One of the more interesting practices of early film studios was their willingness to accept unsolicited motion picture scenarios and make them into real motion pictures. For aspiring screenwriters, there were helpful advice columns, correspondence courses and more.
Here is a collection of fifteen DO NOTs published in Motography by B.F. Barrett “former editor of Photoplay Scenario Magazine.” Let’s take a look and see what could dash your hopes of screenwriting success 103 years ago! (My notes will be in italics.)
Are your manuscripts being rejected? Are they returning to you with appalling regularity, accompanied by a printed rejection slip? If so, have you stopped to analyze your scenario to find out why it was not acceptable? Do you know some of the reasons why scripts are often not even read further than the synopsis?
Of all the photoplays returned by the film companies marked “not available” or “not suited to our needs,” it would probably be perfectly safe to estimate that nine-tenths of them are refused because the plot is weak or they contain no plot at all. Too many amateurs have no conception of what constitutes a plot — and especially what constitutes a strong plot. What the film companies desire is a play that will grip the audience — one that will hold their interest and attention from beginning to end; a story which is strong enough and appealing enough to make the audience remember it, not forget it entirely as soon as the next picture is shown. The film companies are catering to an exacting public and they must please them. A few years ago when the “movies” were a novelty almost any kind of story would interest the audience, but the public has been educated to better things ; they are growing more critical and exacting every day. If you want to please the film companies you have to please the motion picture loving public, and they demand that their time be not wasted watching a mediocre film depicting a story with little or no plot — a story such as almost anyone could write.
I find it fascinating to see how early contempt for early cinema crept into the film fandom. Nowadays, even fans of silent films sometimes sniff at pictures from the dark ages of 1916. Goes to show you: we’re all whippersnappers once.
Lack of Originality
Paralleling the strong plot in importance is the originality of the idea. The public is clamoring for something new, something different, something out of the ordinary. They do not care to go to a theater three nights a week and see the same plot over and over again, one film just like another. They crave variety. It is admitted that an entirely new plot is almost an impossibility, but you can use an old idea and make it over so that it will not be recognized, or if it is recognized will please with its freshness. Be constantly on the watch for new ideas, new incidents that can be used to embellish old plots. You will find these all around you, and in newspapers, magazines and books. Be careful, however, not to borrow plots from stories you admire. It is your ideas, your originality that is desired. And every original idea, every unusual and different plot will be hailed with joy by the film company editors.
Movies were absolutely the national pastime before radio and television brought entertainment into the home. This is why I am always a bit annoyed when people try to pigeonhole silent films or claim that they all contained certain cliches. If they did, the audience could and would call them out. These were smart, alert fans.
Cast too Large
It is well to remember that every person appearing in a photoplay must be paid for their work, and consequently every added character means added expense of production. Also, if there are too many characters the audience becomes confused in watching them all and keeping track of just what part they are playing. A small cast is a good selling point in a scenario.
How things have changed! But, seriously, I complained about this very thing in my review of The Lost Battalion. How do you like them apples?
When the photoplay first started there was a tendency to very melodramatic plots. The idea was to thrill the audience and the only way seemed to be to introduce sensational scenes. There are other ways to hold the audience in suspense, and the film which is full of sensational action and melodramatic scenes is not the most popular at the present time. Also it has a tendency to encroach on the forbidden ground of depicting crime.
Again, fascinating seeing as how the 1910s are often lumped in with early film. And while the “race to the rescue” scenarios pioneered in France and England were indeed a staple of the nickelodeon, let’s not forget the delicate magic of Melies and de Chomon and the whimsy of Alice Guy. Oh, and depicting the act of crime was a major sticking point for some censor boards but studios were always trying to sneak (or brazenly push) crime into their pictures.
Will Not Pass Censors
The film companies do not care to have their productions spoiled by the many clumsy cut-outs which the Board of Censors insists upon in any objectionable film, and so the safest way is not to write plays which are liable to be objectionable. The censors will not allow depiction of crime unless actual committal is covered, or the story teaches a moral lesson ; neither will they allow any suggestive scenes. Try to make your play clean. Try to appeal to the higher ideals of the public and then you will not be troubled with manuscripts being rejected because they will not pass the censors.
In 1916, there was no central censor body and films had to be submitted to individual boards, the most powerful of which was likely Chicago. I read of a case in which they cut a shot of MOLDED GELATIN with a double exposed female figure over it. Yeah…
Lacks Sufficient Action
In writing a photoplay make every scene count. Do not have action enough to fill about fifteen scenes and then pad to make thirty-five. Your action must be swift and consistent to keep up the interest of the audience. The editors will be disgusted if they find a scenario with many feet of film consumed in showing people shaking hands, coming into and going out of rooms, and a multitude of minor details of action which are totally unnecessary. Make every scene count. Be sure there is sufficient action to make the story interesting, and that it is all necessary action.
Was going to make a comment about certain modern television shows stretching a ten-episode story into a sixteen episode season but thought better of it. (Sips tea.)
Have Not Considered Camera Limitations
Many writers do not stop to consider that a camera has limitations. There are just so many feet of action that can be taken at one time without moving the camera. Do not expect to show a whole block of houses in one scene and all the action taking place in the different houses at the same time. Also remember that the camera cannot show your characters in two or three places in the same scene. Consider these limitations and then arrange your scenes accordingly.
The relatively static camera of the period was already coming unchained with pans and tracking shots but there were still enormous limitations. Even in modern times, writers must always be aware of the available technology, the film’s budget and other limitations.
It is always wise to make the first impression a good one. That is one step in your favor. Therefore, have your manuscript arranged as neatly as possible. Make it show to the cursory glance that you have spent time and thought on its makeup. Do not dash a scenario off hurriedly and send it to a film company just to try your luck, because you may be assured that you will be “out of luck” and the script will be returned to you just as hurriedly. Also never send a manuscript out unless it is typewritten, because it will be returned to you unread. Use a uniform size of paper and do not write on both sides. In short, make the manuscript as attractive as you possibly can.
And the more things change… I remember reading one editor’s manuscript submission horror stories and she said that she once received a hand-written manuscript written in purple ink and fastened with a pin. I don’t know if electronic submissions have helped or hindered in this matter.
Not of Class Desired
Many manuscripts are returned not because they lack merit, but because you have submitted a comedy to a company which is in the market only for a two-reel, heart-interest drama; or you have sent your script to a company which has stated definitely that they are not in the market at the present time. Study the market and be sure the company desires plays such as yours before you waste postage sending them out.
Again, this reads like a new edition of the Writer’s Market! Then as now, some people just don’t follow instructions.
Make your stories true to life. Do not introduce improbable situations and improbable characters. The audience will not be pleased with the fantasies, but will rather sneer that anyone should think they would be amused with these flights of the imagination.
I think of the decadent fantasy confections that were on the horizon…
Too Expensive to Produce
One of the principal points which determines whether a scenario will be purchased is the cost of its production. Do not spoil your sale by calling for elaborate scenes, costly costumes, the destruction of property, or special acts which only a trained specialist can perform. Have as few characters and settings as possible and the more exterior settings the better.
Exteriors were much easier to shoot than interiors when nobody had to worry about sound! Destruction of property? That costs a pretty penny.
Not Realistic Enough
Make your characters human, make the scenes and the action true to life. It is the regular everyday people and everyday events which are wanted, and these should be true to life and carried out logically and consistently.
Too Sure of Its Merit
Put the very best work of which you are capable into your writing, but do not be too sure that you have a scenario without a flaw. No plot is so good that it cannot be improved by the editor or director, but try to make it so clear and so good that he will not be required to revamp it to any great extent. One trouble with the amateur is that he reads his scripts to his admiring friends and they pronounce them “splendid,” and so the writer comes to believe they are. Take into consideration the fact that these critics are your friends, that they do not want to discourage you or hurt your feelings. The proof of the merit is the reception at the studio.
So much this! I belonged to a writing group when I was first launching my site and the ladies in it were so helpful with their kind but realistic criticism. But there were a few members who joined with the expectation that the critique would be 100% praise and were offended when helpful changes were politely offered.
Technical Construction Poor
Perfect technical construction does not mean a perfect scenario because the plot is much more important than the technique. But a knowledge of the correct form makes it very much easier for you to make your meaning clear and helps greatly in the sale of the scenario. A good plot accompanied by correct technical construction will bring the topmost price.
I know some people pride themselves on not following the rules but it’s good to know the rules and why they exist before you go about breaking them.
The audience wants to be entertained from the start to the finish of the picture and you must be sure that your story contains enough of interest to hold their attention. Also that interest must be steadily increased until the climax is reached. Do not start off with a fine beginning and then grow weaker. Make the interest uniform and well sustained to the end. Also, be careful to choose a subject which will appeal to your audience, and remember that you are catering to all kinds, ages and classes of people.
(Considers making crack at current television show. Thinks better of it.) But seriously, most films were indeed intended for EVERY age group (though not necessarily every demographic) and were therefore a challenge to write.
So there you have it, all the ways your screenplay could go pear-shaped in 1916 and a good many of these reasons still apply today. Writers beware!