Screenwriting Secrets by John Scott Lewinski

Screenwriting Secrets » A Guide To Script Speak

"You're beautiful, babe! Don't ever change! What was your name again? OK. Buh-bye!"
-- "Hollywood Handshake" Bianca Bob Miller (New York-based filmmaker and songwriter)

We screenwriters strike other professionals within the entertainment industry as cynics. Perhaps some of us are — especially those that claim Hollywood is a town built on lies.

You can see where such an impression might come from easily. After all, movies aren't real. Their narratives create worlds where you want to live. But, deep down you know that the world is simply made of wood flats on some studio back-lot. Just off-set, out of view of the camera and the magic within its lens, there's some sweaty, smelly focus-puller named Earl who would immediately break the fictional mood (and, unfortunately, a little wind).

These movies introduce you to beautiful, wondrous people. Their heroism and complexity transform them into beings you'd like to know — people you'd like to be. However, they're only actors. After the shoot wraps for the day, they sit around Jerry's Deli all night, resisting the urge to sample the cheesecake while smoking cigarettes and complaining to their friends about the agent that got them this latest lame gig.

It's no grand insightful scoop, but nothing is at it seems in Hollywood. Even the area itself is a myth. Hollywood is more of a state of mind than a city; a convenient label for the entertainment industry headquartered in Los Angeles. There really isn't much movie-making going on in Hollywood anymore. It swarms with tourists comparing their shoe sizes to John Wayne's at Mann's Chinese. It's choked with drifters scouring Hollywood Blvd. in hope that it's really paved with gold. Most of that famed Hollywood glamour moved to a higher rent district like Brentwood. (Then the whole O.J. disaster happened, and I have no idea where the glamour moved after that.)

Whether you, the screenwriter, want to be a cynic or not, the fact sticks to your shoe like the chewed gum you kicked up outside the Chinese Theater. (It was stuck down inside John Wayne's boot-print.) The entire film industry is a beast built, not on lies, but on make-believe.

If nothing in Hollywood is as it seems, it's because we prefer the artificial to the real. If the entertainment industry thrives on vague half-truths and broken partial promises, then perhaps the problem lies not in the stars lining the Walk of Fame, Horatio — but, rather, in ourselves. Real life offers little magic compared to the silver screen. The truth hurts — while the sort of woolly thinking the movie world and its minions offer feels much more comfortable when worn next to the skin.

No one in the entertainment industry meets more vagary and double talk than the screenwriter. Everyone swirling around us separates their meaning from their actual words with a rich blend of pseudo-intellectual babble and cliched buzzwords. Executives and producers do it. Readers hide behind it. Agents soak in it. Even we writers enjoy a round of this unusual Script Speak when the mood strikes.

We like it. We enjoy it. It demonstrates our shared psyche as screenwriters. It airs our collective, three-act unconscious. Script Speak serves as the passwords that allow us to get inside the tree house. A turn of a phrase here and there can gain us access to the exclusive "writer's club" — next door to the Sacred Order of Water Buffaloes' lodge where Fred Flintstone hangs out.

While I'm not the absolute authority on Script Speak, over the past few years I sank myself in a detailed study of the more common examples of this foreign language. OK. Actually, I just sit around and listen to it. However, it strikes me that, if you're a newcomer to the screenwriting game, you might find yourself lost as Script Speak begins to swirl around you. As an aspiring newbie, you could easily run for the hills (and probably a more peaceful life) if you allowed the various double meanings to over-heat your nervous system.

Writers are especially fond of and susceptible to the vicissitudes of Script Speak. Since everything in our world has a double meaning, writers must really sift through the various industry messages to figure out what's going on in their careers.

Writers like words too much to grasp Script Speak all the time. Writers like to use words to communicate truth. But, Script Speak always has nothing to do with truth. While we register the literal interpretation of "You did a great job" or "Who cranked out this stink burger? A typing chimp?", he or she might miss the subtle intricacies truly intended in Script Speak.

Therefore, I prepared a brief guide as an example of our outstanding professional foreign language. The following 10 occurrences are not the only possible samples of Script Speak. However, they do represent some of the more common sightings of this mysterious verbal animal. I will include the actual words, who is most likely to use them, why they're used, and what they really mean.

Before I begin, I include a brief and convenient disclaimer. Each one of these examples can mean precisely what they say. I'll demonstrate that in a couple of these examples. When the boring, old truth surfaces in Script Speak, it's not much fun and should be immediately buried by baffling bull quickly.

1) "We enjoyed reading your script, but it's not quite what we're looking for/it's not for us."

What does it mean? Possibly, exactly what it says. Producers, executives, readers or agents use this one very often. If they're looking for the next The Rock, and you send them the next How to Make an American Quilt, you're out of luck. It's their job to tell you so.

Also, this line can be used to soften the blow. The speaker deserves a little credit in this case. Nowhere in the script readers' handbook does it say you have to let the writer down easy. If the reader really thinks you don't so much write as type, they could really ruin your day by telling you so.

If you wrote a genuine landfill of a script (and all of us have that potential deep within us waiting to burst forth), the reader has the First Amendment right to suggest you take up flower arranging to avoid a life of pan-handling on the Santa Monica Promenade! But, we don't want to hear that. No one with a single ounce of compassion or humility wants to say such a thing.

(Obviously, I've used it often.)

So, they can use the old, "...not quite what we were looking for..." line to preserve your ego for the next go-around. If every rejection went for your artistic jugular, you'd take up something comparatively simple and lucrative.

2) "I've optioned a couple screenplays."

This one is obviously used exclusively by writers. What does it mean? It's quite simple. You optioned more than one of your scripts to production companies for anywhere from one to several thousand dollars.

The subtext? You have had just enough success to stick with screenwriting -- but not nearly enough to make a living at it. You're trapped -- not making enough money to feed yourself by writing, but making just enough to feed the dream. Someone in position to make the big decisions decided your scripts were good enough to take at least a little risk. That immediately fuels the hope that a satisfying career in screenwriting lies just ahead over the next rewrite for the scribe.

You know what? Great! Enjoy the dilemma! It's really dramatic! It's the cynic's job to give up now! Fuel that dream! Feed the hope close to your bosom! Someone has to have the talent to succeed at this gig. It might as well be you. If you have to sling coffee at the Barnes & Noble for a while, so what? Do you want to have a real job, or do you want to write?!

3) "I think you should take another pass at it."

What does it really mean? You can probably figure this one for yourself. Sorry, chief, but this script just ain't making it.

Simple words can replace this bit of Script Speak: bad, arrant, vile, base, gross, black, poor, wretched, grungy, gruesome, measly, execrable, awful, shoddy, tacky, crummy, pathetic, unsatisfactory, faulty, flawed, incompetent, inefficient, mangled, spoiled, scruffy, filthy, mangy, gunky, yucky, icky, foul, fetid, rank, unsound, tainted, corrupt, decaying, peccant, disordered, infected, envenomed, poisoned, septic, diseased, irremediable, incurable, depraved, accursed, heinous, sinful, shabby, contemptible, shameful, scandalous, disgraceful, woeful, grievous, unendurable, onerous, burdensome, fetid.

(Oops. I used "fetid" twice there. Sorry. It's just a great adjective...)

Now, it's your job and a professional duty not to take any of these comments personally. The reader isn't saying any of those terms applies to you. You merely struck out on this draft. Hank Aaron didn't hit one out every time up either...though no one ever saw him hit a single and asked him to "take another swing at it." Face it. Screenwriting is strictly home run or strikeout. You nailed the screenplay, or you didn't. If not, try again.

4) "I haven't written anything lately. I'm waiting for the flow."

Don't get me started on this one. It's used exclusively by screenwriters and has nothing to do with feminine hygiene! It really means the scribe in question is severely deluded by artistic mumbo-jumbo...sophistry, illogic, rationalization, self-deception. There I go again! Sorry. Such pretension can easily lead to self-induced writer's block.

Sometimes, writing is work. That's why we are paid to it! Fortunately, we all experience times when the work seems to come from beyond what we know. The words do indeed flow across the page, shaping into scenes that really dance and characters 100-times more interesting than we are! Hours pass like minutes in this ecstatic writer's trance. When finished, you bask in a sort of carnal afterglow. You feel genuinely wonderful about who are, what you do and how well you do it.

At least I hope every writer experiences that. Otherwise, I may need to be tested for manic depression.

Those moments of artistic bliss come somewhat infrequently. That's why we remember them so vividly and work in hope that such a moment will come down from on high again soon. The rest of the time we spend in front of our word processors means struggling to find the right phrase and figuring out how to make the scenes work.

Writing (and rewriting) requires professional discipline to get something on paper. If it was an easy, always pleasurable intellectual process, everyone would do it...not just "we few...we happy few!"

5) "Follow your bliss."

I have no idea what this means. I've heard agents and producers say it to me on occasion. If you know what it means, send me an e-mail and let me know.

6) "I think the script should reflect more of the hero's journey."

Writers, agents, readers and producers might let this one slip. It merely means that the reader of a particular work might have read Joseph Campbell's many books and believes his analysis of narrative. It might mean the reader read just one of Campbell's books. It might mean he or she saw a few minutes of Campbell interviewed on PBS by Bill Moyers while waiting for Seinfeld to come on. Finally, it could also mean that the reader once had a bowl of Campbell's Chicken & Stars soup and just wants to sound smart while rejecting your script. I usually opt for the last possibility.

7) "The script bogged down a little in the second act, right around beat nine."

Simply take my analysis of example six above and substitute Syd Field for Joseph Campbell. No, Syd Field was never interviewed by Bill Moyers. Otherwise, the same idea applies...except for the soup. There is no Syd Field brand soup...yet. Maybe I'm onto something there! Get Syd Field on the phone!

8) "I was unable to identify the hero's praxis and hubris."

Oh, boy! Now, instead of Campbell or Field, the reader migrated over to Aristotle. Same cause and reason. Readers! Stop reading all this analysis and just stick to our scripts! Sheesh!

9) "The writer sold out his/her vision in this script."

First, it often seems to me that writers are the only Hollywood professionals not allowed to make money with a clear conscience. It's an irony that writers are often teased for being the moody artists in the entertainment business -- unable to view events with the proper business sense and detachment.

When we adopt that brand of shrewd professional attitude, we're often accused of "selling out."

Anyone in the industry can say this particular line at one time or another. It means that your screenplay sold. You made a nice little bundle on it. Now, other writers might use this Script Speak if they resent the success. Also, if the film that results from your script really bombs, the director, producer or executive can use this one to blame you for tainting the process right out of the gate.

Just remember that we write these things for an audience. After a script comes off your printer, cut it loose. It's not your kid. Hopefully, you can sell it and use its revenue to live while you produce more entertaining stories. If a script gets chewed to pieces, you can smile to the reader and say, "Eat all you want. I'll make more."

10) "I think we've got a winner here."

What does this mean? Somebody likes your work!

Now, you're in trouble.

I chose this particular phrasing of approval because I heard it applied to my work. I was writing on assignment for a production company. When I submitted my latest draft to the project's producer late in the pre-production process, I got back the very words you see above written in happy letters on the first page. The producer and I passed it along up the line to the executive producer and waited for the clouds to open up and allow the praise to rain down on our heads.

When I got the same "winning" script back from the executive producer, the first page was crossed out in red ink with "lousy" written over the producer's praise.

Moral? Today's hero is tomorrow's pariah. Your work can drift in and out of favor depending on budgetary restraints, market trends or whatever the reader had for lunch. A producer might love a script. The director could find the need to rewrite half of it. An actor could then get it and wonder what the producer and the director were thinking. Then, the actor can take it back to Jerry's Deli and rewrite it in cigarette ash while waiting for his or her agent to answer the phone.

The best you can do is fiercely hang on to your sense of humor and roll with the constant stream of notes and suggestions. If you're too thin-skinned for screenwriting, you can always go into politics.

So, as these 10 examples of Script Speak fade into the mist of Movie Land, we are again faced by the cynics among us. They shake their fists and protest that every one of these examples is exactly what they charged them to be -- lies! It seems no one writing or reading scripts really says what they mean! Lies! Lies! Lies! (Wait...I'm getting paid by the word, remember? One more!) LIES!

I can only respond, "Sure...if you insist on being literal about everything!"

That's what's so wonderful about out professional lexicon! It's an art and an abstraction -- like the task of screenwriting itself. It's a mystery wrapped in riddle covered by an enigma. It's not to be taken literally! What fun would that be? I wouldn't want to trade in the vague data swirling around our chosen careers in showbiz! Other professions don't get to play the way we do.

If your dentist pokes that stainless steel hook in your mouth and says, "You have a deep cavity in your right bicuspid.", he's not making a comment on modern social ills! That's what he means! If your accountant tallies up the receipts for the last fiscal year and can't get any words out between the fits of bitter, pitying laughter, she's not revealing a deep-seeded psychological insecurity brought on by an over-protective mother! She means you better take that second job at Barnes & Noble!

No double meaning to be found anywhere in either of those examples! Literal. Factual. Serviceable. Boring. We need double meaning and symbolism in our scripts -- and in our business lives. That's what makes what we do more fun than performing root canals or doing taxes.

In the end, if you don't buy any of this...if you think it's all nonsense...or you're convinced there has to be some other, more eloquent explanation...congratulations! Now, you're starting to catch on.

Copyright © 2003-2010 John Scott Lewinski, All Rights Reserved.

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