A little praise goes a long way

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While a majority of my focus these days is on figuring things out for the sci-fi adventure revision/overhaul, I’ve also been taking time to read the scripts for films that have had some kind of influence on both my writing and my material.

The ones I’ve devoured so far are THE INCREDIBLES and SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE. I have scripts for non-animated films as well, but these were the two I started with.

Both were great reads, and also served as fantastic samples of effective writing. I was impressed to the point of wanting to say so on social media, so I tweeted short statements of praise to the writers. Levels of fanboy gushing were kept to a minimum.

Phil Lord, one of the Spider-Man writers, liked it, which was quite nice to see. No word from Brad Bird or Rodney Rothman, nor was I expecting any. That’s not why I did it.

Although they might not always admit it, every writer wants to know somebody liked their work. It’s great when it’s one of your peers, but there’s a special something to when a total stranger tells you “Hey, I liked this.”

Since you’re reading this, I’m going with the theory that you’re on at least one or two social media platforms, and there’s a pretty good chance that a writer or filmmaker whose work you enjoy is as well.

And they don’t even have to be famous. I’ve seen plenty of shout-outs and “This is a MUST-READ/MUST-SEE!” comments for material from other writers and creatives also trying to break into the industry.

No matter who they are, why not send them a quick note expressing your enjoyment? It’ll take you all of ten to fifteen seconds to write, and that’s all you need. Just some nice words. And don’t ask for anything in return!

You might get some kind of response, and you might not. Both are okay. For all you know, despite their lack of response, your comment may have brightened their otherwise gloomy day.

The important thing is you let a fellow writer/creative know that their work had a positive impact on you.

And who doesn’t like to hear that?

Q & A with Brian Smith of Monument Scripts

Headshot_1_Brian

Brian Smith of Monument Scripts grew up on Cape Cod, long a favorite haunt of writers and artists, surrounded by and loving well-told stories. When he left the Cape, it was to study the techniques and principles of good story telling at the University of Southern California. There he earned an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

He began his career in the industry working for Disney, and then Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation, and he has credits on 24 films and television series. Brian’s been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for such companies as Walden Media and Scott Free Films.

Brian currently lives in Los Angeles, with his wife, three daughters and two dogs.

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

If we’re talking incredibly well-written, I would say the last thing was Coco. Full disclosure here, my background is in animation. I’ve worked in animation my whole career, but I’ve been kind of down on PIXAR for about the last 10 years or so. I felt like it had been at least that long since they put out a complete film. I thought Wall-E and Up were both half-great films in that the first half of each of them was great, but the other half was mediocre to just bad. Other films that they put out during that stretch, like any of the Cars movies, Finding Nemo/Dory, or even Toy Story 3, were really lacking in strong stories. They always had wonderful characters that the audience fell in love with. That allowed for hyper-emotional endings, which was ultimately why those films were so successful. I thought with Coco, they put everything together in a way that they hadn’t since The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and they finally made a complete film. The story was thematically very strong, the stakes were very high, and they gave us a twist at the end I did not see coming. I don’t cry during movies, but I had a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat at the end. The quality of the writing in the script had everything to do with that.

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I fell into it, really. I was working on the Curious George feature years ago, and we were all about to get laid off as the show was wrapping. One of my co-workers suggested script coverage as a way to make some money while being unemployed, and he put me in contact with a creative executive he knew at Walden Media. I contacted him. He had me do a test, which they liked, and they started sending me work. I fell in love with evaluating stories and writing, and have been doing it ever since.

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

Absolutely, and it can be both taught and learned. Writing is one of those unique disciplines that’s equal parts creativity and technique. You have to use your imagination in order to be a good writer, but you also have to use dramatic structure. Determining the merit or quality of a premise or an idea can be a subjective thing, but evaluating a writer’s technique and skill level is absolutely something that can be taught. What a lot of writers don’t understand is that good dramatic structure makes you a better writer. Just as anyone can be taught to implement that structure in their writing, others can be taught to evaluate how successful the writer was in implementing it and how that implementation strengthened or weakened the story.

What are the components of a good script?

A good script is a story well-told; that takes the reader on a journey to a world that the reader can envision and become a part of. In order to do that, a good script needs to have been spawned from a strong premise. A strong premise usually gives way to strong thematic elements, which are also necessary for a good script. A script is almost always better when it has something that it’s trying to say. A strong thematic component is also a way to make us care about the characters, which is probably the most important component. I need to care about the characters and what happens to them. I need to feel some emotional attachment. Without that, you’ve got nothing.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Not adhering to proper story structure is a big one. The transition from Act II to Act III is one that tends to trip people up the most. Poorly written dialogue is another one. Writing good dialogue is hard, and most writers from whom I get scripts haven’t yet mastered the art of subtext, which is crucial to writing good dialogue. It also seems as though a lot of writers think that big words mean good dialogue, which isn’t necessarily the case. Finally, flat characters are a common problem in scripts I get. It’s especially problematic and common in protagonists. Many writers are reticent to give their hero a flaw or some other issue that gives him or her depth, and it’s so important to do so.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The post-apocalyptic sci-fi thing. I love science fiction and there have been some great post-apocalyptic stories. There’s a reason The Hunger Games was huge. It was a terrific story with real pathos and drama. Unfortunately, it made way for a lot of other stories that tried to do the same thing, but just didn’t do it as well. Even The Hunger Games went out on a whimper for me as the last movie wasn’t nearly as good or as compelling as the first. I had the same opinion of the books as well. But that’s a trope I kinda wish would just go away.

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

Story structure, story structure, and story structure.

Have you ever read a script where you could immediately tell “This writer gets it.”? What was it about the writing that did that?

Yeah, and it was actually a bit annoying. I was reading for a contest, and got a script written by a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer, and the script was about a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer. I know this is super-petty of me, but I really wanted to hate it because it’s really annoying when someone is good and successful at everything they try. But I have to admit it was an exceptional script, with an interesting protagonist, a compelling storyline and meaningful thematic elements, all written in a cinematic style. It was easy to envision this as a courtroom drama worthy of the genre. The writer really understood what it took from a technical standpoint to write a story well, and her personal experiences allowed her to tap into material that was interesting and dramatic.

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

I believe it is worth it, especially nowadays. With studios less likely to option or buy spec scripts, doing well in a screenwriting contest might be the best way for some writers to break in to the business. And the beautiful thing is, you don’t even have to win. You could be just be a finalist, a semi-finalist, or even a quarter-finalist, and there’s a good chance someone from a studio is reading your script and could possibly be impressed with your work. Even people who aren’t winning these contests are getting meetings that could lead to work. You might not sell your script this way, but your talent could be recognized by someone who has the power to hire you to write something else, and that could break you in to the industry. I personally have a friend that experienced that. She got her script into a couple of contests. She didn’t win any of them, but her script caught the eyes of people that could do something with it, and she’s been taking meetings and getting offers for representation. So if you have a quality script you can’t get past the studios’ Threshold Guardians, enter it into a contest, and there’s a chance that the studios could be calling you.

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

People can check out my website: http://monumentscripts.com/ or follow me on Twitter @monumentscripts.

You can also email me directly at briansmi71@gmail.com

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

We must be kindred spirits, because I am definitely a pie guy. I’d rather have pie for my birthday than cake, and will never turn down a slice of pie for anything. That said, I prefer fruit pies to crème pies, and my favorite of all the fruit pies is blueberry. My favorite way to have it is warmed up with vanilla ice cream on top. That is, unless I’m eating it for breakfast. Then it’s just plain.

blueberry pie a la mode

The appeal of appealing to a younger demographic

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Multiple generations, engaged and enraptured. Fine by me.

During a recent phone conversation with another writer, I’d mentioned having wrapped up work on the pulp sci-fi spec.

“What’s it about?” they asked. I proceeded to give them my 10-second elevator pitch, plus the “THIS meets THAT” combo.

“Huh,” was the response. “It sounds cool, but it also sounds like it would be a kids’ movie.”

I suppose that’s one way to look at it. My preference is “a rollercoaster ride of a story, fun for anybody from 8 to 88”. That’s always been my approach when I set out to spin a ripping yarn.

Was I supposed to view their comment as some kind of insult? As if there’s something negative or shameful about writing material that appeals to kids? Because that hasn’t worked at all for Disney or Pixar.

PIxar especially has a reputation for producing films that appeal to all ages. There’s been a lot written about the immense amount of time they spend on making sure the story is rock-solid. One of the most-read articles for screenwriting is based on part of their process, and those don’t just apply to animation; they’re for ALL screenwriting.

Let me also throw a couple of “kids movies” out there. You might have heard of them.

Star Wars. Harry Potter.

One’s been around for 40 years, with no sign of letting up, while the other just celebrated 20 years of entertaining readers and moviegoers.

On the surface, both are solid, simplistic stories about the fight of good versus evil. But is that all they are? Heavens no! There’s universal appeal, engaging characters who grow and change, themes being explored, conflict like you wouldn’t believe – all told through a filter of imagination. Don’t let the presence of lightsabers, magic wands, or animated, talking animals distract you from what’s really going on.

And let’s be honest. Both of those series have done more than okay at the box office.

Not too shabby for “kids movies”.

Now, I’m not saying any of my scripts are in the same arena as those, but a good story is a good story, no matter who its target audience is. And if it appeals to a younger generation as well as my own, what’s wrong with that?

And you know what else works with kids movies? Kids grow up, and eventually have kids of their own. What do they watch? The movies the parents enjoyed as kids.

Who wouldn’t want to write something that leaves a lasting impression on a young mind, and then see them pass their love of that story to later generations?

For me, that’s what it all comes down to – writing a script that tells a fun and exciting story that anybody could enjoy. And if that includes kids, that’s fine by me.

Digging towards the emotional core

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I don’t think you’ll need that much gear

Due to both of our busy schedules, my daughter and I go for some quality father-daughter time when we can. Sometimes that means we’ll watch something together.

It might be a movie or a TV show. We’re not picky. No shame in admitting she’s picked up my enjoyment of superhero- and fantasy-based (LOTR, Hobbit, etc) material.

Despite her occasionally sullen and blase teen exterior, V is, at heart, an empathetic and sensitive soul, so no matter what we’re watching, if there’s any kind of hint of emotional resonance in a particular scene, she will feel the full brunt of whatever emotion the film/program is conveying.

Almost any kind of a joke (the sillier the better), and she laughs her head off. Something scary and she hides under the blanket. Something sad and she immediately tears up. Even after years of me saying, “You do know this is just a movie/TV show, right?”, her emotional receptors remain cranked up to 11 (and the teenager reappears with the immediate response, “Will you stop saying that?”)

Looking at these from the writer’s perspective, I can’t help but examine how the writers were able to do that. How did they get to the emotional core of the scene? Jokes and scares aren’t hard to figure out, even though each is pretty subjective, but a good, solid tug at the heartstrings, when done effectively, can be some pretty intense stuff.

A key part is making it relatable. Love. Joy. Heartbreak. Loss. All are universal. Everyone’s experienced them in some form or another. As the writer, you want to convey that emotion so anybody reading or watching your story will not only immediately identify it, but also connect with it on a personal level.

Like this. One of the most effective emotional sequences ever. And not a single word spoken. If you don’t feel anything as a result of watching it, you have no soul.

Even though we may not have gone through the same things as Carl and Ellie, we can relate to a lot, if not all of it.

This isn’t saying that every scene has to be a major tearjerker, but you want to really let us know how the characters are feeling in that particular moment. They’re human, so they feel the exact same things we do. Make us feel how they’re feeling.

Each scene serves three purposes: to advance the story, the characters, and the theme. Let the emotions come through via the best way you envision them enhancing the scene (making sure not to overdo it). It might take a few tries, but the deeper you venture into the emotional level, the easier it’ll get for you to show it, and it’ll also be easier for us to identify it and relate to it.

Big net still at the ready

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It’s all in the wrist

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

As they should.

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

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

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

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

Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

Here are just a few things to take into consideration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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