "screenplay" his friend gave him was like the only one I was able to force myself to read from beginning to end. The story made no sense. Seemed like a vampire story, but had these weird, out of the blue moments (the main character steals a baby and goes to her ex doorman's home because he had a baby that died recently and he will have clothes...). Ack! She begged me for a critical review which I gave grudgingly and apologetically. Perhaps it's just not my taste, I said. I asked if she was going for a Kafka-like "Metamorphosis" story? She asked, "What's Kafka."

I quietly asked another woman in the office if she liked the writing (or was it just me?). She responded defensively on behalf of the aspiring writer exclaiming, "I think it's brilliant!" Which lead me to believe it wasn't the writing we were supporting, but the aspiration and I was "so mean," to not believe in my co-worker's brilliant aspiration.