The appeal of appealing to a younger demographic

kids
Multiple generations, engaged and enraptured. Fine by me.

During a recent phone conversation with another writer, I’d mentioned having wrapped up work on the pulp sci-fi spec.

“What’s it about?” they asked. I proceeded to give them my 10-second elevator pitch, plus the “THIS meets THAT” combo.

“Huh,” was the response. “It sounds cool, but it also sounds like it would be a kids’ movie.”

I suppose that’s one way to look at it. My preference is “a rollercoaster ride of a story, fun for anybody from 8 to 88”. That’s always been my approach when I set out to spin a ripping yarn.

Was I supposed to view their comment as some kind of insult? As if there’s something negative or shameful about writing material that appeals to kids? Because that hasn’t worked at all for Disney or Pixar.

PIxar especially has a reputation for producing films that appeal to all ages. There’s been a lot written about the immense amount of time they spend on making sure the story is rock-solid. One of the most-read articles for screenwriting is based on part of their process, and those don’t just apply to animation; they’re for ALL screenwriting.

Let me also throw a couple of “kids movies” out there. You might have heard of them.

Star Wars. Harry Potter.

One’s been around for 40 years, with no sign of letting up, while the other just celebrated 20 years of entertaining readers and moviegoers.

On the surface, both are solid, simplistic stories about the fight of good versus evil. But is that all they are? Heavens no! There’s universal appeal, engaging characters who grow and change, themes being explored, conflict like you wouldn’t believe – all told through a filter of imagination. Don’t let the presence of lightsabers, magic wands, or animated, talking animals distract you from what’s really going on.

And let’s be honest. Both of those series have done more than okay at the box office.

Not too shabby for “kids movies”.

Now, I’m not saying any of my scripts are in the same arena as those, but a good story is a good story, no matter who its target audience is. And if it appeals to a younger generation as well as my own, what’s wrong with that?

And you know what else works with kids movies? Kids grow up, and eventually have kids of their own. What do they watch? The movies the parents enjoyed as kids.

Who wouldn’t want to write something that leaves a lasting impression on a young mind, and then see them pass their love of that story to later generations?

For me, that’s what it all comes down to – writing a script that tells a fun and exciting story that anybody could enjoy. And if that includes kids, that’s fine by me.

Finding my forte. Mining my milieu. Spelunking my specialty.

e-ticket
A reference only a select few will get. (85 cents?? Truly a bygone age)

While engaged in a very engaging conversation about screenwriting earlier this week, the person with whom I was conversing with asked the simplest and most straight-forward of questions:

“What do you like to write?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, I proudly stated, “Adventures.”

You can’t even say the word without implying the thrills and excitement it entails. Hands on hips, chest out, shoulders back, and a firmly-set jaw are automatically included.

I’ve enjoyed dabbling in other genres (such as drama and comedy), but nothing really grabs me like thinking up and writing out some sort of heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster ride of a scene or sequence.

Those really never get old.

They say “Write what you know,” and although I’ve never actually fought monsters, manned a runaway train, or flown a space-faring vessel, years of reading and watching material of that type and nature has taught me an effective way of how to effectively inject adrenaline into what I’m writing.

More than a few readers have commented that my love and appreciation of the material and genre are boldly evident on the page, which is what I’m hoping  to accomplish every time.

My mantra has always been “Write something I would want to see”, and my list of future projects is jam-packed with numerous ideas and concepts that neatly fall into that category; each one a variation on the topic of discussion.

If these are the kinds of stories I was meant to write, you’ll get no complaints from me. I get a real kick out of cranking this stuff out. There’s no reason to think this can’t develop into what I build a career on and eventually become known for (he said, his fingers firmly crossed). My scripts. Rewriting someone else’s. Contributing to another. It’s all cool as far as I’m concerned.

Until then, all I can do is keep writing and making my readers feel their pulses quicken as they eagerly turn the page, absolutely spellbound to find out how the hero gets themselves out of this particular pickle, and, more importantly, what happens next.

Strap yourselves in, chums. This is going to be one helluva ride.

Ask an Astonishingly Productive Script Consultant!

Bill Boyle

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on writer-educator-consultant Bill Boyle of www.billboyle.net.

*editor’s note – Bill passed away in July 2018

Veteran screenwriter Bill Boyle has been involved in the film industry in both Canada and the U.S. for over 25 years as a writer, director, agent, producer, story editor, and mentor. Mr. Boyle has the rare honor that every screenplay and television series he has written has been produced or optioned. He currently has four screenplays produced and a fifth scheduled for production. Two others are presently under option. Additional information on the films can be found at www.billboyle.net or at www.imdb.com

In addition to screenwriting, Mr. Boyle devotes a significant amount of his time sharing his experience mentoring younger screenwriters. He teaches screenwriting at UCLA and has lectured throughout Canada and the United States.

Mr. Boyle is one of the most popular script consultants in the industry. He has consulted on over 1,000 screenplays worldwide. Creative Screenwriting Magazine rated him among the top 10% of screenwriting consultants. He is the lead proponent of a visual style of screenwriting called “The Visual Mindscape of Screenplay” that focuses on the visual and visceral aspects of screenwriting. His book of the same name was released in 2012.

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

I am a huge fan of Jo Nesbo’s novels. His visual exploration of the environments he creates are so visceral that once read it is impossible to ever forget them. As for screenplays, I recently read Nightcrawler and found it exceptionally well-written.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

If you mean reading scripts as a job, I was never actually a script reader. I was a manager in Canada and read many scripts that my actors were up for, as well as reading the work of my own screenwriters and playwright clients.

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

It needs to be taught, but not taught as in learned; taught as in establishing the ability to connect fully with the writing and to remain focused. That ability and willingness to be fully immersed in the screenplay allows the reader the conduit into the rhythm, pacing and flow of the narrative. Sounds obvious, but it is my experience that the vast majority of writers ‘skim write’, which is to say they focus all of their attention on what they want the scene to say and little on the atmosphere and pacing of their scenes.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A good script is one that captures the visual and visceral imaginations of the reader. Actually, it’s a misnomer to say we’re writing for the reader, when actually we’re writing for the viewer within the writer. Besides being a visual expression of the story, a good script also expresses the proper pacing and atmosphere within each scene. These are the two elements most often missing in a screenplay.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

-Detailed Action

-Skim writing

-Blueprint Narrative lacking pace, atmosphere and visual expression

-Overwritten dialogue that lacks a pulse.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The two things that disturb me the most are how fundamentalist screenplay instructors and gurus have poisoned the creative minds of so many young writers.  This attitude of “my way or the highway”, or the ever-growing list of things a screenwriter must not do (Voiceovers, Camera Angles and Directions, Character Descriptives, Flashbacks, etc) is absurd.

For me the big one is the white on the page dictum. Of course, part of the art of screenwriting is the ability to tell the story in a succinct, near-haiku style. This form of brevity allows the story to flow and remain in the Absolute Present Tense. But this should never go beyond the point where it strips the narrative of its creative purpose.

I actually believe that white on the page is a way of devaluing the writer’s role in the filmmaking process. I seriously question when and why white on the page become more important that what is on the page.

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

-Screenwriting is first and foremost a visual expression. Whether you choose to ignore it or not there is always and image on the screen.

-Establish pacing and atmosphere in your scenes so as to create a visceral experience within the reader/viewer

-Every action, element and scene of a screenplay exists in the Absolute Present Tense

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

A script by Canadian screenwriter Laura Beard called ‘A Quiet and Distinguished Gentleman’. It was about a French Catholic detective who must overcome the bigotry of an English Protestant city and police force to solve a brutal axe murder in 1930. There are things she does with that script that to this day I still use in my lectures. A brilliant and very clever piece of work.

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

I am not a fan of screenwriting contests. Before I explain why, let me make the distinction between contests and fellowships. I think the fellowships (Nicholl, Praxis, Disney, etc.) are excellent programs.

I swear to god I have never heard a ‘true’ story of someone having a script produced based on a contest, which, considering how many there are out there, is rather shocking.

This idea of letting the writers know that they have moved to the next tier and then the quarterfinals, semifinals, etc., is their rendition of Three Card Monte. They let you think you win for a while so that you come back for more. What other reason is there?

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

Check out my web site www.billboyle.net. You can also sign up for my newsletter, blog notices, online course dates and when spaces open up for my Unlimited Script Mentoring Program.

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

I will go for pretty much anything except the pie in The Help.

Ask a Significantly Astute Script Consultant!

Laurie Ashbourne

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on writer-producer-consultant Laurie Ashbourne of 1st10pages.com.

After seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit in an old theater in Philly, Laurie knew that she had to be a part of that process.  Within 6 months she was in Disney Feature Animation‘s new studio in Florida working on a Roger Rabbit short and The Little Mermaid, and stayed on through the production of Lilo and Stitch. Leaving that cocoon to create and own her work, she quickly segued to live action and documentaries as a writer, producer and script supervisor. Currently Laurie is ghostwriting 2 features, producing 2 features and 2 pilots (in development through connections made on Stage 32), and a documentary she served as producer on just won a special jury award the New Orleans Film Fest, 2 other feature work for hires are in production right now. As if that wasn’t enough, Laurie has an illustrated middle grade novel in editing and is shopping 2 new scripts, all while running her day-to-day story development and script coverage services. A sought-after script supervisor and longstanding judge and coverage provider for some of the top screenplay competitions. She also provides this service for many independent producers, writers and is consulting story analyst for Amazon Studios Feature Films.

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

I recently read a screenplay for a competition that was amazing. It was so well-paced and had such a perfect economy of words, twists and great characters – I wish I could share it with you, but I have no doubt that sooner than later everyone will have a chance to see it on screen.

For watching, the film LITTLE BOY. About 4 years ago the casting director asked my son to read for the part, so I was sent the script. It was such an emotional story that read really well, even though it broke some traditional pet peeves of mine, I completely overlooked them because I was so engrossed in the story. My son ended up sending in a video read because I was on a job in Virginia AND he had just lost his 2 front teeth so we knew the read wouldn’t go over at its best. Regardless, we went to see it (and I have to say the boy they had for the lead did a great job). I immediately could see where they had to change some things but it mostly stayed true to the script. I enjoyed the film and it was completely emotional, but I could definitely see how it read better than it played.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

My first job in the industry was with Walt Disney Feature Animation, and as a department head I was in on a project from development through to final reels. But I didn’t start reading them professionally until I left the company to work in independent film, over ten years ago.

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

The tenements of the craft can be taught easily but if a sense of story isn’t there than those ‘guidelines’ become hard and fast rules that can overlook a good story and what it needs to be brought up to industry standards. Learning story is possible, but it’s not for everyone, those that it is for can’t let it go. I’ll use my son as an example again. He will watch a movie until he knows it by heart and then pick apart the structure and characters, all by his own will. He said to me the other day, “When a movie does well, they automatically make a number two, and they do it quickly, and when that doesn’t do well they spend more time working out number three. Number twos always stink.” He’s 10, so I think it’s safe to say that a sense of story is ingrained in his psyche with no teaching other than immersing himself in something he enjoys.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Characters with an emotional want that comes across as genuine – in this case it’s the difference between a homeless person holding up a sign that says “will work for food” and one that holds up a sign that says “hungry, broke please give”. The audience is much more likely to attach themselves to a character who is willing to do what it takes to survive – the character that is willing to work for his food.

Craft contains a lot of things that get a bad name as hard and fast rules, and it’s true that if you are trying to break in you have to look like you are willing to adhere to industry standards, truth if your craft demonstrates mastery of cinematic story SOME formatting issues can be overlooked. So at the top of the mastery of cinematic language is, giving the actors something interesting to do that advances the plot and peels the layers of their character. This does not mean writing verbose prose; that is not cinematic. Cinematic is thinking like a director in your mind, but conveying that action in words that do not include camera direction.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

-Misuse and abuse of parentheticals and exclamation points

-Typos and poor formatting

-A great idea poorly executed, usually in character and pacing

-A poor balance of dialogue and action (which is usually because of way too much dialogue)

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It seems to be cyclical; every year there is more of one than another, so I guess that falls into chasing trends. Right now, there seems to be a lot of smaller character pieces, which is good for independent film, but with specs that are trying to break in (rather than going out and producing the indie on your own), it’s really difficult to get behind a moody character wandering the town or country instead of facing an uncomfortable truth. So it goes back to the homeless analogy – why do I care about this person, and please make it interesting without a having a diary in voiceover.

I admit it’s a bit of a catch-22, it’s also very difficult for an unknown to break in with a tentpole, but there is a happy medium where there are just enough elements to give the audience and producers something worth the investment of time and money.

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

-Your material will not resonate with everyone, but if it’s not resonating with anyone, it’s time to analyze those notes you thought were shit.

-Write because you have to get a story out of your system, not because you want to strike it rich or win a contest.

-Let the audience (or reader) get to know your character through the action we see them take on screen, not via a laundry list of their traits.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Sure. I’ve had the pleasurable honor to move a lot of scripts forward and nothing makes me happier than to see writers I worked with or read be working in the industry. Frankly, most scripts that come to me don’t have a logline, and I craft one for the coverage – no contest scripts ever come with loglines. Loglines when done well are a craft unto themselves and contests are won on these concepts, but a great logline does not make a great script. This goes back to one of my top three: Most great ideas fall short on execution and again, I really think that comes down to sense of story. I personally write a logline before (during and after) I write a script. Writing it out at the start helps shape your outline. But just as the outline will change as you write, the logline should too, by becoming tighter.

I recently read a logline on LA Screewriter called The Muffin Men – it was really brilliant. But who knows if the script is?

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

Yes, but do your homework. There are more scams than legitimate career changers. It’s worth it to get your script in top-level shape and submit to the top-tier contests (which there are less than 10) the odds are tougher due to the number of submissions but if you seriously want to advance your career, there’s no use in wasting money on the Podunk USA’s screenplay competition.

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

Through my blog 1st10pages.com or via Stage 32 – https://www.stage32.com/LAstory.

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

I’m not much for desserts, but I like apple if it’s fresh and not overly gooey, or key lime. When I was a kid I was all about Tastykake cherry pie.

Ask a Chock-full-of-Moxie-and-Gumption Script Consultant!

Amanda Nelligan

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Amanda Nelligan, aka Scriptgal.

Amanda was born and raised in Western Massachusetts. She attended Brown University and received a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry. While at Brown, Amanda became involved with the Brown film society and its weekly comedic film magazine – The Film Bulletin – which cemented her life-long love of movies. After working briefly at a medical research lab, Amanda moved to Los Angeles and embarked on her film career. Her first job was as an assistant to a literary agent. From there, she worked at Disney, then ran development for a number of production companies. Amanda went back to grad school in psychology and worked as a therapist and as a research project manager at UCLA before launching ScriptGal. Amanda enjoys baking, hiking and scuba diving and lives with her husband in Sherman Oaks, CA.

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

I can’t pick just one – different movies are great for different reasons. I really enjoyed NIGHTCRAWLER – whip-smart dialogue and a character I’ve never seen before. It also had a resolution that defied convention. EDGE OF TOMORROW is a meticulously plotted, fun, time-bending action film, which is so hard to do right. And WHIPLASH didn’t miss a beat (pardon the pun.) In terms of television, TRANSPARENT was terrific. JUSTIFIED and THE AMERICANS are two incredibly well-written series I never miss.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I moved to Los Angeles shortly after college. My first industry job was for a boutique literary agent who had an A-list roster, so my introduction to Hollywood was through writers. After that, I worked as a development exec – meaning my job was to find scripts and to work with the writers to develop those projects into viable features and television shows. I worked as a creative executive at Disney, then ran development for two production companies. I didn’t like all the politics/crap in the movie business, so I left and went to grad school and worked in another field for a while. But movies are my passion and I love working with writers, so ScriptGal started as an experiment, in a way, and three plus years later. here I am.

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

I think recognizing good writing is a matter of natural instinct, which not everyone has, plus a lot of practice – a.k.a. reading. And reading everything – not just screenplays. Novels, essays, short stories, etc. As a script reader, you need to understand what makes a good story. I think a rule of thumb is that when you forget you’re reading, you know the writing is good – good writing transports you.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A compelling protagonist or anti-hero and a worthy antagonist. We should be able to relate to the protagonist in some way. The antagonist can be a classic villain, a disease, a monster or even the weather. But no matter what the story is, it’s essential that we care what happens. Also, a good script needs to make you feel something. Joy, sadness, fear… Bottom line, the script needs to tell a good story. It can be written in crayon and have a million typos, but if the story is compelling it will shine through.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Too much description. It’s a real skill to write just enough to give you sense of what the audience will be seeing and hearing on screen. If the color of someone’s dress isn’t essential to the story, don’t include it. Another related mistake is describing things that would be impossible for an audience to know. Stuff like a character’s face shows the pain of the loss of his wife two years earlier. That’s cheating – essential information needs to be revealed the way the audience would discover it on screen.   Another mistake is not having enough conflict – which results in the story not being as dramatic as it needs to be.

A lot of people are hung up on so-called screenwriting “rules” — don’t use “we see” or any camera directions, etc. I think a) those rules aren’t true – good produced scripts do use them and b) no one working in the industry today cares about those rules one bit. Or even thinks about them. Bottom line – people want good stories.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I just read a script where a guy gets fired and comes home early to find his wife cheating on him. I’ve seen that a million times – so to me it signals a lack of imagination. I think a trope is fine if it is the best thing for your story – but you should always try to put some sort of fresh spin on it. Also, audiences love when a trope is turned on its ear – the best example is the fight scene in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – when instead of getting into the expected hand-to-hand battle, Harrison Ford shoots the bad guy. So when writers find themselves contemplating a trope, they should always ask themselves whether or not they can surprise the audience instead.

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

-Writers write. You have to be in this for the long haul. If a script doesn’t work or sell, move on to the next. No successful writer I know parachuted in with the coolest script ever and then sailed on to fame and fortune. The best of the best have a lot of failed scripts in their filing cabinets. Or, these days, in the cloud. This business is a grind.

-Writers rewrite. You need to be able to make changes to your initial drafts and ideas – you need to be able to “kill your darlings,” meaning abandoning things you may love in furtherance of the story. Also, this is a collaborative business – everyone who reads your script will have notes. That doesn’t mean every note will be a good note, but it’s your job to recognize the good ones when they come along and manage the bad ones.

-“Take Fountain.” – Bette Davis. Okay, the real rule is outline. Outline like crazy – especially right after the idea comes to you. A lot of newer writers seem to get bored with their own ideas after awhile and make changes that are destructive. You need to lock in the story that got you excited in the first place and don’t doubt that it will excite readers/viewers as well.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

No. To me “Recommend” means go shoot it, as is, tomorrow. I never say never, but I could probably write notes on every successful movie out there. The rewriting stops after the scene is shot. Actually, that’s not even true. A lot of rewriting happens in the editing room. For people who love the show THE AMERICANS, and even those who don’t, I highly recommend the Slate-produced TV Insider podcast about the show. It’s a conversation between the story editor and various writers on the show, often including the showrunners. They are rewriting until the last second.

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

I think a select few are meaningful to industry execs – The Nicholl FellowshipAustin Film Festival, and UCLA’s Samuel Goldwyn. I think the others may help a writer’s self-esteem, but I’m not sure how many actual doors they open in Hollywood.

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

They can email me at Amanda@ScriptGal.com and check out my website www.scriptgal.com.

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

I love ALL pie – much better than cake, in my book – but if I have to pick one it’s strawberry rhubarb. The contrast between sweet and sour – that’s drama.