No one can really say what makes an effective screenplay, because no one really knows what makes a screenplay effective. Certainly part of the problem stems from the fact that screenplays can’t be judged by reading them. They may read well or badly, but that often says more about the reader than the screenplay.
The only way a screenplay can be evaluated, almost by definition, is not on the page, but by viewing the movie it caused to be made. It certainly can be read and even enjoyed, but you’re stuck with the inescapable fact that it was written to be seen.
“Causing the movie to be made,” incidentally, is no small thing. From it stems the historic hatred Hollywood has always displayed for the screenwriter. No matter what is said about how a movie gets made, one fact is inescapable: until the screenwriter does his job, nobody else, like actors, can do theirs. Until the screenwriter does his job, nobody else has a job. In other words, he is the asshole who keeps everybody else from going to work.
The hatred on their part usually takes the form of contempt for him because he’s not good enough to put them to work—and fear of him because they need him to go to work. Meanwhile, their wrath at being kept waiting is likely to assume various forms. In a sort of mini-Dante-esque exercise, we might say studio execs and agents rage at being kept in limbo, ambitious actors and producers fulminate about doing time in purgatory, and aging movie stars and all directors swear you’ve damned them to hell.
Another reason for their anger is the pervasive tendency to underestimate the true difficulty of the screenplay form. It started with contempt for the form itself, born and bred in those decades when novelists and playwrights would come out to a California bungalow and condescend to knock out a script in a couple of weeks for big bucks so they could go back to their daytime job and do some really serious writing. It’s rare, however, that anyone has an understanding of how disciplined a good script must be, and how much work goes into achieving that discipline.
Then, too, the usual readers for the screenwriter’s script—studio execs, producer, director, cast, and crew—could not exactly be said to approach their task with enlightened disinterest. There is hardly anything more threatening to them than this 120-odd page document. Generally, the writer’s professional colleagues, particularly actor, director, and producer, ask three questions as they read his work, none of which anyone is in a position to answer: 1) Will this script be any good as a movie?, 2) Will it make me look good?, and 3) Will I work again if I do it?
Most screenwriters have never been an ongoing part of a motion-picture production, and most production personnel know it. They therefore know that a screenplay is a peculiar act of prophecy by someone who’s no more licensed to work with a crystal ball than he is experienced in working on a film. That he would presume to write something that’s going to cost fifty million dollars, be cast with actors he doesn’t know and has never met, made with a director and crew he doesn’t know and has never met, on locations that may or may not exist, in weather conditions that may make it impossible to shoot, can only confirm their suspicions about him. The mere fact of writing the screenplay is an act of astonishing arrogance and proves the writer should never have written it in the first place.
However, I think it is true that narrative skill in screenwriting may be at an all-time low. There was an undeniably greater story sense evidenced by the preceding generation of filmmakers. It may have been due in part to the fact that directors like George Stevens and producers like Darryl Zanuck (who also wrote)—for that matter, everyone from Ernst Lubitsch to William Wellman—began their careers in silent pictures. Without sound, they were obliged to think very carefully about making the story and motivation clear. This obsession with story and with clarity never abandoned them when they abandoned silent film.
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