Q & A with Terry McFadden

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Terry McFadden came up through the ranks as a playwright having been produced
throughout the United States, the UK and Australia and winning several awards. From there he worked as a script consultant for ARD Television, Radio and Films and Eternity Pictures before starting off on his own. He has had the good fortune of giving studio notes to producers on scripts that got made such as THE GOOD GIRL, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE.

As the founder of Story Builders Script Doctor & Writing Services, he has covered, analyzed, given notes and consulted on hundreds of screenplays, TV pilots and story ideas and is dedicated to helping writers find and hone their own unique voice.

What’s the last thing you read or watched you thought was incredibly well-written?

JOKER. Without question. The absolute best script of 2019. From the very first page I loved the writing. Now, a lot of it is because I so identify with the charm and depth, the way it was done, the thematic and stylistic elements hit me right off. Not only was the lead character great and unique but he starts out as a very human but weird guy who has issues—issues that are clearly foreshadowed and then evolved. The story makes clear and piece by piece layers in not only his mental and delusional maladjustments but the idea that the way things turn out, as a result of his upbringing and belief systems and how he sees himself and world, is the only way it can end. This is developed wonderfully.

Screenwriters are taught to look at story, the characters and their arc, the twists, the spins, the reversals, the progressive development and surprises; a solid and rising structure with the catalyst plot points, midpoint, and the rest. All of that was there in JOKER but what kept me turning pages was the way it all weaved back in—supporting and commenting on what is already going on adding dimension. A real fresh slant on how he becomes not only his own hero but also the hero of those in need of such a person. The metaphors, the allegories, the songs, the running symbolic commentary—all snaking back and endorsing what is going on or will be, was both unpredictable, cool, necessary yet not seen coming in that way. Very well done.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I started as a musician. Eight years old, I’m taking guitar lessons and my Dad tosses me onstage with “Tommy Schaefer’s Country/Polka Band at Jim Thorpe Memorial Park”. Music is a big part of everything I do. Writing is music. I came to formal writing at Penn State, penning funny essays about people and teachers. But it took off in Los Angeles in 1993 or so, when I began to write short scenes and monologues for the theatre. I became a member of Actors Art Theatre in Hollywood and remained there for four and a half years—this is where I really developed my style of writing.

Writing scenes progressed to ten-minute plays, short plays and one acts. The director and founder of the theatre was a real mentor to me and a great means of support. From there I studied at UCLA and AFI, did coverage and analysis for several production companies for a while, continued to write, act and produce plays and scripts. I then went out on my own as a script doctor.

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

Absolutely – for both. The “craft”, to me, comes first. Learning about story, character development and structure–how to turn an idea into 110 pages of course, is the gig here. So in order for me to recognize it, I had to learn it. I had to discover what structure does, why and how–what makes great story points and all of the rest. When you are reading tons of scripts and attending workshops and seminars by a lot of the great teachers like I have, the recognition of good writing becomes second nature because you’re also seeing bad writing and discovering why.

Writers who want to grow and become better intuitively know they need some help. My job is to provide that while showing them their promise as well. Their promise is what we develop. Writers who are open to and then apply good notes will see right off how it betters the work—this is “being taught”.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A memorable story, clear and fresh characters and building structure as I mentioned above, but for most of us, that’s a given. Good scripts need to be engaging and surprising too.

Stories that emotionally move you as well as make you feel that you are there. The mark of great writing is a piece that has the reader or audience invested and rooting, one way or the other – eliciting an emotional response. Even though readers may not identify with the situation they will identify with the emotional life of what the character is going through, the actions and the way the characters behave, and this is because of the human experience.

What I consider the most important component of all of this is that the writer tell the story in a fashion that only her or she could—their own unique voice. This is who they are and how they see the world that nobody else does. The first thing I look at when reviewing a script is the description and I ask myself, “is this textbook or is this from a perspective that I’ve never seen before?” A script that has a unique and personal voice to it is already leagues ahead as the writer understands not just story, but “their” story and how to get that across.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

Lack of prep and what’s worse, thinking that you don’t need it. Okay, great ideas make great stories but only if the idea is turned into a script that encompasses the story and structural elements to evolve, build, grow, sustain and resolve in 110 pages.

Another mistake is writing “pot-boilers”, that is, trying to copy what is out there without having a believably sustaining basis for the human aspect. Without a strong and personal character take, motivation, true want and need, you’re writing purely externals. Externals don’t get it for me. I need to know why.

Another mistake is that Act Two putters out and the scenes begin to get episodic and meandering. Biggest one is protagonist trade-offs: The protagonist, because of lack of drive, stakes, want and need is passive so the action is progressed by secondary characters thus confusing the lines and creating tangential sub-plots that do not correspond with the concept or original goal of the protagonist. I am a big proponent of using an outline. Sure, you could waver from it, but, do so in the context of the story that you are now familiar with—this is true and correct inspiration. Write an outline or treatment and get notes on that first. You’ll save yourself not only time but ego deflation and bouts of self-doubt. All comes down to execution on the page.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’d have to say voice-over as it’s so overused. If you’re going to use a narrator, and this goes for all devices and conventions, ask how is this still serving the story yet different, adding, and, could it only come from me? Is the narrator a character? Do they know the ending? Are they commenting in a way that goes against the cliché? Are they oblivious, dumb, judgmental? Are they an active character? Also, mentors who are older and have it somewhat together.

Photos on the wall or mantle showing who the characters were and what they did before we see them. I feel that exposition should be meted out when essential and in story forwarding form in crucial times and scene beats.

Lastly, villains that are too dark and mean. My take is that antagonists and villains are the protagonist in their own story; they’re just at cross-purposes with the hero. If you can show why antagonists do what they do and their reasoning, it’ll be more interesting. Watch the original FRANKENSTEIN bopping and stumbling all over the place, and tell me you don’t feel for him.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

Write dialogue that differentiates the character as per who they are, their world, POV and experiences. Dialogue that only they could say.

Make sure it’s your world; your voice; your take—only you could have written this. The hook, the take, the scenario and the point of view could have only come from you. Not just overall conflict but inner scene conflict between the characters needs to be present evolving and resolved in some fashion, especially if they’re on the same side. Individual stakes and progressive character function is vital.

Do not have a character if he or she does not only have a role but also a function. How are they influencing the story and the hero? What happens to turn the story because of them?

Keep us guessing. Great scripts set up surprises, twists and reversals that catch readers off-guard yet make sense as per the foreshowing early on. There is no such thing as “out of the blue” (some comedies and farce exempt) even if you think it is. Everything that happens in Act Three is foreshadowed in some way and credible to this story.

Be open to changes; be open to collaboration; be open to notes that are going to improve the vision overall. Screenwriters are subjective and we need another pair of eyes that are not our own. We need to understand that getting sold, published and produced demands active collaboration. Get notes, shut up or drive a bus. Keep writing. This is a process and you learn as you go. Will you get better at it as you go? Probably. Will you evolve as a writer? Absolutely.

Have you ever read a spec script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Yes. I reviewed a coming of age drama, a TV pilot, that looks at one night in the lives of several late-teen/early 20’s pizza delivery-service workers, concurrently and from all of their points of view. So different were the characters yet all dealing with their own private teen angst. Phenomenal use of subtext; great devices and conventions that were imaginative, unseen before yet fell right in line with the voice and concept.

This slice of life story very convincingly depicted the trials of young adults searching for love but settling for sex and left me with the feeling of hope and the promise of their journeys to come. Because this pilot opened up so many possibilities for all four of the leads, I felt it could go for many episodes and progress uniquely as well. Great writing.

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

Only if you do well. Screenwriting contests can help leverage a career but again, you need to have a good script that is recognized by the contest. Bigger question is how are you going to get your script out there? Contests are simply one road and not for all of us.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

You can check out my website at www.storybuilderswrite.com. I’m also on Twitter at @Storybuilderz and on LinkedIn at  https://www.linkedin.com/in/storybuilders/

I also have a new e-book entitled, “That Sounds Like Me’ – ‘Implementing your Own Unique Voice into Act I of your Screenplay or TV Script’. The book takes a comprehensive approach to the usual refrains on getting your life and slant on the page. By delving into how the writer’s natural voice need influence all aspects of the process, it demonstrates how story tools such as Opening Image; Character Construction; Backstory and Exposition; Hooks; Allegories, Metaphors and Themes work together, complement each other, are part of the same world and why. Go to my website and sign in and I’ll send you the book for free, as a gift to you.

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

Ha! I’m going to bend the genre here and go with New York Cheesecake – graham cracker crust and bottom.

new_york_cheesecake

Q & A with Paul W. Cooper

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Paul W. Cooper has been a working freelance television and motion picture screenwriter for more than thirty years. With over 60 television credits and one feature film, his awards include three Emmys, the Humanitas Prize, Writers Guild Award and the Kairos Prize.

He wrote the critically acclaimed film ONCE UPON A TIME…WHEN WE WERE COLORED winning Best Picture honors at the Movie Guide Awards. His television credits include MURDER, SHE WROTE, HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and THE WALTONS. He served as Story Editor on Oprah Winfrey’s dramatic series BREWSTER PLACE, and has instructed Film and Television Writing at Pepperdine University.

Paul has written 21 ABC and CBS AFTERSCHOOL SPECIALS dealing with subject matter exploring every significant social issue including incest, alcoholism, physical abuse, homosexuality and racism. A number of these projects won Emmys as Best Television Specials for their significant social and dramatic impact.

Paul has written a number of films for cable television, which have appeared on Showtime, Disney, the Animal Planet and Family Channels. He wrote THE MALDONADO MIRACLE for Showtime, produced and directed by Salma Hayek. It earned 5 Emmy nominations and won the Writers’ Guild Award. His film for the Hallmark Channel, THE NOTE was the highest rated Hallmark movie of 2007 and 3rd highest rated of all time.

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

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Visually stunning. I ached for the characters.

Two of my favorite genres to write in are straight drama and crime. There are two screenplays I constantly refer to so I’m certain the last material I read are one or both of these screenplays. The first is TERMS OF ENDEARMENT by James L. Brooks. It’s the only screenplay that actually brought me to tears while reading. The second is the crime drama SEA OF LOVE by Richard Price.

Here’s my practice. After I’ve written ten pages, I will pick up my dog-eared and worn copy of SEA OF LOVE. I’ll read ten pages (any ten) then come back to the last ten pages I wrote. Now I find myself re-writing those pages with a different tempo. I’ll knock out words from the dialogue to give it a more staccato and street feel. My shoot-outs become more cinematic because now I’m trying to write UP to Richard Price’s standard. And the more I do that, the better writer I become.

When I write a drama-charged relationship story, I use Terms of Endearment the same way. Again, I’m always trying to write UP to the standards of the masters. So those are two works I refer to constantly and believe are incredibly well-written.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I learned I had a knack for writing when, in the 8th grade, the class was assigned to write a short story. Once I started, I couldn’t stop and the world of fiction opened up before me. From that time on I wrote stories, plays, songs and poetry. But I never considered pursuing writing as a career. I was eminently practical and got my degree in business administration.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

There was a war raging in Vietnam when I graduated college. Rather than being drafted, I joined the Air Force, attended Officer Training School, then pilot training. I was a pilot in the Strategic Air Command for six years. I got assignments all over the world including three tours of the war zone and came back registering 61 combat sorties. As a crewmember in SAC, I was also required to sit alert for seven day periods. The Strategic Air Command was our first line of offense in the event of a nuclear war. So we had to be ready. And that meant living in an underground alert facility (mole hole) for those seven-day tours. There’s not a lot to do while waiting for the horn to go off. Guys played poker, shot pool or watched TV.

One night I was watching an episode of MEDICAL CENTER and thought “I can do that”. So I went to my little bombproof room, took out a spiral notebook and started writing. I had never seen a film or television script and had no idea about formatting. So I wrote my story like a play, drowning it in terms like cut to, fade out, dissolve etc. When finished I was optimistically excited and immediately began writing another episode. Then I branched out and wrote for other series popular at the time; MARCUS WELBY, THE WALTONS, SANFORD AND SON, MCMILLAN AND WIFE, and others. Now, none of these scripts was very good, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was I was writing stories, creating characters, giving those characters words to speak. And I loved the sensation, the power I had over these fictional “people” and their lives.

After a year or so of writing television “scripts” I thought it was time for the entertainment world to be exposed to my heretofore undiscovered talent. I wrote to the Writers Guild of America and they sent me a packet of useful information, including a list of agents. So I began firing my material off to agents who would summarily return fire with a politely worded rejection letter and my envelope unopened. Dissolve to a year later when I met my future wife, an Air Force nurse. On a blind date, I discovered she had lived next door to the sister of Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of THE WALTONS. What do you know, I had written two Waltons episodes. Through that connection I contacted Earl and he graciously agreed to read my scripts. I sent them and a week later, he called me and said I should be in Hollywood writing for television. So off to Hollywood I went, Earl became my mentor who put me in touch with an agent, and I was on my way.

Sad to say, my story only reinforces the notion that you have to know someone in the business in order to get into the business.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

People ask, what is or are the most important elements of a screenplay. Some will say character. Others say story. But the answer is – structure. You may have the most beloved character since Hoke (DRIVING MISS DAISY) and an absolute jaw-dropping story (THE RIGHT STUFF), but unless the pieces are stacked properly, the whole construct collapses.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

The thing I see most often is that a story is derivative. Nothing new. All the same old plowed ground. And this, of course, makes stories predictable. I believe it was William Goldman who said, “Always give the audience what they want, but in a way they didn’t expect.” If it’s true there is no story new under the sun, then at least get us to the desired ending by way of a different road.

Too many words, not enough story. I will often tell a student, “You have a 105-page script here but it only contains 65 pages of story.”

My pet peeves are typos, misspellings and grammatical errors. There’s no excuse for these infractions. They label the writer careless at best and illiterate at worst and create an unfavorable impression for the reader.

Other mistakes are what I call re-hash and deadwood. Never tell the reader what he already knows. And omit anything that doesn’t relate to the premise. Keep the story ever moving forward.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not a fan of superheroes. It always comes down to the hero battling with an equally powerful villain in an epic cinematic struggle only possible with CGI. Yes, it’s visually impactful, but for me, cartoonish. No matter what the bad guy throws at the hero, he/she
always recovers and comes back for more. After ten minutes of lightning bolts being hurled and mushroom clouds rising over the city, I’m bored.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know? 

-Determine what your premise is. This is found by asking who your hero is and what does he/she want, need or desire. You should be able to state your premise in ten words or less. The premise of Romeo and Juliet is Romeo desires Juliet (boy wants girl). Indy wants to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Rocky needs to go the distance. The premise is your searchlight that must always be in view as you write the story. If it disappears, you’ve taken a wrong turn.

-Be aware of the third question — why do we care? We must be endeared to the hero (or despise the villain) and the hero’s goal must be worthy and important. The implication is obvious. If we’re not emotionally attached to the hero, we won’t care what happens. And if his goal isn’t both worthy and important, we won’t care if he attains it.

-Until the premise is revealed, the story is pointless. In other words, until the audience knows what the hero WANTS, the story has nowhere to go. Example: In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we open with Indy in an Amazon jungle cave stealing some artifact. He barely
escapes with his life and manages to return to his work as a professor at Chicago University. Now what does any of that have to do with the Lost Ark? Nothing. Indy has stated no particular goal so the story is nowhere. But then… he learns of the existence of
the Ark and decides to find it before the Nazis get hold of it. Now the premise becomes, Indy WANTS the Ark. And everything he does from that point on is aimed at achieving his goal. I like to see the premise revealed within the first 20 pages.

-Love is a process. You can’t just put two people together in a story and tell us they’re in love. We may believe it but we won’t feel it. You MUST give us the scenes showing us the behavior that causes one person to fall in love with another. What is it in her that he needs? What does he have that makes her desire him? And it can’t be only physical attraction. We know that people in bars can be physically attracted, fall into bed and the next morning regret it and never see each other again. That’s lust, not love.

-Once the hero has attained his goal… THE STORY IS OVER. Think of it this way. You’re watching a film full of danger and intrigue keeping you on the edge of your seat as the hero hurtles ever onward toward his worthy and important goal. The drama builds. Tension is unbearable. Then, in the exciting climax, the battle between good and evil is waged and the hero wins (or loses as in a tragedy). At that moment, all of the dramatic tension that was built is released like air out of a balloon. At this point, the audience is ready to rise and file out of the theater. THE STORY IS OVER. A common mistake these days is for a writer to keep going with the story even though there is no more tension to be derived. Yes, you often have to spend time to tie up loose ends but this must be done
quickly so you can get out and fade out.

-Think about what the audience is seeing onscreen. I often read a scene wherein two people are at a restaurant. They order. The waitress leaves. The two people converse for about thirty seconds and the waitress returns with their chateaubriand.

-Think of a script as a document of information. Something happens. And that something is first registered in the brain, right? We see and hear the event. Now if that information stops in the brain (intellect), then you’ve failed as a writer. Once it registers in the intellect, then it must go further into the heart or the gut. Those are the places emotion comes from.

-Character development occurs when we create the scenes that show the character behaving in the manner we want him identified with. Don’t tell us Joe is wonderful, he’d give his shirt off his back. Give us the scene where Joe gives the shirt off his back or “Saves the Cat.” Don’t tell us Sam is so evil he’d stick a knife in his grandma’s back. Give us the scene where Sam not only stabs his grandma in the back, but then twists the knife. Those scenes hit straight at the heart and gut.

You’ve written for both TV and film. How does writing for one medium compare to the other?

No difference unless you’re writing for a series. Then you have time (page count) considerations. I’ve written a number of movies for cable television and every one I wrote as though writing a feature film

Have you ever read a spec script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Yes. And the reasons are hard to explain. First, it followed all of the requirements listed above concerning proper mechanics, economy, etc., but beyond that it grabbed my interest on page 2 and never let me go. It had complication, conflict and invention. It gave me the satisfying ending I wanted but in a way that was unexpected.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

Go to my website at www.PaulCooperScreenwriting.com or my IMDb site: http://www.imdb.me/paulw.cooper

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

Coconut cream. The best I ever found was in a little diner/pie shop in Williams, Arizona. My wife and I always stop there on our trips between California and Oklahoma.

coconut cream

Q & A with Jeff Kitchen

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Jeff Kitchen was classically trained in playwriting technique, specializing in the work of the groundbreaking Broadway script doctor William Thompson Price.

Jeff worked as a dramaturg in the New York theater, Playwrights Preview Productions (now Urban Stages) and taught playwriting on Broadway at the Negro Ensemble Company. He then started teaching screenwriting and has taught for over twenty years in small high-intensity hands-on groups.

He teaches the craft of the dramatist, advanced structural technique, the core of dramatic action, script analysis, and plot construction. Jeff is a sought-after script doctor, plot construction specialist, and rewrite consultant.

He has taught his techniques to development execs from all the major Hollywood studios and they consistently say that he teaches the most advanced development tools in the industry.

One of his students, Ted Melfi, was recently nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Awards for his film about the black women mathematicians at NASA, Hidden Figures.

Jeff is the author of the book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting. Jeff is now doing high-intensity training programs for professional scriptwriters as well as script consulting.

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

Narcos: Mexico on Netflix. It was so gripping, so watchable. Hard to believe it was true. I kept telling my wife how great it is, and said to her several times I thought it was better than The Godfather. They move through so much story in just two seasons, with so much intensity and depth, great casting and acting, great writing, and so much material to weave together. The corruption makes your blood boil; the loss, the genius, the brutality, the nobility, the adventure, the chess game, the betrayal, the power and murder and love and ambition, and the pure history—there’s so much going on and it’s so compelling.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I was mostly self-taught. A friend who was a playwright taught me the basics of Aristotle and gave me two old obscure books on playwriting to read. They were quite fascinating and very difficult, but I spent three years studying them intensely. The guy who wrote one of them, William Thompson Price, was a pioneering Broadway script doctor for top producers pre-1920 and he founded the first school of playwriting ever in the history of the world. Twenty-four of his twenty-eight students had hits on Broadway.

Price created several seriously groundbreaking tools for the dramatist and I emerged with a mastery of what he created, then improved on them and taught these tools nonstop for twenty years. People kept saying they’d never seen anything like what I taught and said they worked better than anything they’d seen. I trained development execs at all the major Hollywood studios and they consistently said I taught the most advanced development tools in the industry. So I found these old tools and ideas for tools, and studied them like crazy, then synthesized them into their current form. I taught and consulted with them for years, and got deeply experienced with them from working hands-on with them on thousands of students’ works in progress.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The short answer to that question is my 352-page book, Writing a Great Movie. Of course I can say something in a paragraph or two, but a proper answer can go deep and wide and long. A great premise, first of all, because if your raw idea sucks, then no amount of structure or character or storytelling elbow grease will get that clunker up in the air as a commercially viable project. In the industry, it’s called Polishing a Turd. I always say well-structured crap is still crap. So start with a great idea.

Also crucial is a good strong Dilemma of Magnitude for the protagonist, but it’s not easy in such a brief format to properly communicate how to make that one dilemma occupy the full proportion of the script, build to a Crisis, force Decision and Action in the face of crisis, and then conclude with the protagonist’s active Resolution of the dilemma. The way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma expresses the Theme, and it’s crucial to have a solid sense of theme as you build your story. You need distinct characters who are deep and complex and colorful in various ways, and who are deeply flawed, contradictory and universal.

You need attack as a storyteller, so you’re not making safe, cliché, or stock choices. Your script must be actable and it has to be stageworthy. The action of the story must move ahead aggressively, with nothing unnecessary bogging it down. It needs good cause and effect, escalating conflict, structural unity, dramatic action, and so much more. But mostly, it has to hit the audience where they live. If it doesn’t connect to the audience, then it’s not compelling.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

Weak ideas, lack of imagination, lack of attack, poor execution, poor structure, lazy storytelling, stale characters, lack of depth, lack of color, overwriting, over-describing, overbearing, too much exposition, attempting to dictate an emotional response rather than earning it, lack of empathy for the main characters, underpowered ending, doesn’t pass the So What? test, crappy dialog, boring, derivative, packs no punch, uneven tone, peters out, holes in the story’s logic, lack of conflict, no clear goal for the protagonist, stupid, a simple plot vs a complex plot, episodic, formulaic, wooden characters, preachy, predictable, miserable writing skills, lack of follow-through, writing not cinematic, story not commercially viable, no sense of vision, no entertainment value, flat dramatically, lack of magnitude.

Just to name a few.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not sure how many more serial killers I want to read about, or how many more procedurals, or special forces dudes, or nuclear annihilation. They can all get tiresome, but it obviously has to do with the execution, because each of them can kick serious ass when done well. But I think that things like a serial killer can be just a cardboard prop or a vastly overused excuse to write something brutal and adventurous for people who can’t or won’t do the work to go deeper and find a freakier way to mess with people’s heads.

Watch a movie like Bad Boy Bubby or Bad Lieutenant with Harvey Keitel to see something fresh and wacko. People sleepwalk through the writing process sometimes, and it’s tedious because so many people are out there writing the same warmed-over tales. There’s probably room for a story about a serial killer who kills writers who are writing about serial killers.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

Shake things up. You’re a writer. Do something to me, mess with my head, defy my expectations, violate my sense of how a story should go. Tell a story that really tweaks me, that seriously makes me care, that grabs me by the throat and makes me notice. Make me fall in love, or go through something unimaginable, or face death, or embrace life—but do it full tilt and do it well. I don’t need the same old tired stories coming at me all day long. I’m looking for adventure, depth, love, heartbreak, power, in any genre.

Make the overall structure for your story work first. If it does not, then the details do not matter. A beautifully written scene in a script that doesn’t work is meaningless. It’s like having an ornately finished room in a house that’s falling down. Learn to work from the general to the particular. Make the overall story work, then make each act work, then each sequence, and then each scene. You gradually develop and dramatize your work as you build it.

Learn to separate the Necessary from the Unnecessary. The work of the amateur is characterized by the Unnecessary. Dialogue and description are overwritten, scenes may not be needed, whole sequences may only be dead weight, sometimes an entire act can end up being unnecessary, and in fact your entire script may be unnecessary. Which may sound funny, but it’s not. The Unnecessary kills scripts. Most scripts are unreadable—and that means 98% of them—UN-READ-ABLE. Atrocious. And in many instances, the Unnecessary plays a major part in how unreadable it is. Clean, crisp cause and effect separates the Necessary from the Unnecessary, and moves the action of the story ahead crisply and cleanly.

Master the craft of the dramatist. Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s tricky, it’s slippery, it’s hard to pin down, hard to predict, and hard to diagnose or cure. But the more craft you’ve got, the more mastery you have in addressing every type of problem. People forget that scriptwriting is a performance medium—intended to be acted out in front of an audience in such a way that it’s gripping. So take the time to really learn your craft, to master it. Because almost doesn’t count, and people don’t want to read scripts that could have been good but the writer didn’t have the chops to make it work.

Take the time to build or discover deep, complex, dynamic, unpredictable, flawed, dimensional characters. Explore the Enneagram (EnneagramInstitute.com is a great resource) for each of your main characters because it’s such a remarkably powerful resource. A mixture of ancient wisdom about human nature and cutting-edge psychology, it purports that there are nine basic personality types, and each of these types has a healthy aspect, an average aspect, and unhealthy aspects. This helps you go deep and complex, to develop substantial flaws, hidden strengths, the mechanics of failure, a path to greatness, and complex, sophisticated human emotional reality.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book Writing A Great Movie?

I wanted to get down on paper the know-how I’d accrued from teaching non-stop for eighteen years while it was still white hot. I had always taught small hands-on classes, maximum six people, and each person had to bring a script idea with them to develop so I could really get them using the tools. This helped them not only learn how to use the tools, but their scripts improved so much in the process that word of mouth on my classes was through the roof. I never taught large groups because the material was too complex. I knew that if I just talked at people about sophisticated techniques without showing them how to really use the tools that it would be mostly useless, because they couldn’t go home and use it to build their own script.

But when they started doing a big Screenwriter’s Expo in LA, they dragged me into teaching 150 people at a time. And there were riots outside my classroom of people trying to get in, so I realized that with this many people having heard about my training, it was time to write my book. So I cranked one out and self-published it by the next year’s Expo and sold a lot of them. I shopped that version and it got me a lit agent in New York who got me a publishing deal at Watson Guptill where two phenomenal editors helped bring out the best in my writing.

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What about this one makes it unique?

Not only are the tools unique, unusual and powerful, but I worked hard to emulate the hands-on aspect of my small classes in which I worked with each participant on their script as I explained the tools. So I explain, illustrate, and demonstrate each of seven tools in the first half of the book, and then I build a real script from scratch in the second half of the book, using all the tools. I start with a one-line idea and build the whole script, demonstrating the full use of the tools as I utilize them to create, develop, structure and write it.

Because I was rewriting the self-published edition, my editor wanted to clean up the second half of the book. I argued, saying that it had to remain unvarnished because the process of using these tools to create from scratch is necessarily messy. I needed it to remain fumbling and exploratory and rough, because cobbling a story together and dramatizing it is like feeling your way along in the dark. And I wanted to show them the raw reality, not the cleaned-up varnished version.

In the introduction to part two, I say that the first half of the book is as different from the second half as training in medical school is from working in an Emergency Room, or as studying a bear in the zoo is from wrestling one in the wilderness. I jump from tool to tool bootstrapping the story into existence, using Dilemma, the Enneagram, the 36 Dramatic Situations, Crisis, Theme, Research and Brainstorming all at the same time. And then I put the story through two structural tools, the Central Proposition and Sequence, Proposition, Plot, which help dramatize the narrative, strip out everything that’s unnecessary to the forward action of the story, and create consistent, coherent, compelling Dramatic Action.

I build the whole script with my readers looking over my shoulder, and I think it did a good job of showing the tools in action in order to give the reader genuine know-how and experience in utilizing the tools.

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

The top five or ten are definitely worth it and have launched many careers. I myself wouldn’t bother with many others, but it totally depends on what you’re up to as a writer. If you just want to put your stuff out there to see what people think of it, then you can use it as a learning opportunity. But you can also just hire somebody to give you notes on your script and that might give you more specific feedback. But there are books and websites that can help you sort the contests for value, and people who know everything about them, and they’re definitely worth taking a look at as part of a career strategy.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

My website is BuildYourScript.com and I can be contacted through there or directly at jeffkitchen88@gmail.com. I offer a free class on Reverse Cause and Effect at my site. This is a powerful class that shows how to take a story you’ve roughed out and work backward from the ending, chaining backward from each effect to its cause. This enables you to stitch together the main building blocks of your story, and then to gradually flesh out the details as they become necessary. I demonstrate the process in action by working on a real script.

There’s also a paid class on a remarkably powerful plot construction tool called Sequence, Proposition, Plot which is a groundbreaking way to structure and develop your script, working from the big picture down to the details. I do consults on scripts as well as private classes on technique. One of the coolest things I do is to help people build their script from scratch, or to work with them rebuilding it once they’ve gotten a script up and running.

I’m about to roll out a high-intensity training program for scriptwriters that I’m really excited about. It’s an online immersion program in which I train apprentices for a year as we work together building multiple scripts. We’ll work two hours a day, plus one hour of homework, five days a week. In what’s called a Community of Practice, I communicate know-how through using the tools to build real scripts on the spot, and I also have students do extensive drills and rigorous exercises, handling the tools, practicing them over and over, and learning to think in that language until it all becomes second nature.

This type of learning process is called Cognitive Apprenticeship, in which writers work hand-in-glove with me to learn how to think like me. I communicate both explicit knowledge and the more ambiguous but crucial tacit knowledge, that feel for things which is indispensable for full expertise. This will be a high-intensity program, similar to a trade school, followed by a year in which I work with these highly-trained writers on building their own scripts. They will emerge as trained dramatists with key skills and experience, who can forge a career as working writers.

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

It’s hard to pick, but right now I’d have to go with cherry.

cherry pie 2

Q & A with Jim Vines

Jim Vines

A Beast Is Born COVER (High Resolution) (COMPRESSED)

Jim Vines has been a screenwriter and script consultant for a number of years. His first produced film was THE PERFECT TENANT (2000). He has optioned several of his scripts and has also been commissioned to write or rewrite scripts for numerous producers. He has written a play (staged in 2009), a web series (2009), a book of interviews with screenwriters (2006), and “indie-published” his first novel in 2015. His latest book, A BEAST IS BORN, was released in 2019.

Jim, who was born in New York City but grew up in Los Angeles, and currently lives atop a hill that affords a truly inspirational view of the Hollywood sign.

What was the last thing you read/watched you considered to be extremely well-written?

I kinda hate to say this, but I don’t watch TV per se, so if you asked me to name two or three top TV shows, well, I probably couldn’t do it. But a few years ago, I thought MAD MEN was great. (I should point out the reason I don’t watch scripted TV is that I’m an avid watcher of documentaries and interview shows found on YouTube.) As for theatrical movies, I haven’t been to a new release in about eight years. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD got me back into a theater. I had high hopes for that one. All I’ll say is: I didn’t care for it.

I do a decent bit of reading and tend to go through a lot of biographies. A recent one was of Stanley Kubrick written by Vincent LoBrutto, which was pretty fascinating. I just did a re-read of Jack Kerouac’s excellent THE TOWN AND THE CITY. A few months ago I read Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH which I really enjoyed. I also finally read the Daniel Keyes novel FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, which was pretty amazing. I just finished reading Anne Tyler’s rather poignant novel A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD and wrapped up the audio-book of the classic TRUE GRIT, written by Charles Portis (who passed away recently).

As you can probably ascertain by these titles, I’m drawn to stories about people and their plights, their struggles, where they’re trying to understand where they fit in with the rest of the world. This is what I find interesting.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

It was 1994 and I had been writing scripts with the intent to sell for four or five years. I knew this low-budget producer – she really liked a thriller script I’d written, so she optioned it. She never did get the script off the ground, but at least I knew my writing was solid enough to garner interest from producers. I kept sending scripts out. A couple of years later another opportunity came my way in the form of a script assignment from a budding producer who had read some of my work a year or so before. There was no up-front money but he was pretty certain he could sell the script to a production company where he had connections. So, I wrote the script (based on his story)—and he actually got it sold!

It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the next few years, but the script was eventually produced and the movie did quite well on the cable TV circuit. It played constantly on cable and broadcast stations here in the United States and also around the world (I know this because I’d received some pretty decent foreign royalty checks, which was nice). Having this credit on my resume made getting meetings, script assignments – everything from page one rewrites to doctoring scripts- and optioning original scripts a wee bit easier.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

You need to have interesting and/or compelling characters that people will feel something for. Even if it’s a bad guy, you have to give him (or her) at least a smidgen of humanity. Look at Hans Gruber in DIE HARD. Sure, he was a cold-blooded killer – but c’mon, he had such a great sense of humor! You should have a story that continually moves forward and doesn’t get bogged down. I can’t tell you how many novice scripts I’ve read where ten pages goes by and NOTHING happens. It’s just dialogue or superfluous actions that might seem cool or interesting while you’re writing it, but has virtually nothing to do with the story being told.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

-Write screenplays because you love to write and love telling stories, not because you
think you’re gonna get rich and famous. (Quick, who won the Best Screenplay Oscar last
year?)

-Writing is work—and if you’re not willing to put your rear end in a chair and your
fingers on the keyboard on pretty much of a daily basis, you probably need to find
another career path.

-Rules were meant to be broken, but first know these rules before you break them.

-Rewriting is your friend.

-Formatting isn’t what makes a script sellable. Sure, you need to get it all looking nice and proper, but the actual words you put on those 100 pages—this is what you need to focus on.

-There is no one particular way to write a screenplay. Your job is to discover the method
that works best for YOU.

-Don’t rush things. Send your scripts out only when they’re ready. As they say, you only
have one chance to make a first impression. If you send an agent or producer a script
that’s still pretty rough, chances are they won’t want to read any of your future work.

It’s my opinion—and I’ve done over 200 critiques/evaluations—that about 99% of all
novice screenplays are nowhere near marketable shape, so please, don’t write your first
two or three screenplays intending to sell them; write them merely for the purposes of
learning the craft.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book A BEAST IS BORN?

For a long time I’ve wanted to chronicle the writing, marketing, production, and afterlife of one of my projects. I just never got around to it. But as the marketing phase of my short horror SUSIE’S BEAST script ground on, I realized I had plenty to write about: all the ups and down, all the gut-punching disappointment. I had personal journal entries (I’ve kept a daily journal since 2004) and emails relating to SUSIE’S BEAST, so I figured it was now or never. I pieced it all together and—voilà—A BEAST IS BORN!

I don’t think most pre-pro (i.e., novice) screenwriters realize how long it can take for a script to finally end up in front of a camera. Whether you’re talking about a 15-page short (which is what SUSIE’S BEAST was) or a 120-page feature, the script-to-screen voyage can take years and years. Sadly, that’s the rule and not the exception. I wanted the reader of my book to get a sense of that journey.

It took 11 years for your script to be produced, which must have really tried your patience. What was it that made you keep going?

It’s not like SUSIE’S BEAST was my entire world. I had a lot going on a personal level. As for my writing life, I was working on my first novel, writing and producing a web series, and had been getting script assignments—so I was keeping busy. Aside from all that, I knew this was a solid script that absolutely had to get made.

What were some of the takeaways/lessons you learned from the whole experience?

I’m not sure I learned much of anything I didn’t already know, but it definitely reminded me that in order to be a screenwriter you need to have a certain doggedness and faith in your own writing. I also realized I might be a little too lenient with people, giving them too much time to get things done or make up their minds. If I hadn’t been so indulgent, I probably could’ve shaved a year or two off that 11-year timeline.

Despite everything you endured trying to get SUSIE’S BEAST made, is writing (and
potentially making) a short film something you’d recommend to writers?

Getting a short film made typically will not do a whole lot for a screenwriter’s career. If the finished film makes any kind of a splash at film festivals, it might do something for the director, the actors, maybe even the director of photography. But for the writer – well, hopefully they get a fun and creative experience. That’s pretty much all I wanted out of it. Luckily, that’s what I got! But having your name on a produced short – especially if it wins some awards – can’t do you too much harm. So, yeah, go for it!

You’ve also written another Hollywood-based book—your novel LUIGI’S CHINESE
DELICATESSEN. What was the inspiration for that?

I figured my first novel should be about something I knew, so I wrote about a young guy going to Hollywood with the dream of becoming a screenwriter. The story is loosely – very loosely – based on some experiences I’ve had in this town. As I’ve mentioned in previous interviews: “The book is 97% a work of fiction—and no, I’m not telling you which three-percent is true.” It’s a fun ride, it really is. One review referred to it as a “cautionary tale,” which I think is pretty accurate!

How can people find out more about you and your work?

A BEAST IS BORN is available on Amazon. Check out Jim Vines Presents which is my “creative page” on Facebook, and my screenwriting blog The Working Screenwriter.

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

This is a very silly question, but an excellent one. Let’s see…I’ll have to go with pecan. I love pecan pie. Pumpkin’s also pretty great, especially when it’s topped with whipped cream. But pecan pie on its own – sooooo good!