The heart of the matter

The past few weeks, part of my writing schedule has involved revising the outline of my animated fantasy-comedy spec. It’s been fun to develop – having a previous draft to work with really helps. The action sequences, the story, the jokes and sight gags haven’t been too difficult, but I’ve been making more of an effort to build up the emotional aspect.

This isn’t to say I’ve never included that. It just hasn’t been as prevalent in the early stages of planning and plotting process.

It’s not enough to just show the stuff that’s happening, you need to show how it’s relevant to the characters. While the plot is about the external goal (what do they want?), there’s also the importance of establishing their internal goal (what do they need?).

Sometimes the internal and external goals work together, and sometimes a character will achieve one and not the other. There’s also the tried and true “they got what they wanted, but it wasn’t what they needed” (and vice versa). It all depends on how the writer wants to the story to go.

To help myself get a better grasp of this, I’ve been reading the scripts for and watching other animated films to see how they approach it. There has also been the occasional “read a few pages of the script, then watch how it plays out onscreen”.

*helpful tip – for prime examples of incorporating emotion into story, you can’t go wrong with well-made animated films. They do a fantastic job of setting everything up as fast and efficiently as possible. Sometimes singing is involved. And as it should be with live-action, each scene manages to include advancing the characters’ emotional arc as well as the story arc.

As more than a few readers have said to me, sometimes my writing is more about what we see onscreen and not as much about what’s happening to the characters on the inside. Hopefully that won’t be the case this time around. Since I’m still outlining the story, I try to include what the emotional impact is in each scene. Does the point of the scene affect the character(s) the way it’s supposed to?

At first, this was pretty challenging, but watching how other films accomplished it, it wasn’t as daunting as I initially thought, plus the more I think about it and plan for it, it’s not as bad as I thought. It’s helping with the overall development because I’m taking that sort of detail into consideration as part of the initial planning stages, as opposed to trying to work it in later, along with avoiding a few unnecessary rewrites.

Since this is a slightly different approach for me, I’m sure it’ll be chock-full of trial and error along the way, but am fairly confident it’ll yield the results I’m hoping for.

(you + ideas) x plan = 2022

As we stand on the cusp of a brand spanking new year, do you know what you want to accomplish, writing-wise?

More importantly, do you have a plan on how that’s going to happen?

I’m finding that it really helps to take a realistic approach, focusing more on the things we can actually control, rather than the things we would like to happen.

Knowing your own productivity and output, how many scripts do you think you could write/rewrite?

For me, I’m looking at 1-2 new ones, and 2-3 rewrites. Might be a bit of a challenge, but still doable.

I’ve also noticed an increase across social media of writers offering to give notes to other writers, so that’s something also easily achievable. Doing that once or twice a month benefits both you and the other writer, and a lot of the time the other writer will reciprocate, so…win-win.

Lots of writers are also directors or filmmakers, so maybe making a film or a short is part of your 2022 to-do list. Count me among that number. Got a horror-comedy short I’m just itching to make, and have started the ball rolling to see that happen.

No matter what you’re hoping to accomplish this year, I hope you not only do that, but also manage to enjoy yourself along the way. You should be getting as much out of the journey as you do finishing it.

And keep in mind that while you might be flying solo on a project, you’re definitely not alone. Just about every other writer out there is going through the exact same thing. Don’t hesitate to ask for help, advice, or feedback, or to offer it.

Win-win, remember?

Here’s to a phenomenally productive 2022.

Warming up at the starting line

All those years of running finally took their toll – a minor tear in my Achilles tendon and a bone spur that inflamed the bursa on the back of my heel.

Thus the recuperation is underway. I’m out of commission for a few more weeks when it comes to hitting the road. Got a stabilizing boot and everything. Great news from the podiatrist – I may be able to start up again in January, which thrills me to no end.

While I may be doing a few more upper body workouts at the gym, it’s also given me time to get some more writing in. Current project status – coming along nicely, thank you.

But this has reminded me of how many posts I’ve written that compare/relate running to writing a screenplay. Turns out – more than a few.

So what better time than right now to offer them up for your reading enjoyment?

Some of them have similar content, but all the sentiments, perspectives, and observations still apply. Even if you’re not a runner, you can probably relate to a lot of it.

Enjoy.

The second half is all uphill

Run at your own pace

I speak from experience

My race, my pace

It most definitely NOT a sprint

Comfortable shoes will also help

One last thing – since running burns a lot of calories, my race-day tradition is to enjoy an incredibly delicious apple fritter from a local donut institution. I don’t have any posts about that specifically, but here’s something that could fall into that category:

If only you could eat a bad script

An overnight success years in the making

Well, it finally happened.

After countless hours, drafts, contests, emails, queries, coffee chats, and just about everything else I could do to help things work out in my favor, yours truly can now officially be called a professional working writer.

I kid you not.

A trusted colleague referred me to a producer seeking a writer for their microbudget project.

We talked, hit it off, and signed a contract.

(Once again showing the value of networking.)

Work on developing the first draft starts immediately, so the fantasy-comedy rewrite is on hold for the time being, which is fine by me.

And this producer already has a few films already under their belt, so the odds are better than average that this project will end up being a completed film. (As a friend said – always great when you can add a produced title to your resume.)

It’s all a bit overwhelming, but also quite thrilling.

This is what I’ve been working towards all this time. It may not be a huge industry-shattering deal, but it’s still me being hired to write a script for a movie.

Which is what this whole journey has been all about.

Fingers fully crossed that this is the first of what will hopefully be many more finish lines in this ongoing and never-ending race of mine.

I hope you have an excellent and productive weekend. Mine will most likely involve a celebratory piece of pie. Feel free to enjoy one wherever you are with my compliments.

Q & A with Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell is a writer/story consultant who has worked as a producer in Los Angeles and in fiction development. Scott edits stories from inside them as a writer. He finds solutions to story problems and can especially focus on improving a story’s premise. Scott believes this is where most films/scripts succeed or fail. He also finds that many good writers don’t focus enough on theme. It is through theme that a writer moves an audience emotionally. Scott can edit low budget features as well as big budget blockbusters. He fixes scripts for individual writers and production companies around the world.

Scott started in the business as a story analyst in Los Angeles; analyzing scripts for Roger and Julie Corman, Samuel Goldwyn and the Sundance Institute, among others. He was later the showrunner (writer/producer/director) of the U.S. nationally syndicated LIVE LIFE AND WIN! and he co-wrote the reality series HOLLYWOOD BOOT CAMP. He has found the story by studying footage, reading scripts/books, pre-interviewing talents, and writing or editing the script. Scott is a member of the Producer’s Guild of America and of the Australian Film Institute (AACTA.)

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

Regarding television, I’m a big fan of the English series VICTORIA, about Queen Victoria. The writing is often excellent, especially in season one, which dramatized a young girl developing herself in high stakes circumstances to become queen of an empire and the loving wife of a man she admires but who often has different ideas to her and is at times in romantic conflict with her because she is also his queen and leader.

Regarding film, I think SAVING MR. BANKS is brilliantly written, especially its dramatization of a profound theme and the integration of its two main plot lines from different time periods. The characters were intelligently written and layered, while the arc of the protagonist is beautifully climaxed.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

My first start in the business came after I graduated from UCLA Extension (scriptwriting) and did some interning work at industry places in town and started my own script analysis business. The study and volunteer work allowed me to get experience so I was skilled and employable.

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

It is something that is learned. But there are great individual differences in how much someone might actually know about what makes a good story. And it’s hard for readers to see a story objectively as it really is and not be prejudiced by their own values and tastes.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

There are two basics to any script. First there is the mechanics of how well it is written: its structure, clarity of its theme, use of dramatic devises, the development of its character and relationship arcs, the nature of its climax, and so forth. That is, the storytelling skill.

And then there is the values side of the story, the actual nature of the specific content. For example, its theme and sensibility, the values and goals of the characters, the nature of the conflicts and the theme resolution. That is, the values the story is dramatizing.

A good script has skilled storytelling and universal, important and personal values that the audience cares about. It is the nature of these values that especially makes a story or film an enduring classic.

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

The biggest mistake I often see is that writers do not give their characters agency (free will). That is, more specifically, the writer does not create a protagonist who has a big main goal that drives the story and underpins its structure. One of the negative consequences of this lack of agency in characters is that it becomes the writer who drives the story by dropping contrived and coincidental problems onto the heads of the characters. Such a story lacks logic, believability and suspense.

Another common writing mistake I see all the time is that the concept of the story was not developed properly. Many scripts, for example, have unoriginal, uninteresting or one-layer premises. Creating a strong premise is the hardest and most important part of writing a story.

A mistake I see in good writers is that they often haven’t mastered theme, so they don’t know how to use it to give depth to their story and to induce deep emotion in their audiences.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Some writers want to throw in the latest political fad or fashion.

Other writers think that chases, fights and explosions are what make an action script great. They aren’t. Look at two of the great actioners, DIE HARD and GLADIATOR: both of these stories have layered and driven characters enduring terrible personal problems.

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

The first rule of all writing is to have something interesting to say or show. If your story – its premise, characters, plot, climax – are not interesting then it doesn’t matter how well you structure your story, for example, no one will care.

I think every creator of a script should have a story expert outside of their story bubble vet and edit their script, and the closer to the front end of the story creation this is done the better.

Have a writing process. Many writers who don’t have a writing process never finish their story or don’t know how to. A writing process can be learned and should be. A good writing coach can teach you one.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it.”? If so, what were the reasons why?

That’s pretty rare. Most scripts, produced and unproduced, have issues. But I remember a script I edited about two years ago where I was impressed that these two writers were really in charge of the story and the writing. That is, that with some fixes this script would make a good movie. These writers had a layered, intriguing concept, an escalating plot line and characters who I cared about and I was anxious to see who among the leads won. (The three leads in conflict were all good guys but in a big conflict.)

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

That’s a good but difficult question. At best I’m mixed on contests. Yes, there are some good ones that can help a writer get doors opened or be noticed, but for other contests you have to worry about who is reading these piles of scripts. My concern is that too many contest readers seem to be straight out of college where they haven’t studied the great classic plays/novels nor analysed the
truly well written films. They tend, I also worry, to be naturalistic and PC in their reaction to story content. I hope I’m wrong but….

My suggestion to those considering entering contests is to vet carefully. For example, look to see if the contest has some clout, that being a winner or a placing near the top will truly open doors, etc. Also try to see the loglines of previous winners. If they’re rubbish, be wary, as you should be if any samples of coverage by the contest’s graders indicates a focus not on story essentials. Also try to determine if that contest prefers a certain genre over others. Good luck. Caveat emptor.

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

I edit scripts of many genres and forms, have a mentorship program to teach writers a writing process while they actually write a script, and other writing and development services. People can learn more about me on LinkedIn at this page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottamcconnell/

Or write to me via email: scottm100@gmail.com

People can also find my articles on screenwriting on Script, Creative Screenwriting and MovieMaker.

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

American Pie! (the song, not the movie)