The Seven Deadly Sins of Screenwriting

Didja ever notice how since Rupert Murdoch took it over, The Wall Street Journal seems like a truly ironic parody of itself?

Except that, you know, it’s real.

And if you overlook the attitudes of the WSJ’s writers you still can find some good stuff. For example:


The screenwriter Neil Landau is perhaps best known for “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead,” an 80s-like comedy that was actually released in 1991. (It launched the career of its star, Christina Applegate.) Mr. Landau’s most recent movie, an animated adventure set in Peru called “Tad, the Lost Explorer” has been a huge box office success Spain this year; there are plans to release it in America as well as for a sequel.

Mr. Landau, who teaches screenwriting at UCLA, is also the author of “The Screenwriter’s Roadmap,” just published by Focal Press.

“I really don’t like screenwriting books that make it seem there are rules to follow,” says Mr. Landau. “Because I think that if it was easy, every movie would be great and every screenplay would work.”

So why do some movies such as “Argo” draw raves while films like “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2? draw pans? Mr. Landau interviewed several working screenwriters including Billy Ray (“The Hunger Games”) and David Goyer (“The Dark Knight Rises”) and discovered that no one really has the answers. Says Mr. Landau, “Everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong.”

When it comes to his own work, Mr. Landau says he tries to focus on “emotional storytelling.” “I like to know what makes characters vulnerable and what they do to cover that up.”

Mr. Landau has a lot to say about screenwriting. Here are 7 sins he thinks screenwriters commit all too often. He pleads—heck, even we plead!—that you avoid them.

1. A lack of originality in premise.

Audiences want something new and surprising, but the big tentpole movies seem to be getting dumber, says Mr. Landau. “And therein lies some of the box office disappointments thus far for 2012.” He points to “Argo” as an example of a film that felt like a “new wrinkle” in its mix of Hollywood satire and suspense.

2. A passive protagonist.

For Mr. Landau, Johnny Depp’s Barnabas Collins in the recent “Dark Shadows” reboot didn’t “have an emotional passionate goal” which meant the movie felt mechanical. Alternatively, both the lead characters in the French hit “The Intouchables” felt “driven by their active needs.” That’s the way to go.

3. A lack of psychologically and emotionally complex characters.

Every movie needs to be a suspense movie, says Mr. Landau, and that suspense comes from our emotional investment. “If we don’t care about the characters it doesn’t matter if someone tries to kill them,” he explains. “Rosemary’s Baby” works because “we really care about Rosemary.”

4. Static, talky scenes.

You need visually compelling, cinematic storytelling. Movies—big and small—need to feel like an event. “Argo” has a “bigness to it. ‘Tree of Life’ you have to see on the big screen. If you don’t see ‘Shutter Island’ in the movie theater, you’re missing half of it.”

5. A lack of central mystery.

“Shutter Island,” says Mr. Landau, is a good example of a movie that has a great central mystery. “You don’t know if he’s going crazy or his paranoia is justified.” Same with “Michael Clayton”—it’s cut so you need to wait until the end to find out the whole truth.

6. Contrived plotting.

“Bridesmaids” could have just been one joke, says Mr. Landau, but the characters had gravitas and emotion, which kept the plot from becoming too obvious. “There was a lot of heart there,” he explains.

7. A predictable climax

Endings shouldn’t be inevitable—we should’ve seen them coming, but didn’t. Gray areas, in Mr. Landaus’ opinions, are important. Like how “My Best Friend’s Wedding” broke the mold—Julia Roberts ends up not getting the guy.

The writer of this puff piece, Marshall Heyman, is either a Zen irony master of the highest order, deliberately messing with the values Neil Landau is discussing here, or he’s, well, not. Neil Landau, OTOH, seems pretty cool so we’re telling you right now that you can find out more about his book right HERE.