Pro Tips on Scripts

There were some interesting tips today at the Austin Film Festival session on “Writing a Script That Will Stick.” Black List creator Franklin Leonard moderated, interviewing several industry pros.  He asked each panelist to elaborate on what they look for in a script and what catches their attention.

Sharing their expertise were panelists Matthew Gross (Producer, Writer, and Director), Barry Josephson (Producer), David Boxerbaum (Agent), and Sean Robins (Producer).

For Matthew Gross, a great script is one you can’t put down.  The characters are engaging, the story is riveting, and there are elements that grab the reader’s attention.  Matthew further elaborates that characters should have a clear point of view and that there should be situations with conflict.

Barry Josephson says that you need a strong hook at the start that makes you want to read on.  Character dilemmas, strength or originality are important as well.  He prefers a writing style that is consistent throughout and elicits the tone of the movie.

David Boxerbaum likes to see layered characters and great dialogue.  As an agent, he looks for high concept ideas, although he sees characters and dialogue as more important.

Sean Robins looks for great writing, engaging characters, and  high concept ideas.  To him, substance is more important than style. Sean looks for the writer to grab his attention in the first ten pages, because that’s all he prints out initially to read.

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Throw Out the Buttons

It happened to me after my youngest daughter came into our lives.  A re-awakening of sorts.  Up until then, I was pretty good at maintaining my façade of perfection.  Some might argue with this, but I felt like things were pretty darn orderly and organized with two kids around.  I initially expected the status-quo to continue once the third child came into the picture.  But once I was faced with the commotion of three kids, something liberating happened to me.  I guess I mellowed.  I know I prioritized.  I realized I could no longer hope to be perfect.

I didn’t fully grasp the evolution I was undergoing until one day when I looked at a pile of buttons.  Actually, a pile of little button bags.  You know the ones.  The mini bags holding matching buttons that are so conveniently attached to new clothes.  Just in case you lose one and need a replacement?

Well, those “convenient” button bags had begun to torment me.  They were lying everywhere in my house angling for organization, just another thing on my long to-do list.  One day, I had the bold idea to throw those button bags out.  Right into the trash!  Instantaneously off my to-do list.  What a freeing experience.  Sure, the concern that I might someday need those buttons nagged at me a bit.  But I knew, in the grand scheme of things, this was not a huge worry.

All this is to say that the no-saving-buttons attitude is also what allowed me to start screenwriting.   To risk something. To try something daring, new and exciting with my writing.  To use a  free and fearless approach to putting words on paper.

So in light of this, my advice to someone starting out in screenwriting would be to throw out the buttons.  Take a leap of faith and don’t be afraid of mistakes.  It takes a few mistakes to get where you want to be.  If you find that you’re missing a button, you can always run to the nearest store.

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Notes and Rewrites

Thanks to my local screenwriting group, I recently had the privilege to sit through a table read for my comedy screenplay.  It was an incredibly useful experience.  I got some extremely helpful feedback.  A lot of the recommendations were things I would have told myself – if I were coming to the screenplay fresh as an outsider.  So hearing the advice gave me many “Oh, yeah, of course”  moments.  I know I’ve heard people say that if you, even for a second, consider that something is wrong in your writing, then to trust that it is wrong.  This was the case for me.  A lot of the needed changes were things I already knew deep down were not working.  But hearing it from others helped.

So I was very eager to get to work on fixing problems.  But looking at all the notes, some contradictory, I couldn’t figure out where to start.  Until I got some sage advice from a friend in the group.  She told me that despite the great input, I needed to stay true to my vision — come up with my own solutions and tell the story I want to tell.  That was just what I needed to hear.  I know the story I set out to tell.  And when I put some thought into it, I knew just what I wanted to do…

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Traveling Solo

Usually I travel with three kids in tow. But a few days ago, I ventured alone for the funeral of a close family member. In many ways, it was a melancholy, introspective sort of trip. However, the silver lining for me was being on my own. Unaccompanied, I found many moments to observe and study people, even eavesdrop a little. And I also had the chance to have some really meaningful exchanges. I usually am not afforded these opportunities while keeping up with children. So it was a refreshing change for me.

In this short interview with author Ian McEwan, he talks about how taking journeys is one way to discover ideas for writing. For inspiration, he suggests being away from home and obligations and breaking routines. He also mentions that writers should be actively looking for things to write about or in a “state of useful passivity, where at least you allow for the possiblity of something.”

A cool flight attendant shared stories from his life and travels with me before my last flight home. His tales ignited the spark for a story idea. In the dim cabin of the late evening flight, I envisioned scenes in my mind while lights twinkled below in the darkened sky. Stories are everywhere. It’s great when you have the chance to find them.

 

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Comedy Timing and James Burrows

I heard an interesting NPR interview in the car this morning, Making A Comedy Pilot? You Might Want To Call James Burrows by Neda Ulaby. The new CBS sitcom which James Burrows directs, Partners, airs tonight.  But Burrows is a veteran of sitcom writing and directing.  He has directed more than 50 pilots, including Cheers, Friends, Taxi, and Frasier.  He prefers sitcoms to features and uses his expertise in comedy timing to bring success to a show.  One of his favorite all-time comedy moments is from a Taxi episode from the second season, written by partners Glen and Les Charles.  In the “Who’s on First” style moment, a bumbling cabbie seeks help from his friends on a written driver’s test, asking the question, “What does a yellow light mean?”  Here is a link to the episode.  Burrows captured the live audience reaction and says the laughs went on for 45 seconds, one of the longest ever.

The comedy timing established by Burrows continued throughout each season of Frasier, one of my favorite sitcoms.  I recently watched an episode from the tenth season, written by Eric Zicklin and directed by Scott Ellis, guest-starring  Zooey Deschanel.  One of my favorite Frasier scenes is in that show.  Martin makes a bet with Frasier that he can get Niles to cook their dinner, against seemingly impossible odds. The collision of the characters’ personality quirks and their motivations, combined with expert timing, results in big laughs.   Below is an excerpt from the script that can be found on a blog dedicated to FrasierHere’s a link to the scene.

[He picks up the bowl and Frasier’s from the coffee table, and heads for the kitchen.]

Niles: See? Small, consistent efforts, that’s what it takes. Just like managing one’s cuticles.

[He reaches the kitchen.]

Niles: [calling] You know, there’s a bowl of potato salad laying out, completely uncovered.

Martin: It’s getting tangy.

Niles: The plastic wrap is right here.

Frasier: We really should help him.

Martin: Are you nuts? He’s about to make us dinner.

Frasier: He is not.

Martin: Twenty bucks says he is.

Frasier: Forget money. Let’s wager something real.

Martin: All right, if I get him to make dinner, you do all the chores. If I don’t, I’ll do ’em.

[Daphne comes back out.]

Daphne: I’m ready, Niles.

Niles: [returning from the kitchen.] Excellent, because tonight I am taking you to the finest bistro in the Pacific Northwest.

Frasier: You’re on!

Martin: Take your sweet time, why don’t you?! [calling out] Hey, guys,Are you sure you don’t want to stick around? I was just going to open a can of spaghetti.

Niles: [stopping at the door] But, you have sea bass in the fridge.

Martin: Oh, it’ll probably last another day.

Niles: Oh, I think you should cook it tonight.

Martin: Fine. I’ll nuke it with some ketchup.

[Frasier looks on warily.]

Niles: That’s ridiculous. You can’t use your turkey recipe on fish.

Martin: Well, what am I supposed to do?

Niles: Well, just take one clove of garlic, two tablespoons of finely minced fresh ginger… [off Martin’s confused look] Oh, for heaven’s sake, I’ll do it myself.

[He heads for the kitchen, Daphne closes the door.]

Daphne: I suppose I’ll lay the table.

Martin: No, no Daphne. You’ve done enough for today. That’s Frasier’s job.

[He sits smugly as an irate Frasier gets up. Fade out.]

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Critically Acclaimed!

The Reviews Keep Rolling In…

  • “I heard she was a writer, or something.” -a friend

  • “She certainly spends a lot of time on the computer.”- her husband

  • “Well, she got the format right.”- a fellow screenwriter

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What Have We Got Here?

I’ve been looking over someone’s screenplay for ideas on how to re-work it.  As I was tossing around concepts, I began to realize that the simplest solution would be the best.  Simplest is usually best, right?

My dinner plans this evening brought this home to me again.  It’s a Sunday night, and I always seem to be my most creative at the end of the weekend.  Okay, actually I have to get creative.  Most of the leftovers are gone; the fresh ingredients seem to be out.  And the last thing I want to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon is enter the third realm of hell, which some people merely call grocery shopping.  This lack of a Sunday plan is an ongoing problem for me, always has been.  You’d think I would have done something to be more prepared for Sundays by now.  I must secretly enjoy this challenge.  It is kind of like a Food Network “Chopped” episode, where I must assess what’s in my pantry and concoct a recipe from the available ingredients.

The funny thing is, my Sunday meals often turn out to be the most inspired, most delicious ones.  And this evening was no exception.  Plus I just took a chocolate chip bundt cake out of the oven that was a last-minute plan, one I devised after discovering a hidden cake mix.  From the smell of things, it’s going to be good!

Anyway, back to the work-with-what-you’ve-got and keep-it-simple theory.  I was a little befuddled about what to do with the unearthed cake mix, until I realized that I should use what I had on hand (thus the chocolate chips).  Then my plan became clear.

Sure, as writers we have to look at what’s missing from a screenplay.  But many times I think the essence of what we need is already there.  We just have to tweak it a little bit — a pinch of this, a pinch of that.  And by being resourceful in adapting what’s there, our creations will be all the more satisfying in the end.

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Prep: Pen, Please

Writing Prep: I’m doing that right now for one of my projects, so this discussion on Go Into the Story was apropos for me.  I mentioned this recently – how I tend to do a lot of work in my head and in the form of tiny notes.  It seems like for me, too much organized preparation is a distraction, something you can get mired in.  But posters on the aforementioned topic have some interesting prep techniques.  Some of the ideas presented in comments so far include:

Listening to an inspirational piece of music that meshes with your genre

(I’ve done that.  Once, in fact, I was stuck on a scene until I heard a particular song that helped me envision the scene rolling.)

Finding a time such as while exercising where your head is empty and open to exploring story ideas

(That reminds me –some of my best ideas come first thing in the morning, right after I wake up, as long as I don’t have to bound right out of bed.  If I can lie there for 5 minutes, I come up with terrific ideas.)

Character analysis, including writing samples the character would produce

(I tried that once.  In the end, my character became very different from my initial vision in that writing sample.  But I guess it helped my character evolve for me.)

Analysis of the world of your story, including necessary research

Breaking the story plot

Writing some unorganized scenes and dialogue that might be incorporated into the story at a later point

I do feel that at some point, getting ready to write something is like making a resolution to exercise and buying the new work-out clothes.  If you do too much prep, you get distracted from the project.  Sometimes you just gotta jump on the treadmill and fall off a few times.

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Starting with Characters

So, as mentioned in my previous post, authors often state how important they feel it is to develop characters before ever starting to write.  A scriptquack article says, “It should be impossible to know anything substantial about your story before you’ve defined the character that will be driving it.”

I have been playing around with a new story and characters for a couple of weeks.  It’s funny, because I had an original story line in mind, but when I started to flesh out the characters, the narrative really began to evolve.  The inner goal I have for the protagonist is the same, but everything else is changing, and for the better!  As I get to know my new characters, I keep clarifying their personalities and quirks and thinking of new scenes, dialogue, and subtle ways to reveal them.  It’s fun.  I like this part of story planning, and I consider it writing, even though I am rarely actually “writing” at this point, save scrawling down notes throughout the day.  I really should invest in some little notepads to plant around the house and in the car, because I frequently find myself scribbling on receipts and other random paper scraps.  Soon I hope to begin piecing the myriad paper scraps and ideas together to outline this story!  I’m already laughing at some of the images and scenes, so I think it’s going to be good.

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Tips from Other Writers

I saw an interesting article in The Atlantic by Romy Oltusky.  He gathered advice from some of the most prolific (and speedy) authors.  Here are a few gems I thought were especially useful.

Pulitzer nominee Joyce Carol Oates starts by creating character and setting (which she also considers to be a character).  She gives her Princeton students the assignment to begin with a conversation between two characters.  Because as in real life, over time you will see the personalities develop.  She also advises, “The first sentence cannot be written until the last sentence has.”  (More advice from Oates here.)

Belgian writer Georges Simenon published nearly 200 novels as well as short works in his lifetime.  He also started by developing a character, rather than a plot.  He even went so far as to use the method-actor technique of becoming the protagonist for eleven days.  Simenon also said that you must edit and edit again, even the parts you love.  “It’s what I do when I write, the main job when I rewrite… Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence — cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.”

Author and journalist Christopher “Hitch” Hitchens said that you should write the way you talk.  Always read aloud what you’ve written.

And Stephen King says read a lot, even bad things.  Bad writing will give you the confidence to get better.

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