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.

I (and others) will not hesitate to help

Unless you’re collaborating with a co-writer, the actual process of screenwriting is for the most part a solitary process. All of the work involved depends on you, and you alone. It can be tough and frustrating.

And that’s just the writing part. We haven’t even touched on dealing with notes, rewriting, or marketing your script.

It’s an uphill climb. Practically vertical, even.

“Argh! It’s too much for one person to take on by themselves!” you might exclaim.

Never fear. You are most assuredly not alone. Every other screenwriter has gone through the exact same things you have, and will continue to do so.

And one of the most powerful weapons to help you get through it all is easily at your disposal: those other writers.

I can honestly say both my writing and my career (such as it is) would not be at the level they are today if it hadn’t been for other writers lending their helping hands over the years.

Whether it was notes, leads, or connections, my network of writing associates has proven to be an indispensable resource.

The writing community wants to see writers succeed. Sure, we all want it for ourselves, but if you can give somebody else a boost, why wouldn’t you?

I get all the usual “scripts wanted” emails. About 98 percent of the time, I don’t have a script that matches what somebody’s looking for. But due to interaction with all my fellow screenwriters, I might see something and think “Hey! I think _____ has a script like this.” I’ll then forward it to that writer, saying I thought of them when I saw it. Sometimes they’ll have already seen it and applied, or it’s totally new and they’re very grateful for the lead.

Additionally, because I’ve spent so much time cultivating relationships, a lot of these writers know me and what scripts I have, so they’ll send me a listing. Even if it doesn’t work out, it’s still more results than I would have gotten by myself. Like with the writing, any progress is good progress.

And speaking of the writing, after I think a latest draft is ready to show, I’ll go to my usual circle of reliable note-givers to get their feedback, and they’ll do the same with me. Every once in a while a writer I’ve only interacted with via social media will contact me, asking if I’d be willing to take a look at their script. If there’s no deadline, and I can squeeze it in, I’ll gladly tell them to send it along.

There will also be those times where you’re feeling low; like nothing’s going right. Guess what? This is definitely another one of those “it happens to everybody” scenarios, and believe me – everybody can relate to it. Want to talk about it and get it off your chest? Writers are willing to listen – and offer a solution if they can. Just getting it out of your system can be helpful.

Also very important – return the favor. Somebody’s helped you out? Offer to do the same – in any capacity you can. When I ask somebody for notes, I make sure to say I’m more than happy to return the favor – because I am. They were willing to put in the time and effort to help me, so the least I can do is the same for them.

A big part of all of this is to accomplish any of this, you have to become part of the community itself. Fortunately, even that’s pretty easy. There are so many ways to get to know your fellow writers.

My recommendations:

-screenwriting groups on Facebook, but mostly the smaller ones. The bigger ones tend to be a lot of egos and sniping.

-Script Pipeline’s #PipelineWriters on Twitter. 5pm PST on Fridays. Especially helpful if you like mugs.

-#scriptchat on Twitter. 5pm PST on Sundays

Regarding all of these, groups and communities overall, you get out of them what you put into them.

Leave your ego at the door. Be nice to people. Treat them the way you’d want to be treated.

Ask questions. Make it about them, not you.

Establish relationships. Be supportive for good news and bad news.

You may be working on your scripts by yourself, but you’re most definitely not alone.

Ups, downs, and everything in between

What a hectic bunch of weeks.

Been splitting time among several projects, including developing a few new ideas, including sketching out an idea for a new short, and the ongoing rewrite/overhaul of the horror-comedy.

Also been working through a lengthy list of specs from fellow writers in need of notes. Latest tally: halfway there! At this rate, hope to be totally done with it by the end of March.

Just wrapped up the latest batch of query letters. No read requests yet, which is admittedly kind of disappointing, but no big deal. Did get a few “not for me”s and “not taking on any new clients right now”, plus one “we’re a bit swamped at the moment, but you can try again in a few months”.

There was also one “we don’t rep writers”, which raises the questions ‘then why is Literary Management part of your firm’s name’ and a ‘writers submit here’ link on your website? Am I missing something?

Yet with everything I’ve been doing, there are still times where good things and positive news seem unattainable. I still have no intention to stop trying, but as any screenwriter will tell you, somedays it’s just really tough.

As I’ve said in numerous conversations, I enjoy the writing part of this too much to want to even consider giving up. Many of you have been more than generous with your encouragement and positive vibes, and I really appreciate it. Never underestimate the effectiveness of telling somebody you believe in them.

So as this week wraps up and we head into the next one, I’ll keep at it, doing what I can to make the dream come a little bit closer to becoming a reality. Sure, it might not happen right away, but like with the writing itself, any progress is good progress.

Q & A with Aiko Hilkinger

Aiko Hilkinger is an award-winning, queer, German-Japanese screenwriter from Colombia. She primarily works in fantasy and animation, and her pilot “Kate and Ava” placed her in Network ISA’s “Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2021”. Hilkinger creates magical worlds filled with diverse characters that children and teenagers can relate to and see themselves represented in. Not only does she strive for diversity and inclusion in her stories, but most importantly, she believes that through her animation work she can connect with kids and help teach healthy communication and to own up to their mistakes.

When she’s not writing, Hilkinger works as a script analyst for big screenwriting contests and has recently started her own script consulting business.

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

I feel like I’ve said this to the point where the people who know me have gotten tired of hearing it, but Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts on Netflix has to be my pick. I honestly think the show made my 2020 much more bearable while also blowing my mind with their imaginative storytelling. The show was planned as a three-season arc and you can tell when watching it that it was meticulously planned as the story is just so tight and has a clear message all the way throughout.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I actually don’t feel like I’ve “made it” into the industry yet. I joke that I graduated from “baby writer” to “toddler writer” in 2020 since it was a learning year for me. After I graduated from film school, one of my teachers helped me get an internship with an agency where I perfected my coverage skills. After that I applied to work as a script analyst for a contest site while entering some contests here and there for the first time.

I won some pretty cool awards this year and was named one of the Top 25 Screenwriters to Watch in 2021 by Network ISA. I’m looking forward to new opportunities this year, like getting signed and hopefully selling my first script or getting staffed in a room.

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

I think you can teach someone what to look out for (structure, format, clear goals, etc.) in a script but after a while it becomes a feeling. It sounds strange, and it definitely is, but after reading as many scripts as I have, you start to very easily pick up on things that make a script good or bad. At times it has everything to do with those “rules” we’re taught in film school, and it’s easy to technically say why something isn’t working, but it’s only through practice of your own craft and opening yourself up to criticism that you really learn what works or doesn’t for you, and how to break those rules.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A good script has something to say. I’m a sucker for a good theme, and I always suggest looking at it as a “thematic statement” or “the lesson the protagonist or antagonist will learn”. When a writer knows what they want to say with their piece, it gives the story direction, and it is much more enjoyable to see them get there.

Oftentimes when a script doesn’t know where it’s going, you can feel it, it’s like you’re wandering around aimlessly through a world, surrounded by characters who don’t know what they want and thus you don’t know what they need. Definitely start your writing journey by knowing your why (why do you want to tell this story and why does it need to be told now?).

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

One of the most common mistakes I see is characters not having a clear goal. A goal is the driving force behind the protagonist accomplishing something by the end of the script and without it, the story can drag on and become repetitive. We don’t want to see someone live their life day to day because it’s not dramatic; not every action pushes the story forward. That’s why it’s important that not only the protagonist has a clear goal, but the antagonist does as well, since they’re the ones who will get in the way of the protagonist.

I also recommend giving other characters goals of their own so that they can be more rounded and have something going on that gives them more depth other than doing whatever the protagonist needs them to do.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m exhausted of seeing every queer story be about “coming out” and dealing with homophobic families, friends, etc. It’s the same annoyance I have about POC films, especially Asian-American stories, only being about the struggle of immigration. There are so many other beautiful stories that can be told outside of the constant struggle to be accepted by a straight, white society that need to be told in order to showcase the beauty of our cultures and communities.

I want to watch a film about queer love that has nothing to do with strife or struggle, and I’m so happy that we’re slowly starting to get there with shows like Schitt’s Creek and She-Ra. And I would love to take my family to watch a film with characters that look like us where they’re just living their lives unapologetically, like Crazy Rich Asians and One Day at a Time.

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

Write with a purpose. Know your why. Why are you writing this story? And why is it important to tell it now?

Fill out a bullet point list of your main structure in order to know your main emotional turns before you start writing.

Always outline, even if you don’t like it. Look at your outline as your first draft.

Make sure your characters have clear goals (wants) and clear needs (areas for growth).

Sneak exposition through conflict.

Make sure your characters are emotionally motivated.

Antagonists should have a clear driving force behind them.

Read as much as you can and make it a variety (both produced and peer scripts) in order to figure out what works for you in terms of storytelling, and to practice pinpointing why they don’t work for you.

You don’t have to take every note you get. Take the ones that resonate and throw away the ones that don’t.

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

The main reason is that it’s clear the writer has something they want to say. I know I’ve mentioned this a lot, but it truly is the most important thing you can do. The second I get your voice and understand your point of view, I’m in. It’s our job to make that as clear as possible because our voice is what will set us aside from other writers. It’s what we bring to the table, what we’ll get hired based on, so it’s the most important thing to develop. And through a lot of practice, giving and receiving notes, you’ll get there.

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

Contests can be worth it if you have money to splurge. I know a lot of people who haven’t had a lot of success from them and it can definitely be frustrating. I’ve had a very 50/50 experience. I didn’t make it into a few contests that I was excited about, but then I made it into one that really, really worked for me.

You have to be very clear with yourself about what you want out of these contests (exposure, management, etc.) and make sure you know they’re not your only chance to get into the industry. Also, be sure to ask fellow writers about their experiences in order to find out which contests are the best for you and your goals.

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

I am super active on Twitter – @aikohwrites. That’s where you can find me saying things I probably shouldn’t. And if you’re interested in my coverage services, you can go to aikohilkinger.com/script-coverage to find more information.

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

This is such a good question! My favorite is apple. My mom has always had her own recipe and her apples for some reason always taste amazing. But if we’re being more specific, I love a good, warm and buttery strudel (maybe with some ice cream and caramel).

New year, new plans, and all that

It all comes down to a two-part question:

What do you hope to accomplish in 2021, and what are you going to do to make it happen?

This year for me is primarily about one thing: getting better, writing-wise. My screenwriting game needs to be severely upped if I want to make any kind of headway in becoming a working (i.e. paid) writer.

Part of this also involves totally stepping away from entering contests. Many are nothing more than a money drain – I’ve already saved over $1200 in registration fees – and I’d rather work on improving my craft.

And if I’m not spending money on contests, I plan to redirect it into another long-gestating project. Part of my 2020 involved writing a short script which I’d really like to make myself. After talking with a few filmmaker chums (many of whom offered up their services and advice), it’s definitely doable.

Another thing I’d like to accomplish this year is to read more scripts; at least one a week. Two, if possible. The Black List, produced works, what have you. Of the handful I’ve already enjoyed, it’s already been most helpful.

I’ve started reading and giving notes on other writers’ scripts. Always nice to see what others are up to and check out some original material, and it also lets me develop my analytical skills.

My approach to this year will be a little more laid back than in years past. The drive and desire are still there, but I want to enjoy my time making the journey more than focusing solely on the destination.

There will no doubt be the usual ups and downs. While the ups will be enjoyed and celebrated, the downs will be endured to the best of my ability, and then viewed through the lens of “what can be learned from this so it yields a more positive outcome next time?”.

As always, I am extremely grateful to all of you who’ve enjoyed my posts over this year and those past, and hope you decide to stick around for this one. I wish all of you a 2021 filled with numerous good writing days, positive career news, TV shows and movies you enjoy, and at least one piece of your pie of choice; sharing it is optional.