Reader Question: How do you write characters without stereotyping them?

December 3rd, 2014 by

Reader question via Twitter from @Lauren_Gallaway:

I need character development help. How do you write a character w/ out stereotyping him/her?

Lauren, you hit the key words: character development. How to develop your characters? First, you have to believe they exist. Their story universe exists. So you go into the story and engage your characters directly:

* Questionnaire: If you Google “character questionnaire,” you will find dozens of them like this. Use the questions as tools to fill in information and background about each character.

* Interview: This is like a questionnaire only instead of writing in the third person, you interact with the character directly. Create a scenario: You’re cop interrogating the characters. You’re a priest and the character has come to you for confession. You’re a bartender and the character has sat down in front of you for a drink.

* Biography: After you’ve spent some time with a character, try your hand at crafting a biography about them. This will cause you to see possible links and events in their personal history which influenced who they are, how they act, what they believe, etc.

* Monologue: These next two are akin to meditation. Go to a quiet place, try to put yourself in the head-space of your character, then type or hand-write a monologue as delivered by that character. The goal here is to hear their voice, let them do the talking.

* Sit-down: Again get quiet, put yourself in the feeling-space of a character, put your fingers on the keyboard, close your eyes, then just type. 15 minutes, 20 minutes, a half-hour. Your mind will wander, but keep coming back to the character and just type what comes into your mind. Perhaps on 10% of what you write will seem to have any relevance, but that 10% could be gold.

* Primary Archetype: In my view, we see these five character archetypes in movie after movie after movie: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. After you’ve spent more time with your characters, ask yourself: What is the most fundamental narrative function this character provides? Do they provide opposition to the Protagonist? Probably a Nemesis. Are they most connected with the Protagonist’s emotional development? Attractor. Are they most connected with the Protagonist’s intellectual development? Mentor. Do they test the Protagonist, switching from ally to enemy, enemy to ally? Likely a Trickster. Understanding each character’s primary narrative function will not only provide a lens through which you can craft them individually, it can also give you a ‘map’ of their interrelationships.

* Sub-Type: Imagine a Nemesis as an Addict or a Warrior. An Attractor as an Orphan or Seer. A Mentor as Alchemist or Gambler. A Trickster as Clown or Sage. There are hundreds of Sub-Types you can use to explore and dig into each of your characters in order to discover what makes them unique. Again Google is your best friend. Here is one list.

* Exploratory Scene: Put two or more of your characters together in a scene. Use a setting that would fit with your story, however the scene itself may not necessarily end up in the script. This is just to play around with your characters, see how they interact, hear their voices as they emerge on the page, and so on.

The main thing is engage your characters. Interact with them. No one knows the story better than they do. Plus they want you to tell their story. In effect, they are your allies. The more you interface with them and dig into their personal histories, the more likely you will develop multilayered, distinctive individuals… and not stereotypes.

I should note I teach several 1-week online courses in this area including Character Development Keys, Create a Compelling Protagonist, Write a Worthy Nemesis, and a 6-week online writing workshop Prep: From Concept to Outline, which builds a story’s structure based on a ton of character work. I’ll be offering each of these in the first quarter of 2015.

And of course, there are my blog archives. If you go to GITS Reader Questions, you will find dozens of Q&A’s under the subcategory of Characters.

If anyone has other character development tips, please post in comments.

Thanks for your question, Lauren, and good luck with the writing!

Reader Question: What to do if a movie is similar to my script?

December 1st, 2014 by

Question via Twitter from @auntiemamer:

Saw a film last night wherein ending was beginning of ©’d treatment I posted to Screenwriters Guild two years ago. Common? What should I have done or not? Thank you so much, Scott!

This questions brings us to the ‘similar but different’ mentality that exists in the Hollywood film and TV business. It boils down to this: Studios, producers and networks generally want to work with projects that are similar to successful, already produced movies or TV series, yet different enough to be distinct. Why?

* Similar: This plays to the buyer’s comfort level. It is safer – and therefore easier – to commit to a project that is like a predecessor because the buyer can always point to the success of the previous project. There’s also a marketing component as the new project can ‘draft’ on consumer awareness of the earlier one.

* Different: This plays to the buyer’s understanding of consumers who, via the marketing of the new project, have to feel like it’s unique enough from previous similar projects to warrant their attention. In other words, it can’t come across as simply a clone or rehash of a previous story.

With that as background, let’s consider the question from two angles. First, if the issue is “My script as currently written turns out to have some elements that are awfully similar to a movie that I have just become aware of, should I change those parts of my story,” there’s no clear answer because there are so many questions to address. How important are the scenes / sequences in question? In what ways are the scenes / sequences similar: Concept, execution? How much page count do the similar scenes / sequences comprise in your script?  My advice? Do a thorough compare-and-contrast of the two, then put on your producer’s hat: If I read this script as a Hollywood buyer, would I think these scenes / sequences were too similar to the previous movie and too visible in terms of their role in the script? If your gut says no, perhaps you can leave it as is. If your gut says yes, then consider rewriting your pages.

Second, if the issue is “The scenes / sequences in this movie are so similar to my script, I can’t help but think someone read my screenplay and ripped off my ideas,” time for a reality check: There’s a 99.9% chance that did not happen, especially if the possible point of intersection between a producer and your script was the Writers Guild registration service. Believe me, studios do not have the time or resources to go through the 30,000+ scripts that supposedly get registered each year. The most likely scenario is you had your ideas and they had their ideas, and the ideas just happen to be quite similar. This is a fact of life. I blogged about it here: Someday someone WILL beat you to the punch. With so many writers working on so many stories, it is inevitable there are other stories, either already produced, in development or being written similar to something you or I are working on.

Note: This is more true if you are writing mainstream, commercial, high-concept stories. If, on the other hand, you traffic in quirky, unusual indie fare, less likely precisely because of the distinctive nature of this type of storytelling. So if you really want to decrease the odds of someone beating you to the punch, be like Charlie Kaufman and work on stories like Synecdoche, New York.

Hopefully the content in question is innocuous enough, you don’t have to rewrite your script. But if you do have to revise it, why not adopt the attitude of a professional screenwriter: There is always another way. We are used to rewriting, cutting, changing, revising. It comes with the territory.

And worst case scenario: The similarities are so profound and so large in scope, your script is in effect DOA, that is, indeed, a bitter pill to swallow. However it shows one thing: Your creative instincts are aligned with what Hollywood is producing. Cold comfort, I know, but at least it’s something.

Note: Before you submit your script anywhere in Hollywood, you should copyright it, not register it with the WGA. Why? Go here.

For more background:

A ‘similar but different’ primer

How far can a writer go with the ‘similar but different’ approach?

How about you, readers? Do you have any advice for @auntiemamer? If so, please head to comments for your thoughts on the matter.

Reader Question: What about the Black List and the Nicholl Competition?

November 25th, 2014 by

Question via email from Arnaud:

Would putting a script on the Blacklist for reviews be a wise move or a kill move for the Nicholl’s fellowship competition?

Would you say, participating in one could be to the detriment of the other?

If not, which one would consider trying first ? Or are they so totally independent that it just won’t matter anyway?

And then what is the best time of the year to put our work out there in the open? Is there any known script harvest time?

I went straight to the source on this one, asking Franklin Leonard, founder of the Black List his opinion:

I honestly can’t imagine a scenario where entering the Nicholl would be a detriment to one’s Black List experience and vice versa. I suppose the only potential issue with simultaneously submitting would be that we could more quickly get a script recognized and sold, which could render a writer no longer eligible for the Nicholl because they’ve exceeded the earning requirement.

As for script harvest time, for the purposes of an unrepresented writer, there’s no such thing.

I would tend to agree with Franklin. While the Black List and the Nicholl are both about surfacing great screenplays and talented screenwriters, they are two different types of things. The Nicholl is a screenplay competition with deadlines and due dates. The Black List website is a real time thing, whereby you upload the script and it immediately becomes available to pro members. In either case, it all boils down to the quality of the writing and the script.

To the last question, while there isn’t a best time to send out a script, I think you would be advised to avoid December 10-January 10 as Hollywood basically shuts down.

Reader Question: What to do if I’m good with plot, but weak with characters?

October 30th, 2014 by

Question via Twitter from @MahinWriter:

My issue: I can outline plot, but my character arcs feel weak. Got a blog post for that!?

It’s an important question and I appreciate you asking it, Michael, because with all the emphasis on screenplay structure in the online screenwriting universe — and by structure, most ‘gurus’ mean plot — there are a lot of script floating around that where writers hit the mark in terms of plot points and page count, but have created formulaic stories with little or no emotional resonance. And where should that emotional resonance come from? Why, characters, of course!

So the short answer is this: Spend more time with your characters! How to develop them? Try these techniques:

Questionnaire: A series of questions about your characters. Here is an example:

What is your name?

How old are you?

How would you describe your physical appearance?

How do you feel about the way you look?

Who are your parents?

Describe your relationship with your mother.

Describe your relationship with your father.

Who is the most important person in your life? Why?

Are you in love?

If so, describe your lover and your relationship with them.

If not, why not?

Describe what your soul-mate would be like.

Do you believe in God?

If so, describe your relationship with God.

If not, why not?

When did you stop believing in God?

Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist? Why?

What do you do for a living?

If you like your job, explain why.

If not explain why not.

In ten years, where will you be and what will you be doing?

Please fill in the following…

My biggest strengths are…

My biggest weaknesses are…

I am most proud of…

I am most ashamed of…

I am most angry about…

And finally, be as honest as you can with this question…

I am most afraid of…

Biography: You act as historian and construct a life for your character, focusing on key relationships and events that may come into play in terms of their personality and events in your story.

Interview: Assume the role of a reporter, police detective, someone with a vested interest in getting information from a character, then go at them in the first person voice.

Sit-downs: This is the most ‘mystical’ of the techniques, but can also be one of the most valuable. Close the door, shut off your phone, sit at your computer, put your hands on your keyboard, close your eyes, and summon up an image of the character in question. If you can’t form a face, focus on one prominent feature — hands, hair, shoes, eyes. Then sit with them… and type. Don’t open your eyes, don’t edit what you’re typing, just write down the impressions, thoughts and feelings that come into your consciousness. Do this at least for a half-hour. Now what you end up with may be 90% misspelled crap, but even if just 10% of what you have on paper is gold, you’re ahead of the game. And in my experience, that 10% is often essential stuff, keys to the character. Do this exercise with all of your primary characters. You may choose to do it several times with your Protagonist and others over the course of your prep-writing as they evolve to check in with them.

Archetypes: At some point, it’s helpful to drill down and see what your main characters’ essential narrative function is, then you can ascribe to them one of the five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. But there are a whole host of other archetypes and you can consider each of your main characters in relation to them from a list like this one. For instance a Mentor who is a martyr is entirely different than a thief, an Attractor who is a virgin is different than a femme fatale.

Bottom line you are trying to do three things: (1) Go into your characters so you dig up key aspects of who they are. (2) Identify what their respective narrative functions are. (3) Understand how they work together as an ensemble especially in relation to the Protagonist’s metamorphosis journey.

Through that, hopefully the characters will come to life in your imagination and in your writing, it will be much more about them telling the story than you, and your plot will benefit from it.

Readers, do you have any other suggestions? Please head to comments and opine away!

Reader Question: Could you provide some insight into the script development process?

October 21st, 2014 by

A question from Point Break:

I have a few questions. As rewriting is an art and not a science, when should an agent/manager/prod-co get involved in the process?

We all get scripts to a stage where we think it is ready for people to read them.

It’s difficult for unproduced writers to know when to submit, so a little insight into the development process of great scripts would be very helpful.

PB, I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “Writing is rewriting.” I suspect that is nowhere more true than with screenwriting. For example, in the recent Creative Screenwriting feature on Pixar’s process developing Toy Story 3, screenwriter Michael Arndt talks about multiple drafts he wrote (if memory serves, I believe the number was 60). And that’s with an animated movie where the script is locked up front so the actors can record the dialogue, then the animators create the characters, scenery, and all the rest. In a live-action film, rewriting can and often does go on throughout the entire production period. And then they can test the movie and determine they need to do reshoots or an alternate ending, which requires more rewriting. So if you include the original screenwriter typing FADE IN:, then INT., then deleting that to put in EXT., it’s possible to say that the revising of a screenplay never stops, not from the first instant of a story’s creation to the final cut is done in post.

Which is to say it’s a fallacy to believe that when you type FADE OUT / The End on the final draft of your spec script, it’s a finished product. In some respects, that’s only the beginning of it.

Let’s focus here on script development in terms of the writer-representative relationship. That varies from writer to writer and rep to rep. Some agents and managers are primarily involved at the front end and back end of a spec project. Per the former, that means they will sit with a writer and go through the writer’s list of original ideas to spec or develop as a pitch, giving advice about which one to focus on based upon current market conditions, goals for the writer’s career, and just generally their gut sense of which story concept works or not. Per the latter, once the writer has a draft of the script done, they’ll send it to their reps for their read and notes. Almost always, the rep will have the script covered to get the benefit of that feedback, then provide additional comments based upon their own take on the material. This process can go back and forth for several drafts.

Other reps take a much more hands-on approach, so that the writer works up drafts of a treatment, then an outline — all for review — before beginning to write a script. And then the writer may provide the rep 30 pages of the script at a time until there’s a finished draft. Then more notes and rewrites. I don’t think this is the nature of a majority of writer-rep relationships, but I do know several writers (early in their careers) who do work this way with their reps.

At some point, it’s common for a rep to ‘slip’ the script to someone to read, generally a producer or perhaps even a studio exec to get an ‘unofficial’ read. This is not only important to get a buyer’s opinion of the material; if the script is good, it can start the buzz-building process.

Now mind you, this is all writing and rewriting before the script officially goes out to buyers. Certainly there are scripts that come across an agent or manager’s desk which end up going to market with little or no rewriting, but you have to figure that’s rare. Most of the time, a writer will shape and reshape the script per their own internal editorial process and whatever approach they’ve worked out with their reps. As I say, that varies from writer to rep.

Here’s the rub: At what point and how do the writer and rep determine when the script is ready to go to market? In theory, the rep is in the employ of the writer (after all, the writer is paying the rep anywhere from 10-15% of their earnings). However script development is one of those tricky areas where that dynamic can get blurred and it can feel like the writer is working for the rep, i.e., the rep becomes the final arbiter of the script’s development.

While that may seem wrongheaded, bear in mind that in almost all cases, the rep knows the buying marketplace better than the writer. The rep is the one with the most active relationships with producers, talent, execs, etc. So basically their information is stronger. Moreover because the rep reads a lot more scripted material than a writer, especially current specs, drafts of scripts in development at studios, and so on, it’s generally safe to assume that the rep’s knowledge in this regard is broader.

On the other hand, nobody can know the particular story world of a script more intimately than the writer. And in a good writer-rep relationship, both parties have to be mindful of the writer’s passion for the project during the development process as it’s critical that the writer stay connected to and inspired by what they’re writing. In other words, a rep can not just insist on a writer slaving over rewrite after rewrite to the detriment of the writer’s emotional state.

And then there’s the bottom line: Do you think the script works as is or not? A writer may believe this last draft is pure gold. The rep may think it needs more work. Who’s to say who’s right? Maybe the writer’s correct and the rep is just nervous about going out with the script because they’re not sure they believe in it. Maybe the rep is right because the writer’s opinion is based more on the fact that they’re sick and tired of rewriting the script, not on the quality of what’s on the page.

At some point, it comes down to trust. Does the writer trust their rep’s creative judgment? Does the rep trust the writer’s creative judgment? In a perfect world, their sensibilities are in sync. Even if they’re not, my sense is that most reps will go out with a script, whether they have doubts about it or not. First, if what William Goldman says about Hollywood is true — “Nobody knows anything” — then what’s to stop an imperfect script from selling? [And by the way, are there any perfect scripts?] Second, a rep only makes money when a script sells… and it ain’t gonna sell if it ain’t out in the marketplace. And third, as one of my agents once said, “I don’t gotta smell it to sell it.”

Now again mind you, this is all before the script goes to market. So as important as it is to have an agent and/or manager, it’s even more important to have a good manager and/or agent. As a writer, you want to believe that they have your best interest in mind, that they understand story, they aren’t afraid to be honest with you, and they are willing to work with you to find some common ground approach to script development.

Then you get lucky and sell the script. Now you enter into another level of development. But that’s a whole other level of mishegas, better saved for another time.

[Originally posted July 23, 2010]

Reader Question: What are some ways to visualize the inner world of a character?

October 2nd, 2014 by

From Anton:

I would be really interested in hearing from you on methods of how to show the inner world of a protagonist, in pictures rather than using a voice over. For example, in the french film ”A Prophet”, the protagonist speaks to the ghost of the man he killed, wich I understand is a way of showing how the protagonist copes with the pressure of being locked up in prison and learning from that experience. Or, why not, in Black Swan, where the protagonist’s inner conflicts are shown in hallucinative visions of seeing her self… I guess there are a million other ways, and I would love a discussion of that.

Best regards from Sweden and a struggling writer.

First off Anton, I think it’s safe to say that all writers are struggling writers, at least in the sense that tasked with wrangling a story into being, that process is almost assuredly a challenging one. So from one struggling writer to another — I greet you in the name of Creativity!

I applaud your instinct to push to find a visual way to communicate what is transpiring in a story’s Internal World. One of the most common errors I see when teaching college students is they tend to rely on dialogue to carry the story. I remind them often: Movies are primarily a visual medium. They are known as motion pictures. Both words spotlight film’s visual essence.

The two examples you note are instances where something the character was experiencing inside is projected into the External World in the form of visions, one of them to the point where the Protagonist is able to communicate with the ‘ghost.’ Other examples of that: Bogart in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam and Parcher in A Beautiful Mind.

You can also take the reader inside a character’s mind. A great example of that occurs in American Beauty where Lester has recurring fantasies about Angela:

Something similar are flashbacks where the reader – again – goes inside the mind of a character to remember a specific event in the character’s past. There’s a notable moment like that in the movie Ordinary People in which Conrad has a breakthrough as he remembers the drowning death of his brother:

Of course one obvious way characters convey what is going on inside is through their actions, sometimes in direct opposition to their words. There’s a famous example of this in It’s a Wonderful Life:

George Bailey says he doesn’t want any plastics, he doesn’t want any ground floors, he doesn’t want to get married ever. But then, his actions show otherwise as he and Mary end up in a major clinch.

Those are some examples. How about it, GITS readers: What other ways can a writer expose what is going on in a character’s inner world besides through dialogue?

[Originally posted Mar 18, 2011]

Reader Question: What does a “bidding war” mean and how does that happen?

September 26th, 2014 by

[Originally posted April 2, 2012]

From Anonymous:

I read about spec scripts, or screen rights “going to auction” or acquired in a “bidding war.” Although I am familiar with the concept of an auction, I am wondering if you may explain what exactly this means in a Hollywood setting. What is the process? What are the formalities, if any? Who manages the auction? How are offers submitted? Fax? Email? Phone call? Where, and to whom, exactly are they submitted to? Where does the auction even take place? How much time can the auction take?

As fate would have it, I’ve received a few inquiries on the broader subject of how a spec script goes out to buyers, and I’ve forwarded a series of questions on the matter to several screenwriters I know who have sold specs in the last 2 years to get their additional insights into the matter. But for now, let me zero in on one facet: bidding war.

Simply put, a bidding war is when a literary property [spec script, pitch, book rights, etc] is being pursued by two or more buyers. Of course, this is a rep and writer’s dream scenario because the competition drives up the purchase price.

We have seen a couple of these in the last few weeks. For instance, the movie rights to the book “Fifty Shades of Grey” recently sold to Universal for $5M:

Hollywood interest erupted in the past two weeks, no doubt spurred by a New York Times article that detailed the passionate readership. When the author and her agent, Valerie Hoskins, came to L.A. last week, studio heads and producers came to them hat in hand at Soho House meetings. New Regency put in an early bid of $3 million, and Sony late last week bid $5 million, according to sources.

This was clearly an orchestrated operation with the author and agent making the rounds of all the potential buyers, then working through the various bids [they supposedly turned down an $8M offer to go with Universal].

Then last week, there was the spec script “White House Down” which sold to Sony for $3M. From what I’ve heard there were multiple offers on the script, coming down in the end to Paramount and Sony [although with Vanderbilt doing so much work for Sony, there was probably no way the studio would allow itself to be outbid by a rival]. Again this was a scenario orchestrated by the writer’s reps.

Sometimes bidding wars can break out in a less systematic fashion. For instance, there have been cases where a spec script was ‘slipped’ to a producer or studio exec, then the script filtered out to others, and suddenly offers started to emerge. While the reps may have hoped for something like that to happen, this is less a case of a planned auction than serendipity.

There have even been cases where there was a bidding war… when there was only one buyer. As rumor has it, that happened with the 1990 spec script “Texas Lead and Gold” in which the property went out for the back-then well-established practice of the ‘weekend read.’ A lot of heat generated about the script over the weekend. The agent started fielding calls on Monday. All passes. But when the eventual buyer called, the agent inferred there were other offers happening. The buyer hung up, then called back with a million dollar offer, in essence bidding against himself.

Admittedly bidding wars do not happen often because they require certain elements:

* A hot script: This is the most obvious thing, the script has to generate a lot of buzz around town.

* Buyers flush with cash: Like all businesses, studios have their own fiscal years and their own development funds. Sometimes they have a lot of money, other times they do not.

* Buyers who have a need: If a script goes out and it’s in a genre that several studios need to fill, that’s a good thing. If the studios are all filled up in that genre, not so much.

* A meaningful attachment: This seemed to be a requirement as recently as 2010, spec scripts needing to go out with a desirable actor and/or director attached. But during this recent upswing in spec sale activity, I’ve been noticing a lot more scripts selling free and clear of attachments. That said depending upon the name, attachments can help give a project juice.

* Magic: You can go out at just the right time and generate a lot of buzz, and not end up selling the project, which demonstrates that sometimes the project needs to have magic to make a deal happen.

As I said, we will be getting into this whole area of discussion as I get feedback from the screenwriters I approached.

As usual, if anyone in the GITS community has other insights into the question, please feel free to post in comments. But in sum, as you fantasize about breaking into the business by selling a spec script, you most definitely want to include in your dreams the idea of a bidding war breaking out over your story.

If you want to read a comprehensive take on the wider subject of spec scripts, go here for my 20 part series: “Everything You Wanted to Know About Specs”.

UPDATE: A nice bit of synchronicity as there was a bidding war yesterday in Hollywood. Stay tuned for details in the next post.

Reader Question: Should writers be concerned about projects that have similar concepts to theirs?

September 24th, 2014 by

Question from Eric Harris:

Should writers be concerned about projects that have slightly similar concepts to theirs though the plots, characters, theme, etc are completely different? You’ve worked on a script for months, maybe even longer and then you hear something in development that has a slightly similar concept.

First, unless you are writing a quadrasexual snuff musical in Norwegian, you know… something really obscure… you should always be prepared to be blown out of the water by another project that gets set up before yours. I have had this happen more than once and wrote about a particularly painful experience here in which we were literally days away from going out with a spec when another one quite like it sold.

The saving grace is this idea of ‘similar but different’. I have posted about this many times and will include a bunch of links below for those who want to escape down the rabbit hole of one of Hollywood’s most longstanding business philosophy, but let’s just distill it here.

Hollywood likes similar projects for two primary reasons:

* It is easier to market a movie if it can ‘draft’ off the success of a predecessor film that has done well. If a consumer can see a trailer and go, “Oh, this is like Groundhog Day only it’s science fiction movie,” the studio will feel more confident they can sell the movie… unless you are Warner Bros. and blow the campaign for Edge of Tomorrow. And since marketing costs have skyrocketed over the last decade, getting a movie lodged into the consciousness of moviegoers is a big damn deal. Similar but different can help.

* The business is built on fear of failure. So perhaps the best Cover Your Ass excuse is to green light a project that is similar but different because the execs can always say, “But it was like Avatar which did two billion dollars!” In other words, it’s safer to go with something more similar than it is to commit dollars to something that more different.

So with that as a frame, let’s look at your question, Eric. Two things:

* The word “slightly”. If that’s an accurate appraisal, your project only slightly similar to one already set up, you’re probably on safe ground. Indeed, depending upon the status of the competing project, specifically if it is generating good buzz, has quality talent attached, slotted to be released in a valuable spot on the calendar, the fact your project is similar but different can actually be a plus for your project. Why? Because if the expectation is the other project is going to do well, then that suggests there is fertile ground in that genre and subject area, so another buyer may see an opportunity to pick up your script, produce it and get it out to moviegoers in a time frame where it can draft off the first movie.

* “You’ve worked on a script for months.” If by that you mean you are at least halfway through the final writing process, unless the other project is exactly like yours, I’d say finish your script. You’ve already committed all that time and effort to it, plus you will never know if it could have sold or not unless you do complete it. Besides even if it doesn’t sell, you can hope that it would benefit you as a writing sample.

But know this: If you traffic in writing mainstream movies, you automatically increase the chances someone will beat you to the punch. And you just have to flat-out learn to live with that reality.

Which is why sometimes this writing mantra, even though a harsh one, can be the best one to get your ass onto a chair and start working:

“If you’re not writing… someone else is.”

And speaking of ‘similar but different':

Related Links:

Similar but different

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 1: Remakes)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 2: Retro)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 3: Playing the Game)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 4: Archetypes)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 5: Psychological Journey)

Question: How far can a writer go with the “similar but different” approach?

Readers, if you have any thoughts about Eric’s question or the subject of ‘similar but different,’ please head to comments and share them with us. And if you’ve been beaten to the punch by a competing project, it might be a cathartic experience for you to recount this tragic state of affairs.

Reader Question: Given the odds against success, how do you keep motivated?

September 15th, 2014 by

Question from 14shari:

The road from unpaid screenwriter to paid screenwriter is long, winding and unpredictable. It’s not certain that you’ll ever be one. How can one keep yourself motivated?

Shari, what you say is true. The odds against success as a screenwriter or TV writer are long. Plus it may take many years before achieving even a modicum of financial success.

In the face of that, how to keep motivated? Let me propose three perspectives, each with a different tone. The first positive reinforcement. The second negative reinforcement. The third a plain simple truth.

Positive Reinforcement: Every year, writers break into the business. That’s a fact. Whether they write a spec script or original TV pilot, or make a short or feature-length film, they create a story that lands in front of the right people, and now they find themselves on the inside, not outside looking in. The numbers might not be huge, but at least several hundred writers per year manage to do it. If you want living proof, you need look no further than me: A complete Hollywood outsider with no formal training who wrote a spec script, sold it for a bunch of money, and saw it produced as a major studio motion picture along with a TV pilot and two sequels. The possibility of breaking in should be a strong motivational reminder.

Negative Reinforcement: If you aren’t writing, someone else is. Let’s face it: Being a screenwriter or TV writer is a competition. When we are not researching story, developing characters, generating concepts, reading scripts, watching movies, writing pages, and all the rest involved with honing our craft… other writers out there who are. That thought alone has been motivation enough to get my ass onto chair to write many, many times. Not a pleasant thought, but a persuasive image nonetheless.

Plain Simple Truth: I’m reminded of a story told to me that involves musician David Grisman, whose claim to fame is creating what is known as “Dawg” music, a mixture of bluegress (Grisman plays mandolin) and jazz. I should note for context, “Dawg” is Grisman’s nickname given to him by none other than Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. As the story goes, a friend is talking with Grisman backstage at a music festival. Grisman patiently listens to his friend who is having some sort of life crisis. Should he do this, should he do that. On and on the friend goes until Grisman plants his hands firmly on the guy’s shoulders, looks him square in the face, then says this: “Do it. Or don’t do it. But you know. You… know.” Then walks away, happily strumming his mandolin.

The plain simple truth is you are either going to do this thing called ‘writing’… or not. Only the deepest part of your Creative Self and time will determine how that plays out. Every time you commit yourself to writing another story, another feature script, another original TV pilot, you are doing it.

You may choose not to do it. There is no shame in that. Chasing creative ambitions given the competition and odds against success is a crazy passion, and for some people, it’s just not worth it. In that case, I would choose to believe there is some other path for them to pursue.

So should you take up this new writing project or not? Should you do that scene-by-scene breakdown of the next movie you have on your list to watch or not? Should you do that sit-down session with the character in your story who has been so hard to get to know or not? Should you take yet another pass at revising this script or not?

Do it. Or don’t do it. But you know. You… know.

There you go, Shari. Three perspectives. Hopefully one to fit any mood you find yourself in. And for a little musical inspiration, here is David Grisman on “The Tonight Show” in 1979 with the David Grisman Quintet and the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. Check out Johnny Carson’s reaction at the end of their song.

How about you, readers? How do you keep yourself motivated to write? I welcome your thoughts in comments!

Reader Question: How long should an outline / treatment be before starting a first draft?

September 11th, 2014 by

Question from MichaelSWaters:

I was interested in how long you (or others) think an outline (or treatment) should be before starting a first draft?

Michael, the fact you are asking that question is a good sign about your instincts as a writer. While some writers may not need to do much in the way of prep work, preferring to find the story after they type FADE IN or the first line of their novel, most professional screenwriters I know personally, have interviewed, or have read or heard talking about the craft embrace the idea of ‘breaking the story’ in advance of the actual page-writing part of the process. In fact, working up an outline before going to script is as innate to TV writing as is the snack table.

As to your specific question, there are no rules about minimum page count for an outline or treatment. Every writer is different. Every story is different. If it’s a writing assignment, the needs of the studio or production company will vary. I’ve never had to submit a treatment, beat sheet or outline, always gone in with a detailed take on the material, a pitch-conversation, then gone to draft. That said, I think it’s increasingly common for writers on assignment to work up something on paper and that can often involve multiple drafts going back and forth for comments and revisions.

However I think your question is aimed more at a writer working on a spec project, essentially asking, How can we tell we know our story well enough to type FADE IN?

There’s no set answer to that. For example, screenwriter Ron Bass (Rain Man) says this:

Everything I write is in three acts, and I actually start with three pieces of paper. I have some notion of where each act begins and ends before I get to this stage. I know my people and I know roughly about how many scenes each act should be. I start from the beginning and end of an act, working forwards and backwards toward the middle. I know that somewhere there’s going to be a moment of this, a moment of that, and it’s like a matrix. I don’t work with cards, just one page per act. When I finish three acts, I page budget. I want to know I can tell the story in a distance that’s appropriate. And I’m rarely more than ten pages off.

That sounds more like a beat sheet approach. Compare to Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver):

I know exactly where I’m going beforehand. I know to the half page if I’m on or off target. I draw up charts before I do a script. I endlessly chart and re-chart a movie. Before I sit down to write, I have all the scenes listed, what happens in each scene, how many pages I anticipate each scene will take. I have a running log on the film. I can look down and see what happens by page thirty, what happens by page forty, fifty, sixty and so forth. I have the whole thing timed out to a hundred and five, a hundred and ten pages.

That looks more like an extensive scene-by-scene outline. In fact, here is an image of one outline page from a script Schrader wrote, Raging Bull:

Raging Bull outline

Some writers, like Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs), prefer a more literary approach to prep, working up a treatment:

It [a treatment] is about twenty-five or thirty single-spaced pages normally, in paragraph outline, and it has a very conventional three-act structure and it’s my attempt to describe the movie scene-by-scene. If it’s an important movie, I’ll go into some detail about what happens and why. There’s virtually no dialogue in it unless it’s really important to the scene–it’s suggested but I don’t want anybody to pin me down on that. And if it’s a small scene or a sequence of them I might just say “And now there’s a montage” without going into too much detail. But it’s pretty specific; act one, scene one, two, three…

There are even scriptments, long treatments with some script elements, primarily dialogue. You can go here to download the James Cameron scriptment for Avatar.

If you want a ballpark number, Tally’s take on a treatment, “twenty-five or thirty single-spaced pages,” is generally where my outlines land: 25-35 pages. Unlike Schrader, I put everything I think is important for each scene into that document: B-M-E (Beginning, Middle, End), Point (What’s the point of the scene, how does it tie into the Plotline and Themeline, moving the story forward), Type (What type of scene it is), Characters (Who are the characters, why are they in that scene, what are their respective goals in that scene), even bits of scene description and dialogue that may have emerged in my prep work, then often a Notes section to remind me of the scene’s function within the broader arc of the narrative, theme, and so forth.

But again, there are no rules. You may be a writer who only needs a beat sheet. Or you may be someone who prefers to work out a scriptment. Find what works for you… and do that.

Two final thoughts.

First, while there may be no specific page count etched in stone to determine when your outline or treatment is ready to take you to draft, you do have this: Your gut. If you check in with your instincts and you can honestly say you are pumped to write the story, not just weary of the prep phase, but really feel like you know it enough to see that story universe and hear those characters, then go for it no matter what you’ve come up with in terms of a prep document.

Second, no matter how much prep work you do, once you type FADE IN, you have to be willing to follow the story where it goes. I call the first draft a ‘journey of discovery’ because even with as much as you have learned about your story through prep, there are things that can only emerge in the actual page-writing part of the process.

That is why it is critical when you finally do type FADE IN, commit yourself to one goal: Get the damn thing done! No stopping. No turning back. Just pound out those pages and get to FADE OUT. Even if what you’re writing feels like utter crap, heed the words of screenwriter Chris Sparling:

No matter what you write, good or bad, it’s an improvement to a blank page.

Readers, how about you? How do you know you’ve developed your story enough to type FADE IN? What type of prep work do you do: Beat sheet, treatment, outline, scriptment?

BTW, I created a 1-week Craft class called Story Summaries which covers Logline, Synopsis, Breakdown, Treatment, Scriptment, and Beat Sheet, not only what they are and how to write them, but also how each can be a valuable tool in your story development process. I’ll be teaching that again sometime 2015. You can access that content immediately as part of the Craft Package.