Ask a Skilled-in-the-Art-of-Deduction Script Consultant!

Staton Rabin

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 Staton Rabin of Jump Cut Script Analysis.

Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script reader/analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. She is also a Senior Writer for Scriptmag.com, has been a freelance reader for Warner Bros. Pictures, the William Morris Agency, and New Line Cinema, taught screenwriting aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and elsewhere, and is a frequent guest lecturer at NYU. She’s also one of the final judges for the Big Break Screenwriting Contest. Her books include the award-winning BETSY AND THE EMPEROR, which was in development as a movie with Al Pacino attached to star.

Staton’s screenwriter clients include at least two whose scripts were produced as films, and a number who have won or done well in screenwriting contests.

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

Sherlock” from BBC-TV. I confess that recently I wolfed down the entire series in about two days, catching up on all the past episodes of this great show. Clever, witty, poignant when it should be, and visually inventive. As a huge fan of the original Conan Doyle stories (and of Basil Rathbone as Holmes in the old movies and radio shows), I assumed I’d hate any “update” of them, and that no modern version could possibly compare to Rathbone’s. But “Sherlock” is hugely respectful of the original stories, yet finds incredibly smart ways to update them. My January 2015 posting for my monthly blog at scriptmag.com is about what screenwriters can learn from watching it. I am much more of a film person in general than a TV fan– and as a script analyst, my expertise is really in evaluating spec scripts, books, and movie concepts, rather than series television. But I have to admit: some of the best work today is being done for TV, and “Sherlock” is a prime example of that.

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

I read many screenplays before I became a script analyst for a living. After graduating from NYU film school, I hunted for a job as a freelance reader for quite a while. In those days, there were a lot of film studio offices in New York but at the time there wasn’t much in the way of “job placement” available to film school graduates (NYU has a great Career Development office now). But one day, when I was still unemployed, I bumped into an old film school classmate on the street. He was working as a freelance reader for Warner Bros. Pictures at the time. He took me upstairs to meet his boss, and in about ten minutes I had my first job. I’ve been a script analyst for over 30 years now, and have worked for many film studios, agents, and writers, so I figure maybe it wasn’t just having “connections” that’s allowed me to stay in this business so long!

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

On some intuitive level, all film audiences have the ability to recognize good writing when they see it. There’s a lot of wisdom in what “the average person” has to say about any movie, in terms of what they generally liked or disliked about it. Audiences also intuitively understand whether a story works from a structural standpoint, especially when seeing movies. But, at the risk of sounding elitist, I don’t think everyone has the capacity to read a screenplay or book, or see a movie, and be able to identify and articulate exactly where the problems are in the material, why, and precisely how to fix them. Certainly, a professional script analyst can get better at the job simply by evaluating thousands of movies and screenplays during the course of a career and helping writers to improve their work. I know that over the years I’ve gotten much faster at “taking the watch apart” and spotting problems in a concept or story– and can do this quickly and accurately even when I’m just hearing a brief pitch instead of reading the script. I also advise them on possible solutions to those problems. So while I think that the ability to recognize good writing– or a good story– is universal, the ability to analyze what makes the watch tick (or “clunk”), and know how to take it apart and fix it, I believe is mostly inborn.

To be a script analyst, one has to have a certain kind of analytical mind– the ability to enjoy the material as entertainment, and at the same time look at it as a mechanical device that may or may not be in need of repair, and know how to find where the problem is and what the right tools are to fix it. And perhaps this analytical, detective-like, detail-oriented, problem-solving approach I take to looking at stories explains why I wanted to grow up to be Sherlock Holmes– and ended up being a script analyst!

One’s innate abilities to analyze a story can certainly be honed and improved through education and experience, but one can only build on what one was born with. You raise an interesting question, because more often I am asked whether writers are born or “made”. And to that question I’d give pretty much the same answer: Education and experience can enhance one’s talents, but talent can’t be taught.

4. What are the components of a good script?

More important than the components– which vary– is how a great script makes a professional reader feel. It’s a writer’s job to make the audience (or reader) feel what he wants them to feel. I think the first job of a script analyst is to look at a script as entertainment and be an audience. Which means that if it’s a great script, with all the right components for that particular story and genre, I will simply enjoy it just as anyone else would, and nothing important goes awry from a writing standpoint that will remind me that I’m a script analyst doing a job. The story will be clear and compelling, with high stakes for the hero. I’ll like the hero, despite his human flaws (and partly because of them). I’ll be rooting for the hero to succeed in his goal but fearful that he will fail, as the story holds me in suspense. I’ll feel strong emotions and identify with the hero. And if I feel all these things, all the way through, I’ll be excited about telling the writer about my findings. If I’m reading the script for a contest or a movie producer, I’ll be excited about handing a report to my boss giving it a “recommend”.

But if a script isn’t working, I will notice this and stop to make mental and actual notes of any problems along the way. If it’s a great script (which is very rare), I’ll note the little problems but will be inclined to “forgive” them, and start rooting for the screenplay– just as audiences root for the hero when watching a movie.

A screenplay should feel like the experience of watching a great movie. In terms of what the components of a great script are, screenplay gurus talk about all the different factors that go into it. And these days, every aspiring screenwriter is already familiar with them. Of course they involve three-act structure, and everything else you’ve read about. So instead of re-stating the obvious, I would tell screenwriters to learn what a workable movie concept is (not necessarily the same as a “logline”, though people often use them interchangeably), to practice by coming up with the concepts for classic films of the past, and to make sure you don’t even think about starting to write your script until you’re certain the concept is working as blueprint for a great movie that can sustain the story conflict for 2 hours. You should spend 80% of your time planning a script, and only about 20% writing it. If you have to rewrite the same script over and over again, something is not working, and it probably goes back to the concept. One should stop the madness and get outside professional advice.

Keeping the plot very simple can help when writing any screenplay—and generally makes for better scripts. Especially if you haven’t broken in yet, don’t try to write a really tricky, complicated plot like “Memento”. Keep your story and your main character’s goal, motive, and conflict very simple, and your characters rich and complex. Make sure your hero has a tangible, external goal (and internal and external obstacles to achieving it) right from the start. Also, read lots and lots of screenplays from financially and critically successful, produced films.

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

The most common problems include a lack of clarity in what’s going on in the story, and withholding too much information from the film audience for much too long. I think many aspiring screenwriters assume that being “subtle” is desirable, and that they should hold back as much information as possible from the audience, and reveal or surprise them with it later. But actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The goal of a screenplay is to get the crucial information out as quickly, clearly, and efficiently as possible, not to be “mysterious”. Audiences should be in doubt (till near the end of the story) about the outcome for the hero, not be kept in the dark about the basic facts of what’s going on in the plot. Even in a murder mystery, there should be one big mystery at a time, not ten. Clarity is the screenwriter’s first mission. Don’t be subtle, fuzzy, or secretive when it comes to what the audience knows. “Surprise endings” are way overrated and few aspiring writers do them correctly anyway.

A lot of writers don’t understand that film is a visual medium, and how to present exposition in the language of movies. The script is often way too subtle in the way information is transmitted to the audience, and we are too often required to read the characters’ minds and “guess” what they’re thinking about. For example, the film audience is probably not going to notice signs or pictures on the wall, or how “neat” an apartment looks (many writers do this to communicate that the apartment’s owner has OCD, or the like). If a character is simply staring into space, we may not know what he’s thinking. Unless a character is actually doing something or interacting with objects in a meaningful way, the audience will not notice anything in a movie. They are not paying attention to the setting or what’s hanging on the wall (unless it’s someone’s head!), nor should the writer rely on the setting to do exposition.

In terms of visual information, only significant plot-advancing, character-illuminating action should be in a movie. Sipping coffee is not action– unless one character spits coffee in the other’s face. Eating “a hearty breakfast” is not action. And if any character in a movie MUST use a cell phone, computer, or other electronic device, the writer is going to have to find a way to make this visual and interesting (“Sherlock” does this very well).

Another problem I see in a lot in scripts lately is the misuse of dreams, flashbacks, and visions as a means of conveying exposition. Avoid them.

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

There’s no cliché so tired that it can’t be turned into something fresh and new in the right hands. Actually, screenwriters don’t rely nearly enough on tried-and-true dramatic formulas and techniques. You’re not going to come up with an original plot, so don’t even try. Following the proper dramatic twists and turns for your genre is exactly what you should be doing– with some new and original twists on what works. Writers should never make the mistake of thinking that following a formula is the same as formulaic or sloppy, ham-handed writing. Your goal should be to take a familiar and conventional story structure and give it a few new twists and surprises, and great characters of real depth and complexity.

All that said, you can’t go wrong if you avoid the following clichés:

-Blatant references to other movies or famous songs in your own screenplays.

-Flashbacks, dreams, and visions (as stated above).

-Giving characters a disability of some sort as a substitute for finding something unique and quirky about them derived from the pure skill of your writing.

-Trying to show us a character is afraid by indicating in your script that he is peeing in his pants.

-Any script about a writer. If you write about an author whose goal is to pen the Great American Novel or write an Oscar-winning screenplay and strike it rich, it is very difficult to make an audience care about goals like these and the nature of his profession provides few obvious opportunities for visual action unless he’s a reporter in a war zone. For most stories about writers, we are going to have to absolutely love your main character, and know what success means to him beyond the obvious, in order to care about his struggles. And, yes, I saw “Adaptation”, and it was okay.

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

-Work harder than anyone else, and work smart.

-Plan your concept and your story before you write your script. Don’t go ahead till you are certain it’s going to work.

-Follow the rules, but know when to break them, keep the plot simple, and write with passion. Be yourself. Don’t try to write “that junk” or “that great movie”. Write something emotionally honest that comes from your gut (even if it’s a comedy). There is no “magic formula” for writing a great script. Each one is unique.

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

I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you (great example of a cliché never to use in any script!). Kidding aside, it is hardly ever the concept or the logline that makes a great script. A logline (or concept) should and in fact must be dramatically viable: a properly structured formulation that has all the elements of drama (a main character with an urgent and compelling external goal, the character’s action in pursuit of that goal, and the main conflict or obstacle to achieving that goal) and that can sustain the conflict over a two-hour movie. And although it’s great if you have a slam-dunk “high concept” idea, and ideally your concept should have an element of originality, the execution is far more important. You need a reasonably fresh and interesting idea that works as drama or comedy over the course of a 2-hour movie. It does not have to be “really catchy” (though of course that helps), it just has to be interesting enough and workable. Your script, however, has to be truly great, not just “good”.

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

It depends on the writer’s goals and which contest. These days, there are only a handful of contests for which having been a winner or finalist is really going to impress a film producer. So if that’s your goal, enter Nicholl, Big Break, Austin, Sundance, or one of the other top, prestigious screenwriting contests. If your goal is to get the attention of the industry, then seek out contests that give you “access” and very major publicity in the trades as the prize, instead of ones that only offer money. Of course, many screenwriting contests have entry fees, and this can add up for many writers who have low incomes. So choose your contests wisely.

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

Ah, my favorite question! They can write to me at Cutebunion@aol.com. They can also find some information about my services at my website. I read and evaluate screenplays and books, but also advise writers as a consultant at any stage of their process, from concept to finished script. I can provide advice on pitching and marketing their material, what to put in a query letter, and can suggest some creative and smart ways to approach the process of trying to get a particular movie star “attached” for the lead role—without being a stalker!

I also have a monthly screenwriting column, “Breaking In“, for Script Magazine, which consists of “how to” articles about the craft of screenwriting (mostly for those who already know the basics), and the business of marketing a script.

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

Oops. Spoke too soon. This is my favorite question. Depends on the season. Pumpkin in the fall, key lime and banana cream at other times.

Ask an International Multi-Hyphenate Script Consultant!

Danny Stack

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 writer-director-editor-analyst-contest organizer Danny Stack of Scriptwriting in the UK.

Danny is a screenwriter whose TV writing credits include the revamped Thunderbirds Are Go! and the BBC’s flagship soap EastEnders, amongst others. He also writes and directs, and is currently in post-production on his live-action children’s feature film Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg? Danny has many years experience as a story analyst for a number of film companies, such as Working Title, Pathe Films, Miramax (Harvey Weinstein era) and the UK Film Council, to name but a few. He was development script editor for the British film The Man Inside, and he script edited the Irish-language feature film Kings.

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

The Knick by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. It’s a TV period drama about The Knickerbocker hospital around the turn of the 20th century. The drama is very character-driven but extremely engaging. Steven Soderbergh’s direction is also very distinctive and interesting, adding to the immersive milieu of the show.

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

I was a commissioning assistant in the Channel 4 comedy department. A large part of my job was logging all the spec sitcom scripts. I farmed them out to a handful of readers but started reading and writing my own reports, too, and really enjoyed it. Once I left Channel 4, I approached film companies asking to read scripts for them. I did a few sample reports, and went from there!

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

Learning to recognize good writing should sharpen your existing storytelling instincts. For example, I didn’t know anything about inciting incidents or three-act structure when I was green and keen, but when I read my first screenwriting book, those terms made complete sense to my natural instincts about story in the first place.

4. What are the components of a good script?

An original idea, interesting characters, good dialogue, unpredictable plot, a solid structure, humour.

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

Long set-ups or unnecessary introductions of characters, or indulging in backstory. Over-written scene description. Plain or over-familiar dialogue. Similarly plain or over-familiar characterization. Female characters being treated or written poorly.

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

Advanced aliens who are unaware of, or can’t comprehend, human emotion. ‘One last job’ crime set-ups. The straight-talking, overweight female friend often seen in comedies.

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

These aren’t rules, more things writers should be aware of:

-The first ten pages of your script are vital in making a good impression.

-It’s extremely unlikely you’ll get your first script made.

-Structure is your friend, not something to be railed against.

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

I think I’ve only given around half a dozen RECOMMENDS (out of literally thousands of scripts!). One of those RECOMMENDS had this logline:

“An adulterous husband’s life falls apart when his job comes under threat while his wife gets involved with a pyramid money making scheme to alleviate her boredom and frustrations.” This might not sound MUST READ but the writing was sharp, funny and inventive, and deftly managed an ensemble cast. After I recommended it, the exec read it, liked it, invited the writers in, and helped them find an agent.

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

I actually help organize a screenwriting contest in the UK. It’s called the Red Planet Prize which is a scheme to find new TV writers. It’s about helping and mentoring writers rather than just announcing a winner and then nothing. Plus, it’s free to enter. I’m very proud of setting it all up, and it’s helped kickstart a few careers, most notably with Robert Thorogood and his BBC series Death in Paradise. So yes, screenwriting contests are worth it, but don’t be sucked in by every single one; weigh up the pros and cons (is there a entry fee? Do I get feedback? Is the prize any good? etc.), and roll the dice!

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

On my website http://dannystack.com/reading

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

I have an annual Pie Night with my friends where we cook 5-6 varieties, and then choose a favourite. Last year’s special was a traditional steak & ale pie, delicious! I’m quite partial to a hearty fish pie, too. And lemon meringue pie for dessert. You’re not going to make me choose one, are you? NO FAIR.

Ask an Unequivocally Heavenly Script Consultant!

Logo Design FInalHayley McKenzie

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 Hayley McKenzie, founder of Script Angel.

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

In film, I loved Philomena by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. I think it’s hard to make intimate stories in the Drama genre that feel like they deserve to be a feature film, but this one really nailed it for me. Also, Locke by Steven Knight – set entirely inside a car. I honestly didn’t think it would be possible to sustain tension with a guy talking on a phone driving a car for 90 minutes. It’s not a thriller, there is no threat to his life, no car-chase. It was a really stunning piece of writing. For TV, it was probably the second season of UK mini-series/serial drama Line of Duty by Jed Mercurio – a thriller that sustained tension and threat following one story over 6 hours of TV. One interview scene was 17 minutes long and you were holding your breath watching it – amazing writing.

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

After a Degree in English Literature, I started in film and TV production as a Runner, then 3rd AD. Then I discovered what Script Editors did – combining story analysis and film production – and knew I’d found my perfect role. I got a job as Development Co-Ordinator at BBC Drama where I got to read scripts for Jane Tranter (now Executive Vice-President of Programming and Production at BBC Worldwide) and Pippa Harris (now Executive Producer for Call the Midwife). I was reading all the submissions to the department as well as everything in development and production. They read all my early script reports and really encouraged me to pursue it as a career.

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

The technical analysis side of it can definitely be taught, and certainly improved through study. But I think good script readers are also very empathetic. Like the writer, they need to be able to imagine themselves inside the lives of the characters they’re reading about. Script Editors also need to be empathetic towards the writer themselves. As a Script Editor it’s not just your job to critique the script but to deliver criticism and useful solutions in a way that encourages rather than demoralizes the writer. You can’t not give the tough notes but as a Script Editor you’re working in a long-term development process with the writer so you can’t just tell them what’s crap and then walk away and wash your hands of it. What comes back in the next draft is in part your responsibility.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It’s got to make me feel something – almost anything as long as it’s not bored or confused. It almost doesn’t matter how you do it. If it’s a Drama I want it to make me cry. If it’s a Thriller it should be a tense, exhilarating read, etc. If it’s achieved that, even only in part, then I know there is something there I can work with.

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

A great plot but poor characterizations; characters doing things because you need them to do it to get the plot to the next beat, not because it is what that character would do in that situation. And the reverse of that: great characters but almost nothing happens to them. Most writers have a natural flair for one or the other and the key is helping them strengthen the areas they’re weak in.

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

The hard-boiled, world-weary cop. It’s particularly a problem in television development because so many of our shows are in the Crime drama. Trying to find new angles on the ‘troubled cop’ is tough!

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

1) Don’t be boring.

2) Don’t confuse me. Intrigue is great but utter bewilderment for huge swathes of screen-time will just make the reader ditch the script.

3) Don’t give up.

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

Papadopoulos and Sonswhich was a huge UK indie hit in 2012, outselling GI Joe: Retaliation in some London cinemas! “Following his ruin in the latest banking crisis, a self-made millionaire reluctantly re-unites with his estranged freewheeling brother to re-open the abandoned fish and chip shop they shared in their youth.” I was lucky enough to be brought onboard as Script Editor – such a privilege.

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

Definitely. Placing in a well respected contest can really get you noticed. But not all contests are equal. I have a round-up on my blog of the best US & UK screenwriting contests (film and TV) which I update at the beginning of each month.

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

Via my website www.scriptangel.com or email me at info@scriptangel.com.

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

Treacle tart – which is almost a pie! Yum!