June 19, 2019

5 Instances of Terrible Writing Advice [w/Lessons from Each]

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We've all heard some terrible writing advice in our lives. It might have been from so-called "experts," professors, or even in an unhelpful YouTube tutorial, but there are good writing lessons at the heart of every bad note. Let's look at a few together to see what you can glean. 

Tell me if this rings a bell, you're attending a screenwriting seminar, listening to a lecture, or getting notes from someone, and they lean in and tell you they have a piece of advice. After hearing it, you shake your head. You feel a little worse off than you started, and you're not sure what to do next. 

Terrible writing advice is all around us. Bad writing advice comes from many sources. We hear it in blogs, podcasts, and all over Social Media. 

Today I want to go over the 5 biggest pieces of terrible screenwriting advice I've heard, debunk each of them, and give you the proper lessons to take away from each of them. 

Ready? Let's go... 

Terrible Writing Advice Tip #1: Write What You Know

I know I have told this to someone. So right off the bat, let's start with the advice I am guilty of handing out. When I tell someone I think they should "write what they know" chances are I'm searching for a personal connection that I just don't find in their pages. 

Akin to that, they might have an under-researched idea that makes reading their pages a slog or hard. When I was an assistant I got to work closely with Michael Werwie, who wrote Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

Michael was so much fun to learn from because he epitomized the best part of "write what you know" - a screenwriter who is confident and knowledgeable about the subject she's tackled. Michael was not a serial killer (I hope) but he was an expert on Ted Bundy. So he was able to write Ted with authenticity and breathe new life into a case most Americans thought they knew and understood. 

When we gave Michael story notes, he was able to hear them and craft them in a way that aligned with the facts. 

So the next time someone says write what you know, don't limit yourself to general knowledge, just make sure you're an expert on whatever you write. Be it serial killers, long haul truckers, or apartheid. Seek out the information, synthesize it, and make us believe it's a part of you.  

Terrible Writing Advice Tip #2: Create Likable Characters

This one inherently bugs me all the time. When we talked about character development and character arcs, we covered the idea that no one cares if your protagonist is likable. 

We care if they're interesting. 

Film and television is built on characters we want to follow every week. That means while rooting for them is great, we mostly want to be invested in what they're doing. 

One of the best examples of this is Mavis in Young Adult

Mavis returns to her childhood home to steal back her ex from his with and their new child. What she does along the way is reprehensible. But we watch because this kind of cringe comedy is undeniably entertaining. 

So when you're sitting to write, don't ask if we like them, ask why we care? What's new? 

What makes your characters interesting? 

Terrible Writing Advice Tip #3: Don't Write Screen Direction 

This one always come back time and time again. And I feel like we keep debunking this stuff but bad writers keep coming back and saying it. Look, I will concede that some people tend to over-direct on the page. But don't be afriad to write things like CLOSE ON: or PAN TO: 

Remember, screenplays, while being literary artifacts, are blueprints for films and tv shows. You're allowed to direct the audience's eye, let studio execs in on how the information will be dispersed, and make a connection with the person who will eventually direct your movie. 

They're definitely not necessary, and I always think it's better to tell the story in a way that alludes to the shot without perfectly defining it, but you can totally have screen direction on your page. 

Terrible Writing Advice Tip #4: Keep Your Ideas Small (and Makable)

One of the "hot take" tips from bad writers or well-meaning individuals is that your foray into specs and TV should be small ideas that are easily made at an indie or studio level. While this is sweet and nice advice, a great screenplay, no matter the size, is all that matters. 

Repeat after me... A GREAT SCREENPLAY, NO MATTER THE SIZE, IS ALL THAT MATTERS! 

Bad writing is advice is so easy to dispense and hard to clean up. Sure, if you're writing a spec script studios, in general, are looking for movies that cost under 20 million ao they have a better chance and recuperating the money put into the budget. 

But they're also looking for their next franchise like Pacific Rim or a little spec called STAR WARS

If you have an idea you're passionate about, write that screenplay. In the end, most of your spec work won't sell anyway. The idea is to get reps, get in a room, and pitch on projects the studios have already purchased. 

Terrible Writing Advice Tip #5: You must adhere to Three-Act Structure 

Look, there's a whole Reddit forum on movies that don't use three-act structure, so read there if you want a ton of examples. Movies like Boyhood, 8 1/2, Mo' Better Blues, and Born on the 4th of July all have diverse and interesting act structures. And that only gets us into movies that have "B" titles. 

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(Graphic by StoryboardThat.com) StoryboardThat.com

The reason this act structure is emphasized is that it fits most Hollywood movies. But not having it is not a killer. There are lots of examples of movies that thrive without them. The point is, if you're telling a good story people won't be looking for the midpoint or other Blake Snyder beats. 

Don't be afraid to look into things like five-act structure, which is how every episode of Breaking Bad is formatted. Or seven-act structure, which covers many procedurals. 

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(Graphic by StoryboardThat.com) StoryboardThat.com

Even Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo uses five-act structure. Don't be afraid to push back and tell us a story that makes us rethink the way we see time on screen. 

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1 Comment

These are great tips, but I also think a lot of best practices are situationally appropriate, relative to the ultimate objective. Are you aiming to sell your script? Produce it yourself? Is it going to serve as a writing sample? When I set out to make my feature, Mr Misfortune, I knew that I had to write to available resources, mainly consisting of access to a restaurant, my car, and some rooms in my apartment. Would the optimal version of the screenplay have been so contained if there weren't budgetary constraints? Maybe. Maybe not. I think good tip is, regardless of scope and reasons for scope, write something that feels grand but is producible for far less than the impression would have you believe, and above all else, make it entertaining. Among the positive feedback I got from a Black List evaluation, the reader noted that the characters were something an A list actor would love to sink their teeth into and the movie would be producible for a very modest budget (they had no idea how modest). Check out the trailer! vimeo.com/327521448

June 25, 2019 at 3:46PM

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Rick Caplan
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