Thursday, May 01, 2008

Fatal Flaws in Screenwriting

What are the fatal flaws in screenwriting?

Articulating failure in terms of storytelling is a very elusive game, because you can defend almost anything. If you, for example, complain about lack of characters arcs, I might list a whole slew of famous characters that never arc’d. If you complain about an unsympathetic protagonist without a goal, I might ask you if you rooted for Michael Corleone to order the execution of his own brother. If you complain about a plot hole, I might show you dozens of films with gaping plot holes that have been excused because, darnit, people love the movie. If you complain about a passive protag, I might explain how there was a point to passive protags in classic film noirs. If you complain about how a story's just a bunch of characters sitting in a room debating, I might remind you of a film called 12 Angry Men. If you complain about a story not following the three act structure, you better believe I’ll list many sensational films that made mountains of money and never followed the three act. If you say, “this really upset me and made me angry,” I might tell you, “that was the point.”

Are there fatal flaws in screenwriting?

There are, of course, flaws in technique. If some newbie gave me a screenplay that's 300 pages long, I’d say that’s a fatal flaw, and I won’t read it. If I’m given a screenplay filled front-to-back with huge blocks of ridiculously overwritten paragraphs, I’d say that’s a fatal flaw, and I won’t read it. If the grammar is so poor that it’s downright indiscernible, I’d say that’s a fatal flaw, and I won’t read it. I know I've said this before, but dammit, a writer ought to know how to write and a screenplay ought to look like a damn screenplay.

In terms of craftsmanship, the working screenwriter has
an article in which he lists numerous hiccups that he would deem fatal flaws, such as being non visual, dreadfully dull, over writing, on-the-nose dialogue, etc. Terry Rossio has a good article in which he called certain fatal flaws One Hundred Million Dollar Mistakes. He talked about delivering the best ending for the story, of course, getting the basic approach right (a comedy should be funny), using situations to unfold the narrative (in other words, keeping your characters active and moving from one situation to the next as opposed to laying low and doing nothing), and finally, addressing the need for a theme or organizing idea throughout. For that, he gave an example from Shrek:

“On SHREK, we were insistent that the story had to be about an ogre who was happy the way he was -- if the world rejected him, then he would reject the world. It was about putting up emotional barriers as an inappropriate reaction to rejection. Surrounding Shrek, all the main characters were dealing with similar inappropriate reactions to issues of self-worth, exploring all faces of the theme, and giving the film a sense of unity. At one point, the production team decided to throw that out and explore the notion that Shrek's real problem was that he wanted to be a Knight, so people would like him (we called this the 'woe is me' or Hunchback version of the story). That change screwed everything up, and you could see a hundred million $1 bills flying out the window. Happily, the production team, after seven months of brutally hard work, abandoned the 'woe is me' approach and came back to the emotional barrier theme. Now of course nobody can see the film any other way. Essential battle won, and the One Hundred Million Dollar Mistake narrowly avoided!”

God, the “I want to be a Knight” idea makes me cringe. The over-zealous pursuit of sympathy in a protagonist has lead to so many cornball ideas. That is at the root of so many bad films because ridiculously preposterous concepts get shoved down our throats all in the name of a sympathetic protagonist with goals we can root for.

I’ve also been reading Ebert’s new book, Your Movie Sucks, which is full of so many favorite reviews of mine. The badder, the better! If you get a chance, you should read his zero-star review of Deuce Bigalow from which derives the book’s title. There was also his classic confrontation with Vincent Gallo over the Brown Bunny. But the review I treasure most (and the debate that followed and lessons learned) was over an unknown, brutal, 2005 film called Chaos.

In the review, Ebert

Chaos is ugly, nihilistic, and cruel -- a film I regret having seen. I urge you to avoid it. Don't make the mistake of thinking it's ‘only’ a horror film, or a slasher film. It is an exercise in heartless cruelty and it ends with careless brutality. The movie denies not only the value of life, but the possibility of hope… There are two scenes so gruesome I cannot describe them in a newspaper, no matter what words I use. Having seen it, I cannot ignore it, nor can I deny that it affected me strongly: I recoiled during some of the most cruel moments, and when the film was over I was filled with sadness and disquiet.”

Then the filmmakers ran
an open letter to Ebert in the Sun-Times:

…Natalie Holloway. Kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq shown on the internet. Wives blasting jail guards with shotguns to free their husbands. The confessions of the BTK killer, These are events of the last few months. How else should filmmakers address this "ugly, nihilistic and cruel" reality -- other than with scenes that are "ugly, nihilistic and cruel," to use the words you used to describe “Chaos.”

Mr. Ebert, would you prefer it if instead we exploit these ugly, nihilistic and cruel events by sanitizing them, like the PG13 horror films do, or like the cable networks do, to titillate and attract audiences without exposing the real truth, the real evil?

Mr. Ebert, how do you want 21st Century evil to be portrayed in film and in the media? Tame and sanitized? Titillating and exploitive? Or do you want evil portrayed as it really is? "Ugly, nihilistic and cruel," as you say our film does it?

We tried to give you and the public something real. Real evil exists and cannot be ignored, sanitized or exploited. It needs to be shown just as it is, which is why we need this s—t, to use your own coarse words. And if this upsets you, or "disquiets" you, or leaves you "saddened," that's the point. So instead of telling the public to avoid this film, shouldn't you let them make their own decision?

Ebert replied:

Your film does "work," and as filmmakers you have undeniable skills and gifts. The question is, did you put them to a defensible purpose? I believed you did not… In a time of dismay and dread, is it admirable for filmmakers to depict pure evil? Have 9/11, suicide bombers, serial killers and kidnappings created a world in which the response of the artist must be nihilistic and hopeless? At the end of your film, after the other characters have been killed in sadistic and gruesome ways, the only survivor is the one who is evil incarnate, and we hear his cold laughter under a screen that has gone dark…

I believe evil can win in fiction, as it often does in real life. But I prefer that the artist express an attitude toward that evil. It is not enough to record it; what do you think and feel about it? Your attitude is as detached as your hero's... While it is true, as you argue, that evil cannot be ignored or sanitized, it can certainly be exploited, as "
Chaos" demonstrates. You begin the film with one of those sanctimonious messages depicting the movie as a "warning" that will educate its viewers and possibly save their lives. But what are they to learn? That evil people will torture and murder them if they take any chances, go to parties, or walk in the woods? We can't live our lives in hiding…

You use the material without pity, to look unblinkingly at a monster and his victims. The monster is given no responsibility, no motive, no context, no depth. Like a shark, he exists to kill. I am reminded of a great movie about a serial killer, actually named "
Monster" (2003). In it, innocent people were murdered, but we were not invited to simply stare. The killer was allowed her humanity, which I believe all of us have, even the worst of us. It was possible to see her first as victim, then as murderer. The film did not excuse her behavior, but understood that it proceeded from evil done to her. If the film contained a "warning" to "educate" us, it was not that evil will destroy us, but that others will do onto us as we have done onto them. If we do not want monsters like Aileen Wuornos in our world, we should not allow them to have the childhoods that she had…

As the Greeks understood tragedy, it exists not to bury us in death and dismay, but to help us to deal with it, to accept it as a part of life, to learn about our own humanity from it. That is why the Greek tragedies were poems: The language ennobled the material… What I object to most of all in "
Chaos" is not the sadism, the brutality, the torture, the nihilism, but the absence of any alternative to them. If the world has indeed become as evil as you think, then we need the redemptive power of artists, poets, philosophers and theologians more than ever. Your answer, that the world is evil and therefore it is your responsibility to reflect it, is no answer at all, but a surrender.

I’d say that’s a fatal flaw.

So what do you think? Are there any other fatal flaws in screenwriting?


Anonymous said...


Sucking is definately a fatal flaw.


There are many fatal flaws. A famous writers writing a movie/show that is no good by his/her own standards is an example of many fatal flaws at play.
Imagine if Dollhouse sucked and sucked HARD. Something definately went wrong.

Anonymous said...

being boring

You Suck At Screenwriting... said...

That interview just made me want to see Chaos now...don't you just hate when they do that.

I remember when I saw the movie "SuperSize Me"...literally 5 minutes after the movie, everyone that saw it just looked at each other and said "Anyone up for McDonalds" and sure enough we all went.

Anonymous said...

It's not quite a fatal flaw if the invisible hand of the writer reveals itself, but it is surely a fatal flaw if their heart and soul don't.

Christian H. said...

I think writing for a big check is the biggest flaw, followed by changing your vision for money.

Also, trying to be clever with locations is bad.

Cookie cutter characters that tell you why they do what they do.

Believing that images are not the be all and end all of cinema.

Abrupt jumps from scene to scene with no real connection.

Caring too much about three act structure and hitting "page numbers." (I was guilty of this)

Studying screenwriting gurus and not film philosophers.

Christina said...

You Suck at Screenwriting: My friend and I also ate McDonalds after seeing Supersize Me. It's funny how watching him eat it for 90 minutes made us want it too.

MM: This is a great article. I really like Ebert's response to the filmmakers. Roger Ebert by far is my favorite film reviewer of all time, followed by Mick LaSalle of the SF Chronicle.

I think the Break Up - that movie with Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn - was the romantic comedy version of Chaos. It showed us exactly what a romantic break up is like WITHOUT expressing a point of view about it. That's why many people I know saw it and hated it, thought it was too much like a real life break up.

Anonymous said...

Please list some great films that don't follow the Three Act Structure.
For those of us on the short bus.

Anonymous said...

Having scenes that serve no purpose to the story or to the characters. It is a very easy trap to fall into as well.

I personally hate being told what is happening in screenplays. I want to see it happen. I want to learn how characters think and feel but what they do. "Clearly distressed" or "obviously happy" and the like. It's lazy, vague and boring to read. I like seeing the world on the page. Instead of writing "he's irritated," say "clenches his jaw," or "pinches the bridge of his nose," or "his nostrils flare." Be visual.

GimmeABreak said...

Thanks for the links/reminders (to Terry Rossio's article and Roger Ebert's book)!

David Alan said...

After thinking this over, I don’t think we can apply this question to new/amateur scripts. Because too many new/amateur writers fall victim to these three things:

1. Bad Ideas.
2. Bad technique.
3. Sucking.

And no, I'm not saying these people are god-awful writers. That wouldn’t be fair. They are just new to the game. Well actually, I will say that nobody can fix number 3 for you. You are what you are.

But anyway, I think you missed the answer to the question in Terry’s column. He gave it to us in the beginning:

“-- that moment right there, where they all leap aboard the Stupidity Express, next stop, Mediocrity, USA, most studio movies -- that's what I call the ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLAR MISTAKE.
It's when a decision gets made that is so bad, so fundamentally wrong, so devastating to the project, that no amount of time, hard work, inspiration or money can repair the damage.”

Millions of films, which started out as great scripts, are now sitting in the 2.99 dollar bin at Wal-Mart. Why is that? It’s because filmmaking is a collaborative process. And the process continues to chew up and ruin many masterpieces. And for all we know, the Chaos script could’ve contained everything Mr. High-and-Mighty was looking for. And that and this --

“If you, for example, complain about lack of characters arcs, I might list a whole slew of famous characters that never arc’d. If you complain about an unsympathetic protagonist without a goal, I might ask you if you rooted for Michael Corleone to order the execution of his own brother. If you complain about a plot hole, I might show you dozens of films with gaping plot holes that have been excused because, darnit, people love the movie. And so on...”

-- is all subjective. Different strokes for different folks. That’s it.

So, are there fatal flaws in screenwriting? I don’t believe so on the professional level. Fatal flaws only exist in films. Also, if you understood this muddled response, I commend you.

Mark said...

Having taught screenwriting this year, I would say that my students greatests flaws were a lack of focus. This problem resulted in poorly defined characters and story.

The root of this was often in imitation where they were trying to copy something they liked without understanding what made it work.

More often than not I was writing
"focus your idea". What is it about? What are you trying to say? This criticism sounds much like what Ebert was complaining about in his review of 'Chaos'. It's all well and good that they had intent to disturb the audience but to what end?
Very funny 'you suck at screenwriting'. I also found that Supersize Me had that kind of effect on me as well! Probably because I hardly ever eat at MacDonalds and his response to the taste of the food made it appealing!
I think Mamet said the same thing for the anti pornography documentary 'Not a Love Story'. It's popularity was partly due to the titillating sex scenes, ironically arousing an audience it was trying to educate about the evils of the porn industry.

Mystery Man said...

Carlo - Hehehe... Sucking is definitely a fatal flaw! Are you talking about Joss Whedon's show? I haven't seen it. Time's always been an issue for me. I regularly watch "Lost" and only because we have "Lost" dinner parties every week where we talk about the show.

anon - boring, definitely! I believe that's what Spielberg told Koepp (from the latest CreativeScreenwriting mag). It'd suck if Indiana Jones was boring.

Suck - I dare you to see that film and tell me about it. I had to get a burger after seeing "Iron Man." Hehehe...

terra - coldness, definitely. I recall Ebert reviews where he would say, "Why should we care?"

Christian - You keep thinking that way, and I'll do those paycheck assignments for you. Hehehe... There's nothing wrong with assignments work. And how can you be too clever with a location? Not clever enough would be a bigger problem to me...

Christina - Hey, girl! He's my fave, too, although I've been reading James Berardinelli quite a bit lately. He's constructive. Hadn't seen the Break Up. I feared more about formula than the filmmakers' attitudes about that situation, but that makes sense.

Leo - Oh, come now, Leo, how can you not know any? I'll name my favorite - "The Godfather." What? "The Godfather?" Yes, it follows a 4-act structure, common in Italian operas. The majority of subplots are introduced first and the Inciting Incident represents the end of Act One. In fact, the Hero's Journey can easily be a four act structure.

Kevin - I couldn't agree more. Pointless scenes is my biggest pet peeve!

Pat - I did it all for you, of course.

David - Hehehe... I loved your comment, man. I think I comprehended it, and I have no complaints. Your list of 3, I think, are spot on. Those are probably the three biggest elements I talk about when I do reviews. Thanks for that.

Mark - I couldn't agree more. I think a lot of that lack of focus stems from a lack of the proper preparation for a script before jumping into it. Too many aspiring writers I know jumpt into writing a new script too quickly without doing their homework first or really thinking it through.

Great comments all, guys. Thanks so much.


Joshua James said...

I'm late to this.

I think THE INCREDIBLES basically has seven acts when you break it down.

And JUNO, which I just saw, also has four acts, each which covers one of the seasons.

I like four and five acts, myself.

Interesting thing, the difference that which sucks and that which does not. It's one of those things that we have to literally point at, in a way.

In a way, when it comes to writing performance material (as opposed to fiction or reviews or STUFF WRITTEN TO BE READ WITH THE EYES) the difference between sucking and not sucking comes down to whether or not IT PLAYS . . . will it work when a good actor expels the words writ from their mouth.

Will it work when a good actor does whatever the action called (slap a guy, make a pass at a girl, spit up a shake) for in said script. Will it be believable and interesting and will said actions, put together, make sense and work?

I'm spitballing, but you get the idea.

Joshua James said...

Oh, for the record I should add, I quite enjoyed THE BREAK-UP, quite a bit (so did the Samurai Lady) - I thought it was a flawed work but enough of what was in there worked (the argument about wanting to do the dishes, that alone was priceless) and it was different enough from all the other rom-coms that I liked it enough to watch more than once.

I felt there were parts that did not work (interestingly enough, Favearu's character is one) and it was hard for them to sustain the story once we got to seventy minutes, but I liked it a lot more than most movies about guys and girls around the age of 30 (uh, MADE OF HONOR, anyone? I don't even need to see that) and I liked it wasn't afraid to get uncomfortable.

Maybe it's because I live with a woman, heh.

But shoot, it's just my opinion, and I'm WAY late to this discussion.

Butch Maier said...

I enjoy reading your blog. You can check out the one for my upcoming romantic comedy movie "The Bride and the Grooms" at

Anonymous said...

Carlo: Dollhouse sucks?

Televisionary is "still trying to catch [his] breath" after reading Joss Whedon's "brilliantly evocative script for his new seven-episode drama series for FOX, Dollhouse."

Anonymous said...

I was saying "imagine if dollhouse sucks, wouldn't that be dissappointing?"

I don't know how someone can misinterpret that.
And no, I haven't seen Dollhouse yet, seeing as how it's not out.

Thomas Rufer said...

Fatal Flaw:

- If you can cut the first 10 pages and your script still works.

- Just one bad scene... even the tiniest one.

Team Brindle said...

Coming way waaay late to this but just had to say: another great article.

Very timely for me as i'm writing a horror story that could be labeled "nihilistic"... or bleak or lacking hope...

But I've thought about the issues Ebert finds objectionable & I think I've avoided the pitfalls of the CHAOS filmmakers.

One hopes anyway...

And I don't think THE BREAK UP was a true Rom Com, it was more of a dramedy that was *sold* as a Rom Com.

If you watch it again with the idea that it's 'an indie movie with 2 unknown actors' instead of a big budget movie w/ 2 movie stars, it plays much better.

It's one of those movies that suffers on account of mistaken expectations.

Unknown said...

What an intense post! Where to start? I do not think cruel heartless films are a fatal flaw -- they make tons of money. I personally try to avoid movies like Chaos that offer no new perspective or positive benefit to the world.

At one point, I thought about writing horror movies because I had a huge stockpile of them in my brain from my childhood weekend viewing. Also my imagination and life experiences are rather dark. Did I go that direction? No. Why?

In a world dangerously imbalanced and tipping toward the darkside, I think it is important that we CHOOSE to add as much hope and positivity to the world as possible. Negativity is there, you really don't need to add to it.

Yes evil exists and is ruthlessly unforgiving. Yes evil prevails sometimes. Does that mean we have to encourage and glorify it? I don't want to be a part of that wrecking ball.

People can and will make tons of money off evil; I mean, look at the news! That's their favorite topic du jour: murder, crime, cruel intentions.

Who we choose to be and what we choose to add to the world is important. I think if we are going to tell stories about evil (and I have lots), we need to offer solutions to evade or conquer it.

We can't say anyone is right or wrong, but we can choose what is right or wrong for ourselves and for the people we love.

MARK -- re: "lack of focus" I agree and write a lot about that at my site and offer suggestions.

FATAL FLAWS -- I think Fortune and Fame are fatal flaws that have turned lots of great writers, filmmakers, and actors into majorly sucking lazy spoiled boring artists.

Mystery Man said...

I just love these comments. I couldn't be more grateful for them.

In particular, I loved your comments Jaden. Couldn't agree more. It's the "hands off" approach by the filmmakers of "Chaos" that, to me, seems to be the fatal flaw. I'm with Ebert. I'd rather filmmakers express something about it. Otherwise, it's just a YouTube vid. We have to rise above that.


Unknown said...

@ Joshua James:

This is a bit off-topic for fatal flaws, but I'm curious how you got 7 Acts in the Incredibles? I've actually broken that script down as well (I think Brad Bird is a terrific writer and filmmaker) and find that it has a very comfortable 3-Act structure, written well enough that we don't notice it too much (unless you study that stuff, like we do...)

Makes me wonder what people actually consider an "Act". If you found 7 Acts in The Incredibles, it seems like your definition is any time the story shifts at all. But, this happens in most movies from scene to scene, or in sequences.

However, I'd argue an Act has a certain unifying element, either thematic or a character need or both that, in this case, carries us through what you might feel are distinct acts in and of themselves.

I suppose this could become a longer discussion and this isn't the best thread to do it.

Incredibles is great, though

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