There’s a pivotal scene in my western where my main character reveals why she does what she does and what made her the person she is. Nothing too complicated. Just a couple of lines of dialogue.
It took a few passes to whittle it down so it got to the point fast and in as few words as possible. I think it works quite nicely.
It’s been suggested how this was a great opportunity to apply the “show, don’t tell” rule and make it a flashback. The logic being that since it’s such an important moment, showing it, rather than just her talking about it, would have a greater impact.
I’m not so sure about that.
I don’t have a problem with flashbacks, but have always tried to avoid using them. I guess I see them almost as a cheat; possibly even lazy writing. Like you can’t weave that information into what’s happening now, so you stop the action to show it. But once you interrupt the momentum of your story, it’s not easy to get things back up to speed.
And sometimes a flashback just isn’t necessary.
Consider the scene from JAWS pictured above with Quint’s story about the Indianapolis. Should we actually see what he’s describing? Highly doubtful. Part of why that speech works so well is how it’s delivered. You can see and hear what that experience did to him. How you’re imagining it is much more terrifying than anything they could show. The speech would lose its impact if we were concentrating on the action, rather than what Quint is saying.
Sometimes just a line of dialogue or two can be just as effective, if not possibly more so, as pausing the action for a flashback. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t use it. If you think it’s the most effective way to make your point, then by all means do it.
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 Pilar Alessandra of On The Page.
Pilar Alessandra is the director of the instructional writing program On The Page,® host of the On the Page Podcast and a highly sought-after speaker and script consultant who’s trained writers at Disney, DreamWorks, ABC, the AFM and around the world. She is also the author of The Coffee Break Screenwriter and The Coffee Break Screenwriter Breaks the Rules. Pilar’s greatest accomplishment is the success of her students. They work on TV shows such as Little Fires Everywhere, The 100, Dear White People, Grey’s Anatomy and The Chi and have sold feature films and pitches to Netflix, Sony, Warner Bros. and other major studios. For more information about Pilar, her classes, consultations, book and podcast, go to www.onthepage.tv
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
A script called BULLIES by Mike Grebb, one of the writers in my writing groups. It’s dark, honest and incredibly well written, and was included on the 2014 Bloodlist for top horror screenplays. And a former student’s script called RIP CURRENT, inspired by the classic SHANE, that takes place in the world of Mexican drug cartels. I loved how it captured the tone of an old western, while also updating the story. It went on to get the writer representation from Jeff Portnoy of Bellevue Productions.
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
I was one of those oddballs who actually loved writing term papers in college. A friend of mine knew that and asked me to read a few scripts for an independent company she was working for. When I found out this was a real job, rather than just nerdy fun, I sent in my coverage samples to Amblin Entertainment and they hired me.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
Good analysts have a strong story sense to begin with, but I they also need to keep learning about how genres and writing styles change. They need to be observers of human nature to truly empathize with and understand characters.
4. What are the components of a good script?
A fresh idea. A compelling story. Descriptive but concise scene direction. Authentic dialogue.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
Writing “movie” characters. Many writers actually do this well, but they’re borrowing behavior and voices from characters they’ve seen onscreen, rather than inventing new ones from their own imagination.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
A man’s family is kidnapped or missing and he racks up a high body count getting them back. Though to be honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing this with a female lead. Could be a fresh take.
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
-There are less “rules” in screenwriting than you think.
-Learn what those are anyway.
-Then break one of them purposefully and artfully.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?
“Adding insult to his already tragic life, a man is terrorized by a small bird.” The script is called “The Starling.” I know it sounds weird, but it’s beautiful. It was written by Matt Harris, a student of mine. After receiving lots of attention over the years, it was eventually bought by Netflix for 20 million dollars!
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
Worth it because some agents and managers use the big ones to vet material. Worth it too because they’re writing contests, not selling contests, so you have a chance with a script that isn’t conventionally commercial.
10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
Check out www.onthepage.tv to find out about classes, consultations, online offerings, book, DVD and the “On the Page Podcast.” You can also e-mail me directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
Pumpkin, of course! It’s sweet and spicy. What’s not to love? (This is the best question ever.)
*If you’re of a certain age, you get the reference. If not, read on.
I don’t know if I would call THE GOONIES (1985) a guilty pleasure. (I enjoyed it, but wouldn’t place it in my top 10.)
This is not one of those movies people are embarrassed to admit liking. Probably the opposite.
There are more than a few times it’s mentioned as an example of “why don’t they make ’em like that anymore?” or “this is the kind of thing I’m looking for.” If somebody tells you your script has the same kind of vibe, consider it a high compliment.
Just goes to show – create a kid-friendly adventure that tells a smart story and doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence, and you’re set. Almost 30 years later, and it’s still fresh in a lot of minds and recalled with great fondness.
I mean, have you watched it recently? Once you get past some of the cheesiness, it’s actually a quality example of great storytelling. It’s not complicated. Everything’s laid out in simple terms. Good guys, bad guys, multiple goals.
But it also goes beyond the mechanics.
Part of the appeal is that it really captures the basic kid-like spirit of adventure, and we get to go along for the ride. Pirates, treasure maps, booby-trapped underground caves and tunnels. What’s not to like?
It’s also an original story. I can’t think of anything similar that came before it (feel free to let me know if there is), and it still works as a template.
This is the kind of story I love to watch, and really love to write. No qualms about letting my inner 12-year-old throw his two cents into the development process. It adds a certain element of authenticity that something like this really needs.
Suggestion: If you decide to make this part of some forthcoming moviewatching experience, make sure you get a copy as non-edited as possible. We caught the TV cut and it was awful. Bad edits (including for commercials), pan and scan, poor picture quality overall. Bleah.
Sometimes when you’re working on a story, you get into this groove or rhythm where everything seems to mesh together in just the right way that you experience what could possibly be described as the writer’s equivalent of a runner’s high. Before you realize it, you’ve completed X pages and time has passed in the blink of an eye.
This is one of those good things about the writing process. It really helps make up for the days where you get absolutely nothing done, or spend a lot of time accomplishing not much or something you’re not happy with.
Although I haven’t had a lot of time to write the past few days, when I have, the results have been quite exhilarating.
I’m inching my way through three separate storylines, each dancing around each other until they finally converge in one important story-changing moment.
It’s also forcing me to edit on the fly because my outline had a lot of scenes that went on longer than necessary, but as I work my way through the pages, I’m able to cut a lot of those down to scenes of 1-2 sentences, and maybe a line of dialogue. And each one is pushing the story ahead.
So overall, lookin’ good.
-Movie of the Moment, Two-fer edition: SUPER 8 (2011). I made sure to watch this at night so it recreated the theatre atmosphere. It helped. This was definitely a throwback to late 70s/early 80s Spielberg, and a lot of fun. Nothing fancy; good solid storytelling. It was also a refreshing change to have unknown actors in the kid roles, all of whom seemed well-suited to their characters.
Just two things I thought about during and after: 1. How were they able to drive off the military base? and 2. Why did the monster eat certain people but kidnap others?
I couldn’t help but wonder if this would have gotten made if JJ Abrams wasn’t involved. I was also thinking if the monster was going to look like the one in CLOVERFIELD, albeit much smaller.
And…THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011). Also a Spielberg joint. We introduced V to the Tintin books last summer and she loves ’em. The plots may be a little over her head, but she seems to get the gist of it. She was quite psyched to see the movie.
Turns out she loved it. I also enjoyed it, maybe not to the same extent, and thought the writing was well-done (which it should be, especially with Moffat and Wright as 2 of the 3 writers). The action sequences were great and definitely kept things moving. As always, I liked how it didn’t talk down to the audience. The filmmakers assume you have a brain and can follow along with any hand-holding.
I didn’t have a problem with the motion-capture format, but wondered if this could have been done in the style of Herge’s art style. Though the 3-D may have been harder to pull off. It’ll be interesting to see if they move ahead with a sequel.
-Happy holidays to one and all. Here’s to writing success for everybody in 2012.