Q & A with Lisa Gomez

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Lisa Gomez is a Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter, aspiring screenwriter, novelist and professional story analyst. She writes screenplays, songs and novels with her twin sister. Together they are writing a Barry spec, a 30-minute dark comedy, a period drama pilot, and a feature based on their father’s life as an immigrant and his pursuit of the American Dream. She is currently obsessed with Disneyland, matcha, the tv show Barry and reading as many books as she possibly can. You can visit her script consulting website at geminiscriptconsulting.com.

What was the last thing you read/watched you considered to be extremely well-written (any medium)?

The pilot of Barry. It has everything that makes a story compelling and unique. Professional screenwriters have always given aspiring screenwriters these three bits of advice when setting up a character and a world: 1) Start the story with your main character doing something interesting.  2) Show the main character’s day to day, show the audience what a typical day in the life of this main character looks like. 3) Show the audience the main character’s problem. Well, in a whopping 30 minutes, this show delivers all of this and sets up the promise for more.

[Spoilers for the pilot of Barry ahead]. The very first moment of the show shows Barry walk into a hotel room, holding a gun while the camera mostly focuses on the dead body that’s lying on a bed with a bullet through his head. Immediately, this sets up the main character doing something interesting… okay, so, he’s a killer. Possibly a hitman. Whoa, that’s interesting. Then, it shows Barry’s day-to-day. We see him fly home on an airplane, get annoyed at a fellow passenger that opens a window to let the light in (a subtle but effective metaphor), then he plays video games, alone, and takes a shower, alone. Immediately, we get it. This is one lonely and depressed dude that gets no fulfillment from killing.

So, within the first five minutes (and theoretically the first five pages of a screenplay), Barry sets up the main character doing something interesting (killing someone), shows the main character’s typical day to day (he flies home after a hit, he’s alone, bored and does nothing substantial besides killing) and sets up what his problem is (that he’s depressed and gets no fulfillment from his job). It’s a pitch-perfect setup to a show. One could argue that the set-up is traditional and therefore cliché. But because this is a unique character and the premise is so bizarre, Bill Hader and Alec Berg made this setup interesting and makes the audience clamoring for more. And this is all just the first five minutes… if you haven’t seen this show, please do. It’s a masterclass in writing.

One of your job titles is story analyst. What does that job entail, and what are your responsibilities?

A story analyst is essentially someone who gives script coverage for studios, production companies and agencies. In other words, someone who receives a script and has to write notes on that script, on what’s working and what’s not working with the script, if I would pass, consider or recommend the script for the agency/studio/company. I have to read the script in its entirety, write a synopsis of the script, write a logline, describe the main characters and then write comments on why I would pass or recommend the script. Occasionally, in my notes, I offer solutions to story problems.

How’d you get your start doing that?

This is a fun story. My sister actually found an internship listing for a script coverage reader for a literary agency on entertainmentcareers.net. I applied and got the job. I did that for about a year. Then, as luck would have it, a Nicholl fellow walked into my retail job and I recognized him because he spoke at one of the classes that I took at UCLA Extension. We got to talking and he said he could refer me to a low-paying but highly regarded script coverage job. I applied, had to do test notes on a script and then got that job.

Once I started getting more and more experience, I had screenwriting friends I’d met in various networking events in LA refer me to different script coverage jobs. Every friend I met through networking was an aspiring screenwriter that eventually got a job in the entertainment industry and either reached out to me about the script coverage job or I would ask if they knew about any script coverage jobs. This is truthfully the first time I finally understood the importance of networking in this city.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you that “this writer really gets it (or doesn’t get it)”?

First and foremost, the grammar. I know, that seems like such an obvious answer but it’s true. You would not believe how many scripts I read that have beyond atrocious spelling and grammar. Sometimes the ends of sentences don’t have periods. I wish I was joking.

Secondly, clarity. What do I mean by that? Clarity is probably the easiest and the hardest aspect of writing a great screenplay. Easy because once you put on the page exactly what you want the reader to know, you’re done. Hard because putting exactly what you mean on the page is very very difficult. This is why script coverage or having someone read your script is helpful. It can point out the areas that the writer thinks makes sense but in reality, it doesn’t and it only makes sense to the writer.

Clarity, for me, means a few things. One, that the writing makes sense. For example, if you’re writing an action scene, please write description that is easy to follow and easy to read. The worst thing you can do for a script reader is make them read lines of description a few times in order to understand what’s going on. We get bored and frustrated.

Secondly, that the character’s arcs, story and plot is clear. It sounds simple, but again, most scripts don’t have this. I think it’s because the writer knows the story so well that the writer forgets to put in important and obvious things. For example, I was doing coverage on this script where the main character was queer. It was a very interesting main character, but I didn’t understand why this character’s queerness affected their journey because every character that interacted with this character loved and relished their identity. The writer then told me “Oh, because this story takes place in 2010.” BAM! I now understand the context of the story. But that date was nowhere in the script. It could be little details like that that can make a script clear or unclear.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Clarity/conciseness. No one wants to read a script that doesn’t make sense, or rambles on too long. Make it sweet and to the point. And make it fun and interesting to read.

An interesting main character that has an interesting and relatable problem. So many scripts I read don’t have this in its entirety. Especially the relatable part. The main character might have an interesting problem, but it’s something that literally no one on this earth can relate to.

When the main character has a goal that’s actually attainable, but also difficult. This is something I don’t see all the time. What’s really important is that your main character has the skills to defeat their problem/the antagonist but it’s still difficult. A great example of this not happening is Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Sure, you know that Rey is strong, but you don’t know specifically how Rey will be able to defeat Palpatine. This makes the story boring because the audience can’t participate in her journey in how she can do that. She just defeats Palpatine. It’s not set up how she can. It just happens. This is story suicide.

The script is great if it has something to say. What is your theme? What is your unique point of view on the world? Not only that, but what is your unique point of view on a specific theme? For example, everyone writes about redemption, but what are you trying to specifically say about redemption? Are you saying it’s not possible (Barry), that it is possible, but a very hard road (Bojack Horseman), or are you saying that it is possible (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi)?

Interesting situations/scenes. If you have a scene where two people argue, that can be boring. If you have a scene with two people arguing in the middle of a mall, that instantly makes it more interesting.

Great dialogue. If you have dialogue I’ve heard before, that makes me cringe. If you have dialogue specific to the character and only that character can say it, it makes me happy.

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

The way screenwriters describe women as beautiful, sexy, or simply defined by their looks. It’s disgusting, objectifying and just plain terrible. It’s 2020. Women have always been complex. It’s time to write us as such.

Too much description. Description writing is very hard, but please don’t have paragraphs and paragraphs of description. Try to write what only needs to be in the script but as simply and concisely as possible.

Cliché dialogue. A lot of the scripts I read have the following lines: “It’s too late!” “You really don’t get it, do you?” “Hi, my name is [blank].” “So, are you new around here?” It’s exhausting. We get it. You’ve seen a lot of movies. Please prove it by not giving us these lines that we’ve all heard a million times. Sometimes it’s inevitable. You have to. But please try to the least you possibly can.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

One-dimensional women. I promise you, women are human beings that have ambitions and feelings that don’t revolve around men.

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

Write from the heart.

Write with something to say.

Get your first draft out as quickly as possible.

Even if you don’t like outlining, do it.

Read screenplays. They’ll help you write screenplays.

Live life.

Enjoy the process of writing.

Show your writing to people who will give you honest feedback.

Have a clear structure in your story.

Pitch your show/movie idea to your friends. If they don’t like it, either fix what’s wrong with the premise or think of another idea.

Screenwriting contests. Worth it or not?

Yes. Contests are great for deadlines and keeping yourself accountable. Because, if you’re paying that submission fee, you want to submit the best work that you have. However, don’t make your entire screenwriting identity about contests. I did and that got me nowhere. Use them for deadlines and don’t think about them after you submit. Just write the next script.

Follow-up: You’ve placed in the top 50 of the Nicholl. What was the script about, and what happened for you and/or the script as a result?

The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting are amazing. I’ve had friends become Nicholl Fellows and I’ve had friends in the top 50. We all have similar experiences.

That script was co-written with my writing partner, my twin sister. It’s a biopic about the nine weeks that Vincent van Gogh spent with fellow artist and rival Paul Gauguin. What started off as a friendly rivalry between them ended with Vincent cutting his ear off. It was my sister’s and I’s first screenplay… and it was the first draft. When we were announced in the top 50, we got about a dozen e-mails from huge agencies… I’m talking, CAA, WME, Anonymous Content, you name it… we sent them our script and then… crickets. I believe this script wasn’t ready and I also don’t think we sent them out to the agents and managers that would respond to our type of script anyway.

Here’s my biggest piece of advice if you place highly in a reputable script contest: contact the managers and agents you want to or agents that represent writers that write similar scripts to you. If my sister and I did that, I think we would have been represented by now.

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

I recently began my own script coverage service. If you would like quality script coverage with an affordable price, please visit my website at geminiscriptconsulting.com.

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

Aye, there’s the rub. Unfortunately, I have a gluten and lactose intolerance, so I can’t have pie unless it’s gluten-free and dairy-free. I know, it’s a sad existence. However, if I could have any pie, I personally love apple pie. Maybe because when my stomach could handle those pesky ingredients, I would always love getting apple pies from McDonald’s during my youth and that taste just brings back good, happy childhood memories.

apple pie

 

Learning never stops. Never.

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Sure, I may be tired now, but wait until you see the end results

So far, so good, at least in terms of how the rewrite of the sci-fi adventure spec is going.

Already managed to trim a decent amount of pages, with more potential targets coming up fast.

However, one of the most surprising results this time around is seeing more and more opportunities to really get the most of not just the words on the page, but HOW they’re presented.

I already knew overwriting was one of my biggest obstacles. I tend to go into more detail than is necessary. Not “this is the color of his t-shirt, and this is what’s on his breakfast plate”-type stuff, but more in terms of excessively describing what you’d see transpire onscreen.

This has become painfully obvious for some of the fast-paced action scenes. In the old draft, there’d be several lines about what a character was doing. This time around, I want to get to the point faster – partially for less ink on the page, and partially to help speed things up – so I highlight only the parts that the can’t do without.

It’s probably safe to say each scene has become shorter by at least some degree. Some by a few lines, others by half a page, etc. But the overall impact is becoming more noticeable. Scenes seem to be flowing more smoothly. Even though the descriptions aren’t as detailed as they were before, the new, tighter versions are just as visual.

Of course, since I’m the one writing it, I already have a strong sense of how it’s supposed to “look”. The real test comes when a reader gets their hands on it. Will they experience the same results? I sure hope so, so in the meantime, I do what I can to write it so everything is easy to follow and all questions are answered.

What’s most surprising at all about these new developments is I’d written my last few drafts of several scripts with the same approach I’d always used, but there’s just something very different about it this time around. The way this draft is being put together has a much more analytical feel to it. It’s as if something holding me back has been removed, and the positive results are coming in rapid-fire. One can only hope this sensation endures.

Once again, there’s no firm deadline for a completed draft, but as I mentioned, progress has been strong and steady, so “slightly sooner than possibly expected” will have to do for now. And even when that one’s done, there’s a strong suspicion that just a little more touch-up work will be in order.

Thrilling times, chums.

-Screenwriter/filmmaker Ally May has launched a crowdfunding campaign for her packs-an-emotional-wallop short film project In A Breath. Donate if you can!

-Major congrats to screenwriter/overall mensch Bob Saenz for the upcoming US release of the film of his script Extracurricular Activities, a journey almost two decades in the making. Here’s a great interview Bob did for Script magazine.

Only include that which serves a purpose

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Exactly

A just-starting-out writer had contacted me, asking if I could take a look at their spec.

I did. It wasn’t easy, but I did.

The script had a lot of the usual problems. On-the-nose dialogue. One-dimensional characters. A story that was more a jumbled collection of random events rather than a cohesive series of scenes and sequences.

But even with all of that, what really stood out was the excessive overwriting when it came to setting up a scene, with excessive being a major understatement. The writer seemed to feel the need to provide an extraordinary amount of details – for just about everything.

Just to name a few:

-What kind of furniture is in every single house or apartment
-What kind of food is on the table during a dinner scene
-Why a character, who’s only in one scene, is wearing a particular item of clothing, along with what it looks like
-A detailed list of all the items of clothing a character removes when getting undressed
-The direction a character is driving, along with street names

Did any of these have anything to do with the story?

All together now – of course not.

Then why is it in there?

I posed this question to the writer as part of my notes. They haven’t responded yet, but it’ll be interesting to see what they say about it.

I can’t remember the specific joke/comment about sculpting, but it’s something along the lines of “Start with a block of marble, and then chip away everything that doesn’t look like a (whatever you’re sculpting).”

Screenwriting’s very similar. While it’s true you should describe what we’re seeing, there’s no need to drastically overdo it. Some writers don’t know the difference between “painting a picture with words” and “overwhelming us with information”. Or worse, think they’re more or less the same thing.

They are most definitely not.

Everything on the page should have a reason for being there. If it doesn’t, take it out. Trust me, it will not be missed. If you argue that it should stay, you better have a mighty good reason why. Helpful tip – saying “Because I want it to” or “Because I like it” will totally invalidate your argument.

When the writing goes into Overly Descriptive Mode, it simply slams the brakes on the momentum of the story; things really do come to a screeching halt. Wouldn’t you rather the reader stayed interested in what’s going on, and not think “Hold on a second. Why is this here? Is it relevant?”

For a lot of writers starting out, they think they need to cover all the bases and include as much info and detail as possible. Only through constant self-educating will they eventually learn what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

I sincerely hope this writer takes my notes to heart and is able to figure out how to transition from the latter to the former.

Is the t-shirt THAT important?

 

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You know that bucket is mentioned a few pages earlier

Writers put onto paper how they visualize the events of the story.

Your get an idea of how you want things to look, maybe even a picture-perfect image, so you put those details onto the page, which is fine.

But sometimes the writer feels the need to include as much detail as they can. “To really paint a picture with words,” they might say. But it’s easy to get carried away. Some writers see this as a golden opportunity to really flex their literary muscles, so they go all out.

A big write-up about the contents of a room. Or identifying specifics about the clothing a character is wearing. That sort of thing.

While that kind of colorful minutiae might work in a novel, many see it as a negative when it comes to screenplays (opinions may vary, but this appears to be the general consensus).

There’s only one reason the writing should be that specific: if the item in question plays a part in the story. Is it vitally important that we notice it? If the answer is “no”, then all it’s doing is taking up valuable real estate on the page.

When the writer makes a point of identifying a particular item, then we should expect it to make a return appearance later on. Set up, pay off, remember?  It’s better to have a reader think “Aha! So that’s what that was for,” rather than “Huh? What was that for?” or “Why was that in there?”

By drawing our attention towards something that is more of an issue for the set designer or wardrobe department, it slows down the story’s momentum and makes for some unsatisfying reading.

Tell us the things we need to know, rather than the things you think would be nice to know.

 

Avoiding the dreaded unfilmable

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Don’t go this way!

I recently had the pleasure of giving notes on a friend’s script. It was an early draft, so it had some of the usual problems that were easily fixable.

But the one thing that really stood out to me was their use of unfilmables.

“Unfilmables?” some might ask. “What are those?”

I’m glad you asked. Here’s an example:

“EXT. PORCH – DAY

Jane sits on the stained deck chair her father bought for her birthday last year.”

If you saw that onscreen, you know what you’d see?

A woman sitting on a chair.

In other words, HOW DO WE KNOW it was a birthday present from her father? We don’t. How can you let us know? Maybe we see the father giving it to her. Or another character asks about it, and she delivers a one-line explanation.

If there’s an important detail to your story, you need to find a way to include it as part of the story, and preferably in the most organic way possible.

What’s on the page is what we see and hear.

Unless there’s a line of dialogue or some kind of action somewhere in there that reveals these kinds of things, the audience has no way of knowing them.

Here’s another:

“INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT

Kevin washes dishes. He thinks about that time he and his high school girlfriend crashed her mom’s car.”

What’s on the screen? A guy washing dishes.

HOW DO WE KNOW that’s what he’s thinking about?

Maybe we see the accident take place. Or hear Kevin talking about it. Maybe the story involves how the accident leads up to him washing dishes.

In my old writing group, one writer was insistent about leaving these sorts of things in. When pressed on why they were so adamant about not being willing to take them out, they’d launch into a long-winded explanation of why it was necessary to include them.

“So if we were watching this, you’d be there explaining things, rather than working them into the story and showing them on the screen?”

I’m not sure if they got the point.

Hopefully you do.