The unscientific term would be “gut reaction”

trust your feelings
Learn to trust your feelings. Even with the blast shield down.

I’ve had the experience of working with some writing, both my own and other people’s, that required a second opinion. For some of them, I was the second opinion, while the others involved my work being reviewed.

An experienced professional asked me to take a look at another writer’s script, accompanied with their excitement and enthusiasm about it. Upon reading it, I found it severely lacking in a lot of screenwriting fundamentals (bad structure, shoddy character development, etc.), and said so as part of my notes of what was needed to improve.

I like to read a script twice before giving notes on it, and it took a lot of effort to get through each one – especially the second time. That whole time I was wondering “Where is this enthusiasm coming from?” This person knows what a good script looks like, and this one, to me, didn’t meet any of the necessary criteria. And if they felt this way about this script, could I trust their judgment on others?

Last week I’d been given the offer to have my query letter reviewed. I put it together with the elements I considered vital: quick one-sentence pitch, logline, reputable contest results. As fast a read as possible.

The response read like something churned out by a machine. Their recommendation was to follow “their blueprint”, which involved a lot of fill-in-the-blanks, how it’s similar to successful films (the more recent, the better!), telling the story from only the main character’s point of view, and concluding with “why I think this will be a hit” OR the underlying theme. The end result is several big unappealing blocks of text.

All of this felt totally and absolutely wrong. If I were the intended recipient, I might start reading, but would most likely lost interest very quickly and be very hard-pressed to want to continue, let alone finish it.

(With no intention of ever actually using a letter written following their guidelines,  I put one together and submitted it for review, just to see what they would say. Their follow-up comments reinforced my doubts, but that is a topic for another day.)

As you probably guessed, I’ll be sticking with my original format.

The takeaway from both of these experiences is that a writer must not only develop their writing and storytelling skills, but also the ability to trust their instincts. Know what works, not only for you, but in an overall sense.

Don’t always assume the other person is in the right. Sometimes they’re not.

Everybody will have an opinion about something. You might agree wholeheartedly or think the other person has no idea what they’re talking about. It takes time to learn how to determine which is which. You will make mistakes and bad choices along the way, but make the effort to learn from them so you don’t do it again.

Like with writing itself, the more you work at it, the better at it you’ll become.

 

The Force is strong with this one

galaxy
Don’t get your knickers in a twist. This isn’t about that.

Star Wars: Episode VII officially opens today, and my God, what an impact this is having. I’ve been a fan since way back in ’77, but not to the point of sleeping in front of a movie theatre for days on end.

I’m opting to wait a couple of days and let all the crazy hoopla die down. It’s not like it’ll play for a week and disappear. Even the neighborhood theatre up the street is playing it on both screens. That’s saying something.

Looking at this phenomenon from a screenwriting point of view, you can’t help but be impressed with the world that’s been created here. Count me among those inspired by the creativity on display in these films and who strive to achieve something similar with our own work.

I’ve written before how I’d love to write the next STAR WARS (as would a zillion other writers), but I don’t mean a sprawling epic space opera, although that would be kind of cool.

I’m talking about an entertaining story of memorable characters and situations that you never get tired of seeing. That thrills you with its overwhelming sense of wonder. The sheer joy of being swept away as this tale unfolds before your eyes and ears.

Do I have that ability? Hard to say, but I like to think so. Nobody thought STAR WARS was going to do well, and you know how that worked out.

So in the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away, telling my own stories the best way I can, and hope that someday I come close to accomplishing something similar. At the very least, it’ll be fun trying.

See you at the movies.

 

A few points about plot points

delorean

Time for a quick refresher course, chums.

Today’s topic: plot points. What they are and what they represent.

I’ve always seen plot points as pivotal moments in the story; events that change the situation for your protagonist, usually in a negative manner, and ask/reiterate the central question (Will your hero achieve their goal?).

Having solid plot points also helps establish your story’s structure. Without it, all you’ve got is a big convoluted mess, and who wants to read that?

Although this uses a 110-page script as an example, plot points don’t have to happen exactly at those pages. A few more or less is totally acceptable. I’ve also opted to use fairly recognizable examples to emphasize each plot point.

Pencils ready? Let’s begin.

Page 3 – statement of theme. What’s the overall message of your story? The theme should also be incorporated in some fashion into each scene throughout the course of the story. (“No McFly in the history of Hill Valley has ever amounted to anything!” “Yeah, well, history’s gonna change.”)

Page 10 – inciting incident. The event that shakes up you protagonist’s world, and asks the central question of the story. (Will Indy get the Ark before the Nazis?)

Page 17 – a twist to further complicate things for the protagonist. (“Alderaan? I can’t go with you to Alderaan!”)

End of Act One (page 25-30) – Your protagonist leaves behind their old world and enters a new one to achieve their goal. Also repeats the central question. (Marty arrives in 1955)

Page 45 – another twist to complicate things for the protagonist (Indy saves Marion, destroys her bar. “I’m your goddamned partner!”)

Midpoint/Point of No Return (page 55-60) – your protagonist becomes fully committed to achieving their goal (Brody decides to go after the shark after his son barely survives the latest attack)

Page 75 – yet another twist to really complicate things for your protagonist (Vader kills Ben as Luke & Co escape)

End of Act Two (page 90) – All is lost. Your protagonist is totally screwed with no apparent way out. Makes it seem like the answer to your central question is “no”. (The Nazis get the Ark).

Climax (page 95-100) – final showdown between your protagonist and antagonist. (Rebels attack the Death Star. Marty must hit the wire when the lightning hits. Nazis open the Ark. The shark attacks the Orca, eats Quint.)

Resolution (page 100-105) – Aftermath of the climax. Central question gets answered. (Rebels victorious. Marty returns to 1985. Brody & Hooper survive. Indy delivers the Ark.)

Denouement (page 105-110) – How your protagonist’s world is now different from what it used to be (but not necessarily better). (Marty’s family is successful. The Ark gets crated and goes into a warehouse. Luke & Han hailed as heroes. Brody doesn’t hate the water anymore.)

So there you have it. Do the plot points of your story match up with these? Just something to think about. And feel free to watch the movies represented here (or one of your own personal favorites, or one similar to yours) to see all those plot points in action.

It just might be some of the most fun homework you’ll ever have.

Ask a Mega-franchise-experienced* Script Consultant!

Phil Clarke
*Jedi, Hogwarts, & MI-6, if you need points of reference

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 Phil Clarke.

Phil Clarke is a UK-based script consultant and screenwriter with close to twenty years service to cinema. After years working on such features as Sleepy Hollow, Enigma, The Beach and two of the biggest box-office franchises: Star Wars and Harry Potter, he turned to writing – both for the screen and the page. His screenplays have spent time with production companies both in the UK and Hollywood, including a James Bond ‘scriptment’ considered for the twentieth entry in the franchise. As a script consultant for over a decade, his clients have won or placed highly at major script competitions, had their projects optioned, while others have gone on to be produced, the best débuting at Cannes.

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

The last thing of note was on British TV called The Honourable Woman written by the fantastic Hugo Blick and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Not sure if you’ve had it yet in the States. Well worth checking out – also Blick’s The Shadow Line.

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

I started reading screenplays as work following my years working on the sets of movies like Sleepy Hollow, Enigma, Star Wars and Harry Potter. For example, on the latter I was Chris Columbus’ on-set personal assistant.

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

Absolutely. But you do need to be willing to be taught. Many aspiring screenwriters seem too keen to find a shortcut and bypass the learning side.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Tough to answer succinctly in a Q&A like this, but a good script tends to be well structured, have a well-executed and compelling premise along with engaging, relatable protagonists.

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

Generally speaking, I see too many new writers wanting to rush through the process. Consequently, they submit their work too early when several rewrites would have immeasurably improved the project. More specifically, I see poor grammar and spelling, inadequate formatting, poorly defined characters with unclear goals and a lack of conflict in the scenes and in the story as a whole.

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

Personally, my heart always sinks when I see a script open with a voice-over narration. It’s often a sign that the entire script will be uninspiring and derivative. While it’s a way to convey a lot in a small amount of time, most writers don’t use it in the right way.
 Dream sequences and flashbacks more often than not annoy because of the way they’re usually handled. Cutting back unnecessarily to explain or overload with exposition certainly grates.

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

It’s hard to limit it to just three, but I would say:

1) know your story inside out and the reason for your story

2) above all else, make your story entertaining

3) never stop trying to improve your writing. Continue to hone your craft, and never think you’re the finished article.

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

Yes, of course. I would be most disenchanted with my job if I hadn’t. But these stick-on, guaranteed ‘recommend’ reads are rare. As for the loglines, I’m afraid I am unable to give you one.

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

It depends on the contest. Some are beneficial, others – not so much. Make sure to research which ones offer you the most for your time and money. If they can guarantee your script will be read by those who can help get your script sold then they’re definitely worth it as that’s what all writers are aiming for.

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

People can find me all over the internet. I’m on Twitter (@philmscribe), Stage32.com and LinkedIn. My website is www.philmscribe.com, or check out my IMDB page at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0164947/. Alternatively, they can reach me directly at: philmscribe@live.co.uk.

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

I also love my pie. Anything from Key Lime to Raspberry Crumble. I’m also partial to a quality Tarte Tatin.

Roll up for the My Writing Process Tour!

Sorry, no walruses involved
Step right this way! Sorry, no walruses involved

I’ve been invited to take part in The My Writing Process Tour, which is kind of a blog/chain letter thing. One blogger asks another to take part and answer some insightful questions, then link to writers/bloggers we’d recommend.

I was nominated by Henry Sheppard, aka Adelaide Screenwriter, from the Australian metropolis of Adelaide. He’s always offering up some fantastic material, including articles, interviews and shorts. Definitely worth checking out.

As for me…

1. What am I working on?

Three items currently hold my attention: revamping the outline of a pulpy adventure spec, the rewrite/polish of a Christmas-themed mystery-comedy and resuming the hunt for representation.

2. How does my work differ from all others of its genre?

Even though I’ve written in several genres, the one thing I always try to convey is a sense of fun and excitement. It takes a lot more effort than people realize to really engage a reader that way.

I want you to enjoy the story beyond just “this is good writing” and more like that amusement park thrill ride you rush to get back in line for as soon you get off.

3. Why do I write what I do?

My formative years were the late 70s/early 80s, so I had the benefit of being heavily influenced by the likes of STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and BACK TO THE FUTURE. To me, those are textbook examples of what smart storytelling should be, and it’s what I strive for in my own work.

I’ve stated before about being a fan of the genres I write, so not only am I trying to write something I’d want to see, but I try to create something I haven’t seen before.

4. How does your writing process work?

It all starts with an idea. Is there a story behind it? If so, what happens over the course of that story? How could I tell it in an original way?

Once I have a general idea about that story, including knowing how it starts and ends, I set up the plot points (statement of theme on page 3, inciting incident on page 10, etc), then fill in the gaps between them.

If it’s a genre-specific film, I try to incorporate elements that are part of that genre while trying to avoid tropes, or at least approach them from a different perspective.

I do a majority of my work in developing the outline, and it makes a huge difference. It gives me a better overview of the whole thing so it’s easier to keep track of character development, storylines, subplots, setups and payoffs. I won’t even consider starting on pages until I think the outline is solid.

Because of my schedule, I write when I can. When it comes to pages, I try to produce at least 3 a day. Sometimes it’s more. It’s gets easier the more you do it. They add up fast, and before you know it, you’ve got a completed draft to go back, edit and rewrite.

I’m also extremely fortunate to have several friends and trusted colleagues I can turn to for feedback. They pull no punches in telling me if something doesn’t work.

Lastly, I’ll rewrite and polish the script until I think it’s good to go.

Over there on your right is a list of blogs I think make for some excellent reading and advice. I’ve added three definitely worth checking out:

The Single Screenwriter by Christie LeBlanc

Writer of Fine Things by Evan Porter

The Screenwriting Process from James (don’t know his last name) in the UK

Bonus! If you’re looking for some reasonably-priced professional analysis for your script, you might want to consider:

-Doug Davidson’s Four Star Feedback. Doug is the only writer to win a Nicholl Fellowship with an animation script (2004), but he happily covers all genres.

-Andrew Hilton aka the Screenplay Mechanic. His services have garnered extremely high praise on the Done Deal Pro forums.

Thanks for reading!