Learn by doing (apply & repeat)

A few weeks ago, I’d mentioned on social media that part of my plan for this year was to continue doing script notes. The responses were overwhelmingly positive, as well as inspiring a few other writers to do the same thing.

(I’m really cutting back on how many scripts I read. I like the idea of putting more time into my own stuff.)

One writer commented that they’d love to be able to do the same for other writers, but they didn’t have much confidence in their own analytical skills.

We’ve all been there. Giving notes isn’t easy, and some are better at it than others.

Like with everything about screenwriting, there’s no secret formula.

It’s all about taking time and effort to learn how to read a script and be able to recognize what works and what doesn’t. And even that takes time to learn how to do properly, or at least effectively.

I’d suggested to the writer they start by just reading scripts. Could they see what’s good, and what’s not? Opinions vary whether it’s better to work with specs or produced material. I tend to favor the former because that way I’m not influenced by an existing film.

Another option was to get feedback on their own scripts, either from a professional or someone within their personal network whose opinion they trust. Do they understand why the reader made the notes they did?

As cliched as this may sound, when it comes to being able to recognize good writing, you eventually learn to know it when you see it.

I really hope this writer decides to start working on honing their analytical skills. Being a good reader really can help you become a better writer.

Solutions sought (and found)

The past few weeks have been all about working on developing this new script.

After a bit of a rough start, I’d come up with what seemed like a solid storyline. I had my plot points mapped out, and started filling in the blanks between them.

The ideas were coming at a decent pace, but things started to feel…odd.

I got to around the midpoint when things suddenly came to a grinding halt. Something just wasn’t clicking, and it was up to me to figure out what was wrong AND how to fix it.

My mind started racing for potential ideas. But the more I thought about it, the worse the ideas became. It was getting to the point of ridiculousness.

Being so laser-focused on this was severely messing up my creativeness. Since you can’t force inspiration, I took the easier path:

I stepped away.

Like any good writer, I’ve got more than a few projects in various stages of development, so I let this one simmer and turned my attention to something else.

Over the next couple of days, I made some progress plotting out this other project and didn’t even think about the first one.

I’ll also admit to spending some time doing some script notes and indulging in some pulp-y books featuring tales of adventures

And all of it really helped.

Feeling a bit more prepared to face my story problem, I opened the file and looked things over.

Thus did the wheels start turning…

I’d originally thought I’d have to delete a majority of what I’d already come up with, but a lot of it still worked, so I needed to figure out another way to utilize it.

Taking a closer look after a bit of a break helped to shine a spotlight on the problem as well as presenting an effective way to resolve it. Without going into too much detail, it involved expanding on what I already had for the first half of the story (along with a little rearranging of scenes), then expanding on those results, along with some relevant subplot goings-on, for the second half.

I’m sure there are many more bumps in the road ahead for this script, but it’s still great when you make this kind of headway.

Now – back to the story and filling in the rest of the blanks.

Hope your weekend is equally as productive, if not more so.

A gift they’ll love – bow optional

The holiday season is “officially” here, and maybe you’re racking your already-rattled screenwriter’s brain trying to think of gifts you’d like to give, or maybe you’d like to receive.

Sure, there are the usual items, like books, contest fees, or consulting services, and those are all great, but how about the easiest gift of all?

It won’t cost you a cent, and is beneficial to both the giver and the givee.

Time.

Got a little extra on your hands? Offer to read another writer’s script and give notes.

Not sure how to go about it? Never fear. It’s super-easy.

Just go onto the social media platform of your choice, and say something along the lines of “Anybody looking for notes on their script?”.

Then stand back and watch the responses flood in – which they will.

Don’t feel obligated to take all of them on. They can add up fast. As many you feel comfortable with. One, two, five. It’s your choice.

Our schedules are already pretty jam-packed as it is, but try to get them done in a timely fashion.

In theory, the writer will be very appreciative and let you know that, along with an offer to return the favor. Again, your choice if you take them up on it.

Giving notes may not be for everybody, but there’s something to be said for setting aside a part of your day to help out another writer (or writers).

One of the things I always try to promote here is how invaluable it is to network and be part of the online screenwriting community. Doing this can play a significant part in helping with that.

And I hope you enjoy the reads as much as the writers had writing them.

A few takeaways from 40 scripts

Well, that was an experience.

As 2020 wound down, I’d already made the decision to devote 2021 to focus on improving as a writer.

In addition to writing more, that also meant reading scripts more.

I wanted to really work on developing my analytical skills, so on the last day of the year, I put the word out on social media. Want notes on your script? For free? Let me know.

And let me know the screenwriting community did. And then some.

Out of the 75 or so people who responded “Yes, please!”, 40 actually followed through and sent their scripts.

(Apologies to those who missed out. That window is now closed)

It was a fair mix of shorts, pilots, and features.

Since I also wanted to still work on my own material a bit, it all came down to time management. How much time could I dedicate to each script? It worked out to one a day, and about three to four a week.

Granted, these were not the most extensive of notes. Some general observations, questions and comments about the story and the characters, and an insanely large amount of inadvertent proofreading.

I also made sure to preface my notes saying that these were just my thoughts and opinions, so the writer was more then welcome to use or ignore them as they saw fit.

For the most part, the reactions were positive.

“Thank you so much! These are incredibly helpful! This will really help my next draft get to the next level!”

No comments wishing me bodily harm or proclaiming I was an idiot who simply couldn’t grasp their genius, so going with the theory that they approved of what I had to say and just never got around to saying thanks. I’ll ignore this horrific breach of etiquette and still count it as a win.

There was a wide variety of genres and story ideas to be found. Some truly unique and original stuff, as well as more than a few “familiar, but different” approaches to some classic concepts.

What was probably the most surprising result was that the same comments applied to a majority of the scripts, including:

WHAT’S THE STORY?

Since there are no definitive “rules”, I do like to adhere to some strong guidelines regarding structure and plot points.

If I get to around page 25 or 30 and still don’t know what the main story or the protagonist’s goal are supposed to be, there’s a problem.

The writer was too focused on minor issues and details that the main storyline got lost in the shuffle.

SHOW, DON’T TELL, or HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?

A lot of writers would explain what something meant, or what somebody was thinking, or why they were doing it, rather than portraying it visually.

For example, a scene might say something like “Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. He thinks about the girl he took to the senior prom and how she dumped him to run off with a plumber and now they live in Dayton with four kids and a cranky Pomeranian.”

You know what we’d see on the screen?

Bob washing the dishes.

Or “Jim was lonely.” How would that look?

There was a lot of reminding the writers that film is primarily a visual medium. Describe what we’re seeing and hearing, and let the characters’ actions and words do the heavy lifting.

A subcategory of this is TRUST YOUR READER/AUDIENCE TO FOLLOW ALONG AND FIGURE THINGS OUT

By explaining what we’re seeing or what’s going on, you’re denying the reader/audience the pleasure of figuring things out to help move the story forward.

This might also count as a subcategory, but there were quite a few times a line would say something like “Bob looks to Mary. He apologizes.”, followed by Bob’s dialogue of “I’m sorry.”

I can’t help but think this is because the writer wants to make absolutely sure that you understand what’s happening, so they tell you, and then show you.

Something else a lot of writers fell into the trap of was OVERWRITING (aka BIG BLOCKS OF TEXT)

There would be 4 or 5 lines at a time to describe what was happening in a scene, which for me, really slowed down the read. I want to be zip-zip-zipping along, not taking my foot off the gas to make sure I don’t lose my place.

“The more white space on the page, the better.” Can that paragraph of 4-5 lines be done in 3? 2?

There was also frequent use of “one the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE” (shoutout to Richard Walter at UCLA) Try to say the most on the page with the least amount of words.

A lot of writers would go into exquisite detail about things not relevant to the plot, such as the decor of an apartment that’s in one scene, or what the extras in the background are wearing, or what happens to a random character in a fight scene. These sorts of things would distract me from following the flow of the primary storyline. I’d read it and wonder “what does this have to do with ____’s story? Would it make a difference if it wasn’t there?”

This one can’t be stressed enough – SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!

I get that not everybody has amazing spelling skills, and your eyes might be kind of tired of seeing the same text over and over again. But any writer should really know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re, ‘there’, ‘their’, and “they’re”, and so on.

But when I read that a character “sets down a bag of frozen pees on the kitchen counter”, it makes it kind of tough for me to concentrate on the rest of the story. How can I think about anything else for the next 60-70 pages?

Not sure about spelling or punctuation? A lot of writers make for good proofreaders, so don’t hesitate to ask around for some help.

Friendly reminder – there is no apostrophe in “sees”. It’s “Bob sees Mary,”, not “Bob see’s Mary.” That popped up more than a few times.

Question for anybody who’s ever written a screenplay: do you ever read it out loud? Especially the dialogue. This really helps you get a grasp of how it should sound.

DOES THIS SOUND LIKE SOMETHING SOMEBODY WOULD ACTUALLY SAY?

You don’t want to run the risk of your characters sounding flat or dull, or too “movie-like”, which can include pure exposition (“As you know, I’m the wealthiest man in town who moved here sixteen years ago after striking oil in the Yucca Salt Flats, and now my twin daughters are running against each other for mayor.”) Let your ears be the judge.

Read it out loud. Host a table read (via zoom or eventually in person)

And speaking of dialogue-related items, I try to limit my use of parentheticals as few per script as possible. A lot of the time, they’re either not needed, or can be replaced with an action line (Bob points.) preceding the dialogue (BOB – “Look over there!”).

The context of what the character is saying should convey the appropriate emotion or interpretation. If I had a dollar for every time I saw the use of (sarcastic), I’d have…a lot of dollars.

As has been stated many times on this blog and throughout the screenwriting community, it takes a long time to learn how to write a screenplay, let alone a really good one. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I believe I have a pretty firm grasp of what it involves, and am glad to have been able to offer my two cents to help other writers improve both their skills and their scripts.

Since this was a pretty significant undertaking, it was also a bit exhausting, so I don’t think I’ll be making the blanket offer again. I’m still open to reading scripts, but am taking a little time off to recuperate and recharge, so drop me a line after 1 April. Schedule permitting, we can work something out.

And a HUGE thanks to everybody who offered to read one of my scripts, which I might take some of you up on as the year progresses.

Okay. Back to work.

I (and others) will not hesitate to help

Unless you’re collaborating with a co-writer, the actual process of screenwriting is for the most part a solitary process. All of the work involved depends on you, and you alone. It can be tough and frustrating.

And that’s just the writing part. We haven’t even touched on dealing with notes, rewriting, or marketing your script.

It’s an uphill climb. Practically vertical, even.

“Argh! It’s too much for one person to take on by themselves!” you might exclaim.

Never fear. You are most assuredly not alone. Every other screenwriter has gone through the exact same things you have, and will continue to do so.

And one of the most powerful weapons to help you get through it all is easily at your disposal: those other writers.

I can honestly say both my writing and my career (such as it is) would not be at the level they are today if it hadn’t been for other writers lending their helping hands over the years.

Whether it was notes, leads, or connections, my network of writing associates has proven to be an indispensable resource.

The writing community wants to see writers succeed. Sure, we all want it for ourselves, but if you can give somebody else a boost, why wouldn’t you?

I get all the usual “scripts wanted” emails. About 98 percent of the time, I don’t have a script that matches what somebody’s looking for. But due to interaction with all my fellow screenwriters, I might see something and think “Hey! I think _____ has a script like this.” I’ll then forward it to that writer, saying I thought of them when I saw it. Sometimes they’ll have already seen it and applied, or it’s totally new and they’re very grateful for the lead.

Additionally, because I’ve spent so much time cultivating relationships, a lot of these writers know me and what scripts I have, so they’ll send me a listing. Even if it doesn’t work out, it’s still more results than I would have gotten by myself. Like with the writing, any progress is good progress.

And speaking of the writing, after I think a latest draft is ready to show, I’ll go to my usual circle of reliable note-givers to get their feedback, and they’ll do the same with me. Every once in a while a writer I’ve only interacted with via social media will contact me, asking if I’d be willing to take a look at their script. If there’s no deadline, and I can squeeze it in, I’ll gladly tell them to send it along.

There will also be those times where you’re feeling low; like nothing’s going right. Guess what? This is definitely another one of those “it happens to everybody” scenarios, and believe me – everybody can relate to it. Want to talk about it and get it off your chest? Writers are willing to listen – and offer a solution if they can. Just getting it out of your system can be helpful.

Also very important – return the favor. Somebody’s helped you out? Offer to do the same – in any capacity you can. When I ask somebody for notes, I make sure to say I’m more than happy to return the favor – because I am. They were willing to put in the time and effort to help me, so the least I can do is the same for them.

A big part of all of this is to accomplish any of this, you have to become part of the community itself. Fortunately, even that’s pretty easy. There are so many ways to get to know your fellow writers.

My recommendations:

-screenwriting groups on Facebook, but mostly the smaller ones. The bigger ones tend to be a lot of egos and sniping.

-Script Pipeline’s #PipelineWriters on Twitter. 5pm PST on Fridays. Especially helpful if you like mugs.

-#scriptchat on Twitter. 5pm PST on Sundays

Regarding all of these, groups and communities overall, you get out of them what you put into them.

Leave your ego at the door. Be nice to people. Treat them the way you’d want to be treated.

Ask questions. Make it about them, not you.

Establish relationships. Be supportive for good news and bad news.

You may be working on your scripts by yourself, but you’re most definitely not alone.