I figure one of the best ways to learn is through critique. At the same time, who am I to critique another writer? Instead, I want to critique one of the worst writers I’ve ever had to read, and that would be myself, from four years ago.
What you’re going to read below is surprisingly one of the more legible scenes in this sprawling monster of a script that I wrote with no outline or guide as to what I was making. Each scene was me, an uneducated high schooler, coming up with scenarios that looked cool in my head.
So, without a further ado, here’s an admittedly bad scene that, at one point, I thought was great.
Bruno has magical powers from some kind of book. He wants to go to a mountain.
So… yeah. Lots of flaws, which means lots to learn here! Let’s break it down…
Why It Doesn’t Work:
Style Over Substance: So many elements in this scene are in there just for the sake of it looking “cool.” Bruno’s awful ‘not a negotiation’ line, compounded by his pointless silence, really drives this home. This kind of attitude isn’t really evident in the character, and is simply there to service the scene, thus making it feel disengenuine.
Forced Conflict: Conflict should naturally come forth in characters and the scenarios they find themselves in. It should not come up to their shoulder and violently tap them, asking for a fight. This screams that the writer simply wanted an interesting scene, but couldn’t afford to do the legwork to get there. And by forfeiting built-in conflict, we are left with this awkward dynamic between Bruno and the Docker, two characters who don’t know each other but for some reason are going to try and kill each other.
Over-Description: Action lines in scripts should be relatively sparse and succinct. They should not be rambling, pointless, or redundant. So that means lines like “[Bruno is] slyly, casually, leaving” should be kept far and away from any kind of script. All this does is hiccup the action of the script, and ultimately makes the writer appear as if they don’t trust their own description.
No Explanation: This scene kind of comes out of nowhere. Sure, there’s some kind of magic in this universe which allows people with this specific book to do special things, but it’s never established what this magic is, why this book exists, and what the limits of these powers are. When creating a universe like this, you need to give everything (especially plot-based objects) a rich and detailed history. That way, everything is able to feel more natural and doesn’t appear like it’s been thrown in for the sake of appeasing the plot.
Pointless Suspense: Would a guard ever give a countdown for their target who is actively running away? I’d think not. But here, the guard gives what has to be the most awkward countdown scene I’ve ever seen (or written). There’s no reason at all for it, aside from creating this really needless kind of suspense that, again, takes the reader out of the moment. On top of this, we already know that Bruno is going to survive this (he’s kind of a god?), so any sense of dread we might’ve had is again forfeited, thus creating a ridiculous moment in an already ridiculous scene.
Writer’s Lack of Care: This is one of the biggest lessons I had to learn when I was starting out. Write stories that you’re apart of. This doesn’t mean to write self-insert fan fics. Rather, make sure there’s some aspect of yourself in that story. Maybe the protagonist is flawed in the same way you are. Maybe they’re strong in the same ways you are. Maybe they cope with adversity in the same way you do. Just make sure something personal is in the story. It’s what makes the story unique, and similarly keeps you caring about the story. When I wrote this, I didn’t care at all about what I was writing, and that shows on the page. If you don’t care, you end up finding scenes like this that just fill up a page count, but don’t actually say anything substantial.
Self-critique can be a pretty grueling task, especially if it forces you to confront some of your biggest weaknesses. But sometimes, it feels relieving. I’m glad I don’t have to stand by this script, but rather can point at it as a marker in my development as a writer. Though I don’t find anything redeemable in this piece of work, I’m thankful that I wrote it. The only way to improve is to keep writing, and even if what you’re writing is a failure, it’s entirely worth finishing. Neil Gaiman has a quote which I often refer to, that quote being “finish your failures.” You can learn so much from just sticking through to the bitter end, and though you might hate what you’ve written, you can at least say that you wrote it.