A (not) pre-written Q & A with Michael Tabb

Michael Tabb

Michael Tabb is a working screenwriter, decade-long current and active member of the WGA (the Writers Guild of America, West is the Hollywood screenwriters’ union), a multiple-award-winning screenwriting educator, and author of a film-festival-winning Best Screenplay. His new book, Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-By-Step Guide To Generating Stories (available now!) explains the secret of how he develops great, cohesive script ideas.

He has developed feature film projects for and with Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, The Canton Company at Warner Brothers, Imagine Entertainment, Mandeville Entertainment, Intrepid Pictures, Paradox Studios, Producers Sean Daniel, Lawrence Bender, Branko Lustig, Paul Schiff, comic book icon Stan Lee, writers Jonathan Hensleigh and Evan Spiliotopoulos, Directors Thor Freudenthal and Mike Newell, and actor Dustin Hoffman.

For more information about Michael and his book, please go to and register at: www.MichaelTabbWGA.com, or follow him on Twitter – @MichaelTabb

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

I recently watched the Netflix series Lost In Space and felt it did a lot of things right. The characters are really specific and strong, each with really unique qualities that separate them from each other. There was constant danger, whether through the hostile environment or the characters that found their way into the family’s graces (be they human or robotic). Meanwhile, each episode ends with a new and engaging development that hooks the viewers to binge another episode. Between Lost in Space and Stranger Things, I think Netflix is redefining the kind of television an entire family might gather around the flat screen to watch together.

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

Star Wars sparked my imagination, and I was drawing and creating science-fiction stories by the age of six. In middle school, I handwrote ten 20-24-page short-form adventure stories of a starship crew called The Alliance inspired by Star Trek. Each chapter was a new mission. I explored superhero and horror spoofs earlier in my high school days until I wrote my first short (44-page) screenplay in a modern, contemporary setting for my final English Lit paper. In short, the more mature I became, the more my stories grew more grounded and closer to reality.

Even though I loved writing, saying I had a knack for it would be far too generous. I was certainly a storyteller, but I was always academically far better at mathematics than English. I did, however, have a knack for drama. I took acting classes at South Coast Repertory and was actively involved in my high school drama program for all four years, participating in every play and musical I could. Acting taught me how important it was to define your character from all the others and to keep the tension at a level high enough to make each scene compelling. Every character had purpose, and it was true no matter what scene or show I was doing. These lessons carry over into writing, but because I wasn’t a gifted English student in my formative years, I never would have suspected I could have a career as a writer. I always thought I was going to be a character actor.

It took me many years and tremendous insight from my teachers at USC, NYU, and UCLA to make me a decent writer. They all earned their money. The time I spent analyzing characters and scripts as an actor was very helpful, including studying at the Atlantic Theater Company in NYC, a brainchild of the great American playwright David Mamet. It took a lot of work to understand how to do each aspect of concept creation and execution correctly. The only thing that came naturally is my escapist imagination.  The rest was hard-fought, learned, and earned over years of writing and rewriting.

What was the script you’d consider gave you your “big break”?

I want to pause a second to say that I think the cliché of miraculously getting that one big break that changes everything is a terribly unhealthy and damaging fallacy. One opportunity may lead to another, and sometimes it doesn’t. Most working writers are constantly “breaking in” over and over again. Anyone who makes a living wage as a creative in this business is fortunate. Just remember, we do this job for our insatiable love of telling great stories. If that’s not your goal, it won’t be worth the amount of work you have to put into this job. Trust me. People have won Academy Awards and not gotten a job for years afterwards. So, if you get a break, save up so the money lasts the unpredictable draughts and keep writing.

With that said, I’ll reply by talking about the script that landed me my first paycheck as a screenwriter.

I was exceptionally lucky that the first screenplay I ever wrote is the one that landed me an agent and my first writing deal. Even so, it didn’t happen overnight. It took several years for it to get into the hands of those in Hollywood that could make a difference for me, and I had written around ten scripts between having written my first and setting it up with producers. The option on that screenplay has since expired, and I own that script again. I still wish someone would make it. It’s a high-concept swashbuckler in the spirit of Shakespeare in Love, The Three Musketeers, and The Princess Bride. It’s a fun-spirited, romantic romp set in the south of France full of swords, gallantry, and a sense of humor.

Taking a look at your bio, you’ve worked in a lot of different genres. Are there any that hold a special appeal to you, and is there a genre you haven’t worked in yet, but would really like to try?

I’ve written in every genre I can think of, most of which were for money, including: rom-com, drama, western, war epic, historical, biopic, science fiction, fantasy, crime, thriller, horror, supernatural, action, and adventure. I love each genre differently and deeply for the gifts each offers us. While I’m very proud of the diversity and breadth of my stories, it has also been my greatest career shortcoming. It would have been a far smoother journey if I picked a lane and stuck with it a bit more, but that’s not how I work.

The more you prove yourself a master of one genre in our business, the more people pay you to write it for them. As an example of this in another profession, when an extremely famous comedic actor gets the chance to play a dramatic role, they often take a big hit in the pocketbook. They don’t get paid the same as they do in the genre of his or her specialty. Even so, working without constraints and limitations is worth it to me. I have a solid batting average for landing writing jobs on which I get to pitch.

When I decide to write a story about something, I refuse to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’m not going to force my story into a genre because that is my specialty. I would rather pick the genre that I feel will be the best and most poignant reality in which to tell it. The story tells me where it must go. Right now, I’m rewriting two screenplays simultaneously, an ensemble reunion-of-old-friends drama and a supernatural thriller. The project before that, which is still being developed, was a period adventure television show. I love writing period pieces, sci-fi, action, adventure, and anything remotely escapist. I adore them all.

What inspired you to write your book Prewriting Your Screenplay: A Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories?

I had kept a long document of all the tricks of the trade that I liked using best. It ran almost three hundred single-spaced pages. I developed my own approach to writing by putting those tricks together in a certain order. Since then, I have never had writer’s block.

I work on multiple projects at once, and I’ve been asked by tons of writers how I do what I do. Though editing takes a while, others have always been blown away by how quickly I can create a strong and cohesive initial draft. They’d take me to lunch and pick my brain. Later, they’d tell me I changed their lives and approach to developing stories.

I adore giving back, helping writers. Helping one person at a time was great, but I felt I could do better. I got more involved at the WGA, putting panels together for the Writers Education Committee, and I co-created the first ever WGA Mentor Program in my spare time. I guest lectured and spoke when asked in classrooms and served on panels for writer conferences. Finally, I bit the bullet and agreed to teach an actual class online in Full Sail University’s online MFA program while still taking writing gigs for companies like Universal Studios. I’m also going to speak at the Central California Writers Conference in late September.

When I was asked to be on a panel for the Screenwriters World Conference in L.A., I told Jeanne Bowerman of Script Magazine about my 284 pages of notes I planned to turn into a book one day when I had the time. She asked me to write some articles I could use as a kind of running start to writing the book about my method. So, I did that to get the ball rolling. As I fleshed those articles into a full-fledge book, Full Sail University liked the published articles I wrote on character creation so much, they asked me to take over the Character Creation and Development portion of their online MFA Creative Writing program. Based on that, I knew I was communicating my method well, and I should finish the book.

I figured the book was the very best way of helping the most writers at once. In short, it all stems from the hope of giving back to my craft. I am only as good as I am because the writers who came before me taught what they had learned. My goal was to take that knowledge another step forward in the hopes that someday my book will not only help others, but it will inspire another great writer to take my ideas a step further as well. In short, human knowledge is all about continuing to construct our Tower of Babel, evolving our art form by working together to save the world.

Yes, I said save the world.

I believe storytelling is how we inspire others to invent amazing technology, see the world from new perspectives, and provide a deeper understanding of humanity. So, teaching others to write better is my way of getting others to create stories that change the way we think. When we change the way people think, we can change the way people will behave and treat one another.

My job as a writer isn’t to just tell a cool story and make some money. I wouldn’t need to share my tricks if that were my only goal in this trade. Storytelling is an incredibly powerful medium. Think about how it can bring people to euphoric laughter and devastating tears over events that never even happened and characters that don’t exist. As Spider-Man has taught us all, with great power comes great responsibility. Writers have the ability to make the world better for having written their stories. If I help other writers be more effective, I could be helping thousands of writers convey their impactful messages, bettering our world through teaching empathy, understanding, and the potential paths forward (or to avoid) in order to achieve a greater tomorrow for us all.

Yes, that makes all of you writers out there potential superheroes.

With so many screenwriting books out there, what is it about yours that makes it especially unique?

I always said if I’m going to write something, it’s not going to be something they can find anywhere else done the same way. We can’t help but work off of some universally accumulated knowledge, like genre, character types, and three-act structure, but we can strike out on our own by presenting how to assemble them in a new way. The knowledge is all out there, but it’s about how you put the pieces together and in what order.

So many screenwriting books call themselves a “step-by-step” guide, but when you try to apply the steps in the order they offer them, it’s not a fluid roadmap you can follow to construct a story. It’s not really a step-by-step guide. It’s a series of things that leave giant holes for the writer to fill in to get from one step to the next. There’s a lot of explaining what things are and how they work, but they don’t tell the reader how to create those things for themselves. In fact, it’s a lot of analysis. Don’t get me wrong. They’re very educational, but being able to explain and understand the material makes you a potential critic who understands screenwriting and how it works, but it doesn’t necessarily make anyone a writer. They’re simply a more informed reader. This is a great thing, but it won’t get someone who wants to write to the goal of writing his or her own screenplay.

Prewriting Your Screenplay is actually a true-to-form, step-by-step process by which you construct an original story (starting with absolutely nothing at all) through answering questions and completing exercises at the end of every single chapter until you have a complete and original story idea with the characters perfectly designed to serve that cohesive story. It’s an instruction manual for putting together a story with all the elements that should fit perfectly together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Then, the book ends by explaining how to do the whole process in reverse in case you’re in a situation of having to fill in the blanks of a preexisting story idea.

The process explains to writers how I create a well-formulated foundation for a movie, whether working from a blank page forward or having to reverse engineer a soul into a preconceived plot idea. I give all I know and can think of to share with you. I’m keeping no secrets because there’s never a reason to keep the logic of how things work secret. No two writers would execute the same idea the same way, so, even if you have my technique, you’d never execute it the way I would. It’s everything that I learned and use when developing a project that has kept me writing as a decade-long, current and active WGA member.

I thought it was very interesting that you use the word “prewriting” in the book’s title, as opposed to simply “writing”. What’s the reasoning behind that, and how does prewriting apply to the craft of screenwriting?

Put simply, Prewriting is the opposite of rewriting. Rewriting is the work a writer does on a script after the first draft, and Prewriting is everything the writer creates before he or she writes the first draft. This entire book focuses on everything a writer needs to consider before writing “FADE IN,” the old-school first words of a screenplay.

There are a ton of books that explain writing and formatting the actual script. Nobody needs to write another book that explains script format. It’s been done to death.

This book explains how to assemble everything a writer needs in order to write a screenplay. It’s the foundation a writer builds upon. There are many things a writer should figure out before leaping into an outline. Doing this work up front will save writers an enormous amount of time normally spent rewriting after the fact trying to make the story congeal. If time is money, this book can save writers a fortune in rewrites.

And because this book is strictly about how to develop a story concept with an incredibly strong foundation and structure, it is applicable to all mediums of storytelling. It’s a universal storytellers playbook for formulating a cohesive narrative. I’m a screenwriter, so the examples throughout the book focus on films, but the logic of my foundation development for storytelling applies to any and all creative writing mediums, including stage plays, episodic series, comic books, novels, video games, animation, and all other media. In fact, someone told me they’re going to start using my method to redesign history lessons to teach history to their students. It’s applicable to anyone who can use storytelling in whatever they do to be more effective.

No doubt a lot of aspiring writers will use your book to improve their skills. Is there a particular piece of advice you think every writer should know?

Uh… My brain just exploded. That’s a book in itself. It’s a series of books! That said, I offer you these 10 pieces of advice:

  1. If you think you can live a happily doing anything else except screenwriting, this business is so obscenely tough, do something else. With books, you can self-publish. With playwriting, the production is not allowed to change the work without the playwright’s permission. Even in television, there are far more opportunities, and the writers have more say. In film, the writers are hired guns and the director is the creative king. In television, the director is the hired gun, and it’s the writers who develop the show and its seasons. I intend to make that jump when the timing is right, too.
  2. Write what you love and would pay to see, not what’s trendy.
  3. Rejection is common, and you should never take it personally. When you’re starting out, people are hesitant to bet on someone lacking experience. You need 50 to 100 rejections in order to get 1 yes. Even if you are not a good writer yet, you may find someone newer to the industry. This person may get what you’re trying to do and wants to work with you.
  4. Never argue about feedback with anyone giving you feedback as a friend or to help. You can ask questions for clarity, but once you understand the notes, thank the note giver profusely and shut the fuck up. Never argue. If you disagree with the notes, you simply don’t apply them. They’re bound to give you one or two notes that lead to a good change. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
  5. 99% of the time the note giver is correct that there is a problem where they said a problem occurs in your script. 99% of the time, the solution they offer is incorrect. The difference between the note-giver and you is that you are the writer of this story. You will need to figure out how the problem needs to be fixed in order to best serve the story you want told.
  6. Even a horrific writing experience or partnership is a good experience if you learn something meaningful from it.
  7. When you agree to work with someone, get the full terms of your understanding in writing, even a cowriter.
  8. Get in shape. I hate to admit it, but the entertainment business is a ridiculously shallow industry. People hire people they would want to spend time with, of course, and people want to spend time with those who look good and have the confidence that looking good provides them.  You do not have to be attractive; you just need to be the best version of you.
  9. You cannot be afraid to say no and walk away from a deal or offer. If the material isn’t getting you fired up, or the offer is going leave you feeling un-collaborative, it’s best not to engage in something you don’t feel really good about because that will leave an impression. You’ll just ending up not delivering and burning bridges, and there are only so many bridges in Hollywood because it’s such a small industry. Saying no to things you do not feel engaged by is actually a very good business decision. I recently had a dear friend bring me a project with big name people involved. I read the script and instantly knew it wasn’t for me. Friends and industry professionals understand and respect someone that isn’t desperate. They smell desperation from a mile away and find it repulsive.
  10. Always be working on multiple projects at a time. That one actually comes from Robert Zemeckis. I like to work on three. Producers have a slate of projects because they never know which one is going to get momentum or when it will happen. So should you. You never, as an artist, want to put all your eggs in one basket. That leaves the writer feeling desperate, and you know how Hollywood feels about people who are desperate.

You’re listed as serving on the WGA’s Writer’s Education Committee. What is that, and what sort of things do they do?

There are several committees on which WGA members may serve. Some focus on diversity groups and others on general membership. One of the latter is the Writers Education Committee. It was created in 2002 to develop programs that provide WGA members with practical, insider knowledge about how the industry works and how it is changing, emphasizing tips and tools to help writers succeed. The goal is providing the most up-to-date working knowledge for writers.

I’ve chaired and served on a ton of panels for the WEC about the most current trends on going from spec script to studio green light, packaging, multi-platform storytelling, getting writing work with overseas producers, pitching in Hollywood, etc. Any WGA member can join the WEC, run ideas for educational events by the committee, assemble a sub-committee (if approved), and create the event of his or her own design.

You’ve also done a lot of lecturing and moderated panels about screenwriting. Are there any particular points or lessons you make sure to include as part of those?

Be true to you. The only thing no other writer in the world can do is be you. Figuring out who you are, what you stand for, and the original things you want to say to the world before you die will make you a one-of-a-kind writer in this or any industry.

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

This is like asking that genre question again or asking someone to pick a favorite child. It’s just not right. I love rhubarb, coconut cream, apple, pumpkin, banana cream, mixed berry (any berry really – blackberry, boysenberry… is cherry a berry?), and don’t forget the oddly reptilian-named Turtle and Grasshopper pies. So long as it’s filled with something tasty, how can you go wrong? It’s pie. As long as it’s not from Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop in London, I’m game.

 

Sweeney Todd

I would like to add one more thing. The shocking and most wonderful thing for me so far has been the reception my book has received when requesting consideration for an endorsement. You can see a bunch of their responses on the Amazon page under EDITORIAL REVIEWS, including the creators and/or show runners of such shows as Lost, The Big Bang Theory, Hawaii Five-0, The Orville, screenwriters of the Dark Knight trilogy, Star Trek reboot, Beauty and the Beast, Guardians of the Galaxy, icons like Stan Leeand the most recent president of the WGA. After that are the endorsements from educators at AFI, USC, UCLA, NYU, and many more. You can read what they are saying and pre-order my book at: https://amzn.to/2HOMVFg.

Ask an Agent-turned-Script Consultant!

Michele Wallerstein

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 Michele Wallerstein.

Screenplay, Novel and Career Consultant, Michele works with writers to help get their work into shape so that it is marketable for the Hollywood community and/or the publishing world. Michele’s career consulting consists of critiquing your projects and/or having personal career conferences to answer questions that writers have about their creative work as well as questions about the business side of their creative life. Michele is the author of: “MIND YOUR BUSINESS: A Hollywood Literary Agent’s Guide To Your Writing Career”.

Prior to becoming a Consultant, Michele was a Hollywood literary agent where she represented Writers, Directors and Producers in Motion Pictures, Movies for Television and Television Series and has sold $1 Million spec scripts. Michele served as Executive Vice-President of Women In Film and was on the Board of Directors for many years. She owned The Wallerstein Company and guided the careers of writers such as Larry Hertzog (Tin Man, La Femme Nikita, 24), Christopher Lofton (Robinson Crusoe, Call of the Wild, Scarlett, True Women), Peter Bellwood (Highlander, La Femme Nikita), Bootsie Parker (Booty Call, Married, With Children, The Hughley’s), and many others.

Michele has been a Guest Speaker at numerous Film Festivals, Pitch Fests and Writer’s Groups all across the country. She teaches the ins and outs of the business of your writing career as well as how to get the most out of your material.

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

I adore the writing on “Downton Abbey” on PBS. Their character delineations are superb. The dialogue makes the stories come alive. Unfortunately, I rarely go to theaters for movies because most of them don’t seem to be made for grown-ups.

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

I began reading scripts about 100 years ago when I was an assistant to a literary agent. After becoming an agent, I continued to read everything I could get my hands on. These experiences gave me a world of knowledge and have been a great help to me as a screenplay consultant.

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

I’m not so sure it can be taught or learned. Anyone can learn the basics of screenwriting by taking classes and reading some of the many books available. However, understanding human nature and the psychology behind people’s actions and reactions comes with life experiences. If one doesn’t understand these things they will never get the importance of great dialogue.

4. What are the components of a good script?

In my experiences as an agent and as a consultant I find that adhering to the basic 3-act structure is invaluable. Along with that a writer must be able to write characters with heart, feelings, emotions and individual personalities. Grammar, spelling and syntax are also keys to good writing.

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

I often find that the characters are uninteresting and I don’t care about any of them. It’s also common to find people who try very hard to write something unusual and it comes across as too complicated, far-fetched or dull. If written well, a thriller, mystery, love story or romantic comedy can be a standout showpiece for a good writer.

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

I’m quite tired of action films and films with an abundance of blood and guts. Too many people have become dulled to violence and those scripts are written without decent stories or characters.

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

-Follow the accepted 3-act structure.

-When writing spec scripts it is a good idea to do at least 3 in the same genre.

-Have your scripts read by vetted professionals prior to trying to land an agent.

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

When I was an agent I read a spec by a new, young writer that knocked me out. It was a love story with lots of fantastical action about the discovery of the Garden of Eden. It was gloriously written and I sold it for close to $1 million within 2 weeks of reading it.

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

Contests, pitch fests, seminars etc., can all be very worthwhile if one knows how to make contacts and to follow up with those people. It is a great place to meet executives who can help move your writing career forward. I explain this in detail in my book “MIND YOUR BUSINESS”.

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

I am always happy to help writers and they can email me at: writerconsultant67@gmail.com. I have a monthly blog for writers: www.wwwconsulting.blogspot.com. Writers can also check out my online course Moving Your Writing Career Forward via Screenwriters University.

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

I do love warm peach pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Ask an Extraordinarily Insightful Script Consultant!

Andrew Hilton

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 Andrew Hilton, aka the Screenplay Mechanic.

Andrew Hilton grew up in the U.K. and studied film in England and New York, before working in motion picture development at almost every major studio. Having read more than 7000 scripts, he is one of the most highly-regarded independent screenplay analysts in the film industry.

Andrew’s first produced credit as a screenwriter was the psychological thriller FATAL TRUST.  More recently, he rewrote and Co-Produced the indie thriller BRAKE, and served as a Co-Executive Producer on the feature documentary WHY WE RIDE.  Andrew also has several feature projects in active development, including the big-budget action picture BULLET RUN.  His latest screenplay, the Dickens-inspired action thriller THE GUNS OF CHRISTMAS PAST, is being financed and produced by Voltage Pictures and is expected to go into production early 2015.

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

While I’m more of a feature guy, I love that NEWSROOM is back on TV. At least in terms of dialogue, there are very few screenwriters on Aaron Sorkin’s level. He has the ability to craft dialogue exchanges that are as mesmerizing as any action sequence. Some criticize the heightened reality of his rapid-fire, snappy dialogue, arguing that it’s contrived and inauthentic. Personally, I’m going to savor every episode of this final season.

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

I attended film school in the UK and New York, then finished my final year of university in Los Angeles so I could start interning at the studios. My first gig was working for a producer at Universal and I spent six months reading scripts for him. I then moved to Warner Bros. and worked in the story department of one of my favorite producers, Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc.). After six months there, I landed my first paying job at Paramount, as a Story Editor for Mario Kassar (First Blood, Terminator, etc.). It was there I began teaching others to write coverage and really honed my story skills.

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

The ability to recognize good writing can be learned, but recognizing a good movie is a skill far fewer people possess because it’s partly instinctual. Consequently, there are many agents, producers and actors in the industry who struggle to recognize a good script. That’s one of multiple reasons why so many sub-par projects get off the ground. Often, producers and studio execs are throwing stories against the wall (or into theaters) to see what sticks. On the flipside, there are people in the industry – from readers to top producers – who consistently find that diamond in the rough. For example, Scott Rudin has an amazing eye for material.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It really all comes down to two things: Can this story entertain an audience for a couple of hours? Is that audience going to be big enough to turn a profit? It’s that Goldilocks balance of art and business, and reconciling that reality is one of the first goals every new writer should work towards. You could argue that there are good scripts which won’t be profitable at the box office, but who is that script “good” for? It might make a solid writing sample, but a genuinely good script is one that’s well-written and will make some serious coin in the marketplace once it’s produced.

So what specific components in a script will ensure the audience is entertained? An interesting protagonist is essential. We don’t necessarily have to like the hero, but it’s crucial we find them interesting. Ideally, the screenplay will also feature compelling conflict, engrossing dialogue, and a brisk pace which holds our attention. The end game is to ensure the audience leaves the cinema feeling completely satisfied. Nobody likes leaving a restaurant hungry, and nobody enjoys leaving the multiplex feeling as if they just wasted $15 on a crappy film.

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

Overwriting the narrative to the point where clarity suffers is very common. Screenwriting is somewhat unique in that one of the best traits a scribe can have is efficiency of language. Don’t use twenty words to describe something when ten will do. Don’t try and impress anyone with your vocabulary or your grasp of metaphors and similes. Just write the most compelling and vivid movie using the fewest words.

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

Anything post-apocalyptic is becoming tiresome. Mad Max was released in 1979 and the spec marketplace is still saturated with clones.

Ditto for “man on the run” stories. Whether the hero is in possession of a flash-drive, witnessed a crime, or underwent some kind of experiment, these screenplays always follow the same structure and climax. There’s often a foot chase in a subway and the protagonist almost always ends up sleeping with the love interest in a hotel. I read one or two of these most weeks.

I’m happy to read big expensive sci-fi epics, but 99.99% of the time the author needs to realize they’re writing it for themselves because it’s not going anywhere. If nobody in this town knows you and the story isn’t based on an existing IP, where’s the $200m budget going to come from?

Another common formula is the comedy about the dishonest hero. Often, these are romantic comedies which feature the protagonist misleading or lying to the love interest. The charade has to be maintained throughout Act II, at which point the love interest learns the truth and shuns the hero, leading to a climatic reconciliation (often a race to an airport).

All that said, if you have a unique conceptual twist, or craft one of these stories in a genuinely fresh and commercial way, there are still plenty of potential buyers out there. Clichés often become clichés because they work repeatedly. It’s also worth pointing out that this is where an experienced story analyst can be most useful. Some people rail against spending money on coverage, but I’ve read well over 7000 screenplays so I might be able to tell you how often I’ve seen a specific idea before and can give you suggestions on how to make your work differ from past fare.

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

Not “rules” per se, but…

-Know your audience.

-Don’t bore anyone.

-Always remember a complete stranger will eventually have to write a huge check to make your story come to life. They’ll want that money back.

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

I used to read approximately 70% of major theatrical releases when they were still at the script stage, either for production companies or foreign distributors. Hence, I’ve done coverage on everything from The Sixth Sense to The Lord Of The Rings. I’ve also helped a couple of scripts get set up or made, most notably Tim Mannion’s Brake. A script I absolutely loved which has languished in development hell for almost 20 years: Icarus by Patrick Sheane Duncan. It tells the story of a fighter pilot who’s about to be put out to pasture, so he steals a fighter jet with the intention of crashing it into the ocean. His lifelong best friend, who married the woman he always loved, takes to the skies to try and talk him down. When I read it at Paramount in the late 90s, Bruce Willis was attached but the project ground to a halt when the director’s latest movie tanked.

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

Some are worthwhile, e.g. the Nicholl, but most are akin to entering the lottery. If you’ve written a genuinely brilliant piece of work, it may still go unnoticed because most contest judges are inexperienced and all of them are underpaid. However, there are enough lightning strikes to keep the contest industry alive, and if a writer can afford it I see no harm in rolling the dice. More often than not, it’s akin to a farm program where a small-time manager or agent may discover you. If you’re considering the contest world, target the established ones which have a good reputation.

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

My website www.screenplaymechanic.com, my Mechanic Facebook page, or simply email me at screenplaymechanic@gmail.com.

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

I’m going savory on this one. Steak and Ale (with a pint, of course).