Reviewing screenplays: the ways of East and West

My friend Shahul posted his script in triggerstreet for reviews. When I went through the reviews certain differences between how the west and east assess scripts occurred to me.

One thing that did come through consistently through the reviews is the almost religious adherence to the 3 act structure, plot points and other Syd Field/ Mckee commandments. I am not a Syd Field hater. I have even written an entire article about a particular film script not working because it didn’t follow certain structural rules. But some times script writers tend to forget that though these things are useful to break down your script and analyse it, it is not the ultimate truth. I can imagine some possible reactions to these lines, like- ‘You can mock the structural rules and learn it the hard way, or you can accept the hard earned experience from the veterans,’ ‘even people who mock these rules may write good scripts but only because they follow these rules subconsciously,’ etc. My problem is not with guidelines regarding structure. Because, when art becomes a commercial product (as with cinema) there will always be certain patterns regarding what influences the audience. My problem is with the dogma that arises from there. The western concept regarding dramatic elements is heavily influenced by the Greek tragedies. Gradually the three act structure has become an unquestionable truth even for film scripts. The biggest booby trap in the whole exercise is in the way which you decide what the plot points and act breaks are, in a particular script. Most of the times I have felt that these decisions finally boils down to just interpretations. Often there are events and twists adjacent to the supposed ‘act breaks’ which some one else can argue as the original act break.
Another thing is the obsessiveness regarding punctuation, spelling, grammar, capitalising, format, page count etc. I can understand where this comes from. In a system where spec scripts get sieved by a reader who is looking for an excuse to disengage, such issues can simply cause your ‘brilliant’ script to end up in the waste bin.
But sometimes this goes into the extremes. Up to a point where it is forgotten that once a film gets made, a screenplay is just a useless blueprint (except for wannabe scriptwriters). If you go too much into ironing the paper and colouring the borders in your blueprint, you are often taking away your attention from more important issues.
Now when I compare the kind of feedback that is available in the west with the kind I get here in India, I think the most important difference is in the professionalism. The kind of effort the reviewers put into breaking down and analysing the script is immense in the west. Here the kind of review I would get if I send the script to some one would contain some vague comments like ‘This part doesn’t work’ or ‘characters are absolutely mind blowing’ or ‘the second half drags’ etc. The conscientiousness that goes into breaking down each and every page is very rare here. May be for us, even now the screenplay is an alien concept. We are more into narrations and brief synopsis. I have heard from friends of lot of instances where the film maker signs the film after reading a treatment or hearing a narration. May be this is related to the Indian culture where every story is heard rather than read. Or it could be just plain impatience or lack of a literary sensibility or ignorance about cinematic medium or all of the above.
Another thing about the western reviews is the persistent effort to break down and analyse every element of the script as if you are studying a gadget. Some times this does lead to a complacence regarding the lack of originality of the various story elements you are juggling with. You miss the forest for the trees. But on the other hand in India, if you try to theorise regarding why some screenplay elements are working or not, you get an (pseudo?)intellectual shrugging of shoulders that you shouldn’t analyse these things. Writing/creating ‘just happens.’ Its divine. You don’t try to break down the logic. We don’t want to believe that there are certain reasons behind our decisions to write a story a particular way and that if you find those reasons, we may come up with better solutions.

Photo by Lars-M

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3 thoughts on “Reviewing screenplays: the ways of East and West

  1. Interesting topic.

    Well, I agree with most of what you have to say here. Indians do suffer from paralysis of analysis. And, we also have to look at the fact that in America, newbie screenwriters read up a lot of books on writitng, and all, which is not the case here. They also read screenplays.

    In India except for a handful, scripts are not available in the public domain. It is common knowledge that a lot of these are written on the sets. (But that’s changing now, it seems.)

    In India, people don’t have any yardstick with which they gauge a script’s worth. One yardstick is how wild is this to think. But, that’s hardly anything. Anyone can think wildly, and it is hard to distinguish one man’s wildness from the other man’s.

    That ways, at least the west is better. But still, it is in a way, very bad.

    To an evolved creative mind, the one formed through constant bombardment of insights, criticism in most cases would not be a cumbersome job. At least, in verbal cases where the writer is not too worried about how his criticism stands as a piece. And it shouldn’t be. Mistakes and flaws would reveal themselves to him. Like when an Art expert sees a replica, he immediately knows it is fake.

    And more importantly, if the work has merit, then the writer would be the first person to know it. Because it falls into his version of what a screenplay should entail. Terry Rossio’s column of ‘You, the expert’ talks about this phenomenon exactly. If you are going up to a person and asking him if it’s good, then it is sure that the work is a case of clueless creation.

    And that’s not page breaks and things. Or the nice vocabulary. Because these things wouldn’t seem so great when it is seen from a detached angle.
    What should be observed is the truth that it resonates. The hidden wit, that the reader notices using insight, and collective experience of his/her past life. then he/she will feel great. And things like that.

    And the more refined the taste, the more coherent and correct criticism will seep through it.

    Also, the belief that writing is a divine thing, and not logical, is bad. Even though some great writer may have said that there is no technique to it.

    1. ‘And more importantly, if the work has merit, then the writer would be the first person to know it.’- I think that it may not be as simple as that. If it was, there would not be so many bad scripts around vying for attention. And there are also many instances in which the writer thinks that one of his scripts is better than the others and later on, on of his less loved works becoming a bigger phenomenon.
      But at a certain level what you said is what every writer should aspire for. I think the ability to differentiate between the schlock and gold one has created is an essential ingredient of writer’s success.

      1. Yes, I think you are right. The benchmark that a writer of a bad script sets for himself, is sometimes very low. Chances are, that he may like most of the films already in the market and just wants to be one amongst them which is not wrong, but then, such a writer relies more on luck than on the standard of his screenplay.

        I personally think that if the writer thinks that one of his scripts is better than the others, then it is. Regardless of whether it is his most popular work or not. It could also be that the first draft is more appreciated than the third one. But, I guess noone knows the work more than the writer himself. Logically, his latest script should be better than the previous ones. But, that may change if the writer has mixed motives. Or maybe some other reason also. I don’t know.

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