Q & A with Jon Kohan

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Jon Kohan is a script consultant and award-winning screenwriter from Johnstown, PA, who’s worked in both film and television. His recent 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 recently won Best Comedy at the Show Low Film Festival.

His comedy/crime short Spilled Paint is currently making the rounds on the festival circuit, picking up several Best Short and Best Cast awards.

His first feature/backdoor pilot Ernie and Cerbie is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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?

The two best to get all the information you need and links to other sites are my Patreon page and my personal website.

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.

My IMDB page lists the projects I’ve worked on. There’s also a ton of stuff I’ve already done, but hasn’t been officially announced yet.

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.

*editor’s note – there is no official site for Oreo pie, along with a ton of other blogs with recipes, so you’ll have to find one that works best for you.

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.

105ish pages down to 1

vintage gym
Not that kind of reduction process

With the page-producing phase of the horror-comedy spec now underway, I’m also finding the occasional need to do a little side work on it. In this case, it’s the 1-page synopsis for said script.

Summarizing your entire story on one solitary page (or one and a half, according to some of my associates) is, as many writers already know, not as easy as it sounds. Yours truly being no exception.

Past 1-pagers for past scripts were the usual challenge, but I managed. Somehow. Part of that challenge has always been inadvertently including too much of the story. As much as I’d like to put all of it in there, that just won’t work.

The key is to focus on the main character and what they go through to achieve their goal, with a strong emphasis on conflict. I’ve also found it very helpful to break each act down into its core components – especially key events and plot points.

Trying to include subplots and supporting characters was just clogging the whole thing up, so those quickly fell by the wayside, which really helped streamline the whole thing.

This time is a little different, probably due to having multiple protagonists. Well, at least it starts that way. This is a horror story, so as you’d expect, people are gonna die.

Not being as familiar with the horror genre, I wasn’t sure of the most effective way to put together a 1-pager for this kind of story. Is there more emphasis on the horror part? Or the story with some horror elements thrown in? “The learning never stops” indeed.

Feeling a bit stumped, I did like all smart writers do, and asked my network of savvy creatives for whatever assistance and guidance they could provide.

Glad I did.

(Hearty shoutout to everybody who reposnded and got in touch – I really appreciate it)

More than one said to focus on the one character the reader/audience would consider the heart of the story, and follow what happens to them. That I can do.

Others, who’ve also written stories starting with several protagonists and see their numbers reduced along the way, suggested listing them all at the outset, so as they’re gradually eliminated, there’s no sense of “Who’s that again?” I might give that a try.

There was the smart reminder to “keep things simple”. Don’t fall into the trap of making it too cluttered or complicated. Just tell the story in a clear and straightforward manner.That might take a little editing and revising, but I think I can also do that.

Based on all of these comments, plus my own experience, having a solid 1-pager in my possession seems definitely achievable.

Writing in your own voice

Marilyn script
“Hmm. Billy’s new script. Men dressing up as women to hide from gangsters? Sounds funny.”

When I’ve done script notes for writing colleagues, no matter what the genre is, I can usually tell who wrote it – because of the way it reads. Each writer has their own particular style, so each of their scripts has its own corresponding “sound”. Or I’ll get notes back on my material which often includes a comment along the lines of “this sounds like something you’d write”.

This isn’t just about dialogue. It’s about a writer’s overall style, or how they tell the story of their script. You don’t just want the reader to read your story; you want them to experience it. Which can be accomplished by adding that extra layer.

Everybody develops their own individual style, and it takes time to find it. The more you write, the more you’ll be able to hone your writing to reflect your own individuality.

Just a few things to think about:

-How does your script read? Is the writing crisp and efficient, or are you wasting valuable page real estate with too many lines of  your loquacious verbosity? Taking it one step further, do you use the same words over and over, or do you relish any opportunity to give your thesaurus a solid workout?

-How is your story set up and how does it play out? Is it simple and straightforward, or complex and full of deliciously tantalizing twists and turns? Are you working that creativeness to show us things we haven’t seen before, or is just page after page of the same ol’, same ol’?

-Is it a story somebody besides you would want to see? Just because you find the subject matter interesting doesn’t mean it has universal appeal. However, there is the counter-argument to that in which you could attempt to have your story include elements that would satisfy fans of the genre while also appealing to newcomers.

-Can’t ignore the population within the pages. Are your characters well-developed and complex, or do they come up lacking? Do we care about them, or what happens to them? Can we relate to them?

-What are your characters saying, or not saying (subtext!)? How are they saying it? Do they sound interesting or dull as dishwater? Very important – do they sound like actual people, or like “characters in a movie”?

Remember – the script is a reflection of you. A solid piece of writing shows you know what you’re doing. Offering up something sloppy is simply just sabotaging yourself.

Who hasn’t heard a variation on the line about a script being a cheap knockoff of a more established writer? While I can understand admiring a pro writer’s style, why would you attempt to copy it? It probably took them a long time to find their own voice, and by trying to write like they do, you’re denying yourself the opportunity to do the same thing for yourself.

Or to put it another way: they didn’t take any shortcuts to become the writer they are today, so why should you?

Respect your reader/audience

audience
Treat them the way you’d want to be treated

What we read on the page is what we would expect to see and hear on the screen. Pretty simple, right?

Sadly, not every writer gets it. As a result, some feel they have to explain what it is we’re seeing and hearing. Too many times I’ll read a spec script where a character does something, followed by WHY they’re doing it, or WHAT IT REALLY MEANS.

Maybe they think their writing isn’t getting the point across, so they feel the need to throw this additional info in – just to make sure you’re really getting it? It’s a practice I highly recommend not doing.

Imagine you’re reading your own script. How would you feel if there was a stop in the action to explain what just happened?

My initial thought is that this is how it’s done in books, so the writer figures they should do the same thing for a script. But I’d say that would have the opposite effect.

By laying everything out in front of us, the writer is doing themselves a disservice by not having faith in the intelligence of the reader/audience. They want your story to entertain them. People actually enjoy being able to figure stuff out and reaching their own conclusions.

Which do you think would be more effective and memorable? A script that spoon-feeds you everything, or one that makes you think and challenges you to pay attention?

Another part of this is when the writer includes WHAT A CHARACTER IS THINKING, to which I always ask “How do we know that?” Film’s a visual medium, so we can’t see what’s going on in their head (unless some kind of scene showing exactly that is actually part of the story).

One of the many jobs of the screenwriter is to show the character’s thoughts via their actions and words (or lack thereof).

(Please note the key word in that sentence – show. As in “Show, don’t tell.” Three little words every screenwriter should constantly heed. Make a sign of it and keep it near your designated writing area.)

I’d much rather reach these kinds of conclusions on my own through how the story’s told instead of the writer adding it into the mix. Including the WHY, WHAT IT REALLY MEANS or WHAT THEY’RE THINKING will highlight your abilities, but not the way you want.

Doing this is counteracting how a script should read, interrupts the flow of the story, and just comes across as lazy writing. You want to have every word on the page be there for a reason. Why have something there that doesn’t need to be?

A great piece of advice that’s always stuck with me is “Imagine the sound went out while you were watching the movie of your script. Would you still be able to follow the story?” I’d say yes, to a certain degree. While I may not have all of the specific story details, I’d definitely have a strong sense of what was going on based on what I see the characters  doing and how they’re doing it.

Two suggestions to see this in practice:

-read scripts. Focus on the storytelling. Pay attention to what’s on the page (and what isn’t).

-watch silent movies. Take note of how the actors convey emotion through their actions, gestures, and expressions.

You want your reader and audience to enjoy watching your story unfold as much as you enjoyed writing it. Believe me, they’ll be able to tell.