Kill Your Darlings

Kill-Your-Darlings-BannerSegment 2B

A Reviewer’s Perspective:

The next step in continuing to look at screenwriting from a practical [rather than a theoretical] perspective, is to examine your finished product through the eyes of an impartial reviewer. An excellent statement of purpose, for sure, but how does one be impartial about one’s own writing.

You have to quantify as many of the elements of screenplay writing as possible and then give yourself a grade based on that quantification. I believe that the five question review format I use is an excellent platform from which you can reach an objective decision about whether or not the current draft of your script is actually the finished draft of your script.

Since I don’t want to take anything in our discussion for granted, I propose that we spend a minute reviewing the reviewer. We will be looking to see if the rubric does what it intends to do.

I will admit up front that my questions have their faults, and I will be sure to talk about these, but they also have inherent usefulness. [I will be sure to talk about that as well.] The goal of going through this process will be to bring you back to the examination of your script as though it were written by an acquaintance whose feelings you have no compunction about trampling on. You can learn to view your script as though it were a collection of strengths and weaknesses and not a collection of darlings that you can’t bear to part with.

Believe me, it is possible. I believe learning to wear this cloak of objectivity is the most useful skill I have to teach. You can give yourself the same notes the best reviewer you know of could give you. You are, if you choose to be, your own best critic. No one else out there understands your story, on the molecular level, the way you do.

Five Question Review Format:

1. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (each part worth 10 points)

2. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

3. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script. (10 points)

Of course, the first thing you notice about my reviewing list of questions is that there is wild similarity between them and the Segments of part one. That is definitely intentional, but I think, much more importantly, it is proper. If a reviewing format isn’t measuring the empirical properties of a great instance of the thing it’s trying to measure… what good is the reviewing format?

The second thing you’ll notice is that my five questions sum to 100 points. I developed this system of rating scripts in response to serious deficiencies I found in the Industry Standard system. I don’t know how everyone feels about this, but I find the industry standard ratings of:


to be grossly inadequate as an evaluation of where your screenplay stands in this moment. For instance, wouldn’t you feel demonstrably better about your “pass” if you knew it was only a few points from a consider?

If you read my website you will see that I’ve reviewed dozens of produced scripts which range in score from a low of 65 for Animal Kingdom to a high of 97 for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , with a middle ground score of 78 for the original script to Source Code. You can now use this information to gauge what I think of your script if it garners, say a 73. You know that, in my opinion, it’s a stone’s throw from Source Code, but a car ride away from Sunshine.

Since that’s all well and good for me, but not much use if you were trying to compare my rating to the industry standard, I have bent my system to accommodate theirs. Matching grading scales yields:

Below a 70 – Pass
70-79 – Consider
80 and above – Recommend

The benefit of this system is that it tells you exactly where you stand. If you’re at a 67, you’ve almost convinced this reader to stake a piece of his reviewer’s credibility on what you’ve written. At an 87, you know I want to come on as a producer. (112)

I fear that this way of rating scripts will not catch on [outside the contest circuits] precisely because it does put the reviewer’s credibility on the line. Our fine friends in the cubicles of Hollywood don’t want to make their job more quantifiable, that’s a good way to lose a job.

However, that doesn’t mean it can’t catch on among us writers. When you review a script for a friend or [even more importantly] when you review one of your own scripts, my format can force you to be objective about your scripts strengths and its weaknesses. The kind of objectivity that can let you know when you’re ready to query and when you’d be better off spending your time on another revision.

Before we look at how to use the five questions to get as much as possible out of them, I want to look at a few areas the questions ignore because those areas aren’t easily quantified. You should still keep these [call them bonus questions] in mind as you read your script. They are important, and making sure your script accounts for them can help you get your script noticed.

Bonus Review Questions:

1. Are there parts actors want to play?

What I find to be the most common mistake with this question is scripts with protagonists that just aren’t likeable. Most of the time I see an author who wants her character to arc, so she creates someone mean, or otherwise anti-social and then has that character arc toward nice and social. Unfortunately, this is a misinterpretation of how an arc should unfold in a story. Generally speaking [in the real world] mean, anti-social people, remain mean, anti-social people, their whole lives. Imbuing your character with an arc means walking her, an otherwise immensely likeable person, along the path to a solution for a character flaw.

Another way this question can become a problem is when the characters are completely subservient to the story. You’ll find an author who has come up with a wonderful and fully executed “high concept” idea, but she forgot to make the eye on her world interesting to see through.

High concept is great, but people make movies to showcase characters.

2. Does my spec spend too many of the studio’s dollars?

We’ve already talked about this before, so I won’t spend much time on it, but when you’re done with your script you should have a feel for what you think it will cost to produce it, well. Impose on yourself a limit of 40 million and then use Box Office Mojo to look up the production budgets of scripts that have similar locations, actors, and special effects to your script, and see what they cost to make.

This will also help you as you design your marketing strategy for your script. You will know which companies are capable of spending the money to make a movie similar to yours.

3. Does my script understand the Red Dawn Mistake?

I can’t remember where I heard this, which means I can’t verify it now, but I did read somewhere that the initial drafts of the new Red Dawn remake had China as the invading country. At some point during its development this was changed to North Korea. Somebody in charge of the production realized that it might not be such a great idea to paint China in a poor light. Why? Because recently, Hollywood has begun selling a lot of tickets in China and it was feared that painting China as the villain [an eventually defeated villain] would cause the movie to go unscreened in China.

Think about that for a minute. A story was made less plausible so that it could be shown in a foreign country.

looper- saraOn the flipside of this, there is also the Looper Mistake.

The draft I read of Rian Johnson’s script has major portions of it set in France. When it came time to film, it was explained to Mr. Johnson that shooting in Paris would drive his movie way over budget. The solution: ax Paris for Shanghai. Not only was it cheaper to shoot in Shanghai, but now there was an incentive for average Chinese moviegoers to pay money to see Looper. Part of it was shot in their country.

The point of this question is to remember that the cinematic world is an international world. You are writing movies in English that the studio wants to show everwhere. Your script may benefit or suffer from this fact, but it has a much greater chance of being made if it understands it.

The reason I don’t add these three bonus questions into the grading rubric is because question 1 is impossible to quantify, and 2 and 3 are basically “yesses or no’s”.

The knowledge that they don’t add into a total score does not mean you should ignore them.

In fact, I’d say that you should answer the three bonus questions when you have completed your blueprint (113) [or no later than when you finish the first draft]. Providing satisfactory answers to these three questions ought to be a prerequisite for spending more of your valuable time on your project.

With that slight digression out of the way, we can now resume our discussion of how to fine tune your critical laser so that it is useful to you in your own work. I am always amazed at how much work people need to do in this area of writing. Authors just can’t seem to see their own work the same way they see the work of other people. My suburban Jehovah, Mr. William Faulkner, was correct, “in writing you must kill your darlings”. Although, if I were him, I would have added the obvious just to be clear:

In successful writing, you must kill your darlings.

If you feel your script is finished and you haven’t cut at least five things that you really did not want to cut, then your script is not finished.

Question One: (114)

Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Scripts which are short on reveals feel like nothing at all is happening. Often characters sit in rooms and have long conversations with each other. Just as often, an author barrages her story with events. Lots of things happen, but little of it seems to connect. These kinds of scripts are very hard to read and will most likely get hit with the boring label.

Part B) Scripts in which the engine doesn’t fit the protagonist usually arise from writing a protagonist that doesn’t need One Thing in the worst way. This causes the attention of the script to flit between several engines, none of which are strong enough by themselves to power a whole script. Authors use mini-engines to keep the story going, but after a while it starts to feel unfocused.

Part C) If you find yourself stumbling around to state your theme, you have not written a clear story. Understand and believe that is true, because it is. If you stumble around stating your theme, I guarantee your character will stumble around in her story. She has too. On a fundamental level, the story doesn’t know what it is, and it will wander. An outside reviewer, like me, will hit your script with the dreaded, episodic label.

Your protagonist and your theme are involved in an unwitting partnership. Secretly, or perhaps, subconsciously, the protagonist already knows the truth stated in the theme. Her problem is: she doesn’t yet believe it. A script will get into trouble in the area of theme and protagonist matching whenever this partnership isn’t adequately realized. They have to depend on each other, or the script will wander—resulting in another episodic narrative.

If your script is one of those that reads in one direction for 90 pages, and then right angles toward Fade Out, you’ve forgotten that the protagonist has to learn to believe in the truth she already knows is true that is stated in her theme. Learning to believe occurs over a process of many pages and requires successes and failures. Scripts with right angles usually consist of a series of failures that, miraculously, end in success. These scripts are often hit with the: Arbitrary Narrative label.

Question Two:

Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

This is the one tip from this essay that I really hope all of you writers use. Read your own dialogue for exposition, subtext, and characterization. If writers started doing this en masse, the flimsy script competitions and [flimsier] note-givers (115) would be put out of business overnight. The quality of scripts on internet screenwriting sites would skyrocket.

Of the literally hundreds of scripts from unrepped authors I’ve read, I don’t think more than five of them ever asked themselves if they had too much exposition in their story. When I open a PDF, the logline for which assures me that its meant to be a romantic comedy, and the first ten pages are lifeless exposition about how the two romantic leads got into the position they find themselves in [the one where they are perfect for each other without knowing it] my heart sinks. I want to ask the author why, if this is supposed to be a comedy, did she spend her first ten pages setting up zero jokes.

Use this question to quantify these three aspects of dialogue, and I promise you, you will write good dialogue.

Question Three:

Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

Well, as the discussion of the last section revealed, authors tend not to take their first ten pages as seriously as I think they should. (116) I don’t understand this tendency at all. Seriously, if you don’t think your first ten are the best ten in the entire script, then something is wrong. How do you expect to keep a reader reading, if you don’t give them something to start with?

That last seems like an obvious point, I make it anyway because I have been told dozens of times by worried authors that their script gets better as it goes along. Really? So you’re saying you want an overworked industry reader with a ton of other scripts to get through, to just trust you [a person she doesn’t know at all] that your script picks up steam as it moves forward. No thank you. She’ll just move on to the next script in her pile.

Be honest with yourself. If your first ten isn’t your best ten, rewrite it.

Don’t interpret this as a request to dress up your first ten in endless explosions and gore. That’s not what I want at all. [Usually that gets boring even faster than the exposition.] No, all I want, all we readers are asking for from you authors is:

The first ten pages of your script must promise the reader a mystery.

This is as true of a thriller as it is a period piece or romantic comedy. Give me the hint of a mystery that will be solved and you’ve got me for the duration. The human mind cannot leave a mystery unsolved.

Question Four:

Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Hold your scripts in your mental hands as you ask yourself question four. Notice how much tougher question four is than the generic substitute:

Is my script any good?

Your script can be plenty good and still not have one single unique thing about it. Good might get you a couple reads, but unique is going to get you the manager or agent who gets you the sale.

You can’t sell good; you can only sell unique.

If you can’t say [either] the story or the writing is unique in your script, then you still need to revise your script.

Question Five:

Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script.  (10 points)

Look, if you’ve written a heartfelt drama then you probably should finish reading your own script and have watery eyes. If you’ve written a buddy comedy then you should finish reading your own script and want to call your best friend from college and reminisce about that time you two stayed up all night disassembling your physics teacher’s desk… And so on.

My point here is that a well told movie makes you want to do something. Call a friend, apologize to a spouse, or just get on twitter and be all “hashtag brilliant movie”. If you finish your own script and you feel anything remotely close to blasé about it, you won’t be scoring high on this question in the minds of other readers, and you need to revise more.

I encourage all you authors to score your scripts according to these five questions. The hope is that they are skewed so far toward outright objectivity, that they have to help you take Mr. Faulkner’s advice and:

Kill [at least some] of your darlings.


110  Proper attribution on this mangled quote to come later.

111  Don’t forget these ratings are for the scripts to these movies. I do not think what was filmed as Sunshine is anywhere near as good as what was written as Sunshine.

112  That’s my lame idea of a joke. It is partially directed at [omitted]. Even though I, personally, like [omitted], his producer shtick was insufferable.

I do not now, and I will not ever, want to have my name associated in any way with “producing” a motion picture. I am a writer and a critic of writing, period. Although, I could be talked into directing…

113  Most people call this by its more normal name of “outline”. I, however, like to amuse myself by calling my outline, blueprints. It’s a silly joke and not even funny, but I’ve been referring to them this way for so long now, I don’t know how to stop.

114  Keep in mind, as we formally take up the reviewing process again, that we are aiming at two targets. 1. Helping you design a successful script before and during the actual putting of words on pages. 2. Helping you evaluate where your script stands after the completion of individual drafts.

115  Where would I be, if I put them all out of business?

116  I’m referring to the ten pages of solid exposition I find [as often as not] in the unrepped scripts I give notes on.


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