Rewriting: more than just moving words around

I came up with the idea/concept for my fantasy-comedy more than a few years ago. Up until last year, putting it together consisted mostly of the occasional jotting-down of ideas for scenes and sequences. Figuring I had enough to work with, I worked my way through writing a first draft.

That was the end of last year.

After working on several projects since then, including some still in progress, I’ve decided to make things just a bit more complex for myself and start on the next draft.

The core concept and execution are still pretty solid, but after a lot of help and suggestions from some trusted colleagues, I’ve got a better grasp of which parts need some major work. It’s not as long a list as I expected, but there’s still a good deal for me to work on – especially from the perspective of character development; namely – my protagonist.

There are still some aspects to his internal and external goals that need tweaking, so a lot of my time lately has been all about that. And I was already racking my brains trying to figure out what would work best not just for that character, but also how all of it relates to the antagonist as well as the supporting characters.

Initially a daunting prospect, I am finding the more I work my way through this, the stronger the story seems to become.

I’m also working on fleshing out the storylines for some of the supporting characters, making sure to incorporate the theme into each of those. It’s also been a pleasant surprise to realize/uncover previously hidden connections between some of them and work those into the story.

As is my usual M.O., I’m taking my time in figuring all of this out and doing what I can to make sure everything is as solid as I can make it (for this draft, anyway) before starting on pages.

And what might be the most important angle to all of this – I’m enjoying it. This is just a fun story to work on. It is definitely the kind of thing I would write, and I hope that vibe really comes through in the finished product.

Until then, and as it always does, the work continues…

The path through is around here somewhere

The actual writing-of-pages for the current project may be underway, but wow did it take several attempts to get there.

A lot of it involved figuring out how to best set up the world in which the story takes place. I’d considered starting it one way, then thought “how about if…?”, which resulted in another way, naturally followed by “then again, I could try…”

At the time, I’d settled on the one I thought worked best. Feeling confident about the state of the outline, I started on pages.

Progress was slow, but steady. After a couple of days, I was already up to page 20.

Which of course was MUCH MORE than it should have been.

Not that I strictly adhere to the “THIS happens on Page ____”, but there was just too much going on, which was slowing things down a lot more than I’d intended.

What to do, what to do?

One option was to keep pushing forward and then go back and edit like crazy, but at the rate I was going, I’d end up with a script approximately 150 pages in length. Not an option.

Or I could go back to an earlier version of the outline that only includes part of what’s already there.

Yet another option was to go all the way back to how I initially envisioned the whole thing starting.

Quick side note – you know how they say the first page really sets the tone for the rest of the story? This is a guideline I’ve always tried to work with, especially in this case.

The first pass didn’t cut it, nor did the second one. Something needed to be done.

So I went through my extensive notes, hoping to find a solution.

And I found it. And it was the original idea. It had exactly what I needed, and I’ve seen variations of it in other scripts and films, so there was no reason I couldn’t make it work for my story.

I got to work reorganizing it and streamlining it to help things move along faster. This including having to jettison a majority of material I was very sorry to see go, but it was necessary. No reason some of those details couldn’t be implemented later on.

Oh, and another small detail I forgot to mention – my computer’s OS updated, which my screenwriting software hasn’t been adjusted for yet, so working with that became quite a pain. Luckily, some recent contest success resulted in me receiving another screenwriting program. After a quick installation and a few “how to” videos about using it, I was on my way yet again.

All of one page so far. But I like it better than the previous versions, and it’s significantly better than having no pages at all.

Let the pushing forward commence.

Q & A with Buzz McLaughlin

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Buzz McLaughlin is a playwright and screenwriter, theatre and film producer, script consultant, and teacher. His plays have been produced throughout the U.S. and Canada and have won numerous awards including the National Repertory Theatre Foundation’s National Play Award for Sister Calling My Name, the most recent staging of which was at the Sheen Center, NYC in early 2020. With his wife Kris he has written several screenplays and teleplays.

He is co-founder/producing partner of the independent film company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight), the Founding Director and former Artistic Director of Writers Theatre of New Jersey, and for many years was professor of Theatre Arts at Drew University. The author of The Playwright’s Process: Learning the Craft from Today’s Leading Dramatists, he holds a doctorate in theatre and dramatic literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and is a member of the Dramatists Guild and Writers Guild of America. Currently he teaches playwriting and screenwriting in New England College’s Creative Writing MFA program.

His website is www.buzzmclaughlin.com and he can be reached at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com.

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

THE TWO POPES, written by Anthony McCarten, based on his play. The film was directed by Fernando Meirelles and stars Jonathan Price and Anthony Hopkins. Nominated for best screenplay by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes as well as for best actor and best supporting actor. A wonderful example of excellent writing scene after scene with a script so real that you forget you’re watching a make-believe story as the actors really sink their teeth into the material.

Another film I must mention here is the indie PIECES OF APRIL, written and directed by Peter Hedges and co-starring Patricia Clarkson, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay by the Independent Spirit Awards. It was one of the first films shot on all digital and has become somewhat of a classic, especially in regard to its impeccable dramatic structure. I have used it for years as a teaching tool on how to construct a successful story for the screen. Well worth a close look.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

As a stage actor and director, then later I moved to writing because I started having my own ideas for scripts and felt I could do this, too (if not better than most).

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A well-constructed story with relatable characters that draws you in and keeps you engaged from start to finish. There are many ways to accomplish this, obviously, but that in a nutshell is what makes a good script. The main components are having one central character who wants something badly but who runs into road blocks preventing him or her achieving it. In the best stories, this central figure discovers along the way that what they think they wanted isn’t what they really need and as a result the character comes out a very different person at the end of the journey. And this gives the story its ultimate emotional power. My book The Playwright’s Process goes into the details of how you build or construct this kind of story one step at a time.

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

By far the biggest screenwriting mistake I encounter is faulty dramatic construction, scripts that wander too far away from some configuration of the three-act paradigm and as a result stall out and are unable to deliver the goods as all successful storytelling must do. Writing snappy and engaging dialogue is important, obviously, but if the story’s foundational structural underpinnings are faulty, the whole script comes tumbling down.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Formula and predictable action films and stories that are obviously agenda driven. In other words, stories that are primarily designed to thrill with violence and manufactured suspense or those that promote – sometimes quite heavy-handedly – a particular political or cultural persuasion.

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

-Determine who is your central character and what his or her primary external want and true internal need are going to be.

-Your central character should be a changed person by the end of the story.

-Take the time and effort to get to know your characters’ backstories well before plunging into your first draft. Burn into your brain that nine-tenths of the iceberg is under the surface. Remember that you are already writing your script when you engage in this pre-draft exploratory work.

-Make an initial attempt to define your dramatic premise up front – what the overall point of your story is going to be – and believe it fully yourself.

-Allow yourself to become the structural engineer and work out a three-act outline of your story with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end before starting your first draft. In other words, create a road map that will take you through your story’s journey so if and when you find yourself lost (which you most likely will) you still have that roadmap on the seat next to you and you have a way to get back on track.

-If at all possible, set your story in a world you know well.  Otherwise, research it to death.

-Train yourself to never listen to the negative voice as you develop your project.

-Never share a work in progress with anyone until you have a completed draft you think is ready to release to others. The creative process is precious and intimate and it should be shared between only you and your characters. This should be your private creative world. The time will come soon enough to get outside input, but it shouldn’t happen until you have something substantially complete to share. Otherwise your own personal vision for the script is contaminated and you risk having your whole project derailed prematurely. The only exception to this rule is when you’re working with a collaborator or a script consultant – folks whom you have invited into a creative partnership with you.

What would you consider are some key similarities and differences between writing for the stage and the screen?

The biggest similarity between a play and a screenplay is the structural design of the story itself. Both have a version of the three-act configuration: the set up, the struggle, and the solution.

The biggest difference is that plays are primarily verbal and films are primarily visual, meaning the stage play’s story is largely communicated through dialogue coupled with physical action and the film story is largely communicated through what the camera sees action-wise, coupled with dialogue as needed.

Another way to compare the two mediums is to look at the opportunity for theatricality in writing for the stage – inviting the audience to engage imaginatively with passages of time and shifts in settings and so forth – as opposed to the numerous cinematic devices available in writing for the screen such as using the dissolve, narrative voice-overs, etc. In a real sense, the two mediums are attempting to accomplish the same thing – inviting the audience to creatively enter into the unfolding story. And this is one reason why writers are often able to shift back and forth between writing for the theatre and writing for film or television.

A common recommendation to screenwriters is to take an acting or improv class. As someone who works with both writers and actors, do you agree or disagree?

I strongly agree. My experience has shown me that writers who are also actors (or have had some acting experience) are generally ahead in the game in terms of motivations and getting under the skin of a character.

As a producer, is it difficult for you to read a script without using your “reader’s eye”?

This is definitely difficult for me regardless if I’m experiencing a screenplay or play. And it starts on page one. Call it the curse of the producer. I’m so conditioned to look and wait for the inciting incident to grab me that if it doesn’t happen within the first ten pages the read often becomes an exercise in frustration.

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

Check out my website at www.buzzmclaughlin.com. Or email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com. As a script consultant I can work with you on a finished draft or help you structure an idea into workable pre-draft shape. In other words, I can meet you where you’re at with your project.

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

Warm apple, with a slice of cheddar cheese.

apple pie w:cheese

Dorothy Parker was half-right

d parker

“I hate writing, I love having written.”

For a writer, truer words were never spoken.

Well, almost. For this one, anyway.

It took a bit longer than I’d hoped, what with sheltering-in-place and all, but I finally managed to complete the rewrite of the horror-comedy. It’s now in the hands of some of my trusted readers.

Despite how long it took, I actually enjoyed putting the whole thing together. Granted, working on a rewrite is always a bit easier than cranking out a first draft.

Do I love that the script’s done? Without a doubt.

Did I not like writing it? Not really. (that might sound a little confusing. In other words, I did like it.)

Maybe it was because coming up with all the ideas and putting them onto the page was just a lot of fun.

Or maybe it was from developing my take on a traditional story in a genre I enjoy.

Or maybe I simply allowed myself to control the process, rather than vice versa.

It’s totally understandable why a writer would gripe about having to sit down and write. This is hard work. It takes a long time to learn how to not just do it right, but to do it well.

Hopefully once you get the hang of it, you start to see it less like work and more like an opportunity. One where you can really let yourself enjoy doing it.

Sometimes a writer will operate under the mindset of “I HAVE TO GET THIS DONE!”. While that can definitely be the case when working with a deadline, if you’re free to work at your own pace, the lack of stress and self-imposed pressure is practically liberating.

When I’m working on pages, I set a goal of completing at least three pages a day. If that’s all I get done, so be it. If I manage more, that’s great. I get done as much as I allow myself to. Removing the pressure part of the equation helps me feel more relaxed, which in turn helps me with the writing.

More than a few times during this rewrite I’d think “what’s something different that could happen here, AND that would also be funny?” and be able to come up with something. Hard to say if I would have able to do so if I was stressing myself out over the writing. And regarding the jokes, whether or not they pay off – well, that’s another issue.

This was something else that came from enjoying the writing: I think the jokes are a little stronger than in previous efforts. A lot of those were more just snarky comments, but this feels different – in a positive way.

A few sets of reader notes for this script have already come in, and once the rest of them do, it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll embark on another draft.

And I suspect that one will be just as enjoyable to write, which means I’ll probably be practically euphoric once it’s done.

Q & A with Lisa Gomez

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Lisa Gomez is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, novelist, songwriter and a professional story analyst for The Black List. They write screenplays, songs and novels with their twin sister. Together, the twin siblings have placed in the Top 50 of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting and are represented by Empirical Evidence.

The twins are working on 3 original pilots; a 30-minute dark comedy involving an asexual lead character, a biopic drama pilot in the vein of THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT and a female-driven SHERLOCKian-inspired pilot. Lisa is currently obsessed with Marvel, Disneyland, matcha, and reading as many books and comic books as they possibly can.

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?

Due to an ever-expanding list of projects, I’ve had to suspend my script consulting services.

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