An education most painful

Please don’t make me watch that again!

Once again, your stalwart author makes the necessary sacrifices so you don’t have to.

This time around, I had the misfortune of watching an extremely bad large-budget movie from the semi-recent past. It was painfully obvious that a larger percentage of the budget should have been diverted to hiring quality writers, rather than on everything else. A pipe dream, I know.

But trust me. It was bad.

What made it so bad, you may ask?

Oh, where to begin.

My biggest problem was that too much of the story felt glossed over, with vital elements explained in a very lazy and haphazard way, if they were even explained at all. It felt like they were trying to force events to match how they wanted the story to play out, rather than deftly setting things up.

Reasons why something would happen, or were supposed to have happened, seemed to have simply been thrown against the wall, and whatever stuck, that’s what they went with. Did it matter if it fit within the context of the story?


Once again, there were too many questions raised that were never sufficiently answered. When this happens, it simply takes away from the movie-watching experience. The only reason I knew the film had to have been around the midpoint area was because of its running time, and NOT because of what had transpired over the course of the story.

I could say I had a vague inkling of what was supposedly going on, but was just never sure, since the story was being told in a very sloppy and unorganized way. It irked me to no end to be see such terrible writing so prominently displayed. And apparently I wasn’t alone in my opinions. The film was a major flop at the box office.

So what silver linings can we extract from this pitch-black cumulonimbus that stole away just under two hours of my life?

-Write a story that’s easy to understand. Keep it simple. This doesn’t mean dumb it down. Keep us informed, unless withholding that information is absolutely necessary.

-Let the story play out organically. Don’t try to force it because that’s what you want to happen. It’s easy to tell when that happens, and it ain’t pretty. If you didn’t put in the effort to figure it out, why should we?

-Have things happen for a reason. “Because it looks cool” is not one of them. Would it drastically change things if it didn’t?

-Set up, pay off. If something happens, we want to see what happens as a result. Don’t leave us hanging. And counter to that, don’t suddenly spring something on us out of thin air. It reeks of desperation. Audiences don’t like that, either.

One of the things I always strive for in my scripts, be they big or small budget, is to respect the intelligence of the intended audience. That is one lesson I believe the writers of this abomination should have kept in mind.

6 thoughts on “An education most painful

  1. Paul,
    How do you keep a script from being a loser? Every screenwriter including me wonders if their script has all the elements to make a good story and I wonder what you can do to make sure it is complete. That you haven’t left off an important scene,

    • That’s the hard part. You keep at it until you’re confident the script is telling the story you want in the way you want.

    • Pauline, there are screenwriting punchlists on the Internerd that can be a big help to make sure something hasn’t been overlookied. But there is more to it than that.

      French dramatists talk about the scène obligatoire [sin obleeg-a-twar], the confrontational scene that absolutely must be in the play. You’d think that every playwright or screenwriter who had created two wonderful characters would unfailingly put them together in a scene. Well, no, sometimes that scene doesn’t happen. Sometimes the gap is pointed out by a critic on a Monday morning. And then there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.

      Note well what Paul says above about setup and payoff. It’s just as bad to fail to complete a payoff that’s been set up as to spring a reversal on the audience without setting it up in the first place. Experience will help you see what needs to happen almost without thinking about it. In the meantime, use (1) punchlists, (2) readers.

  2. Paul, thanks for your excellent article! Are you going to tell us the name of the movie? 🙂

    I agree, keeping a movie simple, and easy to follow, but intelligent at the same time, is the way to go as a screenwriter. That’s why I still love all of Hitchcock’s movies, for so many reasons, but the main reason is that you can easily follow the plots in his movies, and they’re still intelligent and well written.

    As far as remembering to have set ups and pay offs, the Save the Cat (STC) software has a section it in for set ups and payoffs and a checklist too of all the key elements that make a script complete and satisfying to the reader and audience, so I highly recommend it to everyone. Hope this helps! 🙂

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