Q & A with Geoffrey Calhoun

Screenwriter/script consultant Geoffrey Calhoun of WeFixYourScript.com has been previously featured on this site. This time around, he’s answering some questions about his new book The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

It was inspired from a class I designed when I was asked to teach screenwriting to film students in Ghana, Africa. Unfortunately that class fell through so I took the materials and broke them into seminars, then hit the road teaching at Film Festivals. Eventually, people attending the classes asked if I’d put this in book form. That’s when I realized I needed to create The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

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

Books on screenwriting tend to be one of two things: overly wordy textbooks or focus on a specific area of screenwriting. What I wanted to do was create a book that’s easy to read and comprises all aspects of screenwriting. Thus, The Guide For Every Screenwriter was born. It covers everything from concepts, character design, formatting, branding yourself as a writer, and beyond. All of it done in an easy to access reference guide which gets straight to the point. I wanted to break down the mysteries of our craft into something that anyone can pick up and understand. This is the book you keep on the shelf next to your desk as you’re writing. After reading this book you’ll be able to confidently write a screenplay, even if you’ve never done it before.

Some screenwriting books are geared more towards covering the basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. How is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

I wanted to write a book that even veteran screenwriters could read and walk away with something new or feel refreshed. The Guide covers some really interesting aspects about screenwriting which isn’t really covered in other books. Such as subplots, loglines, how to collaborate with other writers/producers, or even busting myths about queries.

Continuing on that theme – part of the book discusses the basics of formatting. Is this more of an issue than we’d normally expect?

Yes! As a professional screenwriter and consultant, I’m brought in to fix a lot of scripts through my website WeFixYourScript.com. One of the biggest problems I see is a lack of properly using format. Some writers believe it’s optional. Unfortunately, it’s not. So, adding format to the book was a must. I also wanted to delineate between a few of the finer aspects of format, such as montage vs. series of shots. Many writers think they’re interchangeable. The Guide explains exactly how and why they’re used and what makes them different, all with fun examples.

Early on in the book you mention how time, talent and tenacity all play a key role for both the writer and the act of writing. Could you elaborate on that?

The three T’s are my own personal mantra. The funny thing is, I never strung them together until I wrote the book. When it felt like I’d never get a script made I would tell myself I needed more time. Screenwriting is about the long game. Talent was a given. I knew I needed to be the best I could be, which is why I became a lifelong student of this craft. Tenacity is who I am as a person. I don’t quit. I don’t give up. I’m not built that way. I have to see things through. When I sat down to write the Guide, I wanted to create a section that was my own personal truth but also filled with hope and the three T’s were born.

A lot of writing guidelines say “write what you know”, but you’re of a somewhat differing opinion. How so, and how come?

That’s a great question and observation! I break the myth of “write what you know” in The Guide For Every Screenwriter. My hope was to introduce a different perspective to my peers. I believe we as writers need to be two things: experts on what we write about, and chameleons. In order to write about a particular topic or genre we need to master what it is first. Writing is one of the only fields in the world which encourages you to explore all facets of life in order to grow at your craft. The Guide provides a fun way to do that.

We also need to be chameleons. I know many writers scared to work outside of their comfort zones. That’s stifling creatively and also can make it difficult to find work as an indie screenwriter. I love working outside of my comfort zone. It makes me be better at what I do. It pushes me in directions I never expected and thus my skills improve.

I really liked your concept of what you call the “mind map”. Could you explain what that is, and how a writer would use it?

The mind map is a great little trick to get your brain thinking outside of the box. You can do it anywhere. I’ve seen a screenwriter do it at breakfast on a napkin and create their entire concept in ten minutes and it was good! You simply place what you want to develop in the middle of a paper and then branch off wild ideas around it. This isn’t just limited to concept; you can use it on anything including a character or even a story beat. I believe mind mapping in a busy public space can help as well because you’ll find inspiration from the surrounding environment.

There’s a section of the book that deals with a seldom-discussed part of a script: subplots. Why is the subplot important, and how can a writer get the most out of them?

When properly developed, a subplot can add a surprising amount of depth to your story. Subplots also fill out your script. Many writers tend to get lost in the main character’s struggle and end up underutilizing the supporting characters and underdeveloping the antagonist. This can lead to scripts struggling with anything from page count to a meandering script which can’t find its footing. A well developed subplot’s job is to reinforce and prop up the main plot. That’s one of the great keys to creating a killer script. In The Guide For Every Screenwriter, I explain what subplots to use and where they land in the script.

The final section of the book is appropriately called “What Comes Next”, in which you discuss what do after the script’s written – everything from getting feedback to queries. What prompted you to include these topics?

Screenwriting is about more than just writing scripts. If you really want to get out there and start landing writing gigs, then you need a road map of how to do that. I wanted to make sure the Guide can you lead you in the right direction. That’s why it covers topics such as properly protecting your script, a synopsis template, branding, networking, etc…

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was pumpkin with a big dollop of whipped cream. Still the same, or something new?

I don’t know why, but pecan pie has been calling to me.

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A slight course correction

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For the most part, my involvement with this year’s big contests is more or less over. Top 15 percent for Nicholl – not too bad. Total whiff for PAGE again, which makes me 0 for 4. Not expecting much out of Austin.

Results from some of the smaller contests are about the same. Semifinalist in one, quarterfinalist in another, and a few not-at-alls.

A bit on the disappointing side, but all is not lost. On the contrary. It’s actually helped force me into making a pretty important decision.

After much self-evaluating, I’ve opted to drastically cut back on contests for next year and ongoing. Most likely, I’ll keep it limited to just the big three mentioned above. And even entering those isn’t a certainty. They’re the ones that hold the most potential for getting the ball rolling on a career – not guaranteed, of course – but the most potential.

No delusions of grandeur. I’ll continue to take my chances and see how things go. If I do well, great. If not, no big deal.

And just for the hell of it, maybe one or two smaller ones every once in a while. Might as well have a little fun.

Moving forward, the focus now shifts to improving my writing skills and making my material better. Reading a lot of professional scripts, especially those in the same genres as the ones I’m writing, shows me my level of expertise isn’t where I need it to be.

If I want to make this work, I need to get better. No other way to put it.

It’ll be tough, but I’ve come this far and the final objective continues to feel a little bit closer with each new draft.

I’m fortunate enough to know a lot of savvy writers, along with more than a few quality consultants, so getting constructive feedback and guidance can only work to my advantage.

As a colleague once told me, “It’s not about contests. It’s about Hollywood.” Sure, contests are fun and all (especially when you win, or at least place highly), but I’d rather focus on writing quality material and getting them in the hands of people who can actually make something happen with them. Representation. Assignments. Rewrites. A sale. I’m not picky.

My long-term goal has always been to become a working writer, and I think I can still do it. It may not happen as soon as I’d like, but hopefully by really buckling down and pushing myself to keep at it, I’ll have a better shot at turning that goal from a dream into a reality.

Wish me luck.

A very hands-on Q&A with Geoffrey Calhoun

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Geoffrey D. Calhoun of wefixyourscript.com is listed as a Top 100 Indie Writer in the World. He has optioned several screenplays and has worked as a writer on two features coming out in 2017: The Little Girl and Studio 5. His multi-award-winning thriller Pink Bunny is scheduled for a 2018 release. Geoffrey has won multiple screenwriting awards and has worked as a producer, an assistant director, and director on indie film productions. He has been sought out by studios as a script consultant and a re-writer for various stages of development and production.

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

The last thing I watched I couldn’t stop thinking about was Arrival. I loved this film. It had depth and really explored her character. I loved how they played around with the structure of the film in creative ways that really built up to a climax. It was fantastic. I could see how Eric Heisserer did over 100 drafts to make that story perfect.

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

I actually began writing on a bet. A friend of mine was an editor for a local kids show. He wanted to push himself to write a script so he challenged me to see who could write better. Personally, I wasn’t interested because I have dyslexia. I agreed to do it, and ended up really enjoying the process. Since then it became more than a passion, almost like a volition. I wanted to be the best screenwriter I could possible be, so I started studying and learning from the greats such as Syd Field, Robert McKee, Viki King and reading screenplays by modern legends as well like David Goyer, Jonathan Nolan, and Christopher McQuarrie.

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

I think it can be learned. It comes with time. The average movie attendee can recognize a bad film. Now, some people prefer bad films, but that’s a whole different form of self- torture (wink). I like this question. It reminds me of the debate about raw talent vs. learned skill. Some teachers out there believe if you don’t have a modicum of innate talent with writing, then you’ll never be a good writer. I completely disagree with this. Their defense is that this is an art, and thus you must have a certain amount of “taste” in order to know the difference between what’s good and bad. I think what we do is more than an art. It’s a craft; a learned skill plain and simple. Something that can be mastered with just two things, time and practice. That’s all you need. We are craftsmen, like the blacksmiths of old. At first creating something small and simple like a horseshoe, then with time we master our skill and create compelling stories and works of art like the ornate armors of old.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It all starts with having something to say in your script. What are we trying to pass off to the audience? What do we want to tell them about life? Something that will open their eyes and help them see things from a new perspective? Or something that will reassure them and speak to the struggles they are going through? When we have a theme like this and we pair it with a sympathetic character, then we create a compelling story that’s unforgettable and emotionally moving. Take Arrival. It’s about a woman’s struggle with loss. That’s something that speaks to everyone, which is why it resonated so well with people.

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

Wow, that’s a tough one. I see mistakes of all kinds from new screenwriters to professionals. One mistake I often see is having underdeveloped characters. They’re superficial and are around just to be a face. Sometimes they’re even described as pretty or handsome, which reinforces this. When I get hired for a rewrite, the first thing I do is take the characters and layer in depth to make them more human and sympathetic; give them reasons to do what they’re doing and why they make the choices they do. I create depth by adding to them traits that we all suffer from but never talk about such as secretly insecure, lonely, or lost, etc.

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

This is more a genre thing for me but I’m sick of the false ending in horror films. Here we spend at least 90 minutes emotionally involved with a character. If it’s a good one – Dawn of the Dead is a good example – then you’ll have me on my seat the entire film. Then at the end, the lucky few characters that have survived finally make it…until there’s a surprise jump scare right before the credits roll and we discover the characters we’d been rooting for this whole time never make it. I’m so frustrated by this. For me it feels like a waste of my time to discover they all die because of a dirty trope in the end.

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

1) STEAL: Steal everything from everyone. Writers are the best thieves in the world. I’m not saying plagiarize, but when you find a technique or scene that really works for you, break it down and make it your own so you can add it to your toolbox.

2) STUDY: This goes with stealing. Learn from the masters. Writers like John August have a blog that you should be following. Don’t stop there. Learn from the masters that taught the master such as Aristotle. If you pay attention, all the great screenwriters will quote Aristotle. There’s a reason for that.

3) IGNORE THE BS: There’s a lot of flack out there towards aspiring screenwriters. I recently read an article where a Hollywood writer was bragging about telling screenwriters they’ll never make it. He tells them they should just give up because they aren’t talented. It’s BS. You can make it, but it takes time. A long time. If a dyslexic from Detroit can make it, then you can too. One of the reasons I founded wefixyourscript.com was exactly for that purpose: to give screenwriters that extra helping hand to not just  improve upon their screenplays, but to help them become better screenwriters. That’s why we include the one-on-one consultation.

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

Definitely. In fact, I just did some coverage on a dramatic short that had a fantastic concept. I helped them tweak it, but only a little. I guarantee it won’t have a dry eye in the audience when it films. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say about it.

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

I think they’re great, and I strongly recommend contests in festivals. That’s where you can really make headway as a writer. You need to network and make connections to build up your reputation. You can meet other writers, producers, and directors that will eventually land you in a spot where you’ll be getting work. When you go to these fests you want to be the life of the party. Have fun. Get yourself out there. And make sure you’re handing out business cards. It will get you work.

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

They can contact us at info@wefixyourscript.com. They can also sign up for a free 15-minute consultation on our website. With our consultation, we offer ways to help your work or answer any questions about us or the industry in general. We’ve had some great feedback on this service.

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

I’ve got to go with mom’s pumpkin pie. There is one caveat though: it must be smothered with a big dollop of whipped cream.