Lesson learned

A very recent post was all about my effort to read more scripts. I’ve been doing that, and from the ones I’ve read so far, the biggest takeaways are:

Wow, these are some fantastic scripts, and…

I need to be a better writer.

Not that I’m terrible. Maybe decent. Somewhat above average. But they don’t want decent or somewhat above average.

They want AMAZING.

PHENOMENAL.

MIND-BLOWINGLY AWESOME.

They want a script that once you read it, you can’t forget it.

My game needs to be severely upped if I want to make that kind of an impact and achieve the desired results.

What’s been truly eye-opening has been the overall quality of the scripts. They’ve been more than exceptional on several levels – originality, story, character, plot, etc.

The writing is vivid – incredibly so, and really makes you feel like you’re right there in the story. It wows me while I’m reading and compels me to keep going. This is something I strive for with my own work.

Reading these makes me want to do better when it comes to the quality of my scripts. I can only hope that I actually will.

Reading truly is fundamental

marilyn book

Even though I’ve been spending a lot of time working on new scripts, I’ve also made a recent effort to start reading more scripts.

The contents of the folder on my desktop labeled “TO READ” include around a dozen scripts of well-known produced films and those of my associates within my social network, along with a few I received with the advice “you really should read this”.

It’s a lot of scripts to work my way through. I’ve completed three so far, and each one has been amazing. It’s a fantastic experience I can’t recommend enough.

What’s probably the most important aspect is that taking a look at all these different scripts lets you see the multiple ways of how a story can be told on the page. Each and every script does an amazing job with its own interpretation of “Show, don’t tell.”

It also helps because many times we’re so wrapped up in our own material that reading something new and original where you have no idea what’s going to happen gives your imagination a much needed rest. You can literally just sit back and enjoy the ride.

When you get so wrapped up in the story that you can easily visualize it playing out in your head, and the words and pages just fly by, then you know you’re in the hands of a skilled writer who knows what they’re doing.

Very important – while you shouldn’t try to straight-out copy somebody else’s style, you can at least let it influence how shape your own. Don’t just read a script – study how it’s put together.

Is the writing crisp and colorful? Are you able to follow the story? Is the sequence of events organized so that you can’t imagine it happening any other way? Do the scenes make their point fast and move on? Do the characters seem like actual people? Does the dialogue sound natural and get the point across without being too on-the-nose?

These questions – and so many more – will come up while I’m reading a script for the purpose of giving it notes. But if somebody says “Read this. I think you’ll like it.” and notes are NOT involved, then it’s easier for me to read it just for the sake of enjoying it, and not feel the need to be critical.

That being said, it’s still tough for me to take off my editor’s hat – even for a casual read. It’s not uncommon for me to find the occasional typo or ask a question about something I’m just not sure about. This isn’t me being critical on purpose. Quite the contrary. When something like that takes me out of the story, I want to let the writer know so they can fix it and prevent it from happening for the next reader.

Even though this is a read for enjoyment, certain technical factors still come into play for me. Does it look good on the page? Is there a lot of white space, or do I have to endure big blocks of text? How’s the formatting? Any misspelled words? Pretty much – do they have the basics down?

And the stories themselves – WOW! Some are in genres I love, others totally new to me, and even a few offering a totally new take on an old standard. Even though I may not be a fan of something, I can still appreciate and enjoy a well-told story.

Also very important – after you finish reading, especially if it’s a friend’s script, thank them for letting you take a look, and let them know what you thought of it (preferably in the positive). If it’s a produced script and the writer is on social media, you can let them know that way. I’ve done this a few times, and each time the writer was very appreciative.

At my current rate, I’m getting through about two to three scripts over the course of a week, so I have at least another month to month and a half before the folder empties out.

I’m looking forward to getting through this batch, and even more so when it’s time to start compiling the next one.

Don’t be that person

yelling

The story you are about to read is true. Only the names have been omitted to protect the innocent.

The script of a friend of mine has had some positive results in the contest world, and the most recent venture was getting professional analysis on it, resulting in somewhat decent scores.

I’ve read this script, and it’s very, very good. It takes a classic story everybody knows, and then examines what happens AFTER the events of that story. There’s a lot to like about it, and my friend is doing what they can to get it out there.

Part of their effort is seeking advice from those with more experience. Sometimes it’s via social media, private online groups, or public community forums. We’re in several of the same groups, so I’ve seen a lot of my friend’s posts.

Not that I consider myself to be especially ‘experienced’, but since becoming connected with this person, I’ve done what I can to be supportive and helpful when applicable.

Earlier this week, my friend came to me with a dilemma.

They’ve been frequenting a community forum where one of the members regularly belittles or downplays any form or announcement of good news posted by another writer. Sometimes it’s along the lines of “”Look, this is a tough industry. If you can’t take the criticism, you’re totally in the wrong field, which it looks like you are.”

I also marveled at how much time people tend to spend on these forums. Many comments tend to be of the “I know better than you, so bow before my obvious superiority” sort. This was a big part of why I stepped away from them. I’d rather spend my time, y’know, actually writing.

Quick side note – the person claims to have representation, and some optioned scripts as well as a news release from a few years ago about their latest script being shopped around. Both my friend and I scoured IMDB Pro for any mention of them at all, but…bupkis. Take from that what you will.

As much as I consider every other writer to be my competition, I don’t think I’d ever actively try to dissuade somebody from trying. Would I remind them this is an extremely tough field to break into, let alone thrive in, and that their overall chances of success are very small? Yes.

I’ve also dealt with “professionals” who’ve talked down to me and told me my story ideas were stupid and worthless, using the reasoning “I’m just treating you the way somebody in the industry would. If you can’t take it, maybe you shouldn’t be trying.”

Not having as much experience as some, the people I have encountered were actually polite, helpful and supportive. If something didn’t work for them, I’d at least get “thanks, but no thanks.”

This does compel me to ask:  is that really how the industry treats most people?

This most recently came to a head when my friend asked about suggestions for how to use the positive results they received from a reputable script analysis service as a marketing tool.

The same person was the first to respond, saying the concept wasn’t that original, so the script didn’t have much of a chance, and marketing it would be a very tough sell. When asked what they would recommend, they seemed to just repeat the same things.

My advice to my friend was to ignore 99 percent of what that other person said, but keep in mind that yes, the field for potential interest in their script is limited, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t at least try. There’s no guarantee, but you never know who might say yes.

I made some suggestions of possible strategies, and summed it up with the standard “if they say no, you move on to the next one.”

As many of you probably already know, I’m a big believer not just in networking, but also in supporting the writing community. I try to help when I can any way I can.

This other person seemed to run completely counter to that. I just don’t see the point in why they would. To make themselves seem important? To show off their accomplishments? Wouldn’t they rather be seen in a positive light, rather than a negative one? I know I would.

I also mentioned to my friend that treating people like that could eventually backfire. Just because you might be a nobody today doesn’t mean you couldn’t be somebody important tomorrow.

And writers have long memories. We tend to remember those who leave bad impressions.

The best I could offer my friend was that I was there to help them and offer encouragement and advice when needed, and I hope other writers feel the same about their friends as well.

-The fine folks at Shore Scripts have a couple of deadlines coming up fast.

For all you filmmakers, tomorrow – 29 August – is the early deadline for their Short Film Fund 2 competition. Here’s a link to an article about Lindiwe Makgalemele, the winner of Short Film Fund 1.

And for writers of film and TV, this Monday – 31 August – is the final deadline for the Shore Scripts 2020 Feature & TV Pilot contest.

Q & A with Buzz McLaughlin

Buzz McLaughin photo

Buzz McLaughlin is a playwright and screenwriter, theatre and film producer, script consultant, and teacher. His plays have been produced throughout the U.S. and Canada and have won numerous awards including the National Repertory Theatre Foundation’s National Play Award for Sister Calling My Name, the most recent staging of which was at the Sheen Center, NYC in early 2020. With his wife Kris he has written several screenplays and teleplays.

He is co-founder/producing partner of the independent film company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight), the Founding Director and former Artistic Director of Writers Theatre of New Jersey, and for many years was professor of Theatre Arts at Drew University. The author of The Playwright’s Process: Learning the Craft from Today’s Leading Dramatists, he holds a doctorate in theatre and dramatic literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and is a member of the Dramatists Guild and Writers Guild of America. Currently he teaches playwriting and screenwriting in New England College’s Creative Writing MFA program.

His website is www.buzzmclaughlin.com and he can be reached at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com.

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

THE TWO POPES, written by Anthony McCarten, based on his play. The film was directed by Fernando Meirelles and stars Jonathan Price and Anthony Hopkins. Nominated for best screenplay by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes as well as for best actor and best supporting actor. A wonderful example of excellent writing scene after scene with a script so real that you forget you’re watching a make-believe story as the actors really sink their teeth into the material.

Another film I must mention here is the indie PIECES OF APRIL, written and directed by Peter Hedges and co-starring Patricia Clarkson, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay by the Independent Spirit Awards. It was one of the first films shot on all digital and has become somewhat of a classic, especially in regard to its impeccable dramatic structure. I have used it for years as a teaching tool on how to construct a successful story for the screen. Well worth a close look.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

As a stage actor and director, then later I moved to writing because I started having my own ideas for scripts and felt I could do this, too (if not better than most).

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A well-constructed story with relatable characters that draws you in and keeps you engaged from start to finish. There are many ways to accomplish this, obviously, but that in a nutshell is what makes a good script. The main components are having one central character who wants something badly but who runs into road blocks preventing him or her achieving it. In the best stories, this central figure discovers along the way that what they think they wanted isn’t what they really need and as a result the character comes out a very different person at the end of the journey. And this gives the story its ultimate emotional power. My book The Playwright’s Process goes into the details of how you build or construct this kind of story one step at a time.

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

By far the biggest screenwriting mistake I encounter is faulty dramatic construction, scripts that wander too far away from some configuration of the three-act paradigm and as a result stall out and are unable to deliver the goods as all successful storytelling must do. Writing snappy and engaging dialogue is important, obviously, but if the story’s foundational structural underpinnings are faulty, the whole script comes tumbling down.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Formula and predictable action films and stories that are obviously agenda driven. In other words, stories that are primarily designed to thrill with violence and manufactured suspense or those that promote – sometimes quite heavy-handedly – a particular political or cultural persuasion.

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

-Determine who is your central character and what his or her primary external want and true internal need are going to be.

-Your central character should be a changed person by the end of the story.

-Take the time and effort to get to know your characters’ backstories well before plunging into your first draft. Burn into your brain that nine-tenths of the iceberg is under the surface. Remember that you are already writing your script when you engage in this pre-draft exploratory work.

-Make an initial attempt to define your dramatic premise up front – what the overall point of your story is going to be – and believe it fully yourself.

-Allow yourself to become the structural engineer and work out a three-act outline of your story with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end before starting your first draft. In other words, create a road map that will take you through your story’s journey so if and when you find yourself lost (which you most likely will) you still have that roadmap on the seat next to you and you have a way to get back on track.

-If at all possible, set your story in a world you know well.  Otherwise, research it to death.

-Train yourself to never listen to the negative voice as you develop your project.

-Never share a work in progress with anyone until you have a completed draft you think is ready to release to others. The creative process is precious and intimate and it should be shared between only you and your characters. This should be your private creative world. The time will come soon enough to get outside input, but it shouldn’t happen until you have something substantially complete to share. Otherwise your own personal vision for the script is contaminated and you risk having your whole project derailed prematurely. The only exception to this rule is when you’re working with a collaborator or a script consultant – folks whom you have invited into a creative partnership with you.

What would you consider are some key similarities and differences between writing for the stage and the screen?

The biggest similarity between a play and a screenplay is the structural design of the story itself. Both have a version of the three-act configuration: the set up, the struggle, and the solution.

The biggest difference is that plays are primarily verbal and films are primarily visual, meaning the stage play’s story is largely communicated through dialogue coupled with physical action and the film story is largely communicated through what the camera sees action-wise, coupled with dialogue as needed.

Another way to compare the two mediums is to look at the opportunity for theatricality in writing for the stage – inviting the audience to engage imaginatively with passages of time and shifts in settings and so forth – as opposed to the numerous cinematic devices available in writing for the screen such as using the dissolve, narrative voice-overs, etc. In a real sense, the two mediums are attempting to accomplish the same thing – inviting the audience to creatively enter into the unfolding story. And this is one reason why writers are often able to shift back and forth between writing for the theatre and writing for film or television.

A common recommendation to screenwriters is to take an acting or improv class. As someone who works with both writers and actors, do you agree or disagree?

I strongly agree. My experience has shown me that writers who are also actors (or have had some acting experience) are generally ahead in the game in terms of motivations and getting under the skin of a character.

As a producer, is it difficult for you to read a script without using your “reader’s eye”?

This is definitely difficult for me regardless if I’m experiencing a screenplay or play. And it starts on page one. Call it the curse of the producer. I’m so conditioned to look and wait for the inciting incident to grab me that if it doesn’t happen within the first ten pages the read often becomes an exercise in frustration.

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

Check out my website at www.buzzmclaughlin.com. Or email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com. As a script consultant I can work with you on a finished draft or help you structure an idea into workable pre-draft shape. In other words, I can meet you where you’re at with your project.

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

Warm apple, with a slice of cheddar cheese.

apple pie w:cheese

Arrivederci, contests! For now.

waving goodbye
Normally, one would say “Don’t forget to write!”, but that seems a bit off in this scenario

Starting a few weeks ago, and continuing into the coming months, the results of numerous screenwriting contests will be made public.

For the most part, my scripts won’t be part of them. I’ve opted to skip the 2020-2021 season to focus on creating some new scripts and fine-tune some pre-existing ones.

Contests and I have had a rocky relationship. The primary reason I enter is for industry access (or at least the potential for it). As nice as a cash prize is, I’d much rather my award be my scripts shown to a manager or production company.

Naturally, even that’s not a guarantee of success. Somebody could read a script that’s done exceptionally well in a contest – even win it – and decide “I like it/It’s good, but not what I’m looking for.” This has happened to me, and even a few writers I know who’ve claimed a finalist spot in some prestigious contests still couldn’t make anything happen with it.

Them’s the breaks, and usually means it’s back to square one. But not this time.

I don’t have anything against contests. They can help motivate you to work towards beating a deadline. Some of them might lead to something, but many just mean you get a nice set of laurels. And no slight to smaller contests, but I’ve seen lots of comments from reps and prodcos that contests don’t really matter that much to them. What’s important is if they like the script and want to do something with it.

Additionally, those contests fees can get pretty steep. I try to keep things on the lower end (early bird deadlines, discount codes, etc) because the fees can really add up. And this isn’t even taking into account paying an additional cost for “notes” – something I don’t usually do anyway.

Added bonus for me – I also shell out some shekels for 6-8 half-marathons each year. You think screenwriting contests are expensive? Ha! Many of the races I’d signed up for for later this year have been cancelled or postponed until next year. So not having to pay for races or contests definitely works in my favor.

So that’s it for me and a temporary “so long”. At least until around this time next year. Until then, it’s all about the writing. My scripts are good, but I know they can be better.

Since deciding to step back, it’s kind of nice to be able to consistently delete the barrage of emails announcing “LAST CHANCE TO ENTER!” or “CLICK HERE FOR SPECIAL DISCOUNT CODE!”, and then get right back to work. I won’t say it’s still tempting to want to enter, but it is getting easier to read an email from a contest, and then kill it without hesitating.

Interesting side note – it would seem I entered 2 of my scripts in a pair of contests several months ago. In fact, one was in October of 2019. Turns out each advanced through the contests’ respective first rounds.

Since I adhere to the “send it & forget it” rule with my scripts, guess my putting more emphasis on the latter half of that phrase really came into play. As one friend put it – “you seem to do better in contests you forgot you entered.” Can’t argue that.

So now that I don’t have contest deadlines or announcements to deal with, I can focus on these two new scripts. Both have been percolating for quite some time, and I figured lockdown and shelter-in-place were the ideal times to jump into both.

Would I have been able to dedicate so much time and effort if the world hadn’t changed? Possibly, but having the opportunity to do so has definitely worked in my favor.

The latest draft of one script is out with a batch of savvy readers, and the other is still in the outline phase. Feeling pretty confident about both.

I’m more than content to let the 2020-2021 contest season pass me by as I write and write, then rewrite, and then write some more.

For all you writers looking to enter contests in the coming year, you now have one less competitor to worry about.

Catch you on the flip side.