Sums it up succinctly

bttf1
“Spaceman from Pluto”?*

While taking a break from working on the comedy spec this weekend, I took an unexpected dip into my file of “ideas in development” – scripts I plan on eventually writing.

One had more details to the bare-bones outline than I remember. In fact, I barely recall even writing it. Still, pretty impressive.

Another was just a logline and three potential titles. While the story really adheres to my ongoing attempt at trying to write material of a smaller nature (i.e. not as big-budget), what really stood out was those three titles and how different they were from each other.

The first stirred up a kind of noble nostalgia, and in retrospect might be better suited for another story.

The second was pretty generic; almost like something you’d see on a VHS copy of a mid-90s B-movie gathering dust on a lower shelf at your local video rental store. If you’re of a certain age, you totally get that reference.

The third was very reminscent of a certain genre and style of older films, and the final word in the title tells you what kind of story to expect. Such was the case here, but as much as I like the word, it wasn’t exactly the right fit for the story I wanted to tell.

Fortunately, the word in question has a lot of synonyms, and one in particular really jumped out at me. Some might consider it of a vulgar nature, but wow did it fit. In fact, as soon as it popped into my head, I actually laughed out loud, thinking “oh my gosh, this is PERFECT.”

Because not only is the new word an ideal fit for the story, but it really drives home the tone.

Although work on this script goes into the ever-growing pool of “future projects”, at least now the concept and story are a little more developed than they were. And any progress is good progress.

There can’t be enough emphasis on the importance of a strong title for your script. It’s the entry point for your reader. You want them to know what kind of story they’re getting, what to potentially expect, and most importantly, you want them to be excited about reading it.

Sometimes your initial title is good, but there’s nothing wrong with a little tinkering to find an even better one. Like your script, it can always do with a little rewriting.

*Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg didn’t like the title “Back to the Future,” claiming nobody would see a movie with “future” in the title. In a memo to Zemeckis, Sheinberg suggested the title be changed to “Spaceman from Pluto,” and the title reference be worked into the film.

In response, Spielberg sent a memo back to Sheinberg, thanking him for sending his wonderful “joke memo” and that the office “got a kick out of it.” Embarrassed, Sheinberg let Zemeckis and Spielberg keep the film’s original title.

Like coming to Casablanca for the waters, I was misinformed

You and I are kindred spirits, Mr. Blaine
Kindred spirits you and I, Mr. Blaine

I really, really, REALLY do not like making mistakes, especially when it comes to things related/connected to screenwriting, and even more so when it comes to trying to get a career going.

This time around, it’s regarding query letters. Even though a majority are now done via email, for the sake of the discussion, they’ll still be referred to as ‘letters’.

Query letters are a tricky beast. Getting them just right takes an inordinate amount of effort. Some might even say just as much as goes into your script.

I actually don’t mind researching appropriate recipients, or spending the time crafting the letter (which also includes getting feedback on it from those who know more about it than I – a hearty thanks to those who’ve offered their invaluable insight & suggestions!).

What really gets my goat is when I learn, usually after the fact, that I’ve done something that can only be classified as straight-up stupid, or at least counterproductive.

And it all stems from one small, seemingly insignificant thing: what goes in the subject line.

Turns out – not so insignificant. The subject line is your one shot to grab their interest and get them to keep reading. But what should it be? There are several schools of thought about this, but more on that in a second.

I couldn’t tell you where I read it, but the advice (from an “expert”, mind you) I’d heard recommended listing the title, followed by the word ‘query’.

Wrong. Wrong! WRONG!

Apparently including the ‘q’-word is just one big kiss of death. It screams out “Amateur!” and pretty much guarantees your email will probably be deleted without even being read.

So don’t do it! Avoid at all costs!

What should you use? As stated above, several options.

-Just the title

-Title and genre

-A noteworthy contest award (e.g. “2015 Nicholl semifinalist”)

-The hook of your story. Keep it brief!

-“THIS meets THAT” (Opinions are mixed on this. Some writers have said they use it, but a few consultants say not to.)

-Referred by _____

The floor is open to other suggestions.

As for me, lesson learned as I gear up to re-send all those emails in the coming weeks. A weighty project, but whatever it takes. I’m leaning towards just the title or the hook.

Toothbrush. Clean skivvies. Business cards. Let’s go!

Opting to leave my emotional baggage at home
Opting to leave my emotional baggage at home

Kind of busy getting ready to head out to the Great American Pitch Fest, so another shorty today.

(Still accepting suggestions about where one might find quality pie in beautiful downtown Burbank.)

-Didn’t get much writing done this week due to our shaggy dog getting a mess of foxtails stuck in her toes, including one so far in it required a trip to the emergency pet clinic. She’s better now.

-More great notes received for the western. Thanks to all who’ve contributed. It’s especially nice when those who’ve read the previous drafts have high praise about how much of an improvement the latest one is.

Hopefully the next draft will continue that trend.

-The revamping of the comedy outline continues, including tightening the whole thing up. I must have cut at least 10 scenes/pages, so shooting for a total of somewhere in the mid-to-upper 90s. As it should be.

-Yet another “pass” on the fantasy-adventure pitch, so taking a break from those for the time being. The most frustrating part is the oddly-phrased way some of them say no. I’d rather they just said “Sounds intriguing, but it’s not for us.”

Too bad there’s no translator app for that.

-Reader participation time! In the comments below, please give the title, genre and logline of the second script you ever wrote.

I’ll go first.

WOK & ROLL. Comedy. An overly-ambitious Caucasian chef in a struggling family-run Chinese restaurant takes on a sleazy rival determined to shut it down.

Who’s next?

Ask One of the Great Brains Behind the GAPF!

Signe Olynyk

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 especially significant for writers ready to pitch their material, as it features an interview with ScriptFest/Pitchfest co-founder Signe Olynyk.

Signe Olynyk is a writer/producer, as well as the co-founder of ScriptFest and www.pitchfest.com, which includes the Great American PitchFest, the Great British PitchFest, and the Great Canadian PitchFest.  She is also the co-founder of the Ultimate Logline Contest, and Your Career In A Day industry workshops. She lives in Canada, and runs the highly regarded Sooke Writers Retreat from a secluded, oceanfront home, where dozens of select writers join her each year for their personal writing retreats. In addition, Signe has written and produced a number of television pilots, series, documentaries, and feature films, and works in the industry. She has professional credits on more than 120 productions, including her two latest feature films, Below Zero and Breakdown Lane. Her work has been seen around the world on the CBC, Discovery Channel, Scream Channel, Fox, the BBC, and various others.

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

Great first question. There are so many. The ‘smartest’ movies I can think of right now include Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which was incredibly smart and well written. These two films were dramatic thrillers, but I actually feel that comedy is some of the most difficult to write – it has to be smart and well-written, and generally, a brilliant mind must be behind a comedy to successfully pull it off. Creating original characters, situations, and dialogue that makes us laugh, and that we haven’t seen before, is an incredible feat.

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

I got my start reading scripts by writing scripts. For years, I was writing and sharing my work with others in my writing groups. At the time, I didn’t understand the value in reading, but the group I joined took turns reading a screenplay each week for a film that had been recently produced. Reluctantly, I started to read other screenplays. I just wanted to create new material and share script notes by reading each other’s screenplays, not spend my time reading the screenplays for movies that had already been produced. I thought it was going to be a waste of time when I could just watch the films. But that was when my world changed.

When you read scripts, you learn a rhythm and start to see the style in which a writer puts their words on the page. You see how evocative language and onomatopoetic words like ‘sizzle’ and ‘slap’, make your script come alive visually on the page, and in your mind’s eye. When you read other scripts, you discover and absorb lessons that you automatically start applying to your own work. And you are a better writer because of it, thanks to the work of other writers. It’s invaluable to your own development as a writer.

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

Physical limitations are an interesting thing. I love to play soccer, but I know I’m not the best player on the field. My coach can make me run drills, and practice for hours, but my skill level is only going to get me so far compared to others, because there are others who are simply more skilled and talented than I am.

Writing is the same way. Same with math, with physics, with music, art, or sports, or anything really. Someone’s physical brain or body has developed in such a way that they are stronger at a certain skill than someone else.

What really matters is attitude and perseverance. Good writing can be taught or learned, but there has to be a certain level of natural ability and talent in the first place. And then there has to be a passion behind whatever skill you have to really drive success at anything.

As an aside, I have been very frustrated by some of the ramblings of some who like to criticize consultants and say that ‘those who can’t, teach’. What a hugely unfair, offensive and dismissive thing to say. I am the founder of the annual screenwriting conference ScriptFest, which is held each year in Los Angeles. We have had hundreds of speakers teach at the conference, and they are educated, brilliant, and generous people who give back to the community and help writers become better at what they do. Since when did we decide it was okay to criticize teachers? It is not an easy task, and great teachers are a huge gift to those of us who are still learning – which is all of us, isn’t it?

Yes, teaching can be taught. I’m incredibly grateful to all of those who have mentored me in my life. It is the moral obligation of each and every single one of us to share what we have learned with others, so that we can all learn from one another.

4. What are the components of a good script?

I want to see characters I care about in situations I haven’t seen before overcoming outrageous obstacles in the singular pursuit of their goals. I want to feel something, and root for them to achieve their goals. I want to go on a ride with them, and experience an emotional journey as they give everything they have towards reaching their goals, being beaten down and nearly defeated as they pursue an eventual triumph. That doesn’t mean a character must always reach their goal – and by triumph, I mean they’ve learned something meaningful that has changed them forever, for better or worse.

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

Many writers write characters and stories they think people want to see, hear, or read. They cling to stereotypes, which does nothing to create originality or anything of interest to an audience. Finding your own voice as a writer is something that develops the more you write, because your confidence grows as you do.

I also see many writers fall in love with their first script or book, then spend years and years rewriting and tweaking it, and doing rewrite after rewrite. If you want to be a professional writer, you must generate new work. This is important not only because you are creating a body of work, but because you get better with everything you write.

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

Cats leaping out at people in horror stories. The guy who develops a cough, dying part-way through the story. Girlfriends who go after the girl their boyfriend cheated on them with – how stupid is that? Go after the ass who cheated on you! I want to see characters pushed as far as they can in directions and towards goals I haven’t seen before, and making decisions that are real for that character and that people can relate to. I want to see characters overcome their obstacles by making choices that only they would make. Story comes from your characters. Make your character’s reactions realistic for who they are, and have them respond in ways that only they would. Just as each of us has our own backstories, and these experiences shape who we are, our characters need to be developed the same way. Then you create characters and situations that are as real as each of us.

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

-First, don’t miss out on your life because you feel a need to be writing or working all of the time to create success. You must have a life in order to be a great writer. Every experience you have helps to shape you, and you need those experiences to shape your characters and their worlds.

-Second, take care of your health. Watch your posture and get a good chair to support your back. Go on long walks so your characters can speak to you, and you’ll be amazed how ideas will come to you when you’re least expecting it.

-Third, go to every event you can and constantly educate yourself on your craft. You never know who you will meet, or what you will learn that will inspire you, enlighten your work, and help you to create your best work.

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

I’m still seeking that script. I find lots of screenplays that are ‘recommends’, sure. But even then, rarely do you find any script that doesn’t need work, or still has tweaking or ideas, characters, or dialogue that need to be finessed a bit more. There are tons of loglines I read that make me smile and that I get super excited about, and keep visualizing the various scenes, and putting my producer hat on to think about logistics. Although I can’t give a logline exactly, what I can tell you is that they all have certain things in common:

  *TITLE: The title of the script captures the full essence of the story. We know what it is about, just from the title, and the theme of the story is also hinted at. JAWS. UNBROKEN. WILD. UP.

  *CHARACTER: They have a protagonist who is interesting to me, relatable, but who is someone I haven’t seen before. They pursue goals in a way that only they can do, and their backstories make their actions real and believable.

  *PURSUIT OF A CLEAR, IMPOSSIBLE GOAL: They have a goal that seems impossible, and the journey of following this character as they pursue that goal becomes irresistible to me. I must watch them pursue their goal.

  *OBSTACLES: They overcome increasingly serious obstacles in pursuit of their goal. The stakes get more serious as the story progresses.

  *NEMESIS: they have a formidable foe. A Goliath for every David. Goliath keeps putting obstacles in David’s way

  *LESSON LEARNED: the character is different by the end of the story than who they were at the beginning. By going on this journey with them, I am also changed in some way. It is the magical, emotional moment in a movie when your character becomes who they were meant to be, regardless of whether their goal is achieved or not.

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

Anytime you have an opportunity to get your work in front of someone who can make a difference to your career is worthwhile. It’s always a bit of a crapshoot whether your work will resonate with a particular judge. However, a lot of industry people find scripts by judging contests, and really, it’s a matter of the right script finding the right producer at the right time. If that’s the situation, then it behooves any writer – especially without an agent – to get their work out there and in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

Writers may also want to really examine the prizes. What is the real opportunity? Is it just to win a cash prize? Or is it industry exposure? What is more meaningful?

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

I would encourage writers to check out ScriptFest and the Great American PitchFest. It’s an annual, 3-day conference with more than 40 classes, panels, and workshops offered. Writers who’ve written a book or screenplay can pitch it to more than 120 agents, managers and production companies. Visit www.scriptfest.com to learn more.

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

That’s like asking my favorite ice cream! So many kinds, so many flavors! Lemon meringue, pumpkin, butter pecan, coconut cream, banana cream, apple with cheddar…If I have to choose only one kind, I would probably say blueberry-rhubarb. I like the sweet with the tart (kind of like my favorite movies).

Ask a PAGE Silver-Winning Script Consultant!

Derek Ladd

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 former consultant Derek Ladd. His script Nina NANO was a Silver Prize Winner in the 2013 Page International Screenwriting Competition.

Award-winning screenwriter Derek Ladd started telling stories as a kid and never stopped. He lives in Portland, Oregon where he spends as much time writing as he does shaking off the rain (which is pretty much all the time).

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

The last exceptional script I read belongs to Matt Tolbert, a client of mine. I can’t go into specifics but it’s an historical screenplay about the Nordic Vikings. It’s refreshing to work on a script that pulls me in on page one and doesn’t let go. All of the elements (pacing, plot, characters) came together to create an immersive reading experience. As for movies, the last one I saw that featured great writing was Dallas Buyer’s Club. This is a movie that nails the writing on all levels: the visuals, the dialogue, the subtext, all of it. Another surprisingly good movie I loved is an indie foreign film (horror comedy genre) set in Ireland called Grabbers.

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

When I started my script consulting service, one of my early clients wanted to produce a movie. I’d written a couple dozen short stories and a few novels by this time and this client had read some of my work. And since a screenplay is the first element one needs to make a movie, she recruited me to write one. The only obstacle was that I had no idea how to write a script. So I bought two books on the subject and they didn’t help: each book contradicted the other. Then I bought one of those fancy bound scripts at Barnes & Noble – Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman, based on Susan Orlean’s book). Of course, it was more of a transcript so it didn’t help much either. I finally gave in to the fact that I would need to attend a class, and in Portland, Oregon the master of screenwriting was Cynthia Whitcomb. I took both of her classes, read her books and picked it up pretty quickly. My first script was an adaptation of my novel, Without Wings. From there I started reading scripts written by my classmates so I could give them feedback. The writers I worked with were so pleased I started doing it professionally. To date, over a dozen of my clients have won or placed in a variety of screenwriting contests.

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

I would say ‘Yes’ to both questions simply because one has to know how to recognize good writing in order write good material. While writing novels I found inspiration in everyone from Heinrich Boll, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and David Sedaris to William F. Nolan, Anne Rice and Stephen King. If an aspiring screenwriter thinks Gigli or Showgirls is a great screenplay, trying to write a great script will be damn near impossible. If, however, the same screenwriter dives into work by Michael Mann, the Coen brothers, Joss Whedon, or Luc Besson (to name a few), or any brilliantly written script (JAWS, Fargo, The Matrix, Harold and Maude, Serenity, The Silence of the Lambs), that writer will strive to achieve the same level of success in their own work. Excellent writing that makes you laugh and cry and get goosebumps has more power to teach aspiring writers than any classroom instruction ever could.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The Seduction Element: I watched a good DVD lecture featuring Michael Hauge a while back called ‘Grabbing The Reader In The First 10 Pages’. Mr. Hauge opened the lecture by explaining that part of the title is a misnomer: he said that ‘grabbing’ is too forceful a word and that what a writer should aim to do is seduce the reader. That’s at the top of my list. Seduce me with your words. Make it impossible for me to put it down: make me laugh, make me anxious and/or make me curious in the first five to ten pages. If you can evoke a strong emotion in the reader as soon as possible and keep it flowing that reader will be yours to the end. A famous writer (don’t ask me who) once said, “The first sentence should make you want to read the second. The second sentence should make you want to read the third…”

Strong characterization: A fleshed-out, intriguing character has the power to lead the reader anywhere. If a script starts out with three pages that describe the inside of a barn or a ton of details to set up what’s to come, I’ll put it down, or throw it at you if you’re close enough. The writer may have created the most awesome outpost on an alien planet anyone has ever dreamed up, or constructed the greatest plot ever conceived in the history of the written word, but without a solid character to invest in it won’t matter. For me, strong characterization is the whole shebang: a memorable introduction, sharp, believable dialogue, behavior that’s consistent with how the character would act in a given situation, etc. If the character has an arc (not required in some genres, but strongly recommended) it should be begin and end at the proper times – no rushing and no shuffling. Steady as she goes…

Originality: Is this a script I’ve read a hundred times before, or will it surprise me? I’m not saying it has to be about a group of purple, basketball-shaped alien opera singers from the planet Snergle. When I say ‘original,’ I’m referring to the unique spin a writer puts on the material. As an example, a good detective story populated with adults is okay, while a detective story populated with high school kids (like the film Brick) is original and stands out. No need to reinvent the wheel; popular genres are popular for a reason. Just find a way to spin them and surprise the reader.

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

Everyone’s guilty of typos and grammatical errors (myself included), so it’s a given that any editor/consultant will find them. Aside from that, one common technical mistake I see involves scenes that spill over into other locations without new scene headings. Drives me crazy. I also see a lot of scene headings written improperly, missing words, character name inconsistencies and factual errors (names of objects, cities, states, countries or famous people misspelled). To a lesser degree, I see action lines that are jumbled: a character enters, pulls a gun, fires. Then it’s noted that the light is flickering overhead. Oh, and the guy in plain sight by the pool table (who was never mentioned before) fires back. It’s like when someone tells a joke and stops in the middle to say, “I forgot to mention, the guy riding the donkey is a priest.” It’s distracting. Unless you’re writing a narrow-to-wide shot, set the scene: describe who’s there and what they’re doing then describe the action. Otherwise it feels clunky and awkward.

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

The expression “I get it” is everywhere now. I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it’s like the cicadas that surface every 17 years or whatever and it’ll disappear soon. Here’s an example: “Hey, getting hit in the crotch with an umbrella ticked you off. I get it.” The biggest users of “I get it” are the writers for ‘Supernatural’, ‘Criminal Minds’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy’, all great shows that would be even greater if they’d stop using “I get it” six times per episode. It’s superfluous. Think about it: if one character describes what another is feeling, is it necessary to cap it off with “I get it.”? No. It isn’t. So please stop it. A visual trope, as it were, is the weird technique where the action goes into slow motion then speeds up again. I think the movie 300 started that whole thing. Hopefully a better movie will come along to put an end to it soon.

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

The following answers are based on the assumption that the writer has developed a unique concept and story that he/she is passionate about. My answers further assume that the fundamentals of story, characterization, plot, dialogue, writer’s voice, pacing, style and overall balance (60% action, 40% dialogue) have been carefully considered throughout the writing process.

-The first 5-10 pages are life and death for a writer. As an editor/consultant, I get paid to analyze a writer’s work. Studio script readers, on the other hand, get paid to say ‘No’ to conserve a producer’s valuable time and an investor’s money. So unless you give the reader a solid reason to say ‘Yes’, your script is headed for the recycling bin. Set the hook as soon as possible and set it deep. Make that studio reader take your script into the bathroom (to read).

-Unless you’ve written a character-based indie script, structure is critical. Do your own structure analysis to see where you land: inciting incident by around page 12, plot point one by the 1/4 mark, strong midpoint by the 1/2 mark, plot point two by the 3/4 mark and the climax in the last 10-15 pages. You’re allowed a brief end-cap/denouement of 1-3 pages and then FADE OUT.

-Formatting DOES matter, especially for a spec script. Know the average length for comedies, thrillers, horrors, dramas, etc. Turning in anything under 90 pages or anything over 120 is a longshot. Know that formatting varies between different genres and how to use these varied techniques to your advantage. Barb Doyon’s book, ‘Extreme Screenwriting’, has an excellent chapter on formatting and how to use it to enhance a spec script.

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

I’ve read a few scripts over the past ten years I would strongly recommend, which is probably right in line with the industry percentage of one half of one percent. I don’t have loglines to share (without a client’s permission), but the clients whose scripts I would recommend include Chanrithy Him (When Broken Glass Floats), Santa Sierra (spec episode of The Good Wife), Bill Johnston (Requited), Erin McNamara (Boru), Mike McGeever (Smilers) and Dorothy St. Louis (El Cubano). Others can be found at ProofEdge.com on the Testimonials page.

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

It really depends on the contest. My advice is to do some research, comb the web and read message boards. Moviebytes has a lot of info on contests and how contestants rate them. Find a contest that’s a good fit for your work. Some contests aren’t as open to traditional Hollywood blockbuster-type scripts (Zoetrope), while others offer a range of categories to accommodate all writers (PAGE Awards). If it’s a sizeable, reputable contest (PAGE Awards, StoryPros, Nicholl, among many others) I strongly recommend using it as a measuring stick to see where you stand as a writer. A writer shouldn’t get too bummed if his/her script doesn’t make it past the first round – a script can do poorly in one contest and win another, it happens all the time. Many contests offer notes for an additional fee, which can be quite helpful if done by a professional. Keep in mind that, while winning is the goal, simply making the Finals can attract studio attention, and doing so looks good on a resume when querying agents and producers. Winning or even placing in a contest can make the difference between an exceptional, unknown writer and an exceptional, discovered writer.

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

*Editor’s note – Derek has since retired from offering script consulting services.

 

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

Apple, hands down. My mom always made the best apple pie when I was growing up. The way she makes it, the apples aren’t too sweet and they’re not overcooked and mushy. A couple of years ago I made a butter crust from a simple recipe I acquired as a sous chef. The combination of her perfect filling and my crust (which melts in your mouth) is pretty spectacular.