Q & A with Travis Seppala

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Travis Seppala is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter who’s repped by Bright One Management. In addition to selling shorts, optioning features, being hired to write dozens of feature films and episodes of television, he’s also published his new book 365: A Year of Screenwriting Tips.

What was the thing you read or watched you considered incredibly well-written?

My favorite script of all time was A KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW. I’m thrilled to see it’s being turned into a series on Amazon, and will be very interested to see how the format changing from feature to TV affects the amazing story.

I think the perfect movie is IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. It might be a little corny by today’s standards, but a lot of it (both story and dialogue) still holds up today.

And for TV, we’re in the new golden age where almost everything is super well-written! One of my current favorites is DOOM PATROL. It’s about a superhero team, but it’s also a  deeply emotional drama. It just happens to be about misfits with powers (and problems).

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Compelling (i.e. interesting and fun) story.

3-dimensional characters who are the right people to partake in the compelling story.

Terse, snappy descriptions.

Lots of white space.

Connectivity (i.e. everything makes sense and flows smoothly).

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

Facebook!

I’m in a bunch of screenwriting forums on Facebook. There are both experienced writers and total newbies on there. A lot of the newbies, though, seem to keep asking the same questions over and over and over and over and over and over and… you get the point. Many of their questions make it seem like they forget Google is even a thing.

After a while, seeing repeated questions and questions that can be answered with about five seconds of research on Google, I thought “What if all these answers were in one place, by category?”

I figured I could put it all together, plus answer a bunch of questions that aren’t being asked. And so the book was born.

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What about this one makes it unique?

Many of those other books are about a specific aspect of screenwriting. Story. Character development. Rewrites. Business.

365: A Year of Screenwriting Tips runs the gamut of covering ALL aspects of screenwriting, from before you have an idea to after you sell a script and everything in between…. all in bite-size tips!

It’s purpose isn’t to try and make you “better” in any specific thing. And I don’t claim to be a guru or expert; I’m just relaying info I’ve learned either through a ton of book reading or personal experience. The book is just meant to help show you the ropes, and makes suggestions on different ways to look at things. Try a bunch of stuff and see what works for you!

Plus, there’s a bunch of coupons for discounts and freebies on a lot of helpful products and services!

Some screenwriting books are geared more towards covering the basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. Is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

The book is geared more toward beginning writers, but my hope is that experienced writers will find some new concepts and suggestions useful as well. Even experienced writers should always be learning.

With 365 tips to choose from, are there any that really seem to resonate with readers? Or any that always instigate an argument?

A couple that have gone over well with people are my tips on creating a positivity calendar (because it’s far too easy to get wrapped up in all the negative aspects of this life) and playing The Comp Game (a great way to produce new stories that are “similar but different”).

The big one that’s gotten people upset is Tip #1: Experts Are Liars!

There’s one section in the book called “Before You Start”, and one called “Prep Work”. What do you consider the difference between the two?

The “Before You Start” section is about things to know before even trying to come up with the idea for a script. It talks about the odds of making it, the fact that there’s a lot of conflicting information out there (and even in this book), and things to consider before you ever start on this journey.

“Prep Work” is about… well… prep work! Ideas. Brainstorming. Outlining. Figuring out what to write a script about.

Before You Start = knowing what you’re getting into.

Prep Work = getting started.

Part of your own backstory involves your relocating to Los Angeles. Where do you fall in the “You have to live in LA to make it” discussion?

Whether or not you HAVE to be in Los Angeles sort of depends on what you’re trying to accomplish in the industry.

If you want to be a television writer, then yes, you absolutely MUST move to LaLa Land! Shows shoot all over the country (and even other countries), but the majority of them have writers rooms in the L.A. Area. How can you expect to get a job if you don’t even live where that job is?

Now, if you want to write features? Then you can live anywhere. But expect to make trips to Los Angeles if/when possible. Why? Because you need to take meetings. Meetings with reps, meetings with producers, meeting with studio heads. Sure, it’s possible to do phone meetings, and you probably will do a bunch… but nothing beats the in-person impression when selling your work.

As a follow-up to that, how has it been for you and your career since arriving in Los Angeles?

There’s been good stuff and bad. 

Like a lot of transplants, I thought I’d get here and “be discovered” in the first year. That didn’t happen. Been here 3 years and still just trying to make it.

I’ve met LOTS of people, though, and made great connections with other writers, reps, showrunners, producers, crew members, and more! My Rolodex is filled out, and it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t come here.

I’ve also gotten some gigs because I met people at parties out here and hit it off.

The thing to know, though, is that while being here makes it easier to have access to decision makers, it also becomes harder to fit in. You might be the best writer in your small Oklahoma town, but in Los Angeles almost everyone is a damned good writer! It’s the “big fish, little pond” situation. The ocean is where it’s at, but it’s also rougher water.

You offer more than a few tips about networking, especially at social events. How much of an impact has that had for you?

I’ve gotten jobs from people, made loads of friends, and even met my fiancee – all at these kinds of events!

I really enjoyed the final section – “After Your Script Is Done”. How much of that is based on your own personal experience?

Much of the book is based on my own experiences in the industry. I don’t go into a lot of personal stories or examples of my own material like many screenwriting books do, but my experience is definitely where a lot of my “wisdom” comes from.

However, all the stuff in that section is great advice for any writer. It speaks to Serial Starters, Talented individuals, Procrastinators, Newbies who just make mistakes with what they’re writing, Paranoids, Worry-Warts, and Newbies searching for the next steps. There’s also some great coupons in that last section, myths busted, and a suggestion for a killer ice cream place!

Apart from writing scripts, you also offer a script consulting service. How can writers get in touch with you to find out more?

email: flannelmann@yahoo.com

Facebook: facebook.com/travisseppala

Twitter: @TravisSeppala

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

My favorite pie has always been Shoo-fly Pie. It’s this super sweet molasses pie that, so far as I can tell, you can only get in Amish country. Sadly, I haven’t had it since I was a child. I keep meaning to find a recipe online for it… but… *shrugs* when it comes to pie, I’d rather someone else make it for me.

But for those playing at home, I actually prefer cookies to pie. Sorry. 😉

shoofly pie

 

Learning never stops. Never.

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Sure, I may be tired now, but wait until you see the end results

So far, so good, at least in terms of how the rewrite of the sci-fi adventure spec is going.

Already managed to trim a decent amount of pages, with more potential targets coming up fast.

However, one of the most surprising results this time around is seeing more and more opportunities to really get the most of not just the words on the page, but HOW they’re presented.

I already knew overwriting was one of my biggest obstacles. I tend to go into more detail than is necessary. Not “this is the color of his t-shirt, and this is what’s on his breakfast plate”-type stuff, but more in terms of excessively describing what you’d see transpire onscreen.

This has become painfully obvious for some of the fast-paced action scenes. In the old draft, there’d be several lines about what a character was doing. This time around, I want to get to the point faster – partially for less ink on the page, and partially to help speed things up – so I highlight only the parts that the can’t do without.

It’s probably safe to say each scene has become shorter by at least some degree. Some by a few lines, others by half a page, etc. But the overall impact is becoming more noticeable. Scenes seem to be flowing more smoothly. Even though the descriptions aren’t as detailed as they were before, the new, tighter versions are just as visual.

Of course, since I’m the one writing it, I already have a strong sense of how it’s supposed to “look”. The real test comes when a reader gets their hands on it. Will they experience the same results? I sure hope so, so in the meantime, I do what I can to write it so everything is easy to follow and all questions are answered.

What’s most surprising at all about these new developments is I’d written my last few drafts of several scripts with the same approach I’d always used, but there’s just something very different about it this time around. The way this draft is being put together has a much more analytical feel to it. It’s as if something holding me back has been removed, and the positive results are coming in rapid-fire. One can only hope this sensation endures.

Once again, there’s no firm deadline for a completed draft, but as I mentioned, progress has been strong and steady, so “slightly sooner than possibly expected” will have to do for now. And even when that one’s done, there’s a strong suspicion that just a little more touch-up work will be in order.

Thrilling times, chums.

-Screenwriter/filmmaker Ally May has launched a crowdfunding campaign for her packs-an-emotional-wallop short film project In A Breath. Donate if you can!

-Major congrats to screenwriter/overall mensch Bob Saenz for the upcoming US release of the film of his script Extracurricular Activities, a journey almost two decades in the making. Here’s a great interview Bob did for Script magazine.

Script? Boomerang? Bad penny? All of the above?

 

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I was recently reading a column that was about something like “what makes a writer a WRITER.”

It involved a lot of questions to ask yourself, like “are you somebody who just talks about writing, or somebody who actually writes?” or “do you write only when you feel like it, or do you write no matter how you’re feeling?” That sort of thing.

Another was “Are you a writer who keeps working on the same project over and over again, or are you constantly working on something new?”

That one really stuck out for me. I couldn’t help but wonder if I fell into that category – from both perspectives, with a somewhat concerned eye towards the first part.

In case you weren’t aware, I have a script I’ve been working on for the past few years. It’s gone through several significant rewrites, and garnered some moderate recognition along the way.

But here’s the thing. Every time I complete a draft of it, I say “Okay. That’s it. No more.”

And of course, a few months later, I get some notes on it from some very savvy writers and industry folks, and then go about figuring out which of those notes might work best in the next draft.

Full disclosure – I seek out notes because I want to improve the script’s chances as both a calling card and in the big contests. Placing higher than I have in the past would hopefully improve my chances of making some industry connections.

I could legitimately say the script is finished, but on the other hand, it could also stand a little more work. Just a little.

This is the basis for my line of thinking. Have I spent too much time on it? Sometimes it feels that way, but there are also the times I think “Just a few more little tweaks would really work.”

A possible counter-argument to this is the fact that this most definitely has not been the only script I’ve been working on this entire time. I’ve written four others, along with outlines for another two, not to mention the half dozen or so individual pages that consist mostly of loglines and a handful of ideas for scenes and sequences.

So although a lot of attention has been given to the original script, I’ve gotten in the habit of finishing a draft, and then working on one to two others before I come back to it.

“But why don’t you just stop working on that script entirely? Too much tinkering usually has the opposite effect,” some might say, and some have. I won’t argue that, but I can honestly say that by being very, very selective about which notes to use from each new batch, each new draft of the script has been noticeably better than the previous one. Problem is, it’s a slow and gradual process of improvement.

After this most recent batch of notes, there are a few spots in the script I plan on working on, but that won’t happen anytime soon. Current focus is fleshing out and fine-tuning the horror-comedy outline, followed by a rewrite of a sci-fi spec, and maybe then I’ll consider diving back into this one.

But the inevitable rewrite or two is still going to happen.

And hopefully that’ll be it – emphasis on hopefully.

I see what you did there, Mr. Kasdan

Marion Ravenwood
A handful of lines + a solid right hook = insight into 2 key characters

Of all the notes I’ve received about my western, the ones that really stood out the most were about developing the characters a little more – especially the titular protagonist.

I’ve also been spending some time reading, watching and analyzing the scripts and films that influenced it. Namely, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (along with its sequels) and a few others involving female leads who kick ass.

It’s a great opportunity to explore what makes a character tick. A lot’s been written about the “exposition without being blatantly expository” scene in RAIDERS with Indy and the government men, but I’ve been paying more attention to other scenes; the ones that offer up a bit more about what kind of person Dr Jones is as seen through his interactions with other characters.

-Indy discussing with Marcus the implications of finding the Ark.

-The reunion with Marion (see photo above)

-The encounter with Belloq in the cafe in Cairo.

All of these (and a few more) present an aspect of Indy’s character WHILE ALSO advancing the plot. It takes a lot of effort to do that and do it well.

I’ve also been working my way through the infamous story conference transcript, where Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan work out the story based on Lucas’ idea of a “swashbuckling archaeologist”. While you can easily find the memo itself, check out this phenomenal post that also analyzes some key points of what’s being discussed.

A lot of this is what I’ve been focusing on during this rewrite. More than a few of my notes highlight certain scenes and say something like “This would be a great place to show us more about her.” So that’s part of what I’ve been trying to do.

I originally thought it would be really tough to implement those kinds of changes, but using RAIDERS et al as guidelines and knowing my objectives for each scene, it actually hasn’t been as challenging. Sometimes all it requires is a few extra lines of dialogue or a modified action line. It’s not always easy, but it definitely feels a little less daunting. Also helping – working on one scene at a time.

In the meantime, progress on the rewrite/polish continues at a healthy pace and I really like how this new draft is shaping up. I suspect the end result will be a little more than just slightly different from previous ones, and hopefully the changes will really take the script to the next level.

It’s now second nature

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Even Grace Kelly wouldn’t hesitate to take a look at a new script

This past weekend we attended a social event, and one of the other attendees knows that I write scripts, so I was asked the list of usual questions.

“Have I seen anything you’ve written?” “What sort of stuff do you write?” “How many drafts do you go through?” “Do you read a lot of scripts?”

The follow-up to that was “How do you know if a script is good or bad?”

I explained that you can usually tell by the end of the first page. The way the writing reads. The characters. The dialogue. Good or bad, chances are pretty high that’s how the rest of it is.

I’ve been reading scripts for a long time, which has had a major impact on my ability to effectively recognize the level of quality in a script.

When I occasionally go through some of the online forums, there’s always somebody asking how they can improve their craft, as if there’s some kind of trick or secret to it.

Well, there isn’t. The answer is extremely simple and straightforward, and a lot of experienced writers say it and repeat it on a regular basis.

Read more scripts.

There really is no better way to learn.

It’s astonishing that some writers don’t see it as helpful. Or necessary.

Too many newer writers might feel their work is either “just fine the way it is”, or aren’t sure if it’s up to snuff. The more scripts you read, the more it’ll help your analytical skills, which you can then turn around and direct at your own work. Many’s the time I’ve been able to either come up with a solution on the spot, or taken the time to really think my way through to it.

Would I be able to do either if I hadn’t been reading scripts and see how other writers put their story together? Probably not. Nor is this saying I’m copying what other writers are doing. Far from it. Their work is influencing how I do that; putting my own spin on it, if you will.

One of the definite benefits of living in the digital age is that there is an abundance of scripts available online, just waiting for you to come along and read to your heart’s content.

Websites that feature scripts for already-produced films. Members of online groups. Other writers with whom you connect (via networking and good manners).

While I try to devote at least part of my day to working on my own material, if time permits I’ll also spend some time reading a script. It’s usually that of another writer. Sometimes they’ll come to me, asking for notes, or I’ll read something about their script that really grabs me and makes me want to read it, so I’ll politely ask, provided I already know them.

If I don’t, I’ll introduce myself and explain how I found them and mention what intrigues me about their script, then ask if they’re open to me taking a look. Most of the time, they’re totally cool with it, and might even offer to read one of mine. Win-win.

I read a lot about writers who spend so much time writing and so little time reading, no matter how much it’s advised doing so will help further develop their screenwriting education and skills.

Their writing will get better – gradually. Maybe. Not being willing to learn more will only hinder their own development.

Don’t be that writer. Be the one who’s always writing, reading and learning.

That’s the one who gets better.

Happy reading.