Ask a More-Than-Ready-for-Prime-Time Script Consultant!

Jen Grisanti

 

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 is about writing for television, with the spotlight on Jen Grisanti of Jen Grisanti Consultancy, Inc.

International speaker Jen Grisanti is an acclaimed story and career consultant with her own firm, Jen Grisanti Consultancy, Inc., and a writing instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC. She spent 12 years as a studio executive, including working as VP of Current Programming at CBS/Paramount. Jen also blogs for The Huffington Post and is the author of Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story, TV Writing Tool Kit: How To Write a Script That Sells, and Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Your Success. She teaches classes for TV Writers’ Summit (LA, NYC, London and Israel) and Story Expo. She has taught at the TV Writers’ Studio (Australia), Scriptwriters’ Network, The Screenwriting Expo, and The Great American Pitchfest. Jen has also served on panels for the WGA, Scriptwriters’ Network, Final Draft/The Writer’s Bootcamp, and ScreenCraft. Her company hosts online Storywise Seminars.

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

The best movies I’ve seen recently include: The Imitation GameGuardians of the GalaxyLocke, and Chef.

Some of my other favorite movies from the past I think are incredibly well-written include: The Lives of Others, The King’s SpeechThe Untouchables and Argo.

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

After studying Communications with TV & Cinema at USC, the first job that paved my way to where I am today was working as an assistant to Aaron Spelling. While working in his office I began to voraciously read scripts. Spelling was my mentor. We had a routine where I’d read all of the scripts for the current shows he had on the air and he’d review my notes and tell me what worked and what didn’t. I learned so much about what makes story work by watching him in the edit bay during rough cuts. I got my Bachelor’s at USC, but I always say I got my Master’s degree in TV in the Spelling office. It was the best place to learn.

I climbed the ladder while I was at Spelling and eventually ran Current Programming covering shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and 7th Heaven. I went on to become Vice President at CBS/Paramount where I covered shows including: Numb3rs, Medium, NCIS, The 4400 and Girlfriends.

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

I believe that for some, writing comes naturally. They have a sense of their voice from the start. They may need help with structure, but the voice is there.

With others, I do believe it can be taught or learned. I’ve definitely seen this happen many times in my career. There is no greater reward than to see the growth of a writer, to help guide them in finding their voice and to help them understand how to use story structure in the best way possible to bring their voice to life.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The components of a good script are a strong trigger incident that leads the central character into a dilemma. This creates empathy. Then, the choice that they make as a result of the dilemma defines the goal. We should be clear on what the central character wants and why they want it. Another thing that really adds to a good script is when the personal dilemma is connected to the professional pursuit. With this, when the writer comes from a place of emotional truth, it really helps to connect what they are trying to say.

A strong script should have a concept we can feel and a story with a clear message.

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

We don’t know what the central character wants, or we don’t know why they want it. If you don’t know what the central character wants or why they want it, then there’s no rooting factor. The central character reacts to things that happen to them versus taking action toward the goal, giving you a reactive hero instead of an active one. The obstacles happen to the central character versus being a result of an action that the character took. There is no external stakes arc. We don’t know what the worst thing is that can happen if the central character does not achieve their goal.

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

I wouldn’t say there’s a specific story trope  I’m tired of seeing. I’m just tired of seeing films being made where the story wasn’t ready. I feel like TV is in a much stronger place than film with regards to writing.

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

-Make us empathize with your central character from the start.

-Have a clear goal.

-Establish the internal and external stakes.

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

I’m not a reader. I analyze story from the studio executive perspective, so I don’t give “recommend” or “pass,” which is what readers do. I give development notes that help the writer to know how to elevate their script to the best place possible.

That being said, over two dozen of the writers I’ve worked with have sold pilots. Four of them went to series. So I do have lots of projects that I work with people on that go on to sell and be produced.

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

Some are very worth it. I like ScreenCraft, Final Draft, the Austin Film Festival and the Nicholl to name a few.

Competitions allow writers to put something on their bio that shows their writing has been recognized. This is a town that loves heat. If someone else thinks you’re great, everyone wants to know you. So the competitions do serve a purpose in building heat and creating possibility.

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

Through my website – www.jengrisanticonsultancy.com, or they can email me at jen@jengrisanti.com.

If you want to see how I work with writers one-on-one, I recommend reviewing my Writer Proposals Page – http://jengrisanticonsultancy.com/services/proposals/

Plus, if you mention this interview, I’ll give you 10% off of your first consult.

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

I love it. I’m big on baking, and my favorite is cherry pie.

Have you no imagination?

"You'd have turned down Gone With The Wind." "No, that was me. I said, "Who wants to see a Civil War picture?""
“You’d have turned down Gone With The Wind.” “No, that was me. I said, “Who wants to see a Civil War picture?””

It’s still an uphill climb with a few gaps here and there, but the overall story for the low-budget comedy is coming together.

I’m making a point of not rushing through it and being extra careful – almost to the point of meticulous – about how all the pieces interconnect.  The more I work on it, the more the phrase “French farce” comes to mind, so lots of interweaving storylines, the intersecting of character paths, and the ramifications of each character’s actions on the others. At least that’s my interpretation.

A challenge, to say the least, but it’s been a fun ride so far.

A last-minute surprise factor was this response to the logline on an online forum:  “It’s so straightforward now it’s hard to believe you could sustain interest through 100 pages.”

I’d like to thank that person for throwing down the gauntlet in making me work even harder than I already was. Never underestimate the motivational power of “Oh yeah? Just you wait and see what I can do.”

But back to the bigger issue. Statements like these always make me wonder about the person who says/writes them.

I never cared for the “I don’t see how this could be a story” line of reasoning.  That tells me you lack vision and creativity. Just because you think it won’t work doesn’t mean it won’t. Nobody thought GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY would do well and look what happened.

Side note – My western received a handful of reader responses along the lines of “This isn’t factually or historically accurate, so I just couldn’t get into it.” They’re entitled to their opinions, but I feel bad about their inability to just sit back and enjoy an old-fashioned ripping yarn. Although one person was gracious enough to admit at the end of their comments “It would be better if you just ignore everything I’ve just said.” Consider it done.

Always remember the sage advice of William Goldman: Nobody knows anything.

I’m all for encouraging other writers. If your idea interests or excites me, I’ll tell you. If it doesn’t, I’ll explain why not and make suggestions of potential fixes. The last thing I want to do is discourage you or give you a lecture, and you sure as hell don’t want to hear one.

My criteria is pretty simple: If I read somebody’s logline or hear their story pitch and can instantly imagine the potential within that story, and more importantly, if it sounds like something I would want to see, then they’ve succeeded and gotten over the first hurdle.

Of course, having the actual script live up to or possibly even surpass expectations is another thing.

 

Ask an Ubiquitous* Script Consultant!

Danny Manus
*Seriously. The guy’s, like, everywhere. Podcasts, social media, online articles, you name it.

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 Danny Manus of No Bullscript Consulting.

Danny Manus is the former Director of Development for Sandstorm Films (The Covenant, 8MM2) and Clifford Werber Productions (Cinderella Story, Just Add Water), where he sold “To Oz” to United Artists. He’s the author of “No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective” and was ranked one of the Top 15 “Cream of the Crop” script consultants in CS Magazine. He was also named one of Screencraft’s “25 People Screenwriters Should Follow on Twitter.”

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

The best written things I’ve watched lately have been on TV. There are movies I’ve really enjoyed – Chef, Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Fault in our Stars, Bad Words, etc. – but none this year yet that I thought were OMG fantastic writing. To be fair, I haven’t seen Boyhood yet. But for me, TV is where the best material is these days. My favorite new comedy is You’re the Worst on FXX. I also really enjoyed The Last Ship on TNT and Masters of Sex on Showtime this summer. I’m sure there are wonderfully written books out there, but I don’t get to read them.

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

My first start was as an intern about 13 years ago at Columbia Tri-Star in TV Development and 20TH Century Fox Feature Casting. I was charged with reading everything that came in and doing coverage on them. But I used to go through their archive library and just read as many as I could, especially at Tri-Star. My coverage was liked by the VPs I worked under so much that they loaned me out to the SVP (Sarah Timberman at the time, who would not remember me if you paid her) and then the President at the time. Those gigs gave me enough coverage samples to land my first assistant job after I graduated.

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

Recognizing bad writing is something anyone can do. Recognizing great writing is something that can be taught and learned with time and experience. As a first year assistant and intern, I could tell you what was written poorly. But it took a few years of reading hundreds and hundreds of scripts to TRULY understand good writing. And many thousands of scripts later, I’m still learning.

You can’t read a book on screenwriting and think you’re suddenly able to be a professional consultant or reader or writer. There is no checklist given to new readers, it’s learned on the job – that’s why it’s SO important for writers to READ. Though I actually did develop a checklist I used to give to my interns. It was 110 items long. But if you’re a great reader, they are all just in your head and you notice them naturally.

4. What are the components of a good script?

There are basic elements everyone agrees on – a concept and hook that sparks a reaction and has potential to lead somewhere intriguing; compelling, three-dimensional characters who make you want to follow them; dialogue that feels sharp and precise yet natural and flows; enough growing conflict and high enough stakes to keep ones interest; and a plot that progresses throughout the script in interesting ways. Every script should have strong setups, executions and payoffs. But to make it go from good to great, it’s about the X-factor. Some of that is voice, but some of it is just the right writer writing the right story in the right way at the right time. That’s when true brilliance strikes. And it doesn’t happen often.

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

I see them all. I mean, the biggest mistakes are that writers are writing stories that aren’t MOVIES. They’re just not strong enough ideas or hooks to be movies in the current studio or indie marketplace. Or that the writer doesn’t know the hook of their idea. Or that the writer uses too many COINCIDENCES or serendipitous moments to create plot.

Actually, you know what the #1 mistake I see is? The use of YOU’RE and YOUR! I mean, WTF people – it’s not that hard to know the difference. Thinking that typos and grammar and format don’t matter – they do!

The biggest non-craft mistakes writers make is not doing their research and not knowing ANYTHING about the actual business. And secondly, submitting projects LONG before they’re ready to be submitted. Querying and pitching on a first draft or before a script is even written, entering contests with a first draft, posting their second drafts on websites. The biggest mistake I see is desperation and impatience outweighing common sense and good judgment.

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

I could go the rest of my life without seeing another Geek to Chic Teen story. Or the Christmas tale of someone losing their Xmas spirit until X happens. Or the story of the struggling writer trying to break into Hollywood and X happens. The Screenwriter protagonist CAN work – but 98% of the time it doesn’t and I like to play the odds. In terms of character, if I never have to read about another female rape victim or domestic abuse victim, I’d be okay with that too. Those are so common in scripts it’s lost its meaning. But in the end, what I always say is – Don’t run from the cliché, just make it seem NOT cliché. That’s a writer’s job.

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

-It’s not called the artist colony, it’s called the Film Business. So treat it like one. And if you want this to be a career, treat it like one.

-Writing is rewriting and if you can’t take notes and really truly rewrite, you’ll never have a lasting career.

-Your first draft and first script is SUPPOSED to suck. If you think your first script is going to sell and make you rich, you’re living in a dream world. Just. Keep. Writing.

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

Absolutely. But most were already projects in development written by top notch writers. I have had a number of clients whose projects were Recommends – but none were like that on the first draft. I can’t really divulge the loglines though.

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

There are about 15 contests out there that are completely worth it that I highly recommend, and about 250 contests out there that aren’t. If you win a major, prestigious contest it can definitely start your career and get you noticed. But if you’re continuously a quarterfinalist or not even making the quarters, then you’re not ready yet. Or your script isn’t. Contests are absolutely worthwhile IF your script and writing is at a level where you can be in the top 100 writers out of 8,000. If you can’t say that, then you’re probably wasting $40. Keep in mind – the Top 10 contests get about 45,000 submissions total. And they give out about 150 prizes to finalists and winners. So, those are your chances. Your script has to be REALLY fucking good. But as someone who has had multiple major contest winners and finalists as clients, that’s what I’m here for.

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

You can always check out my website and services at www.nobullscript.net and follow me on Twitter @Dannymanus (I was named one of Screencraft’s 25 People Screenwriters Should Follow on Twitter).

And if interested, I’m running a 4-week online course “Creating More Compelling, Castable Characters” which starts Sept 26th and it’s going to be a great class. So, I encourage everyone to check out details at www.compellingcharacters.eventbrite.com

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

I’m an apple pie guy, though a good chocolate cream pie with the chocolate mousse and whipped cream…nom nom nom.

Random thoughts, general musings, that sort of thing

Nothing to do with today's post. I just love their chemistry.
Nothing to do with today’s post. I just love their chemistry.

-My western failed to make it through the first round of Scriptapalooza, which makes me 0 for 4 so far this year. I’m not counting the top 20 percent ranking for the Nicholl; that’s like getting Honorable Mention. At this point, I’ve pretty much written off its chances for Austin.

My problem was overconfidence in the script. I thought it was solid enough, but apparently not. It’s not the first time this has happened to me, but I’ll be more careful about it in the future.

I still believe in this script, which is why I’ve been so gung-ho about rewriting it. The past two weeks have been all about making it better. After completing the latest round of edits, it’s now 8 pages shorter, and still some further fine-tuning to do, which hopefully won’t add more than 2-3.

-Never realized how much my characters repeat things in dialogue. “I need you go to the store.” “The store? Why?” Must be the influence of listening to so much old-time radio. Cutting all of those probably amounted to at least half a page.

-I cut at least 5(!) separate situations where the Wilhelm Scream could be used.

-Had a great lunch-chat with one of my working writer pals yesterday. While he was very supportive and encouraging, he also reminded me of the almost insurmountable task of a new, unproven writer breaking in with a high-budget script.

“Your chances improve when you offer something that won’t cost a lot to make. A lot more people can get something made for under $5 million, rather than $50 million, let alone $100-200 million.”

As it should have, it got me thinking. Do I have any stories like that? It took the bike ride home and digging through some old flash drives to discover I did. Maybe about 5 or 6, all of them just a logline and not much else.

It’s a start.

-Movie of the Moment: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014). Loved it. Great story, great characters (and their development). Maybe my only complaint was the bombardment of exposition in the first 20 minutes. Other than that, a lot of fun.

Biggest pleasant surprise: Dave Bautista as Drax.

Biggest almost-catastrophe: Adam Sandler as a potential voice for Rocket. Somebody thought this was a good idea?

It’s really impressive how much of an effort Marvel puts into their stories and characters. I sincerely hope DC and Warner Brothers can take a lesson from this.

Wanted: wonder, fun & excitement

Seeking this kind of vibe
Seeking this kind of vibe

This was parent-teacher conference week, so my after-school parenting schedule was shaken up a bit. As a result, not as much time to work on the mystery spec rewrite.

So in an attempt to make the most of my limited time, and without my laptop with me, I opted to tinker with the outline for the monster spec.

Like any good writer, I had my ever-present notebook and story notes with me. Seriously.  I keep them in my bag for just such a situation.

The first act is really coming together, with most of the focus now on working out the details of the gaps between the plot points of Act Two. And as happened before, I’m having a blast.

At its heart, this story is a pure pulp adventure, which is exactly the mood I’m going for. Grab you from page one and not let go as it gains momentum from there on, building and building until finally culminating in a jaw-droppingly amazing, can’t-believe-I-just-saw-that finale.

Simply put, my objective is to create a simple-yet-solid story with three-dimensional characters, using the spectacle aspect as support that keeps things interesting.

Similar to how it was with the western, I’m a huge fan of the genre and know what I as a member of the audience would want to see. I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel here; just tell a fun story. Hopefully my appreciation and knowledge of this kind of material will come through on the page.

What it really boils down to is the more I can make this a smart and exciting thrill ride, the better.

As I work out the story details, I’m keeping this in mind: If there was a free-of-plot-details trailer for this, you’d be overwhelmingly compelled to want to see it.  (Sort of what they’ve done for GODZILLA and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.)