Mark Sanderson – aka Scriptcat – is a stalwart of the Hollywood screenwritings scene, with 15 produced movies under his belt to date. So, he knows a thing or two about the art of writing for screen. In part 2 of our series with Mark he outlines some of the most common scriptwriting errors you should avoid as a new scriptwriter – or even an established one.
In his book A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success: Tips, tricks and tactics to survive as a working screenwriter in Hollywood Mark goes into a lot more detail, offering a wealth of knowledge and invaluable insights on how he has managed to chisel out a career in writing for the screen over so many years.
If you enjoy this, be sure to check out the rest in the Mark Sanderson interview series with Film Forums, including how to survive and thrive as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
FF: What are the most common errors that you see from first-time or indeed any script writers who come to you as a script consultant?
MS: Well, again, this can all be claimed as dogma or, like, ‘Oh, there are no rules!’ And no, there aren’t any rules. Everyone breaks them all the time. Quentin Tarantino and people that we’ve all heard of – and no one’s trying to curtail anyone’s style – but if you’re a professional and you’re a producer or director or executive, you can immediately tell by the quality of the work.
I heard someone once say something like: if you’ve heard someone who’s been playing the piano for 20 years, or someone who just started yesterday, people can tell. I can tell when I open that first page of a script, and I’m like, ‘Uh oh!’ You start to read and you see all the giant blocks of text and overwriting, where they’re describing the wallpaper, the carpet, and all of these other things and you’re like: get to the point, you know?
A writer has to know what to put in and what to leave out of a screenplay.
As I always say, stay the hell out of the way of the story, rather than everyone’s worried that the script won’t have their imprint on it. Yes, it will. The script is your imprint. Don’t be afraid that it isn’t. But, telling actors to roll their eyes and blush, you know, on cue…
I’ve been blessed to have been on most sets of my movies. If they’re not shot here, then of course, there’s no reason for me to go. But luckily, the ones in Los Angeles, I just show up on the set. It’s a great learning experience because you want to be a production savvy screenwriter, not just work in this bubble of writing your specs at home. Because eventually, the idea is that you’re going to be working with other professionals, and you’re going to have to know about production, and it’s going to show immediately if you don’t know what you’re doing.
I’ve been on sets on location where I had to do production rewrites. Luckily, not many, but you don’t want to get into that situation. If you are, it’s like, ‘Okay, here’s the changes…Well, that bit didn’t work, go talk with the actors.’ It’s such a great time because you’re sitting in your hotel room, you wrote it, and now you’re here with the actor, and you’re saying, ‘Well, what do you think about…?’ and they go, ‘Hey, you know what? You handle it, you know, I’ll trust whatever you do.’ It’s an amazing collaboration. But you don’t want that kind of pressure because those changes are being filmed the next day. Wait, it’s two in the morning and you’re thinking like, ‘Oh, geez, you know, it better be good. Yeah. because everyone’s waiting on you to film it tomorrow, you know?’
FF: A lot of pressure and responsibility as well…
MS: Exactly. So, anyway, in terms of errors: you’re reading the script and everyone says what they mean in dialogue. There’s no subtext, you know, there’s the dialogue dump where someone says, ‘So tell me about your past’… the music cue, and then there’s a page of dialogue. This is not a stage play. This is not a soliloquy, right?
Every director I’ve worked with has always said, ‘Give me something to shoot!’ Two people sitting and talking heads are not interesting. Some people can make it interesting, but the dialogue tends to drive the narrative; the characters follow their motivations and you can have those scenes.
Pacing too is important. Stuff that just dies, you know on the page… So there are many things involved. Mainly overwriting; the script comes in well over 100 pages… okay, a first draft can be long, but I’m also coming at it from the assignment world where you don’t have the ability to turn in a crappy first draft. You just don’t. You’re already holding up the development process, and they’re expecting greatness because you’ve worked on an outline which a lot of writers fight against, but in film school my professors were always working professionals. They were always telling us, ‘Oh, I have this movie on TV.’ My professors were actually working in the film business. And they would make us plan the film with an outline before we started writing pages just like you would in the film business. You can’t just sit down and go, ‘Hmm, let me think…’ and then you start to get lost on page 45. And it just veers off course, and writers say, ‘Well, I’ve got it. I’ve got some good stuff in there, right?’ Maybe. But about 75% is not going to be used, and is that the best use of your time for a first draft?
If you have all the time in the world to write specs, that’s okay. But eventually, as I always say, you do want to work professionally in the business. So you’re going to have to train yourself to have self-imposed deadlines. It can’t be just open ended.
Because two days go by, and three, and procrastination, and life gets in the way, and suddenly you’re not finishing your script and the producers say: ‘Hey, how’s that script?’ and you reply, ‘Yeah, I’m still on page 20.’ It’s the same place as six months ago…
If an agent or manager started representing you, they don’t want to hear that. They want to hear, ‘Let’s go! I’m done.’ You have to have this ability down, and I’m going to send you out for those jobs, and you’re going to have to deliver. Otherwise, you’re going to make me look bad and you’re going to destroy your career. In addition, if a script has problems with format, structure, characters, and dialogue it’s a problem. All those things are red flags when you start, and writers say, ‘Well, they’ll get through all of that to read the genius of my story’. Well, is that what you really want as a writer? Do you want to have a difficult and poorly written script? You know, it’s like a cloud blocking it; and they don’t have time to waste with it. There’s too many good ideas and too many well-written scripts around. Everyone says, ‘Oh, Hollywood makes such crappy movies’. You know, it’s always the victimisation of someone saying, ‘Oh, now I could do better’ and not really knowing how difficult it is to have any film made; someone actually investing their money… No filmmaker sets out to make a bad movie. They don’t. No one’s just throwing money around and saying, ‘I want to waste it and make a crappy film.’ A film production has so many moving parts and so many chances for it to go badly.
MS: Ok, well, that made money!
FF: Yeah, that’s true!
MS: So there’s a reason behind it. It was a parody, tongue in cheek genre film for a TV network that spawned sequels. It’s true, though, and sadly it shows that it is a business. We all forget that; we want to be an artiste, but it’s also a business. So if you can get your great story through, there are so many hurdles and also collaborative people, executives and whatnot.
And so yes, sometimes a great script is altered so much that it does turn out to be kind of, you know, not as good as the original, the writer pulls their hair out and says, ‘Oh, that’s why they don’t want us on the set!’ I’ve sat right behind a lead actor scratching out dialogue on the script I wrote. And I’m like, ‘Eh?’ And he was writing in how he would say it, and I’m like, ‘Be careful!’ You know, don’t kind of make up stuff because you feel you have to as it could change other things earlier or later in the script…and so I just went to the craft service to eat and I’m thinking, ‘What am I upset about? I’m on the set, I got paid and, not that it doesn’t sting, but you can’t say anything because then they’ll be like, ‘Why is this person here bugging me on set? I’m working.’
You have to know how to be a professional and detach from the work. That always comes from experience and some common sense. You need a thick skin.
But those first time script mistakes, you don’t want them to have to sort through all the muck and mire and you know, madness and go, ‘This person can’t write, but it’s a great idea.’ So what, they’ll buy the idea and fire you or give you, contractually, one draft and ‘yawn yawn’ we’re not even going to read it. That’s not what you want. You want to turn in a superb spec script to be read that can possibly get you an assignment job. Most importantly, it’s representing your ability and talent and first impressions matter.
Like I always say, the mantra: don’t give your script out before it’s ready. It’s all of these things we just spoke about…I can see it because I consult on a lot on scripts as well, and you just start reading it and think, ‘That was the same issue the last writer had, and the two writers before that, and you try to clean it up and point it out to them, you know, nicely, and say, ‘Hey, you know, this doesn’t work for this reason and maybe cut down on this…’ and writers do learn, and they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t realise I was doing that!’ You have rewrite your script until you have the most effective version of your concept and it has to match. A poorly written spec script from a good concept does not help a writer. They won’t buy it for the idea alone and even if they did, they would allow the writer one rewrite and then fire the writer as they probably could not fix the issues. You may write a 150 page script, but you’ll never show that to someone. Rewrite, edit, rinse and repeat.
FF: You’ve written a book based on your years of experience. Can you tell us what it’s called and give us a flavour of what screenwriters can learn from it?
MS: I have it right here. It’s called A Screenwriter’s Journey To Success: Tips, Tricks and Tactics To Survive As a Working Screenwriter in
Hollywood, at 302 pages it’s kind of a memoir, but I use specific examples of what’s happened to me over the years, and point out how I learned from that, and then went on to use that discipline and how it’s worked.
So there’s a lot of interesting stories about pitches and craziness that I’ve gone through. But it’s a guide, not: ‘This is how you should write the three act structure and all these things…’ There’s a million books on that and, you know, I would rather write something about how to survive in the trenches, which is what the book does. It’s a lot of, what I would say, common sense. It’s also knowledge that you can only gain if you’ve been in the business and had a lot of hard knocks. There are so many ups and downs to get to wherever, whatever level that you can achieve.
So it was about five years in the making, the book, and, I joke, five years in the writing and 20 years in the living. And I have a blog called “My Blank Page”, and out of the blog I started thinking, ‘Well, you know, I’ve got enough material here that I can shape a book about a journey’.
You know, the first chapter is basically…we spoke about earlier…being a wide-eyed kid making movies, you know, and saying, ‘Why can’t I do this?’ And doing it. Then six years later after film school and all the experiences…it’s a book for beginning or intermediate writers or even professionals. It’s very fulfilling when people all over the world…I get comments from people on Instagram, they’re saying, ‘Oh, I bought your book and here it is… To have someone actually say, ‘I learned something from it’, you know, and ‘Thank you so much for this because there aren’t many books like this out there’. It’s gratifying.
It’s something that I needed to get out of my system. Then everybody says, ‘Well, now you have to have the follow up!’ I’m like, ‘Another book?’ Or maybe that’ll be a novel… I don’t know. I so respect that writing so much that I wouldn’t even know where to begin.
Film lover. Coffee hater. Raising a newborn during a global pandemic and interviewing indie filmmakers in between nappy changes.