Thank you. I’ll take that under consideration.

I'm afraid I find your suggestion to be most illogical (RIP Mr Nimoy)
I’m afraid I find your suggestion to be most illogical (RIP Mr Nimoy)

I had a great coffee-chat conversation with another writer earlier this week. Among the many topics we discussed was the fine art of giving and receiving notes.

When you give notes, you want to be equally helpful and critical (without being mean or condescending about it). A lot of the time, the person seeking notes is a peer or someone with pretty much a level of experience more or less equal to yours, so they know how to interpret the notes, and don’t take anything personally.

They also realize the only way to improve is to learn what mistakes they made, make the proper adjustments, and make a mental note to not do it again from here on in. This is an essential skill that takes time to get the hang of.

But what about the writer who asks you to read their just-finished first script? “Don’t worry. Be as brutally honest as you need to be. I can take it.”

Are you sure about that?

If you’ve been doing this for a while, you’re quick to recognize what works and what doesn’t in their script, and you make the appropriate notes and suggestions.

I’ve encountered almost the entire spectrum of reactions from newer writers, ranging from “These notes are fantastic! Thank you so much!” to “Hmph. You obviously don’t recognize my genius” (I’m paraphrasing that one). You’ve probably heard similar things, but hey, at least you tried to help.

Then there’s being on the receiving end. It’s not easy to hand your baby over to somebody so they can find fault with it, but again, it’s a necessary part of the process. Many’s the time I have felt my pulse quicken in the moments just before the comments were unleashed.

As stated above, if the notes are from someone on an equal level to me, I appreciate the positive things they have to say, but am more interested in their critical comments (which doesn’t automatically mean they’re negative). I may be having trouble with how to fix a particular problem, so outside suggestions are definitely appreciated. Sometimes it’s an “Of course!” moment, sometimes it’s a “Huh?” I may not always agree with what they say, but it may spark the thought of a new approach. Anything helps.

On the other side of the coin is getting comments from writers with less experience than you. You’ve written ten scripts, and they’ve written one, maybe two. How much value can you place on what they have to say? They don’t have the benefit of experience, so their comments may come across as uninformed or focusing on the wrong things. The best you can do is take what you think might be useful and discard/ignore the rest, reminding yourself that they’ll learn over time.

The whole point of notes is to help make the script better, and both note-giver and receiver need to approach this from that viewpoint. It’s not the time for the note-giver to say “This is how I would do it,” and the receiver can’t get ultra-defensive and overly possessive of their work.

Once the notes are given, the responsibility falls on the writer to interpret and use them as they see fit.

Ask a Produced-and-In-pre-production Script Consultant!

rob tobin

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-author-lecturer Rob Tobin. 

Rob is a produced, award-winning screenwriter, published novelist, former motion picture development executive, author of the screenwriting books “The Screenwriting Formula” and “How to Write High Structure, High Concept Movies,” as well as several screenwriting CDs. He’s been a frequent guest lecturer on screenwriting at film festivals and writing conferences around the world.

*April 2015 update – Rob is currently working on a multi-book adaptation project and is not available for story notes, but can fit in one additional script polish or rewrite assignment.

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

My wife and I just saw “The Normal Heart,” which blew me away. Brilliantly written, acted and directed. Most importantly, the title wasn’t the only thing that had heart, something most films no longer have. Even a film like “The Fault in Our Stars,” a film with tremendous heart, that I loved. I’d much rather see a film or read a script like that than a brilliantly written script with no heart.

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

I’m originally Canadian, and came to USC in L.A. to get my M.A. in screenwriting and become a working screenwriter. My background was as a novelist. Everyone at USC told me I should intern at a film company. I did, and started reading scripts as part of my internship. Lots of them. Years later as a development exec, I stopped counting at 5,000 script scripts read and covered. In that process, I wrote two screenwriting books, starred in a couple of screenwriting DVDs, then people started flying me around to lecture on screenwriting – Canada, New England, the South of France.

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

Definitely something you can be taught. Screenwriting has structure, elements, rules, all of which you can learn. Of course some people are going to be better at it than others. In addition, there is the other part of being a script consultant, and that’s helping the writer find ways to improve her or his script. That can also be taught, but there’s a much bigger talent component to that.

4. What are the components of a good script?

I actually wrote a book about the seven essential elements of a well-written screenplay, but to be honest, as I mentioned, one of the biggest aspects of a well-written script is heart. Yes, you can write a brilliant script about crime, sex, war, and so on. Bond movies are great, but I still think that heart is what makes a script special. Something like “The Normal Heart” or “Good Will Hunting”, or even comedies like “Big” or “Tootsie” have heart. High concept is also important but as I said in another recent interview, a high concept piece of crap is still a piece of crap. A low concept work of brilliance is still a work of brilliance. There are techniques and elements, of course, but I love that old saying about not writing because you want to say something, but because you have something to say. Say something worth saying, and say it with heart. If I had only one piece of advice to give, that would be it.

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

Mistakes in a script are almost always structural, because almost everything emerges from structure. Dialogue, characterization, theme, it all emerges from structure. If you don’t understand structure, you’re in trouble. When I work with clients, the first thing I do with problem scripts is talk to the writer about structure. The mistakes and solutions are almost always located there.

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

Easy killing. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a cop who easily kills a bad guy, or an action star killing hordes of bad guys, easily, without remorse, and without ever getting shot him or herself. Killing as a relatively trivial thing is the worst trope of all in my opinion, and it can’t go away fast enough.

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

-Write only if you enjoy writing, because the chances of making a living at it are extremely remote.

-Learn your craft.

-Never submit a first draft of anything.

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

Thank You for Smoking.” It came to me when I was a director of development. Out of thousands and thousands of scripts I read, I recommended 34, despite the fact that I worked for major producers who were getting the best scripts from the best agencies, but that was it: 34 out of over 5,000 scripts, all from the best agencies in the business. “Wag the Dog” and “Dangerous Minds” are some of the scripts I recommended. Every other script, the ones I didn’t recommend, had structural problems.

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

Yes, if they’re the right ones. I always tell beginning writers to never submit their first, second, third or even fourth scripts to the industry itself – producers, agents, etc., but rather to contests, especially contests that give feedback. That way if their first few scripts are subpar, they’re not going to be branded by industry people as subpar writers. And the feedback from the contests can help them figure out what their weaknesses are.

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

Email me at scripts90@gmail.com. I don’t do coverage anymore, but I do story notes, polishes, rewrites, and adaptations.

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

Apple pie with ice cream.

The benefit of connecting with people in person

Availability of coffee is always a pleasant option
Face-to-face. Classic. Effective.

I had the good fortune earlier this week to attend the meeting of a new writing group. It’s been a while since I’ve been part of one, and it was nice being able to once again interact with other writers and engage in casual discussions about our respective projects before moving on to the focus of the evening. Since it was my first time attending, I’d opted to stay in the role of observer/commenter, rather be than one of the four-to-five who brings pages for review.

Following a brief table read, the group then offers up its collective comments. This week’s selections weren’t bad, but each set had room for improvement. Some maybe a little more than others.

When I got the opportunity to toss in my two cents, I talked about what stood out for me and what I thought needed work, making a point of being nice about it.

Others chimed in with their opinions and suggestions, not all of which I agreed with. While I may have been thinking “That’s not right,”or “That doesn’t make any sense,” my lips remained sealed. I didn’t want to come across as the pompous know-it-all. It’s important to make a good first impression, no matter who you’re meeting.

When the meeting was over, I talked to the guy who organizes it (we were in a different writing group years ago), saying I’d hoped I wasn’t too obnoxious with my comments. “Not at all,” he said. “A lot of these folks are newer writers, and you told them some things they needed to hear. It’s the only way they’re going to get better.”

Whew.

It’s been my experience, and hopefully yours, that getting feedback from an actual person is beneficial on several levels. Chances are you’ll know something about that person’s background and experience, so you can put the appropriate level of merit into what they have to say. And unless they’re a jerk to begin with, they might be a little less harsh with their comments than if it was an online forum, where for some reason people have no problem letting loose with vitriolic criticism and put-downs.

If you asked somebody for feedback, wouldn’t you rather the notes were helpful in a supportive way, rather than “This sucks! What makes you think you can write?” That would be pretty devastating, right?

Now imagine that situation reversed. A newer writes comes to you, asking for notes. Do you think “They don’t realize how fortunate they are to have the wonderfulness of my vast superior knowledge bestowed upon them!” or “I used to be where they are. How can I help?”

My advice: opt for the latter. Both of you will be better off for it.

Ask an Up-through-the-ranks Script Consultant!

Bill Pace

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 William Pace of scripteach.com.

*Editor’s note – April 2016: Bill is currently teaching at Seton Hall University, so has temporarily put his consulting services on hold. He plans to resume consulting in the summer. Contact him at his website for details.

William Pace received a Masters of Fine Arts in Film Production from New York University’s acclaimed Graduate Film & TV program where he wrote and directed “Echo Canyon,” an award-winning short film that was televised nationally on the USA Network.

His script CHARMING BILLY was a finalist for the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Screenwriting Lab. William also directed the award-winning feature film of the script, which premiered at the AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival, whereupon a lead VARIETY review proclaimed his “notable cinematic and storytelling craft.” CHARMING BILLY was then distributed by a division of Miramax and broadcast on the Independent Film Channel.

William teaches filmmaking and screenwriting at The New School in New York City, where he serves as its Screenwriting Certificate Director. He is also a screenplay consultant who’s worked with such authors as Douglas Blackmon in adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning book SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME, and many others whose scripts have gone on to success, from making the influential Black List, winning competitions at Slamdance, obtaining mangers & agents and being produced & distributed.

Currently he’s Creative Consultant & Associate Producer for the independent feature film HARROW, which is now in post-production.

And — believe it or not — he’s actually listed in Warren Allen Smith‘s book CELEBRITIES IN HELL.

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

There are a lot of good movies that are out right now, but I’m going to go to left field and say THE GOOD WIFE.

It’s TV, and not even one of the “hot” shows that’s popular to tout, but this is a damn well-written show with rich characters who the writers aren’t afraid to have do the wrong thing, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. The journey Julianna Margulies’s character has gone on is almost as transformative as Walter White’s in BREAKING BAD. Different arena, different stakes, but almost every bit as cynical and sometimes almost as dark.

That’s what leaps out at me first thing, but to include a film…

BIRDMAN. But it’s really hard to separate the filming of that movie from its script, as they are seamlessly enmeshed and were designed that way from the start – even though it’s supposed to look like there are no cuts in the film, the editors were actually brought in before shooting begin to help design where the cuts could most effectively be digitally “erased”. That kind of “writing” and planning, along with the audaciousness of the film’s story & thematic concepts, really spoke to me as something on a higher level.

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

When I was a film student at NYU’s Grad program (during the — cough-cough — Paleolithic period), the only scripts around to read were hardcopies, and you had to either know someone in the business to get a hold of one or buy one of the badly Xeroxed copies from the guy in Union Square selling them from his folding card table. It wasn’t until I started teaching and the internet came into wide existence that I began to really read a lot of scripts. Once I could download them, I started devouring them. I especially loved reading early drafts of produced scripts because you could see more of the process that went into crafting the final film by noticing what had changed from its initial drafts. I mean, how else would you know that the scene in INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (ugh) where Indy seals himself in a refrigerator to escape a nuclear blast was originally the concept for how Marty McFly traveled in time!?

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

Absolutely it can be taught. And teaching how to recognize good writing is a hell of a lot easier than teaching how to write “good”.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Oh man… how many pages can I go on here? Okay, I’ll try to be a good screenwriter and shorten it into a condensed version: As much as we teachers and analysts can go on about strong characters, good technique, use of genre, theme, etc. – and they are really, really important — I think that if you have a bad story idea, the rest doesn’t matter.

Not one… little… bit.

Now, what makes a good story? For that I would need lots of writing room to expound upon, but for now let me say that I’ve become a big believer in the logline, the one sentence “pitch” for your script – if you can’t create a compelling logline about your script’s story idea, then nothing else is really going to matter. If you can’t, people might read the script and you say, “Oh, I really like the protagonist,” or its imagery or nuance or its tone/mood/feel, blah-blah-blah…” But they won’t spend money and buy it if the story isn’t there.

I’m not saying you have to write what used to be call high-concept scripts – even if you’re writing a kitchen sink kind of realistic drama, the story should still have sufficient and clear conflict and stakes and that can create an interesting logline.

Once you have the story, then everything has to be in the right balance and proportion and wrap up with a resonating theme to be a really good script. But start with a compelling good story and we can work on all of the rest.

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

• The “I’ve seen other movies get away with this kind of crap so I can too” kind of approach. To stand out in a highly competitive field, your script needs to be better than what you see in the movies. It needs to be fresh and cliché-free.

• Protagonists who are not active, whose goals and actions do not make the story happen. Instead, the story happens to them, not because of them, which significantly lowers our interest in both them and what happens to them.

• “It’s just a script, so the writing don’t have to be good.” Just because it’s going to be a movie does not free you from the work of knowing your writing craft and presenting a grammatically correct and enticing read.

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

Hmmm… can I put superhero stories here? Growing up I loved comic books and I still enjoy a great superhero movie now and then, but really, do we need the entire Marvel universe brought to life and each one getting its own movie? And zombies. Getting tired of them. Love THE WALKING DEAD to death (although it constantly breaks my heart) and I thought that both ZOMBIELAND and WARM BODIES were fun takes on the genre, but enough now. Let TWD ride it for as long as that show works, but that should be it. But those are genres more than tropes. When I think of tropes, I think of clichés, and any screenwriter using a tired old cliché is just shooting themself in the foot. If you feel you simply can’t avoid one, then you have to put a fresh, unique spin on it. SCREAM still stands as one of the best scripts ever to take clichés and use them while at the same time standing them on their head. Great, smart writing.

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

Instead of rules, I’ll state qualities: Passion, Dedication & Persistence.

You need all three or you can forget it. If you’re in screenwriting just so you can “cash in on all that big money,” you’re doomed for the start. Most writers never see anything happen with their first half-dozen — and often even more — screenplays. If you can’t look at that fact and honestly say, “I can deal with that,” then you will fail. It takes time to get better at your craft, develop your writing voice and find avenues to get your work seen and appreciated.

“What about talent?,” you ask. Yes, that is required, but too many writers value talent above the three qualities I stated because they want to believe that if they have true talent they’ll write something so great they can skip all the hard work it takes to succeed. If you think that, then you might as well play the PowerBall — your odds might even be better.

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

I’ve read a couple, but the one I’m happiest about was JUG FACE, written by Chad Kinkle, an alumnus of The New School (where I teach). Before JUG FACE, Chad had written several very good, interesting and highly intriguing scripts, but with this one everything just came together in that special way that makes the story, characters and words leap off the page. And it wasn’t just me that that thought so, as he not only won the Grand Prize at Slamdance’s Screenwriting Contest, he was able to parlay that into getting the film produced with him directing it. It came out in 2013 and was named by many critics as one of the best indie horror films of the year.

Now, the logline – but first, you have to understand that it is a horror film and a particularly disturbing one at that… which should be quickly evident: “A young woman, pregnant with her brother’s child, fights to not be sacrificed by her clan to the entity they worship lurking within in a backwoods pit.” Yeah… I warned you. But despite such a potentially off-putting premise, the writing was so strong that it won several awards and got made.

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

Absolutely worth it, as Chad’s story directly above should make abundantly clear. And even if you don’t win the grand prize and get to make your film, if you place well in a contest you get to use that as a calling card to help bring attention to your work. Another student of mine made the Black List and had her script sold, moved to LA, now has an agent and a manager, and is working in the industry.

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

Either directly via email at bill@scripteach.com or at my website: www.scripteach.com

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

My lifetime favorite is pumpkin pie. I don’t care what time of year it is – it can be stifling hot in the dead of summer, and I will still want a slice of pumpkin pie. The vanilla bean ice cream melting on top will help deal with the heat. And to be even more specific, I have to admit that both my wife and I have developed an incredible love for Whole Foods’ pumpkin pies. There’s something about the combo of spices and the “heft” of their pie’s consistency that I have not found anywhere else. I know it is probably heretical to proclaim a love for a store-made pie, but forbidden loves are often the strongest.

That moment of clarity

Don't you love when these show up?
Don’t you love when these show up?

I’ve always said that with each draft of every script I work on, my writing gets a little bit better. Definitely a “learn as you go” scenario.

If you looked at my earlier work, you’d probably say it was pretty basic. Very straightforward. Average. With the later stuff, you’d see improvement. Better, but still some room to grow.

Among the helpful comments I received regarding the previous draft of my western was “give us more flair in the prose…make the details a bit more colorful.”

This can be a trap a lot of writers fall into. You want your writing to be vivid and descriptive, but it’s easy to overdo it and before you know it, the storytelling overshadows your actual story.

Since I started the rewrite, I’ve been doing my best to maintain an equal balance of both so the story is told in an entertaining way and easy for a reader to visualize what’s happening. If they feel like they’re actually there, experiencing it along with the characters, then I’m doing a good job.

Working on an action sequence earlier this week, I was struggling to come up with the best way to describe the events as they played out. Ordinary words weren’t cutting it, and the ever-present thesaurus wasn’t offering much help either. I knew what I wanted to say, but couldn’t come up with the right way to say it.

You can describe how something happens, but is it strong enough to hold somebody’s attention? Is there a “more colorful” way to say it? How could you add “more flair”?

If I were reading this, what would make me want to keep going? What would compel me to want to know what happens next?

Since this is, at its heart, my take on a pulp story, I decided to embrace that aspect and run with it. I mean really run. Let loose and color those words in the perfect shade of purple.

To say it made a difference is putting it mildly.

Words and descriptions that refused to make themselves known before were sprouting up left and right. This was exactly how I imagined the sequence and exactly how it should be written.

A key point to remember in all of this is that this is what works for me. Your writing and your style are totally your own, and only you can find the best way to do it.

I won’t say that everything from here on in for me will be as easy or productive, but it’s definitely a change for the better, and I for one am looking forward to seeing the end result.