…99 out of 100 screenplays I read [aren’t] good enough… When you read a good screenplay, you know it – it’s evident from page one. The style, the way the words are laid out on the page, the way the story is set up, the grasp of dramatic situation, the introduction of the main character, the basic premise or the problem of the screenplay – it’s all set up in the first few pages of the script. — Syd Field Screenplay (1979)
Good screenplays are like sonnets. They’re elegant, simple, rhythmic, adhere to a specific structure, and nail a problem/solution within the requisite number of lines. They’re a joy to read. Unfortunately, as Field lamented in 1979, they’re extremely rare.
Despite the hundreds of seminars, books and DVDs Field (along with McKee, Knopf, Voegler, Seger, Truby, Snyder et al) has contributed to teaching the science of screenwriting over the past four decades, it’s still a form that very few people manage to write right. And the numbers are getting worse. In 1979, a screenplay was an analogue manuscript, bashed out a page at a time on a typewriter. A mistake, or a rewrite, involved weeks of retyping. Once completed, the final product had to be copied at great cost, bound with covers and brads, and mailed (with the correct postage) to each prospective reader. When Field said 99/100 screenplays weren’t good enough, he was talking about 100 of these precious, handcrafted documents, these labors of love.
Now, any idiot with script software can vomit their twelve-stepped thoughts into a laptop, convert to a pdf, hit send and voilà! Instant screenwriter. Tens of thousands of them. Monkeys with typewriters on crack. Thanks to technology, there are more unproduced screenplays out there in cyberspace than there are photos of Kim Kardashian. And most of them, 99.9% of them, are bad, occupying all points on the bell curve between eye-gougingly horrible and utterly mediocre.