In my June 1 article, What Are Your Real Chances of Success?, I shared that the agents, managers and producers I bring into my UCLA classes consistently say that only one percent (or less) of the scripts submitted to them are strong enough to warrant any serious consideration, while the vast majority fall somewhere between the categories of not very good to outright dreadful.
Why is that?
The conventional answer is that most aspiring writers simply don’t possess the talent required to write at a professional level. Or to put it another way, just because someone has the dream to become a professional writer doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the talent to pull it off.
The conventional answer is wrong.
There are a couple of reasons why most scripts aren’t strong enough, but none of them have to do with a lack of natural writing talent. The main reason most scripts fail is that most writers haven’t yet trained themselves to write in professional-level compelling conflict.
Simply Wasting Your Time
I often bring Michelle Tanner in to speak to my UCLA classes. Michelle has nine years experience reading and analyzing scripts for the studios and major production companies. Her main advice is always, “Do whatever you can to learn how to write in professional-level compelling conflict. Because without that, you have no shot at making it. Without writing in compelling conflict, you are simply wasting your time.”
She is not alone. In his memoir, Rewrites, Neil Simon talks about the years he poured his heart into writing plays that weren’t very good. They kept getting rejected and he didn’t know why. He finally turned for help to his older brother, Danny, a successful TV writer, who taught him the key to success was learning how to write in compelling conflict.
This is a story you often hear from professional writers who talk about the years they spent writing script after script (or play after play) that simply weren’t good enough. Scripts that were lacking something. And usually these writers had no idea what the hell what was missing until someone came along, often an experienced, successful writer, who mentored them in how to write in compelling conflict
Because almost nobody naturally writes like this.
In his memo to the writers of The Unit, David Mamet describes the absolute importance of learning how to write in compelling conflict: “This is a new skill. No one does it naturally. You can train yourself to do it. And you must train yourself to do it.” He makes it clear that writers who don’t learn to write this way won’t have careers.
But David Mamet doesn’t say that if you don’t write in compelling conflict you are shit out of luck and you should quit. Because this isn’t some magical ability that you’re either born with or not. It’s something that writers can learn how to do.
Which is why the conventional wisdom is wrong.
The real reason the majority of scripts fail is because most aspiring writers don’t train themselves to write in professional-level, compelling conflict, and their stories run into a host of problems as a result. And the tragedy is that many of these writers will try to solve these problems in ways that not only won’t help their scripts, but will actually hurt them. To illustrate:
Don’t Blame San Clemente
Let’s say I wanted to drive to San Diego, which is 120 miles from my home. Assuming my car gets 30 miles to the gallon I would need four gallons to make the trip. But for some strange reason I don’t know this and only buy two gallons. So at the halfway point between Los Angeles and San Diego my car loses momentum and coasts for a bit before coming to a stop in the town of San Clemente. And no matter how much I push the gas pedal, swear or pound the dashboard, my car won’t budge.
I have my car towed home and decide to try again. I buy two gallons of gas and head down the freeway, determined to go the distance this time. But once again my car comes to a stop in San Clemente.
I stubbornly try again the next day, but get the same exact result.
And now I finally realize what the problem is.
It’s San Clemente.
San Clemente is like the Bermuda Triangle for people trying to drive to San Diego.
So I Google different driving routes to San Diego, smartly selecting one that stays well clear of that dreaded car-halting town and I cruise down the freeway, brimming with confidence until the halfway point when my car starts to slow and coasts for a bit before finally coming to a stop in Dana Point.
At this point I’m about to give up on my San Diego aspirations altogether when I hear about a seminar offering the insider secrets of people who have successfully driven all the way to San Diego. It’s a damn expensive seminar, but obviously worth it. Because it explains how these other people were able to do it. Not in theory, but the actual techniques they used. What time of the day did they leave? Which ramp did they use to access the freeway? How fast did they drive? In which lane? Where did they stop for lunch? And so clearly all I have to do is follow what these people did and I’ll be sure to get the same exact successful results.
Which of course is completely insane.
Because having my car run out of momentum and come to a stop isn’t the problem.
It is the result of the problem.
The problem is that I don’t have enough gas.
And until I change that, nothing else matters. I will not successfully make it to San Diego no matter what I do. It’s the same with screenwriting or TV writing.
Compelling conflict is the “gas” that sustains narrative momentum, keeping the reader (and viewer) fully engaged in the story.
And the real reason most scripts fall apart in the second act is because they run out of gas.
But most writers never realize this. And so instead of training themselves to write in professional-level conflict, they waste years writing script after script to a series of rules and formulas trying to imitate what other successful scripts have done, which not only won’t fix the real underlying problem with their stories, it will create new ones, such as their screenplays now feeling predictable, forced and stale.
Because as Michelle Tanner told my class, “If you don’t know how to write in compelling conflict, you write boring scripts. If you try to fix this by writing to the popular paradigms, you will end up with scripts that are even more boring.”
Which isn’t to suggest that once you train yourself to write in compelling conflict you’re guaranteed success. It’s obviously not that simple. You still need to know how to create amazing original characters we want to spend time with. And these characters have to be taking us somewhere we want to go. Not to mention you’ll need to know how to effectively rewrite, something many aspiring writers flounder at. I’ll address all these issues in the upcoming parts two and three of this article.
But make no mistake, while writing in compelling conflict doesn’t by itself guarantee success, not writing in compelling conflict absolutely does guarantee failure.
Posted in Corey’s Blog | October 27, 2011