Reinforcing the shoestring

For those unaware, I had the good fortune last year to connect with a producer-director seeking a writer for their microbudget feature project.

After hearing their ideas and what they were looking for, I started developing the story, keeping them updated as things progressed at a decent clip.

One of the comments occasionally made during all this back-and-forth was, and I’m paraphrasing here – “Is there a way to cut the costs on that?” Since this is a micro-budget project, it’s imperative we get as much out of every dollar as possible.

Thus the changes and alterations began. A scene originally intended for a hospital room now takes place in somebody’s bedroom. A scene in a restaurant now has the two characters drinking to-go coffee and talking on a park bench.

You get the idea.

As the writer, it can be a bit of a challenge to revise a scene or sequence to accommodate the budget, but it also forces you to dig deeper into that creativity and come up with a solution that works just as effectively, if not more so.

If this were a regular spec, working within a budget wouldn’t be an issue. I’d just write whatever worked for the story. But if that script got picked up and the producer needed changes made, then they would be made.

Looking over some of the revisions, I also realized that some scenes could pack even more of a punch by utilizing sound and lighting (or lack thereof) for emphasis, rather than on just what we see. Leaving things to the imagination – what you hear and don’t see – has the potential to be much more effective.

(For a strong example of this, check out the 1942 classic horror-thriller CAT PEOPLE.)

Taking this “less is more” approach also helped with resolving a story problem in a significant way. A sequence that would already have been challenging to make is now drastically different but would be very simple to pull off, and we’re both very enthusiastic about how the end result would look.

While some aspects of the story and how it’s presented may have changed, the tone remains the same. There’s still a ways to go with the script, but writing it with this kind of mindset helps me figure things out so the story is just as compelling while also getting the most bang for the buck.

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.