A (not) pre-written Q & A with Michael Tabb

Michael Tabb

Michael Tabb is a working screenwriter, decade-long current and active member of the WGA (the Writers Guild of America, West is the Hollywood screenwriters’ union), a multiple-award-winning screenwriting educator, and author of a film-festival-winning Best Screenplay. His new book, Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-By-Step Guide To Generating Stories (available now!) explains the secret of how he develops great, cohesive script ideas.

He has developed feature film projects for and with Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, The Canton Company at Warner Brothers, Imagine Entertainment, Mandeville Entertainment, Intrepid Pictures, Paradox Studios, Producers Sean Daniel, Lawrence Bender, Branko Lustig, Paul Schiff, comic book icon Stan Lee, writers Jonathan Hensleigh and Evan Spiliotopoulos, Directors Thor Freudenthal and Mike Newell, and actor Dustin Hoffman.

For more information about Michael and his book, please go to and register at: www.MichaelTabbWGA.com, or follow him on Twitter – @MichaelTabb

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

I recently watched the Netflix series Lost In Space and felt it did a lot of things right. The characters are really specific and strong, each with really unique qualities that separate them from each other. There was constant danger, whether through the hostile environment or the characters that found their way into the family’s graces (be they human or robotic). Meanwhile, each episode ends with a new and engaging development that hooks the viewers to binge another episode. Between Lost in Space and Stranger Things, I think Netflix is redefining the kind of television an entire family might gather around the flat screen to watch together.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

Star Wars sparked my imagination, and I was drawing and creating science-fiction stories by the age of six. In middle school, I handwrote ten 20-24-page short-form adventure stories of a starship crew called The Alliance inspired by Star Trek. Each chapter was a new mission. I explored superhero and horror spoofs earlier in my high school days until I wrote my first short (44-page) screenplay in a modern, contemporary setting for my final English Lit paper. In short, the more mature I became, the more my stories grew more grounded and closer to reality.

Even though I loved writing, saying I had a knack for it would be far too generous. I was certainly a storyteller, but I was always academically far better at mathematics than English. I did, however, have a knack for drama. I took acting classes at South Coast Repertory and was actively involved in my high school drama program for all four years, participating in every play and musical I could. Acting taught me how important it was to define your character from all the others and to keep the tension at a level high enough to make each scene compelling. Every character had purpose, and it was true no matter what scene or show I was doing. These lessons carry over into writing, but because I wasn’t a gifted English student in my formative years, I never would have suspected I could have a career as a writer. I always thought I was going to be a character actor.

It took me many years and tremendous insight from my teachers at USC, NYU, and UCLA to make me a decent writer. They all earned their money. The time I spent analyzing characters and scripts as an actor was very helpful, including studying at the Atlantic Theater Company in NYC, a brainchild of the great American playwright David Mamet. It took a lot of work to understand how to do each aspect of concept creation and execution correctly. The only thing that came naturally is my escapist imagination.  The rest was hard-fought, learned, and earned over years of writing and rewriting.

What was the script you’d consider gave you your “big break”?

I want to pause a second to say that I think the cliché of miraculously getting that one big break that changes everything is a terribly unhealthy and damaging fallacy. One opportunity may lead to another, and sometimes it doesn’t. Most working writers are constantly “breaking in” over and over again. Anyone who makes a living wage as a creative in this business is fortunate. Just remember, we do this job for our insatiable love of telling great stories. If that’s not your goal, it won’t be worth the amount of work you have to put into this job. Trust me. People have won Academy Awards and not gotten a job for years afterwards. So, if you get a break, save up so the money lasts the unpredictable draughts and keep writing.

With that said, I’ll reply by talking about the script that landed me my first paycheck as a screenwriter.

I was exceptionally lucky that the first screenplay I ever wrote is the one that landed me an agent and my first writing deal. Even so, it didn’t happen overnight. It took several years for it to get into the hands of those in Hollywood that could make a difference for me, and I had written around ten scripts between having written my first and setting it up with producers. The option on that screenplay has since expired, and I own that script again. I still wish someone would make it. It’s a high-concept swashbuckler in the spirit of Shakespeare in Love, The Three Musketeers, and The Princess Bride. It’s a fun-spirited, romantic romp set in the south of France full of swords, gallantry, and a sense of humor.

Taking a look at your bio, you’ve worked in a lot of different genres. Are there any that hold a special appeal to you, and is there a genre you haven’t worked in yet, but would really like to try?

I’ve written in every genre I can think of, most of which were for money, including: rom-com, drama, western, war epic, historical, biopic, science fiction, fantasy, crime, thriller, horror, supernatural, action, and adventure. I love each genre differently and deeply for the gifts each offers us. While I’m very proud of the diversity and breadth of my stories, it has also been my greatest career shortcoming. It would have been a far smoother journey if I picked a lane and stuck with it a bit more, but that’s not how I work.

The more you prove yourself a master of one genre in our business, the more people pay you to write it for them. As an example of this in another profession, when an extremely famous comedic actor gets the chance to play a dramatic role, they often take a big hit in the pocketbook. They don’t get paid the same as they do in the genre of his or her specialty. Even so, working without constraints and limitations is worth it to me. I have a solid batting average for landing writing jobs on which I get to pitch.

When I decide to write a story about something, I refuse to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’m not going to force my story into a genre because that is my specialty. I would rather pick the genre that I feel will be the best and most poignant reality in which to tell it. The story tells me where it must go. Right now, I’m rewriting two screenplays simultaneously, an ensemble reunion-of-old-friends drama and a supernatural thriller. The project before that, which is still being developed, was a period adventure television show. I love writing period pieces, sci-fi, action, adventure, and anything remotely escapist. I adore them all.

What inspired you to write your book Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories?

I had kept a long document of all the tricks of the trade that I liked using best. It ran almost three hundred single-spaced pages. I developed my own approach to writing by putting those tricks together in a certain order. Since then, I have never had writer’s block.

I work on multiple projects at once, and I’ve been asked by tons of writers how I do what I do. Though editing takes a while, others have always been blown away by how quickly I can create a strong and cohesive initial draft. They’d take me to lunch and pick my brain. Later, they’d tell me I changed their lives and approach to developing stories.

I adore giving back, helping writers. Helping one person at a time was great, but I felt I could do better. I got more involved at the WGA, putting panels together for the Writers Education Committee, and I co-created the first ever WGA Mentor Program in my spare time. I guest lectured and spoke when asked in classrooms and served on panels for writer conferences. Finally, I bit the bullet and agreed to teach an actual class online in Full Sail University’s online MFA program while still taking writing gigs for companies like Universal Studios. I’m also going to speak at the Central California Writers Conference in late September.

When I was asked to be on a panel for the Screenwriters World Conference in L.A., I told Jeanne Bowerman of Script Magazine about my 284 pages of notes I planned to turn into a book one day when I had the time. She asked me to write some articles I could use as a kind of running start to writing the book about my method. So, I did that to get the ball rolling. As I fleshed those articles into a full-fledge book, Full Sail University liked the published articles I wrote on character creation so much, they asked me to take over the Character Creation and Development portion of their online MFA Creative Writing program. Based on that, I knew I was communicating my method well, and I should finish the book.

I figured the book was the very best way of helping the most writers at once. In short, it all stems from the hope of giving back to my craft. I am only as good as I am because the writers who came before me taught what they had learned. My goal was to take that knowledge another step forward in the hopes that someday my book will not only help others, but it will inspire another great writer to take my ideas a step further as well. In short, human knowledge is all about continuing to construct our Tower of Babel, evolving our art form by working together to save the world.

Yes, I said save the world.

I believe storytelling is how we inspire others to invent amazing technology, see the world from new perspectives, and provide a deeper understanding of humanity. So, teaching others to write better is my way of getting others to create stories that change the way we think. When we change the way people think, we can change the way people will behave and treat one another.

My job as a writer isn’t to just tell a cool story and make some money. I wouldn’t need to share my tricks if that were my only goal in this trade. Storytelling is an incredibly powerful medium. Think about how it can bring people to euphoric laughter and devastating tears over events that never even happened and characters that don’t exist. As Spider-Man has taught us all, with great power comes great responsibility. Writers have the ability to make the world better for having written their stories. If I help other writers be more effective, I could be helping thousands of writers convey their impactful messages, bettering our world through teaching empathy, understanding, and the potential paths forward (or to avoid) in order to achieve a greater tomorrow for us all.

Yes, that makes all of you writers out there potential superheroes.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it especially unique?

I always said if I’m going to write something, it’s not going to be something they can find anywhere else done the same way. We can’t help but work off of some universally accumulated knowledge, like genre, character types, and three-act structure, but we can strike out on our own by presenting how to assemble them in a new way. The knowledge is all out there, but it’s about how you put the pieces together and in what order.

So many screenwriting books call themselves a “step-by-step” guide, but when you try to apply the steps in the order they offer them, it’s not a fluid roadmap you can follow to construct a story. It’s not really a step-by-step guide. It’s a series of things that leave giant holes for the writer to fill in to get from one step to the next. There’s a lot of explaining what things are and how they work, but they don’t tell the reader how to create those things for themselves. In fact, it’s a lot of analysis. Don’t get me wrong. They’re very educational, but being able to explain and understand the material makes you a potential critic who understands screenwriting and how it works, but it doesn’t necessarily make anyone a writer. They’re simply a more informed reader. This is a great thing, but it won’t get someone who wants to write to the goal of writing his or her own screenplay.

Prewriting Your Screenplay is actually a true-to-form, step-by-step process by which you construct an original story (starting with absolutely nothing at all) through answering questions and completing exercises at the end of every single chapter until you have a complete and original story idea with the characters perfectly designed to serve that cohesive story. It’s an instruction manual for putting together a story with all the elements that should fit perfectly together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Then, the book ends by explaining how to do the whole process in reverse in case you’re in a situation of having to fill in the blanks of a preexisting story idea.

The process explains to writers how I create a well-formulated foundation for a movie, whether working from a blank page forward or having to reverse engineer a soul into a preconceived plot idea. I give all I know and can think of to share with you. I’m keeping no secrets because there’s never a reason to keep the logic of how things work secret. No two writers would execute the same idea the same way, so, even if you have my technique, you’d never execute it the way I would. It’s everything that I learned and use when developing a project that has kept me writing as a decade-long, current and active WGA member.

I thought it was very interesting that you use the word “prewriting” in the book’s title, as opposed to simply “writing”. What’s the reasoning behind that, and how does prewriting apply to the craft of screenwriting?

Put simply, Prewriting is the opposite of rewriting. Rewriting is the work a writer does on a script after the first draft, and Prewriting is everything the writer creates before he or she writes the first draft. This entire book focuses on everything a writer needs to consider before writing “FADE IN,” the old-school first words of a screenplay.

There are a ton of books that explain writing and formatting the actual script. Nobody needs to write another book that explains script format. It’s been done to death.

This book explains how to assemble everything a writer needs in order to write a screenplay. It’s the foundation a writer builds upon. There are many things a writer should figure out before leaping into an outline. Doing this work up front will save writers an enormous amount of time normally spent rewriting after the fact trying to make the story congeal. If time is money, this book can save writers a fortune in rewrites.

And because this book is strictly about how to develop a story concept with an incredibly strong foundation and structure, it is applicable to all mediums of storytelling. It’s a universal storytellers playbook for formulating a cohesive narrative. I’m a screenwriter, so the examples throughout the book focus on films, but the logic of my foundation development for storytelling applies to any and all creative writing mediums, including stage plays, episodic series, comic books, novels, video games, animation, and all other media. In fact, someone told me they’re going to start using my method to redesign history lessons to teach history to their students. It’s applicable to anyone who can use storytelling in whatever they do to be more effective.

No doubt a lot of aspiring writers will use your book to improve their skills. Is there a particular piece of advice you think every writer should know?

Uh… My brain just exploded. That’s a book in itself. It’s a series of books! That said, I offer you these 10 pieces of advice:

  1. If you think you can live a happily doing anything else except screenwriting, this business is so obscenely tough, do something else. With books, you can self-publish. With playwriting, the production is not allowed to change the work without the playwright’s permission. Even in television, there are far more opportunities, and the writers have more say. In film, the writers are hired guns and the director is the creative king. In television, the director is the hired gun, and it’s the writers who develop the show and its seasons. I intend to make that jump when the timing is right, too.
  2. Write what you love and would pay to see, not what’s trendy.
  3. Rejection is common, and you should never take it personally. When you’re starting out, people are hesitant to bet on someone lacking experience. You need 50 to 100 rejections in order to get 1 yes. Even if you are not a good writer yet, you may find someone newer to the industry. This person may get what you’re trying to do and wants to work with you.
  4. Never argue about feedback with anyone giving you feedback as a friend or to help. You can ask questions for clarity, but once you understand the notes, thank the note giver profusely and shut the fuck up. Never argue. If you disagree with the notes, you simply don’t apply them. They’re bound to give you one or two notes that lead to a good change. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
  5. 99% of the time the note giver is correct that there is a problem where they said a problem occurs in your script. 99% of the time, the solution they offer is incorrect. The difference between the note-giver and you is that you are the writer of this story. You will need to figure out how the problem needs to be fixed in order to best serve the story you want told.
  6. Even a horrific writing experience or partnership is a good experience if you learn something meaningful from it.
  7. When you agree to work with someone, get the full terms of your understanding in writing, even a cowriter.
  8. Get in shape. I hate to admit it, but the entertainment business is a ridiculously shallow industry. People hire people they would want to spend time with, of course, and people want to spend time with those who look good and have the confidence that looking good provides them.  You do not have to be attractive; you just need to be the best version of you.
  9. You cannot be afraid to say no and walk away from a deal or offer. If the material isn’t getting you fired up, or the offer is going leave you feeling un-collaborative, it’s best not to engage in something you don’t feel really good about because that will leave an impression. You’ll just ending up not delivering and burning bridges, and there are only so many bridges in Hollywood because it’s such a small industry. Saying no to things you do not feel engaged by is actually a very good business decision. I recently had a dear friend bring me a project with big name people involved. I read the script and instantly knew it wasn’t for me. Friends and industry professionals understand and respect someone that isn’t desperate. They smell desperation from a mile away and find it repulsive.
  10. Always be working on multiple projects at a time. That one actually comes from Robert Zemeckis. I like to work on three. Producers have a slate of projects because they never know which one is going to get momentum or when it will happen. So should you. You never, as an artist, want to put all your eggs in one basket. That leaves the writer feeling desperate, and you know how Hollywood feels about people who are desperate.

You’re listed as serving on the WGA’s Writer’s Education Committee. What is that, and what sort of things do they do?

There are several committees on which WGA members may serve. Some focus on diversity groups and others on general membership. One of the latter is the Writers Education Committee. It was created in 2002 to develop programs that provide WGA members with practical, insider knowledge about how the industry works and how it is changing, emphasizing tips and tools to help writers succeed. The goal is providing the most up-to-date working knowledge for writers.

I’ve chaired and served on a ton of panels for the WEC about the most current trends on going from spec script to studio green light, packaging, multi-platform storytelling, getting writing work with overseas producers, pitching in Hollywood, etc. Any WGA member can join the WEC, run ideas for educational events by the committee, assemble a sub-committee (if approved), and create the event of his or her own design.

You’ve also done a lot of lecturing and moderated panels about screenwriting. Are there any particular points or lessons you make sure to include as part of those?

Be true to you. The only thing no other writer in the world can do is be you. Figuring out who you are, what you stand for, and the original things you want to say to the world before you die will make you a one-of-a-kind writer in this or any industry.

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

This is like asking that genre question again or asking someone to pick a favorite child. It’s just not right. I love rhubarb, coconut cream, apple, pumpkin, banana cream, mixed berry (any berry really – blackberry, boysenberry… is cherry a berry?), and don’t forget the oddly reptilian-named Turtle and Grasshopper pies. So long as it’s filled with something tasty, how can you go wrong? It’s pie. As long as it’s not from Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop in London, I’m game.

 

Sweeney Todd

I would like to add one more thing. The shocking and most wonderful thing for me so far has been the reception my book has received when requesting consideration for an endorsement. You can see a bunch of their responses on the Amazon page under EDITORIAL REVIEWS, including the creators and/or show runners of such shows as Lost, The Big Bang Theory, Hawaii Five-0, The Orville, screenwriters of the Dark Knight trilogy, Star Trek reboot, Beauty and the Beast, Guardians of the Galaxy, icons like Stan Leeand the most recent president of the WGA. After that are the endorsements from educators at AFI, USC, UCLA, NYU, and many more. You can read what they are saying and pre-order my book at: https://amzn.to/2HOMVFg.

All that on a single piece of (digital) paper?

bad 1st impression
It can only go downhill from here

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. And that also applies to a screenplay. If your first page doesn’t make us want to keep going, why should we? Chances are the rest of it is exactly the same.

The first page is your golden opportunity to start strong straight out of the gate. Show us from the absolute get-go you know what you’re doing. A lot of the time, I’ll know by the end of the first page what kind of ride I should be expecting.

Just a few items to take into consideration.

-First and foremost, how’s the writing? No doubt you think it’s fine, but face it. You’re biased. You want a total stranger to find it fault-free, so look at it like one. Is it easy to follow and understand? Does it flow smoothly? When I read it, do I get a clear mental image of what you’re describing? Does it show, not tell?

-Is there a lot of white space? Are your sentences brief and to the point, or do they drone on and on with too many words?

-Do you point the reader in the right direction and let them figure things out, or at least get the point across via subtext, or do think it’s necessary to explain everything, including what a character is thinking or feeling? Yes, that happens on the first page.

-If your protagonist is introduced here, are they described in the way you want me to visualize them for the next 90-110 pages? Does a notable physical characteristic play a part in the story? Are they behaving in such a way that it establishes the proper starting point for their arc? Are they doing something that endears them to us, making us care about them?

-If your protagonist ISN’T on the first page, does it do a good job in setting up the world in which the story takes place? Do the characters introduced here play any kind of role later on in the story?

-Are there any mistakes regarding spelling or punctuation? Are you absolutely sure about that? SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. A team does not loose a game, nor do I think they should of won either. Two glaring errors that your software will not recognize. But a reader will.

-Does it properly set up the genre? If it’s a comedy, should I be prepared to have my sides ache from laughing too hard? If it’s a horror, should I make sure the lights are on, even if it’s 12 noon? If it’s a drama, should I have a box of tissues within arm’s reach to dry the expected river of tears?

-Do your characters sound like people saying actual things, or are they spouting nothing but exposition and overused cliches?

Not sure about any of these? Read it over with as critical an eye as you can muster, or get help from somebody within your network of savvy writing colleagues. DO NOT go to somebody who doesn’t know screenwriting.

Think I’m being overly critical? Ask any professional consultant or reader, and I bet 99 out of 100 will say they know exactly what kind of read they’re in for by the end of the first page. And number 100 might also agree.

Then again, there’s also the possibility that the first page could be brilliant and it stays that way until FADE OUT.

Or the wheels could fall off anywhere between page 2 and the end.

Your mission, and you should choose to accept it, is to make that first page as irresistible as you can, grab us tight, and not let go. Make us want to keep going. Then do the same for page 2, then page 3, page 4, etc.  Make us totally forget what page we’re on.

Take a look at the first page of your latest draft. Does it do what you and the story need it to?

-Didja notice the spiffy new look? Had to make some behind-the-scenes changes, and this is the result.

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 a Million-Dollar* Script Consultant!

chris soth

*this number represents the estimated value of Mr. Soth’s advice, rather than the actual cost.

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-script advisor Chris Soth of ScreenplayMentor.com.

Writer/Director-Producer Chris Soth has authored over 40 screenplays and is a frequent speaker on the topics of story structure and independent filmmaking, teaching screenwriters around the world how to write great screenplays AND pitch them for success. Chris is the writer of Firestorm, released by 20th Century Fox, and the independent hit Outrage: Born in Terror. He is currently developing a slate of independent films, the first of which, Don’t Fall Asleep, has just received distribution. His directorial debut SafeWord is presently in post-production. Chris has taught at USC and UCLA, and currently guides screenwriters from concept to FADE OUT using the “Mini-Movie Method” in his mentorship program at ScreenplayMentor.com. His ebook “Million-Dollar Screenwriting: The Mini-Movie Method” and DVD “SOLD! How I Set Up Three Pitches in Hollywood,” among other great screenwriting resources, are available at ScreenplayMentor.com.

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

Sustaining a story for an hour or more with brilliant writing at every turn is so difficult I find myself attracted to the short form, even w/my own writing these days. That, said, we ARE in a Golden Age of Television now, with some creators getting to not only decide a story that will take five or more years to tell and lay it out beforehand — occasionally with guarantees that all the episodes will air — and not only control a very complex and novelistic story, BUT also control the rate at which it’s consumed. No artist has ever had that before, even novelists…Tolstoy could be sure reading War and Peace would take you while, but not throttle your reading speed to piecemeal over 5-8 years, the way Weiner or Gilligan have. I really appreciated how all the Mad Men were…going mad. How all of them were continually pitching a product, themselves, and none more than Dick Whitman, whose greatest pitch was Don Draper…and living in that gap between the presentation of your self and the reality, or worse, what you FEAR you are…is the madness. I think if you’re in show business, you get that. So, as I said above, hard to sustain for an hour, let alone all those years, but some amazing brilliance every single episode.

Here’s one favorite in the episode from the penultimate (full) season, where all of Sterling Cooper’s taken acid and a Hippie Flower Child puts a stethoscope to Don’s chest to listen to his heart.

HIPPIE FLOWER CHILD
Let me listen to your heart…(re: stethoscope)…it’s broken.

DON
(re: his heart) You can HEAR that…?

How long has that double entendre been staring us in the face, and how GOOD are these writers to keep giving us insight into their brilliant central character even that late in the game? He’s broken-hearted. He hides it. He always will be. A tiny thing, but the last time I remember really thinking “Wow, good writing!”.

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

My first idea was to teach a seminar in my own screenwriting structure technique, “The-Mini-Movie Method”. I did that, and also offer the resulting videos and audio course. I found a real thirst after that for hands-on expert consulting developing screenplays with expert advice on this method. I don’t really do a classic “reading”, or that’s rare anyway. I consult and help writers build scripts, usually from FADE IN. I will work with clients thru my website ScreenplayMentor.com with works-in-progress. My usual procedure, whether starting fresh, or jumping in partway, is to outline a vision for the next draft and mentor and guide it, page by page (Mini-Movie by Mini-Movie) until Fade Out…then I’ll read the resulting, and much stronger, screenplay thereafter. I started my side business after some success as a writer myself, because I really like to work everyday, but like different work and different stories and continually changing ideas. Also, the steady work and income that my consulting provides lets a guy with a daughter in college sleep at night even between studio writing assignments.

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

I absolutely think so. There are certainly rules, best practices, etc. Some so oft-repeated they become cliches: “Show, don’t tell”, etc. But developing an aesthetic for what good writing and what good storytelling is, should be vital to each and every writer. We all want to make THE BEST MOVIE EVER, right? Well, if we have no yardstick for measuring quality, how will we do that?

4. What are the components of a good script?

The list goes on and on. Most important and first: TENSION. A hope and fear for a viewer/read to root for and root against. So I’ll use this as another opportunity to say it: TENSION, specifically TENSION REDUCTION is the source of ALL pleasure we take in drama and in story. A good story will continually build tension, every beat, every scene, every sequence and release that tension in an explosive and gratifying climax…make sure YOURS does. I’ll leave it there.

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

The lack of tension, of course. Unnecessary scenes, which I define above as scenes that don’t build or add to tension. It seems common to the point of epidemic that first acts run 45 pages in early drafts, and writers are often still setting up dominos as they break into the third act…dominoes that should have been set up WELL before, often in act one and should be falling with dramatic cataclysm and knocking over BIGGER dominoes now… A lacking “narrative drive” that makes each story event seem, in retrospect, inevitable, not arbitrary. It seems like many early drafts are written just to fill pages, but there IS a perfect twist for the end, the midpoint, the first act, that is dictated by the concept or idea…

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

References to other movies or TV shows. You have to be very clever and original to do this well, and it fails most of the time, Quentin Tarantino aside, and even HE blows it a lot of the time.

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

-TENSION = Hope versus Fear  (T = H v. F is the E = MC squared of story) After that, I’ve never thought what might come second, let alone third, but I’ll put a few down here.

-Don’t get it write, get it written. The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t.

-Craft character to story and story to character by asking, over and over: Who’s THE WORST person for these events to happen to, and What’s THE WORST thing that could happen to THIS person?

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

I don’t do a classic read, nor grade on that studio scale, nor should I probably divulge the scripts of my clients here, but MANY come to mind. I read a screenplay every day my first year at USC and the ones that really stood out are THE PRINCESS BRIDE and FIELD OF DREAMS. Both made me cry more than the movies made from them had, the first because it does actually exceed the movie in the sheer beauty of the writing, I like the movie fine, tho’ I’m not in the cult, but the SCRIPT…oh, that script…the second perhaps more for memories of seeing the movie itself.

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

I never had any luck with them. But I think they’re a real tool for getting your work read and getting exposure these days.

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

Everyone’s welcome to contact me at chrissoth@aol.com, chrissoth@gmail.com or look at ScreenplayMentor.com

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

Easiest question. My mom’s chocolate chess pie. I grew up eating this at Thanksgiving instead of pumpkin pie and had to learn to make it myself when I struck out on my own. I’ll have it all through the holidays and Mom still makes it for us when we come home. I’ve only found one restaurant that serves it, but just developed a lead on another in Los Angeles, so stay tuned…

Ask a Man-of-Distinction Script Consultant!

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-consultant-Scriptmag contributor Ray Morton.

Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. He writes the Meet the Reader column at Scriptmag.com and is the author of seven books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting and A Quick Guide to Television Writing. Ray is available for script consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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

I recently re-watched ORDINARY PEOPLE for the first time in a long time and was blown away by how precise Alvin Sargent’s wonderful screenplay is. To begin with, it’s a very moving story. The construction is incredibly tight — always moving forward toward the climax. And every scene and moment in the script both reveals character and moves the narrative forward. It is masterful work on the level of a Swiss watchmaker.

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

A friend of mine worked in development at Castle Rock. She told me they were looking for readers. I was already a working writer, but was looking for work in between gigs, so I did a piece of sample coverage. They began using me and things went from there.

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

I think you have to have an affinity for good writing. Whether that can be taught or not, I don’t know. For me, it developed naturally as a result of doing a lot of reading, which I’ve always done since I was a kid. I think you can be taught what elements make a viable screenplay.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A good script starts with a strong premise. From there, a story must be developed that is well constructed and makes the most of the premise. A good script has a protagonist with a strong, clear goal that develops in the first act and that he pursues throughout the second and third acts.

The protagonist must be someone we care about — not like, necessarily, but who we have some sympathy for and in whose plight we can invest ourselves emotionally. The supporting characters should be vibrant and distinctive. The dialogue should be strong — each character should speak in her/his own unique voice. The script must be what it promises – a comedy must be funny, a horror movie must be scary, a drama must be moving, and so on. And the ending must be satisfying — it must feel like the absolutely right conclusion to the story we’ve just witnessed.

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

By far, the most common mistake aspiring screenwriters make is to spend all of Act I setting up a particular premise and then abandoning that premise in Act II and taking off on an entirely different tangent, so that the script ends up reading like two entirely different stories that just happen to feature the same characters. The other most common mistake is a lack of clarity — as to what the premise of the story is, who the protagonist is, what his goal is, what the motivations behind the major actions and events in the story are, and so on. A third common mistake are scripts written like novels, with paragraph upon paragraph devoted to telling us what a character is thinking and feeling on the inside — things that will never be seen on screen.

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

I’m tired of non-linear storytelling — there has been so much of it in the last ten years and so little of it done well. I’m tired of flashbacks, which are overused and ruin the flow of stories. I’m tired of stories that begin in the middle, jump back in time, then catch up halfway through. All of these things have been done to death to the point where I am longing to read a story that begins at the beginning and unfolds chronologically until it ends at the end.

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

I’m not a big believer in rules per se, but the three things I think screenwriters need to know are:

-Screenwriting is dramatic writing and you need to understand the basic principles of dramatic writing to be an effective screenwriter.

-You need to rewrite. Too many aspiring screenwriters are reluctant to rewrite – they’ll futz around the edges, make a few cosmetic changes, and leave it at that. You must be ruthless with your work — willing to go over it again and again and really fix what doesn’t work, or you will never write a good script.

-This is a business and you must act accordingly — there are no shortcuts or magic tricks, no one owes you anything, and you must behave professionally at all times even if the people you’re dealing with do not.

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

I’ve read two. One was the script that eventually became the Geoffrey Rush film SHINE. The draft I read was just about perfect (although the final film was very different from the screenplay and I didn’t like it nearly as much). The second was a script called CRICKET SPIT, about a young girl whose doctor father lies to her (out of well meaning kindness) about her best friend’s terminal condition, which causes a rift between parent and child. It was a “small” movie and never got made but it was terribly moving and just brilliant.

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

The top 5 or so — the NichollBig Break, etc. – can be very worth it, because most of those contests can bring you to the attention of the industry in a number of ways (hooking you up with producers, introducing you to managers and agents, etc.). The lesser ones – ones sponsored by no-name organizations and ones that keep urging you to add extra services (buying coverage, buying a seat at the awards ceremony, etc) –  are a waste of time and money.

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

They can go to my website – raymorton.com – or email me at ray@raymorton.com

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

Chocolate silk, hands down.