Q & A with Brooks Elms

Brooks W Stripes

Brooks Elms creates and consults on films big and small. He’s a proud WGA screenwriter who’s written over 20 scripts and directed a few indie features. He started at NYU and now has a blast teaching a class at UCLA Extension in addition to privately mentoring writers and filmmakers at all levels. He also runs the script consulting service FinishMyDamnScript.com.

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

JOKER. Because it’s difficult to build empathy for protagonists with flaws that lead to violence against innocent people, especially with all the mass shootings these days. I have ethical questions about whether this was a worthy screenplay to produce because the film can’t help but celebrate what it’s also trying to condemn. And I suspect it will inspire as much (if not more) negative consequences as positive ones – but that makes the screenwriting all the more impressive and skillful. Because this was a very popular film and the bar was VERY high for that level of success.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Making movies with my friends in high school, which led to NYU film school, then making indie features. In the last decade I’ve mostly focused on screenwriting. I also teach a screenwriting class at UCLA Extention and I mentor writers when I have time. I love every aspect of making content and mentoring.

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

What’s the alternative theory – that people come out of the womb knowing how to write well? It’s a matter of defining what you love about other stories and getting familiar with the craft choices that lead to those results. I teach this to everybody from beginners to veteran writers so…. yup.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

It’s about the harmony between components. The craft is taking elements (premise, hero, goal, conflict, structure, relationships, setting, theme, tone, etc..) and adjusting aspects of them (size, shape, style, amount, etc..) until we find the right collective balance which allows something bigger to speak through the parts.

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

Losing touch with the delight of the process. And stopping because of that.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Every trope has the potential to be powerful if created with authenticity. It only feels cliche when there’s too much emotional distance from the truth of the intention.

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

I stay away from language choices like what “every writer should know X”. Those types of words can be a distraction from listening to the subtle impulses of your voice. Instead, I invite people to follow their passion. What excites us about our current story? How can we play with elements to unleash more of that excitement? When we share material for feedback, what’s blocking other people from deeper levels of excitement? “Confusion” is the most common blockage followed by “tepid goals and conflicts.”

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

The Duffer Brothers’ HIDDEN, which they wrote before STRANGER THINGS. It was a masterful display of milking tension using minimal assets in a scene. I used that script to teach myself how to make a huge impact on the way I write tension.

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

ALL the paths toward advancing your career have you pitted against the odds. So just pick the paths that speak to you and your budget. Contests can certainly be helpful so have fun playing that game, and detach from the outcomes. It’s about enjoying the journey and welcoming those that come along that happen to love your work as much as you do.

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

Check out my website – FinishMyDamnScript.com

And if writers want professional support at a great price I invite them to check out my new tight-knit online community: THE FINISH MY DAMN SCRIPT WRITERS GROUP. It’s a collective of my favorite clients and UCLA students banding together for accountability and awesomeness. There are live group calls, a Facebook group and more! A link can be found on the homepage of my site.

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

Now we’re getting to the essential question. The answer is pecan. It’s rich, heavenly and it shines beneath a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Shout out to banana cream for a close second place. It can be spectacular when it’s baked well, but breaks my heart when it’s often messed up.

An unexpected change of plans

 

chemical reaction

Bit of an extra-short shorty today, but for a good reason.

A very, very good reason.

A meeting took place earlier this week. Can’t say anything about it at the moment, but the general consensus from all parties involved is “very exciting and encouraging”.

As a result, all of the rewriting and revising work that had been taking place is now on hold until further notice.

Planning to reveal some details as they develop, or at least when the time is right.

Have an excellent weekend, and try to write something.

Perplexing puzzle pieces properly placed

puzzle

Hope you enjoyed the recent interviews (this one and this one). While I truly enjoy being able to promote another writer’s work, I admit to having somewhat selfish motives – progress on this outline overhaul had slowed, and I was feeling frustrated about it. Anything to get my mind off it was welcome, and those interviews fit the bill.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely happy to have done them and am glad the interviews got the responses they did, but now it was time to turn my focus back onto myself.

When I took on this project just after the beginning of the calendar year, I figured this part of the process would be smooth sailing, and there was no reason I wouldn’t have been able to crank out a new draft by about this time.

Ha, ha! Silly writer.

When one sets out to completely redo a project, there’s a teensy-weensy chance it could take SIGNIFICANTLY LONGER than expected?

Shocking, but true. Exhibit A – yours truly.

The past few weeks involved deconstructing the story and attempting to put a new one together. Some similar elements, but many new ones. Every time I’d come up with an idea, I’d go about trying to incorporate it into what I had. End result – a lot more misses than hits.

This is where things started to get interesting.

I realized I was still clinging to too many components of the previous draft; the screenwriting equivalent of a new coat of paint on a house in need of major repairs. So I brought in the wrecking ball and tore that thing right down to the foundation. I knew which details I wanted to keep, but now just about EVERYTHING needed to be drastically changed. Somehow.

To avoid falling into the trap of lingering previous draft details, I’d constantly ask myself that magical question of “How can this be totally different from what it was before?”.

I interpret the idea of “totally different” as “total opposite”. Any time things seemed too familiar, my internal editor would shout out “NO! Turn it around!”, and I’d go back and do a 180.

The story was THIS before? Well, now it’s more like THAT. That initial portrayal of the protagonist? You wouldn’t recognize them now.

The building blocks were being formed. Slowly, but steadily.

With the story gaining and building muscle, the same couldn’t be said for the characters. They didn’t feel developed enough. Why do they do the things they do, and how does it impact the story? Doesn’t matter who. From the protagonist and the antagonist to somebody who’s only in one scene, everybody’s a cog in this machine.

Just as an example, I already knew how the antagonist’s story ended, but still saw their “why they do this” and “how did they get to this point” as somewhat lacking, which created more obstacles.

Using those questions and this “total opposite” approach, I decided to do just that and work my way backwards. Start at the end and figure out what would have gotten us there, and what would have gotten to that, and so on and so on. For never having tried reverse-engineering a story before, the results were pleasantly surprising.

Then there was the protagonist. I knew what their external goal was, but the internal goal was a tougher nut to crack. I took a closer look at the emotional aspects of the story. How would this character react to what’s going on? Is it what I would do? Is it what somebody like them would do? Do their reactions and responses seem realistic (in the context of the story)?

I went through what I had of the story so far, and slowly began to see that I’d already set up important moments along their emotional journey, and what could potentially be part of it. A little fine-tuning and things really began to gel.

Tinkering. Rearranging of scenes. Gaps getting filled in. Long-discarded material finding reborn relevance. Unanswered questions (for both myself and the story) being answered. Ooh, I could spin this around, and the new version works even better than before!

A totally new draft of this script is taking shape right before my eyes, and on so many levels. I couldn’t be more psyched about it.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt that electric excitement of putting a story together. Didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.

Sure, it took me a lot longer than I wanted to get to this point (emphasis on A LOT), and I won’t even speculate as to how long until the outline’s done, but I’ve definitely made some solid progress over the past few weeks, and the momentum continues to build.

Full speed ahead, chums.

A sensation most euphoric

hepburn jump
Just a few more jumps, then back to work

The early months of this year, or at least the first one – for now, are all about taking some of the scripts I worked on last year and doing what I can to make them better.

Based on some notes, a quick polish was completed on the dramedy. I like how it turned out.

Next up was the pulpy sci-fi. It was a total blast to write, so a new draft felt in order, and inevitable. This seems to fall square in the category of “genre stuff I’m good at writing”. You can imagine what a shock/surprise it was to discover the last time I’d worked on this script was late summer of 2017, so it’s had plenty of time to simmer.

I don’t know how it is for other writers, but after I complete a draft or two, the story as it reads on the page seems a bit more…maybe “cemented” is the proper word? It’s tough for me to change things up. Tough, but not impossible. If I can come up with something that does the job better and in a more creative and original way, that’s fine by me.

I wanted to really change things up for the better with this story – especially regarding the protagonist. The most prevalent comment from my readers was “more depth”. The way the hero is written now just isn’t enough.

The gears began to turn, and my self-imposed resistance against changes, especially drastic ones, began to fade. As much as I like the current draft, why shouldn’t I challenge myself to make it better – no matter what that required?

I’ve written before that you can’t force creativity, but sometimes you can at least give it a little nudge in the right direction. Start the ball rolling, so to speak. I find the best way to do this is simply by asking myself questions, such as…

-The protagonist is LIKE THIS. What would be the total opposite of that? Or something unexpected?

-Here’s an important STORY POINT,  but its current form just isn’t as effective as it could be, or have the impact it should. What’s another way to present that? What would be another way from that one?

-Several readers commented how they felt the protagonist’s backstory seemed incomplete, and could really use some reinforcing. Rather than clinging to what’s there now, what if a 180 approach was taken, and THIS happened instead?

The number of possibilities continued to grow – for the better. Previously unobtainable solutions were becoming easier to find, and would then be shaped and molded to fit within the contest of the story.

A stronger, more relatable and most importantly – original – way to achieve the desired results for the protagonist’s development was forming, and the added bonus of some  great opportunities to show the hero’s emotional arc!

The fuse had been lit.

More and more questions were posed, pondered, and answered, including an alarming number that could be summed up with “that’s good, but not good enough”. Combined with my willingness to jettison parts of the current draft, a totally new approach began to take form.

As expected, this will require an openness and willingness to totally jettison and replace big chunks of the current draft. Rest in peace, my darlings. (There’s a good chance a few instances of reincarnation may take place somewhere down the line)

Suffice to say, I’m absolutely thrilled about all of this.

When something really clicks for a writer – and I mean REALLY clicks – it’s as if a tidal wave of adrenaline and endorphins are flooding through your system.

That being said, my process of plotting, rewriting and revising is well underway. It’s a big job, but I’m feeling quite confident about how this rewrite is developing.

Consider me definitely ready and eager to take it all on.

My brain’s helping hands are ready to go

 

vintage handyman
No job too small! (schedule permitting)

Thanks to my ever-expanding network of savvy creative types, I get lots of chances to be on both the giving and receiving ends when it comes to reading scripts.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to get exceptionally helpful notes from a lot of really talented folks. All this feedback has somehow managed to influence my writing for the better, and for that I am overflowing with gratitude.

So the least I can do when somebody asks me “Will you read my script?” or “Can I pick your brain about this idea?” is to say “Of course.”* Maybe I can offer up a few scraps of advice that might somehow work to their advantage. If anything, I can at least point out where a fix in spelling or punctuation is needed. For a script, anyway. That counts, right?

*caveat – it’s taken a lot of work spread over a long time for me to build up my network and establish connections, so I don’t mind if somebody I actually know drops me a note with such a request. If our only connection is being connected on social media and we’ve never interacted – at all, you’re little more than a total stranger to me. So heed that one word and be social. It makes a difference.

I had the pleasure of such an experience this week. I’d connected with another Bay Area creative, and we’d been trying for a while to arrange a face-to-face meeting. After much scheduling, cancelling and rescheduling, we finally made it happen.

This person had an idea for a project, wanted to talk about it, and see if I was interested in being involved. I stated at the outset that I had enough work on my own for now, but would be open to giving notes – time permitting.

After the initial introductions and our thumbnail backstories, we focused on their project. I won’t go into specifics or details about it, because those aren’t the important parts.

What was important was:

-this was a story they’d had inside them for a while, and even though they knew it needed A LOT of work, they were still happy with simply having written it all out

-they were totally open and willing to listen to my suggestions. Some they liked, some they didn’t. Totally fine.

But the more we talked, the more the seeds of ideas were planted in their head. Even though a lot of the details we came up with, including possible paths the story could take, ended up being totally different from their original incarnation, it was easy to see that spark of excitement reignite inside them.

Seeing that happen with somebody you’re trying to help is more satisfying than you can possibly imagine.

We parted ways, with them really rarin’ to go and start developing the latest draft. They added that they really appreciated me being so willing to help out.

I just like doing that sort of thing. I never had that kind of person-to-person help when I was starting out, so why not do what I can for others? Granted, the internet and social media didn’t even exist then, so it’s a lot easier now.

I got a few emails from them the next day showing me what they’d come up with since our meeting. Same concept, but a totally new approach (and, in my opinion, provided the opportunity for a lot of new possibilities). This also included a more thorough write-up of “what happened before the story starts”.

Even though it can be tough to read emotion in text, it was easy to see the spark was still burning strong within them. The way they talked about their plans for what comes next, I could tell they were actually looking forward to working on this.

It was nice knowing I had a little something to do with it.

We exchanged a few more emails (mostly me asking questions about story and characters and them providing sufficient answers), and I wrapped up with “Keep me posted.”

Their response: “Definitely. Thanks again. You’re a good dude.”

That was nice too.