Ask a Fount-of-Knowledge Script Consultant!

Matt Lazarus

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Matt Lazarus of The Story Coach.

Matt Lazarus has worked in the industry since 2003. He started in development with jobs at Untitled Entertainment, CAA, and Platinum Studios (Cowboys and Aliens). He joined the WGA in 2007 by selling a horror script to RKO, and he sold a movie to Cartoon Network in 2011. Matt’s story coaching was designed to be affordable, regular, and useful, and he excels at breaking advanced concepts into simpler processes and exercises.

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

Short Term 12, a thoughtful, sad drama about a foster home for displaced youth and the human condition. I saw the trailer and it hooked me. The world, performances and characters are all on point. It’s a great example of a drama, and of wringing the most entertainment and potential out of a simple concept.

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

I moved to Los Angeles in 2003, and I got my first assistant job after working really hard at an unpaid internship. I wanted to be a writer, and I talked about it way too much. Anyway, I got good at reading scripts and it always provided me an entry to meeting lit agents and executives who wanted to ask follow up questions on material. I’ve been a freelance reader for some studios for years, and there was a time I was even unironically working on a book on how to cover (most of it made it onto my blog). I’ve been a sporadically working WGA writer since 2007, but the financial security of coverage has always given me something to fall back on.

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

Good writing is hard to define. You want it to be accessible: a mediocre scifi appeals to scifi fans, a great one appeals to everyone. You want it to be engaging: no one goes to the movies to not be affected. You want it to help your career. It’s great to sell a script, but if a script doesn’t sell but gets me in a room with someone who can hire me for my next job, I’ll take it.

Anything can be learned. Not everyone who studies piano will become Glen Gould, but they will get somewhat better at piano. I was pretty cineliterate when I moved to LA, and my years in the development trenches helped me marry my base of knowledge to a working understanding of how the industry works and what the powers that be tend to look for.

4. What are the components of a good script?

“Good” is a hard term to define, a semantic minefield. The components of a good script are the same as the bad ones: they both have the same main four (character names, dialogue, sluglines,descriptions), they both take up the same amount of space.

The difference is harder to measure. We see a thousand faces a day, but only a few make us stop and say wow. We hear new songs on the radio every day, few of them will become our favorite. Most would agree that a good writer can do more in the same space than a bad writer, but the ways in which they are better will always and should always be argued over.

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

The most common is writing a script without a premise. I use something called the premise test. It breaks things down to what’s simple. It’s not the only way to look at scripts, but it’s as good as any, better than most:

“An <ADJECTIVE> <ARCHETYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and (optionally) learns <THEME>.

This seems simple, but the doing is the real meat of the movie. If a naive accountant must raise 100k or his daughter dies, different doings give you very different movies (for example, he could win a surf contest, kill a vampire lord, or invent a time machine and go back to 1979). If you can’t explain what’s interesting about your script in 50 words, you’re unlikely to improve things by writing out 100 boring pages.

Writing is a lot like being a chef. Both are creative forms that have structural limits and immense room for interpretation. Tastes are subjective, but a good chef can anticipate the audience and when he serves something he should have a rough sense of why the average patron might find it delicious.

Most writers write without a real sense of the audience. We’re writing to entertain, to deliver a satisfying emotional experience to the audience. If a writer isn’t writing with a sense of empathy for the audience, the end result is likely to be disappointing.

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

-Scripts about Hollywood power brokers written by people who haven’t met Hollywood power brokers.

-TV pilots that spend their entire length explaining how we got to the premise without every showing what’s fun or interesting about the premise (see #5). There won’t be a second episode. What are you saving it for?

-Comedies that aren’t funny. I recommend taking an improv class and reading the UCB Handbook.

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

The word “rules” needs to die. It always starts a fight. People have an unending appettite for hearing that they can write, but any suggestion of how one might approach writing is generally taken as a suggestion of how one ought to write, and then an unproductive argument ensues. Here are three general principals:

-Entertain. You should know exactly what feeling you want to create in your audience.

-Use unity. Once you’ve set up your script, you want everything to feel connected, organic, and like a ramification of what’s come before. Bad scripts keep inventing random stuff throughout the second act, and it leads to a script that feels arbitrary.

-Be specific. A lot of writers will write in variables, keeping things loose (my character is either an architect or a deli owner… I haven’t decided which) because they think it will prevent them from getting lost or stuck in the later stages. This never works. Imagination thrives on immediacy and specifics. It’s better to commit to an idea and follow it to its conclusion. Even if you went in a wrong direction, the specifics you generate add value to your story. If you keep things vague, you’re building on sand and it’s hard to move the story forward when things exist in a vacuum.

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

In 2003 I read a really funny script called Underdogs. I couldn’t stop reading it or quoting the dialogue. It ended up turning into DODGEBALL starring Vince Vaughan. The movie is really funny, the script is funnier.

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

It depends on the contest. When I was at big companies, execs would usually read the top Nicholl scripts out of a morbid curiosity, but other big script contests (Scriptapalooza comes to mind) would try to get executives to read their top three, and the execs were lukewarm. For instance, a lot of people are selling off the Black List right now. It’s useful now, but might not be in three years.

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

I can always be reached at thestorycoach.net.

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

Humble pie. If you’re serious about writing, you’ll be served it more times can be counted. Alternately, strawberry rhubarb. I’m from Vermont, and it reminds me of a childhood garden.

Ask a Keenly Analytical Script Consultant!

Dimitri Davis

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Dimitri Davis of ScreenwritingU.com.

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



G.B.F. wins on best/most recent. So many laughs, such excellent pacing and quality characterization. One of the best high school movies I’ve ever seen.

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



Being the assistant at ScreenwritingU. Back when they were in the business of pitching reality TV, I read a lot of scripts, and then for research and preparing class materials, I read a lot more scripts, and whenever projects were in the works, I’d read more scripts.

 Between that and the classes and interviews I was reviewing all the time, it eventually dovetailed into professional-level coverage.

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



Of course it can. Learning the techniques of good writing and plenty about the industry/marketing makes it fairly clear when writing is good or bad.

 Which has the side effect of making you talk at TV and movies, and inform your viewing companions what’s going to happen or how that was a pretty mediocre choice in scene, dialogue, etc.

4. What are the components of a good script?



A good script or a great script? A ton goes into it, but great scripts have great concepts, are page-turners, solid actor-bait, and leave you walking away feeling amazed (and/or punched). Beyond that, it depends on the particular story/genre/etc.

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



The most common and worst mistakes I see are:

– Script/story focuses on the least interesting elements of the concept.

– Characters are underwhelming/underdeveloped, and thus make for mediocre dialogue & action choices (and fail to attract quality actors).

-Script/story fails to exploit great opportunities for drama/conflict/humor again and again, whether the opportunities arise from the characters, setting, plot or concept.

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



Obligatory sex scenes and throw-away romances. How excited do you think an actor is to see a thin-as-paper relationship in their scenes? How much do you think the audience will care when there’s no poignancy or quality drama behind the relationship?

So boring.

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



There’s really only one rule, which should inform all of your screenwriting decisions: Don’t waste anyone’s time.

You waste your own time by send out a script that isn’t awesome, or is cliche or tired. You waste people’s time by sending Comedy scripts to Horror production companies. You waste everyone’s time when your quick pitches are several paragraphs of details and aren’t laden with hooks. You waste your writing time when you embark on a script without figuring out a great concept, great characters, and a great story first. You waste everyone’s time when you make your tiny Indie script have million-dollar action sequences.

And so on and so forth. Hollywood has no attention span or respect for time-wasting. Your life has a limited amount of time. Why waste it?

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



Yes and no, because such things are confidential. But of the few RECOMMENDS I have read, they all had great concepts and stories, and very good writing.

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

It depends on the contest and the script. If the script isn’t ready, it’s typically a waste of money and time (getting anything less than Winner or Finalist for anything but the Nicholl is a waste).

If the contest doesn’t yield some really tangible benefit, like great prize money, or industry contacts and referrals, or career prestige, then it’s a waste of time and money. You could be working on selling scripts and getting writing assignments instead of entering contests.

But there are contests that do those things, and you should definitely enter them with great scripts if you don’t have any industry contacts yet, or are working on elevating your career. Go for the great options out there.

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


My coverage services are generally for ScreenwritingU alumni currently, but you can email me at dimitri@screenwritingu.com.

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


Pie-flavored.

Ask an Inspiring-the-Aspiring Script Consultant!

Amanda Pendolino copy

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Amanda Pendolino.

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

I really liked THE SKELETON TWINS. It blended comedy and drama in a way that I think is very hard to do. It also got its plot moving in the very first scene, and brought out the humanity in characters who make terrible mistakes.

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

I first learned to write coverage while interning at a production company. Then I did more coverage when I worked as an assistant at an agency. After I left the agency, a former coworker of mine had moved onto a production company and hired me as a freelance reader. All my other reading jobs also came about through friends/contacts.

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

Hmm, that’s hard. Your own personal taste isn’t really something that can be taught, but yes, I do think you can learn what it is that producers and studios are looking for.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A compelling concept and visual world, well-developed characters, an interesting plot with conflict and movement, authentic dialogue.

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

Many writers don’t take enough time to develop their concepts. Is your idea enough to sustain a MOVIE or entire SERIES? Is it fresh and original and interesting – and is your concept clearly established? Other mistakes include boring characters (you need to be writing ROLES that can attract top actors) and plots that unfold without any twists or turns. New writers also sometimes write prose that fails to create mood/atmosphere/tone. Every moment of your script is an opportunity to show off your specific voice and writing ability.

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

Women who are sex objects; women who are too perfect/idealized; one woman in a script with twenty guys.

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

-Writing is rewriting. Don’t send a script out until it’s ready.

-Read scripts and watch TV/movies voraciously.

-One single script probably won’t launch your career. Sometimes the best thing to do is move on and write a new script.

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

I recommended the script IMOGENE by Michelle Morgan, which became the movie GIRL MOST LIKELY. The logline I wrote for it was “After getting dumped and losing her job, a desperate young woman gets banished to New Jersey. After she discovers that her father is still alive, she sets out to find him, hoping that he’s the impressive parent she’s always been looking for.”

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

Certain ones are reputable, like the Nicholl Fellowship – but in most cases, the people who win contests don’t really get anything as a result. Many people who run screenwriting contests don’t actually put you in touch with anyone, and most producers/agents/etc aren’t going to be impressed that you won some random contest. “Anybody can win a contest,” my old agency boss used to say. Go ahead and enter a contest if you can see actual evidence of previous winners launching careers, but don’t hinge all your career success on winning a contest. It would be a mistake to think that entering a contest is the only thing you need to do to get your work out there.

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

You can check out my blog or email me at aspiringwriterblog@gmail.com.

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

I also love and appreciate pie! I’m going to have to go with classic apple pie – with vanilla ice cream on top, of course.

Rewriting with a capital “Re”

How it all starts. Again.
How it all starts. Again.

The original plan was to have a first draft of the low-budget comedy done by year’s end.

But just as I started (2 whole pages written!), a few more sets of notes came in for the western, which were added to the rest accumulated throughout the year.

I’ve written here before about how this script did not get the results I was hoping for. If I didn’t do something about it, that wouldn’t change.

As much as I love this script, the plain and simple truth is that it’s weak as it reads now. In the words of one of my note-givers, “it’s good, but has the potential to be a lot better.”

Among the comments in the collected aforementioned notes were several “What if…?” and “How about…?” questions. The general consensus was that parts of the story needed further development, and these suggestions might be worth considering in order to make that happen.

It was drastic measure time, which also meant making some really big decisions. Do I keep plugging away on the comedy just to get it out of the way? Do I attempt a major overhaul of the western’s story? And if I did that, how much of it would actually change?

There was no getting around it. It had to be different. Time for a new approach and new ideas.

So I’m rewriting it. In the truest sense of the word.

The concept is still the same, but the execution is what will be different.

Talk about daunting. Taking something you’ve practically obsessed over, jettisoning a sizable portion of it and starting anew. There are few things as intimidating as that blinking cursor at the top of a blank screen. It just sits there, taunting you, as if it were saying “Go ahead. Show me what you got.”

But here’s the silver lining: rather than abandon everything from every previous draft, I can pick and choose from of all of that material, which is now available for reworking, reshaping, re-whatevering.

Even more of a bonus: looking over all those notes on the western made me think something similar was in order for the mystery-comedy. So I’m working on a major rewrite of that too. I don’t know how I’ll proportion my time and focus between the two, but confidence, hope and ambition are all at significantly high levels as a result.

-And now, time for an IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT!

Since the rewrites will be keeping me busy over the next two weeks, this will be the last me-centric post of the year.

But don’t despair. Starting this Monday, and continuing EVERY WEEKDAY through January 2, a new post will be available for your reading enjoyment.

That’s right. Ten whole days of quality material to keep you company through the holiday season.

I think you’ll like ’em.

Ask a One-person Multimedia Empire Script Consultant!

Pilar Simpsonized
This is what happens when you offer me a choice of photos

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Pilar Alessandra of On The Page.

Pilar Alessandra is the director of the writing program On the Page®, host of the popular On the Page Podcast and author of “The Coffee Break Screenwriter.” She started her career as Senior Story Analyst at DreamWorks SKG and, in 2001, opened the On the Page Writers’ Studio in Los Angeles. Her students and clients have written for The Walking Dead, Lost, House of Lies, Nip/Tuck and Family Guy.  They’ve sold features and pitches to Warner Bros, DreamWorks, Disney and Sony and have won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship and Austin Screenwriting Competition.  As a teacher, Pilar has traveled the world teaching in the UK, Vietnam, Poland and across the United States.  In Los Angeles, she’s trained writers at ABC/Disney, CBS, Nickelodeon, UCLA and The Los Angeles Film School.  Pilar was named “The Script Whisperer” by Script Magazine and was one of LA Weekly’s top 100 people. For more on Pilar go to www.onthepage.tv

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

Keep an eye out for a script called “Bullies,” written by Mike Grebb, one of the writers in my writing groups. It’s dark, honest and incredibly well written.   I also just read a student’s script inspired by the classic “Shane,” that takes place in the world of Mexican drug cartels. I loved how it captured the tone of an old western, while also updating the story. That one is called “Rip Current.”

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

I was one of those oddballs who actually loved writing term papers in college. A friend of mine knew that and asked me to read a few scripts for an independent company she was working for. When I found out this was a real job, rather than just nerdy fun, I sent in my coverage samples to Amblin Entertainment and they hired me.

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

Good analysts have a strong story sense to begin with, but I they also need to keep learning about how genres and writing styles change. They need to be observers of human nature to truly empathize with and understand characters.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A fresh idea. A compelling story. Descriptive but concise scene direction. Authentic dialogue.

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

Writing “movie” characters. Many writers actually do this well, but they’re borrowing behavior and voices from characters they’ve seen onscreen, rather than inventing new ones from their own imagination.

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

A man’s family is kidnapped or missing and he wracks up a high body count getting them back.   Though to be honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing this with a female lead. Could be a fresh take.

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

-There are less “rules” in screenwriting than you think.

-Learn what those are anyway.

-Then break one of them purposefully and artfully.

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

“Adding insult to his already tragic life, a man is terrorized by a small bird.” The script is called “The Starling.” I know it sounds weird, but it’s beautiful. It was written by Matt Harris, a student of mine. It’s received lots of attention over the years, but has yet to be made. Cross your fingers.

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

Worth it because some agents and managers use the big ones to vet material. Worth it too because they’re writing contests, not selling contests, so you have a chance with a script that isn’t conventionally commercial.

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

Check out www.onthepage.tv to find out about classes, consultations, online offerings, book, DVD and the “On the Page Podcast.” You can also e-mail me directly at: pilar@onthepage.tv

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

Pumpkin, of course! It’s sweet and spicy. What’s not to love? (This is the best question ever.)