Q & A with Jeff Kitchen of Scriptwriting Mastery

Jeff Kitchen has taught thousands of students from Broadway to Hollywood. He was classically trained as a playwright, worked as a dramaturg in New York theater and taught playwriting on Broadway. A top-rated teacher, he taught for thirty years and wrote the book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting. For the past three years Jeff adapted his training program into a comprehensive digital apprenticeship. Scriptwriting Mastery is the result.

What was your inspiration behind putting this together?

I taught people for many years in these intensive 30-hour seminars, and worked hard to give them genuine know-how, limiting the groups to six people, with each person bringing their own script idea to work on. I explained each tool, illustrated it with classic films, and then got each student applying that tool to their story so they got experience using it properly and their scripts improved quite a lot, so the word of mouth was huge. But it was essentially firehose teaching, hammering them with a complex array of information about the tools and principles, and I always felt like I could do more.

After teaching non-stop for eighteen years, from Broadway to Hollywood, I took a break from teaching, focusing on script consultations. Then as I moved back toward teaching again, I didn’t want to do it the same way because it didn’t transfer expertise at the level I intended. Don’t get me wrong, they learned a lot, and many went on to successful careers as writers, directors, producers, and creative executives, including multiple Oscar and Emmy nominations. But I wanted to do much better as a teacher.

So I spent time circling the problem, trying to find a way to transfer deep expertise much more effectively and how to teach much larger groups. Finally I hit upon the question: If I could wave a magic wand and teach writers in any way that I desired, what would that be? The answer was to take as long as needed, and I decided I could do it in about two years. I studied the science of how people learn, how to train people to expertise, and Cognitive Apprenticeship, which not only conveys deep skills to an apprentice, but also the subtle thinking processes that underlie expertise. Then I built a new training program that incorporates all these instructional technologies into a rigorous and demanding process in the craft of the dramatist.

What makes this course different from other online screenwriting education programs?

Some of the tools are entirely unique, coming out of my intense study of a legendary Broadway script doctor from around the early 1900’s. William Thompson Price helped revise every script that producer David Belasco staged on Broadway and created several brand-new tools to help make stories work dramatically. So many playwrights wanted to learn from him that he founded the first school of playwriting ever, and of his twenty-eight students, twenty-four had hits on Broadway.

A prominent playwriting teacher, Bernard Grebanier, said of Price’s groundbreaking work, “If we ourselves were asked to whom we were indebted for the basis of our ideas about playwriting, we should have to answer, ‘Aristotle and Price.’” One tool, the Proposition, which uses the power of logic to pull all the components of a story together into a coherent whole, is known to some, but Price’s three-step tool Sequence, Proposition, Plot lay completely undiscovered until I found it in one of his books. This tool is a remarkably powerful way to tighten and dramatize the parts of a script. It uses reverse cause and effect to create a tight chain of events, rigorously separating that which is Necessary to the forward action of the story from that which is Unnecessary, as well as creating compelling conflict that helps keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

You apply these three steps first to the overall story, making it tight and dramatic. If the big picture doesn’t work, then the details don’t matter. Then you divide the overall story into acts, and you do the same three steps to each, making them tight and dramatic. Next you divide the acts into sequences (there are two-to-five sequences in an act, and two-to-five scenes in a sequence) and you do the same three steps to each sequence.

You’re gradually developing the details as they become necessary and dramatizing it as you go. This is a lot of work, but so is twenty-five rewrites. Then you break the sequences into scenes. You apply Sequence, Proposition, Plot to the first scene, making it tight and dramatic, and then you write that scene. Then you structure the next scene and write it, and you keep going until you have a working draft. And because you’re constantly excluding the Unnecessary in a ruthless fashion, that draft consists of only the Necessary, so it’s a lean and mean draft, not some bloated mess. Sure the script needs work, but it’s clean and functional, and much easier to work with.

I teach Dilemma as the dramatic engine of your story, building in intensity throughout Act Two to become a Crisis, forcing Decision & Action, with the protagonist actively resolving his or her dilemma. The way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma expresses the Theme that’s emerging organically from the story. I use the story-creation resource, the 36 Dramatic Situations as a volcanic brainstorming tool, and the personality-profiling system, the Enneagram to deepen, dimensionalize, and flaw your characters. Research and Brainstorming help you explode your idea and violate its perceived limits, think it through, amplify its strengths, and get it up to speed. The Central Proposition uses the power of logic to pull all the clever story elements together, fusing them into one coherent plot that grips the audience. And Sequence, Proposition, Plot helps you construct and write the script.

People constantly say they’ve never seen anything like the powerful tools I use to build and dramatize a story, but it’s straight out of classic dramaturgic principle and technique. I’m mostly self-trained in an obscure school of thought in playwriting, but I’ve trained development execs at all the Hollywood studios and they consistently say I teach the most advanced development tools in the industry. So my tools are distinct and now my training methods are unusual, too.

Science has proven that the harder it is to learn something the deeper you retain it, so I work my students hard, constantly changing gears and switching topics, keeping them off balance, and staying unpredictable. I call it Disruptive Teaching. It forces them to dig deep and apply themselves, to be aggressive independent thinkers, and to stand up to a serious challenge. It’s good professional training because the real world doesn’t bring you neat arrays of predictable problems. They learn how to take a punch and fight their way out of a corner. Trying to make a living as a professional writer is notoriously difficult and they need grit, serious skills, and a rough-and-tumble capability. I’m constantly challenging them to think through complex new ideas before I instruct them in it, making them work hard, think straight, and apply their mind. They are not allowed to ask stupid questions. They learn to generate ideas and also to evaluate them critically, with a professional eye, and to articulate their reasoning aloud to the class.

One main difference between this program and others that I know of is that the center of the training is that we’re constantly working on multiple scripts of different genres and in different stages of completion. I train the students by ranging from one project to the next, and we function as a team to make each one work, with teaching moments thrown in as they arise. Students also have daily exercises, writing assignments, learning games, story creation, collaborative competitions, movie nights, and assigned reading. Plus we read one classic script each week because it attunes them to great writing and story ideas.

This training workshop runs for eighteen months and each student gradually acquires the skills and knowledge of a trained dramatist, plus the subtle cognitive skills that underlie substantial mastery. Because this program is constantly ongoing and requires some training before they jump in, each student starts with a three-month video course, working as my virtual apprentice as I create, develop, and construct a complete original script from scratch. They hand-copy all the notes I generate in creating the story, handling all the tools as I build it with them. Then, based on the detailed dramatic outline we’ve created, each student writes their own version of this script in order to graduate to the main program. So there’s a three-month course to start them off, and then there’s another separate three-month program after they’ve trained for eighteen months in which they pick an idea from our group Story Bin and build the script on their own in our open workshop, periodically demonstrating their mastery, their progress, and their challenges to myself and the group. This consolidates all their training into a fully integrated set of skills and professional knowledge.

There are lots of uses of the label “dramatist” in addition to “scriptwriter.” Are there similarities and/or differences between the two?

What I teach is plot construction and dramatic principle—the craft of the dramatist, the ancient art of adapting a story for a theatrical presentation, whether in film, on TV, or onstage. It’s about making the story actable so that it can be performed and will grip an audience. Consistent coherent compelling Dramatic Action is the name of the game. Dramatic Action is not car chases and shootouts, it’s a state of action you put the audience in, where they’re up on the edge of their seats—and you keep them there because they must know how things turn out. If you have sections that are flat dramatically then you lose the audience there, which contributes to the script not working.

It’s all about the audience. A movie playing to an empty theater has no power—it’s just shadows on the wall. The power of the film or TV show or play resides in the response of the audience. Anyone who’s done live performance knows intimately that it’s all about the audience, but amateurs often forget they’re writing for a performance medium. So a dramatist is one who crafts a gripping performance. Whether it’s a bone crunching thriller or a wacko comedy, the story must work dramatically.

Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s tricky, it’s slippery, and it’s unforgiving. An extremely stripped-down literary form, it demands complete economy with no room for the Unnecessary. I’m training people in the craft of the dramatist, which covers screenwriting, TV writing, playwriting, and any form of dramatic content. Once you have substantial technique, you can tackle any medium because you know how to make scripts work.

What are the benefits of the course for the screenwriter just starting out, and where would be a good place for them to start?

It gives a beginner comprehensive training in a method that really works. Apprenticeship is how we naturally learn best, working beside a master craftsman to absorb all the skills and thinking processes. If someone is a novice and knows they are, then they’re much easier to teach because they’re not brimming over with their “knowledge.” They also have no bad habits to overcome and, while they’ll need a lot of working experience to polish their craft after they’ve completed the training, they will know how to make scripts work. But everyone needs years of work, even after mastering the craft of the dramatist, to achieve true greatness as a writer, polishing and refining their voice, attack, smoothness, clarity, and many other subtle aspects of excellence. A good place for them to start is to take this program. It’s designed to be quite doable for raw beginners while also being challenging to experienced writers.

You reference on the website that there are varying lengths for the courses. Why does one take three months and another eighteen?

It’s actually all one course, divided up into three components. The first three months, Course 1: Tools & Fundamentals is the video training program in which, as I said, the students work as my virtual apprentice as we create a thriller from a one-sentence idea, develop it, and construct it, and then they write the actual script based on our detailed outline. This gives them enough training to jump into the eighteen-month main program, Course 2: Techniques & Principles, which is continuously ongoing. They might walk in on us spending the whole week figuring out the ending to a romantic comedy, and because they’ve worked with all the tools in Course 1, they can join right in.

Now their training begins in earnest, working with the group as we build multiple scripts at the same time, ranging from one to the next making each one work, tackling an action-comedy TV series one day and a psychological thriller screenplay the next. It’s heavy-duty learn-by-doing in an apprenticeship format, so they get serious experience and training as their skills coalesce. They’re being highly trained in seven tools over two years, spending months on each one, so they gradually acquire more and more expertise as they integrate all the tools. It’s like learning how to juggle while riding a unicycle on a tightrope—separate skills that must be learned independently, and then are integrated into one fluid capability.

Once they’ve achieved that level of mastery at the end of the eighteen-month Course 2, they’re ready to build a script on their own, which is Course 3: Solo Script Project. As I mentioned, this is the last three months, and they choose a story idea from our group Story Bin, develop structure, and write it, all in our open-workshop format, so their work is open to the group. I stop by regularly with students in tow like a teaching hospital, and the writer articulates their progress, their mastery, and their current challenges. When they finish the script, they graduate, now a seasoned versatile dramatist who can make scripts work in any genre, and who can tackle any medium.

What about a screenwriter with a few scripts under their belt? How would this course benefit them?

It’s a way to improve their craft and take their abilities to a higher level. One thing a writer quickly learns is that it’s hard to be consistent. Sometimes a script works and they’re not sure why it did, and sometimes it won’t, and they don’t know why it wouldn’t. As I said, scriptwriting is notoriously tricky and slippery. But with substantial craft, they can pin down a tricky script, get a good grip on it, and make that part work. If they have a sense of what their strengths and weaknesses are, then it makes them open to learning more to correct their weaknesses and reinforce their strengths. The tools create certain distinctions, and if they utilize those distinctions properly, they get the full power of the tools. If they muddy those distinctions every time they become inconvenient then they lose their power. So this adds a few more powerful tools to their process, and then trains them to a high degree of expertise in them. Good is the enemy of great and I train them long and hard in a sophisticated set of tools. They’ll emerge like a Navy Seal, able to reassemble their rifle in the dark, under fire.

You offer three courses of study. What are they, and how would somebody determine which one was the right fit for them?

There is only one course, the two-year program. The three courses originated because with such a long training period, it’s not practical for someone to wait a year for the next class to start. To allow people to jump in at any time, I created the initial three-month video training. If you’re a scientist going to live in the International Space Station to do experiments, you’d do a three-month training to prep you in how to travel to space and operate in the space station. As I said, the eighteen-month section is the bulk of the training, focused on constantly building scripts and the three-month period at the end build a script on their own to consolidate all their skills and demonstrate their mastery before graduating.

You use the film Training Day as an extensive part of your teaching process. Why this film in particular?

In the first three-month course the script we build is a thriller, so it’s a useful example. Jake, the Ethan Hawke character, has a good strong Dilemma, trapped between his ambition and his moral compass, so it’s a great model for our protagonist’s Dilemma. Training Day has dynamic conflict, deep and complex characters, great storytelling, phenomenal writing, and Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning performance, with Ethan Hawke nominated for Best Supporting Actor. We’ll be reading one great script a week in the main program and using other classic scripts as teaching examples and research as we develop and write scripts of different genres.

It looks like this is a course with set deadlines, rather than a “work on your own schedule”-type one. What’s the reasoning behind that?

Scriptwriting Mastery has rigorous deadlines but is also relaxed in other ways. It is a highly-focused, demanding course that puts students through substantial training. The use of the tools is precise because the difference between a reasonably skilled practitioner and highly-trained expert can be razor thin, with hundreds of subtle differences that add up to mastery. But it’s also designed to be fun and relaxed because creativity is so central to story creation. We have contests of who can come up with the stupidest story idea, the most wacked-out title, and the craziest solution for a story problem.

But we’re working five days a week for two years, two-to-three hours a day, constantly creating, developing, constructing, and writing original scripts so it’s a heavy workload. It prepares you for the real world of turning out quality material with real deadlines. It’s a mix of live and recorded sessions, and the live sessions are recorded so you can watch when you can, but it’s a serious professional training program.

This is similar in many ways to on-the-job apprenticing to a plumber. You’re being trained in substantial skills, all of which relate directly to what must be done for each job. You learn the materials, the techniques, the underlying principles that guide your process, the thinking involved, and the critical distinctions that make all the difference. You’re gradually acquiring mastery in joining pipes, fixing plugged drains, and plumbing a house, but you’re also being trained to install hot water heaters, devices that can explode and kill people if you install them incorrectly. Because scripts are more constructed than written, it’s very much a blue-collar job rather than an ivory tower one. It’s not esoteric, it’s nuts-and-bolts, wrestling stories into shape that can be performed, and which will grip an audience.

You said you’re utilizing techniques for expert training and Cognitive Apprenticeship?

Yes, and it’s quite fascinating that these two distinct specialties capped off several years of studying the science of how the brain learns. The entirely new science of training experts was created in 1983 by Anders Ericsson, who studied elite training facilities around the world that were turning out disproportionate numbers of chess champions or Olympic ski racers or world-class violinists. He collected the innovative and counterintuitive methods that these top coaches and trainers utilized and studied them scientifically, then improved them to a high degree. His book, Peak: The New Science of Expertise is widely considered the high-water mark for how to train people to expert performance and is in fact course material for my program. Part of its science is that the trainee becomes part of the coaching team.

If for instance, you are an Olympic runner, you very quickly know as much as your coach and trainer about your exercise routines, diet, rest, and stretching as they do. You would in fact be part of the coaching team, actively helping to train yourself. My students study the book, Peak, and I turn them into active participants in the training and coaching process.

The science of how we learn has made incredible breakthroughs in the last fifty years, to the point where they know how your brain’s wiring grows and changes as you develop a particular skill. Through a process of myelination, secreting an insulating fat around the neural network which the brain assembles to perform that skill, continuous deliberate practice gradually makes that neural wiring thicker and broader and faster, upgrading it into an information superhighway, and that skill remains permanent in that person.

I found an amazing essay on Cognitive Apprenticeship just as I was pulling together the final shape of this program, and it was a total game changer. It’s about thirty pages was and written by several top PhDs in the field of how we learn. I devoured it ravenously because it fit so precisely with what I was doing, advanced training in sophisticated tools, and it changed everything. I read the article, then read it again with a yellow highlighter, and then yet again with a pink one, highlighting the best of what I’d marked in yellow. Next I typed up all the highlighted material and cooked that down even further, absorbing and digesting it so deeply that I ended up with key components of it on 3×5 cards spread out on my desk. I used them to create highly specific methods of training apprentices in the rigors of my craft, and also training them in the subtle and hidden cognitive processes that underlie my own expertise.

Cognitive Apprenticeship is focused on the cognitive skills of the expert. In a field like law or medicine, the thinking process is central, and to achieve professional-level expertise in those fields, how and what you think is paramount. And it’s not only cognition, but meta-cognition, your own awareness of your knowledge, so that you can evaluate your professional process and adapt it as needed. It’s a mastery over your own mastery, and it’s key to true expertise. So Cognitive Apprenticeship had a huge formative influence in how I designed the program. I literally swallowed it whole, spending an entire month studying these thirty pages, and I built much of my program with it. And integrating that with what I learned about teaching in a disruptive fashion, plus the science of expertise, I rebuilt my entire training process from stem to stern, and it’s been quite exciting.

Last time you said your pie of choice was cherry. Still the case?

I’m going with lemon meringue this time even though I haven’t had it in years. But since you’re a pie aficionado and I’m a Vermonter (now living in LA), I thought I’d share this slice of pie lore.

To the European, a Yankee is an American.

To an American, a Yankee is a New Englander.

To a New Englander, a Yankee is a Vermonter.

To a Vermonter, a Yankee is someone who eats apple pie for breakfast.

And to a Vermonter who eats apple pie for breakfast

a Yankee is someone who eats it with a knife.

Q & A with Buzz McLaughlin

Buzz McLaughin photo

Buzz McLaughlin is a playwright and screenwriter, theatre and film producer, script consultant, and teacher. His plays have been produced throughout the U.S. and Canada and have won numerous awards including the National Repertory Theatre Foundation’s National Play Award for Sister Calling My Name, the most recent staging of which was at the Sheen Center, NYC in early 2020. With his wife Kris he has written several screenplays and teleplays.

He is co-founder/producing partner of the independent film company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight), the Founding Director and former Artistic Director of Writers Theatre of New Jersey, and for many years was professor of Theatre Arts at Drew University. The author of The Playwright’s Process: Learning the Craft from Today’s Leading Dramatists, he holds a doctorate in theatre and dramatic literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and is a member of the Dramatists Guild and Writers Guild of America. Currently he teaches playwriting and screenwriting in New England College’s Creative Writing MFA program.

His website is www.buzzmclaughlin.com and he can be reached at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com.

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

THE TWO POPES, written by Anthony McCarten, based on his play. The film was directed by Fernando Meirelles and stars Jonathan Price and Anthony Hopkins. Nominated for best screenplay by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes as well as for best actor and best supporting actor. A wonderful example of excellent writing scene after scene with a script so real that you forget you’re watching a make-believe story as the actors really sink their teeth into the material.

Another film I must mention here is the indie PIECES OF APRIL, written and directed by Peter Hedges and co-starring Patricia Clarkson, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay by the Independent Spirit Awards. It was one of the first films shot on all digital and has become somewhat of a classic, especially in regard to its impeccable dramatic structure. I have used it for years as a teaching tool on how to construct a successful story for the screen. Well worth a close look.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

As a stage actor and director, then later I moved to writing because I started having my own ideas for scripts and felt I could do this, too (if not better than most).

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A well-constructed story with relatable characters that draws you in and keeps you engaged from start to finish. There are many ways to accomplish this, obviously, but that in a nutshell is what makes a good script. The main components are having one central character who wants something badly but who runs into road blocks preventing him or her achieving it. In the best stories, this central figure discovers along the way that what they think they wanted isn’t what they really need and as a result the character comes out a very different person at the end of the journey. And this gives the story its ultimate emotional power. My book The Playwright’s Process goes into the details of how you build or construct this kind of story one step at a time.

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

By far the biggest screenwriting mistake I encounter is faulty dramatic construction, scripts that wander too far away from some configuration of the three-act paradigm and as a result stall out and are unable to deliver the goods as all successful storytelling must do. Writing snappy and engaging dialogue is important, obviously, but if the story’s foundational structural underpinnings are faulty, the whole script comes tumbling down.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Formula and predictable action films and stories that are obviously agenda driven. In other words, stories that are primarily designed to thrill with violence and manufactured suspense or those that promote – sometimes quite heavy-handedly – a particular political or cultural persuasion.

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

-Determine who is your central character and what his or her primary external want and true internal need are going to be.

-Your central character should be a changed person by the end of the story.

-Take the time and effort to get to know your characters’ backstories well before plunging into your first draft. Burn into your brain that nine-tenths of the iceberg is under the surface. Remember that you are already writing your script when you engage in this pre-draft exploratory work.

-Make an initial attempt to define your dramatic premise up front – what the overall point of your story is going to be – and believe it fully yourself.

-Allow yourself to become the structural engineer and work out a three-act outline of your story with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end before starting your first draft. In other words, create a road map that will take you through your story’s journey so if and when you find yourself lost (which you most likely will) you still have that roadmap on the seat next to you and you have a way to get back on track.

-If at all possible, set your story in a world you know well.  Otherwise, research it to death.

-Train yourself to never listen to the negative voice as you develop your project.

-Never share a work in progress with anyone until you have a completed draft you think is ready to release to others. The creative process is precious and intimate and it should be shared between only you and your characters. This should be your private creative world. The time will come soon enough to get outside input, but it shouldn’t happen until you have something substantially complete to share. Otherwise your own personal vision for the script is contaminated and you risk having your whole project derailed prematurely. The only exception to this rule is when you’re working with a collaborator or a script consultant – folks whom you have invited into a creative partnership with you.

What would you consider are some key similarities and differences between writing for the stage and the screen?

The biggest similarity between a play and a screenplay is the structural design of the story itself. Both have a version of the three-act configuration: the set up, the struggle, and the solution.

The biggest difference is that plays are primarily verbal and films are primarily visual, meaning the stage play’s story is largely communicated through dialogue coupled with physical action and the film story is largely communicated through what the camera sees action-wise, coupled with dialogue as needed.

Another way to compare the two mediums is to look at the opportunity for theatricality in writing for the stage – inviting the audience to engage imaginatively with passages of time and shifts in settings and so forth – as opposed to the numerous cinematic devices available in writing for the screen such as using the dissolve, narrative voice-overs, etc. In a real sense, the two mediums are attempting to accomplish the same thing – inviting the audience to creatively enter into the unfolding story. And this is one reason why writers are often able to shift back and forth between writing for the theatre and writing for film or television.

A common recommendation to screenwriters is to take an acting or improv class. As someone who works with both writers and actors, do you agree or disagree?

I strongly agree. My experience has shown me that writers who are also actors (or have had some acting experience) are generally ahead in the game in terms of motivations and getting under the skin of a character.

As a producer, is it difficult for you to read a script without using your “reader’s eye”?

This is definitely difficult for me regardless if I’m experiencing a screenplay or play. And it starts on page one. Call it the curse of the producer. I’m so conditioned to look and wait for the inciting incident to grab me that if it doesn’t happen within the first ten pages the read often becomes an exercise in frustration.

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

Check out my website at www.buzzmclaughlin.com. Or email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com. As a script consultant I can work with you on a finished draft or help you structure an idea into workable pre-draft shape. In other words, I can meet you where you’re at with your project.

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

Warm apple, with a slice of cheddar cheese.

apple pie w:cheese

Q & A with Barb Doyon of Extreme Screenwriting

BarbDoyon

Barb Doyon is the owner/founder of Extreme Screenwriting, a Los Angeles-based screenplay and TV pilot coverage service. She is well known among Hollywood producers as a skilled ghostwriter who is also a produced screenwriter, producer and award-winning documentary writer.

She’s a yearly keynote speaker at the Script-to-Screen Summit and has authored books on screenwriting including, Extreme Screenwriting: Screenplay Writing SimplifiedExtreme Screenwriting: Television Writing SimplifiedTurn Your Idea into a Hit Reality-TV Show, 10 Ways to Get a Hollywood Agent to Call You! and Magnetic Screenplay Marketing. Before opening Extreme Screenwriting, she worked at Walt Disney Studios writing press releases for the studio and Disney Sports.

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

Extreme Screenwriting’s client Larry Postel’s upcoming Netflix movie The Main Event was a solid, inspirational read. Larry captured the Follow Your Dreams theme and wove it into a compelling conflict that incited a hero to break through his flaws and become a champion. It’s the story of a little boy who takes on WWE Superstars and I love how the trailer states the theme.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I worked at Walt Disney Studios in the press room where I wrote daily press releases for then-CEO Michael Eisner and the studio’s production companies. One day a producer asked if I had time to do coverages and he showed me how to spot the diamonds among the coal heap. This eventually branched into my company Extreme Screenwriting.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Whether they realize it or not, audiences want to viscerally live through a hero and experience the types of change they can’t, won’t, or are too afraid to implement in their own lives. Regardless of genre, the writer should make sure that the external and internal conflicts are interlocked, resulting in an external conflict that forces change in a hero. Most writers are excellent at coming up with unique concepts, but fall short when it comes to the hero’s flaw and arc. A good script combines external and internal conflicts to solidify a hero’s arc.

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

-Interlock internal and external conflicts, as noted above.

-A producer should be able to remove all dialogue from a screenplay and still know what the movie is about. It’s called a ‘motion picture’ for a reason.

-Don’t take format for granted. Learn how to use it to create pacing, emotion and to help guarantee fewer scenes are rewritten or deleted during the development phase.

-Stop asking gurus to explain subtext and start listening. Learn to hear subtext in everyday dialogue. This is fastest, easiest way to learn how to write it and how to become a pro at lingo.

-Don’t toss in something because you think it’s interesting. If Mona’s red skirt doesn’t mean something to the story as a whole, then leave it out.

-Learn the genre rules! Producers buy screenplays based on genre.

-Start thinking of description as action and create moving picture. Don’t tell us the room’s filthy. Show John walk in, toss cigarettes into an overflowing ashtray and kick his feet up on a pile of yellow newspapers.

-Be able to state the screenplay’s theme in one line. Producers ask, ‘What is the theme?’ to weed out amateurs from pros. Amateurs can’t answer this question.

-Your hero should get the best lines, the last line, the big scene moments, a grand entrance, and the worst-case scenario should happen to them and they alone should resolve the main, external conflict.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book Magnetic Screenplay Marketing?

It’s heartbreaking to see extraordinarily talented, aspiring screenwriters struggle for years to get a producer to read their material. Extreme Screenwriting does help writers promote their material in our monthly newsletter, but writers need to spend as much time marketing as they do writing. Most do not! Instead, they send out a few queries here and there, maybe attend a pitch festival every couple of years and that’s it.

The market is rapidly changing, and if aspiring screenwriters don’t change with it, they’ll be left behind with little hope of getting their material into the right hands. The change in the industry requires a new way of thinking and it does have a learning curve, so that’s why I decided to make a book detailing how to get ahead of the curve and beat the competition with this a marketing strategy.

This book is very different from other screenwriting books in that it focuses more on what a writer can do AFTER they’ve gained some experience and have market-ready scripts. Is what you describe a newer development for screenwriters, and what results have you seen from it?

The marketing technique I outlined in the book, related to getting a producer to call you, isn’t new to the industry. It’s been around for a long time, but until recently, this strategy hasn’t applied to screenwriters. However, there’s been a shift in the industry. Like any other product (yes, a screenplay is a product), the buyer (producer) wants social proof of its viability and is even hiring staff to find material with this ‘proof’ attached.

The Magnetic Screenplay Marketing book teaches the writer how to develop this marketing strategy and put it to use. Prior to publishing the book, I worked with 13 writers to beta test the strategy resulting in agent representation, three options, a television pilot deal and 362 combined read requests, averaging 27 per beta tester. A few did fail at the process, but they didn’t complete the steps, skipped steps, or simply quit before even giving it a try. Therefore, results will vary, but the bottom line is the fact that the industry is changing. I highly recommend aspiring writers get aboard this fast-moving train before they’re left behind.

One portion of the book is about writers obtaining “bread and butter assignments”. What does that mean, and why are they a potential avenue for writers?

This pertains to one of the strategies outlined in a section of the book on how to get an agent to call you. The first agent 99% of writers sign with will be from a boutique agency. These are the smaller agencies in town and while they do make sales, most of their commissions are generated from writing assignments, rewrites, and ghostwriting. It’s so prevalent that it’s literally become their ‘bread and butter’, in other words it’s the main moneymaker.

However, a lot of writers refuse to do this type of work. They’d rather wait around to sell their own screenplays. This sounds reasonable, but if it’s been a year (or 2) and a writer’s work hasn’t sold and the writer won’t do this lucrative work, they become dead weight for the agent. This creates an ‘opening’ for the aspiring writer who notes in queries that they’re open to all kinds of writing assignments! During the beta test, one of our writers gained representation using this strategy. A writer who isn’t open to doing assignments is leaving a lot of cash on the table and missing out on a golden opportunity to gain representation.

You mention sending in writing samples (when and only when requested). One of the options you suggest is to send the last 10 pages of a script. Why the last 10 as opposed to the first 10, and what results have you (or other writers who’ve done this) seen from this?

This is a strategy I decided to add to the book after several years of hearing of its success. Most agents, producers and story analysts agree that most writers know how to nail Act I, but then the material starts to fall apart. The result is an accumulation of story points that miss the mark.

Therefore, if a writer can still intrigue them with a strong ending that reveals voice, theme, solidifies a plot, and nails down pacing while intriguing them to want to know more, then the screenplay’s worth reading. This isn’t the preference for all agents and producers, but even those who start off requesting the entire screenplay often flip to the end first.

You also have a section of the book regarding writers creating teaser trailers for their scripts. What’s a teaser trailer for a script, and what’s the advantage in doing it?

This is part of the new marketing strategy that involves creating an audience for a screenplay via social media, primarily YouTube. This doesn’t involve a Hollywood-style trailer, but rather a simple teaser video that can literally be done for $0 cost (the book shows how) and all the writer has to do is write a 1-page script.

Think about it. For years, producers have purchased books and reality-TV concepts that got their start on social media, based solely on the fact they came with a built-in audience. When a writer sits down to pitch a script, I guarantee the producer is wondering if the story can draw an audience, but imagine the potential for a sale if the writer walks in the door with an audience already attached to the screenplay. It’s a huge advantage and can make the project a hot commodity!

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

Extreme Screenwriting invites writers to visit us at www.ExtremeScreenwriting.com. We offer coverage, a free monthly newsletter, and see the Bookshelf tab for the Magnetic Screenplay Marketing book (available for instant eBook download).

I also have three new books:

Screenplay Format: Learn How to Format Like a Pro

Teaches screenwriters industry format from basics to pro techniques, including how to use format to create emotion, suspense, etc.

Screenplay Notebook: Story Analyst’s Checklist

A workbook that includes Story Analyst’s Checklist for plot/execution, characters, dialogue and scenes with 26 blank pages for each section to work through problem areas. Makes a great keepsake.

Screenwriters World: Word Search Puzzle Book

Great for breaking writer’s block and having fun. Makes a great gift for screenwriters.

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

Homemade blueberry.

blueberry pie

Q & A with Jon Kohan

JK.JPG

Jon Kohan is a script consultant and award-winning screenwriter from Johnstown, PA, who’s worked in both film and television. His horror/comedy short Family Game Night earned him a Best Screenwriter nomination from the Shock Stock film festival (along with winning for Best Actor), and his holiday comedy Deer Grandma won Best Comedy at the Show Low Film Festival.

His project Purple Gang is a pilot based on the Purple Gang who operated out of Detroit predominantly in the 1920’s and 1930’s, with over 300 members during their tenure. The series will be inspired by real life characters and events but will not be a non-fiction story.

His comedy/crime short Spilled Paint picked up several Best Short and Best Cast awards on the festival circuit, and is available on YouTube.

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

Mindhunter, season two, on Netflix. The first season was great, and the second was just as good. I love the show for all the tension-filled scenes that can last ten-plus minutes, and usually just between two or three characters. The writers of that show are super-talented, and I look forward to being able to read and study the scripts to see how to improve my own writing.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

The lead-up is a pretty long story- working different writing jobs as I gained more experience and building a resume of work – but I’ll talk about how I landed my first real gig.

I was doing freelance writing work on a site called Fiverr.com. I still use the site from time-to-time. On my page, at the time, I offered joke writing and screenwriting, but only for shorts.

I had a customer hire me for a short story idea they had. I work on it for about a week and sent it back to them. A couple weeks go by and that customer comes back and says they have an idea for a family film that could even be a television show but needs someone they feel has the talent and skill to write a pilot; maybe even possibly a whole first season.

I jumped at the chance to work on that script, and in fact did write the pilot and the entire first season (10 episodes). About a year after I wrote the pilot, the customer reached out to me again to let me know that the project was going into production. That customer’s name was Alvin Williams. Since working on that pilot, titled Ernie and Cerbie (currently streaming on Amazon Prime), we’ve teamed up on multiple projects and he’s become one of my main collaborators in the industry.

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

Anyone can probably be taught or learn how to recognize good writing, but something you can’t teach is how to tell a good story. Not everyone can do that. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you can tell a story in the film or television format.

The rules/guidelines of writing a script is what I think makes screenwriting harder
than with other forms of writing. And not everyone can tell an entertaining story. Knowing and understanding what good writing is and looks like makes the viewer smarter, which allows for smarter movies. With a smarter audience, there’ll be a need for more originality – fresh perspectives, which will hopefully open the door to a more diverse and new pool of writers.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

This could be a very long list, but it all trickles down to one major core component: characters.

Not enough big Hollywood movies take the time to craft a film around strong characters, and instead try to build a film around a plot, or worse, action sequences, tone, look, etc.

What do The Dark Knight and Joker have in common other than the obvious that both are Batman films? They’re two of DC’s best films, and both focus more on character than all the craziness around them.

If you have characters we care about, can relate to, or at least understand where they’re coming from, and put them into conflicts that help our characters grow and become something more, you have a winner on your hands.

Even if your film is more about the concept (Independence Day, Godzilla), if you take the time to do the proper character work, you can throw a great one-two punch, something most Hollywood films seem to be lacking nowadays.

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

Formatting issues. No question. Not everyone uses screenwriting software, which is weird to me. If you’re not just writing a script as a hobby, you should invest in the proper industry tools.

I see formatting issues all the time, and those can easily be fixed, and quickly learned.

One of the most common things to see is a script not written like one. So many writers write action lines like they’re writing a novel. Telling us what the character is thinking, why they’re doing something a certain way, what’s going to happen later without us ever seeing it later.

I urge to my clients how “Show, Don’t Tell” is a huge rule they should always be repeating to themselves. How do you present information in a film or TV show? Either through images or dialogue. If we don’t see it or hear it, we don’t know it. When I have a writer I’m working with go back and look at their script again – with that guideline in mind – they’ll see just how much information is in their script that they are telling the reader, but not showing them.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I don’t know which I hate more:  “You lied to me?” or “There is a prophecy….”

The first is something you hear more in comedies. The second you always hear in
fantasy, adventure, action, etc. If I’m watching a romcom, I KNOW the end of the second act will have “You lied to me?” as dialogue – usually from the female lead.

For most summer blockbusters, fantasy films, the trailer is probably going to have some version of the “There is a prophecy…” line, and the entire setup will be this typical paint-by-numbers hero’s journey story.

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

Show, Don’t Tell. (see my response a few questions back)

Formatting – I know just looking at the first page if the read is going to be enjoyable or if it’s going to feel like I’m doing homework. That all stems from the format of the script. If I can glance and see issues, then I know there’s going to be issues with the characters, story, arcs, and so on. Even if you can can’t tell a story, or write good characters, and have something actually happen in your script, at least make the script look like a script. This sets the tone for your reader and lets them know you know what you’re doing.

As a writer, your goal is to get someone to read your script. A horribly-formatted script is an easy excuse for someone not to take the time to read your script. Don’t give them that choice.

DON’T WRITE CAMERA DIRECTIONS! – This is something a lot of first-time writers do in their scripts. I was no different. Learning how to write your action lines properly and how to influence the director in shooting a scene a certain way by the way it’s written not only makes your script stand out amongst the others but it’ll make you a better writer as a whole. I know it has for me, or at least think it has.

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

I’ve read scripts from screenwriting friends of mine that have really impressed me. Some of them are super talented, award-winning writers who are going to be names we recognize one day.

As far as reading a spec script that was sent to me to review and give detailed notes on, I haven’t read a script yet I’d stamp “recommend”. Some have come close, but unless you’re lucky and extremely talented, it’s not going to be your first script that you do something with.

The more scripts you write, the better you’ll be. My first script is god-awful compared to my tenth script, and my tenth script is amateurish compared to the latest draft of a script I recently finished.

What would a script need to get a “recommend” from me? As I keep saying, strong characters. Throw in a joke once in a while. Make me want to keep turning the pages. One of the worst things to see is a massive block of action or dialogue, and know the whole script is going to be that way. The more white on the page, the better.

A script could be for the greatest movie ever made, but if’s it’s a difficult chore to read and takes hours – or even days – to complete, I probably won’t see it as a recommended script.

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

Worth it – for sure. Screenwriting contests are great to try and win some awards, network with other screenwriters and filmmakers, and get yourself exposure.

With all that being said, if you place in or even win one of the top contests, that’s going to open a lot more doors for you than winning a much smaller contest.

I don’t agree that you must enter contests to be able to get a film produced. I’ve only recently started entering contests and already have several produced projects under my belt, with and more in development.

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

My professional website, www.screenwriterjon.com, my Patreon www.patreon.com/screenwriterjon, and my Fiverr www.fiverr.com/jonkohan. You can also check out all of my projects on my IMDB page.

On my Patreon, I offer screenwriting and script feedback services through two different subscription tiers. I’ve already had two filmmakers subscribe to have me write their feature films, so that’s been really exciting.

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

I bet you haven’t heard this one before – Oreo. Store bought or homemade. Either works for me. I have a huge sweet tooth. This may sound like a little kid answer, but it’s the truth.

No-Bake-Oreo-Cream-Pie-3

A few words from the gentleman from Salinas…

Steinbeck
Didja know he wrote the story for Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT? But he also didn’t like some of the changes Hitch made to it.

Big thanks to author/blogger Chad Schimke for inspiring today’s post.

John Steinbeck is one of, if not my absolute, favorite authors. I just love the way he writes, and many of his works occupy space on my bookshelf. If you haven’t read him lately – or at all, I highly recommend it.

I’m also very fortunate to live relatively close to his hometown of Salinas, California, where the National Steinbeck Center is worth a visit.

Here are his six writing tips, as originally published in an interview with The Paris Review from 1975.

-Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

-Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

-Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

-If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

-Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

-If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Now these are all great, but the really interesting part is that in 1963, a full 12 years prior, after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he wrote this letter of “Advice for Beginning Writers”, which includes the following:

“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

True, screenwriters should read a lot of scripts, but that’s not all you should read. Books. Plays. Comics. So many choices. Whatever floats your boat.

Take it all in. Read. Enjoy.