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Script-a-WishScreenwriting Articles
by Michael Ferris


APRIL 2013

The League:
Series Overview and Conceit

"THE LEAGUE" is a sitcom set in Chicago, revolving around a Fantasy Football league, and the many ways the league's players' lives erupt in constant grotesque tumult. ('Grotesque' in the theatrical sense.) Emotionally, the Fantasy Football through-line is less a concrete concern and more of a metaphor for the friends' marriages, bachelorhood, careers, sex, politics, etc. In other words, "THE LEAGUE" wisely has little to do with Fantasy Football and only really uses the Fantasy Football as a crucible to spin off its plots.

This conceit is most evident in the tongue-in-cheek approach every character has to the league. For example, in one episode the order of the draft pick was decided by a kids' sack race. As another example, the character of Taco plays the game, but doesn't care a bit and in one episode was nearly thrown out of the league for not caring.

Arguably, there are occasions where the league members become obsessed with the game, and fall into compulsiveness, even to the point of one character suffering a stroke over a draft pick cheat in the third series. But keep in mind that there's always a heightened element to all the Fantasy Football stuff. Any of these characters, at the very end of the day, cares more about each other than anything else.

As with any good story, the emotional hooks are the most important things. This conceit is most evident in the undying friendship between leads Pete and Kevin, and Kevin and his wife Jenny's loving marriage. Footballer players and commentators sometimes put in cameo appearances from time to time, i.e. Matt Forte, Josh Cribbs, Terry Bradshaw. The Fantasy Football game involves a never-ending series of hazings, rituals, and games within games, a principle that will be explicated throughout the following. The trophy up for grabs for each season's league winner is dubbed The Shiva, after a schoolgirl crush the male characters shared. In the second season the character of Andre redubbed the trophy The Dre, but in the third season the trophy went back to being The Shiva, and was ultimately burned in effigy when the third season was declared moot over the mentioned draft pick cheating incident.  

A single-cam sitcom, "THE LEAGUE" is also oft-improvised during filming, but don't worry, you will still need to write your spec in its entirety. In "THE LEAGUE"'s first season, Andre was the league winner, taking the trophy from three-year champion Pete. In the second season the character of Ruxin won. The third season was won by eternal loser Kevin, but then declared moot by Ruxin because, as mentioned, the initial draft pick was cheated on.

For the complete writing road map for The League, go to http://www.screenplay.com/t-mferris_TV_theleague.aspx


MARCH 2013

Veep:
Series Overview and Conceit

"VEEP" is a comedy series created by Armando Iannucci for HBO, concerning the daily tribulations of fictional vice president Selina Meyer, and her hapless staff.

The series has a foundation of utter intimacy, is almost claustrophobic in sticking with Selina and those few surrounding her.  Conversations often take place in whispers, in hushed tones, in urgent close-ups and medium shots.

To illustrate this intimacy further, in the entire first season the President was never once seen, and the show rarely has an exterior shot, beyond probably stock footage of an occasional motorcade. With this intimacy comes only seven major characters, a mere handful for a subject as epic as a vice president. So keep in mind when writing your spec not to get epic, to stay close and intimate.

With only a couple of exceptions, the episodes of "VEEP" happen in real time, the events of an episode usually occurring in a single day or a matter of hours.

The show juxtaposes real political issues like Clean Jobs and Filibuster Bills against inanities like corn starch utensils or whether the Vice President is feuding with the First Lady.

There's always a motif of Wheel Spinning. No one can ever get anything done.

There's nothing episodic about "VEEP", either, everything and nothing is always happening simultaneously, and one line of dialogue concerning the A plot can be followed by another line of dialogue concerning the B plot. Make sure you collage, weave, compress, and stack your plots and events. And stack them in such a way that you are stressing out the characters, making everything inconvenient and coming at the wrong moment at the wrong time.

A great illustration of both collaging plots and intimacy: Selina found out a grinning, touchy-feely photographer at a baseball event could read lips, and then when she had to discuss her pending pregnancy test over the phone she had to turn her back to avoid getting her secret conversation lip read, resulting in the line: 'I can't move my lips."

The show takes a somewhat dim view of government, depicting it as a place where nothing, but nothing, gets done, or can get done, but at times the dim view turns appreciative, and may actually be pointing out that the reason government can't get anything done is because of the incessant interruptions from the people, and the media that the government is governing. At times, then, the show almost says: 'Look at these heroic wheelspinners, pushing their boulder up the hill only to have it roll back down again.'

For the complete writing road map for Veep, go to http://www.screenplay.com/t-mferris_TV_veep.aspx


FEBRUARY 2013

Girls:
Series Overview and Conceit

"GIRLS" is a show composed of ½ hour episodes, created for HBO by Lena Dunham, and produced by Judd Apatow. Through the eyes of the show's heroine, Hannah Horvath, an aspiring essayist and writer, the lives of Hannah and her three closest friends (Marnie, Jessa, Shoshanna) unfold through a filter of confusion over all the girls becoming, or trying to be, what a modern girl can, should, or could be.

Again and again the series returns to a line of dialogue that runs some variation of ‘Become the person you're meant to be'. It's one of the first lines out of the gate at the series' beginning, and it recurs throughout. While the line's very much a surface utterance, the series goes to great lengths and plumbs spectacular depths in discovering the emotional truths of being a girl fresh out of college and on the streets of New York. The series works with very little in terms of plot and theme, to gain very much in terms of depth and emotion.

But unlike other series we could name, there's no Girls Vs. Boys construct at work here. There's no Battle Of The Sexes going on here, where Boys are stupid for leaving the toilet seat up or Girls are stupid for the way they try to change Boys or whatever other surface, Battle Of The Sexes platitudes one wants to utter.

Everyone in "GIRLS" is very much human and their situations are very everyday, and this is the most important thing to realize in writing a spec for the show. The only comedy that arises from the show's situations is human comedy, not obvious comedy purporting a stereotyped idea of Men Are From Mars And Women Are From Venus. The only characterizations that arise from the show are believable ones.

The best example of this is the character of Shoshanna Shapiro (ZOSIA MAMET) whose first appearances in the show are deceivingly surface-oriented, but she gradually becomes a profound tragicomic figure wending to wonderful revelation by the end of the first season. (see CHARACTER BREAKDOWNS below).

So when prospecting a spec for "GIRLS" keep in mind that unlike, say, "SEX AND THE CITY", the show is never ever glib, or reliant on easy reflections of society's surface ideas regarding, well, girls. Or boys. Or anyone.

A quick note: most of the drug and alcohol use in this series happens accidentally or incidentally, and none of the character exhibit much interest in getting loaded. Whereas that's almost expected in a series like this, whereas in something like "THE LEAGUE" you'll always see characters with beers in their hand, there's a refreshing lack of awareness of drugs and alcohol hereabouts. Don't put either in your spec, despite that you're writing for the youth of today.

Also, the series is episodic within each episode, with some criss-crosses between plots, but still very distinct and separate beats, thus making it easier on the structuring of a spec...

For the complete writing road map for Girls, go to http://www.screenplay.com/t-mferris_TV_girls.aspx


JANUARY 2013

Hell On Wheels:
Series Overview and Conceit

"HELL ON WHEELS" is a series on AMC created by Joe and Tony Gayton. Each episode runs about 45 minutes. The title of the series comes from the filthy, mobile tent town at the head of the evolving Transcontinental Railway, circa the American West of the 1860s.

At the series' beginning the opening title appeared:

"1865. The war is over. Lincoln is dead. The nation is an open wound".

By this dictum the series announced it would reveal character under the duress of history. By no means does "HELL ON WHEELS" simply recite history, ticking off lists of events. When a character mentions, say, the horror of Andersonville prison, or 'Bleeding Kansas', it's because a character was there, in those events, and emotionally affected.

Like "BOARDWALK EMPIRE", "HELL ON WHEELS" reveals conflicted historical reasoning behind certain formerly noble moments, or at least puts that reasoning up for debate. And so we have the ideas that the Native Americans became 'savages' only because of the Transcontinental Railroad and Manifest Destiny, and that the settlement of the American West was based on corrupted money.

The newly freed slaves are also a large part of the picture here, and "HELL ON WHEELS" makes known every inch of their struggle, right down to the detail that they're only being paid half as much as the other railroad workers. The Freedmen are also always set to work 'in the cut', digging the actual trench through which the railway will run, while explosive crews work several miles ahead, softening the earth and the way forward. During the series The Freedmen were also the first to be set forward as the Native American raids on the train increased in ferocity, though their first steps are being taken toward civil rights, as the Freedmen demanded to be armed while riding point.

There is also a strong immigrant presence in the show, depicting how the railway was not only built on the backs of freed slaves, but also by the toil of Irish immigrants running from the famine in their land, Swedish immigrants seeking fortune, German immigrants, French Haitians, etc.

Speaking of 'in the cut' above, the technical aspects of the building of the Transcontinental Railway come much into play. There were no planes to fly overhead, and so surveyors were vital, compassing the way across the land, as they blindly pushed forth across the prairies and into the Rocky Mountains. In one terrific scene in the second season, a bridge is built across a chasm, and the viewer thinks: "Wow, those guys really did that, and they sure as heck knew their math."

The corruption comes into play here, as well; in an early episode a winding track is decided on because the company gets paid by the mile. The spine of the first season also involved a looming deadline wherein the railway had to make a certain 40 mile mark to continue to be funded by the government.  

Spiritually the railway is vaunted as Manifest Destiny, and there's preachers and prostitutes to lend carnival color to this 'Westward Ho!' side of the story. The Native Americans in one episode, after a vision of a steam-belching beast coming across their plains, came to negotiate with the railway builders, and they saw the town of Hell On Wheels for a filthy settlement, full of dying animals, mud, prostitution, gambling, fighting, drinking.

Finally there is the tension between the former Union Soldiers and...

For the complete writing road map for Hell On Wheels, go to http://www.screenplay.com/t-mferris_TV_hellonwheels.aspx

To download a Movie Magic Screenwriter template file for Homeland, right click here: http://support.screenplay.com/filestore/templates/mmsw6/New/TV/Hell%20on%20Wheels.def

For a list of available Movie Magic Screenwriter format templates for download, go to http://support.screenplay.com/downloads/MMScreenwriter/Templates/index.php


DECEMBER 2012

Homeland:
Series Overview and Conceit

Homeland is a long, slow-burn of a series that gradually reveals information with great care to mount tension and create layers of doubt, intrigue, and most especially a sort of audience paranoia. Based on an Israeli series "PRISONERS OF WAR" (created by Gideon Raff) it is a spitfire of a show, a highly intelligent thriller of a series that presents uncomfortable analogies in its exploration of the United States' changed attitude to National Security post-9/11. It is damning of the response to 9/11 at home and abroad, critical of the methodology of the War On Terror, particularly in the use of drones, and cynical of the motivations of those who instigated that war.

It also owes a huge debt to "THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE", especially with the oncoming second season, in which the brain-washed potential-assassin character of Nicholas Brody has taken office. Any research into writing for "HOMELAND" should begin with a viewing of that classic movie (the Frank Sinatra version).

"HOMELAND" gleaned a Golden Globe for best drama, almost equaled audience figures for "MAD MEN"'s finale for its own and is widely known to be President Obama's personal favorite show. He requested four copies of the finale on DVD from the show's creators, no doubt making conspiracy theorists on the right sweat a little. 

PLOTTING OVERVIEW:

Because "HOMELAND" is a plot-heavy series, we're going to address the Plot Overview prior to the individual characters. And of course this assessment will be SPOILER-heavy, so one had best watch the series before wielding this summary tool, which also discusses themes to use in spec'ing.

Carrie Mathison is a CIA operations analyst who at the start of the series is on shaky ground with her superiors for an unauthorized operation in Iraq. It is quickly made clear that she is driven by a sense of urgent purpose to protect her homeland from a terrorist attack, and that this drive overrides any requirements for professionalism or protocol, though later her cop-on-the-edge motif is revealed as a problem of bi-polar disorder.

For the writing road map for Homeland, go to http://www.screenplay.com/t-mferris_TV_homeland.aspx

To download a Movie Magic Screenwriter template file for Homeland, right click here: http://support.screenplay.com/filestore/templates/mmsw6/New/TV/Homeland.def

For a list of available Movie Magic Screenwriter format templates for download, go to http://support.screenplay.com/downloads/MMScreenwriter/Templates/index.php


NOVEMBER 2012

New Girl:
Series Overview and Conceit

“NEW GIRL” is a half-hour sitcom on Fox. It concerns the upbeat, fun-loving, flighty, schoolteacher Jess, who after a bad break-up opted to move into a loft with three guys. Nick is a law-school dropout, Winston is a former Latvian basketball player, and Schmidt is working a dead-end corporate job, and though much of the series’ friendly conflict derives from Jess driving the boys up the wall, Jess is also their light, their saving grace. Many of the episodes have an underlying theme of Jess setting fire to, and burning down, the male characters’ doldrums, by plunging into disasters that somehow go okay in the end.

Jess also has a close friend, Cece, a hardworking, mysterious model who spent the first season in a quiet flirtation and then a passionate secret relationship with Schmidt. The pair was eventually found out, and broke up.

The series is a massive hit, and cutting edge in terms of youth, freshness, and joie de vivre, and is at its best when it tends toward the surreal, offbeat, and heightened forms of comedy. In one episode Jess initiated an afterschool bell band for troubled high schoolers, literally a band playing hand bells. At first her roommates were driven mad, but Winston, the competitive former basketball player, picked up the bells and immediately was an expert, and led the bell band to a performance of Survivor’s perennial hit “Eye Of The Tiger” before a crowd of ten in the local park. That sort of surreality. That sort of quirk. That sort of oddball-ness.

Also the series relies heavily on Embarrassment with a capital E, and while most comedy does as much to some extent, the undercurrent of embarrassment throughout “NEW GIRL” episodes is a constant river. The characters are embarrassing themselves, or embarrassed of their paths, or withholding embarrassment, or trying to conceal something so as not to be embarrassed (as in the first series’ thread of Cece and Schmidt’s secret romance). You can never go wrong writing up something embarrassing for the characters to experience. In the best example of this, late in the first season Jess went back to her ex-boyfriend Paul for a one-night-stand, found out he had a new girlfriend, and when all had been revealed, Jess had to stand there and watch Paul and the new girlfriend cry and cry and then watch Paul ask the new girlfriend to marry him in the sappiest fashion possible.

For the writing road map for New Girl, go to http://www.screenplay.com/t-mferris_TV_newgirl.aspx

To download a Movie Magic Screenwriter template file for New Girl, right click here: http://support.screenplay.com/filestore/templates/mmsw6/New/TV/New%20Girl.def

For a list of available Movie Magic Screenwriter format templates for download, go to http://support.screenplay.com/downloads/MMScreenwriter/Templates/index.php


SEPTEMBER 2012

Spec Writing Road Map: Parks and Recreation

Last month we talked about how Television is the emerging new path into the industry for aspiring writers. More shows on more channels are needed, and the amount of pilots selling and being developed keeps growing by the day. Whereas before it was next to impossible to break into television with just a script or two, it's becoming more and more common every day.

Over the next several months, we are going to go over various TV shows that are worth spec'ing right now (that is, writing a sample episode for). We are going to break down these shows – their structure, their characters, and provide an A-Z road map that anyone can follow in order to write a sample episode of that show.  We'll get into so much detail, that on a scene by scene basis you'll know exactly what to write. Like Algebra, you'll just have to plug in your numbers and off you go – it will be that simple.

The shows we're breaking down are "what's hot", based on conversations with executives and other people in the industry. The key to keep in mind is you never want to spec a show that's ended, ending, or isn't considered "hot". This first show is a favorite of mine, and despite ratings that don't exactly match NCIS, it's a show that's a personal favorite of many I talk to in the industry, and is an all around good show to spec since a good Parks and Rec episode can open the doors of a lot of other different comedies that are similar.

Every month we'll do a new show, and interchange comedy and drama each time. Over the next few months we'll be doing these road maps for shows like HOMELAND and NEW GIRL, and every month Write Brothers and Screenplay.com will provide a brand new Movie Magic Screenwriter format template you can use for that show, pre-set up to match the script format the real writers use. It really doesn't any more plug and play then that. 

Parks and Recreation:
Series Overview and Conceit

"PARKS & RECREATION" is a half-hour sitcom on NBC. It concerns the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, and the goings-on in and around the nexus of a Parks & Recreation Department. It most often uses the department as a location, the department offices contained inside the oft-seen front of Pawnee City Hall.

For the writing road map for Parks and Recreation, go to http://www.screenplay.com/t-mferris_TV_parksandrecreation.aspx

To download a Movie Magic Screenwriter template file for Parks and Recreation, right click here: http://support.screenplay.com/filestore/templates/mmsw6/New/TV/Parks%20and%20Recreation.def

For a list of available Movie Magic Screenwriter format templates for download, go to http://support.screenplay.com/downloads/MMScreenwriter/Templates/index.php

 


OCTOBER 2012

Spec Writing Road Map: Boardwalk Empire

We continue our series for a show that just got picked up for a 4th season, Boardwalk Empire. This one will be around for several years, and while it’s not as close to my heart as, say, GAME OF THRONES, this show is much more spec friendly, as it’s not bogged down in the rigidness of source material like GAME OF THRONES is. It’s also widely considered a pretty solid serialized show to spec by agents and managers in the industry.

This article is intended as a full on instruction manual on how to write a “BOARDWALK EMPIRE” spec, along with tactics for how to write a spec.  In the course of the article, we’ll obviously reveal many details of the series, so it goes without saying that this contains dozens of spoilers. If you’ve already seen the series, however, this road map should work equally well as a consolidation of the series’ history and a freshly analytical voice regarding the series’ facets.

Also, this essay uses much repetition of events, not by accident but to hammer home and continually reiterate a holistic understanding of the series’ history.

While character and plot and series history are important for the writing of a spec (thus, why they are covered ad naseum upfront), the real meat and potatoes of this article, the “fun stuff”, is the absolutely detailed Episode Breakdown, which, like a coroner’s scalpel, reveals each layer of an episode to such a degree that you will be able to easily structure your own episode using our formula

Boardwalk Empire:
Series Overview and Conceit

“BOARDWALK EMPIRE” is an epic HBO series, set in Atlantic City during prohibition. It was originally adapted from a book by Nelson Johnson entitled Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, And Corruption Of Atlantic City. The central character of the show, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, is based on real-life Atlantic City kingpin Enoch L. Johnson. Of course, all this real life stuff should never stand in the way of a good story in a good spec.

For the writing road map for Boardwalk Empire, go to http://www.screenplay.com/t-mferris_TV_boardwalkempire.aspx

To download a Movie Magic Screenwriter template file for Boardwalk Empire, right click here: http://support.screenplay.com/filestore/templates/mmsw6/New/TV/Boardwalk%20Empire.def

For a list of available Movie Magic Screenwriter format templates for download, go to http://support.screenplay.com/downloads/MMScreenwriter/Templates/index.php


SEPTEMBER 2012

Spec Writing Road Map: Parks and Recreation

Last month we talked about how Television is the emerging new path into the industry for aspiring writers. More shows on more channels are needed, and the amount of pilots selling and being developed keeps growing by the day. Whereas before it was next to impossible to break into television with just a script or two, it's becoming more and more common every day.

Over the next several months, we are going to go over various TV shows that are worth spec'ing right now (that is, writing a sample episode for). We are going to break down these shows – their structure, their characters, and provide an A-Z road map that anyone can follow in order to write a sample episode of that show.  We'll get into so much detail, that on a scene by scene basis you'll know exactly what to write. Like Algebra, you'll just have to plug in your numbers and off you go – it will be that simple.

The shows we're breaking down are "what's hot", based on conversations with executives and other people in the industry. The key to keep in mind is you never want to spec a show that's ended, ending, or isn't considered "hot". This first show is a favorite of mine, and despite ratings that don't exactly match NCIS, it's a show that's a personal favorite of many I talk to in the industry, and is an all around good show to spec since a good Parks and Rec episode can open the doors of a lot of other different comedies that are similar.

Every month we'll do a new show, and interchange comedy and drama each time. Over the next few months we'll be doing these road maps for shows like HOMELAND and NEW GIRL, and every month Write Brothers and Screenplay.com will provide a brand new Movie Magic Screenwriter format template you can use for that show, pre-set up to match the script format the real writers use. It really doesn't any more plug and play then that. 

Parks and Recreation:
Series Overview and Conceit

"PARKS & RECREATION" is a half-hour sitcom on NBC. It concerns the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, and the goings-on in and around the nexus of a Parks & Recreation Department. It most often uses the department as a location, the department offices contained inside the oft-seen front of Pawnee City Hall.

For the writing road map for Parks and Recreation, go to http://www.screenplay.com/t-mferris_TV_parksandrecreation.aspx

To download a Movie Magic Screenwriter template file for Parks and Recreation, right click here: http://support.screenplay.com/filestore/templates/mmsw6/New/TV/Parks%20and%20Recreation.def

For a list of available Movie Magic Screenwriter format templates for download, go to http://support.screenplay.com/downloads/MMScreenwriter/Templates/index.php

 


AUGUST 2012

The New Emerging Path Into The Industry For Screenwriters

For years, Television was considered the ugly stepchild to cinema. It was seen as less artistic, with less depth, and less craft. But something funny happened over the last decade of Television -- real quality, with real movie stars, and shows aiming for "prestige" and Emmys (much like how in the feature world, "Oscar bait" movies help to buoy the thought of cinema as "classy") began to populate the landscape. HBO was a tremendous part of this push, with shows like THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS, and they helped usher in the thought that yes, Virginia -- cable can be a place for TV to flourish. From shows like BREAKING BAD to GAME OF THRONES to MAD MEN and everything else in between, HBO brought Cable TV out into the light, and now network TV is trying to get in on the action. So sure, quality shows are everywhere now--- but isn't it impossible for aspiring writers to break into TV?

Yes, TV has always been incredibly hard to break into. Any ol' aspiring writer couldn't just write a pilot and sell it the way feature specs are sold. Joe Blow Screenwriter couldn't just write a TV show spec and get a gig writing for a TV show right off the street. It was usually years of working your way up from intern to assistant to staff writer - akin to the path managers, agents, and executives used to rise up the ranks. But with more channels needing more content every day (including HULU and Netflix getting into the game), and with traditional "seasons" going out the window, "Pilot season" is grows in size every day. Opportunity is in the air for aspiring writers, and that opportunity's name is TV.

What's interesting about aspiring writers focusing so much on features is that in reality, Television is where the money is. The pay is more stable as a staff writer, as feature writers may go years without selling a second script. And if you create a show that makes it on air? You won't believe how much money those guys make. The money in features is in rewrites, not specs – so there is opportunity in features, but these days it's become a little stagnant for newbie writers. But fear not, dear reader – the fastest growing opportunity for aspiring writers is TV (and so far, no one seems to be talking about it). Last year, more pilots sold than ever before. More specs from aspiring writers are making it through the closed gates, and they are getting repped and staffed like never before.  Joe Blows are getting staffed, and more and more shows are being created by writers with less and less experience.  My screenwriting conference, the Studio Networking and Screenwriting Conference (www.studionetworkingconference.com) was specifically created to take advantage of this new wave and will showcase classes on TV writing for Feature Writers. On top of the classes and training that will be featured at the conference, I'm creating tools alongside my friends at Movie Magic Screenwriter to help you even more.

One of the fantastic aspects of Movie Magic Screenwriter that puts it head and shoulders above the competition is that unlike all those other online and other software screenwriting programs, MMS makes it incredibly easy to have properly formatted (we all know how big a deal that is, right?) TV spec scripts. They have templates for all the different kinds of TV scripts -- from multicam sitcom to one hour drama, they've made it very plug and play. If you're going to write for TV (and you should), these templates make it easy. But how about we make it even easier?

Over the next several months, I am going to feature complete breakdowns of the TV shows that are the hottest to spec right now. These roadmaps will break down these shows and their episodes in such a way that all you will have to do is fill in the blanks with your ideas, and you're practically finished. Alongside the TV Show Roadmaps, Movie Magic Screenwriter will release a new template specifically for that show with every article. So if you’ve never spec'ed a TV show before, we'll make it easy. And if you have, Movie Magic and I will make it even easier. Because "hot" TV shows change and evolve every year, we'll keep updating and refreshing as necessary.

The greatest opportunity for aspiring screenwriters today lies in Television -- are you going to grasp the opportunity while you can?


JULY 2012

Theme in Screenplays

As you probably know, it is vital to have something to say if you want to sell a screenplay - in other words, creating a compelling theme.

Most people agree that it's important to enrich your work with a theme.

But most people, I've found, also misunderstand exactly what a theme is.

When I'm giving someone screenplay coverage and ask them what the theme of their spec is, they often say things like, "Well, there are themes of politics in there, and sexism, and divorce, and poverty, and..."

And while it's great that they have such a rich project, I'm always quick to point out, none of those things are a theme. They're motifs, they're story values, they're subject matter. But they're not theme.

A theme, put simply, is the way in which you view the world, dramatized through the Crisis Decision your protagonist makes at the Story Climax and the result of his Climactic Action.

For example, when Rick puts Ilsa on the plane and walks into the sunrise with Reneau, the theme of CASABLANCA might be said to be, "We can have both a rich inner life and a rich outer life, if we choose love over romance." In other words, when we choose real love.

That's why Rick says, "We'll always have Paris." He's not choosing the greater good over love; he's choosing BOTH his love for Ilsa AND the ability to serve the world. He's evolved, into something both greater than the freedom fighter he was in Spain and the head-over-heels schoolboy he was in Paris. He's a new, far greater man.

With STAR WARS? "We can become the heroes we are meant to be only when we trust absolutely in the universal life force that encompasses us all."

A couple more examples, just for fun.

CITIZEN KANE: "A man who tries to force everyone to love him will die alone."

SCREAM: "We will be free from our haunting past only when we tell ourselves the truth about it."

GHOSTBUSTERS: "Only through self-sacrifice and love do we find happiness and true success."

TEEN WOLF: "Only when we believe in ourselves can we become who we are meant to be. And bite beer cans and win basketball games."

Okay, that last one was a joke.

But I hope you get what I'm saying.

Like I’ve said before, you should never have your characters come out and pontificate on What It's All About (like they do in, say, TEEN WOLF): Your story should tell us what you're trying to say.

And if you can do that, and leave us with a message we'd never before considered, you're well on your way to writing an amazing screenplay.


JUNE 2012

TOP 5 Mistakes Aspiring Screenwriters Make

I read screenplays for a living. Thousands and thousands of screenplays.

There are times when I sit down, curl back the title page, and know from a split-second glance at the first page that this script will be totally and profoundly unsellable.

Other times, it takes longer.

But when it comes to mistakes that writers make, it's true what the TREMORS POSTER (and, you know, Ecclesiastes) said: There's nothing new under the sun.

It's sort of heartbreaking, seeing the missteps that cause aspiring screenwriters to faceplant just as they're extending their hand to Hollywood.

Writing a spec script consumes months, sometimes years. Yet all that head-and-heartache often seems to come undone around a shockingly common choir of faults.

Want to know how to sell a spec screenplay? These are, in no order particularly, the top five mistakes that spec screenwriters make.

MISTAKE #1: They use camera directions.

Let me simultaneously grab my megaphone, bullhorn, soapbox, and bully pulpit, and trumpet this announcement once and forever:

MODERN SPEC SCRIPTS SHOULD NEVER CONTAIN CAMERA DIRECTIONS.

(And by this, I mean both explicit camera directions and implicit camera directions: Using "IMAGES OF" or "WE SEE" is every bit a camera direction as "CAMERA TRACKS.")

To use them is a cardinal sin, especially in this age. Like the use of "beats," scripts used to have more camera directions. But with the rise of The Director, they have been eliminated from the words on the page. Essentially, it pisses off a director when you tell him how to shoot the movie, and it confuses actors because they don't care about camera directions.

Yes, I know: You've read William Goldman's screenplays. Even the ones written today, and he uses 'em. You've read David Koepp's, and darn it if there weren't a crap-ton of camera dictates in his scripts.

Well, allow me to kill the suspense: because they are William Goldman and David Koepp, they can do whatever they damn well please. .

The fact is, those guys are established, and what goes for them does not go for you. They can write whatever they darn well please and get away with it (Exhibit A: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL? Sigh.)

MISTAKE #2: Lack of character development; or, conversely (but just as damningly), too much character development.

It's obvious that not letting us know who your characters are is a Grade A way to shoot oneself in the foot.

But how, you ask, could there be too much character development?

  • The script tells us things that are not absolutely necessary to the story.

  • The script attempts to establish the characters - particularly the protagonist - in the first act, supplying a clunky, lumpy, exposition-thick characterization for the first thirty pages. This is something that, if you get, could change your writing life entirely: You do not have to let us know who your protagonist is as a person at the very beginning. Give us hints, yes, by all means; artfully give us those glimpses of his soul that make an audience lean forward in a kind of joint empathy for this person on the screen. But the process of the ENTIRE STORY should be a gradual drawing away of the curtain, the true character of a person revealed (and changed) through their actions and reactions across the grand span of all three acts.

MISTAKE #3: Poor formatting/description.

I admit it: This one's a bit of a cheat. I can actually think of several different errors that fall under this category. Here are the main ones:

  • The writer simply has no knowledge of the screenwriting format. You've seen these scripts. Messed-up margins; improperly used slugs. I see this and I know, as John August once said, This guy's an amateur screenwriter; he's not an ASPIRING screenwriter.

  • The descriptions are too long. Ever seen those soul-crushing eight-inch-thick scene descriptions? Me, too. They're why I have to wear glasses.

MISTAKE #4: The script's premise is a retread.

I know what you're thinking: Can't SPEED/DIE HARD-on-a-[insert-location-here] still sell?

Oh my, yes.

Just Google Michael S. Palmer's ALTITUDE, which was actually pitched as SPEED-on-a-plane. But, guys, that's just shorthand; he didn't copy SPEED in any way. (In fact, ALTITUDE is a terrifically fun thriller that owes as much to Richard Preston's horrifying books on viruses as it does to any Willis or Reeves thriller.)

Look, I know you love THE GOONIES. I know you (err, maybe) adored CONFESSIONS OF A SHOPAHOLIC.

But if you want to sell a screenplay, please do not, for Jehovah's sake, write another corny Suburban-Kids-On-An-Adventure. (All other things aside, unless you've got an adult starring role, it won't get made these days)

And do not pen another script about a spoiled girl going through heartache, losing her job, losing her dog, losing her man; fighting back; going skydiving; finally landing that dream gig, and realizing she does, goshdarnitall, have what it takes.

Again, I'm not trying to be mean here. I'm trying to give you tips so your writing can improve. Because real screenwriters improve with everything they write.

And the way they do that is, they take chances.

You might feel safe ripping off BoxOfficeMojo's latest #1. But the truth is, never taking risks is the most dangerous thing of all. It means you'll never grow. And never growing means never selling a script of getting an agent.

Ripping off ideas speaks to cynicism - the idea that you can manipulate the audience with a pre-programmed material.

But on a deeper level, it speaks to insecurity.

It shows you're not writing from the gut-level up. You're writing with mere ink, not lifeblood.

You're writing, if anything, from your left-brain, from your wallet (which - Irony speaketh - will probably remain empty until you stop writing with one eye on what Nikki Finke thinks the next trend is).

The lesson here? We all know how important it is to create a high concept premise for your spec screenplay. But even more important: Come up with one that doesn't instantly invite a (pale) comparison to a genre standard bearer.

And now, for our final mistake...

MISTAKE #5: The script has nothing to say.

A little more ephemeral, but profoundly important nonetheless.

Seeing this one in action always makes me sad, because I happen to think that all great storytelling springs from theme (more on that another time).

Most spec screenwriters - even the ones that are almost there - seem to disagree.

Guys, you've gotta have something to say.

As a writer, it is your duty to venture out into moral or philosophical netherworlds and come back with your new conclusions, with possible new Truth unearthed. Because regardless of how awesome the plot twists are; how witty the dialogue; how spectacular the action, without a powerful theme, I can almost guarantee that your script will become, as I've often heard execs lament, "just another spec."

This goes along with writing what you think will be popular - not writing from the core of who you are.

Noah Lukeman said something in his brilliant THE FIRST FIVE PAGES that altered the arc my own life as a writer more than nearly anything else: "When agents say they want a writer 'with a voice,' we're not just referring to the way an author chooses his words. We want people with a unique way of viewing the world, and something of substance to say about it."

He was talking about novel manuscripts, but I think we can all quit picking nits for a second and acknowledge that it's basically all the same storytelling beast.

What do you care deeply about? What infuriates you, or makes your spirit soar?

Write about that.

No, your spec should not be an on-the-nose spiritual journey. But even DIE HARD had something to say about the boundaries of love, and how it can make us do stupid/extraordinary things (walking on glass, anybody?).

So those are the common ailments I see with people trying to sell spec scripts.

Mere diagnosis isn't enough for me, though.

Coming up next month, we'll take a look-see at the cures.


MAY 2012

How to Make Your Script POP (Using Characters and Story World)

After a long conversation with an agent friend of mine, he gave me the age-old lament "all the scripts I've been reading are crap".  He reminisced about past scripts, ones that "really grabbed you by the balls – and I'm not talking action scripts either".  Of course, because he was talking to me, he recounted the first time he read Travis Beacham's script THE GLOAMING (later to be renamed KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW when it sold to New Line).

I thought a lot about that conversation, and after going back and reading Travis' first script, I understood both what we was saying, and what other writers could do to emulate that same "hairs standing up on the back of the neck" feeling that reading a fantastic script can give you.

It's the same feeling Hollywood had when they read JUNO, where the dialogue POPPED off the page.

It's the same feeling they got reading Zach Helm's scripts, whose whimsical description, action lines, and plot turns POPPED off the page (unfortunately though, they didn't translate so well to the screen).

It's the same feeling they got reading THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, which for a long time was at the top of many people's "best scripts that have never been made" list. 

Regardless of what happened after the script became a movie, the common theme here is that these scripts POPPED off the page. They grabbed you by the scruff of your neck with their writing, and didn't let you go until they were done with you.

In many cases, they launched careers – which is what you guys want, right? So let's talk about two key elements that you can incorporate into your scripts that will give the industry that same "goose bumps" feeling.

STORY WORLD

Too often, writers believe that, unless a story is science fiction or fantasy, they don't need to worry about building a unique or compelling story world.  Nothing could be further from the truth -- audiences adore being thrust into unique but everyday worlds they would otherwise not encounter -- so really work to make your story world more vividly described.

It doesn't matter if your movie takes place in an intergalactic space empire, modern day Los Angeles, or a motel in Iowa – you need to make the setting and world, time and place, POP off the page. 

Even if it's Suburbia, USA it need to not only FEEL like a unique and interesting place, but one that puts on emphasis on WHY this place for THIS movie.

To take the Suburbia, USA example to its extreme, think about EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. It used the homogenized suburbia and put it through a colorful prism in order to contrast with the dark, foreboding feel of Edward's home on the hill.

Versus:

Thematically, it fits so perfectly – the arrival of this seemingly dark character into this cheery, colorful suburban neighborhood is what it needed to "wake up" from its dream. It also took the classic "Beauty and the Beast" story and turned it on its head – bringing the beast to the village, rather than the other way around.   But most importantly, the setting (suburbia) popped off the page (and screen) because it was unique, interesting, and answered the question of "why here?" perfectly.

When choosing a setting, or when going back through an already written script – ask yourself "why this time and place?". If there isn't a definitive, absolute answer as to why you've set your story where you have, then your story world will be lacking, and it will be reflected on the page.

Let's say you have a definitive, absolute answer as to "why here and now?". Great. Now ask yourself "is it on the page?". This is extremely important – as writers we know everything there is to know about our stories, characters, and scripts – it's all in our heads, after all. But for the convenience of all the people not living in our heads, are all of those things showing up on the page?

Another sign of great writing is how your setting is so well drawn, that it almost becomes another character to the story. Think about how in the movie DRIVE, Los Angeles is portrayed in this almost noir-ish 80's vibe, and the city at night almost becomes a character that The Driver interacts with. 

In GAME OF THRONES, various settings in Westeros are like characters, and even come to represent the entire population of the people who live in them. THE WALL defines The Rangers. King's Landing and its people signify wealth, The Iron Islands (2nd season) are just as strong and immovable as its people.

Getting to this point with your settings, whether it's on the tapestry of a fantasy or sci-fi script, or on the streets of a gritty New York, or a laid back Los Angeles, or a small town called Fargo – is all about BRINGING IT TO LIFE.

In keeping with the spirit of things, here are a couple examples from Travis Beacham's script, THE GLOAMING:

EXT. OBERON SQUARE -- LATER

In all its decaying, imperial splendor.

Philostrate ascends the stairs of the underground station, out into a plaza of crumbling marble sculptures.

He walks past TOURISTS feeding a thick flock of pigeons.

The black dome of Parliament looms in the distance.

An OLD FAERIE with withered wings pushes a cart piled high with trinkets. Laughing SCHOOLBOYS sneak up behind her and throw pigeon food at the her.

If you've never heard of KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW (original title THE GLOAMING), it's about serial killer that preys on faeries in a dark, Victorian steam punk thriller. It's fantastic, and hopefully it actually gets made. 

But, let's look at the scene excerpt. First, notice how the little details not only set up where we are very quickly, but we can SEE it in our mind, can HEAR it (the LAUGHING schoolboys), and can smell it (for anyone whose stood next to a flock of pigeons). Also notice how quickly the scene is set. Quick, short action lines. Economy of words. That's a basic scene setting on. Here is one of my favorites, and should be pretty self explanatory:

Two CONSTABLES slide the body into a black body bag.

Philostrate passes them, looking out over the gray, fog choked harbour.

A distant tall masted ship floats by. Obscured creatures move about the deck. Bottom approaches him.

PHILOSTRATE
Where's the girl who found the body?

BOTTOM
Name's Moira. She's in her skin, in
water over there.

A slick, supple seal-esque creature emerges from the tide.

It climbs up onto a rock in the distance. Stretching, contorting, opening its mouth impossibly wide.

BOTTOM (CONT'D)
This bit still gives me the creeps.

A human face pushes through the open mouth. A whole head emerges. Curly red hair. A hand. An arm. A shoulder.

The girl underneath pulls off the dark sealskin as if she's sliding out of a tight leather skirt.

MOIRA stands on the rock in her "human" form, completely nude. Slim fair-skinned body flecked in a blizzard of light pink freckles. Her ears pointed like a faerie's.

Philostrate politely turns away. Bottom stares slack-jawed with a mix of morbid fascination and disgust.

I want to also mention that this is the only time we see this kind of creature in the entire movie. In the scene that follows, it's a short Q and A to get some information. No different than any good cop show. But it's amazing to read (and hopefully to watch) because of the SETTING. Because of the CHARACTERS. Because of the writing and creativity and above all – economy of words. Imagine if someone had told you to write a scene where you introduce a fantastical creature that looks like a seal, and then a woman comes out of its mouth whole. Would you have been able to describe it in 3 lines or less? Would you have been able to keep the story moving despite needing to take the time out to introduce a brand new SPECIES? I know I wouldn't. 

So, an extreme example to be sure – but it illustrates perfectly what a well written, unique, perfectly fitting setting can look like.

So, here are some questions you need to think about when writing, and/or rewriting your script to make sure the story world is popping off the page:

Why did you choose this setting?

What are some characteristics of the setting that stand out?

What are some of the sounds we hear?  What is happening in the background? What are some tertiary things we might see out of the corner of our eye, if we were paying attention?

How does the scenery change and develop over the time?

What are the Landmarks of the place? 

You need to feed all of the senses of the reader, to depict a clear setting and location. You may not describe every little thing (in fact, you shouldn't), but if you can convey a little interesting detail here, or a unique detail there, you will quickly build a unique story world.

What is it that makes your setting easily identifiable as YOURS? This doesn't even have to be on a national scale (like setting it at the Washington monument, or the pyramids of giza), but when we see it, either in our heads or on the page, we immediately associate it with your movie/script. Think of the TV series THE MISFITS (hulu). When I see that skyline of concrete low income housing, I think of the show and the characters and all the emotions the show brings out of me. If you can write a movie that makes an executive ACTUALLY remember it, just because of the story world, that's huge.

SCENES

Now that you've started thinking about interesting landmarks or unique locations of where you've decided to set your movie, think about this on the scene level. Does this scene have to be in a restaurant? Does that scene have to be in a bedroom? The more you can get your characters out into the world, interacting with it and within it, the more your script and story world comes ALIVE.

Even if characters have to be inside a restaurant, or some other "boring" location, be specific about where that scene takes place, and what that setting feels like, so that the reader can feel like they're in this setting with these characters.  

Simple exercise: imagine you've set a script in modern day Los Angeles – think of all the landmarks of the city – the Getty, the observatory, the La Brea tar pits, or other places that are unique to Los Angeles. Put a "dinner scene" there.  What does that do? Unless your script is about cooking, it forces you to cut out all the BS, and focus the scene on JUST the information you need to move the story forward and give the characters depth.

So all of those are just a few questions to ask yourself when building your story world in order to make it POP. Now let's talk about characters.

CHARACTERS

While great dialogue with unique voices is a major force behind making your characters POP (as I've written about in the past), one very simple change you can make to your writing (or rewriting) that will help them pop off the page even more is using this simple tip:

Reveal a bit about your characters through a quirky or unique piece of action that speaks volumes about who they are.

"What does that even mean?" you say. "I'm not writing an indie film, there's no need for any quirkiness here!" you say. Well, bear with me.

One example I like to use that sets up a character very quickly (almost effortlessly) in the audience's mind was in the movie UNFAITHFUL, with Diane Lane and Richard Gere.  As you may already know, that movie is about an average, suburban housewife who meets a mysterious man and has an affair. Since she's the protagonist, and she's the one doing the cheating, it's a highwire act because we have to LIKE her, we have to SYMPATHIZE with her, and we have to root for her – an adulterous wife. So how do you pull that off?

In the opening, there's a scene where Diane Lane is doing the laundry, helping her son get off to school, etc. After she sees her son off to the bus, she passes by a table with a chewed up piece of gum sticking to it. Instead of being disgusted, or angry that her young son left it there, she simply pops it into her mouth and goes about her day cleaning the house.  

In a movie where she ultimately cheats on her husband, this little moment in the beginning humanized her, made her real – like a real mom with real faults and real reactions to the gross things kids leave around the house. It was such a small detail, but so perfect and spoke volumes – these are the kinds of small details that can bring a character to life quickly.

In a format where you have so little time to set up characters, these small details can be all the difference – whether in the strength of the material, or how it's received.

One last thing to think about, along the same lines as having small character details - when you integrate character development into the sequence of action – what a character is DOING, that's how cut down on and eliminate exposition.  Keeping things moving, keeping characters DOING, while revealing bits about these characters in the process of WHAT they are doing – helps you write better dialogue and create memorable, CINEMATIC characters.

So whether you're writing a new script, or going through an existing script, find all the little ways you can enhance your setting, enhance your scene work, and enhance your characters and make them POP off the page.


APRIL 2012

Why Script Analysis and Story Notes are Vital To Your Success

For a free ebook on all the tips and tricks to elevate your writing to the studio level, email info@scriptawish.com.

Before we start, I have to make a confession... I’m a script analyst. I know, I know – I have a conflict of interest here. Feel free to take this with a grain of salt – but I promise you, this will be a balanced and insightful article on story notes, and why they are a vital component in every serious screenwriter’s arsenal.

There is one key to success that I want you to keep in mind while reading this article: all it takes is one champion of your script to make your dream of becoming a professional screenwriter a reality. Write that above your desk – it will get you through those nights where you question what it is you are doing, and it will be a happy reminder once you’ve “made it”.

First, let’s talk about the professionals – the big league players everyone here wants to be. They don’t often use script analysts for their story notes. What? That’s right, they don’t. Why? They don’t have to. They have managers, agents, producers, and studio executives who give them story notes all the live long day. They don’t often use script analysts, but they rely on story notes to guide them to the final draft.

It’s an important point, because as we all know – writing is rewriting. So while they may not take every story note from every single person and integrate it into their draft, they use all of them to help winnow down what needs to be done to get the ball across the touchdown line. Why is that? Because, and this applies to all writers – aspiring and accomplished alike – we don’t have fresh eyes when it comes to our screenplays. We live them, we breath them, we write them – thus we don’t have an unbiased, objective eye to see exactly what works, and what needs work. So that’s point number 1:

#1 FRESH EYES: All Writers Need At Least One Pair of Fresh Eyes to Read A Script

Professional screenwriters get the added bonus of having managers, agents, producers, and other peoplewho know exactly what makes a script work look over their screenplays and tell them what it lacks.

But aspiring writers don’t have the same luxury – their family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and people they bump into every day are usually not highly knowledgeable industry professionals. Sure, you could have a friend who went to film school, or another who’s an intern for Brett Ratner – but are they experienced and acclaimed analyzers of the 120 pages bound together by golden brads? Most likely not.

What can those accomplished and experienced “fresh eyes” bring you?

#2 A NEW PERSPECTIVE: Making The Difference Between “CONSIDER” and The Trashbin

Many times, the most useful aspect of getting story notes is that it shows us a new perspective on the same concept and plot that we never thought about before. Tweaking this character, or that plot point, or enhancing this act turn in a way that opens the story up in a way we never considered.

If writing is rewriting, then script analysts are the starter pistol that gets your screenplay up off the blocks, and running on it’s way to accomplishing your dream of being a professional screenwriter. Many times, the changes and tweaks they recommend will not only make your material better and stronger, but it makes the difference between your script being tossed out, or being “CONSIDERED”.

On top of that, there are certain screenplay analysts that not only give you notes on how to improve your script, but also provide a number of ideas on how to take what you currently have, and tweak a few key things to make it more appealing to industry power players. These kinds of notes, on commercial viability and what to do to improve that aspect of your script, is invaluable. After all, our industry is a business first, medium of art a distant second.

As a consequence, this next point is also important:

#3 SAVING OPPORTUNITIES: Don’t Lose Your Chances

For the 99% of writers who don’t have their own high powered Hollywood connections, when we catch a break and run into someone who knows someone, or enter a contest, or get a response to a query letter, we get excited. We think “Finally, FINALLY someone will read my script and give me the big break I deserve” or “My script is great, and now someone in the industry will see that!”.

The sad truth is that if you catch this break, and you’ve never had an experienced industry professional read our script and verify that it’s good, you’re essentially submitting yourself to a high stakes game of Russian roulette. Why?

Many times, you have one opportunity to prove your writing worth because once someone has read your script and thought it wasn’t any good, you’ve essentially BURNED that reader. They won’t be interested in reading the “newer, better draft, I promise!” in the future, and won’t be interested in reading anything else from you either. This can end up biting you in the butt in other ways as well, because if the person you burned hears or sees someone else they know is going to read your script, they will tell that person not to waste their time.

All of this sounds brutal, I know. But as a former lit manager, I can tell you that none of us – agents, managers, executives, producers – have any time. We’re inundated with piles and piles of scripts, all of which that have to be read “yesterday”, so any excuse we can get for skipping one, or reading a couple of pages and throwing it out, we’ll take.

This is the biggest reason why you need to make sure your script is so good, that it’s indisputably airtight. As I’m fond of saying, you have to write BETTER than the pros in order to break into the business. The good news is, this is entirely doable. A good script analyst can get you there – as proven by the records of my company and others.

So, preventing you from losing out on opportunities you make for yourself if a pretty big incentive. But here’s the biggest incentive of all – especially for writers outside of Los Angeles:

#4 CONNECTING YOU WITH NEW OPPORTUNITIES

Sometimes, even with the world’s best query letters, or with winning most competitions, we fail to get any takers in the industry that will read our script. This last point is for all the writers out there who aren’t best friends with Steven Spielberg, or who don’t know Tom Hank’s dry cleaner – a number of good script analysis companies, when they get a great script, will pass it along to people in the industry for you. In essence, if you don’t have any connections – use someone else’s!

Now, it’s important to understand that not all companies do this, and for the ones that does, it ranges from actively trying to help you sell a script (ScriptAWish), to trying to help you get representation (ScriptPipeline), to passing it along to industry players and seeing what sticks (ScriptShark).

This kind of connection is far more advantageous to aspiring screenwriters than 99% of contests, logline blasters, pitch fests, etc, because script analysis companies have a vested interest in helping you succeed. If we can help you sell your script, or get an agent, it looks great for us as well. The more success stories, the better.

Remember how we said all you need is one champion to get you to the promised land? These companies can be your champion, and as has been proven over and over again, we can deliver The Dream. But as the joke goes – you can’t win the lottery unless you buy a ticket.

If you have any questions about screenwriting, or script analysis, or just want some advice, feel free to email me at Michael@scriptawish.com. I’m always here to help.


MARCH 2012

Three Tricks to Elevate Your Writing to the Studio Level

I'm going to go over three simple tips for making your screenplays LOOK, READ, and FEEL like studio level material.

1. Make White Space Your Best Friend

In today's spec market, unknown writers can impress by doing one thing: writing a "fast" read. Sometimes, this can compensate for lack of things like character arcs, or the occasional on-the-nose dialogue. Mind you, this won't fix poorly plotted or structured stories, but writing a fast or "quick" read can make you seem like more of a seasoned pro than you might be.

If you read scripts from the 50s, for instance, it will be light years different from the type of scripts written nowadays, and one of those key differences is how the physical pages of the script look. Back then, they looked much more like novels.  Now, they look like someone took a chop shop to a novel, and left the body of the car on bricks.

Whether it's a consequence of our shorter attention spans or not, industry people have even less time than ever to read spec scripts from unknown writers. One of the ways to set yourself apart and become their best friend is to give them a "quick" read. So what does that mean?

On the physical pages of the script, if you're looking at it visually, you never want the page weighted down with heavy action lines or with heavy dialogue, as this "slows down" the read. This is the biggest culprit to distinguishing between an aspiring writer and a professional one. I've said it on these blogs before, but an industry vet can tell in the first couple pages whether "you've got it" or not. They have to be adept at sorting through all the bad scripts quickly because there's a never ending cycle of scripts that hit their desk. In fact, many times industry players will just flip through a script to see how it looks visually to see whether it's worth their time to read. Don't give them an excuse to miss reading your work, so make it look good (see: easy to read) visually on the page.

So, what's the fluff to cut? You want to cut:

  1. Anything we can't HEAR or SEE on screen

  2. Cut anything we don't need to know to move the story forward

  3. Cut anything about your characters or their actions that doesn't add depth, layers, or insight into their state of mind. I don't care if they take a drag on a cigarette. I do care if they take a drag on a cigarette in order to impress someone/blend in/etc.

Okay, I know you guys are smart. So I know you got all of that.

Now, here's where it gets tricky: you also don't want your pages to look too sparse, where there's too much white space on the page (for instance, if you have snappy dialogue line after snappy dialogue line with little action breaking it up).

Remember, you're writing a SCREENPLAY, not a play. We (the reader) and they (the actor/director/producers/etc.) need to know what is actually going on onscreen in between those snappy dialogue bits. Think of the action as a window to show the actors and director what's going on beneath the surface for each character, and as a way to supplement the subtext in your dialogue.

So you want a good, quick balance of both dialogue and action. My rule of thumb is to always try and stay 3 lines or less with action, and 3 lines or less with dialogue, back and forth, back and forth, and keep it MOVING. This is how you get to "quick" read status.

2. Be Late for the Party, and Then Leave Early

You may have read this in other places before, but seriously, in EVERY. SINGLE. SCENE. you want to enter late and leave early.

This goes hand in hand with what I was just saying about writing a fast read, but at the end of the day, you don't want to describe every little thing. Whether its setting, or character actions, or anything else. Give us just the essentials -- and no where does this apply more than to entering late and leaving early.

For example, if I had a scene that read:

INT. BARNYARD -- MORNING

Brad's truck pulls to a stop in the yard. He wipes his sweaty brow and puts his handkerchief inside his pocket before getting out of the truck.

Walking across the muddy fields, he squints, looks back at the truck. He takes his handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his brow again.

The description is entering too early and leaving too late. Instead it should read:

INT. BARNYARD -- MORNING

Brad steps out of his truck, sweating bullets. Walking across the open field, he takes a look back at his truck before trudging on.

So you see how all unnecessary elements are eliminated?

I could have cut that down even further, but you get the point. One benefit of entering late and leaving early is that the audience has to catch up with what's going on, thus engaging them. They're trying to figure out what they missed before they got to the scene, and maybe even what they missed when they leave a scene early. Creating this mental intrigue may only affect people on a subconscious level, but regardless it makes you look like a pro.

And finally, the granddaddy of tricks to looking like a pro:

3. Transitions, Transitions, Transitions.

One of the most overlooked methods of making a script look like James Bond in the Monte Carlo casino is great transitions. It's not only important to keep the story moving quickly, but how you string and connect scenes together is vital as well. Mastering not only which type of transition to use is just step 1 -- even more, knowing WHEN to use them is more valuable. If you put a script in front of me that was chock full of transitions, and then one that placed them ever so perfectly, script B will win every time because too many transitions makes a script look choppy and amateurish.

Transitions aren't just how one scene flows into the next. There's method to the madness, and to pick the wrong transition or use it at the wrong time will make it seem like you, the writer, are stepping out in front of your script and smacking me in the face. Instead, you want to place them in such a way as to get the story FLOWING, and for industry vets like myself to go "this guy/gal can really WRITE!".

It's almost like the difference between dialogue with subtext, and dialogue that's too on-the-nose. We may not notice A, but our opinion of the writing falls like an acme anvil when we encounter B. So, for lack of a better term, be subtextual with your transition usage.

So how to decide when to use a transition? Well, first of all, when action A happens, it should naturally lead to Action B, which should smoothly transition to Action C. A poorly used transition feels like HERE IS "A". OH, THIS MUST MEAN WE DO "B". OKAY THEN, NOW WE SHOULD DO "C".

Say what you will about the movie itself (and the creator), but a great example of interesting transitions is the opening 10 minutes of the movie GARDEN STATE. He's alone in his apartment, he's at work, and then he's at the airport, and then he's halfway across the country -- all in a very short time period. That would normally seem choppy, but they use transitions like a voice over of an airport announcer while he's in the restaurant to transition from one scene to the next. It probably went something like this:

Zach Braff looks depressed and dopey in his waiter uniform.

AIRPORT ANNOUNCER (V.O.)

Flight 765 from Los Angeles arriving in gate B6.

INT. AIRPORT BATHROOM

Zach Braff looks depressed and dopey and turns on some automatic faucets or something.

Okay, so now that we've shown you a good transition, let's talk about some different types of transitions:

  1. An O.S. (off screen) bit of dialogue from the following scene that starts in the previous scene.

  2. An O.S. sound that starts in the previous scene but comes from the next one

  3. A V.O. (voice over) that connects scene A and scene B

  4. Characters making a comment or asking a question about something or someone in the next scene

  5. Visual images that are at the end of one scene and the beginning of another -- a bridge, a bird, a table, a shape, anything.

So, the GARDEN STATE example showed what #1 would look like in script format.  Let me show you how the other four would look. Number 2 looks like this:

Michael starts to write on his computer. The first few notes of "If You Believe In Magic" carry us into…

EXT. DOUBLE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN -- DAY

Neil Patrick Harris rides in on a unicorn of awesomeness, belting out "If You Believe In Magic".

Obviously, there is an argument to be made for not putting actual song titles in your script, but I x-nayed that for the sake of having NPH on a unicorn. Okay, so here's number 3:

Michael starts to write on his computer.

MICHAEL (V.O.)

Little did I know, what craziness I would create on the page that day.

EXT. DOUBLE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN -- DAY

Neil Patrick Harris rides in on a dragon of awesomeness, holding both middle fingers up to the heavens.

I'm having too much fun with this, as you can tell. And while my examples may not be the best writing ever, they do illustrate each transition on the page. Okay, so here's number 4:

Michael starts writing. Megan looks in over his shoulder.

MEGAN

You're not really writing Neil Patrick Harris into your Double Rainbow epic, are you?

EXT.  DOUBLE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN -- DAY

Neil Patrick Harris rides in on a mythical land manatee -- or "Lanatee".

Obviously, I need to not drink heavily before I write these columns. Okay, so here's number 5:

Michael starts to write. His right hand starts tapping a rhythm on the desk.

EXT. DOUBLE RAINBOW MOUNTAIN -- DAY

A hand on a saddle taps the same rhythm. It's Neil Patrick Harris, and he's riding a unicorn of aweso….who cares what he's riding, there's a double rainbow!

Now, silliness aside, all of these are fun, little tricks -- but if you use them too much it will seem obvious and trite and choppy.

On a side note, you want to stay away from using voiceovers in just a spot or two -- either you go all out, and you have voice over throughout your script, or don't have it at all. Many people say that Voice Over is a lazy way to write, or that it's out of fashion, or any number of other spells of doom. I believe that in some cases, it can be used fantastically -- and I'll leave the VO argument for other people to do what they wish.

So use transitions sparingly, but they are a great way to skip time frames (later in the day, day to night, day to a different day, etc.), introduce new places we haven't seen the characters in before, or introducing new characters to the audience.

Despite my flights of fancy with these examples, I hope you got the usefulness of transitions and ideas for different types of transitions to use. In the comments section, if you have other great transition ideas, please share them! I'll write about them in a future column which will hopefully be devoid of NPH and his diabolical double rainbow mountain valley.


FEBRUARY 2012

How to Get Your Script Read by Producers

You can have the best script in the world – but unless you can get people in the industry to read it, it might as well be a paper weight.

Now, if you’ve already got your action lines perfect and your dialogue crisp (email info@scriptawish.com for an ebook on how to do that), then it’s time to embark on The Voyage To Getting It Read.

There are basically four main ways for an unknown to get their script read, and I’m going to put them in order of effectiveness. The four ways are: Contacts, Coverage services, Competitions, and Email/Query Letter Campaigns.

Ready to dive in? Let’s go:

CONTACTS

As we all know, being best friends with Steven Spielberg or Judd Apatow has its perks. And we’re all buddies with them, right? Yeah, right. I wish.

So the first aspect of contacts is already having your own. Unfortunately, 95% of aspiring writers aren’t related to hollywood hot shots and don’t have a friend of a friend of Steven. But don’t despair, because it’s important to understand that you don’t HAVE to be best friends with Will Smith or get jiggy with Jada on Tuesday nights.

Let me start by saying this: you dont need FAMOUS or HIGH POWERED contacts in Hollywood. Don’t get me wrong, it helps tremendously, but that’s not your goal when it comes to networking and accumulating your group of contacts. Your goal is simple: have as many contacts as possible, but especially contacts that are at the kind of companies or who come in contact with the kind of high powered people who would like your particular material. For instance, if you wrote a stoner comedy, you would want contacts in the Judd Apatow clan, or the James Franco and Danny McBride circle of friends (I’m looking at you Eastbound and Down).

Here’s the great news: notice how I said “clan” and “circle of friends.” You don’t have to be best friends with Apatow or Franco, you just need to know their interns or assistants. Because the name of the game is getting industry champions of your writing. If an intern for a high powered producer reads and loves your script, and believes wholeheartedly that This Is The Next Big Thing, he’ll lobby hard to get his boss to read it. He or she will fight for you, and for the script. Why? Well, frankly it makes them look good to their bosses that they found the material, and they can parlay that into more opportunities for themselves. Many an assistant at an agent’s desk got promoted for being able to find talent – and many an intern has gotten associate producer credits from bringing in a script. So as long as you have a champion in your corner – at any level in the company – you’re ahead of the game.

As a side note, this can even include personal assistants (or hair dressers, etc. – I’m looking at you Jon Peters). One of my favorite examples is how producer Matt Alvarez got his start in the business – as a personal assistant. And now he’s a well-known producer with tons of credits under his belt and an eye for good scripts. So the good news is, basically anybody who knows somebody can be your champion.

Great advice, but is that it? Don’t you worry – I’m going to get into what to do once you actually come in contact with these “people who know people” in just a second.

MAKING YOUR OWN CONTACTS

If you’re like 95% of aspiring writers reading this post, you don’t yet have any contacts. Well, do not despair. Here’s how to make some of your own:

First of all, because I’ve established that champions can be Anybody who knows Somebody, where can you find these Anybodys? Los Angeles, of course.

Now, if you aren’t already in L.A., I know it’s not feasible for most of you to suddenly pack up shop and permanently move to L.A. But don’t despair. There is an answer: screenwriting conferences and pitchfests. Now, not all pitch fests and screenwriting conferences are created equal, and many of them are a waste of money. But two I want to highlight that definitely do a great job of putting you in front of the right people: The Studio Networking and Screenwriting Conference (www.studionetworkingconference.com) and Great American Pitch Fest (www.pitchfest.com) . The former focuses more on aspiring writers getting to network with the industry players themselves in a cocktail reception setting, and the latter has the standard lines and tables leading up to a 5 minute pitch. Do your homework, and decide which gives you more access and which setting makes you more comfortable. I can’t give you much more information, as I’m biased about one of those because I helped start it.

So, if you want to spend more time in LA than a weekend, but make less than a permanent move, here’s your other option – move to LA for two months. Would you be able to make the sacrifice to put your life on hold for two months if it meant you would ensure yourself a greater chance of achieving your dream? For a lot of people, the answer will be no – and that’s okay. The other conferences, or the three paths that I cover later are for you - so don’t get discouraged. If you can’t be in L.A., go ahead and skip to the next section about COVERAGE SERVICES.

But for those of you already in L.A., or those of you willing to put your life on hold and move there for just a couple months, here’s your step-by-step plan:

The next most effective way of making your own contacts:

INTERNSHIPS

The first step is to research companies, and pick a few that work with the type of material that applies to your work. Pick the companies that make movies similar to what you write.

It’s important to pick a small to mid-level company that has great credits/reputation. Why? If you pick a large company you’ll easily get lost in the shuffle, and it’s harder to impress and stand out. A really small company, like an A-list actor’s shingle, especially if that actor makes the kind of movies you write, is the most ideal.

The second step is to, wait for it… get an internship at one of your companies. Wait, what?! That’s right. An internship. A NON-PAYING internship.

You need to work 10 hours a day, as many days a week as you can spare. 5 days a week for at least three weeks straight is the ideal situation, because it takes at least a week to get oriented, remember names, observe where and what the power structure is, grasp the office politics, etc.

I recommend volunteering to work every day, all day, for 3 weeks to one full month at one place, and then moving on to a second mid-level production company or actor’s shingle the next month, and so on. The other way to do it is to work Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at one place and Tuesdays/Thursdays at the second place for 6-8 weeks straight.

So, you’re working for your internship… how do you stand out? First and foremost, if you work extra super hard, you WILL be noticed. Make sure that when you finish a task, you ask if there’s anything else you can do. When given one thing, volunteer for four more. If they don’t have anything else for you, go around asking other people if they need anything done for them. Be quick when given a task, but always double check to make sure it’s well done. Being the go-to intern will quickly make yourself indispensable and dependable, and you will begin to stand out from the crowd of others.

Now, not only must you be hardworking, but be pleasant! Find who you can pal around with and do so… be the guy everyone wants to have around.

The Third step is beg to do coverage, if you don’t already do it. Your company may already have a reader, they might already be outsourcing this task, or it could be done by the story editor – either way, volunteer to do every single one you can because this will show you are eager, and confident in your story analysis abilities. Make sure that every bit of coverage you turn in is a masterwork that shows how well you understand scripts. If they figure out that you are dependable with story analysis, either the story editor becomes your new best friend because he doesn’t have to do them anymore, or the guy cutting the checks to readers saves some money and knows it’s because of you.

This is important, because the end result you want from all of this is to be the go to guy for script analysis. If they start completely trusting your judgment in this department, essentially you’ve just made yourself an unpaid exec.

This process may take a month, but with that story analysis power, and the friends you make, you will learn so much about the industry from an insider’s point of view it’s ridiculous. And that story editor or creative executive or producer or A-list actor you impressed and now you’re maybe even friends? True contacts that will serve you for life. Willing to read your work, give you advice, notes, and a real shot with every screenplay you turn out.

And your foot is now fully, and firmly, in the door.

Okay, so you’ve made friends and got their attention. Now you need to employ this skill of being able to sell yourself to involves selling your movie idea. This means being able to explain it in one or two sentences – and do it in a way that completely grabs the attention of whoever you’re talking to. Again, you never know who you’ll run into or who you’re talking to – if you can excite someone enough to want to read your work over 5 seconds of standing in line at Coffee Bean or Starbucks, that skill could be the difference between making it or not. Basically what you need to do is tweak your logline for everyday conversation.

Now that you know how to write your logline, tweak that to not only flow quickly in everyday conversation, but add a sentence that nails home the commercial aspect for the person you are talking to. If you’re talking to Adam Sandler’s intern, you could say something like “the humor is pretty similar to Happy Gilmore” or if your script is being read by another industry professional, say that.

While it’s hard but not impossible to make contacts at parties, or coffee shops, or bars, the easiest way to make contacts is to work for the companies you think would like your scripts. If that means being an unpaid intern for a couple months, so be it – because all you really need is one well connected industry person to read and like your script, and you’re home free. So be yourself, but be the most pleasant, humorous, easy going, hard working version of yourself as possible. For a free ebook on how to make your own contacts, email info@scriptawish.com.

COVERAGE SERVICES

Now, for those of you who can’t make it out to L.A., one of the next best paths available to you is for you to use OTHER PEOPLE’S contacts.

Now, I can’t write too much about this because I have a conflict of interest. My company ScriptAWish.com provides coverage services the same way that my competitors like Bullscript Consulting and Script Shark do.

While I know that my company prides itself on being really great at passing along the good scripts that get submitted for coverage to my contacts, my competitors say the same. So I’m not going to get into who does it better, etc.

What I am going to say is that many writers who lived in other states, countries, and continents have had success submitting their scripts to coverage services that then helped them get their script read by industry insiders.

This is the next best thing for you because we have a vested interested in helping you succeed – not least of which because the more success you guys have, the more success we have. It only benefits us to talk about your successes.

So, the next best thing to having your own contacts – using other people’s.

Now, some people will think that competitions are a better option at getting noticed. In 90% of cases, they would be wrong – and I’m going to get into why in just a minute. Suffice it say, as a former script competition judge for one of the biggest competitions out there, the only interest competitions have is in making money. Now, let’s get into why:

COMPETITIONS

As a former judge for a major screenwriting competition, and as you can read here (http://www.kullervo.com/The_Contests.html) from a multiple competition winning writer, by and large, screenwriting competitions are about one thing: money.

First, they are about MAKING money for the competition. And more importantly to you, they are about making money to the winners.

But that’s about it. Every competition will give you the prize money, but no matter what else they promise (producer’s meetings, etc.), it’s all just window dressing – it’s probably not going to launch your career.

It’s a harsh reality, but one in which you need to understand so that you know what you’re really getting if you come out the other side a winner. Now, I’m going to write an entire post about screenwriting competitions soon, but for now: as with everything, there are some exceptions worth mentioning:

In order of how much they will help launch your career:

Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab

Industry inboxes flood when the Sundance Fellows are announced, because agents and managers want to be the first ones to sign the talent. More than any other competition, getting the Sundance mark of approval opens more doors for screenwriters than any other. It’s got a long track record of launching careers.

Nicholl Fellowship

While inboxes flood when the finalists (and sometimes semi-finalists) are announced, it’s not as automatic a “get representation” card as Sundance is. The big upside over Sundance though, is the prize money. The other big upside is that many managers and agent assistants read the semi-finalist scripts as well, so the pool of people who are looked at by the industry is bigger than Sundance.

Nickelodeon/ ABC-Disney Fellowships

The first step to many a great career, Fellows are paid well and have lots of opportunities to make contacts and get on shows. Many, many, many careers have been launched by the Disney program in particular – and the access you get is unprecedented. It doesn’t hurt that they are known to support you as well. The downside to these is that anything you write while a fellow is basically their property, but some are willing to sacrifice that.

Fox/NY Comedy TV Writing Competition

This is similar to the Nickelodeon competition, but is much newer and the jury is still out on it. I think it could be the next great competition, but I’ll withhold judgment for another year or two.

EMAIL CAMPAIGNS

So, you dont want to use a coverage service’s contacts, and you struck out at the competitions worth entering – what’s left?

Why, the time honored tradition of hustling for yourself, from afar of course!

I speak of the practice of query letters, and while I’m going to go over in much more detail about how to write a great query letter in a later article, what you need to know is this:

First as most important – know how to write a killer logline.

Second – write your query letter short(!). Books tell you to fuss around with some bio, and write about yourself and what competitions you’ve won or placed in, etc.

Bullcrap. Don’t write any bio information, and dont mention any competitions unless you’ve WON, and only if they are any of the major competitions. Everything else is a waste of time. We only care about one thing – does your story sound good (see: logline)? Just write a one sentence professional opening, your logline, and a professional close. That’s it. That’s all we’re going to read anyway, so why bother with the rest. It’s no nonsense, and we like it.

Now, the only time you mention any thing else, is if any of your work has been optioned or sold before. Other than that, don’t need it.

Lastly – more and more emailed query letters are becoming accepted. Which means that MAILED query letters are becoming less and less frequent. If you want to differentiate yourself from the pack, and are willing to spend some bucks, I would mail in your query letter. I’ll get into more strategies with this in the later article, but suffice it to say you can still be effective if you email it as well.

So, that’s it. I hope you found the article helpful, and as always, feel free to email me with any questions (michael@scriptawish.com). I’m here to help.

Happy writing!


JANUARY 2012

How to Write Studio Quality Action Lines

I hate rules. I’ve hated them since birth. And screenwriting rules? Screw’em. My film school teachers couldn’t pay me to follow any of their “stupid” and endless parade of do’s and don’ts.

But, after years of being in the industry and reading thousands (and thousands) of scripts, I’ve discovered which specific rules a script needs to follow in order to make it great – and separate it from the throwaway pile.

The saying goes that “rules were meant to be broken”. Well, if you want your work to be relegated to the trash bin, then jump in that Thunderbird with Thelma and Louise and follow them off the cliff.

Now, I’m going to make a psychic prediction. I sense that while reading this article you’ll be thinking to yourself,  “I’ve read movie scripts by Shane Black and Charlie Kaufman and they don’t follow these rules. You must be wrong, Michael Ferris!”. Well, as the other saying goes, when you’re Shane Black you can write however you damn well please.

Before we go on, let’s break that one down for a second. Why is there a discrepancy between the style and technical aspects of the produced scripts you read online and what I am about to tell you?

Basically, until you are a KNOWN quantity in Hollywood, with a reputation for being a great writer, you are assumed to be Just Another Crappy One.  So until the day comes when you’re recognized for your genius, you have to write better than the professionals. And that means you have to follow a few rules in order to help make your script a fast, crisp, easy read.

If your script is lucky enough to land in an agent’s (or producer’s) take home pile, and you’re just another random writer, you’ve got about 5 pages to prove you can actually write.  And for an unknown, that means they want a quick read.

If you can deliver that – even if other aspects are less than stellar – you will have a huge leg up on the competition.
Ready to get started? Here’s how you’re going to do it:

Rule #1: Every paragraph of action lines should be 3 lines or less.

Below you will find an excellent example and one you should study: the first two pages of the script for Saving Private Ryan.

SPR – first 2 pages (http://www.scribd.com/doc/44949548/SPR-first-2-pages)

Entire scripts, as a rule, are like poems. If I were to write the previous sentence as a line of action in a script, it would read simply “Scripts are like poems.”

As such, you use the least amount of words possible, and don’t spend any time describing action or setting than we need to understand story, character, or to move the plot forward. As well, remember to keep everything in present tense.

The best of the best keep it at two lines per paragraph throughout most of the script, while still describing a heck of a lot.

Rule #2: Write Visually!

On the opening page of Saving Private Ryan you will see exactly what I’m talking about. Short sentences. Terse description. Easy to visualize. Evocative verbs. This is how spec writers need to execute if they are to be taken seriously.

If you can use an arresting verb in place of a ho-hum or standard one, DO IT. For a simple example, it’s much more interesting to read, “The script slides across the table” than “the script gets passed across the table.”

Every single one of those four aspects is important (short sentences, terse description, easy to visualize and evocative verbs), so take each one into account and study how it’s done in these two pages. And though this is an action script, yes, this applies to all genres.

Now, look at the word choices:  SWARM of landing craft. ROAR of naval guns. SNOWSTORM of bullets. We can see the carnage in our heads, and all in very little time and page space.

As well, don’t be afraid of white space on the page. White space is, like, your total BFF, and the key to an easy read. As long as you can balance action lines that only tells us what we need to know with the dialogue, keep that speeding script on full throttle.

Rule #3:  Only write what we can SEE or HEAR on screen – and nothing more.

This is where Shane Black’s word flourishes differ most from what I’m suggesting you do. Remember, you’re not writing a novel – this is a screenplay. If you write wonderful prose, the audience won’t ever know it and the industry reader could give a sh*t. You’re wasting his or her time on things that either won’t end up on screen anyway, or illustrate to them that you obviously don’t know how to properly write in screenplay format.

It’s amusing and it works when it’s Shane Black because we already know he’s a hotshot. No one knows you from Joe Blow (yet).

Screenwriting 101 is about finding ways to convey character’s feelings, emotions, and layers through their actions – what they literally do on screen. This is an example I encountered recently:

She’s hurting inside, and we can see it. She’s a fighter though, so finding her inner composure, she puts the journal down on the table.

That’s lazy, amateurish screenwriting for several reasons:

1: Have the character DO something. Movies are about the external, novels are about the internal. Remember the format, always.

2: This is a character’s turning point, and it’s not only lacking visual dynamics, but even worse, it’s boring.

An example of how this could have read:

She angrily wipes away a tear before slamming the journal down on the table.

This is more visually interesting and tells us much more about her internal feelings – all without dialogue. You can convey so much more about the story, characters, and theme with action lines and what we see a character DO than you can with dialogue. Which is just one more reason why writing great action lines can be your magic bullet.

If you can fill the script with those amazing silent moments that bring to life a character and who they are, or those small, brilliant moments that define a great movie – you are two steps ahead of everyone else. One great example of a small, brilliant moment is in the Godfather, when Michael calmly and coldly closes the door in his wife’s face as she lets out a sob. Or, of course, the very last minute of  The Graduate. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahFARm2j38c)

Rule #4: Never Use Camera Directions In Your Script

I can already see the hate mail piling up now. I know this one is a particularly controversial rule and there are adamant defenders of having *some* camera directions in a script, but I can tell you from industry experience: people hate that sh*t.

All the way around, really. Directors hate it because they think you’re trying to tell them how to do their job. Actors hate it because “it gets in the way” or they don’t understand it. Execs hate it because they think you’re full of yourself, and Reps and Producers think it’s the sign of an amateur. If any of these types of people see camera directions in the first few pages, it could be the very excuse they need to throw the script away without reading anymore (those tales of tall read piles? Not fictional. We really do look for any reason to stop reading a script).

At the end of the day, that’s really what these rules are all about – protecting yourself and your script. Getting an agent or selling your first script are already uphill battles – don’t make it any harder on yourself than it has to be.
Give yourself the best opportunity to get your script read from cover to cover, and write action lines better than a pro so that they can’t use your technical writing skills as an excuse to throw your script away.

Write an easy read, with crisp action that evoke great images while using the least amount of words possible.

In the end, it turned out my screenwriting teachers were right. So don’t take years to learn the hard way like I did – integrate this stuff into your scripts right now. Your work will improve drastically, and you’ll be one step closer to your dream by having a studio ready script.


DECEMBER 2011

The Four Secrets To Success: The W.I.S.E. Screenwriting Method

When it comes to screenwriting, what's going on right now in the industry is just an exaggerated version of what's always been true when it comes to selling a script and making a career out of it.

I'm not telling you anything new when I say the best chance you have of selling a script is something that is A: well written, and B: commercial.

Whereas a few years ago, well executed high concept material might have sold, right now it means getting an agent and parlaying your script into meetings, pitches, and writing assignments.

On top of that, you have the hundreds of screenwriters who sold their first script, got a great agent, and years later have nothing more to show for it.

So now you're not only competing with these writers in the spec market, but you're also contending with studio screenwriters who write their passion projects on spec as well.

So what does all this doom and gloom mean to you, the aspiring screenwriter, struggling to become a working writer in Hollywood? While all of this might have you thinking of deleting your copy of "Final Draft", there is hope - and that's by using the W.I.S.E. Screenwriting Method.

I wholeheartedly believe that if you have the proper knowledge and take the right approach, you can break through the noise and become what you've always dreamed of. So what is this mystical W.I.S.E. method I keep harping about?

Here’s the breakdown:

W - Writing. This is not just about being a good WRITER, it's about being a great SCREENWRITER. This includes having the ability to write crisp action lines, snappy dialogue, and have rock solid structure to your stories. If any one of these elements is lacking, you have to work on it until you get it right. The sad thing is that I know many great writers who just can't seem to crack the screenplay format and execute on a level of what studios expect technically. The problems I encounter on a regular basis include:

1.     Too much prose

One of the ways to get your script to read like a studio writer’s is to write crisp action lines with evocative visual verbs and keep your paragraphs to 3 lines or less. Write in present tense only, and embrace white space on the page as your friend.  Think of your script as a poem - stay concise and excise all unnecessary words. I’ll be writing an article on this in depth in the future.   

2.     Too much information

Your script is not a Jack Ryan novel. Only describe what we can SEE or HEAR onscreen, don’t use camera directions, and only write what we need to move the story forward. Do not make the mistake of being a “director” writer, where you describe every little action the character makes, rather than just describing pertinent action to the story or character development. Again, more in depth details on how to accomplish this will be hitting your inboxes in the coming months.   

3.     Too much dialogue

A script is not a play – your goal is NOT to have dialogue that looks like a bunch of monologues. Again, keep your dialogue to 3 lines or less 99% of the time. Clever dialogue is found in quick back and forth exchanges, not prose-y speeches. I went over this and the next point with more depth in the previous newsletter. You can find it here: http://www.screenplay.com/t-mferris-articles.aspx 

4.     Lack of subtext

The absolute number 1 mark of an amateur is dialogue that lacks subtext. Never ever have a character come out and say what he is thinking or feeling. Brilliant characters have us discover/uncover what’s going on inside them by their actions, or how they dance around important topics – not how they address them head on. A lack of subtext is one of the culprits behind another common problem – characters sounding exactly alike. Remember, each character in your script is a living, breathing, thinking person with different wants, needs, and point of view from the others.

5.     Lack of a solid structure

Many times I see fantastic first acts that flounder in the second and lose my interest (though it may have a great ending, most won’t read that far). This is a casualty of not planning ahead – if you plan all three acts of your story ahead of time, and follow all the rules of story structure, you won’t fall into this common trap. We get excited about great openings or magnificent endings, but the middle is just as important – oftentimes it’s where the war is won or lost.

Since our brains are wired to come up with beginnings and endings, one trick is to think of each individual act as having a beginning, middle, and end. That way, even if the middles of all 3 acts are subpar, it’s less likely to be noticed because you wowed us 6 times – and consistently - rather than just 2 times with a huge gap in between.

I - Ideas. To break into the business, it's not enough to be a great screenwriter anymore. You have to be a great screenwriter AND write commercial ideas. And while there is a better chance of selling a script because it's high concept, that's not the reason to write a commercial spec anymore.

It used to be that "writing samples" were screenplays that were low concept but brilliantly executed. Writers like Allan Loeb wrote dramas like THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE that led to the studio assignments that kick started his career.

Those days are falling behind us, and the question on every industry mind while reading an unknown’s spec is "can this guy/gal actually write high concept stuff?". If you don’t answer that with a writing sample of commercial quality, then your uphill battle just got even bigger - despite being able to garner interest with your well written low concept material.

Whereas before, when Loeb got paid studio assignments off the back of his indie scripts, nowadays what ends up happening is writers are asked to do “free drafts” in order to prove they’ve got the mettle to write a commercial movie.

As if writing draft after draft for free isn’t bad enough, because it’s usually based on someone else’s idea, you have no rights to the material and most likely end up with just another writing sample.

Many books and advice columns talk about high concept as being “a TV Guide capsule” – that it takes just one sentence to excite and encapsulate the story. Others talk about the “Mash up” descriptions like “It’s TITANIC meets 28 DAYS LATER”.    

I will go over what High Concept is and how to identify it in a later article, but what it boils down to is not TV guide capsules or big explosions – instead, it’s an idea that as soon as it comes to you, your first thought is “How in the world has a corporate owned studio that takes zero risks NOT made a movie like this yet?”.  That sounds silly, but the litmus test for whether a movie is high concept is whether you think a corporate fat cat, who doesn’t give a fig about story would hear your idea and place a 100 million dollar bet on it.  

Okay, so while pretty much every screenwriting book in the world covers some aspect of the first two, Writing and Ideas, these last two are not only just as important, but it’s criminal that more books don’t cover them.

S - Sales. Sales? Sales. You might be thinking to yourself, “WTF?”. I say unto you, just listen.

First, the most easily recognizable part of having to “sell”, is yourself as a writer. When you meet somebody, whether you know if they work in the industry or not, you have to “sell” yourself as not just One More Aspiring Screenwriter. You have to sell yourself as a Fantastic Writer who is on the cusp – if you entered a competition you would easily win it. In business it’s called selling from a position of strength. There are three main reasons for this:

A: you will be taken seriously when you reveal your aspiration

B: you will be remembered

C: if they aren’t in the industry, they might know someone -- and if they are, they might ask to read your stuff

And that’s really the key to this whole shebang – you have to get people to read your script. You can have the most amazing script in the world, but if you can’t convince anyone to read it, it’s all for naught. So, sell them on your talent, and sell them on the idea that they are missing out if they don’t read your work.

If you lack confidence, fake it - but DO NOT be obnoxious, pushy, cocky, or directly present yourself as the Next Coming of All Screenwriters, because that will have the opposite effect. Just casually talk about your script’s story as if Steven Spielberg paid you ten million dollars for it – you have to maintain the mindset that it’s not only good, but that even a kindergartener would think it’s good.

Now, selling yourself to industry people is a whole other situation that requires subtlety and a whole different set of skills, phrases, and mindset than presenting yourself to a non-industry people. While I will write more in depth in the coming months, what you need to know is:

A: We all operate on fear – we don’t want to be the ones who passed on the Next Big Thing. If someone else is reading your script, mention it. If someone has optioned your other work, mention it. If you’ve won awards, mention it. In all these cases, it’s a casual mention. Like “Also, I should probably let you know Joe Producer is also reading this” or “Oh, and just so you know, another one of my scripts is currently optioned at XYZ production co.”.

B: We see right through you – if someone is reading your script and hasn’t gotten back to you in a couple weeks, don’t email to say something like “Just wanted to say Happy Holidays”. We know what you want. Or if you say something like “Spielberg was attached at one point, but Will Smith said…” – we hate name dropping and we can fact check lies in about two seconds. Hollywood is like a small high school, everyone knows everyone else, so don’t try and pull a fast one. If a big star truly was involved at one point, present it upfront – don’t sneak it into casual conversation.      

Alright, so the second aspect of sales is being able to sell your script or ideas themselves. If you’re lucky, this means you are using this skill in pitch meetings. Even if you’re not going out on pitch meetings to Bad Robot or Paramount, you need to have the art of pitching down cold. Why? If you don’t knock that pitch out of the park, at best you threw away thousands of dollars, and at worst an entire career. You never know what could have been your Pulp Fiction or Star Wars, so treat every opportunity like it’s your last. For a free ebook on pitch strategies, just email info@scriptawish.com.

Now, this skill of being able to sell your ideas also includes simply being able to explain it in one or two sentences - and do it in a way that completely grabs the attention of whoever you’re talking to. Again, you never know who you’ll run into or who you’re talking to – if you can excite someone enough to want to read your work over 5 seconds of standing in line at Starbucks, that skill could be the difference between making it or not. Basically what you need to do is tweak your logline for everyday conversation. I will be writing an article on how to write killer loglines and query letters in the coming months as well, but if you can’t wait, just email info@scriptawish.com and ask for the ebook on loglines.

Lastly, and this is one of the biggest advantages you can get, is how to sell yourself as a PERSON in order to make contacts.  Earlier, we were talking about selling yourself as a WRITER. When you’re selling yourself as a person, I’m not saying you need to become someone else (unless you’re a complete jerk), I’m saying you need to “be” the best parts of yourself in front of industry professionals at all times.

While it’s hard but not impossible to make contacts at parties, or coffee shops, or bars, the easiest way to make contacts is to work for the companies you think would like your scripts. If that means being an unpaid intern for a month, so be it – because all you really need is one well connected industry person to read and like your script, and you’re home free. So be yourself, but be the most pleasant, humorous, easy going, hard working version of yourself as possible. For a free ebook on how to make your own contacts, email info@scriptawish.com

And lastly…

E – Ethic. Notice I didn’t say “ethics”, which is a whole other thing altogether. No, your ethic will be one of the cornerstones dictating whether you succeed or fail. If you work hard, if you don’t slack off, if you put in long hours towards your writing, you will be way ahead of the game. But this doesn’t just apply to being diligent about writing.

I have known several screenwriters who sold a script and then thought “great, the hard part is over” and they start to think that because they sold a script and have an agent that everything is all set for them. Wrong.

Not only do you have to work hard and make sure you keep writing, not only do you have to make sure you write quality work (and fast), but you have to continue to keep acting like that hungry aspiring writer AT ALL TIMES, no matter where you are in your career.

If you slack off, even for just a few months, it’s hard to regain the momentum you had. This applies to writers who have sold their first script, or gotten their work optioned, or won a contest. It applies even more to writers who have started to get discouraged, or lost contests, or gotten rejection letters/emails. And to some degree, it even applies to writers who have sold numerous scripts and live in mansions built off the back of Final Draft.

Because being a Hollywood writer is a CAREER. And it’s a career that has a revolving door of talent to fight against for work. If you’re serious about making this your dream career, you have to treat it like you’re working your way up a corporate ladder.

Screenwriting seems like this big chaotic mass of people all individually vying to get their work on screen. In reality, every writer is in their own cubicle, working at the same “company”, trying to get as much of their work read by "the boss" as possible so they can get recognized and move their way up. The initial goal is to get a job as a low level gopher at the company (your first option or contest win), and the eventual goal is to become a part of the corner office CEOs - writers like Orci and Kurtzman - who can pretty much write their own tickets and don’t have to contend with the cubicle gophers anymore. If you’re going to succeed, you have to stop thinking of it as a dream, and start treating it like a job.

So that’s the W.I.S.E. Screenwriting Method, and it will hold the key to your success in these uncertain screenwriting times. With more competition and less spec purchases, it will be absolutely critical to put each of these into practice if you want to break through the noise and come out the other side with a WGA Card and a workable plan for a long, successful career.


NOVEMBER 2011

HOW TO WRITE STUDIO QUALITY DIALOGUE

There is one aspect of a script that – if you can master it – will give you a studio worthy piece of material.

As we all know, the name of the game is to write a script so good that anyone who reads it says “this guy/gal’s got it!” Many times, the dialogue in a script can be the one thing that makes people want to champion your work. The best example being Juno, which got accepted into the Sundance Screenwriter’s program and later turned into a movie based on the strength (and arguably the originality) of the dialogue.

The action lines were serviceable, and the story was fine, but the dialogue – whoa. When the Sundance list hit agent and manager’s inboxes and Juno first started getting passed around, you would have thought no one in Hollywood had ever read great dialogue until Diablo Cody slapped them upside the head with it.

Looking back, it was absolutely ridiculous the hyperbole being thrown around – but at the end of the day, her voice was so strong and the dialogue so interesting, and yes, full of subtext, that dialogue alone landed her a big career.

So what are the different aspects you need to integrate into your dialogue to make it pop? First, let’s touch on some basics:

1. Too Much Dialogue

A script is not a play – your goal is NOT to have dialogue that looks like a bunch of monologues. Try to keep 95% of your dialogue to 3 lines or less on the page. Clever dialogue is found in quick back and forth exchanges, not prose-y speeches. Think about one of the best screenwriters known for his dialogue – Aaron Sorkin. Have you ever watched a scene from The West Wing? It’s not a perfect example, but it illustrates the point that if you keep it snappy, it keeps it moving. And a fast moving script, like a fast moving story, is entertaining and – sometimes – it can move so fast that you don’t have time to realize whether it’s great quality or not. You just know you’re entertained. So, use it to your advantage. Keep the dialogue short, quick back and forths, and you’ll reveal plot and character just as quickly.

Now, a side point I want to make about this, and what Sorkin does so well in one of my other favorite shows, Sports Night, is he uses quick back and forths to set up a brilliant monologue. You don’t get a whole bunch of monologues during the course of one show, but you get one that really sticks you in the gut. And THAT is how you use a monologue like a pro.

2. Lack of Subtext

We’ve all heard the word. We know what it means. And yet it is the most common reason for bad dialogue. The absolute number one mark of an amateur is dialogue that lacks subtext. Subtext is when a character says something and we (the reader or audience) can tell or know that there is something behind the words of what is being said. For example, let’s take a protagonist we know is hurting from a break up, and he runs into his ex on the street:

EX-GIRLFRIEND
The weather’s pretty nice today.

PROTAGONIST
Seems kind of cold to me.

Now, it’s not the world’s best writing. But you get my example. We, the reader, know there’s something behind the protagonist’s words. He’s making a dig at his ex, and referencing their break-up – all while on the surface talking about the weather. That’s subtext.

When it comes to dialogue and subtext, never ever have a character come out and say what he is thinking or feeling. Brilliant characters have us discover/uncover what’s going on inside their heads by their actions, or how they dance around important topics when they’re talking – not how they address them head on.

Here is an example of what I’m talking about in a script by Allan Loeb called Only Living Boy in New York (http://www.scribd.com/doc/44949517/Only-Living-Boy-First-Pages):

Now, say what you will about Loeb’s produced movies, but his scripts are excellent reads – and this script, along with Things We Lost in the Fire were low concept indie scripts that got him big writing assignments and truly launched his career. This script in particular has long been on lists of “the best unproduced scripts,” and has

First, it’s obvious that Thomas is hopelessly and totally in love with Mimi from the get go, and if you read the entire story the art gallery scene not only does a fantastic job setting up the whole movie, but it sets up the theme brilliantly as well.  Notice how the characters dance around the elephant in the room for as long as possible – and then BAM! Thomas is forced to bring the elephant into play (that they slept together). Even when Thomas is laying out on the table, he’s not really laying it out on the table. We know he’s hopelessly and deeply in love with her – but does he ever say it? NO. And we can tell from Mimi’s opening line and subsequent dialogue that she knows he’s hopelessly in love with her – but she never addresses it head on. She uses the critique of the art piece they are looking at to circumvent actually having to SAY what she’s really thinking. This scene is full of all kinds of other subtext, but you get the drift.

3. Characters All Sounding the Same

Now, another common culprit that keeps writers from making their work studio quality material is characters that sound exactly alike. Remember, each character in your script is a living, breathing, thinking person with different wants, needs, and point of view from the others.

A good exercise to fleshing out characters is to figure out what each character’s super objective is. It sounds like a hokey term, but in essence you figure out what a character truly wants in life (not necessarily in the story). These are the big things, the ones in our very core – to love, to be loved, to be powerful, to be respected, etc.

Once you figure that out, realize that this is JUST to determine their core character – how they approach every situation and character they encounter during the course of your story. It’s the foundation, and while it’s certainly the most important layer, there are more layers: the style, and the details.

A character’s style is not about their fashion, but about how, knowing their core, they approach life and other people. Things like humor, vanity, selfishness, selflessness, etc. You can think of a character’s style as a collection of their coping and defense mechanisms. How they get by on their day to day life.

The details are how, knowing their core and their style, what the little actions are that they take frequently. For instance, if he drinks a lot, or is always fixing his hair or keeps a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve – even though he never actually smokes.  Each person has their own unique tics – and as they say the devil is in the details. Well, the character is right there with El Diablo (call back!) as well.

So to finish up what you need to notice about the Only Living Boy in New York script, between the character’s roundabout way of parsing out information, their distinct voices from each other (stemming from different wants), and the dialogue feeding into the theme – each of those individually are subtext, but the fact that all three are present clues the reader in that the writer is a professional.

4. Word Pictures / Visuals Within the Dialogue

As you know, great action lines have visuals that pop and succinct word pictures. Things that when we read it, we can quickly and easily see it in our minds. It’s the difference between:

A. The notebook gets passed over the table

B. The bulging notebook slides across the table

When talking about action lines, it’s obvious why and how to integrate word pictures. But what about dialogue?

Well, obviously if a character is speaking ABOUT something, if they can say it in a visual fashion, the audience will be able to quicker and easier see (and depending on how good you are) and feel it in their own heads. Here is another example from Sports Night (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yuwMhvuECw) (I’m a Sports Night machine, I know).

Notice how he describes how his brother was a genius (‘the kit he built…”), notice “you deserved better in my hands” (which is a nice use of a metaphorical word picture), notice how we can see in our heads what must have happened that fateful night he ran a red light. THIS is visual dialogue.

5. Leaving the Obvious Out

I’m not going to get too deep into this, as it’s pretty self explanatory and most of you are already doing this well. Basically, another aspect of great dialogue is about leaving the obvious out. This does go hand in hand with subtext, but it comes at it from a different angle. On its most basic level, it’s when we as an audience are expecting a character to say something… and then they don’t. Maybe they give a look, or say something else, or don’t say anything at all, but we get it anyway. An easy example would be if we’re in a romantic scene, and we are expecting the Protagonist to finally(!) say “I love you.” But instead, he looks deep in her (or his) eyes and:

PROTAGONIST
I want you to know-

LOVE INTEREST
I know. You too.

They kiss deeply.

So, that’s leaving the obvious out. An extension of that is (drum roll….)

6. Changing the Obvious Up

This one is pretty self explanatory, but it’s about taking the audience expectations and turning them on it’s head. For instance, if a female protagonist were to ask a male protagonist for his hand in marriage. While it’s the 21st century, this hasn’t been done too often in movies or TV yet, so it’s unexpected.

Lastly, we have one of Sorkin’s favorites:

7. Call Backs

When a character references something that was said earlier, either by themselves or another character, it’s a call back. Sorkin’s work is full of this, as is Mamet’s and others. It’s usually used as a way to inject humor, but it can definitely be used for dramatic effect as well. In the Sports Night clip earlier, Casey started talking about the Starlight Express as a way to diffuse the tension – if you had seen the entire episode, you would know that was a call back to the various parts of the episode that Casey kept trying to convince Dan that Starlight Express was “cool”. That’s a call back.

Now, here’s a script that features call backs, changing the obvious up, leaving the obvious out, and a whole host of other things we’ve highlighted in this article. Ready, here we go (http://www.scribd.com/doc/48055265/subtext-example):

Now, this scene is about Ben going home with his girlfriend to meet her family. It’s the type of scene we’ve seen many times before, usually played for comedy. Except these pages takes the Meet the Parents set up and turns it into a subtle, beautiful, realistic situation.

My favorite moment in these pages is when Ben does a call back to Olivia’s “I did the math.” That moment is brilliant because not only is it a nice call back for the audience, but the fact that Ben uses it makes this little girl he’s trying to befriend go all-in to Ben’s camp. The part where we realize the father is going to accept him when he gives him the glove his father gave him leaves out the obvious – he doesn’t actually tell Ben he likes him or that he is glad he’s his daughter’s boyfriend. He doesn’t have to because of the ACTION he took. Instead, he just says “welcome to the family” – but that line has so much more meaning BECAUSE he didn’t come out and praise Ben. How this scene plays out really speaks to “changing the obvious” as we’ve seen this set up before so many times – played for broad comedy – that it’s refreshing to see it played softly.

I’m not saying these are perfect pages (it’s from a rough draft of one of my favorite writer’s passion projects), but they do a great job illustrating the last three points I wanted to make.

As always, feel free to email me your questions at michael@scriptawish.com

Good luck and happy writing!


A former Hollywood Lit Manager, Michael started ScriptAWish.com as a way to help other writers get their foot in the door and has helped several writers sell their scripts (like Travis Beacham of PACIFIC RIM) and set up projects with producers like Academy Award Winner Arnold Kopelson. The mission of ScriptAWish.com is to help aspiring writers get their scripts into shape and then get their foot in the door. His new venture is a collaboration with several professional screenwriters called StudioGhostwriters.com and is intended to help producers get their movie ideas on paper or their drafts polished for production.


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