Bad Writers Have Nothing to Say

Question: What's the biggest mistake that novice screenwriters\r\n make?
Robert McKee: The biggest mistake they will \r\ntry to make—that they will make—is that they will try to adapt to \r\nwhatever is trendy.  And so they’ll look at the hits, they’ll look at \r\nlast summer successes, or even the independent films, you know.  And I’m\r\n sure that after a film like “Boys Don’t Cry” got out, Hollywood was \r\ninundated with interesting little small stories of small town characters\r\n in some kind of brutal sexual relationships, or whatever.  On the other\r\n hand, “Avatar” of course and films like that spin loose imitators.  And\r\n so they will be more concerned about selling than they will about \r\ncreating, and the attitude often of young writers, or wanna-be writers \r\nfor the screen is that there is so much shit on the screen, surely my \r\nshit is better than their shit.  And so, they want to get made, they \r\nwant success, they want to be in the movie business, and so they will \r\nimitate whatever they see, assuming that because of awful stories like \r\n“Transformers” get made that they just have to find another toy at Toys \r\nR’ Us and imitate that and build a movie around it.
\r\n What separates a good screenwriter from a bad screenwriter?
Robert\r\n McKee: Well, there are degrees of goodness and badness.  And so, it\r\n could be a very subtle difference.  And in that one, you wouldn’t \r\nknow.  You just wouldn’t.  But usually you can tell pretty well.  Even \r\nif they’ve written 20 screenplays, that doesn’t mean that they have \r\nmastered, for example, the craft of exposition.  I can pick a screenplay\r\n up or a novel, whatever, within a few pages recognize whether or not \r\nthis writer has a degree of craft, a mastery of craft, to a certain \r\ndegree at least, simply by noting how they handle exposition.  If they \r\nhandle exposition beautifully, it generally means this is somebody that \r\nis really, even though they haven’t been made or produced, or whatever, \r\nthis is somebody who has thought deeply about the craft and knows how to\r\n draw the reader into their story and not tell them and burden them with\r\n exposition too soon and too heavy-handedly, but draws it with curiosity\r\n and empathy into the story, and indirectly and invisibly as it were, \r\nwe’re gathering in the exposition that we know, but we’re not conscious \r\nof it.
That technique alone requires years of practice.  And \r\ntrial and error.  Generally I can tell in the way in which the writer \r\ndescribes what kind of imagination the writer has, at least visual \r\nimagination.  I can tell within the first dialogue scene of whether or \r\nnot this writer, even in an action piece has any sense of subtext, or do\r\n they write their dialogue on the nose.  I mean, there are certain... \r\nWhen people perform in the Olympics, and you have judges sitting there \r\ngiving them five, six, seven, up to 10, and so forth, what are they \r\nlooking for?  They have ways of judging a performance.  Okay?  There’s \r\na... Some of it is just sensory, there’s a quality of relaxation in the \r\nwork, there’s a quality of confidence in the work, there’s a quality of \r\ncenteredness in the work, and so some of these things are sort of \r\nineffable, but you can judge a performance of figure skating based upon \r\nthese.  Plus, did the blade land at a certain angle?  Okay? 

And\r\n so, it’s the same thing.  Writing is a performance, just like figure \r\nskating. And I can read it and have a sense, again, of confidence, of \r\ncontrol, of precision, of one thing or another.  Now, it doesn’t \r\nnecessarily mean that by the end of the work, I’m going to be wowed.  \r\nBut I can tell from the beginning of the work whether or not the writer \r\nhas mastered their craft to a certain degree.  But that is one thing.  \r\nBut there are lots of people with superb craftsmanship and nothing to \r\nsay.  Steven Spielberg, brilliant craftsmanship, and nothing to say.  M.\r\n Night Shyamalan can really light a scene and really shoot, and he’s got\r\n a cartoon mind, comic book mind.  He’s got nothing to say.  And so, the\r\n mastery of craft is no guarantee overall, on the other hand, you may \r\nsee people are still struggling with the craft, but they have passion, \r\nthey have insight, and they really understand human behavior in \r\nrelationships, or whatever, or they have some wonderful imaginative \r\nideas about alternate worlds in whatever genre.
And so, noting \r\nthe quality of the craft is no guarantee of excellence, but it’s an \r\ninteresting thing that a lack of craftsmanship and a lack of insight \r\ninto life seem to go hand-in-hand.  It’s no accident that bad writers \r\nalso have nothing to say.  Okay?  Having something to say seems to \r\ninspire people.  All right?  But not necessarily.  So, it’s not an easy \r\nthing necessarily, and they can make mistakes and you can judge books \r\nerroneously by covers, but there are touchstones you can use along the \r\nway that give you a sense of quality, versus banality.

The biggest mistake that novice screenwriters make is trying to follow what's trendy.

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