Q & A with Jim Mercurio

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Jim Mercurio is a writer, author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His book The Craft of Scene Writing is the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scenes. He has directed and produced five feature films, and helped countless writers as a teacher, story analyst, and script doctor. He directed more than 40 DVDs on screenwriting, including his own 6-disc set, Complete Screenwriting. One of the country’s top story consultants, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers as well as beginners.

Editor’s note 1 – a q&a with Jim was featured in a series of interviews with script consultants that ran on this blog between 2014 and 2015.

Editor’s note 2 – full disclosure: Jim played the role of adviser/sounding board for the rewrite of my dramedy spec.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

I was prepping my webinar on February 7th for The Writers Store on Personal Voice, (FYI – Feb 1 is the last day to save $20 on registering) and I stumbled upon the idea that a writer must figure out what is special about what he does and then focus on that. I feel like it is the same way with me and the book.

I have always focused on the nitty-gritty of craft. Probably because I worked so hard trying to figure it out for myself as a writer. When I directed the 40ish DVDs in the Expo Series, I did my own class concentrating only on theme.

Years ago, I happened to be prepping for a feature I was directing. In a week, I saw the same scene performed more than 200 times by a hundred different actresses. I was trying to figure out what I could do that hadn’t been done before as far as a screenwriting book. My experience as a filmmaker has always informed my approach to understanding and teaching screenwriting. I’m not sure why it didn’t come to me sooner. I had an “A-ha!” or better yet a “Duh!” moment — SCENE WRITING!

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

The obvious distinction is that it focuses solely on scene writing… the first screenwriting book to do so.

I was fortunate enough to have story gurus Richard Walter and Michael Hauge review the book. Something Michael said really touched me. He said that there were a lot of ideas in the book he hadn’t even thought of. I wanted to cover new ideas or at least some seldom taught concepts in a novel way.

Having been in the screenwriting education niche writing for Creative Screenwriting, directing, creating 50 hours of educational DVDs and working as a consultant, I know what’s out there. I believe this book will carry the torch and be among the next go-to books for all screenwriters entering the field.

As I mentioned, my filmmaking experience and the fact that I am actively writing screenplays and making projects impacts my perspective. I try to be very specific in my examples. For a given topic, I may start with theory but I always try to end with concrete principles and tools that you can apply to your writing on the spot.

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

I feel very strongly that this book will appeal to writers across a wide spectrum of skill levels. A friend of mine said I teach the last hundred pages of “the screenwriting book” more than I do the first hundred. So, if anything, I would be more concerned about whether this would serve beginners.

I even asked my editor if it did and she gave me a great response. But then out of the blue, the universe gave me a better answer. My 23-year-old stepson who is a computer engineer texted me. He said he was halfway through the book and said “It’s very accessible… nothing’s confusing.”

The only research I did while writing this book was to watch movies and think about them. Each chapter is like a stand-alone piece on topics such as exposition, concept, theme, and rewriting. I tried to begin with my, at least somewhat, original and basic take on a topic to ease the reader in and to orient them. A new writer can jump right in.

More advanced writers might recognize my approach as somewhat novel. I then try to go as deep as I can with the material, so that even professional writers might benefit. A writer who read the book said that 70-80% of it was stuff he had never heard before. He might be overstating it, but I’m proud that the book feels that way. I wanted to offer new insight into the nitty-gritty challenge of craft.

Even though the book’s title is THE CRAFT OF SCENE WRITING, what else does it cover besides writing scenes?

At its essence, scene writing is storytelling and the same principles apply. You are poring over characters, characterization, idiosyncrasies of the world, setups – to create reversals. You’ve heard of turning points, right? Writers have to turn a story. They also have to learn how to turn a scene. Or a line of dialogue.

However, I wanted this to complement all of the other screenwriting books that cover story structure. I am looking at screenplays at the molecular level. In the final section of the book, I cover rewriting in a parallel way to how I discuss scene structure. And then I explore how to discover and use your personal voice in your screenplays.

One of the phrases you really emphasized during the process with my script was “write to concept.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Whew, no softballs here. Making me earn my pie.

There are 7500 words in my chapter on concept, which have been through the wringer with my 18 copyeditors, but I will try to summarize with insightful pithiness.

Like I mentioned, as a writer you should use what’s special about yourself and your writing. Writing to concept means that you are using what’s special about your story as the main inspiration for its surprises. For fun, consider a 3-D horror movie where an axe flies across the screen left to right. Do you see how on some level that’s just wrong? It should be flying toward the camera. Otherwise, it’s ignoring the most prominent element of its medium.

Of course, I’m not that rigid, but writers have to narrow down the handful of elements that are essential to their concept because not only do their surprises spin out of them, but, for the most part, they spin out only from them. I don’t know if I can teach that here. Hopefully, I can intrigue you to go to the source.

Writing to concept allows you to find a unique way to express what otherwise might be a familiar story beat. Based on their concept, the moments will look very different. In Memento, Natalie hurts Leonard by hiding pencils. In Her, Samantha, an operating system, hurts her lover by telling him she’s in love with 641 other people.

Another of your favorite phrases during the writing process was “go deeper.” What should that mean to a writer?

It refers to a missed opportunity to get at more emotion with a character or to complicate a relationship, which would hopefully do the same. While we were working on your script, there’s a scene I pointed out featuring a moment where you were on the verge of discovering a powerful and transcendent moment, but then it was all over too soon. Sometimes writers hit a beat (in the broader sense), and maybe they are worried about a looming expansive page count or don’t appreciate what they have stumbled upon, so they move on too quickly. They might be better off — pick your metaphor — milking or massaging a moment for a bit longer and letting it play out.

Take a look at the long and emotional monologue in Good Will Hunting where Will’s best friend Chuckie tells him that he should “cash the winning lottery ticket” and get out of town to find a better life. He even tells him that the best part of the day is in the morning when he comes to pick him up, he has a moment of hope that Will has left — without even leaving a note. Imagine, if we cut that down to a sentence: “I will miss you but you gotta get the hell out of here.” We lose Chuckie’s voice, the suspense of it, the emotional heft and importance. It goes from a set-piece scene to a bland, merely functional one.

In addition to the book, Jim also provides a script consulting service. How can people get in touch to find out more?

Easy. Go to my site at www.jamespmercurio.com. I discuss why coaching is my preferred mode of working with writers. You can check out my DVD set and sign up for my free e-newsletter Craft & Career, which will also let you stay informed about classes and workshops I’m offering later in the year.

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was the metaphoric “gross points from my last film”. Still the same today, or something different?

A pie in the hand is worth two gross points in a bush. Or 20 for that matter. So, hand me some Dutch Apple, please.

dutchapplepie

Your world. We’re just visiting.

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Ooh! That looks like a vital piece of exposition!

Since you’re the one creating the world of your script, you know exactly what’s going on within it. Or at least you should. This doesn’t just refer to the events of the story. It’s a bit more extensive than that.

You know the world in which your story takes place. We don’t. It’s up to you to show us how things work in here. Some writers write under the impression that everything we need to know is right there on the page for us to see. They do, so how could we possibly not?

Sometimes the information we need to follow the story is presented gradually, or it might be thrown at us all at once in one big info dump (which runs the risk of too much too fast, resulting in something being skipped over). There are also times when we get nothing, so we and the protagonist experience everything firsthand as it happens.

Who hasn’t read a script and found themselves confused about “how things work here” because it wasn’t there, or only got a fraction of what they needed? Without that, your reader’s going to spend more time playing catch-up while trying to figure out what’s going on, which will take away from them being able to focus on the story itself.

You don’t want that.

This goes beyond genre. While stories of a more fantastical nature will require a little more explanation and/or exposition, even a story that takes place in the present day with normal, everyday people will require some kind of “get us up to speed”-type scenes.

One counterpoint to this – the lack of filling us in is intentional. Part of the enjoyment of the story comes from the gradual learning of information. An ideal setup for mysteries, but that’s all I can think of.

Personally, I find it more effective to fill us in as we go along rather than just dropping us in the middle of this new environment with the attitude of “You’re on your own. Good luck.”

Make it as easy for the reader to be able to follow along with what’s going on in your story as you do. Potentially difficult, but not impossible.

An education most painful

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Please don’t make me watch that again!

Once again, your stalwart author makes the necessary sacrifices so you don’t have to.

This time around, I had the misfortune of watching an extremely bad large-budget movie from the semi-recent past. It was painfully obvious that a larger percentage of the budget should have been diverted to hiring quality writers, rather than on everything else. A pipe dream, I know.

But trust me. It was bad.

What made it so bad, you may ask?

Oh, where to begin.

My biggest problem was that too much of the story felt glossed over, with vital elements explained in a very lazy and haphazard way, if they were even explained at all. It felt like they were trying to force events to match how they wanted the story to play out, rather than deftly setting things up.

Reasons why something would happen, or were supposed to have happened, seemed to have simply been thrown against the wall, and whatever stuck, that’s what they went with. Did it matter if it fit within the context of the story?

Nosireebob.

Once again, there were too many questions raised that were never sufficiently answered. When this happens, it simply takes away from the movie-watching experience. The only reason I knew the film had to have been around the midpoint area was because of its running time, and NOT because of what had transpired over the course of the story.

I could say I had a vague inkling of what was supposedly going on, but was just never sure, since the story was being told in a very sloppy and unorganized way. It irked me to no end to be see such terrible writing so prominently displayed. And apparently I wasn’t alone in my opinions. The film was a major flop at the box office.

So what silver linings can we extract from this pitch-black cumulonimbus that stole away just under two hours of my life?

-Write a story that’s easy to understand. Keep it simple. This doesn’t mean dumb it down. Keep us informed, unless withholding that information is absolutely necessary.

-Let the story play out organically. Don’t try to force it because that’s what you want to happen. It’s easy to tell when that happens, and it ain’t pretty. If you didn’t put in the effort to figure it out, why should we?

-Have things happen for a reason. “Because it looks cool” is not one of them. Would it drastically change things if it didn’t?

-Set up, pay off. If something happens, we want to see what happens as a result. Don’t leave us hanging. And counter to that, don’t suddenly spring something on us out of thin air. It reeks of desperation. Audiences don’t like that, either.

One of the things I always strive for in my scripts, be they big or small budget, is to respect the intelligence of the intended audience. That is one lesson I believe the writers of this abomination should have kept in mind.

One question to rule them all

 

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An epic adventure based on the fate of a piece of jewelry

I recently had the pleasure of giving a friend some notes on his script (a drama). It was a great take on a familiar subject, but I had some trouble determining what kind of story they were trying to tell.

One of my suggestions was to streamline the story so it was more focused on the primary storyline as indicated by the central question. He asked me to elaborate.

I put it this way:

The inciting incident raises the central question of the story, and everything after that revolves around answering it – which takes place in the climax/showdown part. Anything that’s not connected to the central question doesn’t need to be there and should therefore be cut.

This isn’t to say you can’t have subplots, but even those should be in some way tied to the central question.

What would you say are the inciting incident and central question in your story? We, the reader/audience, want to know; we’re constantly asking that central question and want to see how the answer comes to be.

To put it in perspective, albeit from an action-adventure approach, in THE LORD OF THE RINGS films, after some necessary exposition, we learn the central question as “Will Frodo get the Ring to Mt Doom?”

Notice how everything after that revolves around that question in some way. Each scene continues to ask the question and gets us a little closer to finding out the answer, even if it might seem like the scene isn’t connected to it and about something else entirely.

On top of all of that, since you need conflict, the hero’s journey to achieve their goal is going to be rife with obstacles that would otherwise prevent them from doing that. Every time they encounter one of those obstacles and the hero reaching their goal is put in jeopardy, the central question is once again raised.

Hope this helps.

Ask a Master of the Ultimate Editing Tool Script Consultant!

Erin Whittemore

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on agency reader-turned-consultant Erin Whittemore of Red Pen Script Consulting.

“I have a B.A. in film and screenwriting from the University of Michigan, and am also the proud recipient of the Hopwood Award in screenwriting that boasts such alumni as Arthur Miller and Lawrence Kasdan. After graduating, I relocated to Los Angeles, where I worked for United Talent Agency as a freelance script reader. Two of my own scripts have been produced as short films and premiered at film festivals.”

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

I loved Nightcrawler and The Lego Movie as scripts. Nightcrawler’s story was really lean and mean and practically seamless, and The Lego Movie was not only a great narrative in itself, but was also incredibly cheeky and self‐aware at the same time. In terms of TV, Marvel’s Agent Carter put other network shows to shame. In my humble opinion, of course.

2. How did you get started reading scripts?

After spending two arduous years as a pre‐med undergraduate, I finally became so miserable that I switched to film and never looked back. I learned to do coverage through screenwriting courses, and was lucky enough that UTA was hiring part-timers after I graduated. Full disclosure: I did know somebody in the story department, but even then I almost didn’t get the job due to the amount of competition for the position. It all comes down to your “test coverage.” (When an agency gives you a sample script to cover.) If you’re aiming for reading professionally, make sure you have your own sample coverage ready to go as well, preferably showcasing two different genres.

Eventually, though, I needed a better‐paying and more stable job, but I wanted to continue reading scripts as well. Having been a part of “the system” I knew it could take up to three months for writers to get any feedback on their submissions, which is kind of agonizing, especially if the writer ends up getting rejected. I figured, why not give writers a chance to see what a professional script reader would say about their material before sending it out to agencies and production companies? Thus, Red Pen was born!

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

I believe if you’re willing to be taught, you can learn. You have to watch a lot of movies and read a lot of scripts, and you have to learn to think critically about what you ingest. It’s not enough to say “I like this” or “I don’t like this,” you have to think about why. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, you have to ask questions like “why does this work” or “why doesn’t this work?” and “how could I make it work?” Some people naturally think this way, others have to train themselves to make it a habit.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A good script generally has an intriguing premise, strong characters, and an original and compelling execution. As a script reader, I look at character, story, theme, dialogue, visuals, and tone to determine what areas need work. In general, a great script knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to achieve

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

-Unlikable, uninteresting characters that do uninteresting things. This doesn’t mean your protagonist can’t be an unlikable character, but they must be at least be interesting and do interesting things. (See There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler.)

-Exposition in dialogue. The golden rule of screenwriting is “SHOW, DON’T TELL.” A little exposition is usually necessary, but too often I see writers trying to cram entire backstories or plot elaborations into a talking scene. Firstly, we only need to know what’s relevant at the time, part of the fun of watching a story unfold is piecing things together. Secondly, remember, it’s a movie. It’s much more dramatic and emotionally immediate to watch a sequence about something important than to hear a character talk about it.

-Inconsistent tone. Is your script Silence of the Lambs or Fargo? Guardians of the Galaxy or Interstellar? 12 Years A Slave or Django Unchained? When a script yo‐yo’s back and forth between tones, or spends the first half of the movie a comedy only to turn serious drama it can be very confusing for the audience and takes us out of the story. Know what tone you want your script to have and stick with it.

-No structure. A story is more than just a series of events, it’s a series of events that influence each other. If you’ve ever had a friend who is terrible at telling stories, they most likely sound something like this: “So Jack and Jill fall down this hill. No, wait, sorry, first they go up this hill. Then Jack falls down. And then Jill falls down. And then they get married.” As opposed to someone who might say, “Jack and Jill grew up together as next door neighbors and they hated each other. They were mean and played pranks on one another until Jill left for school. Jill married an orthodontist, but got divorced soon afterward because life became too predictable for her. Jack had a string of girlfriends but nothing ever seemed to stick, especially since none of them seemed to appreciate his sense of humor. Having both moved back to their hometown at a low ebb in life, one day Jack spotted Jill on top of a hill while walking his dog in the park. Jack smacked Jill in the back of the head with a snowball. Jill yelped, slipped, and tumbled headfirst down the hill. Alarmed, Jack rushed to her aid only to slip and fall, himself. The two ended up in adjacent hospital beds and wouldn’t speak to each other, until they both started laughing. Soon after, they fell in love, and have been married for 35 years.” In other words, remember that each beat of your story should make sense and be relevant in the larger context.

-It’s a movie not a book. Give us just enough flavor text so we get the atmosphere and the characters, but don’t go overboard. I should be able to read your script in the same amount of time it would take to watch the movie, if not less. Don’t bog the reader down in unnecessary description. That doesn’t mean what you write can’t be poetic and evocative, but just remember to keep it lean and mean. If you’re lucky, the type of person reading your material will give it their full attention, but this is not often the case.

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

Okay, first a disclaimer: most stories are tropes in one way or another. There’s an adage in Hollywood that goes “give me the same thing, only different!” What that basically boils down to is, “give me something I can latch onto, but surprise me!” It’s okay if you have an “everyman protagonist” (The Lego Movie) or if your story is about a rag‐tag bunch of people in space (Guardians of the Galaxy, or alternatively, Star Wars) – what really matters is the execution, or what you do with those characters and set‐ups. That’s where the originality comes in. That being said, here are a few that leap to mind:

-Women with no agency! Or alternatively, women who are portrayed with agency only to have it stripped from them at important points in the story by male counterparts.

– Actually, on that note: stereotyping certain genders, races, or sexual orientations into negative tropes like “the magical ethnic minority” or “token black person” or “exceptionally shallow and flamboyant gay best friend” at all. For a comprehensive list, Google “gender/racial/ethic/gay/transgender/bisexual tropes in media.”

-“You were really working for the bad guys all along.”

-Gritty for the sake of gritty, not because it actually works or makes sense.

-Teen love triangles.

-The ex (Marine, Army, Navy, etc.) whose family or significant other is kidnapped or killed, and must rescue them/seek vengeance. (Sorry, but I’ve read this script a hundred times)

-Scripts that are mostly music‐video segments strung together without much story.

-Manic Pixie Dream Girls

-Inexplicably bloodthirsty military males

-The scientist who knows everything. Ever.

-The brooding, emotionally unavailable romantic interest with no reason to be brooding or emotionally unavailable.

-The hacker who can hack into anything. Ever. Also, it’s probably a guy who lives in his parents’ basement.

-The magical cure‐all that can bring everybody back to life if they die, so there are no consequences or stakes!

-The love interest because there needs to be a love interest.

-The unnecessary cliffhanger, because it’s an unnecessary trilogy!

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

-Write.

-Rewrite. One of the most common things I hear is “I hate rewriting my material.” Nobody likes taking a chainsaw to their baby, but more often than not it’s a vital part of the creative process. Let’s face it, we’d all like to believe we’re capable of writing a perfect first draft, but in reality turning out something great takes a lot of work and usually a good number of drafts. As a script reader, I see that squeamishness about rewriting get in the way of some good scripts, and that’s a real shame when they could be great scripts. Just “polishing” your material is sort of like watering around a sick plant and expecting it to improve.

-For screenwriters: make every scene worth watching. Almost every scene should a) have some sort of conflict, be it internal or external, b) move the story forward, and c) tell us more about the characters involved.

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

I have actually read several, but most of them were under an NDA, so unfortunately I can’t share any loglines. Sorry.

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

The Nicholl is definitely worth submitting to, as there is some fairly significant exposure in the industry the farther you make it into the competition. I would also recommend submitting a polished script to the Black List.

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

You can get more information at www.redpenscriptconsulting.com or send me an email at redpenscriptconsulting@gmail.com. I also have LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. If you’re just looking to get your script proofed, though, I would check out my friend’s fantastic service at www.scriptproofed.com

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

Strawberry‐rhubarb is always an instant win with me, but sometimes I like a good old-fashioned apple topped with vanilla ice cream. Am I allowed to have two favorites?