Reader Question: What is the most creative way you’ve seen for someone to get their script read?

May 5th, 2015 by

Reader question via Twitter:

By “get their screenplay read,” I assume, @scifi2611, you mean “by someone who can cut me a million dollar check to buy said script”, or at least an individual in the Hollywood food chain who can lead to that fat payday.

Since I’ve been at this for nearly three decades, I have seen, read, or heard more than a few innovative approaches to getting material read. BPDF (Before PDFs), when aspiring writers had to figure out how to get a screenplay comprised of three-hole paper and accompanying brads into the actual hands of a reader, the task was particularly challenging in that you had to create a physical intersection in the time-space continuum between your script and a real live human being.

Speaking personally, even I have been hit up to read material in some unusual ways. Once I was taking a cab to LAX and when the chatty driver discovered I was a screenwriter, he tossed a screenplay he’d written into the back seat. [One must assume he kept it at hand precisely for opportunities like this one.] What followed was a combo pitch session and slalom ride through 405 traffic with his head bobbing back and forth between me and the cars around him, relating what he thought were cool moments in his story interspersed between invectives spewed at other drivers. Valuable lesson learned: Never tell cab drivers you are a screenwriter or this may happen.

Back in the early 90s, I remember a guy who used to stand on busy intersections in Los Angeles (I saw him once at Santa Monica and Wilshire near the old CAA building) holding a sign that said, “Screenplays For Sale,” and he would literally wave his scripts at passing cars. Not sure if he got a sale, but he got noticed by the press which in L.A. is no small deal.

I heard a story from an agent in which he was at a club one night, went into the men’s room, entered a stall, closed the door, and was doing his business when he saw a screenplay being slid under the divider wall, accompanied by an O.S. voice of the script’s writer pitching the story. Needless to say, the Bathroom Pitcher did not become that agent’s client.

Writers have taken out ads in the trades. Thumbs up for chutzpah. Thumbs down for economic sensibility.

Not script related per se, there was another LAT article some time ago about a fledgling actress who, frustrated she couldn’t land an agent, created an alter ego to act as her rep, like if Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) in Tootsie had concocted the character of agent George Fields (Sydney Pollock). She started calling productions as the faux talent agent on behalf of the “hot new talent” she repped. Not sure how much work the actress got, but again the press she generated probably didn’t hurt.

Sports has been a traditional means to an aspiring screenwriter’s end. If you’re good at hockey, soccer, tennis, surfing, basketball, and the like, there are circuits in Hollywood of agents, managers, producers, execs, actors, and directors who indulge in those activities. I know several writers who due to their athletic prowess have maneuvered their way into an inner circle of connections. But this takes time to develop solid relationships before kerplopping your spec script onto the sweaty, post-game lap of one of your teammates who just happens to be a player.

The thing is these type of antics may have been necessary 20 years ago when the Hollywood acquisition and development system was pretty much a closed loop, where a writer had to know an agent, exec, or producer, or someone who knew someone to get read. That is not the case nowadays.

With the emergence of managers, there is a lot more opportunity for writers to send out unsolicited material and get read. Strategy: Find managers who have produced movies similar to your script. Get their email addresses (many of them are listed in sites like DoneDealPro.com). Send them a brief email with the logline of your script. It worked for Seth Lochhead who got a manager, then sold his script which eventually became the movie Hana.

Then there is the Black List website. Any screenwriter in the world can pay a small monthly fee to have their screenplay hosted on the site. It becomes available to over 3,000 industry people who subscribe to the service. I just spent the weekend up in NYC with Franklin Leonard, who founded and runs the Black List, and he tells me well over 100 writers have gotten representation off the website and there have been dozens of deals as well. Indeed, the first movie to be produced that was discovered off the Black List website — Nightengale — debuts on HBO May 29th.

Note: I do not make any money from my affiliation with the Black List. My recommendation is based on my belief in and support of what Franklin and the Black List team are accomplishing in opening new avenues into Hollywood.

Hollywood’s old closed loop system is slowly opening up. So if you’re speculating how you can use drones to deliver your latest spec to Leo or Scarlett, there are better ways to get read nowadays.

That said, I’d be interested to hear of other innovative, even outrageous attempts people may have heard of or tried to get scripts read by industry people who matter. If you’ve got some tales to tell, please head to comments.

UPDATE: And right on cue, this happens (via The Wrap):

Suzanne Allain has landed a two-step blind deal at Warner Bros. after submitting her script “Mr. Malcolm’s List” to the Black List.

Warners and Franklin Leonard‘s Black List recently partnered “in order to further encourage diversity among our screenwriting ranks.”

Based out of Tallahassee, Florida, Allain self-submitted the script to the popular screenwriting site and it garnered attention around town before eventually working its way up the ladder at WB.

Like I said in my original post, you don’t need fancy tricks to get a script in front of buyers. Nowadays there are entry points like the Black List site.

And I see she follows my blog on Twitter (@suzanneallain).

Congratulations, Suzanne!

UPDATE #2: Heard back from Suzanne:

Yes, the competition is fierce, but if you write a script which has the potential to draw attention, there are pathways into Hollywood to put your script in a position to do precisely that. Suzanne is a great reminder of that fact.

Reader Question: How insane is it for a 46 year-old to try to start a Hollywood writing career?

April 28th, 2015 by

Question via Twitter from @russmaloney:

Glib response: About as insane as it is for a 20 year-old. A 25 year-old. Or a 30 year-old. The odds against financial success as a screenwriter or TV writer are long for virtually anyone. Every aspiring writer has got to know that going in. Even if you break into the business, it’s a challenge to build and sustain a career.

That said there is no doubt Hollywood has an age bias, more so for TV, less so for feature films. Part of this is due to the fact that many of the people who work in the development side of things are young themselves… 20s and 30s. Part likely derives from Hollywood’s decades-long obsession with teenagers and the 18-25 year-old target demo. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the people who best understand and can write for that age group are members of that age group, the assumption being that older writers cannot grasp the subtle nuances of what it means to be a young person nowadays.

That’s bull shit, of course. It’s like saying men cannot possibly write authentic female characters, or women cannot write men. That young writers can’t write old characters. That white writers cannot write black characters and vice versa. By this logic, we would have no science fiction movies featuring aliens because none of us could possibly imagine what it’s like to be a member of a species from another planet!

This presumed conventional wisdom flies in the face of the fact that as writers, we believe we should be able to write any character of any race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and so on.

Research. Imagination. Empathy. It’s what writers do, put ourselves in the shoes of character after character after character, no matter who or what they are.

This is a line of argumentation that doesn’t have a lot cache in Hollywood. However this does: If you write a great script, nothing else matters.

Nothing.

Man. Woman. Old. Young. Christian. Jew. Muslim. Atheist. Straight. Gay. Transgender. Black. White. Asian. Hispanic. Whatever.

If buyers perceive your script to be something they can monetize, they will buy it.

Witness Mickey Fisher. A longtime GITS follower, Mickey had toiled for years on the fringes of the business as a writer, filmmaker, and playwright when he wrote an original TV pilot script called “Extant”. It eventually became a CBS TV series. Here is how Mickey described the actual sale of the script from our July 2014 interview:

The news hit on my 40th birthday, which was on a Wednesday. We were selling the show straight to series on CBS. It was like everything exploded that day. I had hundreds of messages and phone calls from friends and family and people and all the team. It was a great feeling about it.

On his 40th birthday! It could have been his 50th birthday. Or 60th. The fact is Mickey wrote a script that became the focal point of the entire Hollywood development community and sold for big bucks. That’s the power of the written word.

There are other examples. You can read my January 2013 interview with Allan Durand who while in his 60s wrote a Nicholl-winning screenplay that led to a writing assignment. Or my August 2014 interview with Frank DeJohn and David Hedges whose Nicholl-winning screenplay landed them a gig writing a movie for TV. I didn’t ask how old they are, but based upon our conversation, I think it’s safe to say they’re both north of 40.

Bottom line, any writer has to be completely aware of the long odds against financial success as a TV writer or screenwriter, and to pursue that dream, Russ, you do have to have a bit of insanity floating around in your psyche. But the fact is if you write a great script, no matter what your particular life circumstances — age, gender, race, geography — Hollywood will find you.

GITS readers, what do you think? Please head to comments to provide your thoughts and opinions re Russ’s question. And if you know of other writers who broke into the business after the age of 40, feel free to post their names.

UPDATE: Some interesting comments from readers including two longtime GITS followers John Arends and Debbie Moon, both of whom achieved writing success on the professional front post-40. You may read interviews with them to learn more about their writing paths: John and Debbie.

Reader Question: What are some suggestions for doing character ‘interviews’?

March 25th, 2015 by

A reader question from Alex_kelaru in comments to a recent blog post in which I closed with this takeaway:

Do some interactive writing exercises with your story’s key characters where you zero in on what they believe, why they believe it, and how they see the world. Whether it’s an interview, monologue, sit-down, or journal entry, engage your characters in a dialogue. Learn what makes them tick… and why.

The question from Alex:

Great advice, I usually use the interview technique, I pretend I meet with my character in a coffee shop or some place out of their ordinary world and conduct an interview. Questions like ‘why do you think your story is worth telling’ or ‘Why might audiences dislike you?’ are some of the ones I ask.

However, Scott, I have a question. When you do an exercise like this, at what moment in the character’s life do you do the interview/monologue/sit-down. The character changes throughout the screenplay and an interview at the beginning might be (and it should be) very different then at the end of the story. I’m just wondering which one would be more useful ?

Good question, Alex. Over the years, I have aggregated a wide variety of character development tools which I use myself and have taught in the dozens of writing workshops I’ve led during the last decade. They are an excellent means by which we can interface with our characters, delve into them, dig into their core essence, determine their respective narrative functions, then build out from that foundation, exploring their distinctive personalities, and eventually hearing their unique voices.

The only way to do that is to engage your characters directly, deeply, and throughout the entire story-crafting and writing process.

As to when to engage them, at what point or points in their lives, this raises the fact that your characters exist. They live, indeed, have lived in their story universe 24/7/365 for the entirety of their existence. So you can begin in their Present, where they start the story. What is their current mentality and emotional state? If you are dealing with your Protagonist(s), be attuned to aspects of their psyche which are in conflict, either conscious or unconscious. I refer to this initial state as Disunity. [The Protagonist does not always go from Disunity to Unity, a positive transformation arc, but in most mainstream Hollywood movies, they do.]

But even a cursory amount of character work in the Present will point to influences from the Past which has led the character to their starting psychological state as well as the circumstances they find themselves in relative to the plot. That inevitably draws us into the character’s personal history.

I draw a distinction between personal history and backstory:

Personal History: Everything that’s ever happened to a character.
Backstory: Events / dynamics specifically tied to your story’s narrative.

Between character questionnaires and biographies, you can dig up much of this content. However you can also do interviews, sit-downs, monologues and the like with the character from a point in their Past.

For example, consider Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. When we meet her, she is an F.B.I. agent-in-training. But her Disunity is rooted in key experiences from her past, specifically when her father was killed when she was an 11 year-old girl. If you were developing this story, why not engage Clarice as a young girl? Before her father died. As she visited him in the hospital while he lay dying. At the funeral for her father. Indeed, the movie has two flashbacks, both of which feature Clarice at age 11.

What insights into Clarice’s persona could you gain from interfacing with her as a young girl? Enough to surface these two key moments… and presumably much more, including her traumatic experiences on her uncle’s Montana farm.

So you can engage the character in the Present and the Past. But why not jump ahead to the Future? Where does the character end up in terms of the metamorphosis? If it’s a positive arc, what does that Unity state look like?

There’s no single program and certainly no formula to dictate how a writer can develop their characters. I believe you have to trust your gut. If interviews are working, great. Do that. If not, try something else, a biography or questionnaire. Can’t get a sense of a character in the Present? Fine. Dig into their personal history by engaging them in the Past.

And then there some of my favorite tools: Character Archetypes. Once you dig into your characters and start to get a feel for them, consider their respective narrative functions. Who is the Protagonist? Nemesis? Attractor? Mentor? Trickster? I have been working with archetypes for over a decade now and find them endlessly fascinating. I look forward to digging into this content again starting Monday, March 30 in my upcoming Character Development Keys class. It’s a terrific course as we use The Dark Knight for our study script, a classic example of these five character archetypes at work in the narrative. For information on that, go here.

Bottom line, do whatever you can to engage your characters. No one knows the story better than them. You can connect with them in the Present, Past and Future to give you a deep understanding of who they are, why they are and where they’re going.

To read all of the posts in the Reader Questions archive, over 300 of them, go here.

Time for reader questions

January 23rd, 2015 by

You got questions? I’ve got answers. Well, at least opinions. And oftentimes, the GITS community will weigh in with some great insights.

While you’re at it, check out the archives of reader questions I’ve aggregated during the nearly 8 year run of this blog. Over 300 questions and answers.

Screenwriting. Craft. Business. Whatever. The transom is open. Feel free to lob your questions this way. Happy to give you my two cents.

Reader Question: Are there differences between a ‘selling script’ and a ‘shooting script’?

December 30th, 2014 by

Reader question in comments from mrchristf01:

Scott,

Thank you for the post.

I didn’t really get what you were talking about until I saw the line:

“Yu uses every weapon that’s available against Jen but none
are any match for the Green Destiny.”

Then it hit me: it’s like show, don’t tell in novel writing.

My own reading of this script would never have told me that. Thanks for pointing it out.

From a review of some of the other scripts on your site, I would say the same concept about the differences between types of scripts [shooting script, selling script, etc.] is necessary to understand the script-in-hand. This leads me to a few questions.

Is there any way to annotate which type of script is posted on your site?

Is a ‘selling script’ the same as a ‘spec script’?

mrchrisf01, you picked up on the subtext of my post: there is a selling script and a shooting script. Sometimes they end up being one and the same. For example, if you read a Coen brothers’ script, what they write reflects pretty precisely what they shoot. Being writer-directors helps in that regard because they have an inner knowledge of what they mean by their scene description.

Re my point about Crouching Tiger: It may have been fine for the minimal description of the fight scene relative to production because they knew they would work out all of those moves in rehearsal, then refine during shooting. That is a shooting script also known as a production draft.

If, however, you were writing a selling script – which is in effect what a spec script is and, frankly, any draft up to the point of active pre-production – you have to do more. Find that delicate balance between enough description to evoke images and mood in a reader sufficient so they experience the movie you envision, but not so much that it bogs down the read or includes content extraneous to the forward movement of the narrative.

There is no simple calculation or formula for knowing how to do this. You simply have to read movie scripts. Lots of them. Then you write scripts. Lots of them. You try out things. You write too much. Then too little. You get feedback. In the end, much of this boils down to the development of your own writing style. And by the way, different genres play out differently on this front. Action scripts will almost by definition have a lot more action description than, say, a character-based drama.

Again the single biggest key in my view: Read movie scripts. You just start to ‘get’ it after a while.

As to knowing if a script is a selling or shooting draft: In the world of online scripts, it’s really the wild, wild West, you’re never sure what you’re going to get. In general, I recommend focusing first on spec scripts that sell or make the Black List. Those represent the closest to what we want to be writing, at least stylistically, when we write a spec or even a writing assignment – again before pre-production. But it’s also helpful to read production drafts in order to compare them to the movie as that helps you to discover that balance between writing too little / too much, and always to write visually.

For more on selling script / shooting script, check out this Business of Screenwriting post I did on the subject.

Final point: Scene description is a critical component of the craft if for no other reason than the fact a majority of the words we write in most screenplays is not dialogue, but action. How we handle that aspect of the script-writing process is key. To that end, I will be offering a new Craft course through Screenwriting Master Class in May 2015 called Scene Description Spotlight. Look for more information on that soon.

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]