Can data help you write a better screenplay?

I saw this article linked from the Scriptnotes Episode 171 blog post but I haven’t listened to the episode yet. I wanted to read it beforehand before Craig goes full-bore umbrage-taking on it, which I think I’m safe in saying that he will.

The post is titled “How Data Can Help You Write a Better Screenplay” and I see a lot of data but not a lot of actionable recommendations (sorry, my day job is marketing analyst).

My first thought was, “what the hell is Sword & Sandal? That’s an actual genre???” I guess that would be like 300 or Rome? I didn’t see 300 but everyone wore sandals in Rome (I know, it was a TV show, not a movie) and they used a lot of swords and large knives and I learned that there were two average Roman-type guys that were pivotal in many major events in Roman history and that is all true because it was on HBO.

My second thought, as a novice screenwriter, was this: “what the hell would I do with this?” So let’s say I scrap what I’m working on now (a weird comedy) and use this data to write something with a higher chance of success.

One approach would be to look at the genres that get the highest average scores and pick one of those. One problem is that we don’t know anything about the people writing in that (or any other) genre. Film Noir gets high average scores but maybe better writers are attracted to that genre. Or maybe that genre draws an older crowd of writers who have more experience. Higher scores in the genre might just mean that you’re going up against stiffer competition, not that the genre is actually easier to work in.

But even if it was easier on average, that wouldn’t really help. Because to sell the screenplay (or to land an agent), you would have to not write just an average screenplay, but a very excellent screenplay. Scoring a 6 doesn’t guarantee anything. No score guarantees anything but it’s my understanding that it takes an 8 or above to really get noticed on The Black List.

Another issue is that the average here is a bit misleading. If scores were assigned randomly, then your expected outcome would be higher if you chose a genre with a higher average. But scores are not assigned randomly, they are given by a qualified reader that reads and rates spec screenplays for (at least part of) a living. OK, maybe that’s not completely fair. Maybe the averages do indicate something about the ease of writing in a certain genre.

But even if a Film Noir is slightly easier to write, it still doesn’t help you. Because the thing is you have to stand out. If the average Film Noir is pretty good, then the bar for writing a remarkable Film Noir, i.e. one that someone will be compelled to pass on to their boss, is even higher than say a Musical Comedy, which on average scores the lowest during the survey period.

So. Another strategy is to pick a genre that has a low average score. Again, you don’t know anything about the writers in that genre. Maybe in Musical Comedy you’re competing against accomplished veterans of Broadway. OK, that’s almost certainly not true. But maybe the Musical Comedy people are very well equipped and still fail to write good screenplays, and so your average attempt will fare even worse. Either way, the big loser is the person who has to read all those bad musical comedies.

The other problem with any of these strategies is that it assumes that you decide to start writing a screenplay one day and then choose what genre to work in, as if picking the genre was something to be decided by big data.

I personally write comedy or some subgenre of comedy, or maybe dramatic stuff that makes much use of comedy.

And I’m 100% certain that the comedy I write will be better than the Sword & Sandal that I’m not going to write, mainly because my main source of knowledge about the particulars of men wearing sandals and wielding swords comes from Rome, Gladiator, a college class on Greek Philosophy and whatever else I’ve pulled out of the ether related to ancient Rome/Greece. So it would be pretty derivative and halfway through I’d realize that it would be much better as a parody, which is to say not that great anyway because parody requires deep knowledge that I don’t have.

I think most people are going to write in the genre that they know and love. Or love and think they know. Not that you can’t write in more than one genre, but I think you get the point. But pushing someone out of a genre they love into a genre they neither love nor know isn’t going to help them write something better. So this doesn’t look like a winning strategy either.

The other data in the article pertains to the flaws most commonly found in scripts. Here are the top five:

  • Underdeveloped plot
  • Underdeveloped characters
  • Lack of escalation
  • Poor structure
  • Unnatural dialogue

Let’s rephrase these flaws as advice for novices like myself: make sure you have a developed plot, developed characters, action that rises at a suitable pace and to a suitable level, good structure, and natural dialogue.

In other words, the problem with your screenplay is that it’s not good at the things that good screenplays are good at. Be more good. That’s snarky, I know. This list does have some use–I looked at it and it made me think about where the weaknesses in my current script might be.

But it doesn’t really help me improve upon the weaknesses. It just shows where others have struggled. But I think those issues are sort of obvious and that writers struggle with them because they’re all really hard to do really well.

This note I did find helpful, or at least it could be helpful for the first-time writer:

First-time writers tend to go one of two ways, said Kate Hagen, a former reader who now oversees the hundred or so readers at The Black List. They write a deeply personal, pseudo-autobiographical screenplay about nothing in particular. “Everybody basically writes that script at first,” Hagen said. “You have to get it out of your system.” Or they swing for the fences and go in the opposite direction, thinking, “I’m going to write a $200 million science fiction movie,” and plan an entire universe and mythology. Those scripts, Hagen said, tend to fail for entirely different reasons.

In other words, avoid the major pitfalls that most first-time writers fall into.1

One takeaway from the whole thing might just be that writing a great screenplay is really really hard. This insight could help you decide whether or not you want to embark on writing a screenplay or not, or to be less surprised when you write something that sucks, but I don’t think it will help you write a better one.

What might help is knowing that it’s really hard to do well, so if you have the work ethic and commitment to work many hours and improve over the years, you have a good shot of standing out from the pack when you finally do write something remarkable.

Which I think probably goes against the gist of what this sort of article is all about, namely that you can hack your way to success with the help of data.

OK, back to work now.

  1. Should this be phrased as “avoid the major pits that most first-time writers fall into?” Can you fall into a pitfall?