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

 

Equal time for B, C, D, and the rest

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Each one doing its job as part of something solid and sturdy

Got a key set of notes back on the dramedy spec, so from this point forward, it’s all about working with those and making the appropriate fixes. (Fortunately, not as many as I expected, but still lots of tweaking in store.) A future post will cover the gist of the advice I was given.

Up until those notes came in, I’d been dividing my time developing the stories of the two new scripts. One of them was revamping an old story, whereas the other was entirely new, so it was really building from the ground up.

Quick sidenote – I hadn’t realized how long it had been since I’d plotted out a brand spankin’ new story. Quite a while. It felt thrilling and a bit intimidating to take it on, but both sensations were heartily welcomed.

While I knew what the main storyline was, the more I worked on filling in the blanks between plot points, the more it became obvious I’d need to start developing the subplots, especially the ones among the core group of characters.

This new story is unlike anything I’d written before, so as part of putting it together, I watched a couple of films of a very similar nature to get a better idea of how things could go. I soon had a stronger sense of what worked and what didn’t from an overall perspective, but also paid close attention to each character’s story – especially the main protagonist, how it connected to the supporting roles, and how all of them factored into the main storyline.

Doing this really helped in several ways:

-the films made it easier to see how each subplot was a part of the main story, as well as being its own separate (and unique) entity.

-each subplot provided lots of opportunities to show character growth and development, again contributing to the main story, as well as emphasizing the theme as it applied to each of the characters.

-because these stories are set in a specific kind of genre, there are certain elements that are more or less required (or “expected” might be a better term). As a result, the subplots provide an almost limitless number of chances to really let the imagination run wild and go for something totally unexpected, as it applies to those elements, but still have it fall within the realm of “this is the type of thing that would happen in this type of film.”

It’s a lot to take into account, but I suspect the more I plan things out, the easier it’ll be to arrange things so all the pieces fall into their proper places.

So for now it’s all about the dramedy, but I know that when I eventually return to working on these two stories (which I definitely will), I’ll have a stronger sense of not only what should happen for the main storyline, but also all the scenes, sequences, and developments of the subplots that go along with it.

Respect your reader/audience

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Treat them the way you’d want to be treated

What we read on the page is what we would expect to see and hear on the screen. Pretty simple, right?

Sadly, not every writer gets it. As a result, some feel they have to explain what it is we’re seeing and hearing. Too many times I’ll read a spec script where a character does something, followed by WHY they’re doing it, or WHAT IT REALLY MEANS.

Maybe they think their writing isn’t getting the point across, so they feel the need to throw this additional info in – just to make sure you’re really getting it? It’s a practice I highly recommend not doing.

Imagine you’re reading your own script. How would you feel if there was a stop in the action to explain what just happened?

My initial thought is that this is how it’s done in books, so the writer figures they should do the same thing for a script. But I’d say that would have the opposite effect.

By laying everything out in front of us, the writer is doing themselves a disservice by not having faith in the intelligence of the reader/audience. They want your story to entertain them. People actually enjoy being able to figure stuff out and reaching their own conclusions.

Which do you think would be more effective and memorable? A script that spoon-feeds you everything, or one that makes you think and challenges you to pay attention?

Another part of this is when the writer includes WHAT A CHARACTER IS THINKING, to which I always ask “How do we know that?” Film’s a visual medium, so we can’t see what’s going on in their head (unless some kind of scene showing exactly that is actually part of the story).

One of the many jobs of the screenwriter is to show the character’s thoughts via their actions and words (or lack thereof).

(Please note the key word in that sentence – show. As in “Show, don’t tell.” Three little words every screenwriter should constantly heed. Make a sign of it and keep it near your designated writing area.)

I’d much rather reach these kinds of conclusions on my own through how the story’s told instead of the writer adding it into the mix. Including the WHY, WHAT IT REALLY MEANS or WHAT THEY’RE THINKING will highlight your abilities, but not the way you want.

Doing this is counteracting how a script should read, interrupts the flow of the story, and just comes across as lazy writing. You want to have every word on the page be there for a reason. Why have something there that doesn’t need to be?

A great piece of advice that’s always stuck with me is “Imagine the sound went out while you were watching the movie of your script. Would you still be able to follow the story?” I’d say yes, to a certain degree. While I may not have all of the specific story details, I’d definitely have a strong sense of what was going on based on what I see the characters  doing and how they’re doing it.

Two suggestions to see this in practice:

-read scripts. Focus on the storytelling. Pay attention to what’s on the page (and what isn’t).

-watch silent movies. Take note of how the actors convey emotion through their actions, gestures, and expressions.

You want your reader and audience to enjoy watching your story unfold as much as you enjoyed writing it. Believe me, they’ll be able to tell.

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.

Wanted: little-known gems

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Luckily, you won’t have to wait to see the show

I’m always keen for a good movie-watching recommendation, especially if it’s something I’ve never heard of, or at least heard of but haven’t seen. We all know a few of those.

So here’s your chance to shed a little light by a film (or films) that you’ve always enjoyed, but a lot of people may not be too familiar with.

Here are three of mine:

The Kid Brother (1927) An amazing piece of work from Harold Lloyd. Worth watching for the boat sequence alone. Plus it has a monkey in it.

ffolkes (1979) Roger Moore at his most un-James Bond-iest. A somewhat dated but still very entertaining action-thriller.

Whip It (2009) A charming and fun story that combines equal parts comedy, drama and women’s roller derby. Features a lot more name actors than you realize, and Drew Barrymore’s directing debut.

It doesn’t have to be a classic, nor does it have to be “a cinematic masterpiece”. You get a kick out of it, and think the rest of us would too. Just write down the title and what you like about it in the comments below.

Happy viewing!