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Screenwriting : The word "great" is doing damage by A.C. Patterson

A.C. Patterson

The word "great" is doing damage

Maybe I just need to vent, but I am getting so tired of reading over and over variations of this phrase: "Just write a great script!" 

The problem I have is that it implies two things that aren't true: (1) That only "great" scripts get bought and produced. A quick perusal of the Netflix movie catalog or the master list of movies made in any given year will disabuse you of that notion, and (2) that there is a universally agreed-upon standard of "great." Taste is extremely subjective, and one person's steaming pile of hot garbage is another person's "great" movie (ask me what I think of most of the superhero movies, and then ask a Marvel fanboy the same thing, and you'll see this vast chasm of difference in action).

Obviously there are lots and lots of scripts that get bought every year that, while they might be good, competently written, properly formatted, decently crafted, etc., are probably not "great." Only several every year tend to be truly great, and that's what the Oscars are for, to cement popular sentiment forever for those films. The other ~495 movies (and the scripts that spawned them) might be good and marketable, but were probably not "great." 

So the far more useful advice that isn't being said—because everyone's too busy saying "Write a great script!"—is "Write a competent, marketable script." And that's what I believe 90% of the scripts sold every year are. Telling everyone to make sure their work rises to the same level of award-winning artistry that Oscar winners show is not only unrealistic, it is probably confusing to, if not damaging to the psyches of, aspiring screenwriters by telling them they have to achieve a near-impossible standard.

Having said all that, I should add a positive note, which is that (in theory) it only takes one executive who, for whatever reason, really likes your script and maybe even thinks it's "great" to create a sale.

Eric Christopherson

The need for great depends on where you sit, it seems to me. If you're already in the industry then a competent, marketable script may sell or obtain you work. If you're not, then why does the industry need your competent, marketable script, or you, when they already have lots of such scripts and such writers to choose from? But if you write a great script then ...

Stephen Floyd

“Write a great script” refers to what’s in your control as a writer. We can’t control studio trends or executive tastes. Unless you plan to make the movie yourself, your best foot forward is a “great” story, as opposed to a screenplay that was over-thought or under-developed, et cetera.

Craig D Griffiths

This will seem hard. I hope most people here will vouch that I am normally supporting and encouraging.

If you look at bad films and say “that’s crap”. You will focus on writing Crap+1. This is not your aspiration.

Those scripts started out great. Watch the BAFTA talk by Brian Helgeland. He talks about “The Postman”. How started great and descended into shit.

Some shot gets financed and made. Who knows why. Search the writers on IMBD this will

be their only credit.

I used to get annoyed by the “write great work” comment as well. Because no one tells you what great is. That is because great can only be seen by people capable of writing it. People know it exist, and they have heard it said. But they can’t describe it.

I am nearly capable to explaining it. But it is a long conversation.

Here are some dot points.

You will NOT find it using formula or rules.

You will never attain it following trends

You will never reach it writing what you think they want to read.

You will never reach it by NOT using all the tools available to you.

You will not reach it by look at the people with less talent and saying “I am better than that”.

You are approaching it when writing honest, real and authentic stories that engage with an audience.

Finally most people’s great is a steaming pile of shit. So their ‘adequate’ would be scary. If you don’t aim for greatness that is fine. This is just an opinion.

I don’t believe in a participation medal.

Michael L. Burris

Think big or think par.

Hey I never condemn industry people working par being grateful for any job.

Some people however may be built for thinking big.

That think big overwhelming thought adds many stress factors beyond par.

You have to idealize so much more.

The think big are also usually outside the box delving into perceptions.

Inside the box thinkers making that which is portrayed on box works a lot nowadays.

Perhaps think big or go home doesn't necessarily hold true but thinking big to solidify by going home does. Its not about arrogance, expansiveness or failure but being convicted your vision is right with every imaginable failure.

Illusions of grandeur take grand dissolution to solution to screen thoughts of a media army devoted.

Again par is a media army acceptable nowadays especially with those that bite. Getting stuck in the rut of biting . If its any consolation those that think big get stuck in a deeper rut sometimes.

I have buried myself so deep I can never get out but we thinkers can.

I have written many par torn apart abandoned scripts though. Even those to where the written "great script" of I clever "pitch" of "we" won't pull them out.

Doug Nelson

Whether the word 'great' is doing damage to the fine art & craft of screenwriting - I really can't say. I think that the vast majority of scripts floating around in the either are simply abysmal. A few are what I call 'worthy' of movie production, including many of the tent poles. But every now and then a truly masterful tale in script format appears - one worthy of being presented as a FILM. To me, striving to attain that level is what drives me ever on. But to each his/er own.

T.L. Davis

No one aspires to write crap. That usually comes out of meetings and too many opinions and someone selfishly trying to make what they see out of your script, even though their vision is half-baked and came to them at the end of a long night.

But, as with novels, I read the level of writing I wanted to achieve. When I read a great script, I was inspired by it, not encouraged by it. Two different things, there. I have read a lot of crap and I have read a lot of truly inspirational work. Who knows what anyone else sees in them? It only matters to me. So, what I write might not be a great script, but if I didn't think it was, why would I try to sell it?

William Martell

This is a business. "Great" includes the commercial elements. A competent low budget horror movie with an interesting hook with enough scary scenes to cut a trailer is better than some serious drama that might get great reviews - but isn't going to sell tickets.

Bill Costantini

Hi A.C.,

Well...it's the truth, though. As an unknown writer, If we want to get noticed by the Powers-That-Be, we do have to write a great script. Or several of them.

There are thousands of films released each year (something like 10,000 globally), and maybe 800 - 1,000 in U.S. theaters; and maybe another 1,500 - 2,000 or so on U.S. cable networks/VOD/streaming services or straight-to-DVD. And then thousands of others that we don't have easy access to. I'm pretty judicious in what I choose to watch, and maybe that's why I haven't seen a film that I would call "bad" in years. And I see a lot of newly-released films each year - usually every week in my local theater, or in one of the other ways I stated above..

So I'd disagree with you about how many "great films from great scripts" are made in any given year. I can easily think of 30 or 40 off the top of my head that were really great films released last year - and that was just in the local theaters, like I stated above. And the year before that, I saw at least 30 or 40. And ditto for every year before that, too. I am what you would call a "regular movie-goer". I have always loved sitting in a theater to watch new films on the big screen, and always will.

But, as you say, "taste is extremely subjective", and I wish you the best in finding those not-so-hard-to-find films, too, A.C.!

Here's a pretty comprehensive list of U.S. theatrically-released films in 2019. If you look over that list (or anyone else), and can say "there's only a few great ones", then I'd say something like......hmmm....I'd say something like....really nicely.....like...."really? Well, okay then!" Heh-heh. But here's the list:


Best fortunes in your great film-searching and creative endeavors, A.C. and all!

Craig D Griffiths

William Martell I think you are considering great to mean high art. You described a great low budget film.

If that is what you write and it is best in genre, it is by definition “great”.

I write contained stories. I try to go big and I fail. Give me a few people, one location and a theme and I can give you a feature. I know in that style I will one day be great. I can feel the muscles growing. Get me to write an adaption of “War and Peace” and you get a huge pile of crap set in Russia.

Hagop Kane Boughazian

It's simple. If you are known, you don't have to prove yourself. What people mean when they say you have to write a great script, is that if you are a nobody - aka unknown - you have to go above and beyond anything others do in order to stand out. But if you are already famous for some reason, or have connections, or rich parents, you can have a shit script and people will still give you a chance.

Bill Costantini

You also have to take into consideration the intended audience for each film. Like, if a bunch of young people think films like Toy Story 4, Frozen 2, and The Lion King were great, then, to them, it's great - at least to them, right?

If a bunch of people who like horror films think that films like Happy Death Day 2 U, Pet Sematary, Annabelle Comes Home were great, again...their opinion stands - at least to them.

We always have to remember that everybody in the movie-going world probably will probably never agree that any one single film is "unanimously great." But in any given year, there certainly are many films that are great films - at least to someone, and depending on what "great" means to them. Anyone who doesn't consider that, or doesn't agree with it, is either too biased to objectively consider the purpose of art, or is thinking in a way that is too narrow-minded to even understand or consider that. The interpretation of any piece of art is, after all, subjective, right?

Best fortunes in your creative endeavors, A.C.!

Dan MaxXx

Learn to make cheap movies.

Lulu Wang, Ava Duvernay, Ryan Coolger, Kevin Smith, Scorsese, Tyler Perry. They all got their hands dirty, didn't come from money.

Lots of privileged comments here.

Very few do-ers.

John Iannucci

We are in a society of instant. The next good is always the greatest. Words like best and great are thrown around like frisbees. How many times do you see a rookie being called a great player. There are tons of news channels compared to only three in the past - yet people are being put ahead or into cronkite’s territory. Just a cheap use of the word - be your own judge and do your best with what you have. As long as you’re improving your doing “great”. things.

Stevan Šerban

This is a "great" question!

However, no one has ever mentioned that a "great" script is a CONDITION to make a movie, as all Hollywood "gurus" say!

What does that mean then? Does this mean that all the films that have been made so far have been shot based on a "great" script?

Ben Hinman

Quality isn't an indicator of success. The hollywood industry is a very prominent example of a survivor heuristic--those that have already succeeded think that the specific steps they have taken are responsible while others repeat those steps without success. They have "survived" the process, and they misplace why or how thinking they their talent or their work ethic are somehow unique. They may even presume that they have succeeded because their writing is good, but hollywood is filled with terrible writing that still gets made, thats not a viable indicator. It is easy to assume that the powers that be earned their job, know what they're doing when greenlighting a script, know how to spot a good script when they read one and would bother to read or invest in a script for the right reasons, but simple observation would lend itself to the conclusion that these premises are false more often than they are true. You are better suited assuming that your script may never be read due to sheer ignorance; that if it is greenlit or optioned, it will be for the wrong reasons, and that the producer probably doesn't know what they are looking for or wouldn't know a good thing if they saw it. Assume the universe is not organized so good and talented people get what they deserve, that it is messy and chaotic and without meaning, assume the conditions must be forged to create a window for this to happen despite all odds. Plan for the worst, and if you happen to get lucky, as most successful people do... well then fuck it, you're overprepared.

Stevan Šerban

Ben, Wait, wait, wait ... slow down a bit! You have asked so many questions now and they are all in place!

Stevan Šerban

Ben, "... but Hollywood is filled with terrible writing that still gets made ..."

I wrote very clearly, although English is not my native language, that you will hear from all Hollywood gurus only one sentence: "If you want your script to be produced, it's not enough that your script is good, but your script must be "great"! "

Am I right? Maybe I misunderstood that sentence?

How many times have you heard or read this sentence spoken by all Hollywood smarts, producers, agents, managers ... Excuse me!

And then you write, "...... but Hollywood is filled with terrible writing that still gets made ..." Who's crazy here then ?

Obviously, that premise is wrong! Because if that were true, all the films made so far would get an Oscar!

Ben Hinman

Yes that is the point i was trying to make, people think they are in a position to give advice because they have experienced some level of success but most don't fully understand how they got where they are, they just think they do. I am of the opinion that many producers are straight up idiots. And they continue to be idiots because they are surrounded by sycophants who are afraid to tell them how poor their judgement calls are, because if you question them you risk your job. How can we expect them to have good taste? But you have to appease these people who think about things all wrong to get your movie made. That is just how things work now. So you have to find a way to tell a great story for the right reasons and then get an idiot producer interested for the wrong reasons. Without letting that idiot producer know what you actually think about their intelligence. Or, even harder, to find a producer with the actual intellectual capacity and interest in such a genre to grasp what you are trying to do, who is not motivated by the immense self-deception their power in this industry allows.

Stevan Šerban

Ben, The biggest tragedy, in my opinion, is that all those who decide which "great" script will be produced, get a salary that we writers can only dream of!

Craig D Griffiths

Ben Hinman by apportioning any blame on your own (or my own) failure or lack of success on other, ie Dumb Producers, you are removing all your own power.

The “I would be great if it wasn’t for them” or “I am great, but they are too dumb to see it” is the song of the talentless and those unwilling to improve. It is also the belief of the entitled. They are being held back by some invisible force.

To be GREAT you must aspire to be great and take responsibility for every failure in the way. Maybe even failures that aren’t directly yours. It is you power to improve yourself.

William Martell

Craig - Actually "great" to me is all about entertainment. I buy a ticket to escape. I think OP was looking at "great" as something that might win an Oscar. I write explosions.

Dan Guardino

If you shoot for the stars you might get lucky and find yourself soaring with the eagles. If you shoot for an eagle you might end looking like a turkey.

Dan MaxXx

Here are some professional Writers - movies and tv shows you have seen- read their tweets about failures, and heartaches doing this for a living.


Stevan Šerban

Dan Guardino, Happy Thanksgiving!

Stevan Šerban

Your script is "great", but in the next four years we are already full! Good luck next time!

Craig D Griffiths

William Martell fair enough. I think great is in context of a cohort.

William Martell

Isn't a cohort a few hundred Roman soldiers?

Craig D Griffiths

I thought it was to “horts” glued together.

Michael L. Burris

Not to get you silly asses sidetracked but as GOTG 3 is coming I love James Gunn Dialogue.

That trippy beautifully parallel thinker genius of "great" at at any genre' level mother f#**4r.

While I personally have no idea if Groot expands dialogue there are two annoying words mentioned by someone here I won't divulge that works amazingly.

I'll leave it at that but this thread has familiarity.

I'm definitely an idiot though... "great" or not.

A screenwriter who has not liked in relative fashion the last two Guardians of the Galaxy scripts cannot be a screenwriter even if they are "man movies".

Peace out all.

Stevan Šerban

Hey guys, you're talking about Oscars and Roman soldiers! Let's get back to the topic!

The man asked nicely, "The word 'great' is doing damage." I don't know about the rest of you who are involved in this discussion, or just reading it, but I personally ALWAYS find a disgusting sentence every time I research "how to sell a script in Hollywood": To sell a script in Hollywood my script cannot be ONLY good, but it MUST be "GREAT" !!!!

This is simply NOT true, because again, if it were true, then EVERY film made would deserve an Oscar !!!

Rashika R

I'm not sure if "great" is damaging to screenwriters. However, I've watched films with great animation that lacked interesting story concept. I've seen shows with flat scenes interesting stories. In these situations, I believe it's one of those writers who have been in the room for a while or project that's attached to a big agent or producer. Realizing that this is often the case, nature of the industry, I build relationships, curate more content, and take the steps to be one in the room. As we all know, unfortunately, a "great" story simply isn't enough.

Stevan Šerban

That's right, Rashika, a huge number of "great" stories have never been produced because only "something" was missing!

This in most cases is for the reason that you did not know someone, who knows someone!

Jeff Caldwell

Why wouldn't you aspire to greatness?

If you watch a mediocre film, you should think, "I can do better than that." Not, "Well, my plot's a little thin, and my characters need work, but, hey, so were some other films that got produced."

Most movies that get made are based on assignment, not specs. The writer is writing other people's ideas, most likely with marketability and merchandising in mind. Investors are looking to make some dough, so they are less likely to take a risk. Can't blame 'em from a business standpoint.

But, if we're talking specs, why not go for great? And, as pointed out, "greatness" is not limited to Oscar or Pulitzer worthy. If you write a whodunnit, and people can't stop turning the pages, you've done something great. Hell, some people might even consider it Oscar worthy i.e. Rian Johnson.

Some of the posts in this thread, though, as Dan Maxx would say, just sound like sour grapes.

Dan Guardino

I agree with Stevan. Half the scripts that sell are complete crap. Most producers in Hollywood wouldn't know a good screenplay from a bad one. That is why most of the movies they make lose money. The odds of selling a screenplay before you make any good connections in the business are are about 1 in 4,,000 and that is being generous.One in 10 of those will die in development hell so the odds of it getting made are about 1 in 40,000. So if someone wants to get their foot in the door learn the craft and write the best screenplay you can to show people in the business that you know how to write for it.

Ben Hinman

Craig D Griffiths You are 100% wrong. It is not a removal of your own power, it is an acknowledgement of the limitations of your own power. You cannot impress upon anyone an ideology, you cannot force anyone to see the light. You cannot make anyone see your value, see reason, see logic, you cannot make anyone do anything they don't already want to do. You cannot force there to be balance in the world, for everything to be in its right place, and for everyone to always get what they deserve. You cannot force hard work to always pay off, for butter to always rise to the top, and for good and talented people to see their dues. THIS IS NOT HOW THE WORLD WORKS. Accept that, or suffer the fruit of your own self-deception.

Acknowledgement that the universe is cold and unfeeling and your human ideologies are irrelevant to its continuing functioning and existence are a necessary hard pill to swallow for idealistic men like you who are too sensitive for the harsh realizations needed to actively prepare for and plan despite the worst case scenario... A scenario where this industry is indeed apathetic to your plight as an artist, where priorities are upside down and people are not always logical. The movie industry, like the universe, does not give a fuck about you. And it never will.

And you know what, if you fail to accept that and your project fails, that definitely is on your hands. Because you failed to anticipate a world where the stars don't just magically align for you. If you accept that a great deal of producers are idiots, financiers will invest in flops, and most people won't be interested at all until they're getting paid, you can move on from that realization and plan accordingly. And your revised plan will be within your control because you are at least aware of all the variables.

I thank god that with this awareness i'm not going to end up your age before my first project ever takes off. Idealism like yours is inherently anti-pragmatic.

A.C. Patterson

Thanks for the comments, all. Yeah as I said, I think maybe I just needed to vent. Sometimes when I hear a dogmatic phrase repeated ad nauseum, I rebel reflexively against it. In general, I aspire to greatness to the same degree as anyone else who is trying to improve day by day.

A.C. Patterson

Stevan: Thanks, you captured my cognitive dissonance well. That's what I was trying to express.

Ben Hinman

A.C. Patterson Yes i too am irked by this kind of dogma. This is why maybe i am a bit too hard on people like Craig who perpetuate false positivity over pragmatism. Only when we truly accept what is wrong with the world and indeed our own industry can we ever have the power to change it. I can only play the hand i am dealt and hope to one day be in a position where i can support artists of a similar mind to the one i am today. Were i to adopt Craigs mentality, i would only attract sycophants, and perpetuate the cycle of an increase in power leading to a decrease in the ability to objectively evaluate "great" scripts. There is a difference between the way the world is and the way we wish it was. Systemic issues must be addressed, and a new framework for creative and financial support must be built, if we are to connect these 2 worlds. We CAN make it better. Together.

Dan Guardino

Ben. If some of the comments here irk you maybe you shouldn't read them.

Craig D Griffiths

Ben Hinman again blaming an uncaring universe for your own short comings. Perhaps the universe treats you this way because your efforts deserve such a response?

The film industry does not care for people just because they exist. You must present enough value for people or care about.

You seem to somehow think you are entitled and the reason you are not successful is the universe is full of fools and it is a cruel hard place impossible to survive. If that is your belief, sad as it is. It is your belief.

Norman Vincent Peale once said (I hate these sayings, but this one works here), “if you consider yourself a failure or a success, you are correct”.

Best of luck Ben finding the acceptance you crave. You could make it yourself or search for people to validate you. Your choice.

PS, I don’t peddle endless hope. I am the first to tell people they will fail unless they strive to be great. No one deserve success, it is earned.

Dash Riprock

I guess I don't see the point here. If you've already concluded that "great" is subjective, you're left with only two choices: 1) give up; 2) write the best script YOU can possibly write. And then rinse, lather, repeat.

Tasha Lewis

If the screenwriter shops their script on a variety of networks, the other network may see potential where others mayn't. How many reboots or sequels are picked up on streaming and lesser known stations. Some programs reruns are run for years on lesser known stations and provide residual income for the cast for years.

Craig D Griffiths

Good observation Dash.

John Iannucci

Like it dash Except you forgot the lotion between so you don’t dry out from the harshness

Er Mixon

A great script is like a great dish of food. If it is competently made then someone out there will think that it's great but everyone has different tastes. A lot of people think expensive gourmet dishes are great but other people think that street food is great or just plain unhealthy junk food. And yes there are some people who would call terrible food great! But if you can't cook nobody will think your food is great.

Ben Hinman

Craig D Griffiths What about pragmatism screams entitlement to you? You're a super toxic guy, Craig. You hide behind a thin veneer of positivity but what you really peddle is insidious and abusive. I despise people like you. I would be very glad if we never had another conversation.

Stevan Šerban

Dan Guardino, Thank you!

People do not know that 80% of the films produced cannot pay off the money that is invested in them! Who is to blame for this? The producers are very well paid for their work, some writers can only dream of getting half the money for their screenplay as much as the producers' annual salary!

And what did the producer do? Below him are a dozen miserably paid "readers" of scripts, who are in awe of what to recommend to their "boss"!

Hello everyone, who is crazy here?

Stevan Šerban

AC, Of course, I'm very well aware of this, but no one will talk about it here!

Stevan Šerban

Hello, people, are you aware of and understand what the man here asked? Every time you ask the internet what it takes to sell your script, the first thing your "guru" will tell you is that your script must be "great" !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Why doesn't anyone answer my question: If this is true, why isn't every movie produced awarded an Academy Award????????????????????????????????????

Stevan Šerban

Dash, What's not clear to you?

Stevan Šerban

I don't think you understood what this was about. If people who decide whether a script is suitable for producing a movie say that it must be "great," does that mean that by that criterion, every movie that is "produced" automatically means that it is "great"?

Dash Riprock

Stevan, to answer your question: Obviously not. But then, why should it matter? Unless you can objectify "subjectivity", it's a meaningless question.

Stevan Šerban

A.C. You are old school, I like your way of thinking !!!

Stevan Šerban

Dash, Have you ever thought that what producers, managers, agents and studios look for as "great" scenarios is in fact just an excuse to reject you in a nice way?

They all have their comrades whose stories, though no one would ever take them seriously, will produce them as "revelations of the year"!

Dash Riprock

Stevan, sure. But what has that got to do with anything?

Doug Nelson

Producers are in this business to earn a living. They are not in the business of rejecting every script that comes along. If they rejected every one, they would be out of business pretty soon.

If every script you present is rejected by every Producer you connect with... Then I think the problem is with your scripts - not the Producers. If your scripts suck; then learn how to write better scripts. Producers do have 'comrades' for sure - those writers with whom they have worked successfully and profitably with in the past. But every Producer knows that writers are effectively 'free agents' and can work with whoever they choose. So a Producer must keep adding new writers to his/er pack in order to survive.

Craig D Griffiths

As a consumer would you be happy with second rate medicine? Would you want a second rate airbag in your car?

Near enough is not good enough.

Great is the minimum requirement. You are in charge of reaching great, not a producer, not an agent.

Head down and keep working.

Stevan Šerban

Doug, There is no "objective" in the artwork, because any commentary on an artwork, whether it is a painting, sculpture, musical composition or film script, is not brought to the judgment of the work by some "object" but by a human being, meaning "subject". .

So everything is very much related to that subject. Whether that "subject" is educated, literate, or smart so that he/she can decide what his/her "subjective" attitude is towards that work of art, so will the fate of that work of art!

Stevan Šerban

Craig, That's right, you have to be damn good to succeed in business, but the word "great" itself is very devalued!

Stevan Šerban

A.C. Thank you for such a good question !!!

Dan MaxXx

Who's who of Studio Exes talk about making movies. No dummies at this table.


Craig D Griffiths

“Perfection is a lot of little things done right” - Marco Pierre White (The great chef).

There is a thread about sentence order. An entire debate on what order to put sentences to dictate the reading experience.

There are 100 small aspects of screenwriting. You have to know them, then get good at them. Then you may be doing some great writing.

I am not there - just me. I am as self aware as they come.

Christopher Phillips

Dan MaxXx I've always liked their roundtables...

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