My Stomach Hurts
NOTE: I dashed this off yesterday to the Scriptfella screenwriting group on Facebook. Somebody soon replied, “My brain hurts.” Haha!
Do you remember the old Charlie Brown comic strips where Charlie Brown overhears Lucy giving terrible advice and walks away groaning, “My stomach hurts”?
That’s how I feel swimming in the waters of screenwriter advice, courses, discussion, etc.
It’s not that most of the advice is bad; a lot of is quite good, in fact.
The Scriptfella videos are particularly good, with actionable tips for craftsmanship and business development. (And I’m not just kissing ass, I've written to Dominic Morgan to say that.)
But almost nothing addresses the fundamental problem...
It’s not structure, character, dialogue, format—not even concept (the biggest reason why producers/managers pass on your logline—lame concept). Not even a passive protagonist!
It’s that the writer is essentially disinterested in the human condition.
The essential currency you are dealing with when you write a script is the shared humanity between you and the reader.
These are the reasons why writers don't take the time meaningfully consider human experience in their scripts:
They don’t know any better [!!!!]
Human experience is driven by emotion. To understand emotion, it’s best to have a map of your OWN emotional life, and that needs a lot of introspection—probably therapy, too, though I would not be dogmatic about that.
The craft of screenwriting is so difficult—it’s so excruciating to get characters to do what you need them to do just so the plot functions—that it seems insane to make things harder on yourself by considering how real people would actually behave.
People use writing as a kind of therapy, to work out their issues in a way they can control. But the writer Nick Meyer likes to say, “Life is hot, but art is cool.” The goal is not to make yourself cry—it’s to make the READER cry.
THIS IS A HUGE ONE: Screenwriting courses are simply not going to teach human behavior!
Per Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Screenwriting courses/contests/coverage sites need repeat business—so they tell writers things they want to hear...that they’re special, their ideas are special, each script is a beautiful baby, etc.
When the honest answer is that most people’s scripts are just lame, going nowhere, and will probably never improve to a degree that’s salable because they don't have a marketable concept, or interesting enough voice.
I realize teachers would be extremely hesitant to teach human behavior because it would be like teaching an ideology or point of view. And it probably wouldn’t even work—you’d just get a lot of clones of the teacher’s philosophy.
These are some of the things I see over and over again in amateur scripts, owing to the writer being perfectly willing to settle for false human behavior:
Action movies that are full of novel ways to explode heads, but completely boring to read (usually written by men). Sometimes there IS a human relationship at the core—like a mom who wants to protect her kid—but in a way that’s just a rip-off of Ripley and Newt. This is 2022—to up your game, make Newt the villain!
Romantic comedies (usually by women, but not always) where the protagonist is surrounded by assholes and idiots. Look...you can make fun of other people so long as you make fun of yourself. These seem to be bitch-fests by the writer about how everybody else sucks.
Comedies that so cartoonish, they’re essentially farce. Because nobody is a real person.
I’m sure there are more.
Have you heard pros complain that they can pass on a script based on the first page?
This is why. The human behavior is not just wrong, but ABSENT.
This is also why playwrights probably transition the best into screenwriters—because their entire discipline involves mining emotion from a few people talking on a stage.
HOW DO YOU IMPROVE?
This will sound completely corny, but the way to start...is just listen to your heart.
“Relatable” has become a dirty word, because it’s used to justify the lowest common denominator of programming.
But it’s actually crucial. If you’re watching a movie or reading a pro script—look for the human emotion.
Most amateur writers are way too hung up on plot. Forget about plot. Plot is easy.
Look for feeling. Not in a sentimental sense. In a real sense. (Probably people’s scripts if following this advice would get wildly overemotional; then it’s a matter of dialing them back, learning subtlety.)
When the kid is brought before the principal in a teen comedy (a scene we’ve all read a thousand times), don’t have the principal be a hard-nosed asshole.
Have him be a good man who cares about his students. Maybe he has bad ideas or is clueless about things, but have him try.
Because that’s much more like reality.
Just look at the world around you—real people, with real lives—and obviously that won’t translate to a movie, it would be boring as shit, but look at the truth of who people really are.
Look at the predictability of human reactions—just the way some people will appreciate this post, and others will think I’m an asshole.
Look at passive-aggressive behavior (The Sopranos is a masterclass in that).
Now go back to your concept (hopefully you actually have one) and think—what about this concept lends itself to a human journey?
Movies thrive on simplicity.
Simplicity needs discipline to whittle away the bad ideas, and leave the good ones.
The good ones are the ones with emotions.
The rest is craft.
I’m sure this is way overlong and borderline incoherent—apologies. Maybe you can just roll your eyes and mumble, “My stomach hurts.”