A few takeaways from 40 scripts

Well, that was an experience.

As 2020 wound down, I’d already made the decision to devote 2021 to focus on improving as a writer.

In addition to writing more, that also meant reading scripts more.

I wanted to really work on developing my analytical skills, so on the last day of the year, I put the word out on social media. Want notes on your script? For free? Let me know.

And let me know the screenwriting community did. And then some.

Out of the 75 or so people who responded “Yes, please!”, 40 actually followed through and sent their scripts.

(Apologies to those who missed out. That window is now closed)

It was a fair mix of shorts, pilots, and features.

Since I also wanted to still work on my own material a bit, it all came down to time management. How much time could I dedicate to each script? It worked out to one a day, and about three to four a week.

Granted, these were not the most extensive of notes. Some general observations, questions and comments about the story and the characters, and an insanely large amount of inadvertent proofreading.

I also made sure to preface my notes saying that these were just my thoughts and opinions, so the writer was more then welcome to use or ignore them as they saw fit.

For the most part, the reactions were positive.

“Thank you so much! These are incredibly helpful! This will really help my next draft get to the next level!”

No comments wishing me bodily harm or proclaiming I was an idiot who simply couldn’t grasp their genius, so going with the theory that they approved of what I had to say and just never got around to saying thanks. I’ll ignore this horrific breach of etiquette and still count it as a win.

There was a wide variety of genres and story ideas to be found. Some truly unique and original stuff, as well as more than a few “familiar, but different” approaches to some classic concepts.

What was probably the most surprising result was that the same comments applied to a majority of the scripts, including:

WHAT’S THE STORY?

Since there are no definitive “rules”, I do like to adhere to some strong guidelines regarding structure and plot points.

If I get to around page 25 or 30 and still don’t know what the main story or the protagonist’s goal are supposed to be, there’s a problem.

The writer was too focused on minor issues and details that the main storyline got lost in the shuffle.

SHOW, DON’T TELL, or HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?

A lot of writers would explain what something meant, or what somebody was thinking, or why they were doing it, rather than portraying it visually.

For example, a scene might say something like “Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. He thinks about the girl he took to the senior prom and how she dumped him to run off with a plumber and now they live in Dayton with four kids and a cranky Pomeranian.”

You know what we’d see on the screen?

Bob washing the dishes.

Or “Jim was lonely.” How would that look?

There was a lot of reminding the writers that film is primarily a visual medium. Describe what we’re seeing and hearing, and let the characters’ actions and words do the heavy lifting.

A subcategory of this is TRUST YOUR READER/AUDIENCE TO FOLLOW ALONG AND FIGURE THINGS OUT

By explaining what we’re seeing or what’s going on, you’re denying the reader/audience the pleasure of figuring things out to help move the story forward.

This might also count as a subcategory, but there were quite a few times a line would say something like “Bob looks to Mary. He apologizes.”, followed by Bob’s dialogue of “I’m sorry.”

I can’t help but think this is because the writer wants to make absolutely sure that you understand what’s happening, so they tell you, and then show you.

Something else a lot of writers fell into the trap of was OVERWRITING (aka BIG BLOCKS OF TEXT)

There would be 4 or 5 lines at a time to describe what was happening in a scene, which for me, really slowed down the read. I want to be zip-zip-zipping along, not taking my foot off the gas to make sure I don’t lose my place.

“The more white space on the page, the better.” Can that paragraph of 4-5 lines be done in 3? 2?

There was also frequent use of “one the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE” (shoutout to Richard Walter at UCLA) Try to say the most on the page with the least amount of words.

A lot of writers would go into exquisite detail about things not relevant to the plot, such as the decor of an apartment that’s in one scene, or what the extras in the background are wearing, or what happens to a random character in a fight scene. These sorts of things would distract me from following the flow of the primary storyline. I’d read it and wonder “what does this have to do with ____’s story? Would it make a difference if it wasn’t there?”

This one can’t be stressed enough – SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!

I get that not everybody has amazing spelling skills, and your eyes might be kind of tired of seeing the same text over and over again. But any writer should really know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re, ‘there’, ‘their’, and “they’re”, and so on.

But when I read that a character “sets down a bag of frozen pees on the kitchen counter”, it makes it kind of tough for me to concentrate on the rest of the story. How can I think about anything else for the next 60-70 pages?

Not sure about spelling or punctuation? A lot of writers make for good proofreaders, so don’t hesitate to ask around for some help.

Friendly reminder – there is no apostrophe in “sees”. It’s “Bob sees Mary,”, not “Bob see’s Mary.” That popped up more than a few times.

Question for anybody who’s ever written a screenplay: do you ever read it out loud? Especially the dialogue. This really helps you get a grasp of how it should sound.

DOES THIS SOUND LIKE SOMETHING SOMEBODY WOULD ACTUALLY SAY?

You don’t want to run the risk of your characters sounding flat or dull, or too “movie-like”, which can include pure exposition (“As you know, I’m the wealthiest man in town who moved here sixteen years ago after striking oil in the Yucca Salt Flats, and now my twin daughters are running against each other for mayor.”) Let your ears be the judge.

Read it out loud. Host a table read (via zoom or eventually in person)

And speaking of dialogue-related items, I try to limit my use of parentheticals as few per script as possible. A lot of the time, they’re either not needed, or can be replaced with an action line (Bob points.) preceding the dialogue (BOB – “Look over there!”).

The context of what the character is saying should convey the appropriate emotion or interpretation. If I had a dollar for every time I saw the use of (sarcastic), I’d have…a lot of dollars.

As has been stated many times on this blog and throughout the screenwriting community, it takes a long time to learn how to write a screenplay, let alone a really good one. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I believe I have a pretty firm grasp of what it involves, and am glad to have been able to offer my two cents to help other writers improve both their skills and their scripts.

Since this was a pretty significant undertaking, it was also a bit exhausting, so I don’t think I’ll be making the blanket offer again. I’m still open to reading scripts, but am taking a little time off to recuperate and recharge, so drop me a line after 1 April. Schedule permitting, we can work something out.

And a HUGE thanks to everybody who offered to read one of my scripts, which I might take some of you up on as the year progresses.

Okay. Back to work.

Q &A with David Schwartz

David Schwartz is a freelance screenwriter and script consultant. Prior to being a script consultant, he took a few screenwriting courses in college along with other film courses. After college, he continued working on his first feature and started submitting his scripts to a variety of screenwriting contests. In fact, his first feature made it as a quarterfinalist in the 2019 Bluecat Screenwriting Competition. He’s written several scripts, mainly short films, and is focusing on helping writers with their scripts!

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

In my spare time, I’ve been watching a variety of things, but as for shows that have been well-written, I’d say WandaVision and Bridgerton. I thought I wouldn’t like those types of shows because I’m not much of a comic book fan and had never heard of Bridgerton, but I find both shows enjoyable to binge. I’m usually someone who likes musicals, so this might sound a bit cheesy, but I’m really enjoying Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist! It’s got humor, heart, and great songs that tell a story and moves the plot forward. At first I thought the concept sounded corny, but seven minutes into the pilot, I was hooked and became totally obsessed. I sometimes get emotional during that show. Oh, and I also like The Mandalorian.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I started when I first took a screenwriting course in college. At first, I thought it was going to be a real challenge. Prior to taking the course, I had no idea how much work it takes to write a script. But after completing the course, I actually found screenwriting very enjoyable and took a few more courses to develop my craft. In fact, I’m still working on a script I started writing during one of my courses. After college, I continued working on my script and started submitting it to contests and paying for some feedback. After receiving feedback from professionals in the industry, I was inspired to start my own script consulting business.

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

I think it’s a mix of both. When I look at a script, I can tell the writer’s experience based on their writing. For example, if someone has dialogue that’s flat or very on-the-nose, I can tell they’re just starting out. But then again, lots of writers, even professionals, tend to sometimes have some on-the-nose dialogue in their writing. When it comes to writing, I see myself as both student and teacher so it could go either way. When I read a script, my feedback is based on both what I’ve learned in my screenwriting courses and the feedback I’ve received on my own scripts.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A good script in my opinion is a solidly structured story. If you don’t have a structured story from start to end, the reader tends to lose interest early on. I’ve noticed this in more than a few scripts I’ve read, but it can be easily fixed. Before anyone starts writing, I’d suggest having a beat sheet so the writer has a blueprint of their script from beginning to end. Another component of a good script is conflict. Every scene, whether it’s big or small, has to have conflict. And finally, character development is extremely important. I love seeing characters develop from start to end, and that’s what makes movies great.

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

The most common mistake I see is sometimes the writers will start their script with the inciting incident at the very beginning and continue on from there. The problem with this approach is I don’t get a sense of who the protagonist is as a person. I don’t necessarily have a reason to root for them to achieve their goal over the course of the film. That’s why I strongly recommend writers have a beat sheet before they jump into writing their script. It’s going to make things so much easier for the reader and the script is going to be a smooth read. (If you want to know more, I’ve written a blogpost about it.)

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m kind of tired of seeing love triangle plotlines. If I wanted to watch a love triangle plotline, I’ll just rewatch Friends. I also hate it when two people are having a conversation in the car and the driver takes their eyes off the road and continues talking with the passenger for 30 seconds or longer. Seriously, it irks me a bit.

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

Don’t be boring.

Every scene must have conflict and serve a purpose. Additionally, each scene needs to drive the plot forward.

If you have writer’s block, keep writing and come back to it later.

It’s okay to take a break every now and then. Sometimes it’s best to rest after 2 hours of writing nonstop.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I remember reading a script a while ago where it was a bit hard for me to provide critical feedback on their script because it was so well-structured. I was in awe of their script and in fact, made a few minor suggestions to them in the feedback. A few months later, they posted in one of the Facebook screenwriting groups that their script made it to the quarter-finals in a screenwriting contest.

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

It depends on the contest. Some contests, like Bluecat for example, have a reasonable price and the feedback is free. The best part is writers can resubmit their scripts twice, which is nice. But not all feedback is free, and you have to pay an extra fee to get feedback on your script. Plus, depending on where you’re submitting, the contests can be very competitive. As a script consultant, my goal is to help writers develop their craft before they start submitting their work to the professionals in the industry.

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

Check out my website: www.davidschwartzconsulting.com. I’m also on Instagram: davidschwartzconsulting

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

I’m going to go with apple pie. Mmm…apple.

Q & A with Heidi Hornbacher of PageCraft

A graduate of UCLA’s screenwriting program, Heidi Hornbacher has written numerous features, treatments, and TV pilots for various independent producers. She’s judged for the Slamdance Film Festival screenwriting contest and co-founded the Slamdance Script Clinic. She and her husband founded PageCraft Writing in 2008, offering script coaching and writing retreats in LA and Italy. Her clients include Emmy winners, TV legends, and brand new writers too. Heidi has written, directed, and produced numerous commercials, music videos, and electronic press kits for various artists. She’s currently making a documentary film about British artist Paul Whitehead.

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

There is so much great TV right now. I was mesmerized by I May Destroy You. Anything that makes me say “wow, I could not have written that” I love. I had a Kenyan writer on my podcast recently and she noted that it was a very African storytelling style which I found particularly interesting. 

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I moved to Los Angeles to go to the UCLA Professionals Program in Screenwriting at night and landed a day job at Paramount as a president’s assistant. From there it was a lot of reading, learning, developing skills, and networking. And just making things without waiting for permission.

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

I think this is absolutely something that can be taught. If you have a natural instinct it helps but you can train your eye to spot things the same way a sommelier trains to spot subtle flavor differences in wine. When I first started reading for contests I would decide to advance or decline a script based on instinct, but had to develop the facility to be able to say why.

Once I could could point to things like unmotivated dialogue, a major story turn being on the B story but missing from the A story, unearned reveals, etc. it helped me codify those elements into my own writing and into a teachable curriculum for PageCraft.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Solid characters that have been well developed with clear goals, and positive and negative stakes to achieving those goals. Scenes that work hard to move your story forward and don’t just sit there. Even in a reflective moment, we should be learning something new about the character or they should be learning something about themselves. Every scene having a clear Goal-Obstacle-Outcome, or what we call GOO structure. Yes. EVERY SCENE.

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

Where to begin? The most offensive mistakes are things like not spellchecking (how hard is that?) and grammar errors. Those tell me you just don’t care about your craft or my time, so why should I give my time to looking at your craft?

A lot of scripts that are findable online, etc. are shooting scripts rather than original scripts so I see a lot of bad habits writers pick up from those such as writing in edit and camera direction. There should never be a CUT TO or CLOSE UP ON in your original script. Every slug line implies a cut so there’s that, and you should be able to imply the angle and type of shot by how masterfully you work your action lines.

I see a lot of over-directing the actor from the page. Unless a movement is key to the plot, don’t tell your actors how to move their bodies. The hardest thing about screenwriting is getting your head around the fact that it’s a collaborative art where we often never meet our collaborators because they come in after we’ve done our part. Learning to trust that your actors are going to bring nuance and physical choices to the role can be like a trust fall. If you’ve written the script well with clear context for what that character is going through, the actor will run with it.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Aside from lazy things like the detective with the board full of photos connected by red string, I’m really tired of societal tropes; rape as a motivator for why a female character becomes stronger, stories that only view Black characters as suffering characters. Can we move on? We’re more nuanced as humans so our stories should be too.

Then there are just overused dialogue lines like “it might just work”, “that went well”, and “we’re a lot alike, you and I.” We actually have a powerpoint with stills from over 40 films and shows illustrating how overused that last one is.

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

-As I said above: Make sure there is GOO (Goal-Obstacle-Outcome) in every single scene.

-Make sure you have a solid structure and outline before you start writing. You need a roadmap!

-Make sure you’ve done your character work and understand what motivates them. Make sure you’ve done as much work for the antagonist as for the protagonist so the struggle is worth your protagonist’s time. 

-Make sure every major story turn occurs on the A storyline – the external story. Turns on the B and C storylines can serve as point and counterpoint to that but if a turn is missing from the A story, the narrative will feel off and it can be hard to see why. 

-Remember that a script is a blueprint for a visual story and as such everything in it needs to be visual and filmable so no internal writing about what a character feels or remembers – we should get that from how you externalize those feelings. 

-Break up action line chunks by story beat, audience focus or implied new camera angle so they stay below 5 lines each and keep the reader’s eye flowing down the page.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

All the time! It’s clear when a writer just doesn’t know the rules versus a writer who knows the rules and breaks them creatively. These tend to be scripts with thoroughly developed characters, great pacing, and a satisfying emotional catharsis. They are scripts with a clear point of view and strong positive and negative stakes for the characters. Their message is the byproduct of a great story and not the sole reason for the story (i.e. the story isn’t preachy).

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

It depends. If you do well in a big one, you can get noticed. The right ones can help you get representation or otherwise forward your project. For example, one of my clients just won the Nicholl. She will get lots of meetings off of that.

There are obviously a ton that are a waste of money but it can boost your confidence to get those laurels. There is a backside to that too. When I see scripts in competition with laurels on the title page (DO NOT DO THIS!), it’s like they’re painting a target on themselves saying “find reasons to tear this down” and, except in the rare occasion when it’s a stellar script, we always can.

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

Visit us at PageCraftWriting.com. Our next round of script workshops starts in January, we offer one-on-one consulting services, and check out our Hearthside Salons podcast (on Podbean and iTunes) featuring conversations with writers, directors and other creatives.

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

That’s like asking me to pick a favorite sunset. I love anything fruit-related and made some killer loquat-ginger pies this spring. But I love pecan and pumpkin so I’m happy it’s that time of year. More pie!

Q & A with Naomi Beaty of Write+Co

Naomi Beaty is a screenwriting teacher and consultant who works with writers, producers, and directors at all levels to develop their film and TV projects. Naomi has read thousands of scripts and worked with hundreds of writers, first as a junior development exec at Madonna and Guy Oseary’s Maverick Films, and currently through group workshops and one-on-one coaching.

She also wrote the short, actionable guide Logline Shortcuts: Unlock your story and pitch your screenplay in one simple sentence.

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

I’ve been bingeing a lot of series over the past several months (who hasn’t?) and the three I absolutely fell in love with have been The Great, Mrs. America, and The Queen’s Gambit.

And I was blown away recently by a script I read for a client, but I haven’t asked if it’s okay to mention him here, so I won’t. But if anyone’s looking for an amazing boxing movie, I’d be happy to connect you!

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Like a lot of people, I went the assistant route. I worked for a producer-manager, which was a great introduction to how the industry works. And then moved into development at a larger production company, which was a real education. 

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

We all have gut reactions that tell us whether a story moves us, right? But being able to read a screenplay and understand whether or how it’s working takes some experience. So there’s obviously something to be said for whether a screenplay gets an emotional response from you, but we shouldn’t stop there. It takes time and effort and a lot of reading analytically in order to truly understand what makes writing “good.” 

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A strong concept, structure that delivers a satisfying experience, characters we care about and invest in who are transformed by the events of the story, clear, meaningful stakes, dialogue we actually want to hear. And all of those things working together in a way that makes us feel something.

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

There are a bunch that I think fall under one big umbrella, which is: forgetting that you’re a storyteller. We want you to guide us through the story, direct our focus, tease out the tension, all to achieve the effect you want. It’s easy to overlook when there’s so much that goes into just figuring out how to put a story together, you know? But the delivery of it can separate good from great.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The clumsy hot chick comes to mind. It’s right up there with “beautiful but doesn’t know it.”

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

I often joke that there are no rules in screenwriting… except these three:

1. Don’t confuse us.

2. Don’t bore us.

3. Make us feel something.

Other good guidelines:

– Know what story you’re writing. That doesn’t mean you have to know on the first draft – sometimes it takes time to figure it out – but until you know, that script is going to be a struggle.

– Make sure you share that story with the audience. We need to clearly understand who wants what, why they want it, what they’re doing to get it, and what’s stopping them. It sounds basic, but you’d be surprised how few scripts really nail all of those pieces.

– Start with the strongest concept you can. It’s something that’s tough to correct for later on.

– Learn how to build and escalate emotional stakes! I don’t think I’ve ever read a script that wasn’t better for it.

– Finish your screenplays whenever possible. Abandoning something halfway through because it doesn’t seem to be working means you never get the chance to learn why it isn’t working, how you could fix it, or what you should do differently next time.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it.” If so, what were the reasons why?

Yes! The script doesn’t have to be perfect, but when it’s clear that the writer knows how to put a story together and can convey it in a way that it feels like a movie – then I know that writer gets it.

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

Some are, most are not, but in the end it really depends on what you mean by “worth it.” If you’re just looking for a reaction from a fresh set of eyes and a sense of how your script stacks up against others, there are a number of contests that can offer that.

If you’re looking to actually move the needle in your career, there are very few contests that are worth the cost of entry.

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

The best place to find information about my services and workshops is my website! writeandco.com. I also have a short ebook that’s available for free on Amazon, called Logline Shortcuts.

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

If I’m allowed a savory choice, I’ll take a chicken pot pie. But for dessert, chocolate cream pie with graham cracker crust, please.

Q & A with Michael Lipoma

Michael Lipoma is a WGA writer and a producer whose scripts have placed in the semifinals or higher in every major screenwriting competition, including winning Best Feature and Grand Prize at SLAMDANCE last year. With experience writing on assignment for features and television since 2010, Michael enjoys backing his characters into corners, forcing them to fight their way out or die trying.

He has developed multiple producers’ original ideas into commercially viable screenplays and pilots. He is co-creator and co-writer of a new television series currently in development in New Zealand. He is the lead producer on a feature film project currently in partnership with an A-List actor’s production company. Before writing and producing full time, Michael was Vice President of a $150M company. He also finds writing in the third person a little weird.

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

I have been binge watching The West Wing, and am dazzled by the dialogue–but it’s more than that. Sorkin doesn’t just write great dialogue–it’s the situations he places the characters in that give great dialogue even greater depth. And the dialogue wouldn’t be as meaningful if he hadn’t made these characters people we care about.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I wrote spec scripts. Bad ones. Then I went to school and learned the craft. Then I just kept writing. While working on a script with a partner, we met a producer at AFM, and within 24 hours, we had a handshake deal to write a feature based on her original idea. That script was The Fall, and last October, it won Slamdance Grand Prize and Best Feature. But that makes it sound too easy. That journey started seven years ago. We attached another producer, have been through more page-one rewrites I can imagine, and have gotten–and incorporated–notes from many, many people.

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

I believe recognizing good writing can be taught and learned–and you don’t need a teacher. The way to recognize good writing is to read ALL writing. I’ve learned more from giving really deep notes to scripts that were in terrible shape, than reading great scripts. Read every script you can, and when you read something good, you’ll feel it. It’ll sing to you from the center of your chest. But read all of it. After a while, you’ll internalize what’s good and what to stay away from. You’ll feel when a story turn is necessary. And you’ll realize that when watching a movie. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hit pause on a movie, checked the timer, and said, “Yep. That’s midpoint.”

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The obvious, of course: structure, dialogue, making every syllable mean something. A story that turns, and delivers on the promise the writer made in the premise or opening. Also, a great opening. A killer first page. I’ve been working as a producer for the past five years, and I know within a page whether the script I’m reading has a chance at getting me interested. I do read all the way through, but I’ve always been able to tell within a page or two how it’s going to go. Haven’t been wrong about that yet.

There’s one more component, and it’s just as important to me as any of the other factors that make a good script, and that’s what people are calling today, “voice.” I read a lot of scripts, and many deliver what a script should deliver: Compelling characters, solid structure, serviceable dialogue. All good stuff. But when I read a script with an original voice, that delights me, and makes me want more, more, more!

I’ve also found that writers with a unique voice are fun people to hang with. And when you option a script, you’re going to be hanging with the writer for a few years, and hopefully you’ll end up friends for life. Also, I recognize I’ve strayed a bit from the original question about components of a good script. I do that. I stray.

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

Big blocks of action with no white space. My job as a producer is to read a script all the way through–but when I see solid pages of text, I take a breath, because I know it’s going to be a slog to get through. That’s not to say the script might not be great, but if I can offer advice to writers, make hitting the return key one of your best friends. Your reader will love it.

Another mistake is having dialogue move the story forward. In these cases characters usually tell each other what’s happening or how they’re feeling. That means everything’s on the surface.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Movies starting at funerals–ugh. Seen it too many times. Watching a big, surprising reversal or twist and discovering it was a dream (that happens more in TV, but still). Also, movie shorthand: a woman throwing up = she’s pregnant. You see a woman SPRINT to the bathroom and barf. Next scene: she’s pregnant.

Another trope that’s actually harmful in my view is when you see scars on someone that indicates they’ve been “cutting” (non-suicidal self-injury), and it’s just “movie shorthand” for a “troubled” teen, or a violent character about to shoot up a crowd. That easy-way-out character development is not only lazy, it stigmatizes people with mental health issues. It needs to stop.

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

1. If you want to write what speaks to your heart, you should absolutely do so. You get to write whatever you want. But…if you want to sell, or make writing your career, you should understand what the marketplace wants. And I’m not talking about chasing trends. I’m talking about a script with a recognizable structure (I believe humans are hard-wired to respond to structure), a story that makes us want to know what happens next, and a satisfying ending. Oh, crap. I strayed again.

2. Spend as much time on your concept as you possibly can before putting a single word to the script. You’re going to spend the next few months writing this script–make sure the concept is firing on all cylinders before you commit to it. If you do this, you will discover a lovely surprise: people will probably love your script.

3. Sort of a continuation of 2: before I dig into a new spec script (whether TV or feature), I test the concept. I tell it to people and watch them react. Then, I refine it. What’s nice is at this stage, I’m not invested in any great scenes–it’s just a few sentences, so nothing’s precious. Once I get a concept, and I’m satisfied it’s working and marketable, I write the pitch. Straight from concept to pitch–before writing one word of the script. This does a couple things: it helps me discover cool, hooky moments (that only seem to show up when I’m writing a pitch) and it helps me know where I’m going when I start outlining. I think this solves the problem I faced for so many years: writing loglines and pitches after the script is written.

4. This may not work for everybody, but most successful writers I know do this: outline. Outline, outline, outline! You can start at the end, middle, or wherever, but do yourself the favor of writing a solid outline for your script. This is one of the most freeing things a screenwriter can do. It also keeps you from getting blocked or stuck because you always know where you’re going. My analogy for outlining is this: it’s like an actor getting off-book with their dialogue. Once they’ve memorized the dialogue, and it flows through them, only then can they bring the real bits of themselves to their performance. Same with outlining. Once you do the hard story work and get that outline done, your story is there, and it’s working–then, you put in all the cool stuff that delights readers.

5. Make me want to care about your characters. Many scripts I read from emerging writers use their characters as tools to move their story along. People go to the movies and watch TV and immediately try to relate to the character on the screen. There’s a moment when people ask themselves (sometimes unconsciously–but they feel it) “Would I ever do that?” or “Oh, no, what would I do if that happened to me?” The writer needs to make their characters human, relatable, and empathetic. Not necessarily likeable, but relatable. It’s a thing of beauty when an antagonist makes a reader/viewer see a dark side of themselves reflected in the antagonist. So do the character work up front, know who they are and how they’d respond in any situation.

There’s an exercise I’ve asked people to do: take a line of dialogue, and rewrite it as if the character were at gunpoint. Now rewrite it if they were trying to seduce someone. Now try it if they’re terrified. Exact same meaning, but different situations. This exercise can seem absurd, but if you lean into it, it’s actually a lot of fun, and it will reinforce the need to really understand how your character would react in any situation. Once you really understand this about your characters, the audience will respond to them, readers will lean forward when reading them.

6. Make sure your lead is the most interesting.

This has happened to me. My supporting character was way more interesting than my lead. It took a bit of rewriting and really killing some darlings, but once I did that, my lead really sparked off the page. No actor is going to attach themselves to a project if the supporting character has a better part.

Have you ever read a spec script that you immediately thought “this writer gets it?” If so, what were the reasons why?

Absolutely. And I’ve only read two that did that. It started with character. These characters were not only real and full of life, their dialogue was crisp, clear, and every character had a unique voice. Most of the actual meaning was delivered through subtext–and that’s not just for dialogue, it was for the action too. Characters took action that delivered on who they are, or what they needed, or what their wound was that’s been holding them back. Also: there was a lot of white space on the page, which made it a fast read, and allowed me to forget I was reading a screenplay.

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

I know there’s a lot of debate about this right now. For me: they’re worth it–but you have to realize the goal, and I think there are two: 1) you want feedback, and 2) you want wins/credibility. For feedback: You’re sending your material out to sets of eyes who have no stake in your success. If you can afford it, get the notes/coverage, too. Look, we all have people who love us, read our stuff, and tell us it’s great. And that feels wonderful, but not really helpful if your goal is to improve your writing and yourself as a writer. There’s nothing more sobering than not placing in a contest, and looking at the 375 names who did, and think: “Damn, every one of those scripts is better than mine–what do I need to change in my script or my writing to get me in that group next time.”

If you can afford the coverage, it’s great to see what a neutral set of eyes thinks about your material. And sure, sometimes the notes are spotty, but there’s ALWAYS something in there that can help if you’re open to it. And being in lots of contests can help you open up to that. For credibility, contest placements/wins in the major competitions can truly open doors. All of that said, be wary. There are some contests that just feel like money mills. Do a little research, and maybe don’t submit to “Jimmy Joe’s Upstairs Screenwriting Bonanza.” Look into competitions. Who are the sponsors, how many years have they been running, what kind of press do they get?

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

The best way to learn more about what I do is to contact me directly through my gmail account and not through the production company email or website because those get filtered before I see them. Email: mlipoma@gmail.com.

Right now, I write on assignment for television and features, and provide TV and feature script development, consultation, and rewrite services for projects that have been optioned or have a significant element attached. Since I’m a WGA writer, any writing I do must be with a signatory, but for non-signatories I can provide script consultation and development services, and work with the writer and producer to help the production reach its goals. I tailor my services based on the needs of the project: from a dialogue punch-up to extensive restructuring and rewriting. One of my recent efforts was a page-one rewrite of an action script. 

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

You and I are kindred spirits! Pie is one of my favorite things on the planet! Picking one is kinda like deciding which of my kids I love most, but if forced, I’d have to say cherry. Or a really deep apple. Or pumpkin. Ok, sorry…

Cherry.

There. I said it.