The Question of “Good” Writing

The director of Granted posted on his Facebook wall today that he would trade half of the actors and directors currently populating Buffalo for just ten talented writers. This got me thinking, what is good writing? How do we recognize it? What standards are there for good writing?

While he didn’t specifically use the word “good”, nor did anyone in any of the comments (except me), that for some reason is the word I latched on to. I think it’s a solid starting point, simply talking about why one thing is good as opposed to something else. Why is the script for The Godfather good, and the script for From Justin to Kelly bad? “Apples and oranges,” you might say if you were the type of person to use such a cliched remark. My point is, though, is there a way to break down the elements of a script, regardless of genre or intent, and label it in such a way?

Let’s try:

Grammar – One of the first things I’ve read in each screenwriting book/blog/forum/contest I’ve frequented is that scripts are frequently judged on the grammar and spelling of the author. This is understandable, as it is a mark of professionalism and can be a solid indicator of quality. If someone doesn’t care enough to make sure the grammar and spelling of their baby is close to perfect, then why would they care about their story or characters being close to perfect? However, there are exceptions to the rule. Tarantino is often pointed to as someone with imperfect grammar and spelling, and I think it’s pretty generally accepted that he’s a spectacular writer. For amateur screenwriters that don’t have such clout, easily fixed mistakes can really hurt.

Format – There is a bit more lax in this than grammar and spelling, I think. Amateur screenwriters routinely get away with mistakes in this area simply because they’re amateurs and are (assumedly) still learning the craft. One of the Nicholl Fellowship Award winners, and eventual Black List scripts, was like this. The story was unique, characters well drawn, but the formatting poor and sometimes hard to read. Again, if a story isn’t formatted properly it can work against a script from being considered “good.”

Marketability – I hesitated to include this, because many of the best scripts are ones that aren’t considered “marketable,” but I think it’s also an important concept to understand for screenwriters. Who are you writing for (yourself doesn’t count as an answer, because then you would be keeping a diary and not writing screenplays)? If you hit you hit your target, is your script automatically good? If you miss is it automatically bad? It’s tough to say any of the Transformers movies were very good, but they were certainly popular and (mostly) achieved what they set out to achieve. In some circles, that would make them very good.

Structure – Stories in general, but especially screenplays, are supposed to have a three-act structure. But most screenplays with perfect structure probably aren’t considered good. Nor are screenplays that shun a three-act structure necessarily bad. Shane Carruth’s latest, Upstream Color, I heard plays with structure. Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds had a five-act structure that he helpfully outlined for his audience. Perhaps that handholding is what made his rule-breaking acceptable.

Story – Are the stories that are unique and well-thought out better than those that are familiar? Was Inception better than True Grit because Inception was a more unique idea? Writers are often judged on their loglines alone, so it would make sense that amazing stories have been skipped over because they sounded too similar to things that were already out there.

Characters – Is it better to write characters that are unique, or characters that are familiar and relatable? What makes a character that is, say, an FBI agent relatable to a farmer? Sometimes I can’t get into stories just because I can’t find anything relatable in the main characters. Evil Dead is a good example, as they tried to give you an emotional attachment to the characters by giving them intense flaws. It’s just, the struggles those chose for these characters were struggles I couldn’t relate to and I never found myself attached to them when shit went bad. Can we judge a screenplay based on how well-developed the characters are? Do we learn their backstory? Are the relationships developed? If we check yes for these, is it an indicator of how good a script is?

Intangibles – Football ranks players with “intangibles” sometimes. Extra little things that a player does that increases his worth to the team. Leadership skills, strategic knowledge, field awareness, things of that nature. Each script is also judged on certain intangibles. Turn-of-phrase, metaphor, emotional impact – these are just a few of the intangible thing someone reading a script might take into account without even realizing it.

Now that we have an idea of how a screenplay is made up, can a determination be made? I would still argue no. Writing is too subjective, I think, to be sure. While all of these parts are good indicators of the whole, it’s hard to judge a screenplay by just one, two, or even a few of these criteria. This is why looking for “good” writers is a difficult thing to do. Judging talent is a talent unto itself, and one that isn’t quantifiable.

So, I guess, good luck to my friend back in Buffalo. Judging talent and what’s good or bad is an unenviable task.

1 Comment

  1. Daveler

    I find your comment on "apples and oranges" funny.

    Back in the day, I had a college theatre professor who was very much into abusrdist works (a style of plays which is about exactly what you would think.) He wasn't very supportive of his students, who he had convinced of the greatness of experimental and nonsensical storytelling, and he would often divulge to me a bitch session about all their terrible decisions.

    When I tried to pin him down on what he liked, why WAITING FOR GODOT was better than MY MOTHER'S BUTT (aside for obvious reason) he could only tell me, "You learn with experience."

    But the issue was he would be so contradictory in his opinions that he would be, at one moment, praising a play for doing something, and then criticizing the next for doing the same thing. And I am a full believer in the concept of context, but the common denominator of his tastes just didn't seem to be there. They were random.

    So one day I asked him if the author's goal mattered. He said yes. Then I said, "Is CATS an equal production as THE DEATH OF A SALESMAN?" And he said, "You can't compare them. They're too different."

    Except he didn't believe that. Had I asked in another manner, not trying to pin down why he liked what he did, he would have never indicated that CATS was a work of art.

    At the end of my school years, I finally understood that he was just a reputation junkie–he liked Beckett because saying he liked Beckett made him smart. But in the meantime, I found this "apples and oranges" thing extremely unhelpful as a writer trying to improve.

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