While there's a lot to be leaned from watching and analysing great TV shows and films, there is also an abundance to learned from watching bad TV and bad films.
As writers, it is easy to be aware of what makes for bad writing while simultaneously incorporating those bad traits we see in other people's work into our own writing.
For what ever reason we overlook, or somehow rationalise away the mistakes in our own works of fiction.
I Just finished watching - no, that's a lie, I just gave up on watching SURVIVOR - the 2015 spy thriller starring Milla Jovovich and Pierce Brosnan.
There's very little to recommend the film.
One thing I noticed was that Milla is not as good an actor as I thought she was - and Pierce is actually far better than I gave him credit for.
But that's not why we're here. A break down of performance is not going to help what was already dead on the page.
As I attempted to watch this film - I started to note down the mistakes it made. See if you have been guilty of incorporating any of these screenwriting no-no's into your works...
THE UNCONNECTED OPENING.
A lot of spy thrillers start with a hook opening. A scene that goes off with a bang. Something that grips the audience and sets up the tone and the pace of the film.
Mostly this opening scene is directly linked to the main storyline of the film.
In Survivor - there is such a hook opening - but it's not until about half way through the film - that you learn what relevance the opening scene had to the rest of the film. Even then, when it is explained, it doesn't have a direct impact on the storyline.
Make sure that your opening hook scene has a direct connection to your main storyline. Don't use it to setup something vague about your hero's or shadow's back story.
THE LATE INCITING INCIDENT
Just a quick re-cap on what the inciting incident is.
It's the event that will call the hero to their adventure. It's the event that changes the hero's world so much that it tests their flaw and sends them off on their journey of self discovery.
The sooner you get to this the better. As I've said before, and I'll no doubt say again - Jaws has its inciting incident in the opening scene. When the young woman gets eaten by the shark. That's about as soon as you can get.
In the good old days, film goers would be happy to hang around in the ordinary world of the film for 20 minutes or so before the inciting incident would propel the hero on their journey.
Now days, you are pushing the cinematic love if you go much past the 15 minute mark, in fact, most would argue that the 12 minute mark is about as late in the piece that you want to be writing your inciting incident.
Survivor - manages to put its inciting incident at the 24 minute mark.
That is far too late.
That means you have 24 minutes of watching the ordinary world. The ordinary world is called that for a good reason. It's ordinary.
While a cleverly written story can have a compelling ordinary world - there's very few movie watchers that will sit past the 20 minute mark without wondering - why am I watching this? What's the story about? When is something interesting going to happen?
Get your inciting incident to happen as soon as feasibly logical for your storyline. If that means it's coming after the 15 minute mark - you need to tighten up those first 15 pages.
SCENE OF DEATH
These are scenes where there is no conflict. And nothing of story importance occurs.
There is a scene early on where Milla meets up with her close friend. A lady who is an artist. Milla goes to her gallery, hangs out, sips champagne, nothing happens. They chat. They're good friends.
This is cinematic death. You must USE every scene to move the story forward. This is the perfect example of a non-dramatic scene.
Why was it in the story? Because Milla needs a friend to call on later.
Milla needs a friend. Great. Can't you think of any other way to introduce her friendship that could maybe have moved the story forward.
How about Milla confides in her friend that she's uncovered something illegal going on at her place of work. Perhaps they get into an argument about that? That way you can use the 'introduce Milla's friend scene' in a productive - move the story forward kind of way.
I said they should get into an argument because ...
SCENE'S WITHOUT CONFLICT
Drama is conflict.
Without conflict, you have dull, dull scenes.
This maxim works across the genres.
The best comedy comes from conflict. The best horror comes from conflict. The best drama, comes from conflict. Sy-Fi, westerns, musicals - you name it, conflict is what drives story.
Can you imagine American beauty if Kevin Spacey loved his wife, and got along fine with his daughter?
There are several scenes in Survivor where there are no conflict. Just characters chatting away, having a nice time. Getting along.
Granted, conflict does come - and when it comes, there is plenty of it - but that brings us to my next point...
This seems so - logical - but how many times have you seen a film and thought - 'that wouldn't happen in real life, it's not logical'.
In Survivor - right after the inciting incident at the 24 minute mark - Milla goes on the run.
It works for the film.
I remember thinking - why is she on the run? She's done nothing wrong.
About three scenes later - she is seen doing something wrong - so after that scene it becomes logical for her to be on the run.
But until then there is no LOGICAL reason she should go on the run.
This brings me to the problem of the...
OPEN ENDED GOAL
This is an easy one to avoid - but it still happens too often.
In Survivor - Milla is wanted for a crime that wasn't her fault. Her goal is to exonerate herself.
How does she do that? I have no idea. Neither did the writer.
Not for the first half of the film anyway. Maybe later he introduced something for her to go after, but for the first half of the film - I had no idea WHAT it was Milla needed to do to exonerate herself.
This is an open ended goal. A closed ended goal would have been if Milla needed to get to X to prove that she is innocent. Then we have a tangible goal to latch on to.
It's okay to have mystery in your story, just don't have the mystery be about what your hero's goal is.
Okay, that's just another word for logic.
In Survivor - there is a scene where a UK official is talking to MIlla, and says, such and such's wife died because she couldn't get a visa to go to America to have life saving surgery.
Think about how dumb that is.
Some of the world's finest surgeons are in the UK. Some of the world's greatest surgeons are in Europe. There is no plausible reason why someone with ample amounts of money would need to fly to the US for a life saving operation.
It's just illogical.
It's not plausible.
Don't write stupid things into your screenplay.
Yesterday, I wrote an entire post about the importance of the unexpected.
Telegraphing happens when we the audience can see ahead of time what is going to happen.
Now telegraphing is fine. So long as what you telegraph DOESN'T happen.
Survivor forgot that last part.
They telegraphed that something bad was going to happen. Milla was fortunate enough to not be in the danger zone when that something bad happened.
Nothing really bad happened to her.
A beat was telegraphed - and it played out just the way we expected it to.
Predictable screenwriting is bad screenwriting.
I've written about this before... but I'll say it again...
Coincidences happen all the time in real life. But when they happen in a film - the audience calls it what it is -- bullshit writing.
Example - in Survivor - Milla is about to be shot by an assassin - when - boom - just when he fires - a gas main explodes.
Coincidence? I don't think so. It's just bad writing.
She's then able to turn and run away.
CHARACTERS LOOKING AT THEMSELVES IN MIRRORS
Do I even need to expand on this?
Don't write these scenes in. They were cliche in the 90's. I don't even know what they are now.
Does a double cliche make it not a cliche? Do two cliches become none?
What is the sound of one cliche clapping?
Sorry. I'll stop. You get the idea.
Seems obvious doesn't it?
And yet - here in Survivor - we have stupid moments.
Milla has just wrenched a gun from a guy. It has fired one bullet. She then tries to use the gun to shoot someone - and - it's out of bullets.
That's right - the old - one bullet cartridge gun.
What is this the 1800's?
That's just stupid. Don't write stupid things into your script.
My final note is more a production note than a writing note -
If you ever find yourself directing or producing a spy thriller - please don't have your sound designer add high pitched bleeping noises when text appears on a computer screen.
When text appears on your home computer does a high pitched bleeping noise accompany it?
So why the hell do they put them in films?
Never do this. Please. Ever.
Also - computer graphics that are illogical.
When you have an actor typing at a computer screen - and there's a cool little graphic of the world, spinning around on screen - do you ever stop and ask yourself - why the hell is there a graphic of the globe spinning around on screen?
No normal computer has that - unless you're running Google Earth.
The take away...
It's easy to be critical of other people's work - I don't do this to point the finger and make fun. I genuinely want you as writers to become aware of these common mistakes so that when you are writing your scripts you can avoid the pitfalls of others.
Luck with your writing... :)