William Akers has taught screenwriting for over thirty years. He is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America. He has written feature scripts and TV episodes for Universal, Disney, MGM, and Paramount.
I recently got the chance to talk to him about his wonderful book, Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways to Make It Great.
Story Into Screenplay (SIS): Before we get started, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Out of the hundred mistakes you mention in the book, I've probably made about ninety-seven of them!
William Akers (WA): I'm sure you got the three most important ones right, so good for you!
SIS: How did you get started in screenwriting?
WA: I originally wanted to be a cartoonist for newspaper comic strips. As the idea of a story strip vanished, I got into screenwriting because it used a similar format: a story told within a frame.
I went to USC Film School and met someone who introduced me to a producer. That introduction led to me getting an agent and landing some writing assignments from the studios.
From there, I shifted from writing to teaching. I moved back to Nashville and taught at Belmont University for a few years.
SIS: What inspired you to write the book?
WA: The book came about because I was invited to speak at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. I knew I needed to give the students a handout to follow the lesson.
The handout came from notes I had developed from fifteen years of teaching. It ended up being about a hundred pages long, so I thought, "This could be a book."
I remember the saying, "Write the book you need to have." I kept seeing the same mistakes over and over, so I knew it was a book my students and clients needed to have.
SIS: Out of the hundred mistakes you mention in the book, which ones do you see the most often?
WA: The mistake I see most often comes from writers who include too much detail in their descriptions. You've gotta cut stuff out!
The script has to be easy to read. When you put too many words on a page, the reader will want to quit reading.
I remember visiting a producer's office and as I was waiting, I counted the number of screenplays on the shelves.
I counted over 1,400 scripts! Each of those scripts came from a writer with representation. Only a handful could ever get made.
SIS: What is the smallest mistake you've seen that can cause the most damage to a script's chances?
WA: That's a diabolical question! One small mistake I frequently see involves parentheticals. Writers often use them too much or put them in the wrong places.
For instance, writing action in parentheticals when they should go in the action lines. When you misuse something so simple, it signals to the reader that your writing lacks attention to detail.
Even the title can make or break whether a script hooks a reader. If a reader has to spend the entire weekend reading scripts, they'll go for the one with a catchy title first.
SIS: You also mention the mistakes that writers make when it comes to professional behavior. What's the biggest mistake you see from writers in that area?
WA: In a word: paranoia. When a writer asks a reader to sign an NDA, this signals to the reader that the writer is going to be a problem to work with.
First off, producers and studios stealing ideas from unknown writers are practically unheard of. It's usually cheaper to pay the writer than to steal the idea and face a legal battle later.
Also, even if the writer's idea gets stolen, producers and studios have floors full of lawyers who can fight back.
A writer's best hope is to throw their scripts out to anyone willing to read them and not be afraid of someone stealing their ideas. It's okay to BE paranoid, but it's not okay to ACT paranoid.
SIS: Your book came out in 2008. What changes would you make for a 2022-23 edition?
WA: I'm in the process of creating an updated version now. I have a massive three-ring binder I've labeled, "Your Screenplay STILL Sucks" that's still a work in progress.
The biggest changes I've noticed have come from the increased number of buyers for content. The streaming services are all looking for the next hit that can bring in subscribers.
Most of these services are looking for series rather than features. The ideal model is a limited series of three seasons with eight to twelve episodes per season that viewers can binge-watch.
However, you still need a great story. All the elements that relate to concepts, characters, plot, structure, and dialogue haven't changed.
SIS: What advice would you give to writers who are looking for a coach or mentor to guide them through the screenwriting process?
WA: Find someone you can trust. Don't let them string you along and keep you paying for advice that doesn't help you.
Also, find someone who can give constructive notes and who knows about the business. If you can trust them enough to pay them, listen to their advice, and don't get defensive.
I remember a friend telling me about how he approached William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, The Princess Bride) and asked him to review his son's script.
Goldman agreed to meet the young man at a coffee shop and discuss his script. Every time Goldman had a note, the young man argued with him. When Goldman had finished with Act I, he pushed the script back to the young man and told him, "Everything else is fine."
This should serve as a lesson to young writers: don't get defensive about notes, especially when it comes from a writer with two Oscars on his shelf!
SIS: How would writers reach out to you with any questions?
Does anyone care if nobody cares?" - Green Day, "Homecoming" (2004)
So you've written a screenplay.
It could be a deeply personal story about a tragic experience that shaped your outlook on life from that moment until now.
It could be a story that you've worked on for years, sweated over every page, bled over every word, until you thought it was perfect.
It could be a story that allowed you to bare your soul on the page and let out all the negative emotions you've kept inside your entire adult life.
It could be a story that delivers a vital message about the injustices in the world and how you, as a brave writer, have crafted these characters who stand up and speak truth to power.
For all of you courageous souls who have poured your heart, mind, body, and soul into your screenplays, I have two words for you.
Not your family. Not your friends. Not your writers' group. Not your writing teacher. Not your favorite movie star, for whom you specifically wrote the lead role.
Certainly not anyone who has to read your deeply heartfelt story as part of their job.
Not that production company intern. They're too worried about getting their own scripts on their boss's desk.
Not that contest judge. They're too busy slogging through hundreds of bad scripts as they try to find the one gem that makes their job worthwhile.
Not even that professional script consultant you admire. (HINT HINT) Sure, they care about making you a better writer. They care about helping you understand the process. But they don't care about YOUR story the way that YOU do.
The bad news is: Nobody cares.
The good news is: Nobody cares…until you MAKE them care.
How do you MAKE them care?
I'm glad you asked.
"Eddie Felson : You're some piece of work... You're also a natural character.
"Vincent Lauria : [to Carmen] You see? I been tellin' her that. I got natural character.
"Eddie Felson : That's not what I said, kid. I said you *are* a natural character; you're an incredible flake." - "The Color of Money" (1986)
You MAKE them care about your story by MAKING them care about your characters.
If they don't care about your characters, all the beautiful writing, all the cathartic experiences, and all the sermonizing about the world's ills won't make them care about your story.
If you can get them to care about a walking tree that says its name over and over again, then you can get them to care about anything.
If you can get them to fall in love with a green-skinned, pointy-eared, black-eyed baby that doesn't even speak, then you can get them to follow you anywhere.
If you can get them to empathize with toys, cars, robots, ghosts, and insects, then you can play with their heartstrings like Jimi Hendrix on a Stratocaster.
The biggest mistake that writers make with their characters isn't that they don't deliver stirring speeches or wring a tear from a glass eye.
Your characters can be humans, aliens, animals, or machines. They can even be (literal) sock puppets.
What they can't be is (literary) sock puppets.
You can't write them as stand-ins for your family, your beliefs, or your traumas.
You have to write your characters like roles that actors want to play.
You have to write your characters that viewers want to watch succeed or root for to fail.
You have to write characters that have unique goals and universal needs.
"You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you." - Carly Simon, "You're So Vain" (1972)
As much as I hate to break this to you, your screenplay shouldn't be about you.
It can reflect your experiences, but the reader doesn't need to see those experiences in excruciating detail.
It can convey your beliefs, but the script is not your sermon, nor is the reader your congregation.
It can serve as therapy, but the reader is not your therapist.
Your screenplay isn't ABOUT you because it isn't FOR you.
It's for the intern who has to decide if their boss should give it a look.
It's for the contest judge who has to determine if it could win a cash prize.
It's for the producers who have to find investors willing to put in millions of dollars to get it made.
It's for that struggling actor looking for a breakout role to launch their career.
It's for the crew members who get up early and put in long hours on the set every day during production.
It's for the post-production team who struggles to turn raw footage into spun gold.
Your job is to get all of these people to care about your characters enough to risk their jobs to turn your written blueprint into a finished product.
Most of all, it's for the viewer who wants to go on an emotional ride for an hour or two.
Until then…nobody cares.
"Won't you please, please help me?" - The Beatles, "Help!" (1965)
If you want to learn how to make these people care about your script, Story Into Screenplay can help.
If you have a script and want a professional evaluation from an experienced screenplay contest judge, Story Into Screenplay can help.
If you have a script and want one-on-one sessions to get it in the best shape possible, Story Into Screenplay can help.
If you have an idea and want guidance to turn that idea into a professional-level script, Story Into Screenplay can help.
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