Reader Question: Do you have any tips for working with feedback?

April 18th, 2014 by

Question from Alejandro:

HI, Scott.

My question is related to feedback, not just studio notes but all kinds of feedback – from other writers, friends. How would you recommend handling feedback? I’ve seen cases where the script gets worse, not better – because they accept every comment. And the opposite – where the writer doesn’t want to make a change that most of the others writers think would benefit the script.

So, any tips for working with feedback you receive? How do you deal with it?

Thanks.

This is a really good question because as you suggest, Alejandro, if a writer follows the advice of someone whose feedback is wrong, that can only hurt the story. On the other hand, what if a writer receives solid suggestions that can improve the story, but the writer refuses to incorporate them, resulting in an inferior script. Different sides of the same coin. Let’s work our way through this.

First and foremost, everything depends upon the quality of the feedback. So if you choos to solicit reactions to a draft, you need to seek out professional quality advice. That does not necessarily mean the reader is a professional writer, however they have to be informed enough about the craft or at the very least Story so their observations come from a high level of understanding. On the other hand, while one could assume that most professional writers have a solid grasp on the craft, there are some who just aren’t all that good at assessing other peoples’ material. But whatever you do, you should focus on sourcing and vetting the people you use to read your material so that you have a high degree of trust and confidence that the feedback you receive represents solid insight and ideas.

Next question: Should you solicit more than one reader’s opinion? In general, I would say yes. However this can become problematic if you receive widely disparate opinions and suggestions from multiple sources. Of course, that could be a critique of the underlying material, how there’s not a underlying coherence to the story which steers readers down one path. But it could also be that each reader has such a distinctive world view, their takes are just bound to be substantially different. Personally I think three readers is the max for any given story. Beyond that, you increase the odds the feedback will be widely divergent in nature.

Another question: Should you seek out opinions from readers who are fans of and/or knowledgeable about the genre in which the story has been written? If you are working on a genre piece — let’s say Action, Horror, Science Fiction — it’s probably wise to get at least some feedback from someone who does traffic in that genre. On the other hand, it’s not a bad idea to get a read from someone who is not a fan of the genre, just to see how the characters and story tracks with a person who represents a wider audience.

Of course, the big unspoken question is this: How to source good, quality readers? One approach is to pay professional readers. Another approach is to find or create a writers group… ultimately this should be your goal, in my opinion. In either case, I recommend The Black Board, the Official Writing Community of the Black List and Go Into The Story. Spend some time there (by the way, it’s entirely free) on the forums, get to know folks, participate in conversations. There are forums where you can actually see the type and quality of analysis going on. For example, the Logline Workshop. Or discussions of current movies. You can also ask advice about professional readers and obtain opinions from the Black Board community to help steer you toward reliable people. But per the point of finding or starting a writers’ group, if you spend enough time being an active, supportive participant, and you find a few writers who impress you in terms of their analytical skill, you can approach them about some sort of reading arrangement: You’ll read their pages if they read yours.

The value of a writers group cannot be overstated. Many of the professional writers I know have some type of group they are connected to, informal or formal. To be a participant with a set of writers whose story analysis judgement you trust can be a huge benefit on current and future projects.

So that’s that on sourcing potential readers. What about if you are a receptive type to a fault, incorporating every suggestion? This can be a major issue because a script should have a story that represents a single voice. If you are attempting to accommodate multiple perspectives, your voice is likely to be obliterated.

What this means is that at some point, you have to trust your gut. And what that means is you have to have done enough work in getting to know the story universe, its characters, and immersed yourself in the narrative so you have a firm grasp on what you want, even if only intuitively. It’s also critical that you remember what it was that attracted you to the story in the first place. Those initial instincts can represent something pure and essential, so having those written out in a script diary or brainstorming list can be a helpful touchstone in assessing feedback that comes your way. But again, ultimately you have to make sure the story has a coherence tied to you fundamental take on the material. Otherwise your voice is likely to be lost.

As far as the writer who is resistant to changing his/her story? Passion for the material is a good thing. Stubbornness oftentimes is not. This is especially true with screenplays which are part of a collaborative process we call filmmaking. You have to be able to step back from your story and look at it with an objective eye, or at least as objective as possible. Remember: The critique is about the story, not you. It’s not a personal thing, although at times it may feel like it. Rather it’s all about the story, trying to make it the best damn thing possible.

Bottom line: Do some thinking about what type of writer you are relative to feedback. If you are resistant to outside opinions and changing your words, you likely need to work on that and become more open-minded. Writing several scripts and having them reviewed by professional script readers will help to disabuse you of your pretensions. If on the other hand you are easily swayed by opinions, make sure you are in touch with the key foundational elements of your story and protect them as fiercely as possible.

And by all means, try to find, join, or create a writers group, making sure the participants have story analytical skills you can trust.

GITS readers, what suggestions do you have? Please click on Reply and head to comments to carry on the conversation.

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

April 15th, 2014 by

A reader question from The_High_Dweller:

I got one for ya… We’re always talking about “Similar But Different” here, right?

And we’ve even had suggestions on how to go about coming up with something that’s similar but different… Check out successful movies from the past and actually take their logline and change the genre, genders, setting, etc.

So I’m wondering how far is too far to take that suggestion??

Like take your script, K-9, for instance… What if someone changed the main character to a woman, the dog to a Dalmatian, and the career to a fire(wo)man, and the setting to say… Texas.

(I’m not thinking of doing this, by the way.)

And with those changes, having steered far enough away from your concept, could they actually use your story as a guideline and create similar conflict, scenes, characters, plot points, etc. as your story?

… I guess it sounds like I’m almost asking “Is it okay to just plagiarize?” But my point is: how far is too far and how far is safe?

I’d like to take the “similar but different” approach with a contained thriller. But I haven’t tried this genre before. So I like the advice of taking a successful film and creating something similar, yet different. But I wouldn’t want to use someone else’s script as my guide and end up with something TOO close to that already-successful and well-known script/film.

To frame my response, I went back to a lecture I penned for an online screenwriting course way back in 2002:

The mantra of the studios’ film divisions can best be summed up in this manner – what they want to buy, develop, and produce are screenplays which are “similar but different.”

Why? There is a two-part answer. The first part goes back to the familiar subject – marketing. Because the simple fact is that after script purchase, years of development hell and rewrites, actors and directors falling in and out of deals, battles over budget, months of preproduction, production, post-production, none of it matters one whit unless the studios can sell the movie.And in an increasingly noisy world with consumers bombarded by advertisers on all sides, the task of getting the message out is becoming harder and harder.

That’s where similar comes in. If the movie’s concept or storyline has a familiar ring to it, so the marketing theory goes, then the consumer is more likely to remember the advertisement. And if they remember the ad, then the odds increase exponentially that the consumer will be motivated to get off their fanny, drive to the local Cineplex, and actually buy a movie ticket than if they do not remember the ad.

The different component should be obvious – the story can’t be exactly the same as something else, it has to be spun just enough to make the consumer think they’ll be viewing something actually worth seeing, even if what’s on the screen turns out to be a nauseating copycat of another movie – of course, by then, they already have your money.

And then these observations from another lecture in that same screenwriting class about the idea of recycling plots:

What do I mean by recycling plots?Just what it says: Take old stories, and use them again.Tweak ‘em, shake ‘em, rattle ‘em around a bit, then put them down on paper, make the movie, and voila – a new theatrical release is born.

This is not a recent phenomenon, indeed, it is as old as Hollywood itself. I read an account from one veteran screenwriter who confessed that he had written the same exact plot for seven different movies, back in the 30s and 40s.One time, it was a western, another time it was a pirate’s tale, another time it was a gangster movie, and so on. One plot. Seven movies.

This approach is not restricted to Hollywood either.In the field of storytelling and creative expression, the old adage is most certainly true: There is nothing new under the sun. But don’t listen to me; hear what these experts have to say on the subject.

“Every writer has certain subjects that they write about again and again.Most people’s books are just variations on certain themes.” – Christopher Isherwood

“I think one writes and rewrites the same book.I lead a character from book to book, I continue along with the same ideas.Only the angle of vision, the method, the lighting change.” – Truman Capote

“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves – that’s the truth.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Need more proof? See if you recognize these movies from their plot descriptions:

“A man who wins a lottery takes a vacation with the girl who gave him half her ticket.”

Has to be It Could Happen To You, the 1994 romantic-comedy starring Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda, right?

Wrong. This is the log-line to a French movie, Bonne Chance, released way back in 1935.

“A shopgirl finds an abandoned baby and is thought to be its mother.”

Sounds like the 1987 comedy BABY BOOM, starring Diane Keaton and Sam Shepherd.

Nope. It’s the one-line description of a 1939 RKO release, Bachelor Mother, starring Ginger Rogers.

“In order to stay in America, a European refugee arranges a strictly platonic marriage with an American.”

That’s got to be the 1990 romantic-comedy Green Card, starring Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell.

Sorry. That is the high-concept behind the 1941 MGM movie Come Live With Me.

With that as background, one thing should be abundantly clear re your question: Recycling story concepts and plot elements isn’t just acceptable in Hwood, it’s in its very lifeblood. Think of it this way: There’s a very thin line between homage and recycling.

Re your question specifically, you zero in on the key consideration: When is a story too similar to a preexisting one? I don’t think there’s any specific guideline. The best bet for a writer is to go with their gut, akin to what former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity in movies, “I know when I see it.”

You mention K-9. This might be instructive. After we sold the script, we were the proverbial “flavor-of-the-week,” which meant our agents set up meetings for us all over town. One of those meetings was at Disney with a studio executive (now a major movie producer). We walk in, introduce ourselves, start what we think will be another typical schmooze session to start the meeting when the exec says of our script, “Yeah, we thought about suing you guys.”

Gulp. Turns out Disney had this script lying around in development hell called Turner & Hootch. Here’s its IMDB logline: A detective must adopt the dog of a dead man to help him find the murderer.

The movie’s tagline: “The Oddest Couple Ever Unleashed!”

Here is the IMDB logline for K-9: To stop an elusive criminal, a maverick detective enlists the aid of a police dog who’s an unusually intelligent smart alec.

The movie’s tagline: “Meet the two toughest cops in town. One’s just a little smarter than the other.”

Okay, let’s compare the movies.

Similar:

* Buddy comedies

* Human and dog partnership

* Cop partners with dog to solve a crime mystery

* At first, the human and the dog don’t get along, but over time they bond

Different:

* Jerry Lee (K-9) is a police dog; Hooch is a ‘civilian’

* Scott (Tom Hanks in T&H) is a neatnik and Hooch messes up Scott’s well organized life; Dooley (Jim Belushi in K-9) is having romance issues with his girlfriend (Mel Harris) and the dog messes the couple

More similar than different, right? Evidently not because Disney didn’t sue. [It also happened to be the case that neither I had ever heard of T&H, let alone read it]. Instead based upon the sale of K-9 and in a classic case of Hollywood-think, figuring that if Universal Pictures saw something in a cop and dog movie, Disney dusted off Turner & Hootch and thus began a race between the two studios: Competing cop and dog movies.

But that’s another story.

My answer to your question is there is no answer. It’s a case by case thing. Story Idea A may be too similar to a preexisting movie, while Story Idea B may be different enough.

One easy way to avoid this dilemma: Come up with really different story concepts. I’ll bet when Kyle Killen came up with the idea for “The Beaver” — a dark comedy where one of the story’s main characters, a hand puppet, comes alive — he wasn’t worried about anybody copying him or a studio exec saying, “Eh, too similar.”

So to sum up, it’s perfectly acceptable in Hwood to troll in the ‘similar but different’ waters. You do have to be careful not to be too similar, however there is no specific guideline to steer you in that regard, you just have to go with your gut.

And the best solution: Come up with unique, different story ideas. Especially ones you’re passionate about. Then write the hell out of them.

[Originally posted February 21, 2010]

Reader Question: Do I continue with a 5th draft or start writing a new script?

April 9th, 2014 by

Question from Jerry:

Scott,

First time question asker, long time blog reader; What is your approach for rewriting scripts? Do you go from draft to draft immediately or do you take time between each draft? I ask because I’m in the middle of a 5th draft, but I have another idea trying to push its way out and I’m torn as to whether to rewrite my script or start on a new idea, giving the old idea a small break.

Thank you!

Jerry, the fact you’re voluntarily writing a 5th draft of your script suggests that if/when you work as a writer in Hwood, you’ll already have the appropriate mindset in place as producers and studios routinely ask writers to do multiple drafts before turning in their ‘official’ version.

It could also suggest that your story has structural problems that you’ve tried to solve in any number of ways, but have yet to sort out.

And playing armchair psychologist for the moment, I wonder how much of this “new idea” pushing “its way out” is an appeal from your Inner Self saying, “Ah! Enough with the old story! I’m sick and tired of the old story! Let’s do something new!”

Now that isn’t a knock on the quality of either your old or new story. Both of them may be top shelf projects. But I – and I’m guessing basically everyone else who visits this blog – know what it’s like to work on a script for months and months, draft after draft. It can be a brutal experience, wearing down even the heartiest of souls.

So if I was in your position, I would step back. Stop writing for 10-14 days. You may not be able to stop ideas popping to mind about your new story, so if you have them, add them to your master brainstorming file. But in order to give your old story a fair shake, you should try to avoid allowing yourself to become enamored of your new story.

Assuming you manage to hold both stories at bay for 1-2 weeks, then read the latest version of your script – as far as it goes – with your set of ‘fresh eyes.’ Now ask yourself: “Is this script as good a story idea as my new story?” Certainly you want to listen to your gut / instincts here, but you might benefit from taking a really rational approach, too. For instance, create a list: Story Concept, Genre, Main Characters, Structure, Plot Twists, Budget, Marketplace. And fill in per each story, both old and new. Basically you’re trying to estimate the commercial viability of the respective projects. Admittedly this is an inexact process because no one really knows. However if your old story is a low-concept period piece that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and can only star Arnold Schwarzenegger versus a high-concept thriller in a tried-and-true sub-genre (e.g., “The [Blank] From Hell”) that has starring roles which could be played by multiple actors, then the process could be pretty instructive in tipping you toward one project or the other.

Re instinct: I’m an advocate of writers choosing projects they’re truly passionate about. That passion not only makes it more likely that the writer will actually finish the project, more importantly the writer’s emotional resonance with the material should infuse the story and its characters with a special layer of vitality. So perhaps another thing to do is to ‘sit’ with each story, literally close the door to a room, be quiet, and contemplate both stories. If you find yourself being drawn to one over the other, ideas and images popping to mind re one story, then it’s probably a good bet that’s the story you should write.

Now if you’re on your 5th draft of the current story and the rest of the way is all laid out, that’s another thing entirely: Knock out the draft. But if you’re in the middle of your 5th draft and you’re still not sure you’ve nailed it, you may very well have some big story structure problems that need to be resolved. Setting aside the new story for the moment, it’s almost always smart to go back to the beginning and ask yourself some fundamental questions:

* Who is my Protagonist?

* What do they want (External World goal)?

* What do they need (Internal World goal)?

* Who is keeping them from their goal (Nemesis)?

* Who is most connected with their emotional development (Attractor)?

* Who is most connected with their intellectual development (Mentor)?

* Who tests the Protagonist by some times being their ally, some times their enemy (Trickster)?

* What is the Protagonist’s Disunity state (the disconnect between their want and need)?

* What is the Protagonist’s Unity state (what winning the Final Struggle means to the P)?

* In their transformation from Disunity to Unity, what is the core of their Deconstruction and what is the core of their Reconstruction?

Bear in mind, these questions don’t pertain to all stories, but I believe they are directly relevant to a majority of mainstream commercial Hollywood movies where a Protagonist goes on what can be called a transformation-journey, the interweaving of the Plotline (External World) and Themeline (Internal World).

So where does all this leave you, Jerry? To recap the key points:

* Take a break (for 10-14 days)
* Read your old script and see how you feel about it with your ‘fresh eyes’
* Analyze the commercial potential of both stories
* Sit with your stories to determine which one you’re most passionate about

Finally ask yourself if the old script you’re working on has significant story structure issues or whether you’ve got a clear path to FADE OUT. If the latter, probably best to finish your 5th draft. If not, you’ll have to determine if you go back and rework the old story or move onto the new one. Because you can always come back to the old story at a later date. Indeed, by the time you do, you may very well see the old story in a new light and the structural issues, if any, could resolve themselves.

How about the rest of you? Have you faced a situation like Jerry? What did you do? How did you decide what to write?

[Originally posted December 16, 2009]

Reader Question: Do you have any suggestions to ‘warm up’ for writing?

March 31st, 2014 by

Question from Brian Trichon:

Loyal blog follower here, devout writer, and praiser of the Scott Myers scriptures :)

I have a question about warming up, which I thought could be an interesting blog post….

For some, the gift of written word comes with great ease, while others must exert way more time and energy crafting their ideas into concrete prose.   I unfortunately fall into the latter category.  And just as a pitcher warms up in bull pen before taking the mound, over the years, I’ve found that sending out emails, jotting down notes, or writing pretty much anything before I start tackling a scene in final draft always helps my brain get into literary gear.

But I wonder if there’s a more effective approach to warming up for what we writers do.  I feel like I was a writer in isolation for so long…and then once I discovered your blog and a few other online resources, so much of the writing process has been demystified.

So, through your own travels talking with writers, working on your projects, etc… Have you ever discussed any  “warm up” writing techniques or rituals?

(And by ritual I don’t mean drinking 40 ounces of starbucks and chaining yourself to a desk until you get a word out.  I mean, things to get the words-a-flowin’)

Indeed I have pondered this issue, Brian. In fact, I’ve blogged about two techniques you can use. First: Don’t Finish That Scene:

Let’s say you’re in the middle of writing a script – and it’s a slog. You’re finding it really tough to drag your ass onto the chair and start writing the next scene.

Well, let’s roll back the clock. What if yesterday, you hadn’t finished the previous scene? What if you got halfway through that scene, knew exactly where it needed to go to reach the end, but instead of completing it, you quit your writing session with the scene unfinished.

Now instead of starting the next day having to break a new scene, you have the easy task of finishing the scene from the day before.

Bada-bing, bada-boom, you knock out the ending to the scene, giving your mind and your fingers a chance to warm up — and now you’re ready to charge ahead.

So the trick is stop each writing session in the middle of a scene. That way you can start the next session with the ‘positive’ experience of finishing a scene.

Second: Script Diary:

The last thing I do before I type FADE IN is create a Word file which I call Script Diary.

I come to the diary to start every writing session. I visit it when I get stuck. I return to it when I hit on a story revelation. Day after day, I use my script diary to chronicle the page-writing part of the process.

At the start of a writing session, I note the date and time in the script diary, then get my fingers and brain loosened up by typing up my thoughts about the scene I am about to tackle. I’ll remind myself what type of scene it is, which characters are participating in it, what each of their agendas is, who is playing what story function for that scene, how the scene relates to the overall plot, what the central point of the scene is, and so on. As I’m doing that, normally lines of dialogue pop to mind and I’ll put those down — so in essence I’m pre-drafting the scene, and can take that sketch to my script file and use it to write the actual scene.

Those are a couple of tactics you can use to warm up for writing. I’ve heard of others. Start off each writing session with journal writing. Or blind type for several minutes to get the fingers moving and focus your energy. But perhaps the single best way to get you motivated to write has nothing to do with techniques, rather it’s simply this: Find a story you are passionate to write!

If you love your characters…
Love the story universe…
Love the narrative elements…

Then that emotional connection you feel can help connect your fanny to your chair… and your fingers to your keyboard… and compel you to start writing.

GITS readers, what suggestions do you have to ‘warm up’ for writing?

Reader Question: Handling of money after first sale?

March 26th, 2014 by

Two questions from Robert McBride:

SCOTT, WHEN A WRITER GETS HIS/HER CHECK, do they then pay the agent and or manager OR is the agent/manager’s cut taken out before the writer touches the check?

Brendan Cowles was kind enough to provide this response:

Usually you will sign a release allowing your agent/mgr/or lawyer to process your checks. Buyer sends check to agency. They pay themselves, lawyer, manager, then pay you the difference along with a statement and copy of the original check from the buyer/employer.

That’s pretty much it, at least in my experience. You do see occasional lawsuits by agencies against talent (I Googled “agency lawsuit talent withholding commission” and came up with this example) which suggests perhaps there are arrangements where talent gets paid before reps. But I believe standard procedure is for reps to get their cut first.

Second and more important question from Robert:

Also can you give some advice on what a writer should do when he gets that first big check? i.e. get an accountant (if so why) etc

Once again Brendan was kind enough to weigh in with this solid advice:

Sock that money away. Build up two years of income before you give up your steady day job pay check. I didn’t do this and wish I did.

Abso-effing-lutely. A writer doesn’t know all that much about the mysterious ways of Hollywood business, but this axiom is The Truth: You get gigs, you don’t get gigs. You’re hot, you’re cold. You’re flush with cash, your bank account gathers cobwebs.

In other words, you should expect to go through some lean times to go along with – hopefully – your successful stretches.

Selling one script is a breakthrough, not a career.

You need multiple deals to become established, not only in terms of your own personal finances, but as a known entity within the Hollywood development community.

But let’s say you score big with your first deal, your buddy cop action comedy spec script Lugnutz & Corndog sells for a cool $1M! Huzzah! A millionaire!

Not quite.

First off, the reported $1M includes a production bonus that only gets triggered if the movie gets made. So the actual numbers may be $500K versus $1M, meaning you are only guaranteed the first half-million.

[By the way that production bonus can be reduced depending upon who gets what ultimate writing credit for the movie. Thus if you end up sharing credit with someone who comes on board the project to rewrite you, your $500K production bonus would go down to $250K. If two other writers share credit, your bonus gets reduced by 67%.]

Unfortunately like so many projects that Hollywood acquires, Lugnutz & Corndog dies a slow painful death in Development Hell, so you don’t see any of that production bonus. But hey, you get $500,000! Granted, that’s a nice hunk of change, however let’s figure in some of your expenses.

Agent: 10%

Manager: 10%

Lawyer: 5%

WGA: 1.8%

You will also need at least an accountant who knows entertainment finances or a business manager to handle your money, the latter of which can charge an additional 5% or more (their pitch is the investments they orchestrate for you will result in revenues that more than cover their percentage).

So you’re looking at about one-third of your income gone before you see it. That $500K is now down to $350K. Then there are taxes which you can mitigate somewhat by creating a loan-out corporation, but that results in certain administrative costs and taxes of its own. Let’s just figure you owe another 33% in federal and state taxes, and corporate fees, so your $350K is reduced to about $225K.

Still decent money, but what if you don’t land a gig for a year? Spread out that $225 over 2 years and suddenly your million dollar deal translates into about one hundred grand per year.

And it’s not just about the money. It’s about the pressure to make the money. It’s hard enough to write and be creative while doing it. Having the proverbial sword of Damocles dangling over your head in the form of zero income for an extended period of time can flat-out wear on you. Also given that pressure, you may find yourself going up for writing assignments you’re not particularly enthusiastic about (“Battleship 3? Sure, I can write the HELL out of that,” you exclaim to your agent lying through your teeth.)

Circling back to Brendan’s advice, best to establish yourself within the business and sock away some dough before quitting your steady gig slinging Slurpees at the local 7-11.

Three other things.

First, if you live outside Los Angeles and sell a spec script, your reps will almost certainly advise you to relocate to So Cal. While it’s possible to start and even sustain a career as a screenwriter living in North Dakota or Lichtenstein, the simple fact is it’s more difficult. Why? One big reason: Networking opportunities are so much greater if you live in L.A. That means everything from setting up meetings with industry types to sudden OWA opportunities to chance intersections with movers and shakers who could become big proponents (insert meet cute with Studio Exec in the organic produce aisle at Gelsons).

Unless you live in some major urban area like NYC or San Francisco, moving to L.A. will probably mean a steep increase in your expenses. However it may be worth the additional cost to put you more into the center of action.

Also if you have any interest in working in television, you pretty much have to live in L.A.

Second, one practice you can adopt to maximize your earning potential is to stack projects [I wrote a Business of Screenwriting column about it here.] That way you are always working on multiple stories, each of which is a potential sale and/or writing sample.

Third, always be working on a spec script. Even if you’re flush with writing assignments, several of them lined up into the next year, if you have an original story you’re passionate to write, there’s no good reason not to be working on it. I wrote about that here in another Business of Screenwriting post. And if you do hit a lean stretch, you’ve got a spec ready to go out, at least put something out there to kick-start your stalled career.

Then again Lugnutz & Corndog may get produced. It may become a smash hit spawning sequels (Lugnutz & Corndog: This Time With Mustard). You may become the action comedy king or queen. An actual A-list writer. Good for you! From my keyboard to God’s ears!

But while you may not have to worry how to cover this month’s rent, you’ll have your own set of financial issues. I am reminded of the story conveyed to me by an agent about a famous A-list screenwriter who every January would hold a confab with his team of reps, list all of the various real estate properties he owned (e.g., Aspen, Vermont, Jamaica), totaling the amount of money he needed to cover his annual “nut,” then he would ask, “So how are we going to get me that income this year?” First world problems admittedly, but still enough to keep you up at nights in your $50,000 Monarch V-Spring bed.

What say you, GITS readers? What money advice do you have for aspiring and fledgling screenwriters? Please head to comments and have your say. And speaking of money matters, best of all, like everything here on the blog, it’s free!

UPDATE: Screenwriter John Gary notes:

 

True. Although seven figure deals for first time writers do still happen, albeit in very rare circumstances as with “Grim Night” a few years back.

The reason I chose the $1M example isn’t to feed the Hope Machine — I believe I have been explicit many, many times about how hard it is to break into the business and that movies don’t owe anybody a living — but rather to show how the very idea of a million dollar spec script sale is itself not only rare, but also in some ways illusory in reality. Break it all down like I did above and what you’re left with is not nearly what you thought you might have made.

Screenwriter Young Il Kim notes this:

That is more reliable tax info than my guestimation.

Finally I’ve had some back and forth with a few other writers via email re this post. While the advice Brendan offers — keep your job, bank your money — is prudent, the fact is when I sold K-9 as a spec script, I quit stand-up comedy and moved from the Bay Area to L.A. Granted terminating my stint as a entertainer may not have had the same gravitas as, say, walking away from a career as a lawyer or a dentist, but still I took a leap of faith. And frankly in one respect, it was precisely what I had to do in order to immerse myself in the craft, basically a 24/7/365 pursuit to play catch-up after not having any formal and barely any informal training in the craft.

Which is to say, there is no one way to approach the business of screenwriting, just like there’s no one way to write. If you sell a script and are confronted with a choice about whether to write full-time or relocate to L.A., get the best advice you can, talk it out with your loved ones, consider the pros and cons, listen to your gut, then decide.

But know going in, you are in for a roller coaster ride, my friend. As the lady says:

Reader Question: Do you actually plot out the Protag’s Emotional Arc, or just go with your gut?

March 17th, 2014 by

A tweet from @CaveDude21:

Do you actually plot out the Protag’s Emotional Arc, or just go with gut?

I’m tempted to go to my default point: There’s no right way to write. Every writer is different. Every story is different. But you know what? I’m going to pull Max Millimeter into this conversation to lend some, shall we say, reality to the conversation.

Okay, first off, I gotta be frank. I hate that word “arc.” You writers throw that around in meetings all the time, arc arc here, arc arc there, here an arc, there an arc, everybody’s got a fucking arc arc.

Know what I think? Writers use that word ‘coz it makes it sound like you got some deep insight into a big fat mystery what a character’s about.

Bull shit! It ain’t rocket science. It’s about who a character is and what they go through. Boom! Easy peasy, let’s get sleezy.

So arc that!

Now let’s say I got a story. And I got back-to-back meetings with two different writers to see who I’m gonna hire to write said story.

Writer A, she comes in and while she goes on about the Protagonist’s arc, which as I just said drives me a little nutso, at least she’s telling me what I wanna hear: The Protagonist starts out over here being one way, goes through some shit, then ends up over here being another way. The story changes them, they’re like a different person, you know.

Okay, so it’s Writer B’s turn, and he comes in, and let’s say I’m tryin’ to be real nice, meet him on his turf. I say, “So what about the Protagonist’s arc?” And he says, “Well, you know, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that, and instead of laying it out for you, I’ve decided to go with my gut in figuring it out.”

Now, you tell me: Who do you pick for that project, huh? Miss Here-Is-The-Protagonist’s-Arc-All-Laid-Out-Beginning-Middle-And-End or Mister-Go-With-My-Gut-You-Just-Gotta-Trust-Me-And-My-Fucking-Artsy-Fartsy-Process?

See what I’m saying?

Look, you wanna write a spec script and you decide not to figure shit out before you type FADE IN, be my guest, ‘coz evidently you live in a world full of petunias and ponies, rainbows and ribbons la la la.

But you wanna live in my world, or better yet, work in my world, where it’s deadlines and competition and I need a script yesterday and just bottom the fucking line for me, yeah, you better damn well figure out your Protagonist’s story, or else it’s bye-bye Hollywood, hello Radio Shack.

That still doesn’t mean I like that word ‘arc.’

An additional point: The Protagonist is almost always the single most important character in a story. As their Want defines the shape of the Plotline, the story’s physical journey, so too their Need defines the shape of the Themeline, the story’s psychological journey. It is critical to determine what both of those are for you to be in touch with the structure and soul of the story.

As to the subtext of the question: “Do I have to do the hard work of figuring out the nature of a Protagonist’s metamorphosis in Prep, before I write the script, or can I just type FADE IN and figure it out along the way?” A writer can choose to do anything they want. However I side with Max here: Work through this type of thing in Prep. Face it: You’re either going to figure it out then or figure it out while writing the script. You’re much better off working that out before you type FADE IN so you don’t get lost, frustrated and quit before you get to FADE OUT.

GITS readers, what say ye?

[Originally posted July 10, 2012]

Reader Question: What are keys to a sparse style of screenwriting?

March 14th, 2014 by

From Michael Traven. Part two of a two-part question:

If I remember correctly, wasn’t Amini’s script for DRIVE only 60 pages? (It’s on IMSDB.com, but not as a PDF, so I can’t tell how many pages). I’m reading through that script right now, so I’m sure some of it will come to me, but seeing as it’s very unconventional and breaks a lot of screenwriting standards (not only the short length, but also use of in-script camera directions and “WE DISSOLVE TO:”), I figured maybe you would have some thoughts on how to deliver a professional script but with a sparse style.

If you find scripts online, you will discover here are two types: There is a selling script and a shooting script. There are also all sorts of development drafts, but for purposes of this discussion, let’s stick with these two types.

A shooting script, like the one you read for Drive while a good thing to read is not necessarily the best example to steer your decisions re screenplay style. Why? Because a shooting script is a production draft. For example, Amini worked closely with the film’s director Nicolas Winding Refn. Since they knew they were working on a production draft, Amini was free to include all sorts of elements we would not normally expect to see in a selling script such as directing lingo and camera jargon. That’s because a shooting script has a specific function: To be used as a guide to make the movie.

A selling script, what you and I are focused on when we write a spec, also has a specific function: To get readers interested in the story and by extension us. Given current style trends and a move toward a more ‘literary’ look in screenplays over the last two decades, a selling script is almost assuredly not going to be cluttered camera angles and directing cues.

Also this: When a screenwriter is working with a director on what will become the shooting script, or it’s a script written by a writer-director, all bets are off in terms of format and style. The script is a reflection of the director’s vision, and if it comes in at 87 pages [which is the length of the 2010/09/24 draft of Drive I have], then that’s completely fine as long as it’s copacetic with the director.

Re “spare style”: There is no rule stating that all scripts have to be written in a spare, taut style. Why? Because all stories are different. All writers are different. It would be really dumb to insist on that for stories that range from horror to drama, action to comedy. That would restrict the writer’s choice in terms of Narrative Voice and as a result minimize the stylistic options to fit a given story.

For example, here is an excerpt from the Walter Hill draft of the script for Alien:

NT. NARCISSUS

Ripley watching the final destiny of her ship and crew mates.
A very long moment.
Then, behind her, the lethal hand emerges from deep shadow.
The Alien has been in the shuttle-craft all along.
The cat yowls.

Ripley whirls.
Finding herself facing the Creature.

Ripley's first thought is for the flamethrower.
It lies on the deck next to the Alien.
Next she glances around for a place to hide.
Her eye falls on a small locker containing a pressure suit.
The door standing open.
She begins to edge toward the compartment.
The Creature stands.
Comes for her.
Ripley dives for the open door.
Hurls herself inside.
Slams it shut.

INT. LOCKER

A clear glass panel in the door.
The Alien puts its head up to the window.
Peers in at Ripley.
Their faces only two inches apart.
The Alien looking at Ripley almost in curiosity.
The moaning of the cat distracts it.

INT. NARCISSUS

The Alien moves to the pressurized cat box.
Bends down and peers inside.
The cat yowls louder as his container is lifted.

INT. LOCKER

Ripley knocks on the glass.
Trying to distract the Creature from the cat.
The Alien's face is instantly back at the window.
Getting no more interference from her, the Creature

returns to the cat box.
Ripley looks around.
Sees the pressure suit.
Quickly begins to pull it on.

INT. NARCISSUS

The Alien picks up the cat box.
Shakes it.
The cat moans.

Compare to this excerpt from Titanic:

Then the lookout flashes his torch toward her and the light flares across
the water, silouetting the bobbing corpses in between. It flicks past her
motionless form and moves on. The boat is 50 feet away, and moving past
her. The men look away.

Rose lifts her head to turn to Jack. We see that her hair has frozen to the
wood under her.

                        ROSE
                  (barely audible)
          Jack.

She touches his shoulder with her free hand. He doesn't respond. Rose
gently turns his face toward her. It is rimed with frost.

He seems to be sleeping peacefully.

But he is not asleep.

Rose can only stare at his still face as the realization goes through her.

                        ROSE
          Oh, Jack.

All hope, will and spirit leave her. She looks at the boat. It is further
away now, the voices fainter. Rose watches them go.

She closes her eyes. She is so weak, and there just seems to be no reason
to even try.

And then... her eyes snap open.

She raises her head suddenly, cracking the ice as she rips her hair off the
wood. She calls out, but her voice is so weak they don't hear her. The boat
is invisible now, the torch light a star impossibly far away. She struggles
to draw breath, calling again.

292 IN THE BOAT Lowe hears nothing behind him. He points to something
ahead, turning the tiller.

293 ROSE struggles to move. Her hand, she realizes, is actually frozen to
Jack's. She breaths on it, melting the ice a little, and gently unclasps
their hands, breaking away a thin tinkling film.

                        ROSE
          I won't let go. I promise.

She releases him and he sinks into the black water. He seems to fade out
like a spirit returning to some immaterial plane.

Then this from (500) Days of Summer:

INT TOM'S BEDROOM - SAME

We watch from  behind as he re-enters his bedroom.  Where
Summer waits.  Under the covers.  Naked.

                    SUMMER
          Hi.

                    TOM
          Oh, sweet Jesus!

FADE UP: "YOU MAKE MY DREAMS COME TRUE" by Hall and Oates.

CUT TO:

EXT DOWNTOWN STREET -- MORNING

It's the greatest morning of all time!

Tom walks down the street.  Or, more accurately, Tom struts
down the street.  People wave as he passes by, they clap, they
give him thumbs up.  Tom points at people as he passes,
winking, doing a little shuffle.  He is the man.  He checks out
his reflection in a window.  A YOUNG PAUL NEWMAN stares back.

A GROUP of BUSINESSMEN break into a Busby Berkeley-style
choreographed dance.  A whole parade is forming behind Tom.
The POSTMAN, a POLICE OFFICER, the HOT DOG VENDOR, the
MICHELIN MAN, the SAN DIEGO CHICKEN, everybody loves Tom
today.  HALL and OATES themselves walk with Tom singing the
song.

Cars stop at crosswalks to let Tom go by.  The DRIVERS also
pump their fists in celebration of Tom's achievement last
night.  He walks on, the man.

We notice the sidewalk lights up every time he touches the
pavement like in "Billie Jean".  CARTOON BIRDS fly onto Tom's
shoulder.  He smiles and winks at them.

Tom breaks off from the parade as he approaches his office.

Walter Hill uses what he calls a “haiku style” approach to scene description, breaking up each sentence into one or two lines. Cameron [Avatar] and Neustadter & Weber [(500) Days of Summer] go with a more traditional paragraph approach, but you will note the tone of their scene description is entirely different, befitting each of their respective Narrative Voices.

So circling back to you question about spare style: You have a world of options including haiku style, five line paragraphs, break up each camera shot into separate lines, and on and on. It all depends upon your story, the accompanying style choices you make per your Narrative Voice, and what the story requires to best convey what’s going on in the most entertaining fashion.

One big obvious note: You do not need to use complete sentences in scene description. Check out the many instances of what we would call ‘incomplete sentences’ in this excerpt from Lethal Weapon by Shane Black:

       On the table next to the sleeping Venus lies an open
       bottle of pills ... next to that, a mirror dusted with
       cocaine. 

       She rouses herself to smear some powder on her gums.
       As she does, we see from her eyes that she is thoroughly,
       completely whacked out of her mind... 

       She stands, stumbles across the room, pausing to glance
       at a photograph on the wall: 

       Two men. Soldiers. Young, rough-hewn, arms around each
       other. 

       The Girl throws open the glass doors ... steps out onto a
       balcony, and there, beneath her, lies  all of nighttime
       L.A. Panoramic splendor. Her hair flies, her expression.
       Rapt, as she stands against this sea of technology. She
       is beautiful. 

       On the balcony railing beside her stand three potted
       plants. 

       The Girl sees them, picks one up. Looks over the balcony
       railing ... It is ten stories down to the parking lot.
       She squints, holds the plant over the edge.

                           GIRL
                 Red car.

       Drops the plant. Down it goes, spiralling end over end --
       until, finally ... BAM --  ! SHATTERS. Dirt flies. A
       red Chevy is now minus a WINDSHIELD. The Girl takes
       another plant.

                           GIRL
                 Green car.

       She drops it. Green Dodge. Ten stories below, BAM
       Impact city. Scratch one paint job. Grabs the final
       plant and holds it out, saying:

                           GIRL
                 Blue car.

       POW. GLASS SHATTERS.  Dirt sprays. A blue BMW this
       time. The Girl loves this game ... her expression is
       slightly crazed.  She reaches for another plant --
       There aren't any. Her smile fades -- And for a moment,
       just a moment, the dullness leaves her eyes and she is
       suddenly, incredibly sober. And tears fill her eyes as
       she looks over the edge --

                           GIRL
                 Yellow car.

       And jumps the railing. Plummets, head over heels like a
       rag doll. Hits the yellow car spot on. She lies, dead,
       like an extinguished dream. Still beautiful.

My big advice. READ SCRIPTS!!! By professional screenwriters especially those written in the last 5 years or so. The more you expose yourself to different styles of writing, the more you will learn, almost intuitively, how to write good, lean, descriptive scene description.

How about you, GITS readers? What thoughts do you have on this matter? Any advice?

[Originally posted July 12, 2012]

Reader Questions?

March 12th, 2014 by

It occurs to me it’s been quite awhile since I opened up the forums for your questions about screenwriting and the movie business. So here is your chance. Anything and everything, feel free to ask away.

You might start here, the blog archive of Reader Questions with over 200 on file.

If you don’t see something there that’s on your mind dealt, post your question in comments. I’ll be sure to get to it.

Reader Question: How to actually sit down and do it [i.e., write]?

March 10th, 2014 by

I received this question via email:

Thanks for you blog- I have found many useful screenwriting goodies on there.

However, I spend too much time reading about writing instead of writing. I find writing my screenplay so painful. Its like pulling teeth and I have to force myself to sit at the computer for small chunks at a time. I am easily distracted and would rather do just about anything other than write. It’s like training a disobedient dog. Nonetheless, this is what I want to do and believe I could be good at- is this normal?

I was wondering if you have any advice on how to actually sit down and do it. How to make yourself embrace the pain and block out the distractions. I have read everything that I could possibly read about how to write and now it is just time to write. I think this is the hardest part- harder than coming up with a good ending, snappy dialogue, or lovable characters- because if you put the time in this stuff should come naturally. The ‘just do it’ approach is easier said than done and I was wondering if you might have any other advice?

First off, I suspect most writers, even professionals, confront this issue more often than they would be willing to admit. My normal advice is to follow Oliver Stone’s edict: “Writing equals butt on chair.” Unfortunately with this lil’ thing called the Internet available to us, it’s far too easy to get distracted on the Web while our butt is still on chair.

There are all sorts of tricks and mind games you can try. I read where Neil Simon would give himself a treat – literally a piece of candy or a snack food item – after writing for a set period of time. One of my Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work, which I posted here, is to stop your writing session just before you finish a scene, so that the next day, you start the session knowing you can write the ending — which you already know — and that can jump-start your writing process into the next scene.

But your query sounds much more existential in nature, something I suspect a mind game or trick won’t resolve. So how about this?

Create a central character with whom you fall in love.

Not necessarily romantic love, but that can work, too. The point is if you have at least one character in your story who you want to spend time with – or better yet need to spend time with – perhaps that could entice you back to the writing.

I sit here, thinking of some fascinating movie characters — Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs, C.C. Baxter from The Apartment, Michael Myers from Halloween, Ripley from Alien, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, interesting characters in interesting story circumstances. Now imagine if you were tasked to write one of those characters. Wouldn’t it be exciting to spend time with them, see where they took the story, what pearls of wisdom they spouted which you could type out as dialogue? Wouldn’t you want to write them?

If you’re someone who is more drawn to plot than character — and I’m not saying you are — perhaps spend more time digging into your characters. In a perfect world, you’ll find more than one who comes alive and grip your imagination. If that happens, doesn’t it feel like they could lure you to your writing desk?

Another suggestion: Go away for a long weekend to some place secluded. No TV, no Internet, no distractions. Just you and your story. Sure, you’ll fritter away the first few hours, but at some point, because you have made the commitment of time and probably money (to pay for lodgings) and there’s nothing to do, you will, I think, inevitably end up writing. And once you get going – at least this has been my experience – you just lose yourself in the process. I’ve gone away and pounded out over 50 pages of a first draft in a 48 hour period.

But I think I prefer my other piece of advice: Create a character (or characters) that fascinates you, makes you want / need to spend time with them. That emotional connection should do the trick.

[Originally posted November 11, 2009]

NOTE: Check out the original post here and the comments which offer some really great advice.

Reader Question: What do you do if nobody responds to an idea you’re passionate about?

March 4th, 2014 by

Question from @SabinaGiado:

What do you do if nobody responds to an idea you’re passionate about?

One reason, of course, is that the idea you’re in love with just isn’t that good. But let’s assume it is good and break down this question into its component parts.

Nobody: Does this mean most people or literally nobody? Like 100% of the people who have heard the idea or read the script did not respond favorably? If it is the former, I don’t think that would persuade me to stop. If, however, it was every single person, especially if they were part of my reader’s network, that would definitely give me pause.

Responds: Does this mean responds without enthusiasm or demonstrably in a negative fashion? If the former, that would leave me some wiggle room. Maybe it’s more of a matter of my execution, rather than the idea itself. If the latter, I would certainly listen to the specifics of the critique. You can’t make a script better unless you are willing to address its liabilities. Besides it’s best to handle the negatives before you send out the material to the town. But if the response is universally negative and in a substantive way down to the very story concept, that could be problematic.

Idea: Does this mean the actual story conceit or the overall story itself? If it’s the former, you are talking about something fundamental to the story. If that is what’s raising people’s hackles, it may be a tough slog to success. On the other hand, if by idea you are referring to the overall story, that opens up a whole host of possibilities with regard to what could be wrong with the project, many of which could be fixable.

Passionate: Does this mean passionate or PASSIONATEIs it a story you really like or is it one you are absolutely head over heels in love with? You see it, you get it, you know in your gut it is a good story. If the latter, then nothing else I’ve written up to this point matters one whit. Despite the opposition, you must push forward. Hell, some of the greatest achievements in the arts have derived from creatives who have been rejected again and again and again. To wit, check this out:

Do you know who Mr. Hewson is? None other than this guy:

That’s Bono and the rejection letter was about his band called U2.

Here’s the thing: You can’t know in advance whether your idea or script will absolutely translate into aesthetic let alone commercial success. But Bono and U2 would never have become… you know… BONO AND U2!!! — unless they had a fundamental belief in themselves, no matter the odds.

So if you are honest with yourself… and you truly, utterly believe your idea is a great one, then – as I said – you have to follow it through to the end.

Remember: It only takes one set of eyeballs to see a story and go, “I like it” to change your life.

CAVEAT: If you’re the type of person who can both generate a lot of story ideas and stack projects, then while you are pushing your Quixotic idea “nobody responds to,” try to come up with stories that offer Hollywood the line of least resistance in terms of a possible purchase. That way, you’re working multiple angles.

How about you, readers? What advice do you have for Sabina? Have you had a similar experience, pursuing a story idea or project that seemingly nobody responded to? What did you do?

See you in comments!