Long ago, I noted that one reason that beginning screenwriters love unhappy endings is that they’re a lot easier to write: You get to end your hero’s journey early, rather than guide them all the way across the finish line. I’ve been reading a lot of the “Amateur Friday” screenplays over at Scriptshadow recently, and I’ve come to realize that there are some additional factors at work…
One of the biggest mistakes that beginners make is that they mistakenly think their job is to come up with ideas that nobody else has come up with before. So they look around at all these earnest movies about sympathetic protagonists experiencing growth and change, and they think, “Gee, how come nobody has ever tried to make a movie about a wretch who suffers and dies? I must be the first person who ever thought of trying that! I’m going to blow their minds!”
Of course, once they write those scripts, they find out that few people want to invest millions of dollars in a story that, even if it’s great, will make everybody feel like crap. Movies like that sometimes turn out to be masterpieces, but not often, and you have to be a truly great filmmaker to make one worth watching.
This is where you get to the real problem: How do you become great? This is where misanthropic screenwriting can shoot you in the foot...
Let’s say you write an earnest, straightforward screenplay with the goal of making people feel good about life… If you send it out and discover that nobody likes it, then you obviously failed, and you end up feeling like an incompetent schmuck.
On the other hand, if you try to write a misanthropic screenplay, and nobody likes it, then you’ll be tempted to say, “Great! It works perfectly! If they don’t like it, that just means that they can’t handle the harsh mirror I’ve held up to their reality.” And maybe that’s true. Or…maybe…the screenplay just sucks. How can you know?
When you first start out, no matter what you write, it’s probably not going to be very good. But at least if you’ve written something from the heart, you’ll know that it failed to connect, and you’ll force yourself to do better next time. On the other hand, if you intentionally try to alienate audiences, then I’ve got some good news and some bad news... The good news: You’re guaranteed to succeed at that goal! The bad news: You’ll never know whether you alienated them by writing something brilliant or by writing something terrible.
Even if you’re sure that you’re the next Lars Von Trier, and you can feed us castor oil and make us like it, you should first try to write something a little less bleak, just to make sure that you know what you’re doing. That way, when you decide it’s time to hold up that harsh mirror and piss audiences off, you’ll know that they’re getting pissed at the message, not the messenger.