Answering a Few More Questions
Q: Out of the 9000 (or whatever) pieces of coverage that you have done, what percentage of the time have you been truly impressed by the work -- to the point that you are even a little bit jealous?
Honestly? Not as often as you might think.
There are certain times when good writing really comes together, a combination of originality and just inspired storytelling. I can remember reading "Being John Malkovich", and thinking "wow". I can also remember reading some mediocre David Mamet, and not going wow.
A lot of writers are very good at what they do, but there are really few times when I read something that I honestly don't feel I could have written. A lot of the stuff I read, from pros or from solid wanna-bes, is well-written on a scene-by-scene basis -- but it's all about whether it comes together as a story.
Often good dialogue will get an envious reaction from me, because that's not my strong suit. I'll read scenes with just natural, breezy, witty dialogue that doesn't feel forced, and that feels like a gift I wish I had.
There's a guy in Iowa who has paid me to read several of his scripts, who writes some of the best character-comic dialogue I have ever read. If he can pump up his story-telling skills to the same level, he's going to be a great screenwriter.
Q: Often spec monkeys are told to write something completely original -- Thank You For Smoking, for example -- and that the world doesn't need another serial killer story. But almost any script will seem derivative when you put it in a genre. So how do you transcend the genre? Do readers reach page 10, and think "Oh gawd, not another police procedural"? Even if that script has a great story with something unique about it?
I think one of the keys to originality is not just regurgitating the same old things we've seen in a million movies. If you are going to do a police procedural (which with the success of so many TV series like Law and Order has really become more of a TV genre now), you'd better have a big, interesting story, and you should research the hell out of it. Even readers want to feel that their eyes are being opened up to a new world, and learning new things; details can rock your script.
What I hate when reading a script is the feeling that I've read the same script hundreds of times before, because the "research" the writers seem to be doing is relying on their memories of the movies they are aping. So high school comedies will have the bitchy teen goddess, and give her exactly two sidekicks and a bullyish quarterback boyfriend. Bad romantic comedies will inevitably contain the scene in which the female lead thinks she sees her boyfriend kissing the vamp who is after him, then turn away just before the guy pushes the vamp away.
I can't tell you have many scripts I have read in which the main character loses their job, then catches their girlfriend in bed with another guy, then gets evicted from their apartment, all within 2 pages.
Figure out ways to twist as many story points as possible. Surprise the reader by taking things in interesting directions. The key is to use genre convention in fresh and interesting ways while remaining true to the story you are trying to tell.
As for "Thank You For Smoking", it was a book that did pretty well, so as a spec script example it's not the best. But "Rushmore" would be a great example of a screenplay that tackled the whole teen comedy genre in a very new way, or "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" a way to bring life to the whole romantic comedy genre.
If a script has a great story with something unique about it, readers will be thrilled. Trust me.
Q: What, specifically, are you looking for on that first page that will keep you reading on?
The ironic thing about screenplays is that they are designed to be movies, and of course when they are movies, hooking the audience with the first few minutes won't be of key importance; you've gotten their money, they are a captive audience, and the opening can be slow as hell if the movie as a whole works.
"Casablanca" opens with a bunch of stuff on the screen to read, big clunky exposition setting up its story. On the page, it probably wasn't much of a gripper. On the screen, it all works.
As a reader, I'm a captive audience too, because I have to read every page of every script I get, that's my job. But obviously with a lot of people in the business hooking them is going to be a major concern; you want an exec or an agent to pick up your script and get so into it that they are cancelling meetings just to be able to finish it in one sitting.
Of course, there's no easy answer to how to write a perfect opening. But in general, you need to give a real sense that you are about to tell an interesting story. Jump right into an intriguing situation. Introduce a fresh, dramatic, or funny main character. Though it's somewhat overused, opening the tale with a chunk of action from later in the movie, and then jumping back three days (or whatever) can grab a reader, because it gives the subsequent scenes, setting up your main character, a real sense of where the script is going.
Clunkier, common things to probably avoid (unless you can pull it off really really well) : Dream sequences. Bits in which you pan across the main character's messy room, and then stop on him waking up. A lot of awkward voiceover, overexplaining the backstory.
Here's an exercise. Flip around cable channels watching random movies/TV shows. What happens that makes you want to watch a little longer? What are the things that hook you?
Q: Does anyone really care, or even notice, if a screenplay is on 20 lb or 24 lb paper?
No idea. By the time it gets to me, it has been photocopied (maybe more than once), so generally what I get is common photocopier paper.
My stupid human trick, thanks to years of reading, is that I can now hold a script between two fingers and pretty much tell you without looking how long it is, within a page or two.