Q & A with David Wappel

David Wappel is a screenwriter and story consultant. He recently wrote the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO MaxAmazon, and iTunes. Wappel worked in production and post-production for five years before turning to writing. His stories often feature themes of private courage, nostalgic longings, and contradictions.

He has consulted writers, producers, game developers, and others on their narrative work. In addition to screenwriting, you’ll find Wappel talking about Tolkien, Shakespeare, or sailing.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

This is a tough one for me, because I watch or listen to at least one Shakespeare production a week, and it’s hard not to just answer with one of his plays.

So setting the Bard aside, the last thing I watched that was exceptionally well-written was an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine titled The Visitor. Written by Michael Taylor, it’s the second episode of season four of the series, and it’s deftly simple and incredibly human.

I also recently rewatched Dead Again, written by Scott Frank. I’ve already seen it a handful of times, but I wanted to share it with my parents. What I love most about the script is the way it continues to surprise throughout, with twists and turns both big and small. It’s like a rabbit hole that just keeps going down.

Oh, and if I’m not setting Shakespeare aside, the answer is The Globe’s 2015 production of The Merchant of Venice.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I actually first started out working in post-production in Atlanta. I was an editor for a small production company. Editing is just writing with an extremely limited vocabulary. As an editor, you can only storytell with what is provided, and it’s actually pretty amazing how much power you have to manipulate the moments by organizing shots in various arrangements.

So when I made the pivot into writing, I had already been looking at story as sequential bits of information, and it helped me understand how to build a moment, a scene, a sequence, or a story, piece by piece.

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

I’m going to be a bit cheeky and say it doesn’t have to be taught or learned. We already know when something is good writing from our emotional reaction. Humans are designed to have stories act on us emotionally. So instead of looking at a text and deciding if it is good writing or not, all you actually need to do is read it and look at yourself. If you’re responding to it, it’s good writing.

What isn’t as apparent, but can be taught and learned is why something is good writing. One can study the patterns and structures, micro and macro, that seem to crop up again and again as effective ways to produce emotions in the audience. Writing, I believe, is both an art and a craft, and has tools and techniques like any other craft. How to employ those tools and techniques can be taught. Why to employ those tools and techniques is a little bit trickier, because it’s far more subjective. That’s what makes it art.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

When I’m reading, I’m looking for a few things. One thing I find myself sensitive to is honesty. Are the characters acting in ways that feel truthful. And that doesn’t mean it has to be grounded, but it has to be truthful to the established world.

I’m also looking for specificity. Whether it’s a feature or an episode of television, I value a script that is doing a “deep dive” into a specific aspect of the human condition. That may sound like it needs to be profound, but it doesn’t. It just needs to be specific. Mediocre scripts tend be about a general idea, but the great ones take a very specific idea, and explore it fully.

On a technical level, I value clarity. Not only do I want to visually understand what is happening, but particularly for the screen, I want to have a good sense of how I’m seeing it. For me, that’s the biggest thing that separates screenwriting from other forms of writing, even playwriting. It’s the explicit visual component, and the limitation of the lens. I don’t need every shot selected, but I want a sense of how this will unfold on a screen.

In my opinion, a major component of a good script is restraint. I’m looking for human behavior, and nothing else. I want to see what characters are saying and doing, and draw my own conclusions. When I read a screenplay that tries to tease out meaning in the action lines (or even in the dialogue sometimes) I find myself checking out. It feels a bit like someone grabbing a puzzle piece and fitting it into the slot for you. People don’t do puzzles just because they like how it looks when it’s complete, they enjoy the act of completing it.

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

I think the most common screenwriting mistake I see is more of an artistic mistake than a craft mistake, and it’s basically not having a specific enough answer to the question, “What are you trying to say?”

Corollary to that question is this one: “Why do you want to say it?”

Those two answers can act as guideposts for a writer, and will help navigate story choices. Without some reflection on these, a technically proficient story will end up vague and dull.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Honestly, none of them. What I’m tired of seeing are tropes lazily explored. Tropes are simply common patterns that are emotionally effective. What often happens is that more than the underlying pattern gets repeated, and we get bored of seeing the same thing over and over again.

For me, the key to keeping tropes fresh is to understand why they are tropes in the first place. What is the pattern beneath it? There’s clearly a satisfying story element there, and going in the opposite direction to avoid a trope may be going in the opposite direction of that satisfying story element. You want to understand how it’s working so that you can approach it, then zig-zag away in a specific way. You’ll get all the benefit of a story pattern, without it feeling stale.

All that said, I’m completely over the “wife killed, husband wants revenge” trope.

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

This is in no way meant to be comprehensive or authoritative, but these are some guidelines I try to go by when writing.

-Writing is 90% thinking and feeling, and 10% typing.

-Melodramatic writing is not fixed on the page it occurs. It is fixed in all the pages preceding it, and then on the page it occurs.

-A character’s voice and a character’s worldview are two different things.

-People are different versions of themselves depending on who else is in the room. Characters should be the same.

-Adjectives and adverbs may point to opportunities for stronger nouns and verbs.

-Always be reading.

-Wardrobe, makeup, props, and production design all provide storytelling tools. Make sure you’re using them.

-Turn off the critic for your first draft. After that, question every word.

-When approaching a problem, see if it can be solved first by removing lines, rather than adding lines.

-Understanding how your characters interact with the world outside of the story of your script can provide insight for how they interact with the world within it.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Plenty of times, and while I’m sure it’s different for everybody, for me  the answer is in showing simple, specific moments of humanity. When I feel like a writer lasers in on something small, and then continues to explore each facet of it through a sort of narrative microscope, then I feel like I’m in good hands.

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

You can check out my website, davidwappel.com, and while I have a page on there about my services, it’s also about me as a writer. The best way is probably to connect with me on Twitter.

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

Apple, by a mile.

From out of the archives

speedreading

The latest draft of the horror-comedy is complete – clocking in at a respectable 102 pages. It’s out to my savvy readers, so now the focus shifts to some semi-overdue reads for a couple of colleagues.

So while I dive into those, here are a few classic posts from days gone by…

Enjoy.

May I be of some assistance?

More work now, better results later

I know the rules, and do not hesitate to break them

Same destination, different route

Send it. Forget it.

I tried. I really did.

bulldog flop

To say the past few weeks have been interesting is putting it mildly. Like pretty much everybody else on the planet, many parts of my life are a lot different now. Adjustments are being made. I sincerely hope you’re doing everything you can to stay safe and healthy.

One of my constants during this time has been to write. Unfortunately, with everything going on, I haven’t been able to be as productive as I’d hoped.

Remember way back to around the beginning of this month when I said I was going to really push myself to have a completed new draft of the horror-comedy by the end of the month?

Side note – that was just a few weeks ago. Feels MUCH longer than that. Oy.

Full disclosure: ain’t gonna happen. Not even close.

A LOT of time was spent revising the outline. Copious amounts of cutting, editing, and idea-developing took place. Since a big part of this was to reduce the potential budget to make it more financially appealing to anybody interested in actually producing it, large swaths of scenes and sequences were ceremoniously shown the door.

The number of characters and locations were drastically reduced to as few as the story would allow. Emphasis on drastically.

Keep in mind that all of this was going on as the tendrils of COVID-19 continued to spread across the globe at a rapid pace. My sweetie’s office shut down until further notice. Ms. V’s school closed, first for two weeks, then another two. (Fortunately, all of her classes are continuing online.)

I’d even been sent home from work for a non-corona condition, and was then told to stay home for the next week and a half. I was back in the office this week, but management opted to keep everybody safe and set us all up to work from home. You’d think this would be a golden opportunity to see some major productivity, writing-wise.

Wrong again.

Still had to work the day job, but just from home. The rest of the day involved dealing with a lot of the everyday routine, albeit very, very modified. Writing time had become very limited, sometimes practically non-existent.

But I did what I could. Even just writing a little is better than not writing at all.

As the days went on, my output had seen a significant decrease. I had to face the sad truth: this script was not going to be ready when I hoped it would.

Disappointing, but you gotta admit we’re all operating under some totally new circumstances. I don’t think anybody had “productivity down due to self-isolating during a global pandemic” on their list.

Even with a few minor details in the outline still in need of figuring out, I wanted to feel like I was moving things forward.

So I started on pages, knowing I’d be going back and rewriting them anyway – which has already happened with some minor edits and tweaks within the first 10.

I admit I would have absolutely loved to announce on March 31st that I had a completed draft, but that won’t be happening. Instead, I’ll say there’s no need to rush and that this thing will be done when it’s done.

In the coming weeks, as I settle into my new routine, I’ll do what I can to ramp up my output. This thing WILL get written.

It’ll just take a little longer than I’d hoped. Normally I’d say “last day of April”, but it’s probably better to not stress myself out over the idea of NOT hitting another deadline.

Before I forget – an added bonus of all this – once again reveling in the sheer joy of writing something new.

Well, almost new. But you get the point.

Can’t stress this enough. Stay safe and healthy, chums.

Now go wash your hands.

Q & A with Ethan Ransom of Screenwriting Is Hard

_GJP6054 CROPPED

Ethan Ransom began writing at a young age, but didn’t find his way to screenwriting until college, when he had a glorious realization that people actually made a living writing the movies that he loved. Right then and there, screenwriting became his discipline. After finishing two feature scripts, getting married, and moving to LA, Ethan completed the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, and then the Screenwriting MFA at The American Film Institute.

He was very fortunate to get repped right out of school, and has been hustling ever since. In 2016, he realized he needed to give back to newer screenwriters who were still struggling to learn what he had and began mentoring and coaching in earnest. He lives down the street from the Walt Disney and Warner Brothers studio lots in Burbank, California, with his incredible wife and three vivacious children.

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

THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK. Great dialogue and characters, great twists, gut punch of an ending. It puts you so squarely in the perspective of the characters, who are isolated, without information, operating on instinct, and doing the best they can, only to have rug pulled out from under them — and thus, us. Not a wasted word in that movie, and great performances to boot! Anyone looking to write a contained thriller should give it a watch and study why it succeeds!

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I made the move to LA after writing a couple screenplays, getting engaged, and getting invited to the UCLA Professional Program for Screenwriting (UCLA’s and USC’s grad programs declined my application). From there, I’ve worked a number of different day jobs — reality TV vault manager, post-production assistant, marketing production coordinator and writer-producer — all while continuing to write.

But my big boost was the screenwriting MFA at The American Film Institute, and specifically the two acting seminars that they made us take. That opened up my world as a writer and gave me a way into my craft that I hadn’t had up to that point. It helped me understand what I was actually trying to achieve on the page: a framework for real, performable emotion, created by the story I would write. I tell people that AFI made me three times the writer I was beforehand. From there, I was fortunate enough to find a manager thanks to my thesis script, and have been on the hunt ever since.

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

I think everyone recognizes good writing intuitively. They feel it — they know it’s good, whether or not they can explain why. I think the ability to recognize why writing is good and to reproduce that in your own work is what’s difficult to learn. I think it can be taught and learned to some degree, but if you don’t have an innate writer’s instinct buried somewhere inside, all the classroom time in the world can’t teach you how to write well.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Far and away, the most important component of a good script is compelling action lines and a rhythm of dialogue that creates the mood and flow of the story in the same way that the movie/TV show will. That’s what sets professional scripts apart: the action lines feel masterful, artful, and they take you through the movie in your mind’s eye in a specific and calculated way to mimic the feeling of watching the final product in your head. That’s the most important thing. That’s what makes for a compelling read, a page-turner, which to me is the best description of a good script.

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

Beyond bad grammar, bad spelling, typos, and improper format, the most common screenwriting mistake I see is action writing that describes the visual moments out of order, where we have to interpret the prose to figure out what we’d actually be seeing if we watched the filmed version of the script. That’s what screams “amateur” to me.

Second to that, I often see dialogue that doesn’t factor in character reactions — as in, the emotions of the lines don’t follow each other moment to moment. One character says something, and then the other character says something that simply would not follow from what the other character said, but is rather what the writer wants or needs to happen. That takes the reader out of the scene, out of the script, out of the story. You just can’t make that mistake and expect your script to work.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

None, really. I love tropes, as long as they’re executed in an original, fresh way. I think tropes exist because certain types of stories just work, but with how much content is being created right now, when you use a trope, you better put a spin on it, or it’s going to be absolutely dull, no matter what trope it is

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

You never need as many words as you think. Cut as much as you can.

Find your writing routine and stick to it. Defend it zealously.

Let early drafts be bad — no one will see them but you! Don’t try to be perfect on the first pass, it’ll just slow you down, and no matter WHAT you do, the first pass will suck!

Ultimately, don’t ascribe to anyone else’s method for writing. Take in their ideas, experiment, and find your own.

Don’t get too caught up with prep work or logistics work — the finished script is what you’re aiming to create. Everything else must serve that goal. Set aside anything that isn’t.

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

Sadly, I haven’t, but the elements that might earn a script a “recommend” are as follows: a unique concept and point of view, stellar writing, a tight and compelling plot, rich characters, and as a bonus, the subversion of genre conventions.

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

As long as you know that winning a contest will never get you a career — you’re basically paying for the chance to, at best, be rewarded with prize money and exposure, and at worst, be told your work isn’t good enough yet — heck, go for it. I think it can be helpful for exposure purposes and getting read in certain places, but like this business, there are no guarantees. Only spend what you’re willing to lose.

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

Editor’s note – Ethan no longer does script consulting

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

French silk. Mmmmm. Oui, oui.

french silk pie

Q & A with Ellexia Nguyen of The Script Joint

Ellexia N_photo_xyz

Ellexia Nguyen is the founder of The Script Joint, an award-wining script coverage and editing company. Industry-wise, she started out as an apprentice film editor for producer Roger Corman’s company, Concord-New Horizons, and later as an assistant for Paramount Pictures’ Worldwide Feature Film Publicity.

After completing UCLA’s Professional Screenwriting Program for graduates, she launched her own business. Her company later won the 2016 award for “Script Consultants of the Year” and “Best Screenplay Editing Services”— which is showcased on the U.S. Business News website.

Ellexia works mainly as a script doctor/ghostwriter/story consultant on feature film scripts, TV pilots, TV series bibles, and novels. Some of her clients include directors, attorneys, CEOs of multimedia companies, indie producers, A-list producers, repped writers and some of Amazon’s best-selling authors.

Through her story consulting, editing and rewriting services, a handful of her clients, even new writers, successfully reached their goals by leaps and bounds, landing book deals, development deals, and multi-picture deals—some with major studios and streaming companies such as Netflix. Most notably, one of the feature film scripts that she script doctored for a client got picked up by Creative Artists Agency.

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

The Act, a gripping crime drama series on HULU. I was pulled into the story within minutes of watching the first episode at one of the TV Academy screenings. It’s an eerie dramatization of the true story about the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard, a single mom who suffered from MSP (Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy). For those unfamiliar with MSP, it’s a psychological disorder where the caretaker, usually the mom, makes up illnesses or does things to induce illnesses in the child under her care. It was a well-told story, and beautifully shot in a way to allow the audience to see and feel what the lead characters were going through.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Some years ago, I was reading an article in a magazine about director Martin Scorsese and it talked briefly about how he had worked with producer Roger Corman.

After doing some research, I learned that Roger Corman’s company, Concorde-New
Horizons, was known for being an informal hands-on film school. After college, I reached out to the company and got an apprentice film editor position. That’s where I first came into contact with industry scripts and dailies. Over time, I became more interested in screenwriting.

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

Yes, if you have a patient script consultant or mentor who is willing to point out to you what makes good writing or not. To recognize good writing, you also have to know how to recognize not-so-good writing. As a script doctor/consultant, I’ve worked with clients who had little screenwriting and novel book writing background. But over a few months, after giving them proper guidance and extensive story feedback, they were able to dramatically improve their writing and storytelling skills.

As a result, even some new screenwriters and novelists were able to get book and development deals from the drafts we worked on. So, yes, it can be taught – if the person you’re teaching has the desire, drive and determination to learn.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A well-constructed story. Everything has to work together seamlessly such as the cast of characters, dialogue, and the story stakes. For example, a car can have the best engine, but it’s not going to take you where you want to be if you have flat tires. In screenwriting terms, that would be like having a good story premise, but characters that can’t drive the story forward due to poor dialogue.

Everything counts in a script.

It must have good dialogue because dialogue creates plot. The scenes must be succinctly narrated, moving your story along in a meaningful and visually engaging manner. You want the reader to be able to easily follow and understand your characters and their struggles. Also, the script should be well-paced and filled with a good amount of conflict and story stakes. Secondary characters should also interact with the main characters without appearing contrived. Lastly, the script should have entertainment value.

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

Having too many secondary characters in the story that end up robbing screen time from the protagonist and antagonist. They’re usually secondary characters that interrupt the story and do random things to each other. This often happens in underdeveloped comedies.

In a time-travel story premise, a common mistake is flooding the script with countless arbitrary “time jump” scenes—chaotically jetting back and forth between the past and present. This makes it impossible for the reader to become emotionally invested in any of the characters or their journey.

In sci-fi, it’s not sticking to the rules of the writer’s own created reality and letting characters do things that contradict the rules of the writer’s created reality.

In action, thrillers, and horrors, a common mistake is having an anti-climactic showdown between the hero and the villain. For example, the hero effortlessly defeats the villain, which takes the thrill and momentum out of the fight.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Like I mentioned earlier, sci-fi stories where the characters have to travel back in time to face something or do something to correct the past in order to save the future. Often times, there are so many time jump scenes such that they interrupt the narrative drive of the story.

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

-Write visually engaging scene descriptions, but don’t over- or under-describe.

-Give the protagonist clear goals and something to fear. What do they need to overcome to achieve those goals?

-Make sure there’s a good amount of tension and conflict in the story.

-Reward the audience for following your story by making the ending satisfying.

-Let your characters speak in subtexts, but try not to be too vague or ambiguous. Script readers aren’t mind readers.

-Have realistic expectations. Don’t expect film investors to shell out millions of dollars to turn your script into a movie if you’re unwilling to invest the time and effort to get your script polished. Show them why your script – and not your competitor’s – is seriously worth the investment.

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

Yes, the story unfolded like a movie within minutes. Strong presentation of theme. I was easily able to picture the characters, who seamlessly worked together to serve the plot. Scenes were written in a way to allow me to really see and feel what each of the characters was going through.

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

It’s one of the ways to test out your script before pitching it to producers. It’s also a way to get discovered by literary managers looking for fresh talent. But be selective and don’t blindly submit to countless contests. Not all of them offer you the same exposure or “prizes” if you win.

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

They can visit www.TheScriptJoint.com, follow us on Twitter at @The ScriptJoint, or connect with me on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/thescriptjoint

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

Old-fashioned apple.

apple pie