by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
William M. Akers is the author of one of the most well-known screenwriting tomes, Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great. He is also a WGA Lifetime Member with three films produced from his scripts. William teaches screenwriting at Belmont University where he is the chair of the Motion Picture Program, and he has given writing workshops around the world.
LA Screenwriter’s Angela Bourassa caught up with William to find out why so many screenplays (and screenwriters) fail to meet their potential.
Angela Bourassa: Let’s cut right to the chase — why does my screenplay suck?
William M. Akers: I’m sure your script is enchanting. But, for argument’s sake, let’s assume it stinks like week old socks…
Why does it suck? Lots of reasons. The most common: because you don’t understand the degree of difficulty of what you’re trying to do: write a screenplay. Well, actually, write a really good screenplay. That’s tough. Anybody who can type can write a screenplay.
People set out on the screenwriting journey without a solid appreciation of what’s involved. How hard it is to write a clean sentence. How hard it is to write a superb conversation between two characters who talk like people in movies are supposed to talk. How to move the story forward relentlessly. How to keep the reader reading when they don’t have time to read in the first place.
This stuff takes a long time to learn and, often, people don’t want to put in that time. They just want to cash checks. You have to make the effort to learn what you’re doing. Just getting to page 110 doesn’t make your script good.
Your screenplay also sucks because you don’t take the time to rewrite. A first draft is just something that covers the page with toner. After that, real work begins. It takes draft after draft after draft after draft.
If you don’t “get” that most of your writing time will be spent doing rewrites… dealing with notes, working to fix mistakes, polishing, screaming in agony because this is never gonna work, yet still going back and digging in and finishing the task… your screenplay really will suck.
Work hard. Grok what you’re trying to accomplish, go after it, and do it! Practice and get better and better. Try not to suck.
Angela Bourassa: Your book offers a hundred ways to make a script great. With a pitch like that, it sounds like you’re offering tricks. Would you say that’s the case?
William M. Akers: Nope. Not at all. The book is a list of tasks, all geared to keep the reader reading. “Do these things to your script before you send it to an agent, a producer, or someone who matters.” If they pull the ripcord at page two because your prose is sloppy, you wasted a boatload of time. Yours, not theirs.
Beginning writers, and sometimes experienced ones, make the same mistakes. Hence, the book. Things like, “Do you have character names that rhyme?” You say, “I’d never make such a boneheaded mistake!” Yet, people do it all the time. “Do you over-direct your actors?” “Do you know what your first ten pages must accomplish?” “Is research killing your story?” “Did you use novelistic language?” “Do you know what your story’s really about?” “Do you know what the Opponent wants, and why?” “Did you get the image order right in action description?” If you can’t ask the correct questions, you’ll never get across the finish line.
I hate to sound like an ad for my book, but it is incredibly handy.
At the beginning of my writing career, a producer said, “Don’t have people talk on the phone all the time. Put them in a room. It’s better for the reader, the audience, and certainly it’s better for the actors.” Someone had to tell me that. That’s not a trick. That’s good writing. If someone doesn’t tell you, how will you ever know? You can figure it out for yourself, but it will take longer.
Angela Bourassa: With my own scripts, I feel like I can always tell when something isn’t working, but I can’t always pinpoint what that something is or why it’s not connecting. What are the best strategies for accurately identifying weaknesses in a script?
William M. Akers: If you can divine when something in your own script isn’t working, you’re way ahead of the game. It’s much easier for my students to critique their neighbor’s material than unearth problems in something they wrote themselves.
I’m a huge fan of screenwriting books. Reading books while you write will help you find ways to improve your story. Use the books you admire and build a team of people who will give you notes. Then run draft after draft through your reading group.
A good tool is to create a list of mistakes you make repeatedly. For instance, I often start sentences with “And.” A weakness. I admit it. Well, since I know I do it, I make sure to root it out. Make a list! The further you are along with your own writing, the more detailed and rewarding your list will be.
From time to time, instead of looking at the overall story, check smaller elements, one by one. That’s not to say the overall story doesn’t need work, but sometimes it’s useful to look at building blocks, not the entire edifice…
Just inspect slug lines. See if you can cut the last line in most scenes. Put the best word last as often as possible. Take starter words out of dialogue. Does Sylvia’s voice always sound like Sylvia? A series of small tasks, gently accomplished, is a good way to defeat writers block. It gets you moving without the angst of “I can’t solve this giant, horrible problem.”
If you can spot all the flaws in your own work, you’re lucky. I can do a decent job by myself, but I give it to my writers group to get me over the top.
Angela Bourassa: Any script could always be better, and some scripts are doomed from the start. How can writers know when it’s time to start making moves (pitching, entering contests) with a script they’re happy with? And how can they tell when it’s time to call it quits on a script that’s not working?
William M. Akers: A producer told me this: “How do you know when your script is ready? When the only choice is do another draft or blow your brains out.” Sadly, just because you’re sick of your script doesn’t mean it’s finished. You can assume it’s ready, send it off to a producer, and find out… it wasn’t. Oops. Door closed. Opportunity blown forever.
If you find someone “real” who agrees to read your script, do not give it to them until you’re absolutely certain it is perfect in every possible way. But it’s difficult for a beginner to know when the “professional” level has been reached. If no one in your writers group has Hollywood experience, how are they going to be able to help your script get to the level where a development executive isn’t going to delete it from his iPad?
Pitching, a.k.a. telling your story to people, is always worth doing. When I tell a story to someone, I find opportunities for improvement. If I lose their attention for a second, I know I need to go back to the drawing board. If you want to try a pitching event, go ahead. Telling your story to anyone helps. But go in there having practiced a TON. Enjoy the experience, meet people, learn from the notes, but unless you have an agent and two killer scripts, do not expect to sell a pitch.
I pound on one script, finish a draft, then start the next script and push it forward until I finish a draft, then go back to script #1… a good way to keep my sanity. When you think one is ready, work on the other one. After a while, when you come back to the first one, you will discover that no, it wasn’t as perfect as you’d hoped. Before you attack Hollywood, you need two screenplays, anyway. If you hear, “I love this. Not for me though. What else have you got?” you’ll have something to email her. That day.
Your second question, “How do you know when it’s time to give up on a script?”… is murderously difficult.
If you quit every time the going gets rough, you won’t ever finish one. However, don’t beat a dead horse. If your script can’t be fixed, stop trying. Start something new. Years later perhaps, you might be able to go back to that story with more scripts under your belt.
Some story woes cannot be repaired. Some screenplays cannot be saved. The more you read and write, the more you will know and, with more experience, you will also be quicker at judging something as unsalvageable.
Angela Bourassa: Which scripts do you think are the best examples of great writing for the current marketplace?
ARRIVAL by Eric Heisserer is one of the best scripts I’ve read in years. Beautifully written. THE SOCIAL NETWORK by Aaron Sorkin rocks.
I adore Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi’s screenplay for HIDDEN FIGURES. Inventive. Original. Hugely emotional. “About” something important. Funny. Exquisitely well written action description and dialogue.
Of course, you can still learn a lot from CHINATOWN and THE VERDICT and HARD TIMES. Structure is structure. Perfect storytelling is perfect storytelling. Killer great dialogue is killer great dialogue. ROCKY, written 1,000 years ago by Sylvester Stallone, has some of the most inventive scene work I’ve ever read. Just because it’s old doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze knowledge from it.
There are amazing writers out there. Each one dedicated to their craft. They understand how hard it is to scale the north-face-of-the-Eiger of getting a screenplay written, rewritten, polished, ready to go out.
This stuff is not easy. Even for superb writers, it is excruciatingly difficult and takes a long time to do. A long time to get fluent. Books are helpful. Consultants can be worthwhile. A dedicated group of talented writers who want to improve each other’s work can be your most valuable ally.
Or marry the daughter of a studio head.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.