Reading for reading’s sake

This week I opted to give myself a bit of a break among the writing and outlining sessions, and read some scripts just for the hell of it. Admittedly, some of them had been in my “to read” queue for quite a while, and right now seemed as good a time as any to finally get to them.

No notes. No feedback. Just sitting back, relaxing, and losing myself in the stories.

They ranged from a horror to a historical action, a western to a drama based on true events.

And each and every one was fantastic in its own unique way.

It also helps that these are the works of some excellent writers to begin with, so that made the overall experience that much better.

If I’d been asked when I was starting out if I could ever just read a script, I’m not sure if the answer would have been yes. I suspect I’d’ve been too concerned with thinking “what works in this script?” and “what can I learn from this?”

But the experience that’s come from reading and writing scripts has enabled me to look at a screenplay as more than an educational document. I can see solid storytelling, strong plots, three-dimensional characters, snappy dialogue, and all the other elements.

All of those elements combine to make for some darned good scripts.

It’s one of the best pieces of advice when a newer writer asks “How can my scripts be better?”

READ SCRIPTS!

There’s a vast assortment from which to choose, making it super-easy for you to customize your reading list.

And to take it one step further, numerous members of the online screenwriting community would be happy to share or swap scripts. You just have to do the work in finding something that piques your interest. Believe me, they are definitely out there.

If your schedule allows, try to make the effort to read one to two scripts a week. You’ll be glad you did.

The heart of the matter

The past few weeks, part of my writing schedule has involved revising the outline of my animated fantasy-comedy spec. It’s been fun to develop – having a previous draft to work with really helps. The action sequences, the story, the jokes and sight gags haven’t been too difficult, but I’ve been making more of an effort to build up the emotional aspect.

This isn’t to say I’ve never included that. It just hasn’t been as prevalent in the early stages of planning and plotting process.

It’s not enough to just show the stuff that’s happening, you need to show how it’s relevant to the characters. While the plot is about the external goal (what do they want?), there’s also the importance of establishing their internal goal (what do they need?).

Sometimes the internal and external goals work together, and sometimes a character will achieve one and not the other. There’s also the tried and true “they got what they wanted, but it wasn’t what they needed” (and vice versa). It all depends on how the writer wants to the story to go.

To help myself get a better grasp of this, I’ve been reading the scripts for and watching other animated films to see how they approach it. There has also been the occasional “read a few pages of the script, then watch how it plays out onscreen”.

*helpful tip – for prime examples of incorporating emotion into story, you can’t go wrong with well-made animated films. They do a fantastic job of setting everything up as fast and efficiently as possible. Sometimes singing is involved. And as it should be with live-action, each scene manages to include advancing the characters’ emotional arc as well as the story arc.

As more than a few readers have said to me, sometimes my writing is more about what we see onscreen and not as much about what’s happening to the characters on the inside. Hopefully that won’t be the case this time around. Since I’m still outlining the story, I try to include what the emotional impact is in each scene. Does the point of the scene affect the character(s) the way it’s supposed to?

At first, this was pretty challenging, but watching how other films accomplished it, it wasn’t as daunting as I initially thought, plus the more I think about it and plan for it, it’s not as bad as I thought. It’s helping with the overall development because I’m taking that sort of detail into consideration as part of the initial planning stages, as opposed to trying to work it in later, along with avoiding a few unnecessary rewrites.

Since this is a slightly different approach for me, I’m sure it’ll be chock-full of trial and error along the way, but am fairly confident it’ll yield the results I’m hoping for.

Learn by doing (apply & repeat)

A few weeks ago, I’d mentioned on social media that part of my plan for this year was to continue doing script notes. The responses were overwhelmingly positive, as well as inspiring a few other writers to do the same thing.

(I’m really cutting back on how many scripts I read. I like the idea of putting more time into my own stuff.)

One writer commented that they’d love to be able to do the same for other writers, but they didn’t have much confidence in their own analytical skills.

We’ve all been there. Giving notes isn’t easy, and some are better at it than others.

Like with everything about screenwriting, there’s no secret formula.

It’s all about taking time and effort to learn how to read a script and be able to recognize what works and what doesn’t. And even that takes time to learn how to do properly, or at least effectively.

I’d suggested to the writer they start by just reading scripts. Could they see what’s good, and what’s not? Opinions vary whether it’s better to work with specs or produced material. I tend to favor the former because that way I’m not influenced by an existing film.

Another option was to get feedback on their own scripts, either from a professional or someone within their personal network whose opinion they trust. Do they understand why the reader made the notes they did?

As cliched as this may sound, when it comes to being able to recognize good writing, you eventually learn to know it when you see it.

I really hope this writer decides to start working on honing their analytical skills. Being a good reader really can help you become a better writer.

(you + ideas) x plan = 2022

As we stand on the cusp of a brand spanking new year, do you know what you want to accomplish, writing-wise?

More importantly, do you have a plan on how that’s going to happen?

I’m finding that it really helps to take a realistic approach, focusing more on the things we can actually control, rather than the things we would like to happen.

Knowing your own productivity and output, how many scripts do you think you could write/rewrite?

For me, I’m looking at 1-2 new ones, and 2-3 rewrites. Might be a bit of a challenge, but still doable.

I’ve also noticed an increase across social media of writers offering to give notes to other writers, so that’s something also easily achievable. Doing that once or twice a month benefits both you and the other writer, and a lot of the time the other writer will reciprocate, so…win-win.

Lots of writers are also directors or filmmakers, so maybe making a film or a short is part of your 2022 to-do list. Count me among that number. Got a horror-comedy short I’m just itching to make, and have started the ball rolling to see that happen.

No matter what you’re hoping to accomplish this year, I hope you not only do that, but also manage to enjoy yourself along the way. You should be getting as much out of the journey as you do finishing it.

And keep in mind that while you might be flying solo on a project, you’re definitely not alone. Just about every other writer out there is going through the exact same thing. Don’t hesitate to ask for help, advice, or feedback, or to offer it.

Win-win, remember?

Here’s to a phenomenally productive 2022.

Hope you like receiving what I’m giving

Despite what some may say, it’s actually kind of tough to get a gift for a screenwriter. Straight-up cash – for contests and consultants, of course – is always good, but Murray in the accounting department says Maximum Z’s budget only goes so far, so that’s not an option.

So I figured, how about the next best thing?

You guessed it. Guidance!

So in the spirit of the season, here are some helpful tips that can benefit any screenwriter. One size fits all, the color suits you to a T, and they never fade, run or tear.

WRITE SOMETHING YOU WOULD WANT TO SEE

You like comedies? Write one that could make you laugh out loud. Horror fan? Transfer the scares onto the page. Your taste runs towards small indies? Bet some aspect of your life would be a great foundation for a story like that.

When you go to the movies or sit down to watch something streaming at home, you want your money’s worth. It’s up to the script to deliver on that.

The writer’s love of the material should be evident on the page. The reader/audience will pick up on your enthusiasm for the material, so don’t hold back and have at it. You’re your own target for this, so what would you want to be included in your story?

WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE

You want the words on the page to really flow, to make the reader keep going and want to turn the page/see what happens next, right? Which do you think will do the job better? Two lines of tight, concise action, or five of excessive prose? I’ve seen both, and prefer the former by a substantial margin.

The subheading for this could be “the more white on the page, the better”. You want to make the absolute most out of that valuable real estate on the page, so why would you want to clutter it up with thick blocks of text? Grab that red pen, put on your editor’s hat, and jump in. Could this dialogue or action be trimmed down from four lines to three? Or two?

The more the writing flows, the faster the read, and the more likely you are to keep your reader’s interest. Try to use as few words as possible; the ones that make the biggest impact.

SHOW, DON’T TELL

You’d think this was a basic one, but I’ve seen a lot of scripts that include what a character is thinking, why they’re doing something, or what something really means.

In other words, “How do we know that?” Film is primarily a visual medium, so if you’re able to present information we can see that’s part of the story, do it!

Here’s an example I like to use:

“INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT

Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. His mind drifts to when he took Mary Lou to the prom, where she subsequently dumped him and then ran off with a plumber and now lives in Akron with four kids, a cat, and a mortgage.”

What would we see onscreen? A guy washing dishes. That backstory info needs to be presented visually, or as much as can be.

SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

True story: I once read a script that included the now-immortal line “She sets a bag of frozen pees on the counter.” I had a lot of trouble focusing on the rest of the script after that. Couldn’t tell you for the life of me now what the story was, but I will remember that line until the very end.

When a writer asks me to look over their script, I’m not just doing story notes. I check punctuation, spelling, grammar, the whole shebang. Having a few goofs is pretty standard; anything more than that and it becomes a problem. Sloppy writing makes it look like the writer isn’t taking this as seriously as they should. Not a great speller, or tend to overdo it with the commas? No problem. I bet there’s a writer within your network who’d be happy to do a polish for you.

DON’T BE BORING

Easier said than done, right? It’s a challenge to make any story interesting enough to hold onto the reader/audience’s attention, but it all starts with what’s on the page. Is the writing flat, or does it really pop? Does the writer have a handful of verbs they use over and over, or have they given their thesaurus a real workout?

Which sounds more visual and intriguing?

He walks into the room.

OR

He struts into the room.

Hint: it’s not the first one. Doesn’t imagining somebody strutting into a room feel stronger, more cinematic, than somebody simply walking in?

The script is your way to paint a picture in our minds using words, and words alone. It’s up to you to do that in as entertaining a way as possible, using the words that pack the most punch.

Does the writing in your script do that?

BE NICE TO PEOPLE/PLAY NICE WITH OTHERS

Another one you’d think would go without saying, but manners do count – especially when it comes to meeting people who could potentially have an impact on you establishing a career.

Which would you rather be – the congenial person who’s interested in what the other person has to say, is open to ideas and suggestions, celebrates somebody else’s accomplishments, and wants to help out, or the bitter, self-important person who constantly whines/complains about how they’re not getting the recognition they deserve, badmouths other writers, won’t change anything in their script because “it’s perfect the way it is”, and just makes it all about them?

This is an extremely tough business to break into, let alone thrive in, so wouldn’t you want as much support as you can get? And every other writer needs as much support as you do, so you should try to help them just as much. Plus, nice people are nicer to be around.

Also important – be honest. Don’t present yourself as something you’re not. If you weren’t telling the truth about one thing, why should anybody believe you about anything else? Sometimes all you have is your reputation, and you don’t want to have it work against you.

Those within the industry would much rather work with somebody who presents themselves as a team player, and not a diva. Cliched as it sounds, you really do only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure that yours puts you in the best possible light, then you do what you can to keep yourself there.

And that’s it. Hope you get some use out of these, and feel to re-gift as needed.

Wishing you all the best for a happy holiday season that involves a slice of your favorite pie and at least a little bit of writing.