Q & A with Jeff Kitchen

072701AE-A653-4698-80FD-A2D6D67C3CE5

kitchen book 2

Jeff Kitchen was classically trained in playwriting technique, specializing in the work of the groundbreaking Broadway script doctor William Thompson Price.

Jeff worked as a dramaturg in the New York theater, Playwrights Preview Productions (now Urban Stages) and taught playwriting on Broadway at the Negro Ensemble Company. He then started teaching screenwriting and has taught for over twenty years in small high-intensity hands-on groups.

He teaches the craft of the dramatist, advanced structural technique, the core of dramatic action, script analysis, and plot construction. Jeff is a sought-after script doctor, plot construction specialist, and rewrite consultant.

He has taught his techniques to development execs from all the major Hollywood studios and they consistently say that he teaches the most advanced development tools in the industry.

One of his students, Ted Melfi, was recently nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Awards for his film about the black women mathematicians at NASA, Hidden Figures.

Jeff is the author of the book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting. Jeff is now doing high-intensity training programs for professional scriptwriters as well as script consulting.

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

Narcos: Mexico on Netflix. It was so gripping, so watchable. Hard to believe it was true. I kept telling my wife how great it is, and said to her several times I thought it was better than The Godfather. They move through so much story in just two seasons, with so much intensity and depth, great casting and acting, great writing, and so much material to weave together. The corruption makes your blood boil; the loss, the genius, the brutality, the nobility, the adventure, the chess game, the betrayal, the power and murder and love and ambition, and the pure history—there’s so much going on and it’s so compelling.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I was mostly self-taught. A friend who was a playwright taught me the basics of Aristotle and gave me two old obscure books on playwriting to read. They were quite fascinating and very difficult, but I spent three years studying them intensely. The guy who wrote one of them, William Thompson Price, was a pioneering Broadway script doctor for top producers pre-1920 and he founded the first school of playwriting ever in the history of the world. Twenty-four of his twenty-eight students had hits on Broadway.

Price created several seriously groundbreaking tools for the dramatist and I emerged with a mastery of what he created, then improved on them and taught these tools nonstop for twenty years. People kept saying they’d never seen anything like what I taught and said they worked better than anything they’d seen. I trained development execs at all the major Hollywood studios and they consistently said I taught the most advanced development tools in the industry. So I found these old tools and ideas for tools, and studied them like crazy, then synthesized them into their current form. I taught and consulted with them for years, and got deeply experienced with them from working hands-on with them on thousands of students’ works in progress.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The short answer to that question is my 352-page book, Writing a Great Movie. Of course I can say something in a paragraph or two, but a proper answer can go deep and wide and long. A great premise, first of all, because if your raw idea sucks, then no amount of structure or character or storytelling elbow grease will get that clunker up in the air as a commercially viable project. In the industry, it’s called Polishing a Turd. I always say well-structured crap is still crap. So start with a great idea.

Also crucial is a good strong Dilemma of Magnitude for the protagonist, but it’s not easy in such a brief format to properly communicate how to make that one dilemma occupy the full proportion of the script, build to a Crisis, force Decision and Action in the face of crisis, and then conclude with the protagonist’s active Resolution of the dilemma. The way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma expresses the Theme, and it’s crucial to have a solid sense of theme as you build your story. You need distinct characters who are deep and complex and colorful in various ways, and who are deeply flawed, contradictory and universal.

You need attack as a storyteller, so you’re not making safe, cliché, or stock choices. Your script must be actable and it has to be stageworthy. The action of the story must move ahead aggressively, with nothing unnecessary bogging it down. It needs good cause and effect, escalating conflict, structural unity, dramatic action, and so much more. But mostly, it has to hit the audience where they live. If it doesn’t connect to the audience, then it’s not compelling.

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

Weak ideas, lack of imagination, lack of attack, poor execution, poor structure, lazy storytelling, stale characters, lack of depth, lack of color, overwriting, over-describing, overbearing, too much exposition, attempting to dictate an emotional response rather than earning it, lack of empathy for the main characters, underpowered ending, doesn’t pass the So What? test, crappy dialog, boring, derivative, packs no punch, uneven tone, peters out, holes in the story’s logic, lack of conflict, no clear goal for the protagonist, stupid, a simple plot vs a complex plot, episodic, formulaic, wooden characters, preachy, predictable, miserable writing skills, lack of follow-through, writing not cinematic, story not commercially viable, no sense of vision, no entertainment value, flat dramatically, lack of magnitude.

Just to name a few.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not sure how many more serial killers I want to read about, or how many more procedurals, or special forces dudes, or nuclear annihilation. They can all get tiresome, but it obviously has to do with the execution, because each of them can kick serious ass when done well. But I think that things like a serial killer can be just a cardboard prop or a vastly overused excuse to write something brutal and adventurous for people who can’t or won’t do the work to go deeper and find a freakier way to mess with people’s heads.

Watch a movie like Bad Boy Bubby or Bad Lieutenant with Harvey Keitel to see something fresh and wacko. People sleepwalk through the writing process sometimes, and it’s tedious because so many people are out there writing the same warmed-over tales. There’s probably room for a story about a serial killer who kills writers who are writing about serial killers.

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

Shake things up. You’re a writer. Do something to me, mess with my head, defy my expectations, violate my sense of how a story should go. Tell a story that really tweaks me, that seriously makes me care, that grabs me by the throat and makes me notice. Make me fall in love, or go through something unimaginable, or face death, or embrace life—but do it full tilt and do it well. I don’t need the same old tired stories coming at me all day long. I’m looking for adventure, depth, love, heartbreak, power, in any genre.

Make the overall structure for your story work first. If it does not, then the details do not matter. A beautifully written scene in a script that doesn’t work is meaningless. It’s like having an ornately finished room in a house that’s falling down. Learn to work from the general to the particular. Make the overall story work, then make each act work, then each sequence, and then each scene. You gradually develop and dramatize your work as you build it.

Learn to separate the Necessary from the Unnecessary. The work of the amateur is characterized by the Unnecessary. Dialogue and description are overwritten, scenes may not be needed, whole sequences may only be dead weight, sometimes an entire act can end up being unnecessary, and in fact your entire script may be unnecessary. Which may sound funny, but it’s not. The Unnecessary kills scripts. Most scripts are unreadable—and that means 98% of them—UN-READ-ABLE. Atrocious. And in many instances, the Unnecessary plays a major part in how unreadable it is. Clean, crisp cause and effect separates the Necessary from the Unnecessary, and moves the action of the story ahead crisply and cleanly.

Master the craft of the dramatist. Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s tricky, it’s slippery, it’s hard to pin down, hard to predict, and hard to diagnose or cure. But the more craft you’ve got, the more mastery you have in addressing every type of problem. People forget that scriptwriting is a performance medium—intended to be acted out in front of an audience in such a way that it’s gripping. So take the time to really learn your craft, to master it. Because almost doesn’t count, and people don’t want to read scripts that could have been good but the writer didn’t have the chops to make it work.

Take the time to build or discover deep, complex, dynamic, unpredictable, flawed, dimensional characters. Explore the Enneagram (EnneagramInstitute.com is a great resource) for each of your main characters because it’s such a remarkably powerful resource. A mixture of ancient wisdom about human nature and cutting-edge psychology, it purports that there are nine basic personality types, and each of these types has a healthy aspect, an average aspect, and unhealthy aspects. This helps you go deep and complex, to develop substantial flaws, hidden strengths, the mechanics of failure, a path to greatness, and complex, sophisticated human emotional reality.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book Writing A Great Movie?

I wanted to get down on paper the know-how I’d accrued from teaching non-stop for eighteen years while it was still white hot. I had always taught small hands-on classes, maximum six people, and each person had to bring a script idea with them to develop so I could really get them using the tools. This helped them not only learn how to use the tools, but their scripts improved so much in the process that word of mouth on my classes was through the roof. I never taught large groups because the material was too complex. I knew that if I just talked at people about sophisticated techniques without showing them how to really use the tools that it would be mostly useless, because they couldn’t go home and use it to build their own script.

But when they started doing a big Screenwriter’s Expo in LA, they dragged me into teaching 150 people at a time. And there were riots outside my classroom of people trying to get in, so I realized that with this many people having heard about my training, it was time to write my book. So I cranked one out and self-published it by the next year’s Expo and sold a lot of them. I shopped that version and it got me a lit agent in New York who got me a publishing deal at Watson Guptill where two phenomenal editors helped bring out the best in my writing.

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What about this one makes it unique?

Not only are the tools unique, unusual and powerful, but I worked hard to emulate the hands-on aspect of my small classes in which I worked with each participant on their script as I explained the tools. So I explain, illustrate, and demonstrate each of seven tools in the first half of the book, and then I build a real script from scratch in the second half of the book, using all the tools. I start with a one-line idea and build the whole script, demonstrating the full use of the tools as I utilize them to create, develop, structure and write it.

Because I was rewriting the self-published edition, my editor wanted to clean up the second half of the book. I argued, saying that it had to remain unvarnished because the process of using these tools to create from scratch is necessarily messy. I needed it to remain fumbling and exploratory and rough, because cobbling a story together and dramatizing it is like feeling your way along in the dark. And I wanted to show them the raw reality, not the cleaned-up varnished version.

In the introduction to part two, I say that the first half of the book is as different from the second half as training in medical school is from working in an Emergency Room, or as studying a bear in the zoo is from wrestling one in the wilderness. I jump from tool to tool bootstrapping the story into existence, using Dilemma, the Enneagram, the 36 Dramatic Situations, Crisis, Theme, Research and Brainstorming all at the same time. And then I put the story through two structural tools, the Central Proposition and Sequence, Proposition, Plot, which help dramatize the narrative, strip out everything that’s unnecessary to the forward action of the story, and create consistent, coherent, compelling Dramatic Action.

I build the whole script with my readers looking over my shoulder, and I think it did a good job of showing the tools in action in order to give the reader genuine know-how and experience in utilizing the tools.

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

The top five or ten are definitely worth it and have launched many careers. I myself wouldn’t bother with many others, but it totally depends on what you’re up to as a writer. If you just want to put your stuff out there to see what people think of it, then you can use it as a learning opportunity. But you can also just hire somebody to give you notes on your script and that might give you more specific feedback. But there are books and websites that can help you sort the contests for value, and people who know everything about them, and they’re definitely worth taking a look at as part of a career strategy.

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

My website is BuildYourScript.com and I can be contacted through there or directly at jeffkitchen88@gmail.com. I offer a free class on Reverse Cause and Effect at my site. This is a powerful class that shows how to take a story you’ve roughed out and work backward from the ending, chaining backward from each effect to its cause. This enables you to stitch together the main building blocks of your story, and then to gradually flesh out the details as they become necessary. I demonstrate the process in action by working on a real script.

There’s also a paid class on a remarkably powerful plot construction tool called Sequence, Proposition, Plot which is a groundbreaking way to structure and develop your script, working from the big picture down to the details. I do consults on scripts as well as private classes on technique. One of the coolest things I do is to help people build their script from scratch, or to work with them rebuilding it once they’ve gotten a script up and running.

I’m about to roll out a high-intensity training program for scriptwriters that I’m really excited about. It’s an online immersion program in which I train apprentices for a year as we work together building multiple scripts. We’ll work two hours a day, plus one hour of homework, five days a week. In what’s called a Community of Practice, I communicate know-how through using the tools to build real scripts on the spot, and I also have students do extensive drills and rigorous exercises, handling the tools, practicing them over and over, and learning to think in that language until it all becomes second nature.

This type of learning process is called Cognitive Apprenticeship, in which writers work hand-in-glove with me to learn how to think like me. I communicate both explicit knowledge and the more ambiguous but crucial tacit knowledge, that feel for things which is indispensable for full expertise. This will be a high-intensity program, similar to a trade school, followed by a year in which I work with these highly-trained writers on building their own scripts. They will emerge as trained dramatists with key skills and experience, who can forge a career as working writers.

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

It’s hard to pick, but right now I’d have to go with cherry.

cherry pie 2

Q & A with Jim Vines

Jim Vines

A Beast Is Born COVER (High Resolution) (COMPRESSED)

Jim Vines has been a screenwriter and script consultant for a number of years. His first produced film was THE PERFECT TENANT (2000). He has optioned several of his scripts and has also been commissioned to write or rewrite scripts for numerous producers. He has written a play (staged in 2009), a web series (2009), a book of interviews with screenwriters (2006), and “indie-published” his first novel in 2015. His latest book, A BEAST IS BORN, was released in 2019.

Jim, who was born in New York City but grew up in Los Angeles, and currently lives atop a hill that affords a truly inspirational view of the Hollywood sign.

What was the last thing you read/watched you considered to be extremely well-written?

I kinda hate to say this, but I don’t watch TV per se, so if you asked me to name two or three top TV shows, well, I probably couldn’t do it. But a few years ago, I thought MAD MEN was great. (I should point out the reason I don’t watch scripted TV is that I’m an avid watcher of documentaries and interview shows found on YouTube.) As for theatrical movies, I haven’t been to a new release in about eight years. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD got me back into a theater. I had high hopes for that one. All I’ll say is: I didn’t care for it.

I do a decent bit of reading and tend to go through a lot of biographies. A recent one was of Stanley Kubrick written by Vincent LoBrutto, which was pretty fascinating. I just did a re-read of Jack Kerouac’s excellent THE TOWN AND THE CITY. A few months ago I read Donna Tartt’s THE GOLDFINCH which I really enjoyed. I also finally read the Daniel Keyes novel FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON, which was pretty amazing. I just finished reading Anne Tyler’s rather poignant novel A SPOOL OF BLUE THREAD and wrapped up the audio-book of the classic TRUE GRIT, written by Charles Portis (who passed away recently).

As you can probably ascertain by these titles, I’m drawn to stories about people and their plights, their struggles, where they’re trying to understand where they fit in with the rest of the world. This is what I find interesting.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

It was 1994 and I had been writing scripts with the intent to sell for four or five years. I knew this low-budget producer – she really liked a thriller script I’d written, so she optioned it. She never did get the script off the ground, but at least I knew my writing was solid enough to garner interest from producers. I kept sending scripts out. A couple of years later another opportunity came my way in the form of a script assignment from a budding producer who had read some of my work a year or so before. There was no up-front money but he was pretty certain he could sell the script to a production company where he had connections. So, I wrote the script (based on his story)—and he actually got it sold!

It was a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the next few years, but the script was eventually produced and the movie did quite well on the cable TV circuit. It played constantly on cable and broadcast stations here in the United States and also around the world (I know this because I’d received some pretty decent foreign royalty checks, which was nice). Having this credit on my resume made getting meetings, script assignments – everything from page one rewrites to doctoring scripts- and optioning original scripts a wee bit easier.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

You need to have interesting and/or compelling characters that people will feel something for. Even if it’s a bad guy, you have to give him (or her) at least a smidgen of humanity. Look at Hans Gruber in DIE HARD. Sure, he was a cold-blooded killer – but c’mon, he had such a great sense of humor! You should have a story that continually moves forward and doesn’t get bogged down. I can’t tell you how many novice scripts I’ve read where ten pages goes by and NOTHING happens. It’s just dialogue or superfluous actions that might seem cool or interesting while you’re writing it, but has virtually nothing to do with the story being told.

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

-Write screenplays because you love to write and love telling stories, not because you
think you’re gonna get rich and famous. (Quick, who won the Best Screenplay Oscar last
year?)

-Writing is work—and if you’re not willing to put your rear end in a chair and your
fingers on the keyboard on pretty much of a daily basis, you probably need to find
another career path.

-Rules were meant to be broken, but first know these rules before you break them.

-Rewriting is your friend.

-Formatting isn’t what makes a script sellable. Sure, you need to get it all looking nice and proper, but the actual words you put on those 100 pages—this is what you need to focus on.

-There is no one particular way to write a screenplay. Your job is to discover the method
that works best for YOU.

-Don’t rush things. Send your scripts out only when they’re ready. As they say, you only
have one chance to make a first impression. If you send an agent or producer a script
that’s still pretty rough, chances are they won’t want to read any of your future work.

It’s my opinion—and I’ve done over 200 critiques/evaluations—that about 99% of all
novice screenplays are nowhere near marketable shape, so please, don’t write your first
two or three screenplays intending to sell them; write them merely for the purposes of
learning the craft.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book A BEAST IS BORN?

For a long time I’ve wanted to chronicle the writing, marketing, production, and afterlife of one of my projects. I just never got around to it. But as the marketing phase of my short horror SUSIE’S BEAST script ground on, I realized I had plenty to write about: all the ups and down, all the gut-punching disappointment. I had personal journal entries (I’ve kept a daily journal since 2004) and emails relating to SUSIE’S BEAST, so I figured it was now or never. I pieced it all together and—voilà—A BEAST IS BORN!

I don’t think most pre-pro (i.e., novice) screenwriters realize how long it can take for a script to finally end up in front of a camera. Whether you’re talking about a 15-page short (which is what SUSIE’S BEAST was) or a 120-page feature, the script-to-screen voyage can take years and years. Sadly, that’s the rule and not the exception. I wanted the reader of my book to get a sense of that journey.

It took 11 years for your script to be produced, which must have really tried your patience. What was it that made you keep going?

It’s not like SUSIE’S BEAST was my entire world. I had a lot going on a personal level. As for my writing life, I was working on my first novel, writing and producing a web series, and had been getting script assignments—so I was keeping busy. Aside from all that, I knew this was a solid script that absolutely had to get made.

What were some of the takeaways/lessons you learned from the whole experience?

I’m not sure I learned much of anything I didn’t already know, but it definitely reminded me that in order to be a screenwriter you need to have a certain doggedness and faith in your own writing. I also realized I might be a little too lenient with people, giving them too much time to get things done or make up their minds. If I hadn’t been so indulgent, I probably could’ve shaved a year or two off that 11-year timeline.

Despite everything you endured trying to get SUSIE’S BEAST made, is writing (and
potentially making) a short film something you’d recommend to writers?

Getting a short film made typically will not do a whole lot for a screenwriter’s career. If the finished film makes any kind of a splash at film festivals, it might do something for the director, the actors, maybe even the director of photography. But for the writer – well, hopefully they get a fun and creative experience. That’s pretty much all I wanted out of it. Luckily, that’s what I got! But having your name on a produced short – especially if it wins some awards – can’t do you too much harm. So, yeah, go for it!

You’ve also written another Hollywood-based book—your novel LUIGI’S CHINESE
DELICATESSEN. What was the inspiration for that?

I figured my first novel should be about something I knew, so I wrote about a young guy going to Hollywood with the dream of becoming a screenwriter. The story is loosely – very loosely – based on some experiences I’ve had in this town. As I’ve mentioned in previous interviews: “The book is 97% a work of fiction—and no, I’m not telling you which three-percent is true.” It’s a fun ride, it really is. One review referred to it as a “cautionary tale,” which I think is pretty accurate!

How can people find out more about you and your work?

A BEAST IS BORN is available on Amazon. Check out Jim Vines Presents which is my “creative page” on Facebook, and my screenwriting blog The Working Screenwriter.

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

This is a very silly question, but an excellent one. Let’s see…I’ll have to go with pecan. I love pecan pie. Pumpkin’s also pretty great, especially when it’s topped with whipped cream. But pecan pie on its own – sooooo good!

I tried. I really did.

bulldog flop

To say the past few weeks have been interesting is putting it mildly. Like pretty much everybody else on the planet, many parts of my life are a lot different now. Adjustments are being made. I sincerely hope you’re doing everything you can to stay safe and healthy.

One of my constants during this time has been to write. Unfortunately, with everything going on, I haven’t been able to be as productive as I’d hoped.

Remember way back to around the beginning of this month when I said I was going to really push myself to have a completed new draft of the horror-comedy by the end of the month?

Side note – that was just a few weeks ago. Feels MUCH longer than that. Oy.

Full disclosure: ain’t gonna happen. Not even close.

A LOT of time was spent revising the outline. Copious amounts of cutting, editing, and idea-developing took place. Since a big part of this was to reduce the potential budget to make it more financially appealing to anybody interested in actually producing it, large swaths of scenes and sequences were ceremoniously shown the door.

The number of characters and locations were drastically reduced to as few as the story would allow. Emphasis on drastically.

Keep in mind that all of this was going on as the tendrils of COVID-19 continued to spread across the globe at a rapid pace. My sweetie’s office shut down until further notice. Ms. V’s school closed, first for two weeks, then another two. (Fortunately, all of her classes are continuing online.)

I’d even been sent home from work for a non-corona condition, and was then told to stay home for the next week and a half. I was back in the office this week, but management opted to keep everybody safe and set us all up to work from home. You’d think this would be a golden opportunity to see some major productivity, writing-wise.

Wrong again.

Still had to work the day job, but just from home. The rest of the day involved dealing with a lot of the everyday routine, albeit very, very modified. Writing time had become very limited, sometimes practically non-existent.

But I did what I could. Even just writing a little is better than not writing at all.

As the days went on, my output had seen a significant decrease. I had to face the sad truth: this script was not going to be ready when I hoped it would.

Disappointing, but you gotta admit we’re all operating under some totally new circumstances. I don’t think anybody had “productivity down due to self-isolating during a global pandemic” on their list.

Even with a few minor details in the outline still in need of figuring out, I wanted to feel like I was moving things forward.

So I started on pages, knowing I’d be going back and rewriting them anyway – which has already happened with some minor edits and tweaks within the first 10.

I admit I would have absolutely loved to announce on March 31st that I had a completed draft, but that won’t be happening. Instead, I’ll say there’s no need to rush and that this thing will be done when it’s done.

In the coming weeks, as I settle into my new routine, I’ll do what I can to ramp up my output. This thing WILL get written.

It’ll just take a little longer than I’d hoped. Normally I’d say “last day of April”, but it’s probably better to not stress myself out over the idea of NOT hitting another deadline.

Before I forget – an added bonus of all this – once again reveling in the sheer joy of writing something new.

Well, almost new. But you get the point.

Can’t stress this enough. Stay safe and healthy, chums.

Now go wash your hands.

Q & A with Victoria Lucas of Lucas Script Consulting

VML headshot #1

Victoria Lucas has more than 20 years of experience as a development and production executive at both major studios and independent film companies. She began her career with Ron Howard at Imagine Entertainment, working on films including Clean and Sober, Backdraft, and Far and Away.

She later joined with Academy Award-nominated producer Rudy Cohen to develop and produce the acclaimed coming-of-age film The Island On Bird Street (winner of three Emmys and two awards at the Berlin International Film Festival). As Director of
Development, Production Executive and Associate Producer at Signature Entertainment and April Productions, Lucas helped develop projects as diverse as The Black Dahlia, The I Inside, and The Body.

Lucas currently works as an independent producer and runs a professional screenplay development service for producers, production companies and screenwriters. She is also the on-air host for Arizona Public Media’s Saturday night feature film program, Hollywood at Home, providing historical background and an insider’s look at the making of classic films.

What was the last thing you read/watched that you considered to be extremely well-written?

Parasite. I was highly impressed by that script, especially the way the writers managed to switch plot directions – and even genres – so seamlessly. In fact, I feel that films, television and streaming shows are in something of a “Golden Age of Writing” at the moment. For instance, look at two other recent films: Joker and Knives Out. I’m in awe of how Todd Phillips and Scott Silver managed to make us sympathetic to the characters in Joker (helped, of course, by Joaquin Phoenix’ amazing performance). And Rian Johnson did a masterful job of updating and reinvigorating old Agatha Christie tropes in Knives Out.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

To be honest, it all started at birth. My mother, father and two grandparents were in the industry, with both my dad and grandma being successful screenwriters. I grew up in a house where writing was an everyday job, and it was taken very, very seriously. Unfortunately, their talent didn’t rub off on me, but I discovered through reading my dad’s work – and hearing about the process it went through before reaching the screen – that my real interest lay in working with writers to develop their scripts. From there, my career began as a reader, followed a pretty straightforward trajectory: producer’s assistant, story editor, creative executive, director of development, then into production.

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

I learned to recognize good writing through years of reading and discussion at home growing up. But if you’re asking whether good writing can itself be taught or learned, the answer is “Yes, I think it can.”

Screenwriting is both an art and a craft. You might be born with a talent for telling stories, but that’s only half the equation. Putting those stories onto paper in a way that will appeal to producers and audiences is the other half, and that’s the hard part. You need to hone your technique; or, put another way, to “develop your writing muscles.” Screenwriting classes, writers’ groups, how-to-books, blogs and podcasts – all can help. One of my favorite podcasts is Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin.

But the bottom line is this: You have to sit in your chair and write. And write. And write some more. No matter how naturally talented you are, you must practice your craft. It’s no different than becoming a master painter, concert musician or sports star. The more you do it, the better you become.

In the end, though, every writer is different; each with their own technique. Some like to outline their story so they know exactly how it will unfold before they begin to write. Others prefer to let the characters “tell” them what’s going to happen. Some are naturals at structure; others write great dialogue. The challenge for a writer is to identify the elements of screenwriting that don’t come naturally, then work hard to improve them.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A script is the blueprint for a movie, and the drawing begins with the concept. A great premise is like having an engine that drives the plot and the characters. If it is strong enough, it acts as the spine of the movie so that the structural elements – a compelling story, memorable characters, exciting action and all the rest – will fit together and support each other to produce a successful on-screen result. It’s not enough to create a literary masterpiece that’s envisioned entirely in the reader’s head; if the script lacks cinematic elements, it’s unlikely to get produced.

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

I know writers are tired of hearing about it – and many will simply ignore the  advice — but the way you present your screenplay is more important than you think. That means formatting to industry standards and doing more than a cursory spellcheck. Now, I can guarantee you that no producer ever passed on a great script because of a few spelling mistakes, but the script had to get to her in the first place. You need to realize that the first person to read your screenplay is likely to be a junior development person, an assistant or even an intern. Most of those people have a dozen or more scripts to plow through every week before the company staff meeting. If your script looks unprofessional with too many formatting errors, it’s far too easy for it to be put down.

A common mistake among emerging screenwriters is to overload a script with plot. Cramming in too many plots and subplots doesn’t allow you to develop the characters within the story. So, while a lot might happen, it’s hard to care about the people involved. Conversely, you don’t want a story where nothing seems to happen or change. Films are about conflict and drama. Always think, “What’s at stake?”

Passive lead characters are problematic. Hamlet may be indecisive but he’s not passive. In a similar vein, try not to fall onto the trap of creating supporting roles that are vivid and cinematic, while your hero is bland and uninteresting.

And please, please avoid using dialogue as exposition. I cringe every time a line starts with, “As you know…” or “Do you remember when we…?” That’s designed to give information or back story to the audience; it’s not something real characters would say to one another. Incidentally, when I was a young development exec, my friends and I used to compete for the best (read: worst) lines of expository dialogue. I won with “Tell me again why we’re going to Grandma’s.”

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s disheartening to me to find spec scripts that are pale imitations of the hot new movie or television show that just came out. Even experienced writers often forget that by the time a film is released or debuts as a series, the studio pipeline is already filled with similar projects. Rather than chase after what seems to be commercial at the time, write a great story that you feel passionate about – one that may change the direction of what’s commercial, just as George Lucas (no relation) did with sci-fi in 1977.

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

Read scripts. As many as you can. Then read some more. You can easily find Academy Award winning screenplays online, but don’t limit yourself to the greats. Mediocre or bad scripts can teach you a great deal… even if it’s “what not to do.” One often-overlooked element in screenwriting is structure. The classic three-act structure is the norm in a majority of American films, but there’s nothing magical about it: more and more scripts are written in five acts. However, every script needs a structure just as a building needs a foundation.

There’s a truism in films: writing is rewriting. You may feel that you’ve finished your work after you write Fade Out. But really, you’re just beginning. Most of the films I was involved with averaged 9 drafts before production started – and that’s on top of however many drafts the writer did before submitting the script! Learn how to take notes. Films are collaborative and, unless you write, produce, direct, finance and star in your movie, you will be getting notes. You might not agree with or accept all of them, but do be open to outside ideas that can help your script. Writers groan (often quite rightly) about “development hell,” but the reality is that most scripts can be improved.

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

I’ve probably read over ten thousand scripts in my career, and I remember giving four straight-up recommends. That doesn’t mean I haven’t read dozens or even hundreds of superb scripts, but a development executive’s job is to find projects for her production company. If the company I work with produces mainly action films and I read an outstanding character drama… well, no matter how brilliant it is, it’s not a script I can recommend to the producers. Mind you, if the script is that good, I’ll for sure find out more about that writer and, at the very least, see if they might have something else I can take in to the producer.

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

Absolutely worth it! But be selective. There are too many contests out there that only want to take your entry fee. Do your homework and find the reputable ones. Nothing about the film business is easy, but placing well in the most prestigious contests can be a great calling card for a new writer, helping you get representation or even producers asking to read your screenplay. Some of the top contests use industry professionals as judges, especially for the finalists. This can be a big plus: If they read your script and find it’s a good fit for their company or agency, you’ll be hearing from them after the contest even if you don’t win.

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

My company is Lucas Script Consulting.  All the information you need is on the website, including a link to contact me.

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

Cherry. Ideally made with tart (sometimes called sour) cherries. Bliss!

cherry pie

Me vs. the clock

keaton clock

After a rough couple of days, I’ve opted to put the revision of the sci-fi adventure outline  on hold and redirect my focus to a new draft of the horror-comedy.

Lots of changes in store for this one, most of all making it as cheap to produce as possible. Several characters cut, locations drastically slashed, overall production costs severely reduced.

What was once a low-budget story taking place throughout a small town has now been shrunken down to an ultra-low- (possibly even micro-) budget story with a majority of the action on a forest road, and in and around an isolated house.

In some ways a challenge, but also somewhat liberating. Also a major plus – so much usable material from the previous draft – including a line or two of description that’s been expanded into a plot-propelling sequence.

I’m slowly working my way through the outline, with the intention of getting to pages within the next week or so. One option is to type up pages for what I’ve already got in the outline, edit those, then work more on the outline, then pages, and so on and so on. I’ve done it before, with tiring but pleasing results.

No matter how I approach this, the ultimate goal is to have a completed draft (or as darn close to it I can get) by 31 March.

The ticking of the clock rings like thunder in my ears.

Wish me luck.