Monday, August 15, 2011

Reader question: Should all readers recognize the same script as strong writing?

Matt asks:

A screenplay I submitted to Nicholl made semi-finals two years ago. I re-wrote the heck out of it, again, and again, and again, figuring out of ten sps this was the first to get any attention, so I might be onto something.

Submitted it again this year, and it went out the first round.

I realize there were over 6000 entries, what one reader likes, another hates, etc... Question is: If a script is really "that good" should it be recognized as such by most trained readers? Was it most likely a fluke it even made semis before (like maybe the subject matter hit the right reader on the right day cuz of something in his/her personal life etc)??

I could probably offer some long-winded thesis about criticism, personal tastes, and how the varying quality of submissions between the two years can contribute to these different results.... but I won't. This is the sort of answer that's bound to drive some aspiring writers nuts because they DEMAND automaton-like consistency from readers.

Here's the thing - that's not possible. Sure, you'll probably find general agreement about the very best screenplays and the very worst screenplays, but there's a whole middle section of that curve that's neither enough fish nor foul to get the exact same reactions from a plurality of readers.

The very best writing - the strongest writing that's eventually going to send those writers onto their career - will probably garner similar reviews from readers. Is it likely that all the scripts at the semi-finals are at that top level? Personally, I wouldn't stake my rep on it.

I'm not saying you're not a good writer, or that your work doesn't show potential. It might just be that you're still in the middle of the pack. You show promise, but you're not quite ready for "the show." Yet.

You also have to look at the fact you didn't submit the exact same script both years. You rewrote it, which could account for the difference in reactions. Maybe there was something in that more raw version that the readers were responding too. Perhaps the rewrite took some passion, some edge or some urgency out of the script. I've seen it happen before.

But look at this - you got to the semi-finals. You hit near the target. If you were an archer, you'd keep drilling, keep firing arrows until you hit dead center more consistently. Put the reader out of your head. Yes, sometimes you might get a crap reader. Sometimes you might get a good reader on a bad day. But none of that really matters.


Because there's nothing you can do about it. You accomplish nothing by worrying about this. Reasonable, intelligent people will sometimes come to very different and still valid conclusions about the scripts they read. I took a quick look at the comments at Scriptshadow and saw plenty of evidence of this. You see evidence of this in movie reviews. Heck, I'm willing to bet that there are movies that you love that your friends can't stand.

I've got a friend who will argue that Armageddon is legitimately one of the best movies ever made. Yet he and I agree on many other films. Corner him at a party and bring up (500) Days of Summer and you will see him physically react with disgust and contempt for that film. (So he's not ALL wrong in his cinema critiques.) Me, I'm stunned so many of my film classmates had near-religious experiences during Magnolia. I hated that film so much that it's pretty much put me off of Paul Thomas Anderson's work for life.

Seriously. You will have to drug me and throw me in a straight jacket to get me in that theatre. I don't care if the film gets 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Blame everyone who put their hand to their heart in Oscar season 2000 and said, "SUCH a brilliant movie. Magnolia was incredible."

Liars. Every last one of them.


Keep writing. Keep working. And when you're really good, you won't have to worry about getting the "right" reader. Even bad readers recognize a home run.


  1. Haha. oh.. Magnolia.. Yeah I'm in the same boat as you. I liked it for what it was, but it's similar to how i feel about the the Godfather. I mean, it's good, but since everyone else loves it so much, i'm almost turned off by that alone.

  2. I'm a little disappointed that you had to throw "500 Days of Summer," under the bus like that. What did cute little Zoe Deschanal ever do to you?

  3. Doogie - It's not what she did do, it's what she DIDN'T do. That is, act in "Tin Man." There's phoning it in, and then there's sending smoke signals from the other side of the valley.

    To be fair, I have many, many issues with (500) Days beyond Zoe casting, though it doesn't help that she's playing a version of one of my least favorite indie movie archetypes.

    Peter - Tom Cruise is pretty much the only part of the movie I can stand. It's one of the most self-indulgent films I've ever seen and even if everyone hated it, I'd still loathe it as much as I do.