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?
Jeff is no longer actively seeking clients, but is still open to receiving requests via his website at strangeborders.com. He also suggests connecting with him on Twitter.
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.