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 dreaded ensuing of wackiness

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Done right, this is comedy gold

As part of my work on the low-budget comedy spec, I’ve made an effort to read other comedies to help get a better understanding of how it could be done and hopefully some guidance I could apply to mine.

It’s always been tough for me to read comedy because my sense of humor doesn’t always align with others. Many’s the time I’ve read a script that garners universal praise for being gut-bustingly hilarious, but doesn’t do anything for me.

There is, however, one detail I’ve noticed that keeps popping up:

Unrealistic situations.

Things that seem to happen only for the sake of a joke, and not much else. These often feel forced and inorganic to the plot. Almost as if the writer thought “Hey, wouldn’t it be crazy if ____?”

In theory, potentially a good idea, but in execution – not really.

Some might argue that since it’s comedy, things don’t have to be realistic as long as they’re funny.

I beg to differ. If I don’t think something could actually happen, I will most likely not find it funny.

**side note – this doesn’t necessarily apply to slapstick or absurdist fare, which are two entirely different discussions**

Sure, there are comedies where the entire premise isn’t all that realistic to begin with, but even the humor in those should stem from the situation, rather than being a crazy assortment of wacky gags.

Going for the easy laugh or cheap joke doesn’t take much skill and shows a lack of sincere effort. If a writer does it once, chances are they’ll do it a lot. It also doesn’t offer anything new. Who wants a joke they’ve probably seen or heard a thousand times before?

Looking at comedies that would be considered strong, there are a lot of instances where the joke is an integral part of the scene, rather than feeling like something tacked on.

You’ll hear that the best comedy is the kind that makes you think. I prefer comedy that shows the writer did a lot of the thinking.

Ask a Man-of-Distinction Script Consultant!

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-consultant-Scriptmag contributor Ray Morton.

Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. He writes the Meet the Reader column at Scriptmag.com and is the author of seven books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting and A Quick Guide to Television Writing. Ray is available for script consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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

I recently re-watched ORDINARY PEOPLE for the first time in a long time and was blown away by how precise Alvin Sargent’s wonderful screenplay is. To begin with, it’s a very moving story. The construction is incredibly tight — always moving forward toward the climax. And every scene and moment in the script both reveals character and moves the narrative forward. It is masterful work on the level of a Swiss watchmaker.

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

A friend of mine worked in development at Castle Rock. She told me they were looking for readers. I was already a working writer, but was looking for work in between gigs, so I did a piece of sample coverage. They began using me and things went from there.

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

I think you have to have an affinity for good writing. Whether that can be taught or not, I don’t know. For me, it developed naturally as a result of doing a lot of reading, which I’ve always done since I was a kid. I think you can be taught what elements make a viable screenplay.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A good script starts with a strong premise. From there, a story must be developed that is well constructed and makes the most of the premise. A good script has a protagonist with a strong, clear goal that develops in the first act and that he pursues throughout the second and third acts.

The protagonist must be someone we care about — not like, necessarily, but who we have some sympathy for and in whose plight we can invest ourselves emotionally. The supporting characters should be vibrant and distinctive. The dialogue should be strong — each character should speak in her/his own unique voice. The script must be what it promises – a comedy must be funny, a horror movie must be scary, a drama must be moving, and so on. And the ending must be satisfying — it must feel like the absolutely right conclusion to the story we’ve just witnessed.

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

By far, the most common mistake aspiring screenwriters make is to spend all of Act I setting up a particular premise and then abandoning that premise in Act II and taking off on an entirely different tangent, so that the script ends up reading like two entirely different stories that just happen to feature the same characters. The other most common mistake is a lack of clarity — as to what the premise of the story is, who the protagonist is, what his goal is, what the motivations behind the major actions and events in the story are, and so on. A third common mistake are scripts written like novels, with paragraph upon paragraph devoted to telling us what a character is thinking and feeling on the inside — things that will never be seen on screen.

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

I’m tired of non-linear storytelling — there has been so much of it in the last ten years and so little of it done well. I’m tired of flashbacks, which are overused and ruin the flow of stories. I’m tired of stories that begin in the middle, jump back in time, then catch up halfway through. All of these things have been done to death to the point where I am longing to read a story that begins at the beginning and unfolds chronologically until it ends at the end.

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

I’m not a big believer in rules per se, but the three things I think screenwriters need to know are:

-Screenwriting is dramatic writing and you need to understand the basic principles of dramatic writing to be an effective screenwriter.

-You need to rewrite. Too many aspiring screenwriters are reluctant to rewrite – they’ll futz around the edges, make a few cosmetic changes, and leave it at that. You must be ruthless with your work — willing to go over it again and again and really fix what doesn’t work, or you will never write a good script.

-This is a business and you must act accordingly — there are no shortcuts or magic tricks, no one owes you anything, and you must behave professionally at all times even if the people you’re dealing with do not.

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

I’ve read two. One was the script that eventually became the Geoffrey Rush film SHINE. The draft I read was just about perfect (although the final film was very different from the screenplay and I didn’t like it nearly as much). The second was a script called CRICKET SPIT, about a young girl whose doctor father lies to her (out of well meaning kindness) about her best friend’s terminal condition, which causes a rift between parent and child. It was a “small” movie and never got made but it was terribly moving and just brilliant.

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

The top 5 or so — the NichollBig Break, etc. – can be very worth it, because most of those contests can bring you to the attention of the industry in a number of ways (hooking you up with producers, introducing you to managers and agents, etc.). The lesser ones – ones sponsored by no-name organizations and ones that keep urging you to add extra services (buying coverage, buying a seat at the awards ceremony, etc) –  are a waste of time and money.

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

They can go to my website – raymorton.com – or email me at ray@raymorton.com

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

Chocolate silk, hands down.

Ask a Master of the Ultimate Editing Tool Script Consultant!

Erin Whittemore

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 agency reader-turned-consultant Erin Whittemore of Red Pen Script Consulting.

“I have a B.A. in film and screenwriting from the University of Michigan, and am also the proud recipient of the Hopwood Award in screenwriting that boasts such alumni as Arthur Miller and Lawrence Kasdan. After graduating, I relocated to Los Angeles, where I worked for United Talent Agency as a freelance script reader. Two of my own scripts have been produced as short films and premiered at film festivals.”

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

I loved Nightcrawler and The Lego Movie as scripts. Nightcrawler’s story was really lean and mean and practically seamless, and The Lego Movie was not only a great narrative in itself, but was also incredibly cheeky and self‐aware at the same time. In terms of TV, Marvel’s Agent Carter put other network shows to shame. In my humble opinion, of course.

2. How did you get started reading scripts?

After spending two arduous years as a pre‐med undergraduate, I finally became so miserable that I switched to film and never looked back. I learned to do coverage through screenwriting courses, and was lucky enough that UTA was hiring part-timers after I graduated. Full disclosure: I did know somebody in the story department, but even then I almost didn’t get the job due to the amount of competition for the position. It all comes down to your “test coverage.” (When an agency gives you a sample script to cover.) If you’re aiming for reading professionally, make sure you have your own sample coverage ready to go as well, preferably showcasing two different genres.

Eventually, though, I needed a better‐paying and more stable job, but I wanted to continue reading scripts as well. Having been a part of “the system” I knew it could take up to three months for writers to get any feedback on their submissions, which is kind of agonizing, especially if the writer ends up getting rejected. I figured, why not give writers a chance to see what a professional script reader would say about their material before sending it out to agencies and production companies? Thus, Red Pen was born!

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

I believe if you’re willing to be taught, you can learn. You have to watch a lot of movies and read a lot of scripts, and you have to learn to think critically about what you ingest. It’s not enough to say “I like this” or “I don’t like this,” you have to think about why. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, you have to ask questions like “why does this work” or “why doesn’t this work?” and “how could I make it work?” Some people naturally think this way, others have to train themselves to make it a habit.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A good script generally has an intriguing premise, strong characters, and an original and compelling execution. As a script reader, I look at character, story, theme, dialogue, visuals, and tone to determine what areas need work. In general, a great script knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to achieve

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

-Unlikable, uninteresting characters that do uninteresting things. This doesn’t mean your protagonist can’t be an unlikable character, but they must be at least be interesting and do interesting things. (See There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler.)

-Exposition in dialogue. The golden rule of screenwriting is “SHOW, DON’T TELL.” A little exposition is usually necessary, but too often I see writers trying to cram entire backstories or plot elaborations into a talking scene. Firstly, we only need to know what’s relevant at the time, part of the fun of watching a story unfold is piecing things together. Secondly, remember, it’s a movie. It’s much more dramatic and emotionally immediate to watch a sequence about something important than to hear a character talk about it.

-Inconsistent tone. Is your script Silence of the Lambs or Fargo? Guardians of the Galaxy or Interstellar? 12 Years A Slave or Django Unchained? When a script yo‐yo’s back and forth between tones, or spends the first half of the movie a comedy only to turn serious drama it can be very confusing for the audience and takes us out of the story. Know what tone you want your script to have and stick with it.

-No structure. A story is more than just a series of events, it’s a series of events that influence each other. If you’ve ever had a friend who is terrible at telling stories, they most likely sound something like this: “So Jack and Jill fall down this hill. No, wait, sorry, first they go up this hill. Then Jack falls down. And then Jill falls down. And then they get married.” As opposed to someone who might say, “Jack and Jill grew up together as next door neighbors and they hated each other. They were mean and played pranks on one another until Jill left for school. Jill married an orthodontist, but got divorced soon afterward because life became too predictable for her. Jack had a string of girlfriends but nothing ever seemed to stick, especially since none of them seemed to appreciate his sense of humor. Having both moved back to their hometown at a low ebb in life, one day Jack spotted Jill on top of a hill while walking his dog in the park. Jack smacked Jill in the back of the head with a snowball. Jill yelped, slipped, and tumbled headfirst down the hill. Alarmed, Jack rushed to her aid only to slip and fall, himself. The two ended up in adjacent hospital beds and wouldn’t speak to each other, until they both started laughing. Soon after, they fell in love, and have been married for 35 years.” In other words, remember that each beat of your story should make sense and be relevant in the larger context.

-It’s a movie not a book. Give us just enough flavor text so we get the atmosphere and the characters, but don’t go overboard. I should be able to read your script in the same amount of time it would take to watch the movie, if not less. Don’t bog the reader down in unnecessary description. That doesn’t mean what you write can’t be poetic and evocative, but just remember to keep it lean and mean. If you’re lucky, the type of person reading your material will give it their full attention, but this is not often the case.

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

Okay, first a disclaimer: most stories are tropes in one way or another. There’s an adage in Hollywood that goes “give me the same thing, only different!” What that basically boils down to is, “give me something I can latch onto, but surprise me!” It’s okay if you have an “everyman protagonist” (The Lego Movie) or if your story is about a rag‐tag bunch of people in space (Guardians of the Galaxy, or alternatively, Star Wars) – what really matters is the execution, or what you do with those characters and set‐ups. That’s where the originality comes in. That being said, here are a few that leap to mind:

-Women with no agency! Or alternatively, women who are portrayed with agency only to have it stripped from them at important points in the story by male counterparts.

– Actually, on that note: stereotyping certain genders, races, or sexual orientations into negative tropes like “the magical ethnic minority” or “token black person” or “exceptionally shallow and flamboyant gay best friend” at all. For a comprehensive list, Google “gender/racial/ethic/gay/transgender/bisexual tropes in media.”

-“You were really working for the bad guys all along.”

-Gritty for the sake of gritty, not because it actually works or makes sense.

-Teen love triangles.

-The ex (Marine, Army, Navy, etc.) whose family or significant other is kidnapped or killed, and must rescue them/seek vengeance. (Sorry, but I’ve read this script a hundred times)

-Scripts that are mostly music‐video segments strung together without much story.

-Manic Pixie Dream Girls

-Inexplicably bloodthirsty military males

-The scientist who knows everything. Ever.

-The brooding, emotionally unavailable romantic interest with no reason to be brooding or emotionally unavailable.

-The hacker who can hack into anything. Ever. Also, it’s probably a guy who lives in his parents’ basement.

-The magical cure‐all that can bring everybody back to life if they die, so there are no consequences or stakes!

-The love interest because there needs to be a love interest.

-The unnecessary cliffhanger, because it’s an unnecessary trilogy!

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

-Write.

-Rewrite. One of the most common things I hear is “I hate rewriting my material.” Nobody likes taking a chainsaw to their baby, but more often than not it’s a vital part of the creative process. Let’s face it, we’d all like to believe we’re capable of writing a perfect first draft, but in reality turning out something great takes a lot of work and usually a good number of drafts. As a script reader, I see that squeamishness about rewriting get in the way of some good scripts, and that’s a real shame when they could be great scripts. Just “polishing” your material is sort of like watering around a sick plant and expecting it to improve.

-For screenwriters: make every scene worth watching. Almost every scene should a) have some sort of conflict, be it internal or external, b) move the story forward, and c) tell us more about the characters involved.

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

I have actually read several, but most of them were under an NDA, so unfortunately I can’t share any loglines. Sorry.

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

The Nicholl is definitely worth submitting to, as there is some fairly significant exposure in the industry the farther you make it into the competition. I would also recommend submitting a polished script to the Black List.

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

You can get more information at www.redpenscriptconsulting.com or send me an email at redpenscriptconsulting@gmail.com. I also have LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. If you’re just looking to get your script proofed, though, I would check out my friend’s fantastic service at www.scriptproofed.com

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

Strawberry‐rhubarb is always an instant win with me, but sometimes I like a good old-fashioned apple topped with vanilla ice cream. Am I allowed to have two favorites?

Ask a Fount-of-Knowledge Script Consultant!

Matt Lazarus

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 Matt Lazarus of The Story Coach.

Matt Lazarus has worked in the industry since 2003. He started in development with jobs at Untitled Entertainment, CAA, and Platinum Studios (Cowboys and Aliens). He joined the WGA in 2007 by selling a horror script to RKO, and he sold a movie to Cartoon Network in 2011. Matt’s story coaching was designed to be affordable, regular, and useful, and he excels at breaking advanced concepts into simpler processes and exercises.

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

Short Term 12, a thoughtful, sad drama about a foster home for displaced youth and the human condition. I saw the trailer and it hooked me. The world, performances and characters are all on point. It’s a great example of a drama, and of wringing the most entertainment and potential out of a simple concept.

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

I moved to Los Angeles in 2003, and I got my first assistant job after working really hard at an unpaid internship. I wanted to be a writer, and I talked about it way too much. Anyway, I got good at reading scripts and it always provided me an entry to meeting lit agents and executives who wanted to ask follow up questions on material. I’ve been a freelance reader for some studios for years, and there was a time I was even unironically working on a book on how to cover (most of it made it onto my blog). I’ve been a sporadically working WGA writer since 2007, but the financial security of coverage has always given me something to fall back on.

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

Good writing is hard to define. You want it to be accessible: a mediocre scifi appeals to scifi fans, a great one appeals to everyone. You want it to be engaging: no one goes to the movies to not be affected. You want it to help your career. It’s great to sell a script, but if a script doesn’t sell but gets me in a room with someone who can hire me for my next job, I’ll take it.

Anything can be learned. Not everyone who studies piano will become Glen Gould, but they will get somewhat better at piano. I was pretty cineliterate when I moved to LA, and my years in the development trenches helped me marry my base of knowledge to a working understanding of how the industry works and what the powers that be tend to look for.

4. What are the components of a good script?

“Good” is a hard term to define, a semantic minefield. The components of a good script are the same as the bad ones: they both have the same main four (character names, dialogue, sluglines,descriptions), they both take up the same amount of space.

The difference is harder to measure. We see a thousand faces a day, but only a few make us stop and say wow. We hear new songs on the radio every day, few of them will become our favorite. Most would agree that a good writer can do more in the same space than a bad writer, but the ways in which they are better will always and should always be argued over.

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

The most common is writing a script without a premise. I use something called the premise test. It breaks things down to what’s simple. It’s not the only way to look at scripts, but it’s as good as any, better than most:

“An <ADJECTIVE> <ARCHETYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and (optionally) learns <THEME>.

This seems simple, but the doing is the real meat of the movie. If a naive accountant must raise 100k or his daughter dies, different doings give you very different movies (for example, he could win a surf contest, kill a vampire lord, or invent a time machine and go back to 1979). If you can’t explain what’s interesting about your script in 50 words, you’re unlikely to improve things by writing out 100 boring pages.

Writing is a lot like being a chef. Both are creative forms that have structural limits and immense room for interpretation. Tastes are subjective, but a good chef can anticipate the audience and when he serves something he should have a rough sense of why the average patron might find it delicious.

Most writers write without a real sense of the audience. We’re writing to entertain, to deliver a satisfying emotional experience to the audience. If a writer isn’t writing with a sense of empathy for the audience, the end result is likely to be disappointing.

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

-Scripts about Hollywood power brokers written by people who haven’t met Hollywood power brokers.

-TV pilots that spend their entire length explaining how we got to the premise without every showing what’s fun or interesting about the premise (see #5). There won’t be a second episode. What are you saving it for?

-Comedies that aren’t funny. I recommend taking an improv class and reading the UCB Handbook.

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

The word “rules” needs to die. It always starts a fight. People have an unending appettite for hearing that they can write, but any suggestion of how one might approach writing is generally taken as a suggestion of how one ought to write, and then an unproductive argument ensues. Here are three general principals:

-Entertain. You should know exactly what feeling you want to create in your audience.

-Use unity. Once you’ve set up your script, you want everything to feel connected, organic, and like a ramification of what’s come before. Bad scripts keep inventing random stuff throughout the second act, and it leads to a script that feels arbitrary.

-Be specific. A lot of writers will write in variables, keeping things loose (my character is either an architect or a deli owner… I haven’t decided which) because they think it will prevent them from getting lost or stuck in the later stages. This never works. Imagination thrives on immediacy and specifics. It’s better to commit to an idea and follow it to its conclusion. Even if you went in a wrong direction, the specifics you generate add value to your story. If you keep things vague, you’re building on sand and it’s hard to move the story forward when things exist in a vacuum.

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

In 2003 I read a really funny script called Underdogs. I couldn’t stop reading it or quoting the dialogue. It ended up turning into DODGEBALL starring Vince Vaughan. The movie is really funny, the script is funnier.

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

It depends on the contest. When I was at big companies, execs would usually read the top Nicholl scripts out of a morbid curiosity, but other big script contests (Scriptapalooza comes to mind) would try to get executives to read their top three, and the execs were lukewarm. For instance, a lot of people are selling off the Black List right now. It’s useful now, but might not be in three years.

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

I can always be reached at thestorycoach.net.

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

Humble pie. If you’re serious about writing, you’ll be served it more times can be counted. Alternately, strawberry rhubarb. I’m from Vermont, and it reminds me of a childhood garden.