If only you could eat a bad script

pineapple upside down cake
Let the metaphors commence!

Before we get to the gist of today’s post, let’s address the elephant in the room: my western did not advance to the quarterfinals of the PAGE contest.

Honestly, I was a little surprised; I thought it would have done better. After a brief wallow in disappointment, I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. It’s just another one of those things over which I have no control. I still have a ton of confidence in this script and might submit again next year. Also waiting to see how it fares in Austin and the Nicholl.

True, it was a rather lousy way to start the weekend, but over the next couple of days, I managed to redirect my focus, which included a nice long run that involved traversing the Golden Gate Bridge, and attempting something I’ve always wanted to try:

Making a pineapple upside-down cake (from scratch, naturally).

Guests were coming over for dinner, and I’d made pies for them before. But this time,  I wanted to try something entirely new and preferably a little challenging. I’d say this falls into both categories.

I scoured the internet for an ideal recipe, found one to my satisfaction, and followed the directions to the letter. The result? It looked like it was supposed to, and that’s where the similarities end. A little too sweet and the center was still kind of goopy. Nevertheless, my guests still liked it, and K & I split the last piece after they left. Not bad for a first attempt.

Why did it not turn out the way I expected? A lot of reasons. The oven’s a piece of junk. It didn’t bake long enough. The ingredients and the amount of them probably need to be tweaked. No matter what, I know now that I can adjust all of these next time and get closer to the results I seek.

Except for the oven. It will forever remain a piece of junk until it dies. Which can’t happen soon enough. But I digress.

Notice all of the comparisons you could make between baking and writing a script? Trying something new and long-sought-after. Seeking advice and guidance. Following the guidelines. Doing what I was supposed to. An okay-but-was-hoping-for-better initial result. Planning ahead on what to fix/adjust for next time.

If a less-than-determined baker ended up with the cake I made, they’d probably denounce the whole process, give up entirely and probably buy pre-made stuff at the supermarket. But we’re made of sterner stuff. We hit a snag or some kind of unforeseen development, and we compensate as best we can. We learn what not to do next time. Sometimes you end up with something jaw-droppingly amazing, and sometimes you end up with something totally inedible.

With this whole experience behind me, I can now focus on projects of the immediate future, which includes another round of editing and revising a script, and making a pie or two for a dinner party this coming weekend.

It’s my intention to have the results of both of these undertakings be totally and utterly irresistible when they’re done and ready to serve.

Ask a More-Than-Ready-for-Prime-Time Script Consultant!

Jen Grisanti

 

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today is about writing for television, with the spotlight on Jen Grisanti of Jen Grisanti Consultancy, Inc.

International speaker Jen Grisanti is an acclaimed story and career consultant with her own firm, Jen Grisanti Consultancy, Inc., and a writing instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC. She spent 12 years as a studio executive, including working as VP of Current Programming at CBS/Paramount. Jen also blogs for The Huffington Post and is the author of Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story, TV Writing Tool Kit: How To Write a Script That Sells, and Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Your Success. She teaches classes for TV Writers’ Summit (LA, NYC, London and Israel) and Story Expo. She has taught at the TV Writers’ Studio (Australia), Scriptwriters’ Network, The Screenwriting Expo, and The Great American Pitchfest. Jen has also served on panels for the WGA, Scriptwriters’ Network, Final Draft/The Writer’s Bootcamp, and ScreenCraft. Her company hosts online Storywise Seminars.

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

The best movies I’ve seen recently include: The Imitation GameGuardians of the GalaxyLocke, and Chef.

Some of my other favorite movies from the past I think are incredibly well-written include: The Lives of Others, The King’s SpeechThe Untouchables and Argo.

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

After studying Communications with TV & Cinema at USC, the first job that paved my way to where I am today was working as an assistant to Aaron Spelling. While working in his office I began to voraciously read scripts. Spelling was my mentor. We had a routine where I’d read all of the scripts for the current shows he had on the air and he’d review my notes and tell me what worked and what didn’t. I learned so much about what makes story work by watching him in the edit bay during rough cuts. I got my Bachelor’s at USC, but I always say I got my Master’s degree in TV in the Spelling office. It was the best place to learn.

I climbed the ladder while I was at Spelling and eventually ran Current Programming covering shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and 7th Heaven. I went on to become Vice President at CBS/Paramount where I covered shows including: Numb3rs, Medium, NCIS, The 4400 and Girlfriends.

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

I believe that for some, writing comes naturally. They have a sense of their voice from the start. They may need help with structure, but the voice is there.

With others, I do believe it can be taught or learned. I’ve definitely seen this happen many times in my career. There is no greater reward than to see the growth of a writer, to help guide them in finding their voice and to help them understand how to use story structure in the best way possible to bring their voice to life.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The components of a good script are a strong trigger incident that leads the central character into a dilemma. This creates empathy. Then, the choice that they make as a result of the dilemma defines the goal. We should be clear on what the central character wants and why they want it. Another thing that really adds to a good script is when the personal dilemma is connected to the professional pursuit. With this, when the writer comes from a place of emotional truth, it really helps to connect what they are trying to say.

A strong script should have a concept we can feel and a story with a clear message.

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

We don’t know what the central character wants, or we don’t know why they want it. If you don’t know what the central character wants or why they want it, then there’s no rooting factor. The central character reacts to things that happen to them versus taking action toward the goal, giving you a reactive hero instead of an active one. The obstacles happen to the central character versus being a result of an action that the character took. There is no external stakes arc. We don’t know what the worst thing is that can happen if the central character does not achieve their goal.

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

I wouldn’t say there’s a specific story trope  I’m tired of seeing. I’m just tired of seeing films being made where the story wasn’t ready. I feel like TV is in a much stronger place than film with regards to writing.

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

-Make us empathize with your central character from the start.

-Have a clear goal.

-Establish the internal and external stakes.

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

I’m not a reader. I analyze story from the studio executive perspective, so I don’t give “recommend” or “pass,” which is what readers do. I give development notes that help the writer to know how to elevate their script to the best place possible.

That being said, over two dozen of the writers I’ve worked with have sold pilots. Four of them went to series. So I do have lots of projects that I work with people on that go on to sell and be produced.

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

Some are very worth it. I like ScreenCraft, Final Draft, the Austin Film Festival and the Nicholl to name a few.

Competitions allow writers to put something on their bio that shows their writing has been recognized. This is a town that loves heat. If someone else thinks you’re great, everyone wants to know you. So the competitions do serve a purpose in building heat and creating possibility.

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

Through my website – www.jengrisanticonsultancy.com, or they can email me at jen@jengrisanti.com.

If you want to see how I work with writers one-on-one, I recommend reviewing my Writer Proposals Page – http://jengrisanticonsultancy.com/services/proposals/

Plus, if you mention this interview, I’ll give you 10% off of your first consult.

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

I love it. I’m big on baking, and my favorite is cherry pie.

Ask a Proficiently Perceptive Script Consultant!

Sidney Stephens

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Sidney Stephens of Sidney Scripts Consulting.

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

One of my favorite things is when a novel is adapted to the big screen. That’s when the writer in me really comes out to play. I’ll first read the book, then the screenplay, and eventually I’ll get around to seeing the film. I did this about a year ago with the hit TV series “Under the Dome” by Stephen King (only read the pilot script, however), and I also did this with “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. It’s very interesting to see how the story changes from one medium to the next. I enjoyed both of these the most of my recent reads.

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

While getting my Master’s degree in Creative Writing years ago, I read numerous scripts, mostly for my classmates, friends and co-writers, and mostly as a pay-it-forward kind of thing. Over a year ago, a friend of mine asked if I would like to start up a script consulting business together. I’d done so much ‘freelance’ work that it made sense. Three months later, my friend backed out of the whole thing. I, on the other hand, rarely back out of anything. So here I am, sole owner of Sidney Scripts Consulting.

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

Absolutely. Part of learning to write a good screenplay is learning to recognize what that means. And there’s no better way to do that than to read tons of screenplays. Breaking them down into what makes them good and what makes them great. The real trick to recognizing a good screenplay is not finding one that reads smoothly and is error free, its finding one that reads smoothly, is error free, and will translate all its intended emotion to the screen in a way that will captivate its targeted audience.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Believable characters and natural dialogue are two very important components of any decent script. Good characters are what draw the audience into the situation; they are what the audience relates to. If they aren’t believable or their dialogue isn’t natural or strong, it will leave the audience asking themselves why they even care to finish the script/film. Yes, settings are awesome and a twisty plot is always a great way to ramp up a screenplay, but without relatable, believable characters, its not enough to make a good script great.

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

Some writers, mostly new writers, try to dictate every inch of how the story will play out on film. With tons of camera angles, actor cues, and scene transitions it is hard to stay in the story. It’s important for the writer to know their part of the process and to do just that. Let the actors do their jobs, allow the directors and cameramen do their job, and just stick to writing a great story. Always remember to show, not tell.

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

End of the world stories are really starting to wear me out. I think I’ve read every possible way the earth could end, blow up, shatter, freeze, burn, etc. and yet, the surrounding stories are all the same. Man saves family only to stay behind and sacrifice himself for the future of the world. The entire movie is watching them attempt to stop the inevitable only to fail miserably. Until finally, at the last possible moment, the guy saves the planet and is reunited once again with his loved ones. Yawn.

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

  • Writing is rewriting. No matter how great you think your draft is, it needs a rewrite. Deal with it.
  • Have a target audience and know exactly what it takes to reach them.
  • Write what you know.

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

I’ve definitely read some worthy scripts in my days as a consultant. However, it is only after working closely with the writer on rewrites and such and knowing what producers were looking for at that particular time. I think finding any script that is “without a doubt” anything is a rare find that all consultants want that next script on their desk to be.

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

Screenwriting contests are a great way to get your screenplay read and possibly receive some fairly descent feedback. However, using these contests to “break into the business” or as a way of earning thousands on their scripts, they better be something spectacular. The reality is, hundreds of thousands of writers enter screenwriting competitions every year, and only a handful make it past the volunteer readers in the initial read. Can it be your screenplay? Of course. It is worth it? Well, that depends on the writer.

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

My website: www.SidneyScriptsConsulting.com

My Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sidney.stephens.9465

Email me with any questions: SidneyScriptsConsulting@gmail.com

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

Sorry, I’m a brownie girl!*

(*Editor’s note: The blasphemy of this statement will not be held against Ms. Stephens.)

You’d be tired, too.

Allowing myself the luxury of a 5-minute nap between projects
Allowing myself the luxury of a 5-minute nap between projects

What an exhausting week this has been.

-My “Ask a Script Reader/Consultant” series is going strong, with no signs of letting up. What I originally planned as a handful of interviews is now poised to run until at least the end of the year, possibly into January. There are a lot of quality readers and consultants to choose from out there, all of whom really know their stuff. If you think your script is good enough as it is right now, you should seriously consider getting some professional feedback from any of these folks to help make it even better.

-Had a great face-to-face meeting with another writer in which we talked shop, exchanged feedback on each other’s scripts and just had a nice time. It’s one thing to connect with somebody on social media or an online forum, but when you factor in the human element, it just makes it that much more a pleasurable experience.

-The feedback this writer gave me was about my western. He used to do coverage, so his notes were significantly better than mine. He had some very nice things to say about the script, and some great suggestions about how to improve it. Luckily for me, a lot of them were relatively easy fixes.

Working with these notes, I just completed a major edit, which resulted in shortening it by 4 pages to 122. That’s 4 pages less than the previous draft, and 10 pages less than the draft that went out to all those contests earlier this year. There will be at least 1-2 more edits, in which I’m hoping to cut even more.

-Because of all this other stuff, progress on the low-budget comedy has slowed a bit. The latest obstacle is the fleshing out of some of the subplots. While the main storyline is kinda/sorta solid, it’s those supporting ones that still need some work.

The next step may be focusing on developing each one subplot individually, then work out how it connects/relates to the others. This puzzle keeps getting more complicated all the time. I was hoping to have a first draft done by the end of the year, which is still possible, but it’s more important to me to have a nice, solid outline first.

-Got some great notes from a few people about the mystery-comedy. Still needs work, but just about everybody raved about its potential and how much they like the concept, which is always nice to hear.

-Looking for help with loglines? Check out this book from Doug King.

-A friend gave K some Meyer lemons, which naturally resulted in making a lemon meringue pie. I considered sharing some with my co-workers, but decided it was just too tasty to leave the house. When your child asks if the last piece can be saved so it can be part of her breakfast the next day, you must be doing something right.

-I haven’t been able to do any half-marathons since last year, but we got a dog a few months ago, so 2-3 times a week, I run the 3 miles to pick her up, then both of us do the run back. Doing these along with my occasional longer weekend runs has resulted in about 10 pounds dropped since Labor Day. Hoping to get back into doing some races next year, but the dog stays home.

-Oh, and there was this. 5 years in the making and no sign of letting up. Thanks for all the support, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride as much as I have.

If you’re new around here, welcome! Feel free to take a look around, ask questions, comment on something, what have you.

Can’t wait to see what happens next week.

Meanwhile, 365 days later…

When exactly are the days of auld lang syne again?
When exactly are the days of auld lang syne again?

Things definitely changed for me during 2013, happily for the better.

-My script DREAMSHIP got me a manager, was a semifinalist in a high-profile contest and placed in the top 15 percent of the Nicholl. While I hope more things happen with it this year, I’m also pretty excited about the potential of the western spec and the two still in the rewrite/development stages.

Most importantly, I’d say I finally realized the true meaning of “write what you know”. A lot of what I write could fall squarely into the category of pulp material. A high-flying adventure guaranteed to buckle anyone’s swash. A western where you can practically breathe in the dry and dusty air and hear the thundering hoofbeats. A noir-style mystery that makes you want to hang on to your fedora as you toss back a shot of cheap rotgut.

I live for this kind of stuff, and strive to convey the same kinds of sensations and experiences in my work. It took a while to really understand this, but it’s made a significant difference for me and how I approach writing.

-Through this blog, assorted networking websites and writing forums, I’ve connected with a lot of extremely talented people from all over the world. Pleasantries, experiences and script advice have been exchanged, and I’m looking forward to continuing all of them (when possible, regarding the latter).

-Absolutely nothing happened with relaunching the podcast, mostly because I never found the time. Will do my best to change that.

-I ran 5 half-marathons, including two where I finally managed to break the 1:55 mark and set a new personal best – 1:51:10. I don’t know if I’ll do as many this year, but would like to try and at least hit 1:50.

-The running and bike riding definitely helped me stay in shape, and I attempted to maintain a semi-regular regiment of upper body work. Not as fit and toned as I’d like to be, but it’s helped a little. This will continue.

-The great baklava experiment was a smashing success. It’s been requested I make it again, this time with pistachios instead of walnuts. No reason that can’t happen. Still undecided about what new concoction to attempt this year, but baked alaska currently holds the frontrunner position.

As always, I’d like to thank you for coming along with me on this thrill ride of an experience, and hope you stick around because 2014 holds bigger and better things.

Happy new year, and see you on the other side.