Ask an Astonishingly Productive Script Consultant!

Bill Boyle

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-educator-consultant Bill Boyle of www.billboyle.net.

*editor’s note – Bill passed away in July 2018

Veteran screenwriter Bill Boyle has been involved in the film industry in both Canada and the U.S. for over 25 years as a writer, director, agent, producer, story editor, and mentor. Mr. Boyle has the rare honor that every screenplay and television series he has written has been produced or optioned. He currently has four screenplays produced and a fifth scheduled for production. Two others are presently under option. Additional information on the films can be found at www.billboyle.net or at www.imdb.com

In addition to screenwriting, Mr. Boyle devotes a significant amount of his time sharing his experience mentoring younger screenwriters. He teaches screenwriting at UCLA and has lectured throughout Canada and the United States.

Mr. Boyle is one of the most popular script consultants in the industry. He has consulted on over 1,000 screenplays worldwide. Creative Screenwriting Magazine rated him among the top 10% of screenwriting consultants. He is the lead proponent of a visual style of screenwriting called “The Visual Mindscape of Screenplay” that focuses on the visual and visceral aspects of screenwriting. His book of the same name was released in 2012.

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

I am a huge fan of Jo Nesbo’s novels. His visual exploration of the environments he creates are so visceral that once read it is impossible to ever forget them. As for screenplays, I recently read Nightcrawler and found it exceptionally well-written.

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

If you mean reading scripts as a job, I was never actually a script reader. I was a manager in Canada and read many scripts that my actors were up for, as well as reading the work of my own screenwriters and playwright clients.

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

It needs to be taught, but not taught as in learned; taught as in establishing the ability to connect fully with the writing and to remain focused. That ability and willingness to be fully immersed in the screenplay allows the reader the conduit into the rhythm, pacing and flow of the narrative. Sounds obvious, but it is my experience that the vast majority of writers ‘skim write’, which is to say they focus all of their attention on what they want the scene to say and little on the atmosphere and pacing of their scenes.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A good script is one that captures the visual and visceral imaginations of the reader. Actually, it’s a misnomer to say we’re writing for the reader, when actually we’re writing for the viewer within the writer. Besides being a visual expression of the story, a good script also expresses the proper pacing and atmosphere within each scene. These are the two elements most often missing in a screenplay.

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

-Detailed Action

-Skim writing

-Blueprint Narrative lacking pace, atmosphere and visual expression

-Overwritten dialogue that lacks a pulse.

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

The two things that disturb me the most are how fundamentalist screenplay instructors and gurus have poisoned the creative minds of so many young writers.  This attitude of “my way or the highway”, or the ever-growing list of things a screenwriter must not do (Voiceovers, Camera Angles and Directions, Character Descriptives, Flashbacks, etc) is absurd.

For me the big one is the white on the page dictum. Of course, part of the art of screenwriting is the ability to tell the story in a succinct, near-haiku style. This form of brevity allows the story to flow and remain in the Absolute Present Tense. But this should never go beyond the point where it strips the narrative of its creative purpose.

I actually believe that white on the page is a way of devaluing the writer’s role in the filmmaking process. I seriously question when and why white on the page become more important that what is on the page.

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

-Screenwriting is first and foremost a visual expression. Whether you choose to ignore it or not there is always and image on the screen.

-Establish pacing and atmosphere in your scenes so as to create a visceral experience within the reader/viewer

-Every action, element and scene of a screenplay exists in the Absolute Present Tense

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

A script by Canadian screenwriter Laura Beard called ‘A Quiet and Distinguished Gentleman’. It was about a French Catholic detective who must overcome the bigotry of an English Protestant city and police force to solve a brutal axe murder in 1930. There are things she does with that script that to this day I still use in my lectures. A brilliant and very clever piece of work.

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

I am not a fan of screenwriting contests. Before I explain why, let me make the distinction between contests and fellowships. I think the fellowships (Nicholl, Praxis, Disney, etc.) are excellent programs.

I swear to god I have never heard a ‘true’ story of someone having a script produced based on a contest, which, considering how many there are out there, is rather shocking.

This idea of letting the writers know that they have moved to the next tier and then the quarterfinals, semifinals, etc., is their rendition of Three Card Monte. They let you think you win for a while so that you come back for more. What other reason is there?

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

Check out my web site www.billboyle.net. You can also sign up for my newsletter, blog notices, online course dates and when spaces open up for my Unlimited Script Mentoring Program.

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

I will go for pretty much anything except the pie in The Help.

That moment of clarity

Don't you love when these show up?
Don’t you love when these show up?

I’ve always said that with each draft of every script I work on, my writing gets a little bit better. Definitely a “learn as you go” scenario.

If you looked at my earlier work, you’d probably say it was pretty basic. Very straightforward. Average. With the later stuff, you’d see improvement. Better, but still some room to grow.

Among the helpful comments I received regarding the previous draft of my western was “give us more flair in the prose…make the details a bit more colorful.”

This can be a trap a lot of writers fall into. You want your writing to be vivid and descriptive, but it’s easy to overdo it and before you know it, the storytelling overshadows your actual story.

Since I started the rewrite, I’ve been doing my best to maintain an equal balance of both so the story is told in an entertaining way and easy for a reader to visualize what’s happening. If they feel like they’re actually there, experiencing it along with the characters, then I’m doing a good job.

Working on an action sequence earlier this week, I was struggling to come up with the best way to describe the events as they played out. Ordinary words weren’t cutting it, and the ever-present thesaurus wasn’t offering much help either. I knew what I wanted to say, but couldn’t come up with the right way to say it.

You can describe how something happens, but is it strong enough to hold somebody’s attention? Is there a “more colorful” way to say it? How could you add “more flair”?

If I were reading this, what would make me want to keep going? What would compel me to want to know what happens next?

Since this is, at its heart, my take on a pulp story, I decided to embrace that aspect and run with it. I mean really run. Let loose and color those words in the perfect shade of purple.

To say it made a difference is putting it mildly.

Words and descriptions that refused to make themselves known before were sprouting up left and right. This was exactly how I imagined the sequence and exactly how it should be written.

A key point to remember in all of this is that this is what works for me. Your writing and your style are totally your own, and only you can find the best way to do it.

I won’t say that everything from here on in for me will be as easy or productive, but it’s definitely a change for the better, and I for one am looking forward to seeing the end result.

 

 

Ask an In-the-Director’s-Chair Script Consultant!

Jeff Richards

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-producer-filmmaker Jeff Richards.

Jeff Richards is a story consultant, filmmaker, and writer with over twenty projects either optioned, produced, or sold. His clients range from award-winning novelists to creative writing professors to screenwriters working for major studios. His own writing includes feature films, TV series, graphic novels, and short stories, as well as writing for children’s animation and computer games. His background includes information technology, a decade as an opera singer, and he is an honorary member of the Takaya Wolf Clan of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation.

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

The Karla trilogy by John Le Carré, and if you ever need a lesson that character is king, look to those. The books are often very low on action; they largely consist of dialogue (most of which is people recounting events, as you’d expect in a book about counter-intelligence) and the characters are so magnificent you don’t care that you’ve just spent hundreds of pages essentially listening to people talk. The protagonist for two of the books, Smiley, often isn’t even doing the talking; he’s merely listening. Yet it works.

As for watching, I’ve been re-watching Doctor Who, and “Blink” is possibly the best hour of television I’ve ever seen. Stunningly imaginative and original, incredibly atmospheric, and one of the very best examples of burying exposition I have ever seen in any medium. If I write something that good, I’ll die happy.

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

I spent several years as an independent filmmaker and although I did write most of the projects we were developing, I’d occasionally work with an outside writer and help them. That made me realize that I could apply what I’d learned as a writer to helping others with their scripts.

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

Absolutely. The love of words is probably pretty difficult to instill in an adult, but if someone is already interested in it, then it is definitely possible to learn to recognize good writing. The secret is to read widely and actively, both good and bad material; once you’ve read and analyzed enough writing, and worked out why it works or doesn’t, you start to see the patterns very clearly, particularly in screenplays. Objectivity about our own writing? That’s trickier…

4. What are the components of a good script?

What’s most important, and what I don’t see enough of, is a unity of character, plot, and theme. People talk about “character-driven scripts” or “plot-driven scripts” when, in reality, they should driven by the same engine.

As for the rest, it’s about what you’d expect; an active protagonist, strong pacing, dialogue with subtext, an original concept, rising stakes, good conflict, a surprising but inevitable ending… all that sort of thing. However, the only absolute must-have is that it is interesting. For every other must-have you’ll see on a checklist, you can usually think of a great script that didn’t have it. Passive protagonists are death… unless you are talking about The Graduate. Or Being There. But these are scripts by master writers; you need to be very sure why you are going against the grain, and how it makes your story better. (And, as you can tell by the age of the examples, rule breaking isn’t that popular anymore in Hollywood.)

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

Going back to the previous point, a disconnect between character, plot, and theme is common. This usually causes protagonists with unclear goals and flat second acts. However, the most common thing I see is on-the-nose dialogue. Characters who say exactly what they feel and think, or who sum up the central conflict in a speech. If you ever read “You know what your problem is?”, then that’s probably a bad sign.

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

I think I’m almost unique in that my answer is “none”. Every trope is ready for a great script to make it fresh. Amnesia is the most tired device in writing, yet The Bourne Identity comes along and is fantastic. There’s always room for a great script.

The thing that tires me isn’t story tropes, but clichéd dialogue. Don’t have lines from other movies in your movie. Be original.

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

-Read widely; lessons are everywhere, and most of them are outside your genre and format. So if you’re a sci-fi feature film writer, read historical fiction. Read detective comics, manga, sitcom scripts. Expand your brain.

-Writing is rewriting; every first draft is a huge bundle of problems waiting to be solved. So solve it. And not by editing, but by rewriting. Changing words in action or dialogue is just editing. Changing characters, plot points, deleting or adding scenes, that’s rewriting. Do multiple passes, focusing on a different thing each time. One pass (or several, more often) for plot, one for each major character’s dialogue, one for action lines… if you’re building a shelf, you don’t sand and paint at the same time.

-Don’t get hung up on systems. Read how-to books, sure, but pick and choose your advice. Being a slave to a particular checklist is usually indicative of poor writing. If I can tell that you’ve read Save the Cat by reading your draft, then there’s probably too much Snyder and not enough you in your script.

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

Unfortunately, I can’t share loglines due to confidentiality. But for me, “recommend” can’t focus too much on the logline. Concept is important, sure, but the writing is what matters, what makes it a “recommend”. I’ve had writers with straightforward concepts come to me and, after we hone the execution, they get jobs at major studios or get 10 on The Black List. That doesn’t come from the logline, but the execution, how they wrote (and, as per rule 2 up there, rewrote!) Chinatown’s logline doesn’t set the world afire, yet it is generally regarded as one of the great scripts. So a logline wouldn’t really illuminate why I feel a particular script is great. Loglines only show whether something is the type of script an exec should read (e.g. it’s high concept sci-fi and that’s what they’re looking for). The logline gets you the look; the writing gets you the job.

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

I personally don’t do them very often. I have in the past and placed well, but I never found the contest actually led to a job; what worked for me was my personal networking. However, every path is different and obviously you hear success stories. What is important is that you put in the time, both into the writing (mostly) and into building your career, whether that’s contests, pitchfests, networking… Whatever seems to be working for you, do that. If nothing’s working (and the writing is genuinely where it needs to be!), then change things up.

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

Jeff is no longer actively seeking clients, but is still open to receiving requests via his website at strangeborders.com. He also suggests connecting with him on Twitter.

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

Pumpkin, no question. With fresh whipped cream. A great pumpkin pie will turn me into the seven-year old kid who eats so much he feels sick. It is inevitable.

I probably need help.

Am I wrong, or just stubborn?

Sometimes you're the puller, and sometimes you're the pullee
Sometimes you’re the puller, and sometimes you’re the pullee

Ever since I started working on the western, a lot of comments have been made pertaining to the belief that certain aspects of it are just not believable (including the always-popular “It’s not historically accurate.”). Therefore, the story doesn’t work.

But I didn’t let that stop me from writing it. In fact, a majority of the notes on the previous draft were quite complimentary and enjoyed the originality and execution of how it all played out.

Jump to the present. I’ve recently become involved with an online writing group. Despite some negative experiences in the past, this one came recommended, so I’m just starting out with them.

Since I don’t have pages for the western rewrite yet, I sent in a revised version of the logline. In all honesty, I don’t really like it. It feels very lacking and incomplete, hence my need for help.

So far, only two people have commented on it, each saying they cannot get past the number of ways this idea can’t work.

Argh.

This kind of response has always bothered me. As writers, our imaginations are the biggest tools in our arsenal. The possibilities of what we can come up with are endless. Just because it’s not how you would do it means my way is wrong; we’re just taking different approaches.

I’ve never been one to use “because I say it does” as a counter-argument, and will never, ever say “you just don’t get it”. I prefer “I can make it work,” and will spend a lot of time and effort figuring out how.

Which pretty much sums up how I’ll deal with this for now.

Like I said to them, there’s a solid logline out there somewhere. It’s finding it that’s the hard part.

Ask a PAGE Silver-Winning Script Consultant!

Derek Ladd

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 consultant Derek Ladd. His script Nina NANO was a Silver Prize Winner in the 2013 Page International Screenwriting Competition.

Award-winning screenwriter Derek Ladd started telling stories as a kid and never stopped. He lives in Portland, Oregon where he spends as much time writing as he does shaking off the rain (which is pretty much all the time).

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

The last exceptional script I read belongs to Matt Tolbert, a client of mine. I can’t go into specifics but it’s an historical screenplay about the Nordic Vikings. It’s refreshing to work on a script that pulls me in on page one and doesn’t let go. All of the elements (pacing, plot, characters) came together to create an immersive reading experience. As for movies, the last one I saw that featured great writing was DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB. This is a movie that nails the writing on all levels: the visuals, the dialogue, the subtext, all of it. Another surprisingly good movie I loved is an indie foreign film (horror comedy genre) set in Ireland called GRABBERS.

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

When I started my script consulting service, one of my early clients wanted to produce a movie. I’d written a couple dozen short stories and a few novels by this time and this client had read some of my work. And since a screenplay is the first element one needs to make a movie, she recruited me to write one. The only obstacle was that I had no idea how to write a script. So I bought two books on the subject and they didn’t help: each book contradicted the other. Then I bought one of those fancy bound scripts at Barnes & Noble – ADAPTATION (Charlie Kaufman, based on Susan Orlean’s book). Of course, it was more of a transcript so it didn’t help much either. I finally gave in to the fact that I would need to attend a class, and in Portland, Oregon the master of screenwriting was Cynthia Whitcomb. I took both of her classes, read her books and picked it up pretty quickly. My first script was an adaptation of my novel WITHOUT WINGS. From there I started reading scripts written by my classmates so I could give them feedback. The writers I worked with were so pleased I started doing it professionally. To date, over a dozen of my clients have won or placed in a variety of screenwriting contests.

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

I would say ‘Yes’ to both questions simply because one has to know how to recognize good writing in order write good material. While writing novels I found inspiration in everyone from Heinrich Boll, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and David Sedaris to William F. Nolan, Anne Rice and Stephen King. If an aspiring screenwriter thinks GIGLI or SHOWGIRLS is a great screenplay, trying to write a great script will be damn near impossible. If, however, the same screenwriter dives into work by Michael Mann, the Coen brothers, Joss Whedon, or Luc Besson (to name a few), or any brilliantly written script (JAWS, FARGO, THE MATRIX, HAROLD AND MAUDE, SERENITY, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), that writer will strive to achieve the same level of success in their own work. Excellent writing that makes you laugh and cry and get goosebumps has more power to teach aspiring writers than any classroom instruction ever could.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The Seduction Element: I watched a good DVD lecture featuring Michael Hauge a while back called ‘Grabbing The Reader In The First 10 Pages’. Mr. Hauge opened the lecture by explaining that part of the title is a misnomer: he said that ‘grabbing’ is too forceful a word and that what a writer should aim to do is seduce the reader. That’s at the top of my list. Seduce me with your words. Make it impossible for me to put it down: make me laugh, make me anxious and/or make me curious in the first five to ten pages. If you can evoke a strong emotion in the reader as soon as possible and keep it flowing that reader will be yours to the end. A famous writer (don’t ask me who) once said, “The first sentence should make you want to read the second. The second sentence should make you want to read the third…”

Strong characterization: A fleshed-out, intriguing character has the power to lead the reader anywhere. If a script starts out with three pages that describe the inside of a barn or a ton of details to set up what’s to come, I’ll put it down, or throw it at you if you’re close enough. The writer may have created the most awesome outpost on an alien planet anyone has ever dreamed up, or constructed the greatest plot ever conceived in the history of the written word, but without a solid character to invest in it won’t matter. For me, strong characterization is the whole shebang: a memorable introduction, sharp, believable dialogue, behavior that’s consistent with how the character would act in a given situation, etc. If the character has an arc (not required in some genres, but strongly recommended) it should be begin and end at the proper times – no rushing and no shuffling. Steady as she goes…

Originality: Is this a script I’ve read a hundred times before, or will it surprise me? I’m not saying it has to be about a group of purple, basketball-shaped alien opera singers from the planet Snergle. When I say ‘original,’ I’m referring to the unique spin a writer puts on the material. As an example, a good detective story populated with adults is okay, while a detective story populated with high school kids (like the film BRICK) is original and stands out. No need to reinvent the wheel; popular genres are popular for a reason. Just find a way to spin them and surprise the reader.

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

Everyone’s guilty of typos and grammatical errors (myself included), so it’s a given that any editor/consultant will find them. Aside from that, one common technical mistake I see involves scenes that spill over into other locations without new scene headings. Drives me crazy. I also see a lot of scene headings written improperly, missing words, character name inconsistencies and factual errors (names of objects, cities, states, countries or famous people misspelled). To a lesser degree, I see action lines that are jumbled: a character enters, pulls a gun, fires. Then it’s noted that the light is flickering overhead. Oh, and the guy in plain sight by the pool table (who was never mentioned before) fires back. It’s like when someone tells a joke and stops in the middle to say, “I forgot to mention, the guy riding the donkey is a priest.” It’s distracting. Unless you’re writing a narrow-to-wide shot, set the scene: describe who’s there and what they’re doing then describe the action. Otherwise it feels clunky and awkward.

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

The expression “I get it” is everywhere now. I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it’s like the cicadas that surface every 17 years or whatever and it’ll disappear soon. Here’s an example: “Hey, getting hit in the crotch with an umbrella ticked you off. I get it.” The biggest users of “I get it” are the writers for SUPERNATURAL, CRIMINAL MINDS, and SONS OF ANARCHY, all great shows that would be even greater if they’d stop using “I get it” six times per episode. It’s superfluous. Think about it: if one character describes what another is feeling, is it necessary to cap it off with “I get it.”? No. It isn’t. So please stop it. A visual trope, as it were, is the weird technique where the action goes into slow motion then speeds up again. I think the movie 300 started that whole thing. Hopefully a better movie will come along to put an end to it soon.

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

The following answers are based on the assumption that the writer has developed a unique concept and story that he/she is passionate about. My answers further assume that the fundamentals of story, characterization, plot, dialogue, writer’s voice, pacing, style and overall balance (60% action, 40% dialogue) have been carefully considered throughout the writing process.

-The first 5-10 pages are life and death for a writer. As an editor/consultant, I get paid to analyze a writer’s work. Studio script readers, on the other hand, get paid to say ‘No’ to conserve a producer’s valuable time and an investor’s money. So unless you give the reader a solid reason to say ‘Yes’, your script is headed for the recycling bin. Set the hook as soon as possible and set it deep. Make that studio reader take your script into the bathroom (to read).

-Unless you’ve written a character-based indie script, structure is critical. Do your own structure analysis to see where you land: inciting incident by around page 12, plot point one by the 1/4 mark, strong midpoint by the 1/2 mark, plot point two by the 3/4 mark and the climax in the last 10-15 pages. You’re allowed a brief end-cap/denouement of 1-3 pages and then FADE OUT.

-Formatting DOES matter, especially for a spec script. Know the average length for comedies, thrillers, horrors, dramas, etc. Turning in anything under 90 pages or anything over 120 is a longshot. Know that formatting varies between different genres and how to use these varied techniques to your advantage. Barb Doyon’s book Extreme Screenwriting has an excellent chapter on formatting and how to use it to enhance a spec script.

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

I’ve read a few scripts over the years I would strongly recommend, which is probably right in line with the industry percentage of one half of one percent. I don’t have loglines to share, but the clients whose scripts I would recommend include Chanrithy Him (WHEN BROKEN GLASS FLOATS), Santa Sierra (spec episode of THE GOOD WIFE), Bill Johnston (REQUITED), Erin McNamara (BORU), Mike McGeever (SMILERS) and Dorothy St. Louis (EL CUBANO). Others can be found at ProofEdge.com on the Testimonials page.

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

It really depends on the contest. My advice is to do some research, comb the web and read message boards. Moviebytes has a lot of info on contests and how contestants rate them. Find a contest that’s a good fit for your work. Some contests aren’t as open to traditional Hollywood blockbuster-type scripts (Zoetrope), while others offer a range of categories to accommodate all writers (PAGE Awards). If it’s a sizeable, reputable contest (PAGE Awards, StoryPros, Nicholl, among many others) I strongly recommend using it as a measuring stick to see where you stand as a writer. A writer shouldn’t get too bummed if his/her script doesn’t make it past the first round – a script can do poorly in one contest and win another, it happens all the time. Many contests offer notes for an additional fee, which can be quite helpful if done by a professional. Keep in mind that, while winning is the goal, simply making the Finals can attract studio attention, and doing so looks good on a resume when querying agents and producers. Winning or even placing in a contest can make the difference between an exceptional, unknown writer and an exceptional, discovered writer.

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

Check out my website www.deladd.com, or email me at derek@deladd.com.

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

Apple, hands down. My mom always made the best apple pie when I was growing up. The way she makes it, the apples aren’t too sweet and they’re not overcooked and mushy. A couple of years ago I made a butter crust from a simple recipe I acquired as a sous chef. The combination of her perfect filling and my crust (which melts in your mouth) is pretty spectacular.