Advice, suggestions, and everything in between

neil-gaiman
“When someone tells you it isn’t working – they’re almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it – they’re almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman

Many, many years ago, when I was just starting out in radio, I’d put together a demo tape of some of my on-air material and asked some of the veteran DJs at the station if they’d give it a listen.

One guy had several positive things to say, but also pointed out ways of how I was demonstrating my still-green abilities. He made some suggestions about how to fix that, which would, in theory, help me get better. They did.

The second guy started with “It’s good, but here’s how I would do it.” I honestly don’t remember anything he said after that because I simply didn’t care how he would do it.

There’s a very similar approach to how one gives notes on a screenplay.

When I give notes, I read what’s on the page and offer up my opinions of how it could be potentially be improved (from my perspective). A lot of the time it involves questions like “Why is this happening?” or “How do we know that?”

Or if something doesn’t work, but I understand what the writer’s trying to do, I’ll ask “What if you tried THIS (different approach) that yields the same results?” They may not take that suggestion, but it might trigger something new and unexpected.

I totally get that this is their story, and my only interest is in helping them make it better. By asking questions that only the writer can answer, the responsibility of coming up with and applying any fixes falls squarely on their shoulders.

I also make a point of trying to be objective. I may not be a fan of your story’s genre, but that doesn’t mean I’ll automatically be negative in my notes. What I will do is approach it from a “does it tell a good story populated with interesting characters and situations?” perspective.

And then there are the notes that want to take your story in an entirely new direction. The ones that take it upon themselves to change your story because “that’s not how they would do it.” I’ve gotten quite a few of those.

But what if how you would do it is different than how I would?

Sometimes it’s a suggestion that runs counter to the story you’re trying to tell, or it might have absolutely nothing do with the story at all. I’ve even received the always-appealing “This was great, except for this one small thing I disagree with/don’t like, which ruined the rest of it for me.”

Everybody’s going to have their own opinion, but the one that counts the most is yours. Even if it doesn’t feel that way now, only you know what the script really needs, and you’re going to get all kinds of responses when you seek out feedback.

Some of it will be very helpful and insightful, some definitely won’t be, and in the end it’s really up to you to decide which notes you think provide the most guidance to helping make your script better, which will in turn help you become a better writer.

 

Pacing & page numbers

number-line
Looks like there’s a lot going on up ahead

When you start reading a script, you tend to recognize pretty quickly whether or not the writer knows what they’re doing. Their mastery of the craft (or lack thereof) will become soon apparent.

Bad formatting. Misspelled words. Unfilmables. On-the-nose dialogue. Cliches as far as the eye can see. Quite a checklist.

Find one or more of these early on, let alone just on the first page (which does happen), and there’s not much hope of improvement. You’re left with no choice but to force yourself to push forward. Maybe once in a while, you glance up at the upper right corner of the page/screen.

Your shoulders sag. “I’m only up to page ____? This is taking forever!” you exclaim. Making it to the end has suddenly become a question of “if”, rather than “when”.

Now let’s examine the other side, where the writer is in total control.

You encounter writing so sharp and descriptive, you can easily “see” what’s happening. Dialogue that’s not just crisp, it practically crackles. Characters who feel and talk like real people. All of it taking place in original and entertaining situations.

You become so wrapped up that you can’t wait to get to the bottom of the page so you can move on to the next one. And maybe once in a while, you sneak a glance at the upper right corner.

Your eyebrows shoot up. “I’m already at page ____? Wow, this is just zooming by!” you exclaim. You eagerly dive back in, more than ready to continue because you simply can’t wait to see what happens next.

Now here’s the big question for you, the writer:

Of the two experiences listed above, which do you want the reader to have when they read your script?

Do you want them to be bored and see reading your script as a chore that ranks up there with cleaning out the cat’s litterbox or listening to a timeshare presentation?

Or do you want them to be so involved, their attention so riveted to the tale being told in your script, that nothing short of a major crisis or natural disaster could tear them away? (Not to diminish the intensity or significance of major crises or natural disasters, but you get the idea)

It’s tough to be that objective when it comes to reading your own material. You think it’s good (“How could anyone not like it?”), but every reader has their own criteria for what works and what doesn’t. The challenge is crafting together a script so rock-solid that not liking it is not an option. Not sure if yours is? Seek outside opinions. Rewrite with the mindset of “how can I make this better?”.

As screenwriters, our primary goal is to tell an entertaining story. The last thing we want is for someone to be easily distracted by something/anything else when they’re supposed to be reading (and in theory, enjoying) our scripts.

The silver lining of a bad movie

Krull
A definitive shining example (AND a prime candidate for a remake)

Since the screenwriter’s education is ongoing, there’s always something for you to work with or study to get a better grasp and understanding of what constitutes good writing, which can then be applied to your own.

Read scripts. Attend or take part in a table read. Watch movies.

While there are countless examples of exemplary writing and filmmaking to see it done properly and effectively, there are even more examples of crappy writing and lousy filmmaking to see it done poorly and ineffectively.

Nobody starts out with the intention of making a bad movie. What starts out as a great script can easily be messed up along the way to the point that there’s no salvaging it. It happens.

Is watching one waste of time? Not necessarily.

As enjoyable, informative and educational as the good stuff is, the bad stuff is actually just as good, possibly even more so. Because from these cinematic travesties you can learn what not to do with your own scripts. Lessons abound with all the glorious misfires regarding story, characters, and dialogue.

Regrettably, bad acting is a category all by itself and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Do what you can to ignore it (which can border on the impossible, depending on the quality of badness) and focus on the non-tangibles.

It’s especially helpful to work with something from the same genre as your script. See how they did it, then compare it to your own. Can you see why theirs didn’t work? Is it riddled with plotholes you could drive a truck through? Is the dialogue pure on-the-nose? Do the characters come across as unrealistic caricatures?

Look at it as a whole. Does it respect the reader/audience’s intelligence? Is the structure solid? Do you care about what happens to these characters over the course of the story?

Now bring your script into the equation – and be objective! How much of a similarity or difference is there between that story and yours? Did that other material open your eyes to some previously unforeseen flaws and potential problems within your script, so much that it made you realize “this needs work”?

Once you identify these problems, your writer’s mind goes to work, figuring out how to make sure your script doesn’t repeat the mistakes you just read or watched.

It may not be easy to endure having to watch a bad movie just for the educational experience, so just keep reminding yourself “It’s to help me become a better writer”.

Good luck!

Question time! What’s your favorite bad movie? Feel free to list it in the comments.

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?

*Editor’s note: Jeff is no longer actively seeking clients, but is still open to receiving requests via his website.

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.