A whole lot of something out of an almost-nothing

An apt metaphor if ever there was one
An apt metaphor if ever there was one

A bit of a snag had developed in the rewriting of outline for the pulpy adventure spec. A certain aspect of the story had proven to be too simple, as in “not complicated enough” or “lame half-assed, last-second placeholder”.

It was also falling short in terms of overall pulpy-ness.

Seeing as how this is supposed to be a rousing tale sprinkled with elements of mystery and intrigue, it just wasn’t happening.

I won’t totally jettison a story, but rather see what changes, small or drastic, can be implemented in order to get things back on track.

I don’t know how it is for other writers, but sometimes I’ll go over a previous draft, hit a word or phrase that originally didn’t hold much significance, and all of a sudden it triggers a whole new realm of possibilities. Call it the “How did I not see that before?” syndrome.

In this case, it was a character’s name. This set off the auto-immediate response of “Hmm. What if…?”

Cue the heavenly chorus.

Suffice to say, now it’s back for yet another take on the draft, but this time going into it armed with a whole new batch of ideas.

-Time for a couple of book plugs!

Friend of the blog Justin Sloan has a new book coming out this weekend – Military Veterans in Creative Careers: Interviews with our Nation’s Heroes. Some great stuff in there, including quality interviews with men and women who’ve served in the armed forces and are now working in creative fields.

If you’re looking for a little guidance on your journey to becoming a working writer, then take a look at Notes to Screenwriters by Vicki Peterson and Barbara Nicolosi, who also run the Catharsis script consulting service.

And….scene.

truman gif

I first came up with the idea of doing interviews with professional script readers and consultants just about a year ago. I was curious about how they got into this, what they looked for when reading a client’s script, and what a writer could do to develop their craft.

And of course, their favorite kind of pie.

Based on my activity in social media and having heard them on a few writing/screenwriting podcasts, I could only think of a handful of consultants.

But the more research I did, the more consultants I found and contacted, asking if they’d be interested in taking part. The number of interviews was growing exponentially. Responses were overwhelmingly positive, with many excited to be involved (with a few opting to decline for their own reasons).

What I thought would be a fun 5-week lark of a project soon snowballed into a 10-month undertaking of monumental proportions. I started with five names, and ended up with 50. Fifty. 5-0. That’s a lot.

Some of you might be wondering what I got out of this. It’s just something I’m interested in. A fascinating subject that also happens to apply to something I want to do for a living. Nobody offered me free coverage, nor did I ask, because this is how most of these folks make a living, and it would be just plain rude and tacky to ask. I’ll also admit right here that a whopping three out of the fifty offered a discount on their rates in gratitude.

As someone who has used consultants in the past, I’ve been very fortunate in getting extremely helpful feedback that’s made a big difference in making my scripts better. Hopefully other writers can connect with any of the consultants in these interviews and have the same experience.

There are those who are against the idea of using consultants, with some claiming it’s just a scam designed for the sole purpose of separating you from your money. No doubt there are some out there that fall into this category, but most tend to be legitimate. Since there are so many to choose from, I’ve always recommended good old-fashioned comparison shopping; do your research and go with the one that works best for you.

Right now it feels kind of weird to not have to worry about editing and assembling an interview to be posted next week. I’ve got a few ideas for what to do next, but for now am going to enjoy the slower pace and return my focus to developing my own material.

Naturally, I’ll be using a consultant for feedback when the need arises.

Thanks for reading.

Ask a Decidedly Ingenious Script Consultant!

Ryan Dixon

The final installment 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 Ryan Dixon of the now-defunct ScriptShark.

Ryan Dixon is the manager of ScriptShark, a creative consultation company, and a screenwriter currently writing projects for Universal, Disney and WWE Films. Previously, Ryan worked in development for Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nathanson (L.A. Confidential, Draft Day) and at such companies as Paramount, MGM/UA, IMAX, World Wrestling Entertainment, Endemol and Good in a Room. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama and Entertainment Technology Center, Ryan co-authored the graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening and co-wrote and exec-produced the upcoming feature film backstage comedy OPENING NIGHT starring Anthony Rapp (Rent) and Cheyenne Jackson (30 Rock).

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

EX MACHINA’s screenplay was masterful. It reminded me of a sci-fi version of those great meta-thriller plays of the 1970s, like DEATHTRAP and SLEUTH. P.T. Anderson did an extraordinary job with INHERENT VICE. His adaptation added a layer of depth and Los Angeles historicity that was missing in Pynchon’s fun, but flawed and rather juvenile novel.

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

As a movie-obsessed child, I used to buy shooting scripts at the late and belated Suncoast: The Movie Store. In college at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, reading scripts was part of the curriculum. My first job in Hollywood was interning for Tom Cruise’s former company CW Productions, so from that point on, I’ve been reading and covering scripts professionally in one form or another.

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

I think it’s a matter of taste. Of course, one must have a certain degree of training and skill in order to fully recognize and appreciate any craft. A classically trained musician or a fine arts scholar is better able to pinpoint the minutiae of Beethoven or Picasso. At the same time, taste is a separate sort of knowledge and instinct. A layman can find beauty if they’re a person who can digest and appreciates art for art’s sake. Nickelback’s members are studied musicians, Lisa Frank is a trained artist, and both are wildly successful in their fields. Study can hone and illuminate the elements of a craft but that can only take you so far.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The basic elements (structure, character, theme) must be superiorly executed. Next, there should be something special in the piece. Even if it’s basic genre fare, the script should include elements that make the reader sit up and say, “Wow! I haven’t seen that before.”

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

From young writers it’s always basic mistakes: mechanics, too much dialogue and/or scene direction. Sadly, these mistakes are also the easiest to avoid. What they reveal is that that writer hasn’t bothered to learn the fundamentals. This is fascinating because I can’t think of any other vocation where a similar incident would occur. If one were serious about learning to cook, a cookbook would be the first purchase. If you wanted to scuba dive, you’d take lessons before jumping head first into the ocean. While all the fundamentals are usually outstanding in the work of veteran writers, there is often a lack of courage and conviction in terms of content, as if they’re afraid to try something different for fear of being tossed out of another development meeting. If you are going to make the huge time commitment needed to write a spec script, swing for the fences. The creative dilution process can come later, once the script’s been optioned.

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

One is when characters (particularly female characters) are described solely on their looks. It tells you nothing about who a character is and often times a bit too much about the writer’s psyche.

Another is the oversaturation of beautiful people playing everyday characters. Even if you look at a movie from as recently as the 90’s, a man could be a regular guy with full chest and back hair and a woman could do a nude scene with a soft, everyday body. In contemporary films, everyone is sculpted, plucked and dyed to perfection. In this renewed Golden Age of Television, character actors are able to once again shine and it really strengthens the storylines and characters (Breaking Bad and Mad Men are obvious examples).

My wife is a screenwriter as well (and very opinionated to boot), so for better or worse, this is a constant discussion and analysis in our household. A big one for her is that men can have high-risk jobs and a strong drive, but if it’s a woman is in the same position, she needs a tragedy or a backstory. GRAVITY most recently did this—George Clooney is an astronaut because of his skill but Sandra Bullock is an astronaut because her kid died.

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

-The believability of characters is often more dependent upon the execution of other elements in the script (e.g., plot, theme, dialogue) than anything else. A trap writers (myself included) often fall into is to confuse “believable” with “realistic.” Thus the ever-present tendency to write characters who are mill workers, teachers, office drones, etc. While there’s nothing wrong with this if that’s what your script dictates, it’s also important to remember that some of the most believable characters in cinematic history were also some of the most unrealistic: E.T., Yoda, Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, etc. They’re believable not because you could see them walking down the street, but because the creators of those characters did an amazing job of creating the world in which they existed.

-Master the art of writing a “skimmable” script. We all dream of studio execs, producers, agents, etc sitting down in a quiet space and focusing fully on our script, but the truth is that they are often read in a rush during limited time frames. This is why it’s important to craft your script in a way that a decision maker can easily understand it if they are forced to skim it. You want your script to FEEL like a movie. That means, a reader should be able to zip through it in about 90 minutes. If a first time reader can’t do that, they won’t be able to envision you script as a movie no matter its other strengths.

-This is stolen but golden: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” (Stephen King, a favorite author, from ON WRITING). Lightning doesn’t just strike and no one will just hand you anything in Hollywood. Nothing comes easy in writing and you have to work yourself to the bone to get success. I track my time using my iPhone timer and a writer’s log. I make sure to always get in 6 to 8 hours of writing a day. If I’m blocked, I take a brainstorming walk. I’m not perfect. I can procrastinate with the best of them and it took a few years to build to that point. But like any exercise, it works if you keep working at it and pushing yourself.

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

Elizabethtown by Cameron Crowe. I read the script while it was in development and was never so moved or in awe of a piece of screenwriting. In the end however, the final lesson I gained from the experience was that great scripts don’t always make great movies. For whatever reason, the alchemy needed to successfully transform material from page to screen failed. This specific incident was doubly disappointing since the writer directed the piece himself and has shown time and again that he’s an immensely talented director.

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

There are only a handful of contests that will have an impact on your career if you are a top finisher. I’m hesitant to state that all the others aren’t worth it if only because placing high can be a great confidence boost to any young writer (if they have the money to spend). But if you are cash-strapped, go for the big guns and ignore the others.

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

You can visit www.ScriptShark.com or email us at ScriptShark@gracenote.com

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

Boston Cream. As a writer and eater, I like synergy and mixing genres. There’s no pie that does this better.

Working well within my wheelhouse

Hang on. This is going to be quite a ride.
Hang on. This is going to be quite a ride.

Hard as this may be to believe, but I’m actually surprised at my progress with the outline for the pulpy adventure spec.

It’s coming along much faster than I expected, and the more I work on it, the more I see things that can be tweaked/adjusted/modified so as to improve on the overall story. I’m definitely not saying it’s easy; just easier than it used to be.

Having previous drafts to work with has been a significant plus, and once I fully embraced the notion of “anything can change”, it just took off from there.

But the biggest boon to this whole thing has simply been the pure enjoyment of working on it.

I don’t make any attempt to hide my love and appreciation of the pulp style of writing, so when I work on these kinds of stories, I make a sincere effort to really put it on the page.

The swashbuckling-ness of the fantasy. The rootin’-tootin’-ness of the western. And now the spectacle and wonder of science fiction.

I really do live for this stuff. One of my mantras since the beginning has been “Write something I would want to see,” and all of these definitely fall into that category.

Some may argue that writing material like this is counter-productive to getting a career going. “Nobody’s going to take a chance on something like this from an unknown writer!”, that sort of thing. If all I end up getting out of this is a solid writing sample, that’s fine by me.

Is it wrong to think somebody could read it and say “There’s no way I could get this made, but I really like the writing. Would you be open to working on ____?”? Hopefully not.

I’m taking my time with this, and in no rush to finish. All the work I’ve done on previous scripts is paying off in terms of knowing what to do, figuring stuff out and making the story (and the eventual script) better.

I’ve said it many times before: I am having an absolute blast writing this story, and hopefully those who read the end result will too.

Ask a Million-Dollar* Script Consultant!

chris soth

*this number represents the estimated value of Mr. Soth’s advice, rather than the actual cost.

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-script advisor Chris Soth of ScreenplayMentor.com.

Writer/Director-Producer Chris Soth has authored over 40 screenplays and is a frequent speaker on the topics of story structure and independent filmmaking, teaching screenwriters around the world how to write great screenplays AND pitch them for success. Chris is the writer of Firestorm, released by 20th Century Fox, and the independent hit Outrage: Born in Terror. He is currently developing a slate of independent films, the first of which, Don’t Fall Asleep, has just received distribution. His directorial debut SafeWord is presently in post-production. Chris has taught at USC and UCLA, and currently guides screenwriters from concept to FADE OUT using the “Mini-Movie Method” in his mentorship program at ScreenplayMentor.com. His ebook “Million-Dollar Screenwriting: The Mini-Movie Method” and DVD “SOLD! How I Set Up Three Pitches in Hollywood,” among other great screenwriting resources, are available at ScreenplayMentor.com.

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

Sustaining a story for an hour or more with brilliant writing at every turn is so difficult I find myself attracted to the short form, even w/my own writing these days. That, said, we ARE in a Golden Age of Television now, with some creators getting to not only decide a story that will take five or more years to tell and lay it out beforehand — occasionally with guarantees that all the episodes will air — and not only control a very complex and novelistic story, BUT also control the rate at which it’s consumed. No artist has ever had that before, even novelists…Tolstoy could be sure reading War and Peace would take you while, but not throttle your reading speed to piecemeal over 5-8 years, the way Weiner or Gilligan have. I really appreciated how all the Mad Men were…going mad. How all of them were continually pitching a product, themselves, and none more than Dick Whitman, whose greatest pitch was Don Draper…and living in that gap between the presentation of your self and the reality, or worse, what you FEAR you are…is the madness. I think if you’re in show business, you get that. So, as I said above, hard to sustain for an hour, let alone all those years, but some amazing brilliance every single episode.

Here’s one favorite in the episode from the penultimate (full) season, where all of Sterling Cooper’s taken acid and a Hippie Flower Child puts a stethoscope to Don’s chest to listen to his heart.

HIPPIE FLOWER CHILD
Let me listen to your heart…(re: stethoscope)…it’s broken.

DON
(re: his heart) You can HEAR that…?

How long has that double entendre been staring us in the face, and how GOOD are these writers to keep giving us insight into their brilliant central character even that late in the game? He’s broken-hearted. He hides it. He always will be. A tiny thing, but the last time I remember really thinking “Wow, good writing!”.

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

My first idea was to teach a seminar in my own screenwriting structure technique, “The-Mini-Movie Method”. I did that, and also offer the resulting videos and audio course. I found a real thirst after that for hands-on expert consulting developing screenplays with expert advice on this method. I don’t really do a classic “reading”, or that’s rare anyway. I consult and help writers build scripts, usually from FADE IN. I will work with clients thru my website ScreenplayMentor.com with works-in-progress. My usual procedure, whether starting fresh, or jumping in partway, is to outline a vision for the next draft and mentor and guide it, page by page (Mini-Movie by Mini-Movie) until Fade Out…then I’ll read the resulting, and much stronger, screenplay thereafter. I started my side business after some success as a writer myself, because I really like to work everyday, but like different work and different stories and continually changing ideas. Also, the steady work and income that my consulting provides lets a guy with a daughter in college sleep at night even between studio writing assignments.

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

I absolutely think so. There are certainly rules, best practices, etc. Some so oft-repeated they become cliches: “Show, don’t tell”, etc. But developing an aesthetic for what good writing and what good storytelling is, should be vital to each and every writer. We all want to make THE BEST MOVIE EVER, right? Well, if we have no yardstick for measuring quality, how will we do that?

4. What are the components of a good script?

The list goes on and on. Most important and first: TENSION. A hope and fear for a viewer/read to root for and root against. So I’ll use this as another opportunity to say it: TENSION, specifically TENSION REDUCTION is the source of ALL pleasure we take in drama and in story. A good story will continually build tension, every beat, every scene, every sequence and release that tension in an explosive and gratifying climax…make sure YOURS does. I’ll leave it there.

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

The lack of tension, of course. Unnecessary scenes, which I define above as scenes that don’t build or add to tension. It seems common to the point of epidemic that first acts run 45 pages in early drafts, and writers are often still setting up dominos as they break into the third act…dominoes that should have been set up WELL before, often in act one and should be falling with dramatic cataclysm and knocking over BIGGER dominoes now… A lacking “narrative drive” that makes each story event seem, in retrospect, inevitable, not arbitrary. It seems like many early drafts are written just to fill pages, but there IS a perfect twist for the end, the midpoint, the first act, that is dictated by the concept or idea…

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

References to other movies or TV shows. You have to be very clever and original to do this well, and it fails most of the time, Quentin Tarantino aside, and even HE blows it a lot of the time.

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

-TENSION = Hope versus Fear  (T = H v. F is the E = MC squared of story) After that, I’ve never thought what might come second, let alone third, but I’ll put a few down here.

-Don’t get it write, get it written. The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t.

-Craft character to story and story to character by asking, over and over: Who’s THE WORST person for these events to happen to, and What’s THE WORST thing that could happen to THIS person?

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

I don’t do a classic read, nor grade on that studio scale, nor should I probably divulge the scripts of my clients here, but MANY come to mind. I read a screenplay every day my first year at USC and the ones that really stood out are THE PRINCESS BRIDE and FIELD OF DREAMS. Both made me cry more than the movies made from them had, the first because it does actually exceed the movie in the sheer beauty of the writing, I like the movie fine, tho’ I’m not in the cult, but the SCRIPT…oh, that script…the second perhaps more for memories of seeing the movie itself.

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

I never had any luck with them. But I think they’re a real tool for getting your work read and getting exposure these days.

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

Everyone’s welcome to contact me at chrissoth@aol.com, chrissoth@gmail.com or look at ScreenplayMentor.com

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

Easiest question. My mom’s chocolate chess pie. I grew up eating this at Thanksgiving instead of pumpkin pie and had to learn to make it myself when I struck out on my own. I’ll have it all through the holidays and Mom still makes it for us when we come home. I’ve only found one restaurant that serves it, but just developed a lead on another in Los Angeles, so stay tuned…