TIPS FROM A FILM WRITER TERRI ZINNER: Why is your reader saying: pass?
While there are many reasons why a script gets a “pass”, here are just a few to help the writer understand what I look for when doing coverage and why your script might get a pass.
Remember, use your coverage notes as a tool. Don’t take them personally. My goal is to help the writer create the best script they can.
1. Lack of a strong or worthy external goal. In most scripts your protagonist will declare an external goal. The external goal may be catching a killer, winning the love of their dreams, or winning a race. It’s the goal that drives your protagonist and how they go about achieving their goal that propels the storyline. However, if the goal is weak or not relatable, the writer is going to have a difficult time convincing the audience to become emotionally invested in the storyline. The writer is also going to have a challenging time sustaining the plot.
2. Lack of strong stakes. When the protagonist declares a goal, along with the goal the stakes should be clearly identified for the audience. There should be something at risk for your hero. The higher the stakes the higher the tension and emotional response. The stakes and jeopardy could also escalate as the story progresses.
3. Lack of sufficient conflict and escalating tension. Story is about solving problems and conflict. Essentially, without conflict or compelling tension there’s not much driving the plot. Conflict can be external or internal. One way to create tension and conflict is to create strong obstacles for your hero. Remember, tension should escalate and build towards the climax. The strongest tension should occur in the third act. Having your hero confront insurmountable obstacles will generate complex tension.
4. Lack of relatable protagonist or hero. First, make sure your protagonist is well identified for the audience. I have read scripts where the true identity of the protagonist is ambiguous. This is problematic. You want your audience to root for them. Your protagonist doesn’t need to be “likable” is the sense of him or her being a good person. In fact, the best characters are flawed and complex. They should be intriguing and fascinating to watch. The best characters show deep internal struggle. Their conflict is often in conflict with their external goal. Great heroes are driven by their inner struggle and have strong motivations; sometimes these motivations are very personal.
5. Lack of a compelling antagonist or villain. Your foe should be just as worthy and/or as strong as your hero. The stronger the villain, the more work your hero has to do to defeat them. An antagonist has to be convincing and believable, not melodramatic. They also need to have solid motivations for their actions. Some of the most chilling and worthy foes have rational explanations for their amoral actions.
6. Lack of powerful dialogue. You can have a great concept, but if the words your characters speak fail to captivate the audience, it could be a fatal flaw in your script. Dialogue is perhaps one of the most challenging features of screenwriting. It requires skillfully weaving in subtext; making characters show unique, convey information about plot and character without sounding contrived or on the nose.
7. Lack of new or original plot. A lot of producers will pass on a well-written script because the plot feels too familiar. If you have a formula plot or a recognizable plot, finds ways to give it an original voice and create a unique point of view or perspective.
8. Lack of clarity. This may be the number one reason a producer never finishes your screenplay. Basically, they don’t understand it. This is one reason why getting feedback is pivotal. As the writer, you understand or should understand your storyline. Don’t assume the reader will. Strive to create a logical and coherent plot. Writers like to create non-linear series of events. This can be very creative, but if they are difficult to follow you risk the chance of losing your audience quickly. Once you have lost your audience, it’s difficult to get them back. Lack of clarity also plays a role in understanding your characters’ actions or motivations.
9. Lack of strong structure. There are dozens of classes and theories on structure for screenwriters. They all have different names, but basically it’s all about the hero’s journey and how he or she goes about accomplishing their quest. A lot of writers cringe at the word structure simply because they don’t understand it or they think it makes their story feel too formula. However, every great story has a well-crafted structure. You may just not be aware of it. Structure includes several techniques in screenwriting, including setting up and foreshadowing events (later paying them off), interweaving theme, creating sufficient tension points, creating a pace that keeps the momentum flowing, creating insurmountable obstacles at the right time and place, creating a strong midpoint, and developing a series of highs and lows, which all building towards the climax.
10. Lack of emotional experience. For me this is a major concern and something I look for. As a story analyst and producer, I want to be moved by the storytelling. I want it to be entertaining, yet at the same time thought provoking. If it’s a comedy I want to laugh and if it’s a drama I want to be moved emotionally. If I’m watching horror feel I want to be terrified to the point I cover my eyes. In an action film and thriller, I want to be excited and on the edge of my seat. Creating an emotional response can be challenging for a writer. It’s not easy. Part of creating this response is through visual storytelling, words, and action. Creating a satisfying ending for the audience also plays a major role in the emotional experience. At the end, as a reader, viewer, or producer, I want to learn something from the story, but moreover I want to be moved by it.