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 Marlene Sharp

Marlene.Sharp.Halloween.2019

Marlene Sharp is a creative and business-savvy entertainment multi-hyphenate who originally hails from New Orleans but is now a (San Fernando) Valley girl. Firmly ensconced in LA life, Marlene recently served as Director, Production at LEVEL-5 abby, home of YO-KAI WATCH and other hit video game-based franchises.

Formerly, as Producer, TV Series, at Sega of America, Marlene worked on much more than the Teen Choice Award-nominated Cartoon Network series SONIC BOOM. For example, her Hedgehog duties took her to the heights of nerd-dom as an official San Diego Comic-Con 2017 panelist.

 As a freelance journalist, Marlene concentrates on pop culture for buzz-worthy fan destinations, such as DOGTV, ToonBarn.comGeekified.net, and CultureSonar.com. As a short film auteur, she has snagged recognition at the Kids First! Film Festival, the Canine Film Festival, the San Luis Obispo Film Festival, and many more.

Marlene is the proud winner of 2019 LA Shorts International Film Fest Script Competition (an Oscar and BAFTA-qualifying fest), at which her backdoor sitcom pilot received a staged reading by The Groundlings. And as a human being, she loves dogs. For proof of the aforementioned, please see her website www.pinkpoodleproductions.com.

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

I love Shia LaBeouf’s screenplay for his autobiographical film Honey Boy. The storytelling is clever! 

Podcasts are a relatively new obsession of mine, and there are a few standout wordsmiths. American Scandal (Lindsay Graham); Broken: Jeffrey Epstein (Adam Davidson, Julie K. Brown); Gangster Capitalism (Andrew Jenks); and Hitman (Jasmyn Morris) immediately come to mind.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

My start in the biz was almost my end in the biz. I was bitten during pre-K and subsequently began serious research on kids in show business. Sesame Street was the inspiration. It seemed like a neat place to be, and I wanted in. During grade school, I devoured library books about stage moms and such, and then told my mother that I needed an acting agent. She said ‘no’ and encouraged me to play with my Barbies instead, which I did in earnest. She continued tough love at every turn and for many years. When I declared a Drama/Communications major in college, though, it was time for the Sharp family to face the music . . . and drama! 

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

If one is industrious enough, then one could self-teach. For today’s inquisitive, budding writer, there are so many resources (many are free or low cost): books, eBooks, seminars, writers’ groups, classes, online classes, podcasts, YouTube videos. Perhaps the best resource, though, is actual content consumption, especially in the genres that one loves best. 

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Relatable characters and story, clever dialogue, and an unexpected plot turn or two are elements of my favorite scripts. Good non-sequiturs also tickle me!

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

Spelling and grammar errors abound. They’re everywhere!

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m really tired of the deus ex machina that recur in garden-variety superhero/fantasy movies, such as the uber hero or uber anti-hero – with his/her signature moves – who appears at the eleventh hour. In my opinion, Joker is groundbreaking (and therefore entertaining), because it discards the usual cliches.

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

1) Spell check

2) Proofread

3) Patience, and lots of it.

Have you ever read a spec script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Yes! A spec script for The Simpsons by my friend Adam Kosloff. The premise is absurd and hilarious. Adam and his writing partner nail Bart’s character; he becomes a grilled cheese celebrity chef. The humor is magical, laugh-out-loud funny. I’ll never forget it.

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

Definitely worth it! Such cost-effective personal marketing! Highly recommend!

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

1) My business website: www.pinkpoodleproductions.com

2) My script and bible doctoring services: www.wefixyourscript.com 

3) My CV: www.linkedin.com/in/marlenesharp

4) A few of my credits: www.imdb.me/marlenesharp

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

A solid tie between pumpkin and chocolate!

pumpkin pie 2chocolate pie

Some tasty tidbits to tide you over

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Go ahead and dig in! More than enough to go around!

Maximum Z HQ is in a transitional phase, geographically speaking, so all attention and efforts are focused on that for the next two weeks.

As a result, no new posts until at least the end of the month.

In the meantime, here are some classic posts from years past.

Enjoy.

All that on a single piece of (digital) paper?

The good bad of your antagonist

Introduce your character with character

The twiddling of thumbs is strictly prohibited

Characters are people!

Work those writing muscles!

I see what you did there, Mr. Kasdan

Respect your reader/audience

That’s not the question you should be asking

Hey! Long time no (preferred form of communication)

A big stove with lots of burners

jayne
Always something cookin’ in this kitchen

Thanks to a big, determined push, I managed to wrap up the initial edit of the pulp spec last night. Amazingly, it’s still 116 pages. Much as I’d love to take another pass on it, a better option is to gently nudge it aside and let it simmer for a few months.

In the meantime, my attention now turns to a few other items, including providing some script notes and a major overhaul of one of the low-budget comedies.

To some, it might seem I’m taking on too much. Others might think it’s great to be so busy. No matter which opinion you have, it all comes down to how the individual (i.e. yours truly) sees it.

Me, I enjoy the diversity and variety. I like to work on my own material AND read other people’s stuff. All that mental stimulation helps me in the long run; the equivalent of maintaining a regular workout schedule at the gym. Or in my case, a steady regiment of training runs.

Always working on something, or even adding some reading and watching into the mix, not only helps your creativeness, but your actual output. Wouldn’t you say your writing skills are significantly better today than they were, say, a year ago? How about compared to when you just started out? I know mine are. Especially in terms of the latter.

All that being said, I think there’s a big difference between being a productive writer and just being a non-stop writing machine. A productive writer definitely produces material, but they also take the time to have a life outside of writing. The machine is just full speed ahead and don’t let up. Granted, there are some who can do both, and kudos to them. I prefer to be the former.

I also don’t have any problem with transitioning to a new project once one is completed. Even though I haven’t directed all attention on the new one, it’s always been in the back of my mind. Maybe an idea about it would pop, which would then be added to an always-handy list, then brought back out later. You might have a different approach, but this is what works for me. Everybody writes in their own way.

In the meantime, my nimble little fingers will now get a bit of a rest while I dive into the aforementioned giving of notes. And once all of those are done, the dust gets blown off the keyboard and the cycle repeats.

Proofreading Q&A panel – part 2

Tammy Gross
Tammy Gross

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Bill Donovan and friend (friend occupying Bill’s lap)

Here is the second of a two-part panel discussion with professional proofreaders Tammy Gross of proofmyspec.com and Bill Donovan of screenwritingcommunity.net about proofreading and its connection with screenwriting, along with some info about the proofreaders themselves.

Part one can be found here.

When you proofread a screenplay, do you also take on the role of story analyst?

Tammy Gross (TG): Not as a primary service, but yes. Since I’m reading it anyway, I do offer inexpensive add-ons if a writer wants some basic “coverage.” And even with proofreading, there are some story issues which may be addressed during the edit if there’s a problem with consistency and/or continuity.

Before I started my proofreading service, I took a course on story analysis and offered a coverage service. I soon learned how bad formatting and text were too distracting for my left brain. It’s agony for me to look past multiple errors/issues.

Bill Donovan (BD): To a limited degree, yes. However, I put these and other words at the top of every set of notes I give back with the proofread copy:

“These are not the words of an expert script analyst … I strongly hope not to hurt your feelings … To the extent that you find my comments on your story to be wrong-headed, pointless, or insensitive, you are hereby counseled and, with regret for any hurt feelings, encouraged to ignore them.”

What’s your writing background?

TG: The agony of trying to look past typos sent me down an editing path in my 20s. I read a book published through a major publishing house that had multiple errors in the soft-cover version. I sent my corrections to the publisher, and the author contacted me personally to thank me. Ever since, I’ve honed my editing skills.

My life plan was “sing while I’m young and write when I’m old.” I did write a couple of novels in my 20s and managed to have some sort of writing or editing responsibility in every “real” job I ever worked, whether at a church, a bank or Fortune 500 company.

In 2008, while taking a break from singing, I learned about a couple of female pirates. These historical swashbuckling stories fascinated me. I traveled the world researching pirates (including falling victim to real ones in the Bahamas) and learning about writing screenplays. I haven’t looked back.

So far, every script I’ve entered in contests has placed or won. In fact, my first script won the first contest I ever entered. Since then, I’ve realized that my ability to write in “the language of screenplay” was getting me further than better storytellers due to their weaker technical skills.

I’m currently writing an adventure story for a producer who found me because of one of my scripts (which I also turned into a YA book).

BD: -Screenplay contest judge (three contests)
-Screenplay contest executive (11 screenplay contests, 5 scene-writing contests, two logline contests)
-Two of my own screenplays won three first prizes equaling $30,104 in prize money in today’s dollars.
-Former Editor of Creative Screenwriting Magazine
-Author of three e-books for screenwriters to date; a fourth is upcoming
-USC Master of Fine Arts, Screenwriting and Filmmaking
-Copy desk chief at a daily newspaper, the Morristown, N.J., Daily Record
-Copy editor at the Associated Press
-Copy editor at another daily newspaper, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.
-Copy editor for several business-to-business trade publications
-11,200+ published pages and screenplays edited/proofread over the years
-News stories I wrote and/or edited won five national journalism awards.

How’d you get into proofreading?

TG: Totally by accident. I started a screenwriting group where we would table-read 10 pages of each writer’s script. I found myself making lots of corrections on everybody’s pages, and many of them asked me to proofread their entire scripts. It was a little overwhelming, due to also running a thriving music-arranging business at the time, so I put up a website to help me prioritize and charged a low but fair fee.

And it’s good that I did, because after the 2007 writers’ strike, followed by the recession, the spec-writing business boomed while music arranging fizzled.

BD: For an upcoming book, I surveyed and interviewed producers, agents, screenplay readers, directors, contest judges, and contest executives, asking them for their comments on the most common and the worst mistakes they see. Within the screenplay, proofreading and editing mistakes were named both the most common and most disliked by people in the industry.

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

TG: The order page functions as a quote calculator, or send an email anytime: Proofreader@ProofMySpec.com

BD: Email me at Bill@screenwritingcommunity.net or use this form at my website.

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

TG: Humble. I should eat more of that and less Key lime.

BD: 1. Great pizza. 2. Pumpkin, my own homemade recipe. 3. Blueberry, Comstock filling, augmented.