Just getting here is a story by itself

Toolbooth on Merit Parkway
Even better, the journey won’t cost you a cent

First, the good news: I wrapped up the rewrite/overhaul of the comedy spec (which seems more like a dramedy now.) Despite my dread and anxiety over whether or not it’s actually funny, it’s been sent out for notes. As I mentioned to one of my readers, as long as nobody says “What made you think you could write something funny?”, I’m good.

So, industrious scribe that I am, I find the best way to occupy my time while I wait to hear about a project is to redirect my focus and work on another one.

It was originally going to be a new take on the pulp sci-fi, but some story issues still need work, so that remains on hold.

But a few weeks ago, I was cleaning up around my office and found a hard copy of one of my earliest scripts: a horror-western. I don’t think I’d seen it or read it in about 15 years.

Wow, was it bad. Like “This first draft is going to sell for a million in no time!” bad.

But the idea behind it still worked, and was something I could definitely tweak and finesse into something a lot more coherent. I did mention how that old script was really bad, right?

So I started putting together ideas for the new draft. Let’s call this SCRIPT #1, or S1 to keep things simple.

Then another twist presented itself: a script with a low budget (the lower the better), a minimal number of characters and locations, and practically no visual effects has a much better shot of being produced than some mega-budget tentpole effects extravaganza.

With that in mind, there were aspects to this story I could use to create an entirely new and different one that met a lot of those criteria, so I jotted down some potential plot points in the same file. This is SCRIPT #2 (S2).

One file, two scripts. With me so far? It gets better.

After finishing the comedy, I decided I’d take on S1. I only had a vague recollection of all the story details, which I saw as a good thing. Although I’d still have the old draft available as a potential (albeit limited) resource, I don’t think I’ll use it all that much. This in turn, frees me up to go in whatever new direction I feel like.

As I thought up ideas for S1, some of the story elements from S2 started creeping in. Since I didn’t want the two to be too similar, more focus was put on developing S1. It’s still a work in progress, but coming along quite nicely. And so much better than that old draft.

Ah, but what of S2? Like I mentioned, there were story elements I really liked, and putting some of them into S1 forced me to come up with new ideas for it. There was one in particular that really stood out for me, and the more I thought about it, the more it felt like it would be able to be the basis for a solid story.

I combined that idea with the aforementioned low-budget approach and came up with what I really think is a great high-concept idea. Such to the point that I whipped up a logline for it, along with a title that feels very “that’s perfect!”

My belief and enthusiasm for both S1 and S2 is to the point that I’m now alternating between both; working on one, then the other. My objective now is to have at least a first draft done for both by the end of the calendar year. It’s already proven to be, and will no doubt continue to be, a most interesting process.

I’ll keep you posted.

Big net still at the ready

net
It’s all in the wrist

The current work slate involves a few story ideas, a fair mix of new and old, and all of them appeal to me as far as being “I’d want to see this” and “that sounds like fun” types of material.

As they should.

But it’s easy to forget that while you may be crazy about your story and totally get it, others might need a little more convincing.

It’s one thing to have a built-in audience already clamoring for your material, but what about trying to appeal to everybody else?

That can be a little tricky, but it’s not totally impossible.

This line of thinking reminded me of a post I wrote a little over two years ago, and I believe it’s still relevant.

Enjoy.

“As you work your way through the various stages of assembling your story, how much do you take the audience’s needs and wants into account?

You’re obviously writing something you would want to see, but do you ever consider the viewing tastes of someone who’s not like you whatsoever?

While I may write high-concept tales of adventure that would definitely appeal to 12-year-old me, it’s also my objective to try to craft those stories in such a way so they could entertain anybody of any age.

(Strong examples of this kind of storytelling? Most of the Pixar catalog.)

Here are just a few things to take into consideration:

-Are you treating the reader/audience the way they should be treated? Which means with intelligence. I’ve always hated when a story feels dumbed down, and suspect most other moviegoers do as well.

-That being said, is your story simple enough to the point that anybody could understand what’s going on, or at least have a general understanding of it?

-Regardless of what genre your story falls into, how much are you taking advantage of the elements of that genre? Since you’re most likely already a fan and probably have a good idea of what’s expected, this is your golden opportunity to show the rest of us what’s so appealing about it. Play on those strengths.

-With modern audiences more knowledgeable and movie-savvy than most writers realize, it’s more important than ever to come up with material that’s really new and original. What is it about your story that really sets it apart? What can you offer that we haven’t seen before?

As we start with an idea, develop it into a story that will eventually end up as a script, a lot of us daydream about the resulting movie, and how totally awesome it would be for it to be a big hit.

We can just picture the tremendous box office, rave reviews, non-stop awards, a king’s ransom of a paycheck, being begged to pick from a smorgasbord of new projects, all stemming from this story we cranked out with our own little hands, now practically guaranteed a place in the pantheon of pop culture.

“Everybody’s going to love it!” you imagine.

The reality is – they’re not, and a lot of that stuff won’t happen. But don’t let that stop you from trying.

The best we can do is write a solid, entertaining story populated with interesting characters who find themselves in unique situations, and hope people like it.”

Oh, the possibilities! – OR – It’s nice to have choices

Either way, I win
Either way, I win

With the books officially closed on my western spec (unless someone of influence wants to develop it further? Operators are standing by!), a certain question has been popping up on a regular basis:

“So what are you working on next?”

(This is a close relation of that other inevitable question: “What else have you got?”)

Any writer should have an answer ready. Doesn’t matter if it’s one script or three or ten. I’ve said it before, but it can’t be emphasized enough. The more you can build up your arsenal of material, the better.

Not only does this give you more scripts, but it also means you’ve been doing a lot of writing (and rewriting), which can only help improve your skills and the quality of your material. One of the things I’ve noticed from doing rewrite after rewrite is that each subsequent draft is a little better than its predecessor.

I try to always be working on something. Whenever I’d take a break from the western, my focus would shift to another script. Results always varied; sometimes I’d get farther along than expected, or not as far as I’d wanted, or just kept going until I got to a point I considered enough. It was all prep work for each individual project, with the underlying message of “it’s all part of the process”.

So where am I now?

I’m feeling fortunate in that I’ve got several scripts to choose from, some of which have multiple drafts, whereas others are still just an outline-in-progress. No matter where they are in the development stage, the heavy lifting is already out of the way in that they exist.

All of my options are viable (to me), each for its own reasons. Do I want to go high-concept or low budget? Comedy or popcorn adventure? There is no wrong answer.

I haven’t made a final decision as to which script I’ll work on next, but whichever one it does end up being, it’ll be the right choice for me, and I’m pretty psyched about getting started on it.

Again.

Ask a Skilled-in-the-Art-of-Deduction Script Consultant!

Staton Rabin

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 Staton Rabin of Jump Cut Script Analysis.

Staton Rabin is a screenplay marketing consultant, script reader/analyst, and “pitch coach” for screenwriters at all levels of experience. She is also a Senior Writer for Scriptmag.com, has been a freelance reader for Warner Bros. Pictures, the William Morris Agency, and New Line Cinema, taught screenwriting aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 and elsewhere, and is a frequent guest lecturer at NYU. She’s also one of the final judges for the Big Break Screenwriting Contest. Her books include the award-winning BETSY AND THE EMPEROR, which was in development as a movie with Al Pacino attached to star.

Staton’s screenwriter clients include at least two whose scripts were produced as films, and a number who have won or done well in screenwriting contests.

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

Sherlock” from BBC-TV. I confess that recently I wolfed down the entire series in about two days, catching up on all the past episodes of this great show. Clever, witty, poignant when it should be, and visually inventive. As a huge fan of the original Conan Doyle stories (and of Basil Rathbone as Holmes in the old movies and radio shows), I assumed I’d hate any “update” of them, and that no modern version could possibly compare to Rathbone’s. But “Sherlock” is hugely respectful of the original stories, yet finds incredibly smart ways to update them. My January 2015 posting for my monthly blog at scriptmag.com is about what screenwriters can learn from watching it. I am much more of a film person in general than a TV fan– and as a script analyst, my expertise is really in evaluating spec scripts, books, and movie concepts, rather than series television. But I have to admit: some of the best work today is being done for TV, and “Sherlock” is a prime example of that.

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

I read many screenplays before I became a script analyst for a living. After graduating from NYU film school, I hunted for a job as a freelance reader for quite a while. In those days, there were a lot of film studio offices in New York but at the time there wasn’t much in the way of “job placement” available to film school graduates (NYU has a great Career Development office now). But one day, when I was still unemployed, I bumped into an old film school classmate on the street. He was working as a freelance reader for Warner Bros. Pictures at the time. He took me upstairs to meet his boss, and in about ten minutes I had my first job. I’ve been a script analyst for over 30 years now, and have worked for many film studios, agents, and writers, so I figure maybe it wasn’t just having “connections” that’s allowed me to stay in this business so long!

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

On some intuitive level, all film audiences have the ability to recognize good writing when they see it. There’s a lot of wisdom in what “the average person” has to say about any movie, in terms of what they generally liked or disliked about it. Audiences also intuitively understand whether a story works from a structural standpoint, especially when seeing movies. But, at the risk of sounding elitist, I don’t think everyone has the capacity to read a screenplay or book, or see a movie, and be able to identify and articulate exactly where the problems are in the material, why, and precisely how to fix them. Certainly, a professional script analyst can get better at the job simply by evaluating thousands of movies and screenplays during the course of a career and helping writers to improve their work. I know that over the years I’ve gotten much faster at “taking the watch apart” and spotting problems in a concept or story– and can do this quickly and accurately even when I’m just hearing a brief pitch instead of reading the script. I also advise them on possible solutions to those problems. So while I think that the ability to recognize good writing– or a good story– is universal, the ability to analyze what makes the watch tick (or “clunk”), and know how to take it apart and fix it, I believe is mostly inborn.

To be a script analyst, one has to have a certain kind of analytical mind– the ability to enjoy the material as entertainment, and at the same time look at it as a mechanical device that may or may not be in need of repair, and know how to find where the problem is and what the right tools are to fix it. And perhaps this analytical, detective-like, detail-oriented, problem-solving approach I take to looking at stories explains why I wanted to grow up to be Sherlock Holmes– and ended up being a script analyst!

One’s innate abilities to analyze a story can certainly be honed and improved through education and experience, but one can only build on what one was born with. You raise an interesting question, because more often I am asked whether writers are born or “made”. And to that question I’d give pretty much the same answer: Education and experience can enhance one’s talents, but talent can’t be taught.

4. What are the components of a good script?

More important than the components– which vary– is how a great script makes a professional reader feel. It’s a writer’s job to make the audience (or reader) feel what he wants them to feel. I think the first job of a script analyst is to look at a script as entertainment and be an audience. Which means that if it’s a great script, with all the right components for that particular story and genre, I will simply enjoy it just as anyone else would, and nothing important goes awry from a writing standpoint that will remind me that I’m a script analyst doing a job. The story will be clear and compelling, with high stakes for the hero. I’ll like the hero, despite his human flaws (and partly because of them). I’ll be rooting for the hero to succeed in his goal but fearful that he will fail, as the story holds me in suspense. I’ll feel strong emotions and identify with the hero. And if I feel all these things, all the way through, I’ll be excited about telling the writer about my findings. If I’m reading the script for a contest or a movie producer, I’ll be excited about handing a report to my boss giving it a “recommend”.

But if a script isn’t working, I will notice this and stop to make mental and actual notes of any problems along the way. If it’s a great script (which is very rare), I’ll note the little problems but will be inclined to “forgive” them, and start rooting for the screenplay– just as audiences root for the hero when watching a movie.

A screenplay should feel like the experience of watching a great movie. In terms of what the components of a great script are, screenplay gurus talk about all the different factors that go into it. And these days, every aspiring screenwriter is already familiar with them. Of course they involve three-act structure, and everything else you’ve read about. So instead of re-stating the obvious, I would tell screenwriters to learn what a workable movie concept is (not necessarily the same as a “logline”, though people often use them interchangeably), to practice by coming up with the concepts for classic films of the past, and to make sure you don’t even think about starting to write your script until you’re certain the concept is working as blueprint for a great movie that can sustain the story conflict for 2 hours. You should spend 80% of your time planning a script, and only about 20% writing it. If you have to rewrite the same script over and over again, something is not working, and it probably goes back to the concept. One should stop the madness and get outside professional advice.

Keeping the plot very simple can help when writing any screenplay—and generally makes for better scripts. Especially if you haven’t broken in yet, don’t try to write a really tricky, complicated plot like “Memento”. Keep your story and your main character’s goal, motive, and conflict very simple, and your characters rich and complex. Make sure your hero has a tangible, external goal (and internal and external obstacles to achieving it) right from the start. Also, read lots and lots of screenplays from financially and critically successful, produced films.

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

The most common problems include a lack of clarity in what’s going on in the story, and withholding too much information from the film audience for much too long. I think many aspiring screenwriters assume that being “subtle” is desirable, and that they should hold back as much information as possible from the audience, and reveal or surprise them with it later. But actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The goal of a screenplay is to get the crucial information out as quickly, clearly, and efficiently as possible, not to be “mysterious”. Audiences should be in doubt (till near the end of the story) about the outcome for the hero, not be kept in the dark about the basic facts of what’s going on in the plot. Even in a murder mystery, there should be one big mystery at a time, not ten. Clarity is the screenwriter’s first mission. Don’t be subtle, fuzzy, or secretive when it comes to what the audience knows. “Surprise endings” are way overrated and few aspiring writers do them correctly anyway.

A lot of writers don’t understand that film is a visual medium, and how to present exposition in the language of movies. The script is often way too subtle in the way information is transmitted to the audience, and we are too often required to read the characters’ minds and “guess” what they’re thinking about. For example, the film audience is probably not going to notice signs or pictures on the wall, or how “neat” an apartment looks (many writers do this to communicate that the apartment’s owner has OCD, or the like). If a character is simply staring into space, we may not know what he’s thinking. Unless a character is actually doing something or interacting with objects in a meaningful way, the audience will not notice anything in a movie. They are not paying attention to the setting or what’s hanging on the wall (unless it’s someone’s head!), nor should the writer rely on the setting to do exposition.

In terms of visual information, only significant plot-advancing, character-illuminating action should be in a movie. Sipping coffee is not action– unless one character spits coffee in the other’s face. Eating “a hearty breakfast” is not action. And if any character in a movie MUST use a cell phone, computer, or other electronic device, the writer is going to have to find a way to make this visual and interesting (“Sherlock” does this very well).

Another problem I see in a lot in scripts lately is the misuse of dreams, flashbacks, and visions as a means of conveying exposition. Avoid them.

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

There’s no cliché so tired that it can’t be turned into something fresh and new in the right hands. Actually, screenwriters don’t rely nearly enough on tried-and-true dramatic formulas and techniques. You’re not going to come up with an original plot, so don’t even try. Following the proper dramatic twists and turns for your genre is exactly what you should be doing– with some new and original twists on what works. Writers should never make the mistake of thinking that following a formula is the same as formulaic or sloppy, ham-handed writing. Your goal should be to take a familiar and conventional story structure and give it a few new twists and surprises, and great characters of real depth and complexity.

All that said, you can’t go wrong if you avoid the following clichés:

-Blatant references to other movies or famous songs in your own screenplays.

-Flashbacks, dreams, and visions (as stated above).

-Giving characters a disability of some sort as a substitute for finding something unique and quirky about them derived from the pure skill of your writing.

-Trying to show us a character is afraid by indicating in your script that he is peeing in his pants.

-Any script about a writer. If you write about an author whose goal is to pen the Great American Novel or write an Oscar-winning screenplay and strike it rich, it is very difficult to make an audience care about goals like these and the nature of his profession provides few obvious opportunities for visual action unless he’s a reporter in a war zone. For most stories about writers, we are going to have to absolutely love your main character, and know what success means to him beyond the obvious, in order to care about his struggles. And, yes, I saw “Adaptation”, and it was okay.

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

-Work harder than anyone else, and work smart.

-Plan your concept and your story before you write your script. Don’t go ahead till you are certain it’s going to work.

-Follow the rules, but know when to break them, keep the plot simple, and write with passion. Be yourself. Don’t try to write “that junk” or “that great movie”. Write something emotionally honest that comes from your gut (even if it’s a comedy). There is no “magic formula” for writing a great script. Each one is unique.

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

I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you (great example of a cliché never to use in any script!). Kidding aside, it is hardly ever the concept or the logline that makes a great script. A logline (or concept) should and in fact must be dramatically viable: a properly structured formulation that has all the elements of drama (a main character with an urgent and compelling external goal, the character’s action in pursuit of that goal, and the main conflict or obstacle to achieving that goal) and that can sustain the conflict over a two-hour movie. And although it’s great if you have a slam-dunk “high concept” idea, and ideally your concept should have an element of originality, the execution is far more important. You need a reasonably fresh and interesting idea that works as drama or comedy over the course of a 2-hour movie. It does not have to be “really catchy” (though of course that helps), it just has to be interesting enough and workable. Your script, however, has to be truly great, not just “good”.

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

It depends on the writer’s goals and which contest. These days, there are only a handful of contests for which having been a winner or finalist is really going to impress a film producer. So if that’s your goal, enter Nicholl, Big Break, Austin, Sundance, or one of the other top, prestigious screenwriting contests. If your goal is to get the attention of the industry, then seek out contests that give you “access” and very major publicity in the trades as the prize, instead of ones that only offer money. Of course, many screenwriting contests have entry fees, and this can add up for many writers who have low incomes. So choose your contests wisely.

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

Ah, my favorite question! They can write to me at Cutebunion@aol.com. They can also find some information about my services at my website. I read and evaluate screenplays and books, but also advise writers as a consultant at any stage of their process, from concept to finished script. I can provide advice on pitching and marketing their material, what to put in a query letter, and can suggest some creative and smart ways to approach the process of trying to get a particular movie star “attached” for the lead role—without being a stalker!

I also have a monthly screenwriting column, “Breaking In“, for Script Magazine, which consists of “how to” articles about the craft of screenwriting (mostly for those who already know the basics), and the business of marketing a script.

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

Oops. Spoke too soon. This is my favorite question. Depends on the season. Pumpkin in the fall, key lime and banana cream at other times.

Ask a Produced-and-In-pre-production Script Consultant!

rob tobin

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-author-lecturer Rob Tobin. 

Rob is a produced, award-winning screenwriter, published novelist, former motion picture development executive, author of the screenwriting books “The Screenwriting Formula” and “How to Write High Structure, High Concept Movies,” as well as several screenwriting CDs. He’s been a frequent guest lecturer on screenwriting at film festivals and writing conferences around the world.

*April 2015 update – Rob is currently working on a multi-book adaptation project and is not available for story notes, but can fit in one additional script polish or rewrite assignment.

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

My wife and I just saw “The Normal Heart,” which blew me away. Brilliantly written, acted and directed. Most importantly, the title wasn’t the only thing that had heart, something most films no longer have. Even a film like “The Fault in Our Stars,” a film with tremendous heart, that I loved. I’d much rather see a film or read a script like that than a brilliantly written script with no heart.

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

I’m originally Canadian, and came to USC in L.A. to get my M.A. in screenwriting and become a working screenwriter. My background was as a novelist. Everyone at USC told me I should intern at a film company. I did, and started reading scripts as part of my internship. Lots of them. Years later as a development exec, I stopped counting at 5,000 script scripts read and covered. In that process, I wrote two screenwriting books, starred in a couple of screenwriting DVDs, then people started flying me around to lecture on screenwriting – Canada, New England, the South of France.

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

Definitely something you can be taught. Screenwriting has structure, elements, rules, all of which you can learn. Of course some people are going to be better at it than others. In addition, there is the other part of being a script consultant, and that’s helping the writer find ways to improve her or his script. That can also be taught, but there’s a much bigger talent component to that.

4. What are the components of a good script?

I actually wrote a book about the seven essential elements of a well-written screenplay, but to be honest, as I mentioned, one of the biggest aspects of a well-written script is heart. Yes, you can write a brilliant script about crime, sex, war, and so on. Bond movies are great, but I still think that heart is what makes a script special. Something like “The Normal Heart” or “Good Will Hunting”, or even comedies like “Big” or “Tootsie” have heart. High concept is also important but as I said in another recent interview, a high concept piece of crap is still a piece of crap. A low concept work of brilliance is still a work of brilliance. There are techniques and elements, of course, but I love that old saying about not writing because you want to say something, but because you have something to say. Say something worth saying, and say it with heart. If I had only one piece of advice to give, that would be it.

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

Mistakes in a script are almost always structural, because almost everything emerges from structure. Dialogue, characterization, theme, it all emerges from structure. If you don’t understand structure, you’re in trouble. When I work with clients, the first thing I do with problem scripts is talk to the writer about structure. The mistakes and solutions are almost always located there.

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

Easy killing. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a cop who easily kills a bad guy, or an action star killing hordes of bad guys, easily, without remorse, and without ever getting shot him or herself. Killing as a relatively trivial thing is the worst trope of all in my opinion, and it can’t go away fast enough.

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

-Write only if you enjoy writing, because the chances of making a living at it are extremely remote.

-Learn your craft.

-Never submit a first draft of anything.

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

Thank You for Smoking.” It came to me when I was a director of development. Out of thousands and thousands of scripts I read, I recommended 34, despite the fact that I worked for major producers who were getting the best scripts from the best agencies, but that was it: 34 out of over 5,000 scripts, all from the best agencies in the business. “Wag the Dog” and “Dangerous Minds” are some of the scripts I recommended. Every other script, the ones I didn’t recommend, had structural problems.

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

Yes, if they’re the right ones. I always tell beginning writers to never submit their first, second, third or even fourth scripts to the industry itself – producers, agents, etc., but rather to contests, especially contests that give feedback. That way if their first few scripts are subpar, they’re not going to be branded by industry people as subpar writers. And the feedback from the contests can help them figure out what their weaknesses are.

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

Email me at scripts90@gmail.com. I don’t do coverage anymore, but I do story notes, polishes, rewrites, and adaptations.

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

Apple pie with ice cream.