Monday, May 6, 2013

"Do readers read so much that it becomes impossible for anything to NOT seem like a cliche?"

In response to last week's post about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Kevin Lenihan asked:

A question I have is whether you would have liked the script if it had appeared on your desk as a spec by an unknown. I ask this sincerely and with the fullest of respect.

I check in with the blog once and a while. Plenty of interesting thoughts here.

But what I wonder is if there might be a problem with people that have read too many scripts or seen too many movies. Everything becomes so "familiar" to them that it becomes virtually impossible for a script or film to please them. Even worse, because of the human tendency to fit things into previously experienced molds, there may be the possibility of misunderstanding a story as the mind fills in the blanks with its own expectations.

Recently I watched Seven Psychopaths, and it struck me that the writer was expressing a frustration with this phenomena where critics and readers are so determined to find something that does not resemble anything they've seen before that the only things left for the writer are to create absurd plots and characters.

I once saw a script reader complain about gangsters "having guns", how that was so cliche. What should they be armed with then? Hedge clippers?

Please don't take this as criticism. On the contrary, I empathize with your situation, with your having read so many scripts, many no doubt awful. I just wonder if the result is that as soon as you encounter something which resembles something familiar, the assumption is that the story is following the same path. You might at times fill in the picture before the story has been given a chance to. 

It's a fair question but it overlooks a simple fact - we still recognize GOOD scripts that use those elements.  I don't think it's a case of film or scripts becoming impossible to please an audience, more that the standard is higher.  Consider Roger Ebert - the man often watched three movies a DAY and was still capable of being impressed by strong tentpole crowdpleasers and smaller indie films alike.

The familiar alone isn't what often inspires wrath; it's the uninspired usage of the familiar.  In the wake of Garden State, I can't tell you how many naval-gazing scripts I read about one's own quarterlife crisis, often featuring a spirtely girl who's sole purpose for existing was to pull our hero out of the doldrums.  In those cases, the author wasn't bringing anything of their own to it - there were merely repeating what had been done.  Often, they were including story beats without justifying them.

Just last month I read a thriller that committed the same sort of offenses.  It centered on a crooked cop and the gang war that was brewing as a new tough guy moved into town.  The problem was that there was no depth to any of these beats.  We were merely show the new gang wiping out the old gang, with no explanation ever given as to what each gang's agenda was.  The crooked cop had been owned by the old gang, and then switched sides to join the new one, but again, there was no internal motivation for that switch-up.

It was as if the writer had watched a lot of crime thrillers, identified certain beats that occurred in each one, and then duplicated them.  But without any motivated relationship between those beats, there was no story.  It was a collection of events, none of which seemed necessary to the others.

That script was an extreme case of getting so much wrong at once.  More often you'll end up with a script with a tepid plot and a few familiar elements that make little effort to cast familiar elements in a new light.  While there is a fair number of terrible scripts out there, the vast majority of scripts are mediocre.  Hell, there's probably an argument to be made that the vast majority of released films are mediocre. 

But you know the side effect of so much mediocrity?  The really good stuff stands out, and that's what The Perks of Being a Wallflower is - really good.  You pose the question of if I would have liked the script if it crossed my desk as the work of an unknown.  The simple truth is that Stephen Chbosky might as well be an unknown to me. I've never read his work before and I'm not familiar with him at all.

Beyond that, one isn't a script reader for long before they likely will be in the position of writing PASS on a script written by an established writer.  Is it possible that now and then Cameron Crowe might get a stronger benefit of the doubt than a new writer might?  Probably.  But then, Crowe has a track record of turning out strong films, so there's more faith in his ability to execute something that isn't coming through on the page.  But Crowe has EARNED that benefit of the doubt.

Chbosky turned in an excellent film without the benefit of a long screenwriting and directing track record.  I could see some people giving this a pass for business reasons (Emma Watson apparently was taking meetings with every studio in town, telling them to make this movie, only to be met with disinterst), but I find it unlikely that anyone would read this and question the quality of the writing.


  1. You mentioned that established writers with good track records are more likely to get the benefit of the doubt (as they probably should). However, do you occasionally encounter material from such a writer and get the sense that he/she is phoning it in, more or less riding on their previous success?

    1. For obvious reasons, I'm not going to elaborate on this but... yes. It has been known to happen.

      I hasten to add that it's far more frequent that one's faith in those established writers is rewarded.

  2. Nice Q & A. I've often wondered if readers get script burnout as well as the critics. It's the writer's job to bring something new to the table that fits the story and not forced. General audience patrons don't go see 30 wedding flicks but the pros have to suffer through them.

    BSR you mentioned tepid plots. When is something replicated or phoned in verses inspired work that doesn't cross over into the absurd? I'm wrestling with this now on a new script. My head hurts!

  3. I, too, wonder if script readers do in fact become bitter and burnt out. I honestly can't imagine reading for a living. Sounds weird to write that out and see it, especially because I love to read, but the utter crap you guys must wade through to get to the goods... Makes me nervous to even bother writing anything. Sort of.

    "It was as if the writer had watched a lot of crime thrillers, identified certain beats that occurred in each one, and then duplicated them. But without any motivated relationship between those beats, there was no story. It was a collection of events, none of which seemed necessary to the others."

    As a noob in all of this, that is a very real fear of mine. It's also a driving force to make sure I don't do that. Glad you pointed *that* out.

  4. Could be mentioned that you "saw" the movie.
    It's not certain that a reader will always "see" the movie.

    John August once said that the writer is the only person that has seen the movie -- before it's produced. (Yes, it's the writer job to communicate his vision. Just as it's the reader's job to ask if there a movie here.)

    Writers of bad scripts will continue to use this as an excuse.
    But also -- good and great scripts will slip through the cracks.
    Eastwood's reader hated UNFORGIVEN.
    FIGHT CLUB met resistance from a reader.
    These movies got make.
    We don't hear about the ones that don't.

  5. Thanks for the well considered reply BSR, much appreciated.

    I remain convinced it's a problem. Yes, if a writer can bring something new to the table using familiar tropes, that should work. But the problem is that as soon as a jaded reader, maybe a "bitter" one, encounters something he sees as too familiar, he is no longer open to whatever new angle the story might bring. His mind has already shoved things into a category. He is now so busy anticipating "familiar" things that he is unable to see anything new.

    If the writer is well established, and has earned that benefit of the doubt, then the reader will give it more rope and try to look past the tropes. But if the writer is not established...

    You mention that the standard is higher now. So the question is...are films better? If the answer is yes, then the burned out critic/reader issue is not a problem. But if the answer is no, that's a sign of trouble. I mean if higher standards are leading to less quality films, then we have to really ask why.

    Again, these remarks are given with the greatest of respect. I just see an obsession with "tropes", even with relatively new script readers in the field.

    Look, this kind of thing happens in fields other than film. Two examples: philosophy and art.

    The demand for originality in the modern art world has evolved into the need for "shock". The "art" that has resulted is something that most people would never consider art...something appreciated only by a tiny group of insiders. Frankly, the art that is mostly produced now represents a serious decline in quality.

    20th Century philosophy suffered a similar fate. When most avenues of inquiry were exhausted, existentialism and then finally nihilism were the final result.

    I'm not suggesting that tropes and cliche characters and scenes are not a problem. What I am saying is that possibly the line has shifted too far. I would hate to think that we are moving to a point where only absurdity has value because it involves something not seen before.

    Thanks again! Great blog!