I've seen a common mistake among a lot of first-time writers and slush pile submissions and it seems to be another case of taking "write what you know" a bit too literally. That mistake? Centering your screenplay around a writer.
I can't help it. I groan a little when I start reading a screenplay only to find that the protagonist is either an aspiring or a wannabe screenwriter who's struggling to break into Hollywood. I've seen dozens of these scripts and most of them share the same problems. First, even more than usual, the protagonist tends to be a stand-in for the writer. That's not a bad thing unless the script turns into a soapbox for the writer to vent about everything they think is wrong with the world they're writing about.
In other words, a script about a struggling screenwriter quickly can turn into a therapy session where the writer complains about everything wrong with Hollywood, how the system is out to block people like him and is basically a 120-page pity party with the lead character as the only sane one. Either he's fighting to get a fair shake from sleazy agents and producers, or he's doing his best to maintain his artistic integrity against forces trying to ruin his script.
Seriously, save that sort of self-indulgent tripe for your blog. I do.
The only think worse than that is when the story is not about how everyone is against the protagonist and their unique vision, but when the writer/protagonist is such a visionary that everyone they cross paths with can't help but remark on their brilliance.
Seriously, save that knob-polishing for your blog too.
Part of the problem is that writing isn't very cinematic. The act of writing is little more than a guy sitting alone, working either with pen and paper or a word processing program. It takes a VERY talented writer to make that interesting on the screen. If I may be so frank, writers who have only completed one or two scripts haven't yet grasped the subtleties of writing cinematically. That's something that a diamond in the rough might be able to get away with if they happen to be working with a very solid concept. Something like this - which isn't inherently visual - might stymie the newbie writer.
And let me say this - if you are writing about a screenwriter, and the last scene of your film is that screenwriter's movie winning "Best Picture" at the Oscars, for the love of God, change it. At least twice I have literally tossed a script across the room in frustration when it ended with such an indulgence.
There's a big risk that comes with proclaiming your characters to be brilliant writers - whether they're supposed to be great screenwriters, songwriters, novelists or poets. At some point, those characters are going to have to deliver the goods. That's a problem if the talent the characters are supposed to have surpasses the ability of the writer.
I always think back to Can't Hardly Wait, a film I enjoy quite a bit and can't help watching whenever I run across it on cable. There's a subplot where Preston, played by Ethan Embry, is trying to give a letter to class beauty and queen bee Amanda, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt. It's the night of their graduation and the letter is his confession of his long-standing crush from afar; the first time he's ever really even said anything substantial to this girl.
As much as I enjoy the movie, Roger Ebert nailed the films biggest flaw in his review. Remarking upon the fact that Amanda falls hard for Preston after reading the letter, he says, "This must be some letter. We never get to see what it says, no doubt because a letter good enough to win Amanda would have to be better than anything the screenwriters are capable of writing."
But I think the point is made. If you're going to write about a character capable of writing an Oscar-winning film - it helps if you yourself are talented enough write said movie.
And one final note: most of the time, that Oscar coda is completely unnecessary for the resolution. Show a little restraint and your story might earn a little credibility.
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