A moment of evaluation and introspective

Certainly a lot of things to...ponder
Certainly a lot of things to…ponder

Whoo! What a week this has been. Lots of goings-on on several fronts. Big picture stuff first.

-The semifinalists were announced earlier this week for this year’s Nicholl. 149 in total, out of somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,500 initial entries. Turns out I know at least 7 of those writers on a somewhat personal level, whether it be through social media or from actual physical contact.

I am equal parts thrilled for and jealous of all of them, but also made sure to send each a note of congratulations. They definitely earned it. And several of them have made it to this point before, and probably will do so again in the future, so that means the rest of us have to really step up our game.

Watching this as a non-participant definitely puts things in perspective. I didn’t enter any contests this year, so I can’t even begin to speculate how my script might have fared. It’s been a major effort to work on improving it to the point that I like to think it’s good, possibly even really good (he said, trying not to sound totally biased), but how would it do in a contest, especially one of this magnitude? There are no delusions of grandeur, but who doesn’t daydream about grabbing the top prize? Jittery nerves and lofty ambitions all at the same time. Only way to find out is enter it next year and hope for the best.

-Operation ManagerQuest continues. Fingers firmly crossed that all the research, fact-checking and list-assembling will result in something positive. Thanks to everybody who’s offered their good wishes and support.

Although this time is all about the western, I put together and sent out a handful of queries for the fantasy-adventure. Since those were sent to places that might be more interested in that kind of thing, each letter was customized for its designated recipient. Queries about the western will go out next week.

-As things continue to wrap up for the western, focus is shifting to what’s quickly evolving into a total rewrite of the outline of the mystery-comedy. Not gonna lie. This is the one that grabs people’s interest and attention, so we’ll see what I can do with it.

While the overall plot and concept remain the same, several new ideas, angles and approaches are being developed that I sincerely hope will make it better.

Not a bad week. Hope it was equally, if not more productive for you.

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.

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 an Agent-turned-Script Consultant!

Michele Wallerstein

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 Michele Wallerstein.

Screenplay, Novel and Career Consultant, Michele works with writers to help get their work into shape so that it is marketable for the Hollywood community and/or the publishing world. Michele’s career consulting consists of critiquing your projects and/or having personal career conferences to answer questions that writers have about their creative work as well as questions about the business side of their creative life. Michele is the author of: “MIND YOUR BUSINESS: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide To Your Writing Career”.

Prior to becoming a Consultant, Michele was a Hollywood literary agent where she represented Writers, Directors and Producers in Motion Pictures, Movies for Television and Television Series and has sold $1 Million spec scripts. Michele served as Executive Vice-President of Women In Film and was on the Board of Directors for many years. She owned The Wallerstein Company and guided the careers of writers such as Larry Hertzog (Tin Man, La Femme Nikita, 24), Christopher Lofton (Robinson Crusoe, Call of the Wild, Scarlett, True Women), Peter Bellwood (Highlander, La Femme Nikita), Bootsie Parker (Booty Call, Married, With Children, The Hughley’s), and many others.

Michele has been a Guest Speaker at numerous Film Festivals, Pitch Fests and Writer’s Groups all across the country. She teaches the ins and outs of the business of your writing career as well as how to get the most out of your material.

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

I adore the writing on “Downton Abbey” on PBS. Their character delineations are superb. The dialogue makes the stories come alive. Unfortunately, I rarely go to theaters for movies because most of them don’t seem to be made for grown-ups.

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

I began reading scripts about 100 years ago when I was an assistant to a literary agent. After becoming an agent, I continued to read everything I could get my hands on. These experiences gave me a world of knowledge and have been a great help to me as a screenplay consultant.

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

I’m not so sure it can be taught or learned. Anyone can learn the basics of screenwriting by taking classes and reading some of the many books available. However, understanding human nature and the psychology behind people’s actions and reactions comes with life experiences. If one doesn’t understand these things they will never get the importance of great dialogue.

4. What are the components of a good script?

In my experiences as an agent and as a consultant I find that adhering to the basic 3-act structure is invaluable. Along with that a writer must be able to write characters with heart, feelings, emotions and individual personalities. Grammar, spelling and syntax are also keys to good writing.

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

I often find that the characters are uninteresting and I don’t care about any of them. It’s also common to find people who try very hard to write something unusual and it comes across as too complicated, far-fetched or dull. If written well, a thriller, mystery, love story or romantic comedy can be a standout showpiece for a good writer.

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

I’m quite tired of action films and films with an abundance of blood and guts. Too many people have become dulled to violence and those scripts are written without decent stories or characters.

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

-Follow the accepted 3-act structure.

-When writing spec scripts it is a good idea to do at least 3 in the same genre.

-Have your scripts read by vetted professionals prior to trying to land an agent.

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

When I was an agent I read a spec by a new, young writer that knocked me out. It was a love story with lots of fantastical action about the discovery of the Garden of Eden. It was gloriously written and I sold it for close to $1 million within 2 weeks of reading it.

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

Contests, pitch fests, seminars etc., can all be very worthwhile if one knows how to make contacts and to follow up with those people. It is a great place to meet executives who can help move your writing career forward. I explain this in detail in my book “MIND YOUR BUSINESS”.

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

I am always happy to help writers and they can email me at: writerconsultant67@gmail.com. I have a monthly blog for writers: www.wwwconsulting.blogspot.com. Writers can also check out my online course Moving Your Writing Career Forward via Screenwriters University.

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

I do love warm peach pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Feeling triumphant, if only for a few minutes

By the time you finish reading this sentence, I'll already have gotten back to work
By the time you finish reading this sentence, I’ll already have gotten back to work

Well, it’s done. I got to type in those glorious words “Fade Out”, thus bringing to a close the massive rewrite of the western.

The script now clocks in at a respectable 114 pages. No reason a few more can’t be trimmed with some diligent editing and polishing.

Normally this would be the part where I’d say how long this has taken, but to be honest, I really don’t know. I haven’t been keeping track. Two months, maybe? Something like that.

But the important thing is that I got it done. What a grand feeling of accomplishment. It’s quite nice.

All that work and effort has paid off, resulting in a pretty solid piece of material to show for it (if I do say so myself).

As much as I’d like to sit back, rest on my laurels and enjoy the moment a little longer, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Once this latest round of editing is done, the call goes out to friends and trusted colleagues for feedback, which will no doubt result in more editing and polishing. And then it’s on to shelling out some bucks for professional notes.

From there? I don’t know. Contests? Query letters? That stage is pretty far down the line, so not too worried about it just yet. Right now it’s all about making the script as bulletproof as it can be.

During this entire time, when the opportunities present themselves, work resumes on the low-budget comedy, the mystery-comedy and possibly the pulpy adventure. Feeling confident at least one, possibly two, could be done by the end of the year.

All part of the never-ending process.