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The Good In the Bad

There’s been a lot of talk about Did Not Finish (DNF) books in the internet back alleys I haunt, which are the books one puts down without finishing in case anyone is wondering. And as a reader, I completely understand DNFs: Life is just too short to waste on writing that does not touch you. But as an author, the best thing that ever happened to me was not being able to DNF.

For those not in the know, most screenwriters will work as readers at some point, those poor (usually unpaid) individuals who pore through agents’/ production companies’ slush piles to try and find that rare gold nugget amidst the dross. Readers’ job is to make it through these (usually terrible) scripts and then distill them down to a page or so of the script’s pros and cons. This is what is known as “coverage,” and in most cases, it’s about as fun as going to the dentist. Who just happens to be drunk. And sleeping with both your wife and mother.

I still want to get one of the marathon version of these stickers that just says 26.1.

Despite this inherent unpleasantness, reading terrible scripts and writing coverage for them was the best thing that ever happened to my screenwriting, mainly because I could not DNF. Since I was “working” for the production company, I was required to read every miserable page. And let me assure you, I just checked my old coverages, and only 3% of what I read warranted being a Recommend. So that means, by my math, 97% of what I read was either mediocre or outright bad. And, again, this was the best thing that could have happened to me.

Because after a few weeks I started to see the same mistakes occur again and again. Protagonists shared the same cliched names and spouted the same dated dialogue about their familiar backstories while the same plot twist would arise at the same structural location. Although all these scripts were specs, and therefore being developed alone in vacuums, they still sported the same problems. Why this occurred is beyond me, but Terry Rossio apparently experienced the same thing before me as well.

Does anyone even remember a time when having Johnny Depp in your movie was a selling point?

(PS, even though he co-wrote all the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, you should check out that PDF link above if you’re an aspiring author, no matter the medium or genre. I used to have a printed version of it hung on my wall.)

Being unable to DNF meant I encountered these same mistakes over and over again, and so I was able to learn from the mistakes of others. Unlike good scripts, which by their nature are seamless, bad scripts are all seams and jagged edges that snag you and might mentally draw blood. And all these painful moments teach you to recognize these mistakes and drive home both why and how you shouldn’t make same said mistakes.

As a reader, you’re effectively allowing other authors to be object lessons for you.

Now reading numerous 7-20k word scripts per week is a significantly lesser time commitment compared to a 100k+ novel, so I’m not at all advocating finishing one whenever it becomes a slog. But before you put it down for good, think about that novel and compare it to the last one you did not finish. See if you see any patterns emerge between the two, and then cogitate on how you would have improved upon it if you were the author. And once you start seeing the larger pitfalls, it becomes a lot easier to avoid them.

At least that’s the theory.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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