Reader Question: Is it useful to read a bad script to see what not to do?

@DStraker90 tweeted a question the other day:

Is it useful to read a bad script to see what not to do? I mean that as a serious question.

Damien, I tend to focus my ‘preaching’ on good movie scripts as reading material, however bad scripts can be every bit as educational in their own way.

First off, I can’t tell you how many Hollywood writers I’ve interviewed, read, or heard say one of the main reasons they even considered screenwriting was because they had been reading one lousy script after another. I dare say if you could sit down with any pro script reader, assistant, or intern, they would tell you 90% or more of the scripts they churn through are mediocre to poor to utter rubbish. Read enough crap scripts, it’s easy to imagine how someone could say, “Hell, I can write better than that.” So there’s that.

“It’s incredible when you read
the bad screenplays of amateurs and aspirants,
not only do they not resemble real life or human behavior,
they don’t resemble movies.”
 — Lem Dobbs

But more to your point, can reading a bad script give a writer a grasp of “what not to do”? Yes. The key, however, is not to read a bad script, but lots of them. One script may suck at a few craft related things. If you want to get more of a grasp of the whole panoply of poor writing techniques, better to immerse yourself in tons of scripts. That way trends start to emerge like:

  • Relying way too much on dialogue to advance the plot.
  • Dialogue which sounds like someone writing, not like someone talking.
  • Characters whose dialogues sounds too similar.
  • Too much exposition.
  • Unfocused scenes with too many things going on.
  • Scenes which go on for far too long.
  • Too many scenes of the same type, one after the other.
  • Characters with unclear motivations.
  • Characters who do something out of character just to service the plot.

You read 10–20 bad scripts where these type of things occur over and over, it’s likely you’ll grok that writing lesson in a way you wouldn’t just by talking about it in the abstract.

I would say this: Balance out your reading of bad scripts with great ones. This will highlight both the good and bad writing even more, and reading good scripts can keep you from slipping into cynicism, an attitude which can develop if all you do is slog through one piece of tripe after another.

Another thing: Your job as a professional screenwriter is basically that of a problem-solver. You want to be able to read a script, identify its problem areas, then come up with ways to fix those issues. One way to develop your critical analytical skills is by reading scripts including bad ones.

How to obtain bad scripts? My cute answer: Read some of my zero drafts! But honestly, this is another reason to find and join a writers group. Not that you’re necessarily seek out bad writers, in fact, you’re doing quite the opposite. However as my tongue-in-cheek response above suggests, even good writers can create bad pages. It’s all part of the process of going from a script that sucks to something which does not suck.

Another route: Various screenwriting contests including, I believe, the Austin Film Festival have volunteers weed through submissions. I don’t have much in the way of details, but I’ll bet GITS readers will have some ideas in this regard. People, please help out Damien with some suggestions.

Also what are your thoughts: Reading bad scripts a good idea? Head to comments and let us know your thoughts.

[Originally posted December 29, 2015]

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