My writing partner and I recently gave the first draft of our multi-strand feature to a number of readers for feedback. After receiving more or less unanimously scathing notes from all of them, I realized this: The reason the script isn’t working is not a faulty premise or uninteresting characters, it’s not even bad writing. The screenplay simply doesn’t promise an entertaining enough movie.
So what makes a screenplay (and the resulting film) entertaining enough? Depending on the genre, and therefore the expectations of the audience, it could be humour, suspense, mystery, disgust, despair … in other words, emotions. People watch movies because they want to access and release emotion. They want to laugh, cry, get angry, feel terror, and so on.
By far the most fundamental way a movie achieves this effect is by creating uncertainty as to what will happen next. Even in genres where the outcome is more or less a given (e.g., romantic comedies, or historical drama based on a true story), the audience wants to engage in that conscious and unconscious struggle to second guess events.
The last thing movie-goers want to pay for, is to listen to the screenwriter pontificate through the mouths of his characters. Yup, that’s what readers have said about this screenplay. Too much message, too little movie. Ouch.
Reminds me of the famous quote, usually attributed to Sam Goldwyn, but also to others such as Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and even George Bernard Shaw: If you want to send a message, call Western Union.
Which doesn’t mean the opinions of the screenwriter don’t drive the writing to some extent. You can’t put in months, sometimes years of work on a screenplay, if you’re not writing about something close to your heart. But if your opinion isn’t adequately wrapped in story, made consciously imperceptible, as it were, by means of plot … then you won’t be able to get in under the audience’s radar.
This experience has once again reminded me of the importance of having your screenplay critiqued. After a certain amount of time immersed in a screenplay, it’s often difficult to judge objectively whether what you’ve written is, realistically, a solid blueprint for a movie.
Above all, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important criterion of all: Is this going to be an entertaining movie? A movie I myself would pay to go and see?
So I’ve pinned up a new screenwriter’s axiom next to my desk. Besides the various quotes I’ve gathered along the way, such as: In life one thing happens after another, but in drama one thing happens because of another, and Don’t describe things, describe things happening, my wall of inspiration now prominently features an additional card, saying in large print:
FILM IS ENTERTAINMENT
Time will tell if I’ve really learned my lesson …