Q & A with Cody Smart of Next Level Screenwriting

Cody Smart is an L.A.-based Latina writer, script consultant and script doctor with degrees in English Literature & Linguistics, Screenwriting, Development, and Producing, who prides herself of helping writers take their work to the next level, in both English and Spanish. She moved from Santiago, Chile to L.A. to pursue her masters, fell in love, and now enjoys family hikes chasing her toddler around in the perfect L.A. weather.

She worked as a script analyst at Sony for three years, reading hundreds of scripts, and honing her craft and learning to appreciate the development of scripts and how to best guide writers to deliver the best script possible.

She also works as a judge for seven film and screenplay competitions, where she’s learned what makes scripts engage readers and attract the attention of managers, agents and producers. As a writer herself, Cody has placed in multiple competitions, and won some awards.

Cody is also the head of coverage of Story Data, a script-hosting site, where she does a bi-monthly vlog with tips for screenwriters.

She also currently teaches two courses about Screenwriting, Script Doctoring and Get Your Script Contest Ready, as a UCLA Extension instructor in the Writers’ Program, and is developing a new TV Workshop for the fall quarter.

Cody has worked with a wide variety of clients, helping to provide in-depth script analysis, and also rewriting/doctoring hundreds of scripts in order to get them ready for production. She loves working directly with her clients, understanding their needs, and staying true to the essence of the story the client is trying to tell, in order to elevate the story and characters.

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. I was a little bit late watching it, as it came out in 2020, but I was so legitimately impressed at the quality of the writing. They managed to take chess, a “boring” subject that doesn’t lend itself to be that visual or entertaining, and turned it into an exemplary work of character development.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

While I was in grad school, I started interning at Sony, and that’s were I fell in love with the development side of things. Before that, I always thought my path was to be a writer only. Then I discovered how interesting developing and consulting was, helping other writers improve their work, and getting scripts ready for production.

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

Yes, definitely. I believe everyone can learn if they have the will and want to do so. If you study scripts and films, and study your craft, you can learn what good writing is. That’s also what makes any writer a better writer: studying the best in the craft, lots of practice, and lots of rewriting.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A good script is a great mix of different things: amazing characters that are three-dimensional and realistic, with real wants and needs, and great arcs. A world that aligns with the tone and genre, and that hopefully is also new in some way. A premise that either feels fresh and new or that is a new take on old ideas, making it feel fresh and new. Writing that has a voice of its own, and that makes you want to keep turning pages.

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

As a consultant & doctor as well as a judge for multiple festivals, I’m constantly looking at issues in scripts. Doing that, I’ve found these to be the most common:

– A premise that doesn’t work from the start. Usually this means you just have an idea, but no plot. Or you have an unoriginal concept or one we’ve seen hundreds of times before.

– Not proofreading, which leads to bad formatting, typos, grammatical errors, etc.

– Not outlining first – then you don’t know where your story is going, and it shows in your draft, as the story loses aim. Part of this could be when the story/the protagonist has no clear goal.

– Dialogue that doesn’t feel natural or no use of subtext.

– Starting scenes too early and leaving them too late.

– Not killing your darlings – some scenes may be greatly written, but if they don’t advance the plot, then you don’t need them in your script.

– Directing in your script – this tends to take the reader out of the world of your story.

– Not grabbing your reader/audience in the first 10 pages (or even the first 3!)

– Overusing transitions.

– Use of flashbacks that don’t move the story forward or don’t reveal any new information.

– Zero character introduction/description. No memorable introductions, so we forget them. Also too many characters being introduced at the same time, so we forget who’s who.

– The world of your story isn’t clear.

– Long chunks of descriptions – Readers are known to skip past these. 

– Too much exposition.

– No subplots or interesting supporting characters.

– Antagonists that are two-dimensional or formulaic.

– Writing a formulaic script just with the intention of selling it, instead of writing a unique story you’re passionate about that’ll definitely get you noticed (even if just as a writing sample).

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Tropes work for a reason—audiences expect certain things in certain movies, like a falling in love montage in romcoms. But just because people expect them, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be surprised. The tropes I’m tired of seeing are those that just follow tropes to the letter. I love when a writer turns a trope upside down and surprises the audience. When they don’t and deliver the same old things, then that’s when they’re boring and I don’t want to see them anymore.

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

– Show your voice in your script. That’s what will set you apart from the thousands of scripts being written every year.

– Write the story you want to tell as a writing sample to impress people, and open doors for you, even if it doesn’t get bought or filmed.

– Formatting exists for a reason. Follow it and don’t play games, or your script won’t get read, even if it’s amazing.

– It’s hard to come up with new ideas that haven’t been told. But new takes on old ideas that make the ideas feel fresh can be a great way of creating something that feels new.

-The best antagonists are just as interesting as the protagonist, and they’re the hero of their own story. When we understand their reasoning, that makes them much more powerful.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I remember when I read the script for JUNO. It had such a unique voice and point of view. It had a protagonist that felt real, with flaws and dreams. It explored what felt like real teenagers. It had amazing supporting characters, and we could understand everyone’s POV in the story, as different as they all were. And it was pretty contained. It could be shot for cheap. But most importantly, it wasn’t something completely new: we’ve seen stories about teen pregnancy before but it turned the idea upside down, making it feel so fresh that it ended up winning so many writing awards.

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

Totally worth it. I even developed a course called “Get Your Script Contest Ready” for UCLA Extension that debuts in June 2021. That said, having a contest strategy, knowing what appeals to contests, identifying the best contests to propel your career forward, and understanding that you also need to network and take an active role in getting your scripts out there are key things every screenwriter needs to know.

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

For information about my script consulting & doctoring services, or my writer services, they can check out my Facebook page (@NextLevelScreenwriting), my Instagram page (nextlevelscreenwriting), or send me an email (nextlevelscreenwriting@gmail.com).

I can share more about my services and background information, and we can talk more in detail about what they need help with, as I offer very personalized services.

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

Wow, this is such a hard question, because I have such a sweet tooth. But if I had to pick just one, I’d have to say my grandma’s pecan pie recipe. It brings back so many amazing childhood memories by the smell and taste of it, especially living far away from my family, and missing them all the time.

Q & A with Aiko Hilkinger

Aiko Hilkinger is an award-winning, queer, German-Japanese screenwriter from Colombia. She primarily works in fantasy and animation, and her pilot “Kate and Ava” placed her in Network ISA’s “Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2021”. Hilkinger creates magical worlds filled with diverse characters that children and teenagers can relate to and see themselves represented in. Not only does she strive for diversity and inclusion in her stories, but most importantly, she believes that through her animation work she can connect with kids and help teach healthy communication and to own up to their mistakes.

When she’s not writing, Hilkinger works as a script analyst for big screenwriting contests and has recently started her own script consulting business.

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

I feel like I’ve said this to the point where the people who know me have gotten tired of hearing it, but Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts on Netflix has to be my pick. I honestly think the show made my 2020 much more bearable while also blowing my mind with their imaginative storytelling. The show was planned as a three-season arc and you can tell when watching it that it was meticulously planned as the story is just so tight and has a clear message all the way throughout.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I actually don’t feel like I’ve “made it” into the industry yet. I joke that I graduated from “baby writer” to “toddler writer” in 2020 since it was a learning year for me. After I graduated from film school, one of my teachers helped me get an internship with an agency where I perfected my coverage skills. After that I applied to work as a script analyst for a contest site while entering some contests here and there for the first time.

I won some pretty cool awards this year and was named one of the Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2021 by Network ISA. I’m looking forward to new opportunities this year, like getting signed and hopefully selling my first script or getting staffed in a room.

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

I think you can teach someone what to look out for (structure, format, clear goals, etc.) in a script but after a while it becomes a feeling. It sounds strange, and it definitely is, but after reading as many scripts as I have, you start to very easily pick up on things that make a script good or bad. At times it has everything to do with those “rules” we’re taught in film school, and it’s easy to technically say why something isn’t working, but it’s only through practice of your own craft and opening yourself up to criticism that you really learn what works or doesn’t for you, and how to break those rules.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A good script has something to say. I’m a sucker for a good theme, and I always suggest looking at it as a “thematic statement” or “the lesson the protagonist or antagonist will learn”. When a writer knows what they want to say with their piece, it gives the story direction, and it is much more enjoyable to see them get there.

Oftentimes when a script doesn’t know where it’s going, you can feel it, it’s like you’re wandering around aimlessly through a world, surrounded by characters who don’t know what they want and thus you don’t know what they need. Definitely start your writing journey by knowing your why (why do you want to tell this story and why does it need to be told now?).

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

One of the most common mistakes I see is characters not having a clear goal. A goal is the driving force behind the protagonist accomplishing something by the end of the script and without it, the story can drag on and become repetitive. We don’t want to see someone live their life day to day because it’s not dramatic; not every action pushes the story forward. That’s why it’s important that not only the protagonist has a clear goal, but the antagonist does as well, since they’re the ones who will get in the way of the protagonist.

I also recommend giving other characters goals of their own so that they can be more rounded and have something going on that gives them more depth other than doing whatever the protagonist needs them to do.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m exhausted of seeing every queer story be about “coming out” and dealing with homophobic families, friends, etc. It’s the same annoyance I have about POC films, especially Asian-American stories, only being about the struggle of immigration. There are so many other beautiful stories that can be told outside of the constant struggle to be accepted by a straight, white society that need to be told in order to showcase the beauty of our cultures and communities.

I want to watch a film about queer love that has nothing to do with strife or struggle, and I’m so happy that we’re slowly starting to get there with shows like Schitt’s Creek and She-Ra. And I would love to take my family to watch a film with characters that look like us where they’re just living their lives unapologetically, like Crazy Rich Asians and One Day at a Time.

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

Write with a purpose. Know your why. Why are you writing this story? And why is it important to tell it now?

Fill out a bullet point list of your main structure in order to know your main emotional turns before you start writing.

Always outline, even if you don’t like it. Look at your outline as your first draft.

Make sure your characters have clear goals (wants) and clear needs (areas for growth).

Sneak exposition through conflict.

Make sure your characters are emotionally motivated.

Antagonists should have a clear driving force behind them.

Read as much as you can and make it a variety (both produced and peer scripts) in order to figure out what works for you in terms of storytelling, and to practice pinpointing why they don’t work for you.

You don’t have to take every note you get. Take the ones that resonate and throw away the ones that don’t.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

The main reason is that it’s clear the writer has something they want to say. I know I’ve mentioned this a lot, but it truly is the most important thing you can do. The second I get your voice and understand your point of view, I’m in. It’s our job to make that as clear as possible because our voice is what will set us aside from other writers. It’s what we bring to the table, what we’ll get hired based on, so it’s the most important thing to develop. And through a lot of practice, giving and receiving notes, you’ll get there.

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

Contests can be worth it if you have money to splurge. I know a lot of people who haven’t had a lot of success from them and it can definitely be frustrating. I’ve had a very 50/50 experience. I didn’t make it into a few contests that I was excited about, but then I made it into one that really, really worked for me.

You have to be very clear with yourself about what you want out of these contests (exposure, management, etc.) and make sure you know they’re not your only chance to get into the industry. Also, be sure to ask fellow writers about their experiences in order to find out which contests are the best for you and your goals.

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

I am super active on Twitter – @aikohwrites. That’s where you can find me saying things I probably shouldn’t. And if you’re interested in my coverage services, you can go to aikohilkinger.com/script-coverage to find more information.

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

This is such a good question! My favorite is apple. My mom has always had her own recipe and her apples for some reason always taste amazing. But if we’re being more specific, I love a good, warm and buttery strudel (maybe with some ice cream and caramel).

Q & A with Heidi Hornbacher of PageCraft

A graduate of UCLA’s screenwriting program, Heidi Hornbacher has written numerous features, treatments, and TV pilots for various independent producers. She’s judged for the Slamdance Film Festival screenwriting contest and co-founded the Slamdance Script Clinic. She and her husband founded PageCraft Writing in 2008, offering script coaching and writing retreats in LA and Italy. Her clients include Emmy winners, TV legends, and brand new writers too. Heidi has written, directed, and produced numerous commercials, music videos, and electronic press kits for various artists. She’s currently making a documentary film about British artist Paul Whitehead.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

There is so much great TV right now. I was mesmerized by I May Destroy You. Anything that makes me say “wow, I could not have written that” I love. I had a Kenyan writer on my podcast recently and she noted that it was a very African storytelling style which I found particularly interesting. 

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I moved to Los Angeles to go to the UCLA Professionals Program in Screenwriting at night and landed a day job at Paramount as a president’s assistant. From there it was a lot of reading, learning, developing skills, and networking. And just making things without waiting for permission.

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

I think this is absolutely something that can be taught. If you have a natural instinct it helps but you can train your eye to spot things the same way a sommelier trains to spot subtle flavor differences in wine. When I first started reading for contests I would decide to advance or decline a script based on instinct, but had to develop the facility to be able to say why.

Once I could could point to things like unmotivated dialogue, a major story turn being on the B story but missing from the A story, unearned reveals, etc. it helped me codify those elements into my own writing and into a teachable curriculum for PageCraft.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Solid characters that have been well developed with clear goals, and positive and negative stakes to achieving those goals. Scenes that work hard to move your story forward and don’t just sit there. Even in a reflective moment, we should be learning something new about the character or they should be learning something about themselves. Every scene having a clear Goal-Obstacle-Outcome, or what we call GOO structure. Yes. EVERY SCENE.

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

Where to begin? The most offensive mistakes are things like not spellchecking (how hard is that?) and grammar errors. Those tell me you just don’t care about your craft or my time, so why should I give my time to looking at your craft?

A lot of scripts that are findable online, etc. are shooting scripts rather than original scripts so I see a lot of bad habits writers pick up from those such as writing in edit and camera direction. There should never be a CUT TO or CLOSE UP ON in your original script. Every slug line implies a cut so there’s that, and you should be able to imply the angle and type of shot by how masterfully you work your action lines.

I see a lot of over-directing the actor from the page. Unless a movement is key to the plot, don’t tell your actors how to move their bodies. The hardest thing about screenwriting is getting your head around the fact that it’s a collaborative art where we often never meet our collaborators because they come in after we’ve done our part. Learning to trust that your actors are going to bring nuance and physical choices to the role can be like a trust fall. If you’ve written the script well with clear context for what that character is going through, the actor will run with it.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Aside from lazy things like the detective with the board full of photos connected by red string, I’m really tired of societal tropes; rape as a motivator for why a female character becomes stronger, stories that only view Black characters as suffering characters. Can we move on? We’re more nuanced as humans so our stories should be too.

Then there are just overused dialogue lines like “it might just work”, “that went well”, and “we’re a lot alike, you and I.” We actually have a powerpoint with stills from over 40 films and shows illustrating how overused that last one is.

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

-As I said above: Make sure there is GOO (Goal-Obstacle-Outcome) in every single scene.

-Make sure you have a solid structure and outline before you start writing. You need a roadmap!

-Make sure you’ve done your character work and understand what motivates them. Make sure you’ve done as much work for the antagonist as for the protagonist so the struggle is worth your protagonist’s time. 

-Make sure every major story turn occurs on the A storyline – the external story. Turns on the B and C storylines can serve as point and counterpoint to that but if a turn is missing from the A story, the narrative will feel off and it can be hard to see why. 

-Remember that a script is a blueprint for a visual story and as such everything in it needs to be visual and filmable so no internal writing about what a character feels or remembers – we should get that from how you externalize those feelings. 

-Break up action line chunks by story beat, audience focus or implied new camera angle so they stay below 5 lines each and keep the reader’s eye flowing down the page.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

All the time! It’s clear when a writer just doesn’t know the rules versus a writer who knows the rules and breaks them creatively. These tend to be scripts with thoroughly developed characters, great pacing, and a satisfying emotional catharsis. They are scripts with a clear point of view and strong positive and negative stakes for the characters. Their message is the byproduct of a great story and not the sole reason for the story (i.e. the story isn’t preachy).

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

It depends. If you do well in a big one, you can get noticed. The right ones can help you get representation or otherwise forward your project. For example, one of my clients just won the Nicholl. She will get lots of meetings off of that.

There are obviously a ton that are a waste of money but it can boost your confidence to get those laurels. There is a backside to that too. When I see scripts in competition with laurels on the title page (DO NOT DO THIS!), it’s like they’re painting a target on themselves saying “find reasons to tear this down” and, except in the rare occasion when it’s a stellar script, we always can.

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

Visit us at PageCraftWriting.com. Our next round of script workshops starts in January, we offer one-on-one consulting services, and check out our Hearthside Salons podcast (on Podbean and iTunes) featuring conversations with writers, directors and other creatives.

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

That’s like asking me to pick a favorite sunset. I love anything fruit-related and made some killer loquat-ginger pies this spring. But I love pecan and pumpkin so I’m happy it’s that time of year. More pie!

Q & A with Mitchell Levin

red shirt

Mitchell Levin was born in Detroit, Michigan. He received his BFA in Film from Columbia College, Chicago and his MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He began his career as a Story Analyst at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles, and as a development executive there worked with Arthur Miller on his screen adaptation of THE CRUCIBLE, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis.

Mitchell has worked, at one time or another, for every major Hollywood studio and has taught screenwriting at UCLA Extension. He recently left Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks after 22 years as senior Story Analyst. There, he worked on films including GLADIATOR, ROAD TO PERDITION, THE RING, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, THE HELP, BRIDGE OF SPIES, and more. He is now working as a freelance script consultant for film and TV and can be reached via his webpage ScriptsRX25.com.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

It was a clip someone posted of a single scene from the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS, which I hadn’t watched but now will. So tense! Two male and one female gangster threatening a nun at an orphanage where a little girl had been abused. Masterfully written, performed and shot. Very still, but very edge of your seat, very heart in your mouth.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

While I was getting my MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU back in the ‘80’s I did an internship as a reader for a producer named Martin Bregman, who made SERPICO and SCARFACE, among others. They hired me after the internship was over.

You were a Story Analyst at several major studios. What did that job entail and what were your responsibilities?

I started at 20th Century Fox when I moved out here. Not everyone knows this but the major studios are all signatory to the Story Analyst’s Union, which pays quite well, as opposed to freelance reader jobs. The union was very difficult to get into, even back then, and is virtually impossible now. I was then promoted to development executive and set up THE CRUCIBLE. I actually gave notes to Arthur Miller (he implemented all but two!) I told him, in our first meeting with then-president Roger Birnbaum, that we decided to set THE CRUCIBLE in space. Cute, huh?

After three years I realized being a corporate executive was not for me. I worked as a story analyst for every major studio at one time or another, but spent the past 22 years at DreamWorks. My job was to cover submissions, but also to help develop projects by doing in-depth notes from the time we acquired scripts or books to the time they either went into production or into turnaround.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?

Clear, coherent writing. Compelling premise and protagonist. Authentic sounding dialogue. Well-choreographed, not too-dense action if it’s an action piece. Clearly defined central conflict. An interesting world or a new spin on a familiar idea. And hopefully, a story behind the story, i.e., a bigger theme.

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

The only script I remember giving a Recommend to was called THE ASSUMPTION OF THE VIRGIN, back around 2002. It wasn’t a spec, it was written by Anthony Minghella, based on a book set in the Renaissance. Sydney Pollack and Benicio del Toro were attached.

Readers shy away from Recommend because it sets off too many alarms. A Double Consider (for script and writer) is sufficient to let the exec know you’re excited. A Recommend is really sticking your neck out, and if the exec doesn’t agree with you, you worry you’ll be in trouble even if you’re told you won’t be.

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

To some extent, of course. Then again, it’s also subjective. One person’s cup of tea may be another person’s cup of swill.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

First of all, a great premise, but they are hard to come by. Beyond that, a compelling protagonist (who doesn’t have to be likable if he/she is fascinating), dialogue that pops, a clearly defined conflict, and always, escalating stakes and hopefully a sense of surprise.

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

– Know your logline. Often I get the sense a writer couldn’t tell me their logline if asked; not concisely, anyway. A one or two sentence synopsis of the story that tells me the inciting incident, who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is, what the central conflict is, what the stakes are, and gives me a sense of the possibilities within the story without giving away the ending.

– Leave plenty of white space on the page. Readers hate lots of dense black text. Don’t overwrite. That goes for dialogue and action.

– Don’t introduce too many characters at once that will be hard to keep track of.

– Don’t give character similar names (Jenny, Joanne, James)

– While the reader has to read and synopsize your entire script, the exec may not read past the logline on the coverage, or past the first 15 pages of your script. You have only that brief window to really engage him/her and let them know “what is” – who, what, where and why – and really grab them.

– Very important – Don’t be boring!!

Are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I hate clichés always, and a trope isn’t necessarily a cliché. If by trope you mean a metaphor or archetype, they can always be done well or poorly, whether it’s “cross-cultural romance” or “reluctant hero”. Certain clichés bug me more than others, because they come up so frequently, like: “EMILY, 25, beautiful but doesn’t know it” or when the villain says to the hero “We’re not so different, you and I”. Or villains named DEVLIN because it sounds like DEVIL. Or when a character says “I just threw up in my mouth a little,” which makes me throw up in my mouth a little. It was funny the first time I heard it in a ‘90’s sitcom, but hasn’t been since. Likewise, the word “amazeballs,” which comes up a lot in comedy scripts, but I doubt anyone has ever actually said it in real life.

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

Since leaving DreamWorks, I’ve been working as an independent script consultant. My webpage is ScriptsRX25.com. I work one-on-one, in-person, or via Skype or Zoom. I work conversationally, as opposed to using written notes. I find it’s far more productive for writers and far more stimulating for both them and me. I can help with screenplays or TV pilots.

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

When I was a kid I wasn’t fond of birthday cake and always asked my mom to make me a cherry pie. My tastes are more sophisticated now. Unfortunately, I’ve since been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. This surprised me, as I don’t have a weight problem. When I asked my mom about it, she said, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you.” It seems it runs through the whole family on her side, but it skipped her.

cherry pie 2

So the only pie I tend to eat these days is humble pie, usually on those occasions, and there have been many, when I embarrass myself in front of famous people.

 

Q & A with Terry McFadden

TERRY Cool

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.

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