Q & A with Geoffrey Calhoun

Screenwriter/script consultant Geoffrey Calhoun of WeFixYourScript.com has been previously featured on this site. This time around, he’s answering some questions about his new book The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

It was inspired from a class I designed when I was asked to teach screenwriting to film students in Ghana, Africa. Unfortunately that class fell through so I took the materials and broke them into seminars, then hit the road teaching at Film Festivals. Eventually, people attending the classes asked if I’d put this in book form. That’s when I realized I needed to create The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

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

Books on screenwriting tend to be one of two things: overly wordy textbooks or focus on a specific area of screenwriting. What I wanted to do was create a book that’s easy to read and comprises all aspects of screenwriting. Thus, The Guide For Every Screenwriter was born. It covers everything from concepts, character design, formatting, branding yourself as a writer, and beyond. All of it done in an easy to access reference guide which gets straight to the point. I wanted to break down the mysteries of our craft into something that anyone can pick up and understand. This is the book you keep on the shelf next to your desk as you’re writing. After reading this book you’ll be able to confidently write a screenplay, even if you’ve never done it before.

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

I wanted to write a book that even veteran screenwriters could read and walk away with something new or feel refreshed. The Guide covers some really interesting aspects about screenwriting which isn’t really covered in other books. Such as subplots, loglines, how to collaborate with other writers/producers, or even busting myths about queries.

Continuing on that theme – part of the book discusses the basics of formatting. Is this more of an issue than we’d normally expect?

Yes! As a professional screenwriter and consultant, I’m brought in to fix a lot of scripts through my website WeFixYourScript.com. One of the biggest problems I see is a lack of properly using format. Some writers believe it’s optional. Unfortunately, it’s not. So, adding format to the book was a must. I also wanted to delineate between a few of the finer aspects of format, such as montage vs. series of shots. Many writers think they’re interchangeable. The Guide explains exactly how and why they’re used and what makes them different, all with fun examples.

Early on in the book you mention how time, talent and tenacity all play a key role for both the writer and the act of writing. Could you elaborate on that?

The three T’s are my own personal mantra. The funny thing is, I never strung them together until I wrote the book. When it felt like I’d never get a script made I would tell myself I needed more time. Screenwriting is about the long game. Talent was a given. I knew I needed to be the best I could be, which is why I became a lifelong student of this craft. Tenacity is who I am as a person. I don’t quit. I don’t give up. I’m not built that way. I have to see things through. When I sat down to write the Guide, I wanted to create a section that was my own personal truth but also filled with hope and the three T’s were born.

A lot of writing guidelines say “write what you know”, but you’re of a somewhat differing opinion. How so, and how come?

That’s a great question and observation! I break the myth of “write what you know” in The Guide For Every Screenwriter. My hope was to introduce a different perspective to my peers. I believe we as writers need to be two things: experts on what we write about, and chameleons. In order to write about a particular topic or genre we need to master what it is first. Writing is one of the only fields in the world which encourages you to explore all facets of life in order to grow at your craft. The Guide provides a fun way to do that.

We also need to be chameleons. I know many writers scared to work outside of their comfort zones. That’s stifling creatively and also can make it difficult to find work as an indie screenwriter. I love working outside of my comfort zone. It makes me be better at what I do. It pushes me in directions I never expected and thus my skills improve.

I really liked your concept of what you call the “mind map”. Could you explain what that is, and how a writer would use it?

The mind map is a great little trick to get your brain thinking outside of the box. You can do it anywhere. I’ve seen a screenwriter do it at breakfast on a napkin and create their entire concept in ten minutes and it was good! You simply place what you want to develop in the middle of a paper and then branch off wild ideas around it. This isn’t just limited to concept; you can use it on anything including a character or even a story beat. I believe mind mapping in a busy public space can help as well because you’ll find inspiration from the surrounding environment.

There’s a section of the book that deals with a seldom-discussed part of a script: subplots. Why is the subplot important, and how can a writer get the most out of them?

When properly developed, a subplot can add a surprising amount of depth to your story. Subplots also fill out your script. Many writers tend to get lost in the main character’s struggle and end up underutilizing the supporting characters and underdeveloping the antagonist. This can lead to scripts struggling with anything from page count to a meandering script which can’t find its footing. A well developed subplot’s job is to reinforce and prop up the main plot. That’s one of the great keys to creating a killer script. In The Guide For Every Screenwriter, I explain what subplots to use and where they land in the script.

The final section of the book is appropriately called “What Comes Next”, in which you discuss what do after the script’s written – everything from getting feedback to queries. What prompted you to include these topics?

Screenwriting is about more than just writing scripts. If you really want to get out there and start landing writing gigs, then you need a road map of how to do that. I wanted to make sure the Guide can you lead you in the right direction. That’s why it covers topics such as properly protecting your script, a synopsis template, branding, networking, etc…

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was pumpkin with a big dollop of whipped cream. Still the same, or something new?

I don’t know why, but pecan pie has been calling to me.

pecan 3

Q & A with Christine Conradt

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With more than 70 produced credits, screenwriter/producer/director/author Christine Conradt received her Bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting from the esteemed University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and then worked briefly in development and as a reader before launching herself as a successful writer. Christine naturally gravitated to crime dramas and thrillers, and eventually went back to grad school to receive a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University.

Christine’s films have aired on Lifetime, LMN, Fox, Showtime, UPtv, Hallmark, and USA.  She is the writer behind some of Lifetime’s most successful franchises including the “at 17” series, which she turned into a three-book series, published by HarperCollins. She has directed four TV movies and is attached to direct two more this year.

Christine also acts as a script consultant. More information about her services, books, and bio can be found at ChristineConradt.com. She frequently posts tips for writers on her Facebook page.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two rescued cats, and in her spare time, loves to travel.

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

Does a documentary count? Probably not, but I’ll mention it anyway because I found it to be very thought-provoking — Three Identical Strangers. It’s about triplets who were separated at birth and later found each other. I haven’t seen a lot of movies this past year because I’ve been so busy but I did think Bird Box was well done for an adaptation. Sometimes adaptations feel stilted, especially those that take place over a long period of time, but Bird Box didn’t feel that way to me. I found myself getting lost in the story which means it was well-written. One of my favorite movies was Vince Gallo’s first film– Buffalo ’66. The story is simple and the characters are really well-drawn. I can watch that movie over and over.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I can honestly say it was what I was born to do. I love writing and telling stories. As soon as I could hold a pen, I was writing short stories. I won my first writing award– the Young Author’s Award– when I was in the third grade. I grew up in the Midwest in the late 80s/early 90s and at that time, there was no film industry there at all. No film schools, nothing. I didn’t know screenwriting existed as a career until I received a brochure from the University of Southern California my junior year of high school and it listed it as a major. If I’ve ever had an epiphany, it was in that moment. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I abandoned my plans to go to law school and applied to USC.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

After graduating with a BFA in Screenwriting from USC, I worked briefly in development but didn’t like it. I was constantly reading and giving notes on other people’s scripts and had to constantly sit with a jealousy that they were doing what I wanted to be doing. I did a rewrite on a USA movie, got fired off that, and didn’t get any more writing work for about four years. During that time, I was working at a YMCA as a lifeguard and fitness instructor and they promoted me to Director. Soon after, they promoted me to Senior Director. I was managing million dollars in budgets and supervising about 45 employees. The hours were long and I stopped writing for the most part.

One day, my Executive Director brought me into her office and told me they wanted to promote me to Executive Director of a branch in the neighboring city. The money they were offering was enticing but because of all the training I’d be sent to, they wanted me to give them a five-year commitment. I went home that night and realized I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to be living – I was supposed to be a writer. So the next day, I went back and told her that I couldn’t accept the job and I was giving my 30-day notice. I took out a loan to live on for six months and decided to spend every day of that period writing. If I couldn’t make it happen in six months, I’d go back and get another job at the YMCA, but at least I had given it a shot. Fortunately, during that time, I wrote two screenplays. Neither sold but both got me rewrite work, which turned into more rewrite work, and so on and so on.

At the end of the six months, I was on my way, but I wasn’t there yet. So I took a job as an editor for an international publishing company while I continued to intermittently do these rewrites. It was hard to go to script meetings because I had this day job. One day the producer asked me what it would take for me to give up my day job. He was annoyed that I could never come to meetings until 5pm. I told him I needed to make the same amount that the publishing company was paying me and he agreed to give me enough work to cover my lost income. That was the day I started to ‘make a living’ as writer. 

A large percentage of your credits are for TV movies. How much of a difference is there writing for TV (and TV movies) compared to features?

There’s a big difference between TV movies and feature films. First, the content can’t be as edgy as in a feature and it’s much more formulaic. Every network has a brand and when you write for that network, whatever you deliver has to fit within that scope, so in that way, it’s more difficult. You have to be creative and original despite all the limitations. The structure is also different. In TV movies, we use an eight or nine act structure (which basically fits into the traditional three act structure) but has three times as many cliffhangers. You have to end on a tension point before a commercial break to keep the audience from flipping the channel. In a theatrical feature, you have a captive audience so the story can unravel more slowly. Theatrical features also tend to be more high concept than TV movies. A lot of people think that a TV movie is just a movie that airs on television. There’s a lot more to it than that.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Probably the same things that most people do. For me, characters are what define a story. Not plot. The best scripts are emotional, not cerebral. They make us think but more importantly, make us feel. The way to accomplish that is with well-defined characters who have plot goals and thematic goals and who choose to struggle for what they want rather than let life simply happen to them. Those are the characters, and consequently, the stories that stay with you long after you leave the theater or turn off the TV

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

Passive characters. The most annoying thing to hear when I ask a writer what her character wants is “He just wants to keep his life the way it is.” That’s not a goal. A character adverse to change isn’t fascinating. I also see a lot of redundancy in scripts. In a screenplay, real estate is precious. You have to write clearly, economically, and infuse that writing with style without being verbose. Over-explaining in both dialogue and action pulls the reader out of the story.

In addition to your TV work, you’ve also branched out into print with your “at 17” book series. How’d that come about, and how does it compare to writing for a visual medium?

The “at 17” series is a successful franchise on Lifetime Network. It was the brainchild of one of the producers I work with and I’ve been the primary writer behind those movies for about a decade now. In 2014, I pitched him the idea that we should turn those movies into a YA book series and he championed the idea. Neither of us knew much about the publishing industry so he handed it off to me to figure out. I took the script from ‘Missing at 17’ which had already aired and wrote it as a manuscript. I went to the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference and pitched it to an agent there. He read the manuscript and loved it. He ended up partnering with another agent in NYC and they secured a three-book deal with HarperCollins. Harper wanted each book to come out one month apart in the summer and for the last book to align with the premiere of the Lifetime movie with the same title. So in May, June, and July of 2018, ‘Missing at 17,’ ‘Pregnant at 17,’ and ‘Murdered at 17’ were released.

For me, writing prose is much harder than writing a screenplay. Even though I started out writing prose, I hadn’t done it in years. When you’re writing a screenplay, you have to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’ That means you can’t write what the characters are thinking or feeling or pondering. In a novel, that’s mostly what you do. So I had to retrain myself to move in and out of the characters’ thoughts instead of just giving them actions and I had to switch from the omniscient perspective of a screenplay to first person. The books follow multiple characters in first person so that was fun to write. Picking up where one character leaves off and continuing the story with a different character. But it was definitely a challenge.

Follow-up – when can we expect to see the publication of Zombie at 17?

Ha! The movie Zombie at 17 premiered on Halloween weekend in 2018 and was a fun take on the “at 17” series. It’s about a girl who, after getting bit by a cat, contracts the zombie virus. As she teams up with an alienated guy in her high school who has an obsession with zombies to figure out how to stop the progression of the disease, she witnesses a semi-confession to a murder by one of her boyfriend’s friends. When her boyfriend refuses to rat out his friend, she involves herself in the investigation while trying to hide her zombie symptoms from the rest of the world. I don’t know if it will ever become a book because it’s a bit off-genre, but I think it would make a great one.

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

1. Give your characters goals

2. Create obstacles for your characters. Achieving their goals shouldn’t be easy.

3. Don’t obsess on formatting. Focus on writing a good story. 

4. Read scripts. Lots of scripts. Not just books on how to write screenplays.

5. Subplots (or B-stories) need to have some effect on the A-story. If you can cut out the subplot and nothing changes in the A story, you failed.

6. Don’t judge your characters. Every person feels justified in their actions. Your characters are the same way. To write them, you must believe they’re justified as well, even when they do really bad things.

7. Write every day. Even if it’s only for a half hour. And even if you have writer’s block. Professional writers write every day. Train yourself to do the same and pretty soon, you’ll stop having writer’s block and you’ll be surprised at how easily the writing comes.

What kind of impact or influence has your experience as a writer had on your work as a director or producer?

Some directors come up as cinematographers, some as actors. Coming up as a former writer, I think I pay more attention to how the visuals support the content of the story. I hate stylistic shots for the sake of being stylistic. The best shots are the ones that you don’t even realize are shots– because you’re so wrapped up in the visual storytelling. I think as a writer, I’m good at letting the moments that need to breathe, breathe. Story is always first. There are lots of visual ways to tell a story. As a director, it’s your job to choose the best one.

You’ve also spoken at a lot of conference and workshops about screenwriting. Are there any particular points or lessons you make sure to include as part of those?

One thing I mention at every conference is not to compare your journey as a writer to anyone else’s. Everyone always wants to know how professional writers broke into the industry, yet they can’t emulate it even if they know. It’s not like becoming a doctor where you go to med school and do your residency and become a doctor. There are infinite ways to become successful as a writer. And it depends on your goal. If your goal is to simply make a living writing, you’ll make different choices than if your goal is to sell a TV pilot and become a showrunner. Be laser-focused on your goal, but also be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities even if you aren’t sure how they’re going to get you there. Sometimes those opportunities turn out to be much better than anything you had planned.

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

People can contact me directly through the contact page at christineconradt.com. I’m available to speak and give workshops, and I offer screenplay consulting services as well which are outlined on my website. They can also follow me on Twitter at @CConradt or like my page on Facebook.  I post a lot of contests and other opportunities and tips for screenwriters on my FB page.

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

It’s a dead heat between blueberry and sour cream raisin.

blueberry pie

sour cream raisin pie

Cole Porter had it right*

 

Way back when I was first starting out and learning the basics of writing a script, one of the initial lessons was all about what went into a slugline.

I was told the following:

INT. or EXT. LOCATION – DAY or NIGHT

And that’s it. Pretty straightforward. While the first two are pretty much set in stone, some writers opt to modify the last one a bit. “AFTERNOON” or “EVENING”. Seems alright.

Some, myself included, take it one step further – “LATER” or “MOMENTS LATER”. I’ve encountered a few writers who have issue with these. “How MUCH later?” “How many moments?” Understandable.

All that being said, lately I’ve seen more than a few scripts that have a mix of the standards as listed above, along with an assortment of the totally unexpected. Such as “20 MINUTES LATER” or “SAME”.

Oh, come on. Really?

I’m sure these writers have their reasons for doing this, but to me it says “Rules be damned! I’m doing it my way! No matter how wrong it looks!” Maybe they’re planning on filming it themselves? Even if that’s the case, wouldn’t you want the script to look as professional as possible?

To me, this is just wrong.

I don’t see how they think this can possibly work. If you want to intentionally show the passage of time, then it needs to be SHOWN within the context of the scene. A clock face, Xs on a calendar, a cavalcade of holiday decorations.

The way I understand it, the slugline is all about WHERE and WHEN a scene takes place. It involves setting the scene as part of telling the story, along with what the production crew needs to help show it. I don’t believe the WHEN has to be that specific. But again, it’s all about showing.

I’m very intrigued to see if other writers have seen this, and your thoughts about it. Yes? No? It’s their script, so they can do what they want?

*If you actually understand this, I suspect you’re of a certain age, or at least appreciate certain types of music.

 

Pacing & page numbers

number-line
Looks like there’s a lot going on up ahead

When you start reading a script, you tend to recognize pretty quickly whether or not the writer knows what they’re doing. Their mastery of the craft (or lack thereof) will become soon apparent.

Bad formatting. Misspelled words. Unfilmables. On-the-nose dialogue. Cliches as far as the eye can see. Quite a checklist.

Find one or more of these early on, let alone just on the first page (which does happen), and there’s not much hope of improvement. You’re left with no choice but to force yourself to push forward. Maybe once in a while, you glance up at the upper right corner of the page/screen.

Your shoulders sag. “I’m only up to page ____? This is taking forever!” you exclaim. Making it to the end has suddenly become a question of “if”, rather than “when”.

Now let’s examine the other side, where the writer is in total control.

You encounter writing so sharp and descriptive, you can easily “see” what’s happening. Dialogue that’s not just crisp, it practically crackles. Characters who feel and talk like real people. All of it taking place in original and entertaining situations.

You become so wrapped up that you can’t wait to get to the bottom of the page so you can move on to the next one. And maybe once in a while, you sneak a glance at the upper right corner.

Your eyebrows shoot up. “I’m already at page ____? Wow, this is just zooming by!” you exclaim. You eagerly dive back in, more than ready to continue because you simply can’t wait to see what happens next.

Now here’s the big question for you, the writer:

Of the two experiences listed above, which do you want the reader to have when they read your script?

Do you want them to be bored and see reading your script as a chore that ranks up there with cleaning out the cat’s litterbox or listening to a timeshare presentation?

Or do you want them to be so involved, their attention so riveted to the tale being told in your script, that nothing short of a major crisis or natural disaster could tear them away? (Not to diminish the intensity or significance of major crises or natural disasters, but you get the idea)

It’s tough to be that objective when it comes to reading your own material. You think it’s good (“How could anyone not like it?”), but every reader has their own criteria for what works and what doesn’t. The challenge is crafting together a script so rock-solid that not liking it is not an option. Not sure if yours is? Seek outside opinions. Rewrite with the mindset of “how can I make this better?”.

As screenwriters, our primary goal is to tell an entertaining story. The last thing we want is for someone to be easily distracted by something/anything else when they’re supposed to be reading (and in theory, enjoying) our scripts.

Ask a Penchant-for-Verbs* Script Consultant!

*Actually, he's skilled in all aspects of grammar, but his company is named for three very important verbs
*While Brad is skilled in all aspects of grammar, his company is named for three vital screenwriting-oriented verbs

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 writer-reader-consultant Brad Johnson of ReadWriteWatch.com.

Brad is an experienced screenwriter, producer and script consultant who, in addition to operating his own script consultancy, has also read for the Nashville Film Festival and been a judge for the NYC Midnight Screenwriting Challenge. His scripts have reached the semi-finals in Final Draft’s Big Break Screenwriting Contest, and a second place finish for the Walt Disney Screenwriting Fellowship. Additionally, Brad has worked as a producer on the short film Tesla versus Cthulhu, and a production assistant on My Boring Zombie Apocalypse. Brad is also a regular contributor to Script Magazine where his Specs and the City column discusses methods for beginners and pros alike to improve their writing. You can learn more about Brad, his script services, and the 52 Script Challenge on his website, ReadWatchWrite.com. He can also be found on Facebook and on Twitter @RWWFilm.

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

Nightcrawler was a fantastic character study, and I recently rewatched the FX mini-series Fargo. That writing room did such an amazing job of telling a compelling story with interesting characters, and capturing a specific tone and voice while doing so; perfectly capturing the feel of the Coen Brothers movie. As for reading, I just finished Body Heat (again) and continue to be blown away by it. Lawrence Kasdan makes you feel the humidity in his words in that script. The heat becomes its own character. It’s palpable. Go read it right now if you haven’t had the chance yet.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

On a personal level, I started reading scripts as part of a challenge I set for myself – to read one produced script a week for an entire year. It worked so well that I’ve continued the tradition (you can find the 2015 list of scripts I’ll be reading, along with downloadable PDFs for each screenplay on my website).

For my clients, I decided to start consulting after several people read the column I write for Script Magazine and contacted me, asking if I’d be willing to look over their screenplays. As I started doing more of that, I discovered I have a genuine love for helping other writers learn to tell their stories in the best way possible. There’s nothing more satisfying than helping a writer break their story, or realize how they can tell it more effectively. At its best, consulting is a truly rewarding experience for both sides.

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

It’s definitely a learned skill. Sure, you can be taught the basic structure and formatting of screenwriting, but what makes a good script is something you learn by reading lots and lots of screenplays. The more you read, the better you’ll get at realizing what works – and what doesn’t.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Showing rather than telling – it’s a cliché for a reason. Remember that you aren’t writing a story, you’re writing a story that is going to be watched on a screen, so be visual. Don’t tell us that someone is disappointed by a piece of news – tell us their shoulders slump and the smile fades from the lips; paint the picture of what we will be seeing should your script be made into a film.

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

Not knowing the story you want to tell – or a lack of narrative focus. I see scripts all the time where so much time is spent jumping back and forth between two different stories (which, to be fair, could each be worthy of their own film), that neither is ever developed enough to be truly compelling. Whose story you’re telling, and why it needs to be told, are the two things you should never start writing without knowing. If you keep that firmly in mind, it becomes easier during rewriting to identify and cut the things that aren’t serving that story.

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

Pretty much anything from the last 15 years worth of romantic comedies. There are outliers (Love, Actually, Crazy, Stupid, Love, and Bridget Jones’s Diary leap to mind), but the Hollywood romcom formula has gotten to point of being so generic and overused that it’s actually insulting to audiences.

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

-Read, Watch, and Write. It’s my mantra and it’s invaluable advice. If you want to be a professional screenwriter you have to get better than good – you have to get great – and the way you’re going to do that is by Reading scripts, Watching movies, and Writing pages.

-Live your life. You need to be out in the world doing things, meeting people, taking in experiences to fuel your next story.

-Less is more. Your goal with your script should be to tell as little of your story as possible, while still keeping it engaging and narratively cohesive. After you write your first draft, go back and start cutting the fat away until what’s left is the leanest most effective and impactful version of your story.

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

I haven’t, but to be fair, that’s like asking if I’ve ever found a four leaf clover. They’re real and they’re out there, I just haven’t seen one in person yet.

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

Like anything else related to screenwriting, it’s not exactly a question that has a black and white answer. A lot of it depends on what makes it worthwhile for you. If you’re looking to feel better about your writing and have bragging rights, you can submit to basically any contest out there. But if you’re looking for contests that can actually impact your life and help your career, it’s few and far between. The Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, the Sundance Screenwriting Lab (though technically not a contest per se), Big Break, and Scriptapalooza are all solid contests. Recently, the Tracking Board has also launched contests for both feature scripts and televisions scripts, and the word on that contest is great as well.

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

You can find a listing of the services I provide on my website, or reach out to me through my Facebook page, or on Twitter (@RWWFilm). I’m always happy to talk movies or writing, and answer any questions you may have before signing up for my services.

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

That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. To eat, I don’t think it gets better than a slide of hot homemade apple pie. But I enjoy baking and, not to brag, but make a mean key lime pie. Everything from scratch. Hand squeezed lime juice, graham cracker crust, fresh-made whipped cream. The works.