No, data cannot help you write a better screenplay

TypewriterWalt Hickey’s recent FiveThirtyEight blog post, “How Data Can Help You Write A Better Screenplay,” is flawed on so many levels, the key one being predictive analytics does not apply to screenwriting. Why not? Because, first and foremost, the screenplay is a blueprint for a film, and the process of interpreting text to a visual medium reflects a collaborative effort with multiple unpredictable variables — most notably, people: actors, directors, producers, editors, cinematograhpers, sound technicians, more writers, set designers, etc.

Predictive analytics does not apply to screenwriting

To be fair, Hickey starts with the correct questions: “What makes a screenplay good? What makes it bad? Are writers in certain genres at an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to certain elements like plot, premise and characters? And if so, how can we show this?”

Until he speculates, “All we need is a data set to draw from.”

Uh, no.

Blinded by science — literally

Blinded by scienceJust what exactly composes a data set about a film, anyway? Well, the screenplay, sure, along with the aforementioned multiple other “data points,” the people involved, and what ultimately becomes the finished product.

So, Hickey asks the correct questions, but rests his case on “4,655 evaluations of 2,784 scripts by 2,221 writers,” submitted to the The Black List from March to July, 2014. Those screenplays, primarily if not entirely by amateur screenwriters, vary widely in genre and get evaluated on a numerical scale. Hickey concludes, “we can use these to uncover different trends,” which may be true, but only regarding trends of screenplays written by amateurs of films unlikely ever to be made. Even if science could be applied to discovering “trends” about “what makes a screenplay good,” FiveThirtyEight’s approach is inherently flawed.

So what makes a screenplay good?

If you want to write a “good” screenplay, one that will get a “recommend” from The Black List or studio readers, there’s no substitute for studying the craft, by attending workshops, reading screenplays by established screenwriters, comparing produced films to their original scripts, and getting professional feedback on what you’ve written — none of which map to the flawed premise that predictive analytics can be applied screenwriting, scientifically speaking, because it can’t.

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