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-consultant-instructor Terri Zinner of afilmwriter.com.
Terri Zinner has been in story development for over 15 years. She began as a reader for Blue Cat competition and then a reader for Gallagher Literary, who eventually promoted her to SVP of Development.
Terri is also a produced writer and Producer of independent feature films such as EL CAMINO, THE BRIDE FROM OUTER SPACE and other independent projects. Terri worked on the award-winning film MONDAY MORNING.
Terri has provided story consultation on such films as AMERICAN SNIPER, ALBERT NOBBS, KILL YOUR DARLINGS, BREAK THE STAGE, THE HOWLING: REBORN, WHAT MAISIE KNEW, THE BRASS TEAPOT, LOUDER THAN WORDS and more….
Being named as one of the top story consultants in Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Terri is a sought-out story and screenplay analyst. Terri founded the website A FILM WRITER and developed the Screenplay Reader Training. She mentors and trains a team of screenplay readers.
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
I had the honor of reading the script AMERICAN SNIPER. It’s one of those rare occasions when you know that this script is something special from the very first page. The script was heart pounding and riveting from the opening through the ending. The story just came to life for me, as if I were actually watching the movie. The writer, Jason Hall, earned a well-deserved nomination for a harrowing script. I’m also always in awe of TV writers, who have a special gift with words. I admit I haven’t had much time for watching TV, but DAMAGES was one of my favorite shows because I thought the writers did a terrific job of creating a complex character in Patty Hewes. She was a fascinating, morally corrupt character to watch, and I found the dialogue to be very powerful. I try to watch a variety of films, but when I watch now, I tend to pay more attention to the structure. In fact, I forced my friend to go to a horror film, EVIL DEAD, just to analyze how the structure worked.
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
Like most readers, I began by writing screenplays. I optioned a few, but then I was provided the opportunity to become a reader for Gallagher Literary and a reader for Gordy Hoffman’s Blue Cat competition. I found that my real skills were in deconstructing a screenplay and guiding the writer in the development of their script. I read all I could on developing screenplays, structure, and what makes for a great character. I went from a reader to Sr. VP of Development. It just became a passion that I haven’t overcome. I created my own website AFILMWRITER.COM with the idea of helping writers at an affordable rate. Through word of mouth my business began to grow and expand. I also freelance for other agencies and have produced independent films. I developed a program to help teach and mentor others on how to become an effective professional screenplay reader. I enjoy nothing more than the creative process and mentoring writers in their craft.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
Like writing, I think being a screenplay reader or story analyst is a craft. It requires a fundamental understanding of the rudiments of structure, plot, tension, character, dialogue, and what makes for a great story.
I actually teach a course for potential readers. It’s an intensive course and the reader is given the opportunity to practice coverage. I’ve seen my readers grow as analysts, but like anything, it requires ongoing learning and understanding the craft, being open to visionary worlds, and having a passion for the craft. It’s not about being punitive or negative, but for me it’s about finding the strengths in the writer’s script and helping the writer build upon those strengths. I do become concerned about people who claim to be professional readers, but know little about the craft. A reader has to have the ability not only to deconstruct what’s on the page, but also to be able to deconstruct what’s not on the page.
4. What are the components of a good script?
There’s so much that goes into writing a great screenplay. It’s a skill to bring those elements together. You can have a terrific idea, but executing that idea is the major challenge. Creating an original concept, or taking a tried and true concept and telling it from a new point of view is one step in crafting good script.
Understanding structure, pace, and how tension and conflict works is pivotal to the craft. Creating deep and complex characters with not only a well-identified external goal, but with inner conflict and struggle is part of writing a great character. Giving characters strong moral choices to make and defining moments can create powerful storytelling. Powerful dialogue can propel a script. Incorporating an emotional theme that’s well assimilated into the script can make for a compelling script.
A writer should be asking questions like this: Is there a ticking clock tension and sufficient tension to sustain the story? Does this tension build? Is there a relationship component to the story? Is there a satisfying ending that involves a hero/foe conflict or confrontation?
A reader knows a great script when they can visualize it as a film in their mind vs. on the page.
For me, the most significant component of a great script is that the script provides an emotional experience, in which not only does the character learn something about life, but so do I.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
Normally, it’s the lack of the writer having the ability to convey a clear and compelling story. It can be challenging to read a script and not be able to visualize what the writer is attempting to convey. I honestly want to be able to provide constructive notes, but sometimes you run into a script and you’re simply bewildered by what the script is truly about. This commonly occurs when the writer doesn’t stay on task with the goal and the script isn’t goal-focused. The hero may not be proactive. Without a strong structure it’s going to be a long, difficult read for the reader.
For new writers, certainly professional presentation is a common mistake. First impressions are important, but these elements are easily correctable. Writing “ordinary” characters or on the nose dialogue is also more typical with new writers. Some writers tend to over write. They add dialogue when dialogue isn’t necessary and they forget the power of visual storytelling.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
I recently wrote a blogpost on this topic. Several scripts involved slacker men playing video games. Script after script, all these immature men are obsessed with video games. Some of the other common tropes for me are lines of dialogue that make me cringe. My most feared line in a script has to be: “You’ll never get away with this.” If I read a comedy, most likely in the first act the character will lose their job, get evicted, and break-up with their significant other. If the character races to the airport at the end of the script to stop the person they love from leaving, it’s not original. I have to admit I’m not fond of the script in which the world is in jeopardy of being blown up. There’s always a way of taking the tried and true, and crafting it to be more refreshing.
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
-Learn the craft. Study structure. Understand conflict and tension.
-Understand it’s a creative process. Feedback, coverage, and rewrites are part of the process. It’s not personal.
-Be passionate about what you write.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?
I have been fortunate to read some great scripts ranging from American Sniper to Killing Your Darlings to Albert Nobbs. All were recommends. I’ve read other scripts that I have given a recommend to and they are in development. On the other hand, I have given “consider” to scripts that have also been produced. I’ve watched some of films I’ve recommended and haven’t enjoyed the film as much as the script. “Rating” a script can be somewhat subjective. I’ve given recommends on scripts that others have passed on, and I’ve passed on scripts others have given considers or recommends to. The lesson for writers is that every reader is not always going to love or like your script. That’s okay. You also shouldn’t just rely on one reader. I always encourage getting coverage from more than one professional reader to get a good idea of how readers are reacting to your script. Make sure they know their craft.
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
There are many screenwriting contests, so I think the writer has to be selective in which ones they enter. It can be an opportunity for writers to get their name out in the community and receive feedback, but it’s also a business and can be costly. A writer has to remember that placing in a contest doesn’t necessarily mean the script will receive a consider or recommend from a professional reader. On the other hand, a great script may not place. Contests are very dependent on the reader you get.
10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
I am always open to writers or potential readers. They can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website afilmwriter.com
11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
Cinnamon Crumble Apple Pie.