Q & A with Brian Smith of Monument Scripts

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Brian Smith of Monument Scripts grew up on Cape Cod, long a favorite haunt of writers and artists, surrounded by and loving well-told stories. When he left the Cape, it was to study the techniques and principles of good story telling at the University of Southern California. There he earned an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

He began his career in the industry working for Disney, and then Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation, and he has credits on 24 films and television series. Brian’s been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for such companies as Walden Media and Scott Free Films.

Brian currently lives in Los Angeles, with his wife, three daughters and two dogs.

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

If we’re talking incredibly well-written, I would say the last thing was Coco. Full disclosure here, my background is in animation. I’ve worked in animation my whole career, but I’ve been kind of down on PIXAR for about the last 10 years or so. I felt like it had been at least that long since they put out a complete film. I thought Wall-E and Up were both half-great films in that the first half of each of them was great, but the other half was mediocre to just bad. Other films that they put out during that stretch, like any of the Cars movies, Finding Nemo/Dory, or even Toy Story 3, were really lacking in strong stories. They always had wonderful characters that the audience fell in love with. That allowed for hyper-emotional endings, which was ultimately why those films were so successful. I thought with Coco, they put everything together in a way that they hadn’t since The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and they finally made a complete film. The story was thematically very strong, the stakes were very high, and they gave us a twist at the end I did not see coming. I don’t cry during movies, but I had a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat at the end. The quality of the writing in the script had everything to do with that.

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I fell into it, really. I was working on the Curious George feature years ago, and we were all about to get laid off as the show was wrapping. One of my co-workers suggested script coverage as a way to make some money while being unemployed, and he put me in contact with a creative executive he knew at Walden Media. I contacted him. He had me do a test, which they liked, and they started sending me work. I fell in love with evaluating stories and writing, and have been doing it ever since.

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

Absolutely, and it can be both taught and learned. Writing is one of those unique disciplines that’s equal parts creativity and technique. You have to use your imagination in order to be a good writer, but you also have to use dramatic structure. Determining the merit or quality of a premise or an idea can be a subjective thing, but evaluating a writer’s technique and skill level is absolutely something that can be taught. What a lot of writers don’t understand is that good dramatic structure makes you a better writer. Just as anyone can be taught to implement that structure in their writing, others can be taught to evaluate how successful the writer was in implementing it and how that implementation strengthened or weakened the story.

What are the components of a good script?

A good script is a story well-told; that takes the reader on a journey to a world that the reader can envision and become a part of. In order to do that, a good script needs to have been spawned from a strong premise. A strong premise usually gives way to strong thematic elements, which are also necessary for a good script. A script is almost always better when it has something that it’s trying to say. A strong thematic component is also a way to make us care about the characters, which is probably the most important component. I need to care about the characters and what happens to them. I need to feel some emotional attachment. Without that, you’ve got nothing.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Not adhering to proper story structure is a big one. The transition from Act II to Act III is one that tends to trip people up the most. Poorly written dialogue is another one. Writing good dialogue is hard, and most writers from whom I get scripts haven’t yet mastered the art of subtext, which is crucial to writing good dialogue. It also seems as though a lot of writers think that big words mean good dialogue, which isn’t necessarily the case. Finally, flat characters are a common problem in scripts I get. It’s especially problematic and common in protagonists. Many writers are reticent to give their hero a flaw or some other issue that gives him or her depth, and it’s so important to do so.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The post-apocalyptic sci-fi thing. I love science fiction and there have been some great post-apocalyptic stories. There’s a reason The Hunger Games was huge. It was a terrific story with real pathos and drama. Unfortunately, it made way for a lot of other stories that tried to do the same thing, but just didn’t do it as well. Even The Hunger Games went out on a whimper for me as the last movie wasn’t nearly as good or as compelling as the first. I had the same opinion of the books as well. But that’s a trope I kinda wish would just go away.

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

Story structure, story structure, and story structure.

Have you ever read a script where you could immediately tell “This writer gets it.”? What was it about the writing that did that?

Yeah, and it was actually a bit annoying. I was reading for a contest, and got a script written by a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer, and the script was about a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer. I know this is super-petty of me, but I really wanted to hate it because it’s really annoying when someone is good and successful at everything they try. But I have to admit it was an exceptional script, with an interesting protagonist, a compelling storyline and meaningful thematic elements, all written in a cinematic style. It was easy to envision this as a courtroom drama worthy of the genre. The writer really understood what it took from a technical standpoint to write a story well, and her personal experiences allowed her to tap into material that was interesting and dramatic.

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

I believe it is worth it, especially nowadays. With studios less likely to option or buy spec scripts, doing well in a screenwriting contest might be the best way for some writers to break in to the business. And the beautiful thing is, you don’t even have to win. You could be just be a finalist, a semi-finalist, or even a quarter-finalist, and there’s a good chance someone from a studio is reading your script and could possibly be impressed with your work. Even people who aren’t winning these contests are getting meetings that could lead to work. You might not sell your script this way, but your talent could be recognized by someone who has the power to hire you to write something else, and that could break you in to the industry. I personally have a friend that experienced that. She got her script into a couple of contests. She didn’t win any of them, but her script caught the eyes of people that could do something with it, and she’s been taking meetings and getting offers for representation. So if you have a quality script you can’t get past the studios’ Threshold Guardians, enter it into a contest, and there’s a chance that the studios could be calling you.

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

People can check out my website: http://monumentscripts.com/ or follow me on Twitter @monumentscripts.

You can also email me directly at briansmi71@gmail.com

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

We must be kindred spirits, because I am definitely a pie guy. I’d rather have pie for my birthday than cake, and will never turn down a slice of pie for anything. That said, I prefer fruit pies to crème pies, and my favorite of all the fruit pies is blueberry. My favorite way to have it is warmed up with vanilla ice cream on top. That is, unless I’m eating it for breakfast. Then it’s just plain.

blueberry pie a la mode

The gears, they’re a-turnin’ again

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Sometimes you have to really throw yourself into your work

During a break from working on the comedy spec rewrite, I was digging through some files on some of my other scripts and found a friend’s notes on the pulp sci-fi spec.

I hadn’t read them in months, and vaguely remembered there were some quality comments, so since this is one of the scripts I’m considering working on next, I gave them a quick skimming.

(This is also a good time to remind you that unless you honestly and truly feel that a script is finished, never throw away any of the documents associated with it. You’d be surprised how invaluable those can end up being.)

Yep, definitely some good stuff in here, along with some very valid points about the story and the characters. One of the comments that really struck home for me was that while they liked the story and the ideas behind it, a lot of it still felt too familiar. There were a few moments of uniqueness, but they wanted more. Something slightly different from what they’d read.

“Familiar, but different.” I’ve heard that before.

And it really got me thinking. Even more so this time around.

As it reads now, it’s a good, fun story, but I know it can be better. And different. All while still maintaining the qualities and elements you’d expect for this kind of story, which is what made the idea of developing it so appealing to me in the first place.

Working in my favor is that this was an early draft, so some significant changes were already inevitable, and I at least have a pretty solid foundation from which to start the rebuilding process.

Another bonus is that this is the kind of story where the more new and original ideas I can come up with will only help make the end result stand out that much more.

As I mentioned, this script is a potential “next up”, but not a priority. If an idea or concept for it suddenly pops up, I can easily open up the script’s notes file and jot it down. That way I’ll have it right there and ready to go when that rewrite gets underway.

But for now, back to the comedy.

-A few items for the bulletin board:

-Filmmaker friend of the blog Hudson Phillips is running a crowdfunding project for his post-apocalyptic tale of female empowerment This World Alone. As of this writing, they’re just over 2/3 of the way there, so donate if you can!

-If you’re a screenwriter looking for something a little different in terms of a writing retreat, take a gander at what the Aegean Film Lab has to offer: an international screenwriting workshop in July on the Greek island of Patmos. It’s part of the Aegean Film Festival and a partner of the Sundance Film Festival. I won’t be able to make it, but maybe you will.

A few other writings of relevance

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Only sixteen more items to deal with and I can call it a day!

First, the good/positive news – the rewrite of the comedy spec is complete. However, at 88 pages, it’s a little shorter than I expected. Fortunately, adding in another 4-5 pages shouldn’t be too strenuous.

As part of the effort to recharge my creative batteries before jumping back in, I’ve stepped away from it for a couple of days.

From actually working on that script, anyway.

Since there are a lot of other avenues involved in getting your work out there, I’ve been focusing on some of those, including:

-got some great feedback on query letters, so revised one (along with updating a few lists of potential recipients – always works in progress) and sent a few out.

-submitting some pitches, and just about every one asks for a synopsis. Working on these tends to usually involve me putting in too much story info, then turning around and drastically editing it and shrinking it down to fit on one page. Despite how important this is, I’ve always disliked it.

-jotting down ideas for other scripts. While a nice reminder that I have these waiting in the wings, it’s also quite pleasant to take a look at stuff I haven’t seen in a while. Some are still in the development stage, and others are older scripts due for a massive overhaul.

-the maintenance and upkeep of connections with other writers and creatives. Like with the scripts, some are from the past, and some are brand new. Can’t go wrong with keeping your network healthy.

-reading scripts and watching movies. True, not necessarily writing, but definitely affiliated with it. It’s especially gratifying when the script comes from a writer who knows what they’re doing. As for the movies, that’s been a mix of the popular (Wakanda forever) and the Oscar nominees.

The point of all of this is that there’s much more to building a career in screenwriting than just writing scripts; it involves writing of all sorts for many other things. While I already dedicate a good portion of my available time to working on scripts, I also realize and accept that these other things are in just as much need of my attention.

And an added bonus – many of these things are not one time only. They’ll be done again and again, so the more I do them now, the easier they’ll be to do when the need arises.

Except for the one-pagers. I’ll always struggle with those.

A population of your creation

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Part of the appeal was how blatantly non-traditional the characters were

Totally unintentionally, I’ve watched a handful of independent films lately. It’s just the way my Netflix queue was set up.

Apart from each one being a solid example of good writing and demonstrating how to craft a small and contained story with a limited number of characters, they also had the distinction of featuring well-known and established actors in a wide variety of roles.

My first thought was “How did they end up in this?”, but as the film played out and the story progressed, it became pretty apparent that the actors were attracted to the characters and that they were actually part of the story.

Ranging from those in a handful of scenes to the protagonist, each one felt fleshed out and three-dimensional. They had depth. Nobody came across as if they had no business being there to begin with.

This was also apparent in the trailers that preceded the films; many, if not all, I’d never heard of or had a very, very limited release. There must have been something to that script or the roles that would attract actors of that caliber.

As a screenwriter, you want to make sure that not only are you presenting a solid and entertaining story, but it has to be populated with original and unique characters we’re interested in, who are also developed enough that we become invested in wanting to see what happens to them.

Not as easy as you think.

How often have you seen a film or read a script where a character is simply a tired cliché? Notice how fast you lose interest?

Now if that character were something totally different than what you expected, wouldn’t you be more likely to want to go along on their journey?

Just as an example, I read a script last year with a protagonist who was introduced as a “total slacker dude, mid 20s”.

Snore.

And if that wasn’t tropey enough, he was playing a video game in his cluttered studio apartment.

Double snore. Seen it countless times before.

I’d suggested to the writer they consider really changing things up with a totally different approach. Rather than a slacker, what if the protagonist was some kind of genius? Or had been successful, but now fallen on hard times? Something, anything to not go down Cliché Avenue.

See where I’m going with this?

You’re not only telling a story, you’re providing the raw, base material for an actor to work with. They like delving into new territory just as much a reader or audience. By taking a different approach and providing the foundational details, you can create a new and original take on old and f amiliar characters.

Like with the story overall, give us somebody we’re not expecting. The more unique and interesting they are, the more likely an actor will be interested in portraying them, just as much as we’ll be interested in wanting to see what happens to them.

A rather introspective Q&A with Lauren Sapala

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Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as an alcoholic. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.

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

The best book I’ve read this year is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I was absolutely mesmerized and couldn’t put it down. The blend of fantasy with serious fiction was just enthralling.

Tell us a little about your writing background.

I’ve been writing seriously for over a decade and started my blog for writers in 2013. Shortly after I started the blog I went into business as a writing coach and I quickly noticed a pattern with my new clients. Nearly all of them were intuitive, introverted personality types. Using the insights I gained from working with my clients I wrote a book called The INFJ Writer, which came out in 2016. This year I released my addiction memoir, Between the Shadow and Lo. So, I currently juggle a few different writing responsibilities—I still write regularly for my blog, I work on my own books, and then I help my clients with their manuscripts.

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

Wow, this is a tricky question and I have heavily biased opinions on it. I have a degree in English Literature, and I would say that it’s actually been one of the biggest obstacles in my own writing journey. Studying literature at the university level put me in an environment with a lot of “experts” who felt they definitely knew how to “recognize good writing.” But from my observations, this basically came down to the writers who have won awards, been canonized in some way, or who everyone has agreed is a “master.”

When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, for example, Stephen King was dismissed by a lot of people who liked good literature. Even when I was working in a bookstore in the early 2000s, a lot of the booksellers looked down on his books. Today, he’s been recognized as a “master” and so now it’s a different story. So, no, I don’t think “recognizing good writing” is something that can be taught. I think you have to learn how to read everything with an open mind and trust your own judgement. If you like something, you like something and that’s that,

Your book is called THE INFJ Writer. What does INFJ mean, and how does it apply to writers?

INFJ is one of the 16 different personality types in the Myers-Briggs Typology personality system. The letters stand for Introverted (I) Intuitive (N) Feeling (F) Judging (J). Another way of putting it is that INFJs are introverts who interpret the world through their intuition and use emotion to make the majority of their value judgements. INFJs are about 1% of the population, but from my observations they make up a much larger percentage of the writers out there.

What inspired you to write it?

It was a combination of different factors. I struggled for many years to write anything. I wanted to write more than anything else, but I did horribly in the creative writing classes I took in college. The whole “critique circle” thing didn’t work for me at all. I also couldn’t write in a linear fashion or use any sort of an outline. I had a lot of shame around these issues for years. It wasn’t until I painstakingly stitched together my first novel that I realized I wrote in a radically different way from the norm. When I started talking about these issues on my blog I got a huge response, and then, as I mentioned, I started taking on clients as a writing coach. Almost all of these people had found me through one article or another that I wrote on being an INFJ writer. I saw immediately that we all had the same problems. I knew then that I needed to write a book about this.

Some writers feel their talent and/or creativity might not be strong enough. How would you approach that?

A lot of people say creativity is a muscle, and I do agree with that to a certain extent, but for me, personally, it’s more like a portal. The more you open yourself up, open your heart and let things just show up in your mind without judgment, the more the portal widens and lets more cool things come through. If an idea pops in your head and you instantly go into rational mode and start judging it, or try to analyze how it will work as a plot or how readers will respond to it, you’ve pretty much set yourself up to kill the idea right there. If you’re habitually in judgement mode (toward yourself or others) you’re just not going to get very far with strengthening your creativity.

Is there a “proper mindset” to being a writer?

I don’t know if there’s a “proper mindset” but I would say there is a “helpful mindset” and that would be: Just Chill Out. Almost every single blockage or obstacle I work with my clients on can be traced back to the root of anxiety. Almost every writer is anxious that they’re not talented, they’re not doing it right, everyone else is doing it better, they’re not published yet, their novel doesn’t look like it’s supposed to, etc. If you’re serious about being a writer, you have to chill out on all this stuff. You’ll have good days and bad days and nothing is the end of the world. You’ll write stuff and be convinced it’s the work of a genius and look back a few years later and hate it. You’ll write stuff that you don’t think is very good and then other people will love it. You just have to hang in there and lighten up most of the time.

Are there some basic guidelines you suggest for writers, for both what they write and how (scheduling, timing, etc)?

Honestly, I think our culture is way too obsessed with rules. This also comes back to being in judgment mode. We live in a culture where people judge themselves and others relentlessly. We are so used to our media constantly bombarding us with what other people are doing wrong or how they’re being stupid, and we’re endlessly encouraged to make judgments about those people and their actions. Most people devote probably about 60-70% of their mind power to self-judgment—so when we see the blog post that reads “5 essential rules for successful writers” we eat it up. However, it’s not nourishing. It might feel familiar, because it’s got that judgment energy attached to it, but it’s actually not helpful.

I think most creative people flourish with NO guidelines in place. Write what you want to write. If you haven’t written anything in two weeks, whatever. Try writing something right now. If you’re not feeling it, then you’re not feeling it. I know this runs counter to the standard writing advice out there that “writing is work” and you have to “sit your butt in the chair and get it done,” and yes, I do understand that sometimes you just have to make it happen for yourself, but it shouldn’t be a constant swimming upstream battle either.

You recently released your autobiographical novel Between the Shadow and Lo. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it came about?

Between the Shadow and Lo is an addiction memoir (in the guise of a fictional novel) all about my alcoholic years in Seattle. I’ve been sober for 12 years now, but when I was drinking I was pretty much a lunatic. Between the Shadow and Lo is the story of how I felt like I had a split personality during that time. “Lo” was my other, sociopathic half and she only came out when I was too drunk to fight her off.

The book is very dark, and very gritty. It’s also one of the few transgressive fiction novels you’ll find out there written by a woman. Jean Genet and Charles Bukowski are two of my favorite writers and they were huge influences in terms of the style of that book.

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

They can email me at writecitysf@gmail.com. I get a lot of emails so sometimes it takes me a day or two to respond, but I do respond to every email I receive.

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

Does vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie count? I don’t eat a lot of sweet things, but I love vegetables.