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.

Saying more with less

The digital version of this is inevitable
The digital version of this is inevitable

Logline and synopsis update!

Just some minor tweaking of the logline, and the synopsis is “good, but too long.” Could I maybe tighten it up, and how about ending with a cliffhanger?

You mean after spending so much time delicately crafting everything so it all flowed smoothly, I’m supposed to just go in and hack it all up?

Exactly.  Streamline what I already have, cut the non-essentials, and focus solely on the main storyline.

This was challenging, but it had to be done (and could potentially help me get over my dislike of writing a synopsis in the first place)

I worked my way through it and ended up with a tighter, better version, including a double cliffhanger.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever heard was during a workshop with UCLA’s Richard Walter:

Write as if ink costs a thousand dollars an ounce.

Which are you more likely to want to read? A script with lots of white space on the page, or one with big, black blocks of dialogue and action lines?

It’s not enough to have a well-crafted story. You want the words and pages to really move, and a minimal amount of text can help make that happen.

Go through that scene you just finished. Figure out how to shorten it, keeping only what’s necessary.

Don’t think anything can be cut? Look again. Adverbs and prepositional phrases are good places to start.

You want the reading experience to be a breeze, not a slog. Too many words can do that.

-Finally attempted the Great Baklava Experiment. Apart from somewhat time-consuming and working with phyllo dough, not as difficult as I thought.  Maybe a little too much sauce, which is probably better than not enough.

Overall, consider it a success.

Now to figure out what to make next.

So close I can taste it

Not my first choice for a celebratory meal

You know that feeling when you’ve been working on something for a very long time, and then you get to the last part? The little voice inside you saying, “Don’t stop! You’re almost there!”

That’s where I am with this edit/polish.

One scene remains to be rewritten. I did a lot of last-second rewriting throughout the whole thing over the past couple of days, but this one’s pretty important – wrapping up some minor subplots. It would be too easy to fall into the trap of putting too much into it, so this is going to take some planning.

It was a challenge to go through this as both writer and editor. Not only did I have to make sure everything was working in terms of the plot, story, character development, and that kind of thing, but also had to keep an eye out for spelling mistakes, overuse of prepositional phrases, repetitive dialogue, etc.  End result – leaner, tighter, faster-moving pages.  I hope.

Also nice – page total down 4 to 111, and I already know a few things here and there that could be taken out, or at least changed.  Part of that will also depend on the feedback and comments I get from the select few I’ll ask to read this latest draft. Count me among those who appreciate constructive criticism.

-Movie of the Moment – DARK SHADOWS (2012). Entertaining, but poorly written. Too much tell, not enough show. Lots of set-ups without payoffs, and vice versa. Characters disappear for 30+ minutes. Didn’t like the ending either.  Just because you like the guy who wrote PRIDE, PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES or ABRAHAM LINCOLN, VAMPIRE HUNTER doesn’t mean you should have him write your movie. Incidentally, the trailer for the latter made K laugh harder than anything in the movie we came to see.

I thought Johnny Depp did a pretty good job as Barnabas, but I wonder how he would do in a non-quirky role. (Although I am interested to see the forthcoming LONE RANGER, but not because of Depp).

Not necessarily something I was looking forward to, but glad I only paid $6 to see it. Also – way too many trailers!  Ben Affleck’s ARGO looks really good. Adam Sandler’s THAT’S MY BOY looks like total shit.

-If you’re in the Westwood area of Los Angeles this summer and want to get really serious about writing a screenplay, you can’t go wrong by clicking here.

A decent wifi connection will set you free

I'm in the mid-upper left. Where are you?

I had a great conversation with Richard Walter on yesterday’s edition of The Script Adventurer!.  He was his usual entertaining, anecdote-filled self. (Missed it? Never fear – it’ll play again Sunday at 7PM PST on radioslot.com)

There were two things in particular he talked about I thought were extremely important for any screenwriter to keep in mind.

When asked what was the most important thing any writer should know, his answer was Move The Story Forward.  If you have an interesting story that really flows and holds the reader’s attention, then your script is already that much more ahead of others.

Scene A should lead into Scene B, which leads to Scene C, and so on and so on. But if Scene R can fit between B and C, and not disrupt the flow, then it shouldn’t have been Scene R in the first place, or maybe R needs a serious rewrite.

The other thing was that unless you want to be part of series television, it’s not absolutely necessary to live in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter.  In fact, he added that it may even be an advantage:  you’re not constantly surrounded by people in the industry.  I cited Nick Schenk of Minneapolis, who wrote GRAN TORINO.

A big reason for this shift in thinking is the internet.  Query letters by email. Scripts attached as a pdf.  A ton of resources and groups available online.  I’ve connected with writers around the world via Twitter, which at times seems completely mind-blowing.  I could ask for feedback on a script and get responses from just about anywhere.

With a solid script and an internet connection, there’s no stopping you.

Always room for improvement

Some minor fixes can make all the difference

When it rains, there are more problems out on the roadways, resulting in more work for us already heavily-burdened traffic reporters. End result – I’ve worked a lot of hours this week, so not as much time to write as I’d hoped.  A couple of pages a day at best.  Positive spin – nearing the end of Act Two.

Even though I’m working off an outline, sometimes a new approach to a scene will pop in.  Will this work? Does it impact the scene better than the original? Is there conflict? Does it move the story forward?  If it involves the main character, is he the one driving the action? (important questions all).  If I can say ‘yes’ to these questions, then I give it a try.  Lately, it’s been working out.

Case in point: the current sequence.  The way I had it was good, but thought it could be better.  I wanted to expand on it a little.  Keep the tension going.  What would be the most effective way to accomplish this?  I came up with a few different scenarios, finally picking the one I thought worked best. The reshuffling of and minor rewriting of the involved scenes wasn’t as bad as I expected, and I liked the end result.

-My guest on The Script Adventurer! this coming Monday will be UCLA Screenwriting Dept Head Richard Walter.  If you have a question you’d like to ask him, email it to me and I’ll try to ask it during the show.

-Movie of the Moment – JOHN CARTER (2012). This was not the debacle I’d been led to believe; it was actually pretty good. Although I didn’t see the need for the 3-D.

For the most part, I liked it, but some of the story details were a little confusing.  I remember that from the book as well.  If I really like a movie I see in the theatre, I’d consider planning ahead to get it on DVD. I didn’t get that vibe, but I’m more likely to read the book again.

I was surprised Michael Chabon had a hand in the script. I can see that, especially after the great job he did on SPIDER-MAN 2.

Disney’s marketing department completely messed up.  You’d think they’d know better.  A sci-fi adventure story with romantic elements.  How can you not sell that?

I thought Taylor Kitsch did an okay job in the title role, but he looks too generic. A character like this needs more than just a pretty face and muscles.