Run at your own pace

It's the total opposite of a sprint
It’s the total opposite of a sprint

For the past couple of days here at stately Maximum Z HQ, yours truly has been doing everything possible to fight off a nasty viral infection (Note to self – invest heavily in Kleenex and Halls cough drops) because I’m doing my first half-marathon in over a year this weekend. I do expect to be well enough to run. Fingers firmly crossed hoping to at least break the 2-hour mark.

As a result of being sick, I’ve been home from work the past couple of days, which means a little more time than usual to work on the western rewrite. Latest update: page 38.

When I have a lot of time to write, I’ll give myself a short break after reaching a milestone, such as the end of a scene, or x number of pages written or after a certain amount of time (this also helps prevent premature burnout). Sometimes break-time involves perusing social media or screenwriting forums, just to see what’s going on out there.

What’s been going on this week has been a flurry of activity among my peers. One got a manager. Another finished their latest draft. Another had an agency request their script after a pitch.

And there’s me, filling a wastebasket with snotty tissues, coughing up things of a color not found in nature, and hoping to get to the bottom of the next page before the day is done. Slightly disheartening, to say the least.

But, like when I run a race, I remember that it’s different for everybody. I’ve been working on this rewrite for quite a while, and have confidence that it’ll be done sooner than I think.

I’m also overseeing all of the “Ask a…!” interviews, and have now added this into the mix.

Oh yeah, and training runs.

When you finish a race, you get a medal, and you wear it with pride. You’ve earned it. You finished an hour behind the winner? Big deal. Chances are you didn’t do it to win. You did it to test yourself, to see how you could do with this self-imposed challenge.

When you write a script, yes, you are going up against every other writer out there, but you do it the way that works best for you. You can only manage 30 minutes a day? That’s fine. You tell yourself you’re going to write at least 3 pages a day, and you actually do? Fantastic.

Will others get done before you, or accomplish things faster than you? Of course, but that’s nothing for you to worry about. Focus on you, not them.

I think it’s absolutely phenomenal that these other writers have each reached a certain point with their writing and careers. And so will I. Maybe not as fast, but it’ll happen.

Just gotta keep working at it.

See you at the finish line.

Ask a True Veteran Script Consultant!

John Lovett

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 John Lovett.

After leaving the military in 1992, John went to work as an associate producer for a small production company that produced movies for Cinemax. In 1996, he started The Hollywood Military Advisor and L & M Productions to provide military technical advice to the motion picture industry and produce military documentaries. THMA contributed to numerous military movies and documentaries including BAND OF BROTHERS, PEARL HARBOR, and several military video games.  Now based in the Pacific Northwest, John teaches screenwriting and creativity at a local college, works with emerging and veteran screenwriters as a career coach, and is heavily involved in the local film making community.  John is also the screenwriter behind two produced films: CATHY MORGAN, a science fiction drama, and TWO WEEKS, a tween comedy.

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

Akiva Goldman’s ‘Winter’s Tale’, from the book by Mark Helprin. Regardless of the changes from the book, the movie read and played well. The quality of Goldman’s writing came through in how the actors executed against a fantasy/reality setting.

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

I worked for a small production company starting in the early 1990’s and had to learn all the aspects of movie production from lighting to camera work, which included being able to read and evaluate scripts for the producer/owner. Also, I took a script reading class from Pilar Allesandra and independently read for various studios for many years.

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

Yes, but with a caveat that while the characteristics of good writing can be taught and instilled, the skills of recognizing good writing are learned by reading, reading, and reading more. In addition, mentoring by experienced readers and writers helps considerably.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Besides following the rules regarding script appearance; structure, structure, and structure.

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

Mechanically, the most common mistakes are misspellings, word misuse, and grammar errors. And yes, all of that is important to good writing.

Artistically, the most common mistakes are not having a consistent through-line, long-winded exposition, and on-the-nose dialogue.

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

I look for the heart of a story. If the story is well written, I can look through the genre or internal tropes. To that end, I have seen some B-films that went DTV or direct to Netflix that told effective and emotionally engaging stories whilst the core genre or trope had been significantly overdone. Were I to pick one trope, it would be the ex-GI who witnesses some evil deed and becomes a ‘super soldier’ who knows how to handle every weapon and every karate move.

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

-If you are writing, stay off the ‘Angry Birds’ and Facecrack.

-Develop business and writing goals and stick to them. As you write and continue to improve your writing, you will modify and update your goals, but at least have a starting point.

-A writer should also know what life is about. Copying over tired ‘Transformer’ or ‘Twilight’ scripts is not going to lead you to new writing truths. Living a life is. Get out from behind the computer and join the Peace Corps or the Army, travel, get a job scraping boats in Florida. Do something, anything, that is not directly writing but is a life experience.

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

While I was a reader for a small production company specializing in DTV material, I wrote a “recommend” for ‘Dark Secrets’ written by S. Tymon. The logline was “An aspiring young reporter becomes involved with the subject of her investigation; a millionaire businessman who runs an underground SM club and is rumored to be involved in the murder of a fashion model.” For the intended audience, the movie turned out okay.

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

I don’t participate in screenwriting contests. I figure if you’re going to be a writer, then write and sell your work. Contests are great and you get lots of compliments, mostly. The truth of the matter is that we’re writers because we love to write, but we still need to pay the mortgage, buy diapers, and put food on the table. So, write your material well enough to sell, and not win contests.

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

My email address is twoscriptguys@gmail.com. My site is www.twoscriptguys.com. My Facebook page is Screenwriter John Lovett.

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

Shepherd’s.

Unstoppable force, say hi to immovable object

There is something in this man's way
There is something in this man’s way

Pop quiz time!

Apart from advancing the story, theme and character development, what is the one key component every scene should contain?

Okay. Pencils down.

A big ol’ piece of pie to everybody who said “conflict”. Without it, your script’s on a one-way trip to Boringtown.

I recently became involved in a discussion with a starting-out writer who asked about the best way to describe how a sequence in his script could play out. After looking at the source material (based on true events), I said if he only writes what happens, there won’t be any drama to it. It needs conflict.

“Conflict how?” he asked.

That’s what it come down to, isn’t it? A lot of newer writers hear “conflict”, and they immediately think two characters are supposed to be arguing. Sometimes that might apply, but it’s not necessarily what it means.

Conflict is two opposing forces going up against each other, and those two forces could be anything (within the limits of your story, of course). Most of the time, one side will be your character and the other will be something or someone standing in their way of achieving their goal, be it immediate or overall.

Which would you rather watch? A story where everything goes just fine for the main character, or one where they’re always dealing with some kind of problem?

One of the great things about conflict is that it can come in any shape or form.

“What if a character opens a window?” was the follow-up question. “Where’s the conflict there?”

There isn’t any. If you’re reading a script and get to a scene that only involves a person opening a window, you’d think “What purpose does this serve?” and tell the writer to cut it.

The conflict would be if it won’t open. There’s a story there. Your curiosity is piqued. Questions are raised. Why won’t it open? Why do they want it open? What are they willing to do to get it open? What’ll happen after they get it open?

Conflict helps move the story forward. Part of our jobs as writers is to come up with new, original and imaginative ways to portray that conflict. The way I have the character open that window is probably totally different than how you would.

Even the central question of your story shows conflict: Will the main character achieve their goal?

While you work on your latest draft, take the time to examine each scene, even the ones only a line or two long. Is there conflict of some sort?

If there is, great. If not, you need to get some in there.

Ask an In-the-Director’s-Chair Script Consultant!

Jeff Richards

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 writer-producer-filmmaker Jeff Richards.

Jeff Richards is a story consultant, filmmaker, and writer with over twenty projects either optioned, produced, or sold. His clients range from award-winning novelists to creative writing professors to screenwriters working for major studios. His own writing includes feature films, TV series, graphic novels, and short stories, as well as writing for children’s animation and computer games. His background includes information technology, a decade as an opera singer, and he is an honorary member of the Takaya Wolf Clan of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation.

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

The Karla trilogy by John Le Carré, and if you ever need a lesson that character is king, look to those. The books are often very low on action; they largely consist of dialogue (most of which is people recounting events, as you’d expect in a book about counter-intelligence) and the characters are so magnificent you don’t care that you’ve just spent hundreds of pages essentially listening to people talk. The protagonist for two of the books, Smiley, often isn’t even doing the talking; he’s merely listening. Yet it works.

As for watching, I’ve been re-watching Doctor Who, and “Blink” is possibly the best hour of television I’ve ever seen. Stunningly imaginative and original, incredibly atmospheric, and one of the very best examples of burying exposition I have ever seen in any medium. If I write something that good, I’ll die happy.

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

I spent several years as an independent filmmaker and although I did write most of the projects we were developing, I’d occasionally work with an outside writer and help them. That made me realize that I could apply what I’d learned as a writer to helping others with their scripts.

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

Absolutely. The love of words is probably pretty difficult to instill in an adult, but if someone is already interested in it, then it is definitely possible to learn to recognize good writing. The secret is to read widely and actively, both good and bad material; once you’ve read and analyzed enough writing, and worked out why it works or doesn’t, you start to see the patterns very clearly, particularly in screenplays. Objectivity about our own writing? That’s trickier…

4. What are the components of a good script?

What’s most important, and what I don’t see enough of, is a unity of character, plot, and theme. People talk about “character-driven scripts” or “plot-driven scripts” when, in reality, they should driven by the same engine.

As for the rest, it’s about what you’d expect; an active protagonist, strong pacing, dialogue with subtext, an original concept, rising stakes, good conflict, a surprising but inevitable ending… all that sort of thing. However, the only absolute must-have is that it is interesting. For every other must-have you’ll see on a checklist, you can usually think of a great script that didn’t have it. Passive protagonists are death… unless you are talking about The Graduate. Or Being There. But these are scripts by master writers; you need to be very sure why you are going against the grain, and how it makes your story better. (And, as you can tell by the age of the examples, rule breaking isn’t that popular anymore in Hollywood.)

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

Going back to the previous point, a disconnect between character, plot, and theme is common. This usually causes protagonists with unclear goals and flat second acts. However, the most common thing I see is on-the-nose dialogue. Characters who say exactly what they feel and think, or who sum up the central conflict in a speech. If you ever read “You know what your problem is?”, then that’s probably a bad sign.

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

I think I’m almost unique in that my answer is “none”. Every trope is ready for a great script to make it fresh. Amnesia is the most tired device in writing, yet The Bourne Identity comes along and is fantastic. There’s always room for a great script.

The thing that tires me isn’t story tropes, but clichéd dialogue. Don’t have lines from other movies in your movie. Be original.

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

-Read widely; lessons are everywhere, and most of them are outside your genre and format. So if you’re a sci-fi feature film writer, read historical fiction. Read detective comics, manga, sitcom scripts. Expand your brain.

-Writing is rewriting; every first draft is a huge bundle of problems waiting to be solved. So solve it. And not by editing, but by rewriting. Changing words in action or dialogue is just editing. Changing characters, plot points, deleting or adding scenes, that’s rewriting. Do multiple passes, focusing on a different thing each time. One pass (or several, more often) for plot, one for each major character’s dialogue, one for action lines… if you’re building a shelf, you don’t sand and paint at the same time.

-Don’t get hung up on systems. Read how-to books, sure, but pick and choose your advice. Being a slave to a particular checklist is usually indicative of poor writing. If I can tell that you’ve read Save the Cat by reading your draft, then there’s probably too much Snyder and not enough you in your script.

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

Unfortunately, I can’t share loglines due to confidentiality. But for me, “recommend” can’t focus too much on the logline. Concept is important, sure, but the writing is what matters, what makes it a “recommend”. I’ve had writers with straightforward concepts come to me and, after we hone the execution, they get jobs at major studios or get 10 on The Black List. That doesn’t come from the logline, but the execution, how they wrote (and, as per rule 2 up there, rewrote!) Chinatown’s logline doesn’t set the world afire, yet it is generally regarded as one of the great scripts. So a logline wouldn’t really illuminate why I feel a particular script is great. Loglines only show whether something is the type of script an exec should read (e.g. it’s high concept sci-fi and that’s what they’re looking for). The logline gets you the look; the writing gets you the job.

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

I personally don’t do them very often. I have in the past and placed well, but I never found the contest actually led to a job; what worked for me was my personal networking. However, every path is different and obviously you hear success stories. What is important is that you put in the time, both into the writing (mostly) and into building your career, whether that’s contests, pitchfests, networking… Whatever seems to be working for you, do that. If nothing’s working (and the writing is genuinely where it needs to be!), then change things up.

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

*Editor’s note: Jeff is no longer actively seeking clients, but is still open to receiving requests via his website.

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

Pumpkin, no question. With fresh whipped cream. A great pumpkin pie will turn me into the seven-year old kid who eats so much he feels sick. It is inevitable.

I probably need help.

Am I wrong, or just stubborn?

Sometimes you're the puller, and sometimes you're the pullee
Sometimes you’re the puller, and sometimes you’re the pullee

Ever since I started working on the western, a lot of comments have been made pertaining to the belief that certain aspects of it are just not believable (including the always-popular “It’s not historically accurate.”). Therefore, the story doesn’t work.

But I didn’t let that stop me from writing it. In fact, a majority of the notes on the previous draft were quite complimentary and enjoyed the originality and execution of how it all played out.

Jump to the present. I’ve recently become involved with an online writing group. Despite some negative experiences in the past, this one came recommended, so I’m just starting out with them.

Since I don’t have pages for the western rewrite yet, I sent in a revised version of the logline. In all honesty, I don’t really like it. It feels very lacking and incomplete, hence my need for help.

So far, only two people have commented on it, each saying they cannot get past the number of ways this idea can’t work.

Argh.

This kind of response has always bothered me. As writers, our imaginations are the biggest tools in our arsenal. The possibilities of what we can come up with are endless. Just because it’s not how you would do it means my way is wrong; we’re just taking different approaches.

I’ve never been one to use “because I say it does” as a counter-argument, and will never, ever say “you just don’t get it”. I prefer “I can make it work,” and will spend a lot of time and effort figuring out how.

Which pretty much sums up how I’ll deal with this for now.

Like I said to them, there’s a solid logline out there somewhere. It’s finding it that’s the hard part.