Q & A with Terry McFadden

TERRY Cool

Terry McFadden came up through the ranks as a playwright having been produced
throughout the United States, the UK and Australia and winning several awards. From there he worked as a script consultant for ARD Television, Radio and Films and Eternity Pictures before starting off on his own. He has had the good fortune of giving studio notes to producers on scripts that got made such as THE GOOD GIRL, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE.

As the founder of Story Builders Script Doctor & Writing Services, he has covered, analyzed, given notes and consulted on hundreds of screenplays, TV pilots and story ideas and is dedicated to helping writers find and hone their own unique voice.

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

JOKER. Without question. The absolute best script of 2019. From the very first page I loved the writing. Now, a lot of it is because I so identify with the charm and depth, the way it was done, the thematic and stylistic elements hit me right off. Not only was the lead character great and unique but he starts out as a very human but weird guy who has issues—issues that are clearly foreshadowed and then evolved. The story makes clear and piece by piece layers in not only his mental and delusional maladjustments but the idea that the way things turn out, as a result of his upbringing and belief systems and how he sees himself and world, is the only way it can end. This is developed wonderfully.

Screenwriters are taught to look at story, the characters and their arc, the twists, the spins, the reversals, the progressive development and surprises; a solid and rising structure with the catalyst plot points, midpoint, and the rest. All of that was there in JOKER but what kept me turning pages was the way it all weaved back in—supporting and commenting on what is already going on adding dimension. A real fresh slant on how he becomes not only his own hero but also the hero of those in need of such a person. The metaphors, the allegories, the songs, the running symbolic commentary—all snaking back and endorsing what is going on or will be, was both unpredictable, cool, necessary yet not seen coming in that way. Very well done.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I started as a musician. Eight years old, I’m taking guitar lessons and my Dad tosses me onstage with “Tommy Schaefer’s Country/Polka Band at Jim Thorpe Memorial Park”. Music is a big part of everything I do. Writing is music. I came to formal writing at Penn State, penning funny essays about people and teachers. But it took off in Los Angeles in 1993 or so, when I began to write short scenes and monologues for the theatre. I became a member of Actors Art Theatre in Hollywood and remained there for four and a half years—this is where I really developed my style of writing.

Writing scenes progressed to ten-minute plays, short plays and one acts. The director and founder of the theatre was a real mentor to me and a great means of support. From there I studied at UCLA and AFI, did coverage and analysis for several production companies for a while, continued to write, act and produce plays and scripts. I then went out on my own as a script doctor.

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

Absolutely – for both. The “craft”, to me, comes first. Learning about story, character development and structure–how to turn an idea into 110 pages of course, is the gig here. So in order for me to recognize it, I had to learn it. I had to discover what structure does, why and how–what makes great story points and all of the rest. When you are reading tons of scripts and attending workshops and seminars by a lot of the great teachers like I have, the recognition of good writing becomes second nature because you’re also seeing bad writing and discovering why.

Writers who want to grow and become better intuitively know they need some help. My job is to provide that while showing them their promise as well. Their promise is what we develop. Writers who are open to and then apply good notes will see right off how it betters the work—this is “being taught”.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A memorable story, clear and fresh characters and building structure as I mentioned above, but for most of us, that’s a given. Good scripts need to be engaging and surprising too.

Stories that emotionally move you as well as make you feel that you are there. The mark of great writing is a piece that has the reader or audience invested and rooting, one way or the other – eliciting an emotional response. Even though readers may not identify with the situation they will identify with the emotional life of what the character is going through, the actions and the way the characters behave, and this is because of the human experience.

What I consider the most important component of all of this is that the writer tell the story in a fashion that only her or she could—their own unique voice. This is who they are and how they see the world that nobody else does. The first thing I look at when reviewing a script is the description and I ask myself, “is this textbook or is this from a perspective that I’ve never seen before?” A script that has a unique and personal voice to it is already leagues ahead as the writer understands not just story, but “their” story and how to get that across.

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

Lack of prep and what’s worse, thinking that you don’t need it. Okay, great ideas make great stories but only if the idea is turned into a script that encompasses the story and structural elements to evolve, build, grow, sustain and resolve in 110 pages.

Another mistake is writing “pot-boilers”, that is, trying to copy what is out there without having a believably sustaining basis for the human aspect. Without a strong and personal character take, motivation, true want and need, you’re writing purely externals. Externals don’t get it for me. I need to know why.

Another mistake is that Act Two putters out and the scenes begin to get episodic and meandering. Biggest one is protagonist trade-offs: The protagonist, because of lack of drive, stakes, want and need is passive so the action is progressed by secondary characters thus confusing the lines and creating tangential sub-plots that do not correspond with the concept or original goal of the protagonist. I am a big proponent of using an outline. Sure, you could waver from it, but, do so in the context of the story that you are now familiar with—this is true and correct inspiration. Write an outline or treatment and get notes on that first. You’ll save yourself not only time but ego deflation and bouts of self-doubt. All comes down to execution on the page.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’d have to say voice-over as it’s so overused. If you’re going to use a narrator, and this goes for all devices and conventions, ask how is this still serving the story yet different, adding, and, could it only come from me? Is the narrator a character? Do they know the ending? Are they commenting in a way that goes against the cliché? Are they oblivious, dumb, judgmental? Are they an active character? Also, mentors who are older and have it somewhat together.

Photos on the wall or mantle showing who the characters were and what they did before we see them. I feel that exposition should be meted out when essential and in story forwarding form in crucial times and scene beats.

Lastly, villains that are too dark and mean. My take is that antagonists and villains are the protagonist in their own story; they’re just at cross-purposes with the hero. If you can show why antagonists do what they do and their reasoning, it’ll be more interesting. Watch the original FRANKENSTEIN bopping and stumbling all over the place, and tell me you don’t feel for him.

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

Write dialogue that differentiates the character as per who they are, their world, POV and experiences. Dialogue that only they could say.

Make sure it’s your world; your voice; your take—only you could have written this. The hook, the take, the scenario and the point of view could have only come from you. Not just overall conflict but inner scene conflict between the characters needs to be present evolving and resolved in some fashion, especially if they’re on the same side. Individual stakes and progressive character function is vital.

Do not have a character if he or she does not only have a role but also a function. How are they influencing the story and the hero? What happens to turn the story because of them?

Keep us guessing. Great scripts set up surprises, twists and reversals that catch readers off-guard yet make sense as per the foreshowing early on. There is no such thing as “out of the blue” (some comedies and farce exempt) even if you think it is. Everything that happens in Act Three is foreshadowed in some way and credible to this story.

Be open to changes; be open to collaboration; be open to notes that are going to improve the vision overall. Screenwriters are subjective and we need another pair of eyes that are not our own. We need to understand that getting sold, published and produced demands active collaboration. Get notes, shut up or drive a bus. Keep writing. This is a process and you learn as you go. Will you get better at it as you go? Probably. Will you evolve as a writer? Absolutely.

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

Yes. I reviewed a coming of age drama, a TV pilot, that looks at one night in the lives of several late-teen/early 20’s pizza delivery-service workers, concurrently and from all of their points of view. So different were the characters yet all dealing with their own private teen angst. Phenomenal use of subtext; great devices and conventions that were imaginative, unseen before yet fell right in line with the voice and concept.

This slice of life story very convincingly depicted the trials of young adults searching for love but settling for sex and left me with the feeling of hope and the promise of their journeys to come. Because this pilot opened up so many possibilities for all four of the leads, I felt it could go for many episodes and progress uniquely as well. Great writing.

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

Only if you do well. Screenwriting contests can help leverage a career but again, you need to have a good script that is recognized by the contest. Bigger question is how are you going to get your script out there? Contests are simply one road and not for all of us.

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

You can check out my website at www.storybuilderswrite.com. I’m also on Twitter at @Storybuilderz and on LinkedIn at  https://www.linkedin.com/in/storybuilders/

I also have a new e-book entitled, “That Sounds Like Me’ – ‘Implementing your Own Unique Voice into Act I of your Screenplay or TV Script’. The book takes a comprehensive approach to the usual refrains on getting your life and slant on the page. By delving into how the writer’s natural voice need influence all aspects of the process, it demonstrates how story tools such as Opening Image; Character Construction; Backstory and Exposition; Hooks; Allegories, Metaphors and Themes work together, complement each other, are part of the same world and why. Go to my website and sign in and I’ll send you the book for free, as a gift to you.

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

Ha! I’m going to bend the genre here and go with New York Cheesecake – graham cracker crust and bottom.

new_york_cheesecake

Assorted ends & odds

Woman Food Shopping
Nothing like a little variety – and at such reasonable prices

A lot of developments on several fronts around Maximum Z HQ this week. Don’t want to go into much detail, but among the highlights:

-outlined a horror-comedy short, and have now moved on to writing it. Seriously considering making it, so watch this space for further developments.

-working on the short, plus some inspiring and motivating comments from a few colleagues, makes me weigh the option of revising the horror-comedy spec I wrote last year. This would be done with the intent to lower the potential budget – smaller number of characters and locations. Defnitely doable.

-I’ve always been a fan of the The Flash TV show, and came up with a story idea I think would be fun to see. So, I’ve decided to attempt to write a spec episode about it. Since I’ve never written for TV before, this will be quite the learning experience.

-forgive the self-promotion, but my western took the top spot in its category for Creative Screenwriting’s Unique Voices contest. I’m quite thrilled, and even if it doesn’t take the grand prize, it’s still something I’m very proud of having accomplished.

-Here a few external items of note:

-There are lots of screenwriting retreats, but how about one at a 5-star game lodge in South Africa? Networking. Mentoring from industry professionals. A safari. All the details at scriptoafrica.com.

-Chris Gore of Film Threat has launched a crowdfunding campaign for his documentary project ATTACK OF THE DOC. If you were a fan of G4TV and/or Attack of the Show, this sounds right up your alley. Donate if you can!

-last, but not least. Yours truly is one-third of a trio of hosts of the new Creative Writing Life podcast, which offers up our thoughts on all sorts of writing and writing-related topics. Co-hosts include author/friend-of-the-blog Justin Sloan and author P.T. Hylton. As of this writing, it’s on Spotify, and we’re working on getting it onto iTunes. No matter what platform you use, feel free to give it a listen!

Hope you have a great weekend. Go write something.

Two shoulders, no waiting

shoulder
Plus two sympathetic ears at no additional cost

Trying to make it as a screenwriter is a tough choice to begin with. It’s a long, drawn-out process that takes a long time before any significant results can be achieved. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part, it remains a marathon, not a sprint.

And that also means there’s going to be A LOT of heartache and disappointment along the way, and that can really take its toll on you. Not to sound too New Age-y, but all that negative energy can do significant damage to your confidence and self-esteem.

“This is never going to work.”

“I can’t do this.”

“Why do I even bother?”

If you’ve never said or thought any of these things, I’d love to know how in the world you managed to accomplish that and still call yourself a screenwriter.

Many’s the time I’ve seen comments on a public forum from another writer that echo these sentiments, or had them send me a private note saying something similar.

And I feel for them – whole-heartedly. I’ve been that writer thinking those thoughts a lot, too.

Do I wish I could help them out in any capacity? Without a doubt.

Even though it may not be much, I’ll offer up whatever support or encouragement I can. Don’t underestimate the power or effectiveness of telling somebody you’re in their corner. It makes quite the difference knowing you’re not alone during this tumultuous journey.

I once got a note from a writer I barely knew. They knew a writer I knew, and had seen some of my postings online. We were both semi-finalists in a prestigious contest, and it was the day the finalists were being announced.

For reasons totally unknown to me, they contacted me, asking if I’d received any kind of update. I hadn’t.

“Having a total shit writing year so far so I’m clinging to anything positive ha,” was their response.

I told them I was sorry to hear that, and offered up my own frustratingly good-but-not-great batting average, along with a few words of encouragement in the vein of “much as it hurts to get thrown off, you just gotta keep getting back on the horse”.

They were in total agreement.

An hour or so later, the finalists were announced. I wasn’t one of them. But they were. Naturally, I was disappointed, but also happy for them because they had something good happen.

The takeaway here is that you’re not alone in this. Every other writer goes through it. We’re all going to have a lot of bad days, probably a lot more than the number of good days, and it can be tough to get through it, let alone come out stronger.

This is one of those added benefits to networking and connecting with other writers. You’re not just helping to develop your writing and analytical skills, you’re creating your own emotional support network.

Chances are you’ll have a stronger relationship with a small number of people; the ones you’ve interacted with, or shared scripts, exchanged notes, etc., on a more regular basis.

Don’t be afraid to reach out and tell one of them “Hey, I’m not feeling too good about this right now. Mind if I talk about it?” They’ll understand, and be supportive about it (in theory). Just being able to talk about it could help you feel a little better.

Screenwriting is complicated enough, and gets even more so when you throw all your hopes and ambition into it. Sometimes you’ll feel strong, powerful, ready to take on the world. And sometimes you’ll feel like the world’s beaten you to a bloody pulp with no hope for recovery. (Again, I’ve experienced both.)

You can’t force yourself to feel better and restore your confidence, but you can take little steps to help yourself out – at your own pace. And any help you might need is always there and easily accessible.

-Speaking of helping somebody out, friend-of-the-blog Leo Maselli is running a crowdfunding campaign for his anthology feature project CA SHORTS. Donate if you can!

I know the rules, and do not hesitate to break them

breaking free
Took a while to be able to do it, but well worth the effort

Used to be that when I would outline a story, I’d try to be as spot-on about hitting industry-recommended page numbers as I could.

Statement of theme on page 3, inciting incident on page 10, etc., etc. That’s how I learned it, so that’s how it must be.

These days? Not so much.

I don’t go crazy, you understand. No scenes lasting 10 pages or anything of that nature.  More like “this happens…around here-ish”.

When I first gave it a try, my immediate thought was “Is that going to be a problem?” It had become so ingrained into my process that this was how it was supposed to be, and any deviation from that was wrong.

Then my writer’s sense of craft kicked in with a hearty “Nope. Have at it, kid”.

As far as I know, the screenwriting police (is there such a thing?) aren’t going to shut me down because something doesn’t happen where THE RULES say it should. I’d rather focus on telling an engaging story with an intelligent plot and well-developed characters than worry about this kind of pettiness.

And honestly? It’s incredibly liberating.

I’m much more interested in telling the story in a way I deem appropriate, rather than drastically cutting something or even cutting it altogether just to make sure the beats happen on the designated pages.

So if my opening sequence runs a page or three longer, so be it. Does it work against me? I don’t think so. My writing usually moves at a good pace, so if something happens a little sooner or later than you expect, and if I’ve done my job in really grabbing your attention, chances are you probably won’t even notice it.

Unless you’re a real stickler for that sort of thing. Most of the writers who read my stuff aren’t; they’re more interested in reading a good script.

-Through September 30th (that’s this Sunday!), the fine folks at LiveRead/LA are offering the discount code MAXZ15 for 15 percent off their script services and the fee for their contest where your script could  be one of two read live by professional actors in Los Angeles in October. Following the read (30 pages max), feedback will be provided, including from veteran production exec & producer Debbie Liebling – Comedy Central, Fox, now working with Sam Raimi. Writers from everywhere are encouraged to submit. The event will be livestreamed, so if your script is chosen and you can’t attend, feedback will be provided live via Skype.

-Filmmaker Scott Kawczynski is running a crowdfunding project for his animated film Light Work. It’s a pre-sale, so even for $1, you can watch the film. Donate if you can!

More than just a pencil?

giant pencil
It wasn’t THAT big

Now that we’re in the month of October, what happened to me this morning feels very apropos for the season, and definitely worth recounting.

But first, a little backstory…

The latest draft of the pulp sci-fi is just about wrapped up. I’ve received lots of great notes on it, and incorporated some very helpful suggestions. The contest I’d like to send it to has its final deadline next week, so the past few weeks have been all about getting it as ready as I can.

While I still plan on submitting this script, there’s still that part of me that isn’t sure if it’s good enough, and that maybe I should hold off on the contest because it just needs too much work, which of course makes me doubt my abilities as a writer.

“Am I good enough? Am I wasting my time?” You know. The usual.

Cut to this morning.

My workday starts at 5AM, which means I get up around 3:15. Part of my getting ready involves having to take the dog out.

Since we live near Golden Gate Park, there’s always a chance of running into raccoons or skunks, so I’ve started bringing a flashlight as part of the dog-walking.

This morning, we got to the bottom of our front steps, and right there just beyond the first step was a pencil. Just a plain ol’ regular pencil.

I thought that was kind of weird. How did a pencil get there? Maybe one of the neighbor kids dropped it yesterday as they passed by? But it wasn’t there last night when I took the dog out. I took the dog around the corner. She took care of business, and we returned home. The pencil was still there.

We got inside and I got ready to head out to work. For some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking about the pencil. It being there seemed so random.

Maybe about seven, eight minutes pass between returning inside with the dog and going down to the garage to get my bike ready (helmet, lights, etc). I step outside. Just out of curiosity, I want to see that pencil again.

I maneuver my bike over to the steps and reposition the headlight down towards the sidewalk.

No pencil. Swear to God. It was gone.

Let’s consider the possibilities:

-it wasn’t there to begin with. Maybe, but I distinctly remember seeing it just a few minutes ago.

-it wasn’t a pencil. Highly doubtful. The unmistakble yellow, the green metal, a pink eraser. Definitely a pencil.

-somebody took it. possible, but highly unlikely. Not a lot of foot traffic in our neighborhood at 4AM. K later suggested it was the paper delivery guy, but his m.o. is to  toss the paper from inside the car. Plus, we don’t get the paper anyway, so there’d be no reason for him to stop in front of our place.

-a raccoon or skunk took it. Again, highly unlikely, but you never know. They continuously go after our composting bin on the other side of the house, so why not snatch up a pencil?

And what may be the most outlandish theory of all – it was some kind of message to me.

Think about it. A pencil. The most basic of writing implements. Maybe this was some kind of “sign from beyond” that despite all my doubts and occasional lapses of self-confidence, writing really is what I’m meant to do and that I should keep at it.

Then again, I might find the pencil upon returning home later today, rendering the whole thing moot. (In which case, I’d wonder “How could I not see it earlier?”)

But pencil or no pencil, the message, or at least how I interpreted it, remains the same. Even with all the frustration, I’m in this for the long haul. There’ll be good days and bad days, but I’m hanging in there, determined to keep going.

Thus the pushing forward continues…