Moose, squirrel, and two guys in drag

 

rocky & bullwinklesome like it hot

It’s been a very long time since I attempted to write a script that did not involve the phrase “rollercoaster ride” as part of the description.

So while I wait for notes on the western and mystery-comedy, I’m taking my time in figuring out the story of what is shaping up to be a low-budget comedy.

Which also means it has to be funny, yet another mountain to conquer in itself.

Funny is subjective.  Something somebody else considers hilarious might make me shrug and say “I don’t get it.”  But I know what makes me laugh, so that type of humor is what I’ll attempt to incorporate into my story.

For me, a very important part of this is re-educating myself in how the jokes work and how they’re constructed. As I figure out the story, I’ll also be watching and learning from some prime examples of how it’s done.

Among them: episodes of ROCKY & BULLWINKLE and SOME LIKE IT HOT.

Part of what I like about them is how the jokes feel organic AND smart. The humor comes from the situation and how the characters react, rather than feeling forced.

Each also does a great job of gradually setting up punchlines, and not just going for a rapid-fire bombardment of one-liners.

Something else to keep in mind: both are over 50 years old and still hold up – further proof of their durability. The subject matter may be a bit dated, but the jokes still work, and that’s really what matters.

Ask a Nicholl-winning Script Reader!

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The first in a series of interviews with some script readers who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape.

Today’s spotlight on: Doug Davidson!

Not only is Doug Davidson a Nicholl Fellow, but his script LETTER QUEST has the distinction of being the only animation script to ever achieve that honor.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. The most compelling character to hit the movies in a while is an ape. Caesar is a textbook protagonist. An extraordinary individual doing extraordinary things under extraordinary pressure. When you can end a movie by zooming in on the lead character’s face, and not have it feel cheesy, you know you’ve done something right.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I started in a screenwriting group, a large group that lasted several years. Early on, we agreed on always giving each other formal written feedback, because if you don’t have to write your feedback down, then you don’t think nearly as hard about it. When you put your feedback in paragraph form, you realize you have to make sense, you have to be consistent and you have to justify what you say. It gave me the discipline to write constructive, reasoned feedback instead of just tossing out opinions.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Recognizing perfect writing is easy and intuitive. Anyone can do it. Recognizing the potential in a promising script that isn’t quite working yet, that takes more experience. And it takes a writer’s mentality. You need to study the craft for years. There are rules that are easy to memorize, but how to apply them, that’s much more difficult. Blindly applying the rules doesn’t lead to good writing, or good feedback.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The craft has to be there, and then there has to something else, a plus one. It could be funny comedy. It could be insight. It could be a new idea. That’s the “talent” part. You might think it’s this “plus one” that’s missing from most scripts, but I find the opposite to be true a lot of the time. Often a script has this amazing unique element, but the nuts and bolts of the story just aren’t in place yet. That’s when making the extra effort to put all the craft elements together really pays off.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

One of the most common mistakes I see is writers thinking a plot point (or character trait or thematic element) is clear on the page when in actuality it’s really not. At least not clear enough. It happens all the time, even to seasoned writers. That’s why feedback is so important. It’s not about saying your vision is wrong. It’s about saying your vision isn’t quite visible. Yet. The trick is to make sure everyone can see it.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Just about any story idea could work with the right execution. That said, I’ve come across a surprising number of scripts about screenwriters writing screenplays. Autobiography finds its way into most scripts, but it really helps to disguise it just a little.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

(1) Don’t (2) Give (3) Up.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Nothing is absolute, but I’ve read more than a dozen really excellent unproduced scripts that I would recommend. I won’t go into the loglines here, but they’ve spanned just about every genre. I love to stay in the loop with the scripts I’ve read, especially the great ones. Several are optioned, several have placed very well in major contests and two have well known actors attached. Many of the writers of these scripts have secured representation as well. It requires some grit, but first-rate work will eventually get you places in this industry.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Screenwriting contests are absolutely worth it. It’s not the only path to success or a guarantee of success, but I know a fair amount of writers who have benefited greatly from contest placements. If you get an opportunity to read for a contest, I recommend that too. I’ve done it and learned a lot from the experience.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

My website is www.fourstarfeedback.com. I have a screenwriting blog there based on my experiences in the industry (and the numerous mistakes I’ve made). I’m also happy to answer specific questions via the email listed on my site.

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I love pie too! I like to bake my own key lime pies. They’re pretty easy to do. I also love coconut custard, blueberry and anything with peanut butter. But my favorite would have to be . . . pecan. A great pecan pie has a sludgy quality – an intensely sweet sludge – balanced by a nutty crunch. Thanks for thinking of me, Paul! We’ll have to get together sometime for some coffee, and pie.

Constructive criticism – a force for good

If I can't hear you, then it's not true
If I can’t hear you, then it must not be true

If you met someone who does the same thing you do, but has been doing it longer and with more success, wouldn’t you ask them for advice on how you could get to their level, and more importantly, heed that advice?

While I’m not a professional writer (yet), others, mostly on the newer side, will ask me for feedback on their script.  If I have the time, I’ll do it, and offer up what guidance and suggestions I can.

My notes are sent with the reminder that these are just my opinions to do with as they see fit. Fortunately, most of the responses have been positive and appreciative.

But once in a while, somebody will disagree with what I’ve said or totally ignore it. That’s their choice. They came to me seeking help, and I guess didn’t like what I had to say.

I once asked somebody what kind of material it was, and the answer was long-winded and very academic. While they were droning on, I couldn’t help but think “If they tried to pitch this to a producer, that meeting would probably be over right about now.”

Asking another writer for their logline, I got what sounded more like the short paragraph you’d see on the back of a novel. I tried a few different approaches, each time hoping to point them in the right direction as well as coax out some of the creativity they claimed to have. No such luck. After offering up what you do and don’t want to have in a logline, the response was a curt “Got it. Thanks.”  Can’t say I didn’t try.

Part of me wonders if my advice would be taken more seriously if I charged for it.

You came to me for help, remember? Just because you don’t like the answer doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I’m not trying to be mean. Quite the opposite. There are hard truths about this business that some people just refuse to acknowledge. All of us who came before you learned them the hard way, and if you want to make it, then you’re going to have to do the same.

Is it really too much to just ask?

Show of hands for who'd want to read this based on the logline
Show of hands for those who’d want to read this based on the logline

While some people don’t have an issue posting their entire script online, I’ve always opted to offer up just a logline. If the script has had any kind of success in a contest, I mention that as well. That’s how it is on my Scripts page here, and on a few online community sites. Nothing against those who offer up the whole thing. It’s just a personal preference.

My hope is that this sample (for lack of a better word) piques somebody’s interest, which then would prompt them to contact me, saying “Hey, this sounds pretty cool. Could I read it?” In which case, I’m more than happy to send it along. This has happened a few times.

But last week, I got this response from a recent connection:

“…I read the synopsis on your four, all very interesting, but without a script to peruse, quite meaningless – let me know should you decide to upload any.”

Okay…

Like I said, I was hoping the small write-up would motivate you to get in touch with me asking for more, but I guess not. And responded with words to that effect (in the most polite way possible, of course.)

The response:  ” I don’t like to criticise (sic – international spelling) and how you conduct your scripts is your business, but so many writers here claim award winning scripts, wonderful reviews and the sun shines out off a certain orifice – I’m a great believer in put up, or shut up – yes, of course I can ask the writer to send a copy, then there is the pressure, real or otherwise, of a review and feedback – I like to read screenplays unannounced, if I like it I will say so, no hard feelings, no pressure – all of yours have a nice synopsis, I’m sure your scripts stack up.”

I honestly didn’t know what to say, so I never responded. The person seems set in their beliefs that the finished product won’t live up to the hype created by the author. Although I have to disagree with the part about “award winning scripts”, since most contest results are available online, therefore easily verifiable.

And maybe it’s me, but both responses seem to come across as just a little bit on the snarky side.

But back to the matter at hand.

No idea where the parts about “wonderful reviews” and “the sun shines out of a certain orifice” come from. I never post anything like that about my material, nor should anyone. It reeks of amateurishness.

If I want notes, I will come to you because I seek your opinion. If I don’t know how much experience you have as a writer, let alone who you are to begin with, what’s make you think I’m going to ask you for notes?

If somebody asks to read my script, I’ll send it along with this note: “Here’s the script. Thanks for asking. Hope you like it.” I might come back to them in a month or so to ask if they’ve had a chance to read it. A majority of the time, the response is “Oops. I kind of forgot about it/got sidetracked, but I’ll get to it soon,” which is totally understandable. It’s a real commitment to read a script, and it’s not always easy to find the time to just sit down and read it. Happens to me all the time.

Everybody has their own way of how they do things. You do what works best for you, which may be totally different from somebody else’s. That doesn’t mean either person is wrong.

But imply that your way is better than mine, and any credibility you may have had to begin with is now gone.

What comes after you ride into the sunset?

And the journey continues...
And the journey continues…

At long last, the latest rewrite/polish of my western has reached a satisfying conclusion.

For now.

Several drafts later, it’s 6 pages shorter than the original, and packed with more character development and tighter scenes. That’s how I see it, anyway. Looking forward, as always, to the helpful feedback from trusted friends and colleagues.

This happened just in time, too. I was feeling pretty close to total burnout, so now I can rest and recharge, let alone even contemplate the idea of taking on another inevitable rewrite.

It’s an odd experience when you finish a project to which you’ve dedicated so much time and effort. You work, toil and slave away at it almost to the point of obsession, and then all of a sudden, poof! It’s done. You might not even know what to do with yourself.

“What now?” you might wonder. Treat yourself to a little reward? (Pie, as always, a great option) Take a break? Start something new? Maybe just kick back, relax and watch something (Netflix sent us THE MONUMENTS MEN, so maybe that) There is no wrong choice, so enjoy it. Bask in that glow of self-accomplishment. You’ve earned it.

I haven’t decided what to do yet, but knowing me, it’ll probably involve a day of not actually writing combined with thinking about the next big project, followed the next day with actual writing.

Not sure yet about the pie, though.