The spark is lit once again

I hadn’t realized it had been quite a while since I’ve written about how my writing has been going, mostly because there hasn’t been as much of it as I was hoping, and what there has has been proving to be a bit of a challenge. Therefore…

The past few months have been me working on rewriting/overhauling the fantasy-comedy I wrote last year. For some reason, it just wasn’t clicking for me, hence the lengthy break.

So when I decided the time was right to dive back in, I really had to figure out what the problem was.

I still loved the concept, and a lot of what I’d already written, but something still seemed off. So I went to my tried-and-true practice of “take a step back for a closer look”.

What was it I liked about the story? Did the way it played out seem like the best way to tell it? What could be done differently, yet still yield the same results (or something even better)?

When I was first putting the story together, I must have gone through at least half a dozen different ways to start it. Each one had it’s own pros and cons. I don’t strictly adhere to “this plot point HAS to happen on THIS PAGE”, but I do what I can to stay in the neighborhood.

As I wrote down scenes I wanted to include, a pattern started to emerge. If I started the story THIS WAY, that would lead to THIS happening, and maybe I could rearrange a few things so as to get the full impact of what I was going for.

Then another realization came to me. The story was working, but my protagonist was the wrong character. Another character initially created as a big supporting role seemed to hold more potential, plus having things revolve around them would really punch up the tone of the story.

More pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.

Because of this drastically new approach, I don’t have the option of just recycling scenes from the previous draft. Each scene has to be rewritten to accommodate this new perspective and really play up the impact this new protagonist has on everything around them.

It’s a challenge, but the new story is slowly coming together. My enthusiasm for putting myself through all of this and my confidence in the story is as strong as ever.

I’ll admit this is also taking longer to than I wanted it to. My initial hope was to have completed the outline a while ago and have a new draft done by the end of the year, but that ain’t gonna happen.

Instead, I’m totally fine with the rest of 2021 being all about hammering out the outline and its subsequent fine-tuning. Kicking off the New Year with pages isn’t a bad way to go.

As we head into the weekend, here’s hoping for a whole lot of productivity for everybody’s current projects.

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.

Q & A with Brandon Potter and Shannon Soccocio of Script Assist

Script Assist is run by Brandon Potter and Shannon Soccocio, both graduates of SUNY Oswego. Brandon graduated with a degree in Cinema and Screen Studies, and Shannon with a degree in Creative Writing. In their time as screenwriters, they have collaborated on multiple short and feature films, won Best Screenplay for a short film in 2018, worked as Teaching Assistants for screenwriting classes educating students on formatting, film production, and storytelling, taken multiple screenwriting classes for film and television, and worked as analysts for a confidential screenwriting competition in Los Angeles. Both have a passion for writing and helping others.

Established in July 2020, Script Assist is a screenplay feedback and editing business based off of Facebook. We provide our clients with 5 pages of quality feedback on their story, full edits on formatting and grammar, a phone call before and after receiving feedback, and are now looking to add screenwriting classes to assist beginning screenwriters with their work. As analysts, Brandon and Shannon learned what most contests look for in screenplays. With that knowledge, the purpose of creating Script Assist was to help other screenwriters perfect their screenplay by offering feedback on their story and making sure their formatting and grammar is correct.

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?

The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, created by Mike Flanagan. If you’ve seen it, it’s not hard to guess why. On top of the remarkably well-written characters, the unique use of time jumps and callbacks to past episodes make this a show worth watching. The impeccable pacing, the underlying themes, and the powerful emotional investment make it a show that after you watch it, it’s all you think about for hours. Plus, searching for the hidden ghosts is always fun.

Their second season, The Haunting of Bly Manor, was also written really well, but unfortunately, didn’t stand up to our expectations after watching the first season. The timeline was a bit confusing and it felt very unorganized.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

We were both attending SUNY-Oswego, and taken screenwriting classes with professor Juliet Giglio. She noticed we really understood the basics of screenwriting and how to do it well, and asked us to be teaching assistants. From there, we became analysts for a confidential screenplay competition. We both learned a lot about editing and what screenplay competitions look for. From there, we started Script Assist to help others with their screenplays.

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

Yes! Something a lot of people don’t realize is that there’s a lot that goes into a script. You need to have not only a good story, but one that’s well thought out. You also need proper formatting, and to make sure your story can relate to your audience and yourself . Without knowing what to look for, it’s not easy to know if something is actually written well.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Many writers believe that a good script should include well thought out characters and a good story. This is obviously true, but you also need to think about emotional investment. Emotional investment is extremely important when it comes to creating a good script. You need characters your audience can relate to. You want your audience to have somewhat of a relationship with your characters so they feel for them.

Pacing is also very important in writing a good script. Bad pacing is extremely noticeable in a screenplay and will quickly lose the audience’s attention. You need to know when each event should be taking place, such as the inciting incident and the midpoint. Without knowing this, your script will feel off; either too slow or way too fast. Last, but certainly not least, your script should definitely have an intriguing hook to capture the audience’s attention from the start.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see? 

Screenwriting is a fairly easy thing to learn if you read some books and look over professional scripts. But there are a lot of beginning screenwriters that tend to make the simplest mistakes. Some common mistakes we see a lot are long action blocks. Writers must realize they’re not writing a novel; it’s a script for a movie or TV show. Judges in competitions and producers like to see a lot of white on the page. This means that you should have an even distribution of words and blank space. Action blocks should only ever be between 3 to 4 lines.

Another huge mistake we see often are “How Do We Know” moments, or “HDWK”. This is when the writer has written something in an action block that the reader and audience is not able to see, therefore would never know. Writers must make sure they’re only writing things that can actually be seen on screen. “Sally feels sad” would be an example of a HDWK moment. There is no way for the audience to know that unless you show it. So instead, the writer could say, “Sally frowns”.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

We don’t feel there are any we’re totally tired of seeing. Everyone can put their own twist on things and make them feel new and enjoyable to read. Even if it’s the same trope, the writer can do a million different things to make it unique.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

Action blocks should only be 3-4 lines 

Always watch out for “naked sluglines” – when a scene heading is directly followed by anything other than an action block

Make sure you have good character descriptions 

Formatting and grammar need to be near perfect 

Don’t have any HDWK moments 

Scripts can’t be written overnight. Be patient.

Be open to all feedback and suggestions

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer gets it”? If so, what were the reasons and why?

Definitely! These writers know how to format, give proper descriptions so that the reader can easily visualize what is happening, and how to write an engaging story. It’s obvious to us that the writers who stand out have taken their time with their story and have learned from their own experience.

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

Contests can definitely be beneficial for all writers, but if you’re thinking of entering your screenplay into any contests, make sure you do your research to ensure it’s the type of contest you’re looking for. Many writers rush to get their screenplays out into the world, yet don’t look over all their options. Smaller contests can be just as beneficial as the bigger ones, as each contest gives the writer experience. Winning any contest can open many doors. We definitely recommend checking out some of the different competitions for screenplays.

Very important – always proofread your work prior to sending it in! Make sure it’s ready to go before you pay that registration fee.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide? 

People can check out our website at www.scriptassists.com, or visit our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/scriptassists/.

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

Brandon – not a fan.

Shannon – I love a good chocolate cream or cherry.

Q & A with Allison Chaney Whitmore

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Allison Chaney Whitmore is a screenwriter and graphic novelist from Los Angeles. She loves to tell coming-of-age stories with a hint of romance, fantasy, or adventure, but also enjoys a good gothic horror story. She’s also the writer of the comic Love University.

Allison holds a Master’s degree in English education and has studied screenwriting at the graduate level. Outside of her work, she enjoys classic films, genre television, a good book, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

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

The current season of This Is Us is really good. I love the way they weave together plot, character, and theme. I also got to watch all of Fleabag and Killing Eve this summer, both of which I found amazing. I’m looking forward to watching season 3 of The Crown, as it always has top writing, and The Haunting of Hill House, which I hear has incredible writing as well. I can never pick one thing.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I’ve always been a dreamer and a story enthusiast. I wanted to be an actor from a young age and started writing skits in elementary school. Long-form prose came in high school, and I wrote my first screenplay in a pink composition notebook with graph line paper the summer after graduation. So, if I haven’t always been a writer, I’ve been one for a pretty long time.

What inspired you to write your comic Love University?

The concept came to me many years ago. One Friday after work, I was stuck in traffic on Sunset behind UCLA and just randomly thought — What if there was a school for cupids,  called Love U? I thought it was funny at the time, but also strongly felt it was something I could see on television. When the opportunity came up to write a comic book series, I pitched it, and they really liked it.

What was your process for writing it?

This particular story just had a concept, no character to start. That’s not usual with me. Both typically come to me at the same time. This one I had to take the idea and pull the story out of it. I found the main character, Lucy, then I began thinking about the journey she might take over several issues as the world around her began to populate in my mind. I wondered about her day-to-day struggles, her lifelong personal wounds, and her hopes and dreams. From there, I just let the story unfold. After that brainstorming phase, I went through my usual process of theme, logline, beat sheet, outline, and script. Then it was notes, revision, and so forth.

How did you connect with the publishing company for your comics, and what role do they play with your projects?

I was working with another writer on a web series who was also a comic book writer. I’d recently been hired to write a couple of comics for a pair of independent creators. They were looking for screenwriters to complete the work. I was sort of lost in terms of what to do, so I asked my colleague to take a look at what I’d been working on. He really liked my work and sent it on to his publisher, who asked if I’d like to write a series of my own.

A key component of writing (for both film and comics) is to make the stories and characters relatable. What sort of approaches do you take to accomplish that?

To me, my characters are reflections of the human experience. I simply remember the human sides of their experiences — wounds, worries, hopes, dreams. I think about the way they speak, and why that is. I think about the way they dress, their favorite music, how they navigate through the world. Everyone has a specific journey that makes them uniquely who they are. I realize that should be the same for my characters, and that helps bring them to life, as well as making them more relatable to the reader.

As a writing coach, what are some of the more common mistakes you see?

Most of the mistakes come from finding the core of their stories, hitting plot points, and formatting. Sometimes it’s tough for people to figure out whether they have just an idea, or enough to make an actual story. That’s what we work on. It’s actually a lot of fun.

There are a lot of writing coaches out there. What’s unique about you and your methods?

I come from a teaching background, so my approach is about building skills from the ground up, but also starting with the big picture in mind. I like to help people work through their creative blocks and find the stories they want to tell. I’m much more of a coach than a consultant. I’ll give notes and focus on that type of thing, but I’m often looking to help writers become the best version of themselves. Working with me is like having your own personal teacher. Not everyone needs that, but it definitely works for some people.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Strong character arcs, relatability, clear concept, emotional hook, and an identifiable theme.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

-Always plan to write more stories. Don’t put everything into just one script. Move on. Write more. Keep getting better.

-The writing process is different for everyone. Just like we have different ways of learning and absorbing information, the way we get to a story can vary. Give yourself time to find your way.

-Your first draft is not going to be perfect. Ever.

-Plan if you can. It saves you time.

-Make time for both writing and living.

-Be observant.

-Read as much as you can.

-Stay committed.

-Be open-minded.

-Think outside the box.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

I’ve been busy with my own projects and some work-for-hire projects, so don’t really do much coaching anymore. That being said, I am still open to taking on the occasional client. Email me at allison@theophilusfilms.com and we can talk about it.

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

Cheesecake could be considered pie, so…cheesecake. In terms of actual pie, probably pumpkin! Perfect time of year for that. Happy holidays!

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Wiping the slate clean

blackboard
There’s something appealing about clearing all that clutter away

One of my biggest and constant issues when I engage in a rewrite is HOW MUCH ACTUALLY GETS REWRITTEN?

As much as I love the previous draft, my ability to simply discard that which has come before always gets a solid and thorough workout. I usually start out thinking “I only need to change these few items”, which naturally quickly changes to “Keep this, this, and this, and get rid of everything else.”.

The more I work on the overhaul of the pulpy sci-fi spec, that latter thought is becoming more and more prevalent. Just a handful of parts are being kept, while others fall somewhere in the range between “totally discarded” to “hold onto that for later”.

I went into this knowing it wouldn’t be a light project, which it most definitely hasn’t. It’s very safe to say it’s rapidly become a major operation, both in the medical and organizational senses of the word.

And as far as I can tell, significantly for the better all around.

The more I work on this, the more it becomes noticeably different from its predecessor. This is probably an appropriate place to say that even with all of the changes, the key story elements and plot points have remained the same. As was my intention.

Quality notes from my circle of trusted colleagues have played a major factor throughout the whole process. Many enjoyed the story, and each person had valid comments that raised some important questions and comments: could the hero’s backstory be more original and less cliched? What if the antagonist’s motivation also involved _____? And the always popular “You do realize that’s not scientifically accurate, right?”.

(Full disclosure on that last one – yep. I did. But it works within the context of the story, and this definitely isn’t the kind of story to be nitpicky about.)

With so much of the previous draft being torn down and tossed away, the rebuilding process has been slow, but steadily productive. It’ll most likely take longer than expected, but I’d rather spend the time now figuring things out than find out later that they don’t work and have to go back and do it all over again.

One of the most encouraging comments from the notes was “Words to sum up the script – Big. Fun. Action.”

That’s been my mantra for this whole process; just amped up a bit.

Bigger. Funner. Actioner.

Even though “actioner” is technically a noun, in this scenario, I’ll assume you get the gist of what it’s implying.