Lesson learned

A very recent post was all about my effort to read more scripts. I’ve been doing that, and from the ones I’ve read so far, the biggest takeaways are:

Wow, these are some fantastic scripts, and…

I need to be a better writer.

Not that I’m terrible. Maybe decent. Somewhat above average. But they don’t want decent or somewhat above average.

They want AMAZING.

PHENOMENAL.

MIND-BLOWINGLY AWESOME.

They want a script that once you read it, you can’t forget it.

My game needs to be severely upped if I want to make that kind of an impact and achieve the desired results.

What’s been truly eye-opening has been the overall quality of the scripts. They’ve been more than exceptional on several levels – originality, story, character, plot, etc.

The writing is vivid – incredibly so, and really makes you feel like you’re right there in the story. It wows me while I’m reading and compels me to keep going. This is something I strive for with my own work.

Reading these makes me want to do better when it comes to the quality of my scripts. I can only hope that I actually will.

Reading truly is fundamental

marilyn book

Even though I’ve been spending a lot of time working on new scripts, I’ve also made a recent effort to start reading more scripts.

The contents of the folder on my desktop labeled “TO READ” include around a dozen scripts of well-known produced films and those of my associates within my social network, along with a few I received with the advice “you really should read this”.

It’s a lot of scripts to work my way through. I’ve completed three so far, and each one has been amazing. It’s a fantastic experience I can’t recommend enough.

What’s probably the most important aspect is that taking a look at all these different scripts lets you see the multiple ways of how a story can be told on the page. Each and every script does an amazing job with its own interpretation of “Show, don’t tell.”

It also helps because many times we’re so wrapped up in our own material that reading something new and original where you have no idea what’s going to happen gives your imagination a much needed rest. You can literally just sit back and enjoy the ride.

When you get so wrapped up in the story that you can easily visualize it playing out in your head, and the words and pages just fly by, then you know you’re in the hands of a skilled writer who knows what they’re doing.

Very important – while you shouldn’t try to straight-out copy somebody else’s style, you can at least let it influence how shape your own. Don’t just read a script – study how it’s put together.

Is the writing crisp and colorful? Are you able to follow the story? Is the sequence of events organized so that you can’t imagine it happening any other way? Do the scenes make their point fast and move on? Do the characters seem like actual people? Does the dialogue sound natural and get the point across without being too on-the-nose?

These questions – and so many more – will come up while I’m reading a script for the purpose of giving it notes. But if somebody says “Read this. I think you’ll like it.” and notes are NOT involved, then it’s easier for me to read it just for the sake of enjoying it, and not feel the need to be critical.

That being said, it’s still tough for me to take off my editor’s hat – even for a casual read. It’s not uncommon for me to find the occasional typo or ask a question about something I’m just not sure about. This isn’t me being critical on purpose. Quite the contrary. When something like that takes me out of the story, I want to let the writer know so they can fix it and prevent it from happening for the next reader.

Even though this is a read for enjoyment, certain technical factors still come into play for me. Does it look good on the page? Is there a lot of white space, or do I have to endure big blocks of text? How’s the formatting? Any misspelled words? Pretty much – do they have the basics down?

And the stories themselves – WOW! Some are in genres I love, others totally new to me, and even a few offering a totally new take on an old standard. Even though I may not be a fan of something, I can still appreciate and enjoy a well-told story.

Also very important – after you finish reading, especially if it’s a friend’s script, thank them for letting you take a look, and let them know what you thought of it (preferably in the positive). If it’s a produced script and the writer is on social media, you can let them know that way. I’ve done this a few times, and each time the writer was very appreciative.

At my current rate, I’m getting through about two to three scripts over the course of a week, so I have at least another month to month and a half before the folder empties out.

I’m looking forward to getting through this batch, and even more so when it’s time to start compiling the next one.

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

Make your fictional people more like real people

 

purple rose

The rewrite of the horror-comedy is almost complete, which is great, but I already know what’ll require a little more attention for the next draft:

Fleshing out the characters even more.

I’d already made the effort to create backstories for each of them – nothing too extensive, just the relevant details that might come into play during the story.

As they read now, they’re established and definitely distinct individuals. A big part of the next draft is to help make them even more distinct, as well as further develop their respective arcs.

That’s something a writer really needs to be aware of – making the characters feel like an active part of the story. It’s our job to make them come across as actual people – not just caricatures or cliches. We want the reader/audience to be able to relate and connect to them, which then means we care about them and are interested in what happens to them next.

It takes a while to really get the hang of it, but once you’re able to do this, your script is that much stronger for it.

Not sure how to go about it? Plenty of resource material out there to work with. In my case, since this is a horror-comedy, I had the benefit of being able to use successful ones of the past.

The really good ones not only play up both the horror and comedy elements, but the characters are firmly established. We get more insight into who they are AND how what kind of person they are factors into the story.

The writing is so strong that you can see that they’re not just a generic character. The writers are letting you know how there’s more to them than just somebody taking up space.

These films put equal parts attention on the story as well as who these events are happening to, and how they reacted to what was going on. All of those combine to make for a great, solid script.

Which is what I’m aiming for with this one.

Admittedly, the biggest obstacle of this rewrite has just been getting it done. With that finish line fast approaching, the wheels are already turning regarding what it’ll take to raise the next draft to the next level.

Can’t wait to see how it works out.

Q & A with Mitchell Levin

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Mitchell Levin was born in Detroit, Michigan. He received his BFA in Film from Columbia College, Chicago and his MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He began his career as a Story Analyst at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles, and as a development executive there worked with Arthur Miller on his screen adaptation of THE CRUCIBLE, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis.

Mitchell has worked, at one time or another, for every major Hollywood studio and has taught screenwriting at UCLA Extension. He recently left Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks after 22 years as senior Story Analyst. There, he worked on films including GLADIATOR, ROAD TO PERDITION, THE RING, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, THE HELP, BRIDGE OF SPIES, and more. He is now working as a freelance script consultant for film and TV and can be reached via his webpage ScriptsRX25.com.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

It was a clip someone posted of a single scene from the TV show PEAKY BLINDERS, which I hadn’t watched but now will. So tense! Two male and one female gangster threatening a nun at an orphanage where a little girl had been abused. Masterfully written, performed and shot. Very still, but very edge of your seat, very heart in your mouth.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

While I was getting my MFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU back in the ‘80’s I did an internship as a reader for a producer named Martin Bregman, who made SERPICO and SCARFACE, among others. They hired me after the internship was over.

You were a Story Analyst at several major studios. What did that job entail and what were your responsibilities?

I started at 20th Century Fox when I moved out here. Not everyone knows this but the major studios are all signatory to the Story Analyst’s Union, which pays quite well, as opposed to freelance reader jobs. The union was very difficult to get into, even back then, and is virtually impossible now. I was then promoted to development executive and set up THE CRUCIBLE. I actually gave notes to Arthur Miller (he implemented all but two!) I told him, in our first meeting with then-president Roger Birnbaum, that we decided to set THE CRUCIBLE in space. Cute, huh?

After three years I realized being a corporate executive was not for me. I worked as a story analyst for every major studio at one time or another, but spent the past 22 years at DreamWorks. My job was to cover submissions, but also to help develop projects by doing in-depth notes from the time we acquired scripts or books to the time they either went into production or into turnaround.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?

Clear, coherent writing. Compelling premise and protagonist. Authentic sounding dialogue. Well-choreographed, not too-dense action if it’s an action piece. Clearly defined central conflict. An interesting world or a new spin on a familiar idea. And hopefully, a story behind the story, i.e., a bigger theme.

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

The only script I remember giving a Recommend to was called THE ASSUMPTION OF THE VIRGIN, back around 2002. It wasn’t a spec, it was written by Anthony Minghella, based on a book set in the Renaissance. Sydney Pollack and Benicio del Toro were attached.

Readers shy away from Recommend because it sets off too many alarms. A Double Consider (for script and writer) is sufficient to let the exec know you’re excited. A Recommend is really sticking your neck out, and if the exec doesn’t agree with you, you worry you’ll be in trouble even if you’re told you won’t be.

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

To some extent, of course. Then again, it’s also subjective. One person’s cup of tea may be another person’s cup of swill.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

First of all, a great premise, but they are hard to come by. Beyond that, a compelling protagonist (who doesn’t have to be likable if he/she is fascinating), dialogue that pops, a clearly defined conflict, and always, escalating stakes and hopefully a sense of surprise.

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

– Know your logline. Often I get the sense a writer couldn’t tell me their logline if asked; not concisely, anyway. A one or two sentence synopsis of the story that tells me the inciting incident, who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is, what the central conflict is, what the stakes are, and gives me a sense of the possibilities within the story without giving away the ending.

– Leave plenty of white space on the page. Readers hate lots of dense black text. Don’t overwrite. That goes for dialogue and action.

– Don’t introduce too many characters at once that will be hard to keep track of.

– Don’t give character similar names (Jenny, Joanne, James)

– While the reader has to read and synopsize your entire script, the exec may not read past the logline on the coverage, or past the first 15 pages of your script. You have only that brief window to really engage him/her and let them know “what is” – who, what, where and why – and really grab them.

– Very important – Don’t be boring!!

Are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I hate clichés always, and a trope isn’t necessarily a cliché. If by trope you mean a metaphor or archetype, they can always be done well or poorly, whether it’s “cross-cultural romance” or “reluctant hero”. Certain clichés bug me more than others, because they come up so frequently, like: “EMILY, 25, beautiful but doesn’t know it” or when the villain says to the hero “We’re not so different, you and I”. Or villains named DEVLIN because it sounds like DEVIL. Or when a character says “I just threw up in my mouth a little,” which makes me throw up in my mouth a little. It was funny the first time I heard it in a ‘90’s sitcom, but hasn’t been since. Likewise, the word “amazeballs,” which comes up a lot in comedy scripts, but I doubt anyone has ever actually said it in real life.

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

Since leaving DreamWorks, I’ve been working as an independent script consultant. My webpage is ScriptsRX25.com. I work one-on-one, in-person, or via Skype or Zoom. I work conversationally, as opposed to using written notes. I find it’s far more productive for writers and far more stimulating for both them and me. I can help with screenplays or TV pilots.

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

When I was a kid I wasn’t fond of birthday cake and always asked my mom to make me a cherry pie. My tastes are more sophisticated now. Unfortunately, I’ve since been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. This surprised me, as I don’t have a weight problem. When I asked my mom about it, she said, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you.” It seems it runs through the whole family on her side, but it skipped her.

cherry pie 2

So the only pie I tend to eat these days is humble pie, usually on those occasions, and there have been many, when I embarrass myself in front of famous people.