Q & A with Ethan Ransom of Screenwriting Is Hard

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Ethan Ransom began writing at a young age, but didn’t find his way to screenwriting until college, when he had a glorious realization that people actually made a living writing the movies that he loved. Right then and there, screenwriting became his discipline. After finishing two feature scripts, getting married, and moving to LA, Ethan completed the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, and then the Screenwriting MFA at The American Film Institute.

He was very fortunate to get repped right out of school, and has been hustling ever since. In 2016, he realized he needed to give back to newer screenwriters who were still struggling to learn what he had and began mentoring and coaching in earnest. He lives down the street from the Walt Disney and Warner Brothers studio lots in Burbank, California, with his incredible wife and three vivacious children.

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

THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK. Great dialogue and characters, great twists, gut punch of an ending. It puts you so squarely in the perspective of the characters, who are isolated, without information, operating on instinct, and doing the best they can, only to have rug pulled out from under them — and thus, us. Not a wasted word in that movie, and great performances to boot! Anyone looking to write a contained thriller should give it a watch and study why it succeeds!

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I made the move to LA after writing a couple screenplays, getting engaged, and getting invited to the UCLA Professional Program for Screenwriting (UCLA’s and USC’s grad programs declined my application). From there, I’ve worked a number of different day jobs — reality TV vault manager, post-production assistant, marketing production coordinator and writer-producer — all while continuing to write.

But my big boost was the screenwriting MFA at The American Film Institute, and specifically the two acting seminars that they made us take. That opened up my world as a writer and gave me a way into my craft that I hadn’t had up to that point. It helped me understand what I was actually trying to achieve on the page: a framework for real, performable emotion, created by the story I would write. I tell people that AFI made me three times the writer I was beforehand. From there, I was fortunate enough to find a manager thanks to my thesis script, and have been on the hunt ever since.

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

I think everyone recognizes good writing intuitively. They feel it — they know it’s good, whether or not they can explain why. I think the ability to recognize why writing is good and to reproduce that in your own work is what’s difficult to learn. I think it can be taught and learned to some degree, but if you don’t have an innate writer’s instinct buried somewhere inside, all the classroom time in the world can’t teach you how to write well.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Far and away, the most important component of a good script is compelling action lines and a rhythm of dialogue that creates the mood and flow of the story in the same way that the movie/TV show will. That’s what sets professional scripts apart: the action lines feel masterful, artful, and they take you through the movie in your mind’s eye in a specific and calculated way to mimic the feeling of watching the final product in your head. That’s the most important thing. That’s what makes for a compelling read, a page-turner, which to me is the best description of a good script.

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

Beyond bad grammar, bad spelling, typos, and improper format, the most common screenwriting mistake I see is action writing that describes the visual moments out of order, where we have to interpret the prose to figure out what we’d actually be seeing if we watched the filmed version of the script. That’s what screams “amateur” to me.

Second to that, I often see dialogue that doesn’t factor in character reactions — as in, the emotions of the lines don’t follow each other moment to moment. One character says something, and then the other character says something that simply would not follow from what the other character said, but is rather what the writer wants or needs to happen. That takes the reader out of the scene, out of the script, out of the story. You just can’t make that mistake and expect your script to work.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

None, really. I love tropes, as long as they’re executed in an original, fresh way. I think tropes exist because certain types of stories just work, but with how much content is being created right now, when you use a trope, you better put a spin on it, or it’s going to be absolutely dull, no matter what trope it is

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

You never need as many words as you think. Cut as much as you can.

Find your writing routine and stick to it. Defend it zealously.

Let early drafts be bad — no one will see them but you! Don’t try to be perfect on the first pass, it’ll just slow you down, and no matter WHAT you do, the first pass will suck!

Ultimately, don’t ascribe to anyone else’s method for writing. Take in their ideas, experiment, and find your own.

Don’t get too caught up with prep work or logistics work — the finished script is what you’re aiming to create. Everything else must serve that goal. Set aside anything that isn’t.

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

Sadly, I haven’t, but the elements that might earn a script a “recommend” are as follows: a unique concept and point of view, stellar writing, a tight and compelling plot, rich characters, and as a bonus, the subversion of genre conventions.

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

As long as you know that winning a contest will never get you a career — you’re basically paying for the chance to, at best, be rewarded with prize money and exposure, and at worst, be told your work isn’t good enough yet — heck, go for it. I think it can be helpful for exposure purposes and getting read in certain places, but like this business, there are no guarantees. Only spend what you’re willing to lose.

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

Email me at ransomwriting@gmail.com, or find me on the socials — @ransomwriting (Screenwriting Is Hard) on Facebook (my services are posted on this page).

People can also follow me on Instagram (@ransomwriting), Twitter (@ethanwransom), and subscribe to my YouTube Channel Screenwriting Is Hard.

I also do mentoring sessions as well as notes on completed work, and am always posting helpful info and links!

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

French silk. Mmmmm. Oui, oui.

french silk pie

My, what a pleasant scent

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It’s a been good week around Maximum Z HQ. A very good week, you might even say.

Got a couple of read requests, including one several months after the initial pitch, and my western advanced in the first round of a reputable contest.

On the actual writing front, made some good progress in the latest overhaul of the sci-fi adventure outline, plus got a last-minute invite to come up with a story idea for a friend meeting with a filmmaker looking for potential projects.

All in all, not too shabby.

Do I wish every week could be this fulfilling and rewarding? Most definitely.

Will they? Heavens no. But that’s expected. It’s the just way it is, and I accept that.

Everything that happened was the result of me putting in the time and effort. Writing, rewriting, researching who’d be most receptive to queries, figuring out which contest was most worth entering, and so forth.

I just happened to be fortunate that a lot of them are paying off very close to one another.

I also realize that each read request could results in “thanks, but no thanks”, my script doesn’t advance any further in the contest, and the filmmaker doesn’t like my idea.

Disappointing, sure, but it won’t slow me down, let alone stop me. I’ve got too much else going on to worry about it.

While the road to screenwriting success may be dotted with potholes, sharp objects and people who shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel to begin with, every once in a while you get a long empty stretch of green lights and smooth pavement. It may not last long, but it’ll might make you appreciate it even more.

So when you have a brief window of time where it seems like everything is actually going your way, savor it knowing that YOU EARNED IT. And definitely spread the word to your support network – they’ll be thrilled (just like you’d be if it were them).

Use the emotions and sensations you’re experiencing during this happiest of times to keep you going when every response you get is “NO” and the dark clouds return.

But also keep in mind that it won’t always be like that. This path is full of highs and lows, mountains and valleys. The important thing is to enjoy the journey and keep pushing forward.

As we head into the weekend, I’ll take a moment to review the past few days and think “This was nice.”

And then get right back to the grind, once again hoping for the best.

Plan. Follow through. Repeat.

champagne

Well, here it is. The last post of 2019.

How’d your year go? Of all the things you were hoping to accomplish, how many were you able to check off?

All of them? Great!

Some of them? Still good.

I won’t even entertain the notion that you acheived nothing, because there’s always something. Even the slowest runner crosses the finish line.

No matter what your results were over the past 12 months, you can use all of it as the building blocks for what you want in 2020.

Set goals for yourself, and do what you can to reach them. Be the writer with a plan who sticks to it. Try to accomplish something writing-based every day, even if it’s just jotting down an idea and filing it away, editing a page or three, or even reading a friend’s script.

Better to end a day thinking “this is what I did” rather than “why didn’t I do that?”

Remember that everybody’s path is specific to them. What happens, good or bad, for one writer is no reflection on another. The important thing to remember is to focus on you and what you’re trying to do.

But also take the time to offer words of support, encouragement congratulations and sympathy to others when necessary. Your connections to other writers are a vital resources, so treat them accordingly.

This may be your journey, but you’re definitely not alone. There are a lot of other writers out there, all with their own goals and objectives. Don’t be afraid to reach out if you need help, or offer it if they do (if you can).

There will also be things over which you have absolutely no control. Do the best you can with them and move on.

I’m not the first nor will I be the last to say that trying to make it as a screenwriter is an almost insurmountable task. But it can be done. So, if like me, this is what you really, really want, you need to do the work for as long as it takes.

Regard the start of a new year as a great opportunity to set up what you want to happen, then go about making it happen.

So good luck and I wish you all the best in making things happen in 2020.

Q & A with Geoffrey Calhoun

Screenwriter/script consultant Geoffrey Calhoun of WeFixYourScript.com has been previously featured on this site. This time around, he’s answering some questions about his new book The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

It was inspired from a class I designed when I was asked to teach screenwriting to film students in Ghana, Africa. Unfortunately that class fell through so I took the materials and broke them into seminars, then hit the road teaching at Film Festivals. Eventually, people attending the classes asked if I’d put this in book form. That’s when I realized I needed to create The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What about this one makes it unique?

Books on screenwriting tend to be one of two things: overly wordy textbooks or focus on a specific area of screenwriting. What I wanted to do was create a book that’s easy to read and comprises all aspects of screenwriting. Thus, The Guide For Every Screenwriter was born. It covers everything from concepts, character design, formatting, branding yourself as a writer, and beyond. All of it done in an easy to access reference guide which gets straight to the point. I wanted to break down the mysteries of our craft into something that anyone can pick up and understand. This is the book you keep on the shelf next to your desk as you’re writing. After reading this book you’ll be able to confidently write a screenplay, even if you’ve never done it before.

Some screenwriting books are geared more towards covering the basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. How is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

I wanted to write a book that even veteran screenwriters could read and walk away with something new or feel refreshed. The Guide covers some really interesting aspects about screenwriting which isn’t really covered in other books. Such as subplots, loglines, how to collaborate with other writers/producers, or even busting myths about queries.

Continuing on that theme – part of the book discusses the basics of formatting. Is this more of an issue than we’d normally expect?

Yes! As a professional screenwriter and consultant, I’m brought in to fix a lot of scripts through my website WeFixYourScript.com. One of the biggest problems I see is a lack of properly using format. Some writers believe it’s optional. Unfortunately, it’s not. So, adding format to the book was a must. I also wanted to delineate between a few of the finer aspects of format, such as montage vs. series of shots. Many writers think they’re interchangeable. The Guide explains exactly how and why they’re used and what makes them different, all with fun examples.

Early on in the book you mention how time, talent and tenacity all play a key role for both the writer and the act of writing. Could you elaborate on that?

The three T’s are my own personal mantra. The funny thing is, I never strung them together until I wrote the book. When it felt like I’d never get a script made I would tell myself I needed more time. Screenwriting is about the long game. Talent was a given. I knew I needed to be the best I could be, which is why I became a lifelong student of this craft. Tenacity is who I am as a person. I don’t quit. I don’t give up. I’m not built that way. I have to see things through. When I sat down to write the Guide, I wanted to create a section that was my own personal truth but also filled with hope and the three T’s were born.

A lot of writing guidelines say “write what you know”, but you’re of a somewhat differing opinion. How so, and how come?

That’s a great question and observation! I break the myth of “write what you know” in The Guide For Every Screenwriter. My hope was to introduce a different perspective to my peers. I believe we as writers need to be two things: experts on what we write about, and chameleons. In order to write about a particular topic or genre we need to master what it is first. Writing is one of the only fields in the world which encourages you to explore all facets of life in order to grow at your craft. The Guide provides a fun way to do that.

We also need to be chameleons. I know many writers scared to work outside of their comfort zones. That’s stifling creatively and also can make it difficult to find work as an indie screenwriter. I love working outside of my comfort zone. It makes me be better at what I do. It pushes me in directions I never expected and thus my skills improve.

I really liked your concept of what you call the “mind map”. Could you explain what that is, and how a writer would use it?

The mind map is a great little trick to get your brain thinking outside of the box. You can do it anywhere. I’ve seen a screenwriter do it at breakfast on a napkin and create their entire concept in ten minutes and it was good! You simply place what you want to develop in the middle of a paper and then branch off wild ideas around it. This isn’t just limited to concept; you can use it on anything including a character or even a story beat. I believe mind mapping in a busy public space can help as well because you’ll find inspiration from the surrounding environment.

There’s a section of the book that deals with a seldom-discussed part of a script: subplots. Why is the subplot important, and how can a writer get the most out of them?

When properly developed, a subplot can add a surprising amount of depth to your story. Subplots also fill out your script. Many writers tend to get lost in the main character’s struggle and end up underutilizing the supporting characters and underdeveloping the antagonist. This can lead to scripts struggling with anything from page count to a meandering script which can’t find its footing. A well developed subplot’s job is to reinforce and prop up the main plot. That’s one of the great keys to creating a killer script. In The Guide For Every Screenwriter, I explain what subplots to use and where they land in the script.

The final section of the book is appropriately called “What Comes Next”, in which you discuss what do after the script’s written – everything from getting feedback to queries. What prompted you to include these topics?

Screenwriting is about more than just writing scripts. If you really want to get out there and start landing writing gigs, then you need a road map of how to do that. I wanted to make sure the Guide can you lead you in the right direction. That’s why it covers topics such as properly protecting your script, a synopsis template, branding, networking, etc…

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was pumpkin with a big dollop of whipped cream. Still the same, or something new?

I don’t know why, but pecan pie has been calling to me.

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Resources at your fingertips

kent

Becoming a professional screenwriter is an incredibly difficult goal that takes a very, very long time to achieve.

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just know what you’re getting yourself into.

One goal, lots of strategies

The me business – a 24/7 operation

Apart from writing, what are you doing to help yourself get there? There’s only one person who can be the most effective in helping you move forward. And you already know who it is.

A support staff of one

Are you networking? Trying to meet other writers? Offering to give notes or swap scripts?

When a writer meets a writer…

Are you entering contests to see how your script holds up under scrutiny?

The hazardous journey down Contest Road

Are you sending queries? Researching reps and producers?

Quit them or queue them up?

Part of every writer’s journey is the inevitable frustration and disappointment. Some days it will be very powerful, and learning how to survive and endure it is all part of the process.

How low can you go? Quite, apparently.

Expiration date: NEVER!