Ask a Script Consultant who’s also a Working Writer!

mark sanderson

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.

Mark Sanderson (aka @scriptcat) is a Los Angeles based screenwriter, script consultant, and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with a spec sale and a dozen screenplay assignments that have produced seven films. Mark’s long association with award winning Hollywood filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay and has since worked with Academy Award® winning producers, veteran directors, and Academy Award®, Emmy®, and Golden Globe® acting nominees. He offers script consultation services on his website at and also offers advice on his screenwriting blog MY BLANK PAGE. Look for his upcoming book A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success coming out later this year on Amazon.

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

I don’t have much time to spend watching a lot of TV or movies, but the best writing these days is on television in my opinion. I manage to catch an episode here and there of shows, but don’t really spend a lot of time watching many series. When I watch movies, I tend to be really picky and very few films out there today don’t really draw me in—so I go for the classics. On television, I really thought the limited series Sherlock was excellent writing, Mr. Selfridge too, and I got hooked into the The Following for a while and that was good serialized writing. I’m just getting into the old pulpy Doc Savage novels from the 1930s and the writing is great and so visually ahead of its time. I read that Hollywood is planning on making a Doc Savage movie and if done right, could spawn a series of new films.

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

Well, I’ve had a professional screenwriting career for the past fifteen years and during the last few years I decided to open my consulting business on the side.  I’m always reading scripts even if I’m not consulting on them. I have a small group of writer friends and we trade our scripts back and forth for feedback.

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

I believe it comes from years of learning and studying the craft of screenwriting. When writers build a strong foundation of experience reading scripts, studying structure, character, writing scripts, executing notes and mastering their craft—this is when they can finally give experienced and critical feedback if a script is good writing or not. It also is vital to know the language of cinema. I’m aware that some consulting sites farm out the reads to “readers” and one never knows who is actually reading the script or their experience level when giving notes.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It starts with a compelling story and something that you can clearly see grew from the writer’s passion for the material. Too many times I read scripts that are trying to chase after Hollywood’s big budget blockbusters and they fall short because the writing is boring, clichéd and trying to emulate something that has already been created. The scripts read like a rehash and not something original. A good script showcases the writer’s unique voice and the best of their talents. It has interesting characters that we care about and written in a fluid, efficient way that includes only what is necessary to keep the story moving forward. A good script also has a rock solid structure and a series of reveals, surprises, setups and pay offs that keep us captivated to read until the end or sit through the film until the lights come up in the theater.

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

I’m shocked that many screenwriters still have no respect for the professional format of a screenplay. They believe the reader will look past the format and typos issues to see their genius idea and buy it for that alone. A script lives or dies by a thousand small details and considering the volume of scripts that bounce around Hollywood every year, the industry has no patience for unprofessionalism. Other common mistakes I see happen when screenwriters do not work from a solid outline or treatment before they jump into pages. Approximately three quarters of your work usually goes into the story even before you type FADE IN. Other mistakes come from overwriting and micromanaging the scenes. Aspirants need to learn what to put in a script—and equally as important what to leave out. I tell writers: “Stay the hell out of the way of the story.” Many are so eager to put their fingerprints all over the pages and that’s just ego. The best writing is when the screenwriter is almost is invisible on the page and the script reads as if you’re watching the film. I also find too many mistakes with structure and the story happening too late or not enough story to facilitate 100 pages. The set up in the first act many times is way too long. Hopefully these writers learn from their mistakes and focus on becoming better screenwriters by creating stories they are passionate about rather than chasing fame and fortune.

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

One big one that I can’t stand is the use of “Deus ex Machinaor using a contrived way at the end where a character or action saves the day. It shows lazy writing and ends the story on a weak beat leaving the reader unfulfilled. Another one is the “fall” or “twisted ankle” of a character escaping that is usually followed by the line, “Go on without me!” Another one I’m tired of seeing is the “I hate my job, my boss and do nothing but complain” routine.

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

1. Disrespect the craft at your own peril. You will never be bigger than your craft because screenwriting is an ongoing learning experience.

2. You must become a collaborator and ultimate team player because if you grimace at their notes, they will brand you as “difficult” and not work with you again.

3. You may have to write five, six or seven specs over a period of years to even get one optioned or maybe sold if you’re lucky. But if you’re impatient and looking for fame and fortune, you’re in the wrong business.

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

Well, I don’t give “recommends” because I’m not reading for a producer, but I do tell writers if they were successful in the execution of their idea. Screenwriting is all about the execution. Good ideas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood—they’re everywhere and it’s the execution of a script that’s vital to its final success. Yes, I did read a few scripts during the last year that were superb and written by experienced filmmakers—so that helped. I can’t give out the loglines as I have a non-disclose agreement with my clients, so I’m not allowed to discuss the elements of their projects with anyone.

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

Yes, many of the top contests are worth entering as a chance to “make some noise” and get noticed. Back in the day, I entered a spec in the Nicholl Fellowship and it ended up in the top twenty scripts out of thousands worldwide. They picked the top eight that year for the fellowship, but since I had placed in the next dozen, agents and mangers were willing to give it a read. Eventually it found a producer who championed the script and it was produced, played in film festivals worldwide, premiered on TV and distributed globally. But, be careful and read the fine print of the contest you are entering as some stake claim to your script if you win. Do your homework on the various contests and make sure you are putting out your best material that will properly represent your talent and ability. If it’s not ready, go ahead and miss the deadline because there is always next year.

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

Screenwriters can find more information about my consulting services on my website at: I’m also on Twitter: @scriptcat

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

Oh that’s an easy one…definitely a tie between boysenberry and cherry. I could eat both with ice cream as a “last meal” and die a happy man. Apple pie comes in a close third, but all pie should be heated.

Wanted: wonder, fun & excitement

Seeking this kind of vibe
Seeking this kind of vibe

This was parent-teacher conference week, so my after-school parenting schedule was shaken up a bit. As a result, not as much time to work on the mystery spec rewrite.

So in an attempt to make the most of my limited time, and without my laptop with me, I opted to tinker with the outline for the monster spec.

Like any good writer, I had my ever-present notebook and story notes with me. Seriously.  I keep them in my bag for just such a situation.

The first act is really coming together, with most of the focus now on working out the details of the gaps between the plot points of Act Two. And as happened before, I’m having a blast.

At its heart, this story is a pure pulp adventure, which is exactly the mood I’m going for. Grab you from page one and not let go as it gains momentum from there on, building and building until finally culminating in a jaw-droppingly amazing, can’t-believe-I-just-saw-that finale.

Simply put, my objective is to create a simple-yet-solid story with three-dimensional characters, using the spectacle aspect as support that keeps things interesting.

Similar to how it was with the western, I’m a huge fan of the genre and know what I as a member of the audience would want to see. I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel here; just tell a fun story. Hopefully my appreciation and knowledge of this kind of material will come through on the page.

What it really boils down to is the more I can make this a smart and exciting thrill ride, the better.

As I work out the story details, I’m keeping this in mind: If there was a free-of-plot-details trailer for this, you’d be overwhelmingly compelled to want to see it.  (Sort of what they’ve done for GODZILLA and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.)

There’s always one more thing

Is this becoming a dated reference? Probably.
Is this becoming a dated reference? Probably.

22 pages to go in the rewrite. Hoping to wrap it all up very, very soon, although I may give myself one more read-through just to be on the safe side.

I can’t stress enough how incredibly helpful it’s been to look this over after having not read it at all for a couple of weeks. You’d be surprised what you find when you look with fresh eyes.

The primary objective here was to incorporate some of the suggestions from my manager’s notes. I’d say that’s been accomplished, but there’s been more.

The discovery of two spelling errors cleverly disguised as non-misspelled words. Further proof of why you shouldn’t rely solely on spellcheck.

A small continuity problem that played a key part in moving the story forward. Fortunately, I was able to find the appropriate scene to set things up, which hopefully makes the payoff that much more satisfying.

Want to really tighten things up? Eliminate prepositional phrases wherever possible. They show up a lot more than your realize.  Learning to write without using them as much can only be a good thing.

Even though I’m in the home stretch, there are maybe one or two more story details that need to be addressed. The more questions I can answer, the better.

-Further proof I have some kind of future-telling ability: Luc Besson and Scarlett Johannson are teaming up for a modern-day action flick called LUCY. You heard that name here first, friends. Coincidence? Doubtful.

-IRON MAN 3 comes out next week. Looking forward to it. Shane Black wrote and directed it. Apparently he’s interested in taking on a Doc Savage movie. Joy beyond belief.

-Oh, and this is my 400th post. Thanks for sticking around.

“She pressed a couple of 38s against my chest…

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

…and then she pulled out some guns.”*

*I heard this joke years ago and still find it extremely hilarious. To commemorate Mickey Spillane’s birthday, I once used it at the end of a traffic report on a public radio station. The program director was not amused.

With company coming, I was forced to finally get around to unloading some more boxes from our semi-recent move. These just happened to hold books I’d amassed over the years. Many of which could be classified under the category of ‘the pulps’.

It’s been a long time since I read any of them. If you’ve never experienced the sensation of immersing yourself in a world of tough guys, brassy dames, femme fatales and itchy trigger fingers, then you’re really denying yourself one of life’s simpler pleasures.

There’s a definite charm to this kind of storytelling. Since the writers got paid by the word, not only did they have to be prolific, they had to also make sure the writing was strong enough that you’d want to keep coming back for more.

I also love how even though the stories are from the 30s, 40s and 50s, once you get past the time capsule aspect, they still read as fresh and exciting.

But I’m positively ecstatic when it comes to ‘men of mystery’ stories like The Shadow, The Spider and Doc Savage.  Give me a stack of those, a comfy chair, and maybe a properly-made gin and tonic, and I am one happy guy.

I never really made the connection before, but I suppose the scripts I like to write could kinda-sorta be considered variations on pulp stories. Or at least leaning in the direction of the fantastic.

A rip-roaring adventure involving flying pirate ships. A revenge-seeking woman in the Old West. A scientist battling monsters to literally save the world.  They all sound pretty pulp-y to me.

At first it seems too challenging. “I’ll never compare to those guys!”  But if you take the aspects of what you like in those stories, put your own personal spin on them, and let your imagination run wild… voila!

A pulp story all your own. In my case, one in screenplay form.

Remember the old adage: Write what you know.  You probably know more than you realize.