Q & A with Jeff Kitchen of Scriptwriting Mastery

Jeff Kitchen has taught thousands of students from Broadway to Hollywood. He was classically trained as a playwright, worked as a dramaturg in New York theater and taught playwriting on Broadway. A top-rated teacher, he taught for thirty years and wrote the book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting. For the past three years Jeff adapted his training program into a comprehensive digital apprenticeship. Scriptwriting Mastery is the result.

What was your inspiration behind putting this together?

I taught people for many years in these intensive 30-hour seminars, and worked hard to give them genuine know-how, limiting the groups to six people, with each person bringing their own script idea to work on. I explained each tool, illustrated it with classic films, and then got each student applying that tool to their story so they got experience using it properly and their scripts improved quite a lot, so the word of mouth was huge. But it was essentially firehose teaching, hammering them with a complex array of information about the tools and principles, and I always felt like I could do more.

After teaching non-stop for eighteen years, from Broadway to Hollywood, I took a break from teaching, focusing on script consultations. Then as I moved back toward teaching again, I didn’t want to do it the same way because it didn’t transfer expertise at the level I intended. Don’t get me wrong, they learned a lot, and many went on to successful careers as writers, directors, producers, and creative executives, including multiple Oscar and Emmy nominations. But I wanted to do much better as a teacher.

So I spent time circling the problem, trying to find a way to transfer deep expertise much more effectively and how to teach much larger groups. Finally I hit upon the question: If I could wave a magic wand and teach writers in any way that I desired, what would that be? The answer was to take as long as needed, and I decided I could do it in about two years. I studied the science of how people learn, how to train people to expertise, and Cognitive Apprenticeship, which not only conveys deep skills to an apprentice, but also the subtle thinking processes that underlie expertise. Then I built a new training program that incorporates all these instructional technologies into a rigorous and demanding process in the craft of the dramatist.

What makes this course different from other online screenwriting education programs?

Some of the tools are entirely unique, coming out of my intense study of a legendary Broadway script doctor from around the early 1900’s. William Thompson Price helped revise every script that producer David Belasco staged on Broadway and created several brand-new tools to help make stories work dramatically. So many playwrights wanted to learn from him that he founded the first school of playwriting ever, and of his twenty-eight students, twenty-four had hits on Broadway.

A prominent playwriting teacher, Bernard Grebanier, said of Price’s groundbreaking work, “If we ourselves were asked to whom we were indebted for the basis of our ideas about playwriting, we should have to answer, ‘Aristotle and Price.’” One tool, the Proposition, which uses the power of logic to pull all the components of a story together into a coherent whole, is known to some, but Price’s three-step tool Sequence, Proposition, Plot lay completely undiscovered until I found it in one of his books. This tool is a remarkably powerful way to tighten and dramatize the parts of a script. It uses reverse cause and effect to create a tight chain of events, rigorously separating that which is Necessary to the forward action of the story from that which is Unnecessary, as well as creating compelling conflict that helps keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

You apply these three steps first to the overall story, making it tight and dramatic. If the big picture doesn’t work, then the details don’t matter. Then you divide the overall story into acts, and you do the same three steps to each, making them tight and dramatic. Next you divide the acts into sequences (there are two-to-five sequences in an act, and two-to-five scenes in a sequence) and you do the same three steps to each sequence.

You’re gradually developing the details as they become necessary and dramatizing it as you go. This is a lot of work, but so is twenty-five rewrites. Then you break the sequences into scenes. You apply Sequence, Proposition, Plot to the first scene, making it tight and dramatic, and then you write that scene. Then you structure the next scene and write it, and you keep going until you have a working draft. And because you’re constantly excluding the Unnecessary in a ruthless fashion, that draft consists of only the Necessary, so it’s a lean and mean draft, not some bloated mess. Sure the script needs work, but it’s clean and functional, and much easier to work with.

I teach Dilemma as the dramatic engine of your story, building in intensity throughout Act Two to become a Crisis, forcing Decision & Action, with the protagonist actively resolving his or her dilemma. The way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma expresses the Theme that’s emerging organically from the story. I use the story-creation resource, the 36 Dramatic Situations as a volcanic brainstorming tool, and the personality-profiling system, the Enneagram to deepen, dimensionalize, and flaw your characters. Research and Brainstorming help you explode your idea and violate its perceived limits, think it through, amplify its strengths, and get it up to speed. The Central Proposition uses the power of logic to pull all the clever story elements together, fusing them into one coherent plot that grips the audience. And Sequence, Proposition, Plot helps you construct and write the script.

People constantly say they’ve never seen anything like the powerful tools I use to build and dramatize a story, but it’s straight out of classic dramaturgic principle and technique. I’m mostly self-trained in an obscure school of thought in playwriting, but I’ve trained development execs at all the Hollywood studios and they consistently say I teach the most advanced development tools in the industry. So my tools are distinct and now my training methods are unusual, too.

Science has proven that the harder it is to learn something the deeper you retain it, so I work my students hard, constantly changing gears and switching topics, keeping them off balance, and staying unpredictable. I call it Disruptive Teaching. It forces them to dig deep and apply themselves, to be aggressive independent thinkers, and to stand up to a serious challenge. It’s good professional training because the real world doesn’t bring you neat arrays of predictable problems. They learn how to take a punch and fight their way out of a corner. Trying to make a living as a professional writer is notoriously difficult and they need grit, serious skills, and a rough-and-tumble capability. I’m constantly challenging them to think through complex new ideas before I instruct them in it, making them work hard, think straight, and apply their mind. They are not allowed to ask stupid questions. They learn to generate ideas and also to evaluate them critically, with a professional eye, and to articulate their reasoning aloud to the class.

One main difference between this program and others that I know of is that the center of the training is that we’re constantly working on multiple scripts of different genres and in different stages of completion. I train the students by ranging from one project to the next, and we function as a team to make each one work, with teaching moments thrown in as they arise. Students also have daily exercises, writing assignments, learning games, story creation, collaborative competitions, movie nights, and assigned reading. Plus we read one classic script each week because it attunes them to great writing and story ideas.

This training workshop runs for eighteen months and each student gradually acquires the skills and knowledge of a trained dramatist, plus the subtle cognitive skills that underlie substantial mastery. Because this program is constantly ongoing and requires some training before they jump in, each student starts with a three-month video course, working as my virtual apprentice as I create, develop, and construct a complete original script from scratch. They hand-copy all the notes I generate in creating the story, handling all the tools as I build it with them. Then, based on the detailed dramatic outline we’ve created, each student writes their own version of this script in order to graduate to the main program. So there’s a three-month course to start them off, and then there’s another separate three-month program after they’ve trained for eighteen months in which they pick an idea from our group Story Bin and build the script on their own in our open workshop, periodically demonstrating their mastery, their progress, and their challenges to myself and the group. This consolidates all their training into a fully integrated set of skills and professional knowledge.

There are lots of uses of the label “dramatist” in addition to “scriptwriter.” Are there similarities and/or differences between the two?

What I teach is plot construction and dramatic principle—the craft of the dramatist, the ancient art of adapting a story for a theatrical presentation, whether in film, on TV, or onstage. It’s about making the story actable so that it can be performed and will grip an audience. Consistent coherent compelling Dramatic Action is the name of the game. Dramatic Action is not car chases and shootouts, it’s a state of action you put the audience in, where they’re up on the edge of their seats—and you keep them there because they must know how things turn out. If you have sections that are flat dramatically then you lose the audience there, which contributes to the script not working.

It’s all about the audience. A movie playing to an empty theater has no power—it’s just shadows on the wall. The power of the film or TV show or play resides in the response of the audience. Anyone who’s done live performance knows intimately that it’s all about the audience, but amateurs often forget they’re writing for a performance medium. So a dramatist is one who crafts a gripping performance. Whether it’s a bone crunching thriller or a wacko comedy, the story must work dramatically.

Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s tricky, it’s slippery, and it’s unforgiving. An extremely stripped-down literary form, it demands complete economy with no room for the Unnecessary. I’m training people in the craft of the dramatist, which covers screenwriting, TV writing, playwriting, and any form of dramatic content. Once you have substantial technique, you can tackle any medium because you know how to make scripts work.

What are the benefits of the course for the screenwriter just starting out, and where would be a good place for them to start?

It gives a beginner comprehensive training in a method that really works. Apprenticeship is how we naturally learn best, working beside a master craftsman to absorb all the skills and thinking processes. If someone is a novice and knows they are, then they’re much easier to teach because they’re not brimming over with their “knowledge.” They also have no bad habits to overcome and, while they’ll need a lot of working experience to polish their craft after they’ve completed the training, they will know how to make scripts work. But everyone needs years of work, even after mastering the craft of the dramatist, to achieve true greatness as a writer, polishing and refining their voice, attack, smoothness, clarity, and many other subtle aspects of excellence. A good place for them to start is to take this program. It’s designed to be quite doable for raw beginners while also being challenging to experienced writers.

You reference on the website that there are varying lengths for the courses. Why does one take three months and another eighteen?

It’s actually all one course, divided up into three components. The first three months, Course 1: Tools & Fundamentals is the video training program in which, as I said, the students work as my virtual apprentice as we create a thriller from a one-sentence idea, develop it, and construct it, and then they write the actual script based on our detailed outline. This gives them enough training to jump into the eighteen-month main program, Course 2: Techniques & Principles, which is continuously ongoing. They might walk in on us spending the whole week figuring out the ending to a romantic comedy, and because they’ve worked with all the tools in Course 1, they can join right in.

Now their training begins in earnest, working with the group as we build multiple scripts at the same time, ranging from one to the next making each one work, tackling an action-comedy TV series one day and a psychological thriller screenplay the next. It’s heavy-duty learn-by-doing in an apprenticeship format, so they get serious experience and training as their skills coalesce. They’re being highly trained in seven tools over two years, spending months on each one, so they gradually acquire more and more expertise as they integrate all the tools. It’s like learning how to juggle while riding a unicycle on a tightrope—separate skills that must be learned independently, and then are integrated into one fluid capability.

Once they’ve achieved that level of mastery at the end of the eighteen-month Course 2, they’re ready to build a script on their own, which is Course 3: Solo Script Project. As I mentioned, this is the last three months, and they choose a story idea from our group Story Bin, develop structure, and write it, all in our open-workshop format, so their work is open to the group. I stop by regularly with students in tow like a teaching hospital, and the writer articulates their progress, their mastery, and their current challenges. When they finish the script, they graduate, now a seasoned versatile dramatist who can make scripts work in any genre, and who can tackle any medium.

What about a screenwriter with a few scripts under their belt? How would this course benefit them?

It’s a way to improve their craft and take their abilities to a higher level. One thing a writer quickly learns is that it’s hard to be consistent. Sometimes a script works and they’re not sure why it did, and sometimes it won’t, and they don’t know why it wouldn’t. As I said, scriptwriting is notoriously tricky and slippery. But with substantial craft, they can pin down a tricky script, get a good grip on it, and make that part work. If they have a sense of what their strengths and weaknesses are, then it makes them open to learning more to correct their weaknesses and reinforce their strengths. The tools create certain distinctions, and if they utilize those distinctions properly, they get the full power of the tools. If they muddy those distinctions every time they become inconvenient then they lose their power. So this adds a few more powerful tools to their process, and then trains them to a high degree of expertise in them. Good is the enemy of great and I train them long and hard in a sophisticated set of tools. They’ll emerge like a Navy Seal, able to reassemble their rifle in the dark, under fire.

You offer three courses of study. What are they, and how would somebody determine which one was the right fit for them?

There is only one course, the two-year program. The three courses originated because with such a long training period, it’s not practical for someone to wait a year for the next class to start. To allow people to jump in at any time, I created the initial three-month video training. If you’re a scientist going to live in the International Space Station to do experiments, you’d do a three-month training to prep you in how to travel to space and operate in the space station. As I said, the eighteen-month section is the bulk of the training, focused on constantly building scripts and the three-month period at the end build a script on their own to consolidate all their skills and demonstrate their mastery before graduating.

You use the film Training Day as an extensive part of your teaching process. Why this film in particular?

In the first three-month course the script we build is a thriller, so it’s a useful example. Jake, the Ethan Hawke character, has a good strong Dilemma, trapped between his ambition and his moral compass, so it’s a great model for our protagonist’s Dilemma. Training Day has dynamic conflict, deep and complex characters, great storytelling, phenomenal writing, and Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning performance, with Ethan Hawke nominated for Best Supporting Actor. We’ll be reading one great script a week in the main program and using other classic scripts as teaching examples and research as we develop and write scripts of different genres.

It looks like this is a course with set deadlines, rather than a “work on your own schedule”-type one. What’s the reasoning behind that?

Scriptwriting Mastery has rigorous deadlines but is also relaxed in other ways. It is a highly-focused, demanding course that puts students through substantial training. The use of the tools is precise because the difference between a reasonably skilled practitioner and highly-trained expert can be razor thin, with hundreds of subtle differences that add up to mastery. But it’s also designed to be fun and relaxed because creativity is so central to story creation. We have contests of who can come up with the stupidest story idea, the most wacked-out title, and the craziest solution for a story problem.

But we’re working five days a week for two years, two-to-three hours a day, constantly creating, developing, constructing, and writing original scripts so it’s a heavy workload. It prepares you for the real world of turning out quality material with real deadlines. It’s a mix of live and recorded sessions, and the live sessions are recorded so you can watch when you can, but it’s a serious professional training program.

This is similar in many ways to on-the-job apprenticing to a plumber. You’re being trained in substantial skills, all of which relate directly to what must be done for each job. You learn the materials, the techniques, the underlying principles that guide your process, the thinking involved, and the critical distinctions that make all the difference. You’re gradually acquiring mastery in joining pipes, fixing plugged drains, and plumbing a house, but you’re also being trained to install hot water heaters, devices that can explode and kill people if you install them incorrectly. Because scripts are more constructed than written, it’s very much a blue-collar job rather than an ivory tower one. It’s not esoteric, it’s nuts-and-bolts, wrestling stories into shape that can be performed, and which will grip an audience.

You said you’re utilizing techniques for expert training and Cognitive Apprenticeship?

Yes, and it’s quite fascinating that these two distinct specialties capped off several years of studying the science of how the brain learns. The entirely new science of training experts was created in 1983 by Anders Ericsson, who studied elite training facilities around the world that were turning out disproportionate numbers of chess champions or Olympic ski racers or world-class violinists. He collected the innovative and counterintuitive methods that these top coaches and trainers utilized and studied them scientifically, then improved them to a high degree. His book, Peak: The New Science of Expertise is widely considered the high-water mark for how to train people to expert performance and is in fact course material for my program. Part of its science is that the trainee becomes part of the coaching team.

If for instance, you are an Olympic runner, you very quickly know as much as your coach and trainer about your exercise routines, diet, rest, and stretching as they do. You would in fact be part of the coaching team, actively helping to train yourself. My students study the book, Peak, and I turn them into active participants in the training and coaching process.

The science of how we learn has made incredible breakthroughs in the last fifty years, to the point where they know how your brain’s wiring grows and changes as you develop a particular skill. Through a process of myelination, secreting an insulating fat around the neural network which the brain assembles to perform that skill, continuous deliberate practice gradually makes that neural wiring thicker and broader and faster, upgrading it into an information superhighway, and that skill remains permanent in that person.

I found an amazing essay on Cognitive Apprenticeship just as I was pulling together the final shape of this program, and it was a total game changer. It’s about thirty pages was and written by several top PhDs in the field of how we learn. I devoured it ravenously because it fit so precisely with what I was doing, advanced training in sophisticated tools, and it changed everything. I read the article, then read it again with a yellow highlighter, and then yet again with a pink one, highlighting the best of what I’d marked in yellow. Next I typed up all the highlighted material and cooked that down even further, absorbing and digesting it so deeply that I ended up with key components of it on 3×5 cards spread out on my desk. I used them to create highly specific methods of training apprentices in the rigors of my craft, and also training them in the subtle and hidden cognitive processes that underlie my own expertise.

Cognitive Apprenticeship is focused on the cognitive skills of the expert. In a field like law or medicine, the thinking process is central, and to achieve professional-level expertise in those fields, how and what you think is paramount. And it’s not only cognition, but meta-cognition, your own awareness of your knowledge, so that you can evaluate your professional process and adapt it as needed. It’s a mastery over your own mastery, and it’s key to true expertise. So Cognitive Apprenticeship had a huge formative influence in how I designed the program. I literally swallowed it whole, spending an entire month studying these thirty pages, and I built much of my program with it. And integrating that with what I learned about teaching in a disruptive fashion, plus the science of expertise, I rebuilt my entire training process from stem to stern, and it’s been quite exciting.

Last time you said your pie of choice was cherry. Still the case?

I’m going with lemon meringue this time even though I haven’t had it in years. But since you’re a pie aficionado and I’m a Vermonter (now living in LA), I thought I’d share this slice of pie lore.

To the European, a Yankee is an American.

To an American, a Yankee is a New Englander.

To a New Englander, a Yankee is a Vermonter.

To a Vermonter, a Yankee is someone who eats apple pie for breakfast.

And to a Vermonter who eats apple pie for breakfast

a Yankee is someone who eats it with a knife.

Q & A with Victoria Lucas of Lucas Script Consulting

VML headshot #1

Victoria Lucas has more than 20 years of experience as a development and production executive at both major studios and independent film companies. She began her career with Ron Howard at Imagine Entertainment, working on films including Clean and Sober, Backdraft, and Far and Away.

She later joined with Academy Award-nominated producer Rudy Cohen to develop and produce the acclaimed coming-of-age film The Island On Bird Street (winner of three Emmys and two awards at the Berlin International Film Festival). As Director of
Development, Production Executive and Associate Producer at Signature Entertainment and April Productions, Lucas helped develop projects as diverse as The Black Dahlia, The I Inside, and The Body.

Lucas currently works as an independent producer and runs a professional screenplay development service for producers, production companies and screenwriters. She is also the on-air host for Arizona Public Media’s Saturday night feature film program, Hollywood at Home, providing historical background and an insider’s look at the making of classic films.

What was the last thing you read/watched that you considered to be extremely well-written?

Parasite. I was highly impressed by that script, especially the way the writers managed to switch plot directions – and even genres – so seamlessly. In fact, I feel that films, television and streaming shows are in something of a “Golden Age of Writing” at the moment. For instance, look at two other recent films: Joker and Knives Out. I’m in awe of how Todd Phillips and Scott Silver managed to make us sympathetic to the characters in Joker (helped, of course, by Joaquin Phoenix’ amazing performance). And Rian Johnson did a masterful job of updating and reinvigorating old Agatha Christie tropes in Knives Out.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

To be honest, it all started at birth. My mother, father and two grandparents were in the industry, with both my dad and grandma being successful screenwriters. I grew up in a house where writing was an everyday job, and it was taken very, very seriously. Unfortunately, their talent didn’t rub off on me, but I discovered through reading my dad’s work – and hearing about the process it went through before reaching the screen – that my real interest lay in working with writers to develop their scripts. From there, my career began as a reader, followed a pretty straightforward trajectory: producer’s assistant, story editor, creative executive, director of development, then into production.

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

I learned to recognize good writing through years of reading and discussion at home growing up. But if you’re asking whether good writing can itself be taught or learned, the answer is “Yes, I think it can.”

Screenwriting is both an art and a craft. You might be born with a talent for telling stories, but that’s only half the equation. Putting those stories onto paper in a way that will appeal to producers and audiences is the other half, and that’s the hard part. You need to hone your technique; or, put another way, to “develop your writing muscles.” Screenwriting classes, writers’ groups, how-to-books, blogs and podcasts – all can help. One of my favorite podcasts is Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin.

But the bottom line is this: You have to sit in your chair and write. And write. And write some more. No matter how naturally talented you are, you must practice your craft. It’s no different than becoming a master painter, concert musician or sports star. The more you do it, the better you become.

In the end, though, every writer is different; each with their own technique. Some like to outline their story so they know exactly how it will unfold before they begin to write. Others prefer to let the characters “tell” them what’s going to happen. Some are naturals at structure; others write great dialogue. The challenge for a writer is to identify the elements of screenwriting that don’t come naturally, then work hard to improve them.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A script is the blueprint for a movie, and the drawing begins with the concept. A great premise is like having an engine that drives the plot and the characters. If it is strong enough, it acts as the spine of the movie so that the structural elements – a compelling story, memorable characters, exciting action and all the rest – will fit together and support each other to produce a successful on-screen result. It’s not enough to create a literary masterpiece that’s envisioned entirely in the reader’s head; if the script lacks cinematic elements, it’s unlikely to get produced.

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

I know writers are tired of hearing about it – and many will simply ignore the  advice — but the way you present your screenplay is more important than you think. That means formatting to industry standards and doing more than a cursory spellcheck. Now, I can guarantee you that no producer ever passed on a great script because of a few spelling mistakes, but the script had to get to her in the first place. You need to realize that the first person to read your screenplay is likely to be a junior development person, an assistant or even an intern. Most of those people have a dozen or more scripts to plow through every week before the company staff meeting. If your script looks unprofessional with too many formatting errors, it’s far too easy for it to be put down.

A common mistake among emerging screenwriters is to overload a script with plot. Cramming in too many plots and subplots doesn’t allow you to develop the characters within the story. So, while a lot might happen, it’s hard to care about the people involved. Conversely, you don’t want a story where nothing seems to happen or change. Films are about conflict and drama. Always think, “What’s at stake?”

Passive lead characters are problematic. Hamlet may be indecisive but he’s not passive. In a similar vein, try not to fall onto the trap of creating supporting roles that are vivid and cinematic, while your hero is bland and uninteresting.

And please, please avoid using dialogue as exposition. I cringe every time a line starts with, “As you know…” or “Do you remember when we…?” That’s designed to give information or back story to the audience; it’s not something real characters would say to one another. Incidentally, when I was a young development exec, my friends and I used to compete for the best (read: worst) lines of expository dialogue. I won with “Tell me again why we’re going to Grandma’s.”

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s disheartening to me to find spec scripts that are pale imitations of the hot new movie or television show that just came out. Even experienced writers often forget that by the time a film is released or debuts as a series, the studio pipeline is already filled with similar projects. Rather than chase after what seems to be commercial at the time, write a great story that you feel passionate about – one that may change the direction of what’s commercial, just as George Lucas (no relation) did with sci-fi in 1977.

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

Read scripts. As many as you can. Then read some more. You can easily find Academy Award winning screenplays online, but don’t limit yourself to the greats. Mediocre or bad scripts can teach you a great deal… even if it’s “what not to do.” One often-overlooked element in screenwriting is structure. The classic three-act structure is the norm in a majority of American films, but there’s nothing magical about it: more and more scripts are written in five acts. However, every script needs a structure just as a building needs a foundation.

There’s a truism in films: writing is rewriting. You may feel that you’ve finished your work after you write Fade Out. But really, you’re just beginning. Most of the films I was involved with averaged 9 drafts before production started – and that’s on top of however many drafts the writer did before submitting the script! Learn how to take notes. Films are collaborative and, unless you write, produce, direct, finance and star in your movie, you will be getting notes. You might not agree with or accept all of them, but do be open to outside ideas that can help your script. Writers groan (often quite rightly) about “development hell,” but the reality is that most scripts can be improved.

Have you ever read a spec script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I’ve probably read over ten thousand scripts in my career, and I remember giving four straight-up recommends. That doesn’t mean I haven’t read dozens or even hundreds of superb scripts, but a development executive’s job is to find projects for her production company. If the company I work with produces mainly action films and I read an outstanding character drama… well, no matter how brilliant it is, it’s not a script I can recommend to the producers. Mind you, if the script is that good, I’ll for sure find out more about that writer and, at the very least, see if they might have something else I can take in to the producer.

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

Absolutely worth it! But be selective. There are too many contests out there that only want to take your entry fee. Do your homework and find the reputable ones. Nothing about the film business is easy, but placing well in the most prestigious contests can be a great calling card for a new writer, helping you get representation or even producers asking to read your screenplay. Some of the top contests use industry professionals as judges, especially for the finalists. This can be a big plus: If they read your script and find it’s a good fit for their company or agency, you’ll be hearing from them after the contest even if you don’t win.

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

My company is Lucas Script Consulting.  All the information you need is on the website, including a link to contact me.

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

Cherry. Ideally made with tart (sometimes called sour) cherries. Bliss!

cherry pie

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.