Script Shock AKA WTF Did I Just Read?!

Typical Hollywood Reader
You've nailed your characters.  Your concept is off-the-charts mind-blowing awesome sauce.  Your pages read like butter.

None of this means a rat's ass in hell if you don't know your story.

If you haven't yet guessed, this rant post is about story, or lack thereof.  But more importantly, it's about the power of story, and the enormous potential for pain and suffering it holds over every reader's head.

You think I'm speaking metaphorically.  I'm not.

It's called script shock.  It is a very real, but as of yet, medically unclassified, life threatening condition.  (The Medical Association really needs to get on that.)

When someone goes into shock, it means one of two things:

1) a psychological condition arising in response to a terrifying or traumatic event


2) a life-threatening medical condition that occurs due to inadequate substrate for aerobic cellular respiration. (Try saying that fast three times. Yikes.)

One has nothing to do with the other (unless you're having a really bad night), but what is interesting, is how the two provoke very similar physical responses.  Stuff like the ability to communicate, comprehend, respond, or even feel pain, are all deemed to be unnecessary by our bodies in a last ditch effort to either keep us alive or keep us sane.

Someone in shock may appear to understand words, and may even be able to repeat them back, but trust me, it's nothing more than a couple of random synapses shooting off a Pavlovian response in much the same way you respond to your significant other when they ask if they look fat in those new jeans.

You shut down.  Your body or brain is so traumatized and overloaded that nothing gets in or out. And that's the good part.

Way too many scripts inflict this same level of trauma.  They shut down the reader faster than a screwdriver can take out an eye socket, and judging by the insane number of really bad scripts out there, the odds are, your script might very well be one of them.

It ain't bad formatting that gives readers brain bleeds.  The problem isn't crappy characters.  It's not dull concepts, or questionable genre choices.  All those things suck to read, and may push even the sanest of readers to commit random acts of perverse violence that they really shouldn't be held accountable for in a court of law.  Really.   These screenwriting acts are terrible, yes, but they don't kill.  They don't plow the reader down like road kill then stop to suck the soul out of the lifeless remains by unleashing an unrelenting, seemingly endless lack of story that never really goes anywhere and never seems to end and barely makes sense and when will this hell end, please God, mercy...  (Okay, so I've read one too many bad scripts this week, most of which weren't my own.  Sympathy cards and bottles of single malt scotch will be willingly accepted from those wishing to express condolences.)

Where was I?  Oh yeah. 

Script shock.  It's the number one workplace killer among script readers of all ages.  And the only known cause?

No story.

So, do you know your story?

I bet you're a little more hesitant to answer yes now that you know lives are on the line.  Never fear, the Single Screenwriter has designed a handy-dandy checklist.  If you relate to any of the following, your script may be putting lives at risk.

Signs You Don't Know Your Story

  1. You get all pasty, and your mouth works like a fish on dry land when asked what your script is about. (It should be an easy answer, people.)
  2. You find that the average person is too stupid to grasp your complex story.  (Psst.  Stop letting your personality disorder do the driving down Rationalization Highway and wake the hell up, jackass.) 
  3. You need a flowchart and a 45 minute presentation every time someone asks you what your script is about.  (If you can't give it to somebody in under two minutes, don't bother giving it at all.) 
  4.  You hide behind the term 'character driven'.

    Okay, so your script's not some high concept plot driven crap that can be summed up in a line or two.  Bullshit.  A Boy and His Goldfish could be an excellent character driven script, but no one will ever read it if you meander on about the deeper meaning and symbolism when confronted with the inevitable question, "What's your script about?"  All that does is forewarn the reader that you don't have a clue about your story.  
  5.  You have no idea what story is.

    a) A western is not your story.

    b) Same goes for a one-legged call girl. 

    For the totally clueless, a) is a genre, b) is a character.  Genres, characters, themes, settings, cool shit - none of this is story.
      Seriously, if I had a dime for every time I had to tell somebody that a futuristic dystopian society  reflecting modern realities on the genetically modified Angus cow as seen through the eyes of a blind call girl might be very fucking cool and might very well be the one thing that makes your script great, but never, for a second, mistake that for your story, I'd be rich.

Sigh.  There seems to be some confusion as to what exactly story is, so let's clear that up, shall we?

What Exactly Is Story?

Shit happens to characters.  That's your story.  If all they do is eat pizza while shitting symbolism out of their asses, then that's your story.  It's not a good story, but it's story.  Own it.

I won't get into what makes a good story, because that's a whole other post, and this one's already meandering around aimlessly much like most scripts I've read this week.

My only point here is please, save my sanity readers endless amounts of pain and suffering by making damn sure you know your story, and that it's actually on the page before sending it out into the world. 

And if you, or anyone you know, show signs of script shock, seek treatment immediately.  Repeated viewings of Die Hard with liberal doses of popcorn and tequila is the only known cure.  

great pic by dimitridf