Q & A with Paul W. Cooper

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Paul W. Cooper has been a working freelance television and motion picture screenwriter for more than thirty years. With over 60 television credits and one feature film, his awards include three Emmys, the Humanitas Prize, Writers Guild Award and the Kairos Prize.

He wrote the critically acclaimed film ONCE UPON A TIME…WHEN WE WERE COLORED winning Best Picture honors at the Movie Guide Awards. His television credits include MURDER, SHE WROTE, HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and THE WALTONS. He served as Story Editor on Oprah Winfrey’s dramatic series BREWSTER PLACE, and has instructed Film and Television Writing at Pepperdine University.

Paul has written 21 ABC and CBS AFTERSCHOOL SPECIALS dealing with subject matter exploring every significant social issue including incest, alcoholism, physical abuse, homosexuality and racism. A number of these projects won Emmys as Best Television Specials for their significant social and dramatic impact.

Paul has written a number of films for cable television, which have appeared on Showtime, Disney, the Animal Planet and Family Channels. He wrote THE MALDONADO MIRACLE for Showtime, produced and directed by Salma Hayek. It earned 5 Emmy nominations and won the Writers’ Guild Award. His film for the Hallmark Channel, THE NOTE was the highest rated Hallmark movie of 2007 and 3rd highest rated of all time.

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

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Visually stunning. I ached for the characters.

Two of my favorite genres to write in are straight drama and crime. There are two screenplays I constantly refer to so I’m certain the last material I read are one or both of these screenplays. The first is TERMS OF ENDEARMENT by James L. Brooks. It’s the only screenplay that actually brought me to tears while reading. The second is the crime drama SEA OF LOVE by Richard Price.

Here’s my practice. After I’ve written ten pages, I will pick up my dog-eared and worn copy of SEA OF LOVE. I’ll read ten pages (any ten) then come back to the last ten pages I wrote. Now I find myself re-writing those pages with a different tempo. I’ll knock out words from the dialogue to give it a more staccato and street feel. My shoot-outs become more cinematic because now I’m trying to write UP to Richard Price’s standard. And the more I do that, the better writer I become.

When I write a drama-charged relationship story, I use Terms of Endearment the same way. Again, I’m always trying to write UP to the standards of the masters. So those are two works I refer to constantly and believe are incredibly well-written.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I learned I had a knack for writing when, in the 8th grade, the class was assigned to write a short story. Once I started, I couldn’t stop and the world of fiction opened up before me. From that time on I wrote stories, plays, songs and poetry. But I never considered pursuing writing as a career. I was eminently practical and got my degree in business administration.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

There was a war raging in Vietnam when I graduated college. Rather than being drafted, I joined the Air Force, attended Officer Training School, then pilot training. I was a pilot in the Strategic Air Command for six years. I got assignments all over the world including three tours of the war zone and came back registering 61 combat sorties. As a crewmember in SAC, I was also required to sit alert for seven day periods. The Strategic Air Command was our first line of offense in the event of a nuclear war. So we had to be ready. And that meant living in an underground alert facility (mole hole) for those seven-day tours. There’s not a lot to do while waiting for the horn to go off. Guys played poker, shot pool or watched TV.

One night I was watching an episode of MEDICAL CENTER and thought “I can do that”. So I went to my little bombproof room, took out a spiral notebook and started writing. I had never seen a film or television script and had no idea about formatting. So I wrote my story like a play, drowning it in terms like cut to, fade out, dissolve etc. When finished I was optimistically excited and immediately began writing another episode. Then I branched out and wrote for other series popular at the time; MARCUS WELBY, THE WALTONS, SANFORD AND SON, MCMILLAN AND WIFE, and others. Now, none of these scripts was very good, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was I was writing stories, creating characters, giving those characters words to speak. And I loved the sensation, the power I had over these fictional “people” and their lives.

After a year or so of writing television “scripts” I thought it was time for the entertainment world to be exposed to my heretofore undiscovered talent. I wrote to the Writers Guild of America and they sent me a packet of useful information, including a list of agents. So I began firing my material off to agents who would summarily return fire with a politely worded rejection letter and my envelope unopened. Dissolve to a year later when I met my future wife, an Air Force nurse. On a blind date, I discovered she had lived next door to the sister of Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of THE WALTONS. What do you know, I had written two Waltons episodes. Through that connection I contacted Earl and he graciously agreed to read my scripts. I sent them and a week later, he called me and said I should be in Hollywood writing for television. So off to Hollywood I went, Earl became my mentor who put me in touch with an agent, and I was on my way.

Sad to say, my story only reinforces the notion that you have to know someone in the business in order to get into the business.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

People ask, what is or are the most important elements of a screenplay. Some will say character. Others say story. But the answer is – structure. You may have the most beloved character since Hoke (DRIVING MISS DAISY) and an absolute jaw-dropping story (THE RIGHT STUFF), but unless the pieces are stacked properly, the whole construct collapses.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

The thing I see most often is that a story is derivative. Nothing new. All the same old plowed ground. And this, of course, makes stories predictable. I believe it was William Goldman who said, “Always give the audience what they want, but in a way they didn’t expect.” If it’s true there is no story new under the sun, then at least get us to the desired ending by way of a different road.

Too many words, not enough story. I will often tell a student, “You have a 105-page script here but it only contains 65 pages of story.”

My pet peeves are typos, misspellings and grammatical errors. There’s no excuse for these infractions. They label the writer careless at best and illiterate at worst and create an unfavorable impression for the reader.

Other mistakes are what I call re-hash and deadwood. Never tell the reader what he already knows. And omit anything that doesn’t relate to the premise. Keep the story ever moving forward.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not a fan of superheroes. It always comes down to the hero battling with an equally powerful villain in an epic cinematic struggle only possible with CGI. Yes, it’s visually impactful, but for me, cartoonish. No matter what the bad guy throws at the hero, he/she
always recovers and comes back for more. After ten minutes of lightning bolts being hurled and mushroom clouds rising over the city, I’m bored.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know? 

-Determine what your premise is. This is found by asking who your hero is and what does he/she want, need or desire. You should be able to state your premise in ten words or less. The premise of Romeo and Juliet is Romeo desires Juliet (boy wants girl). Indy wants to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Rocky needs to go the distance. The premise is your searchlight that must always be in view as you write the story. If it disappears, you’ve taken a wrong turn.

-Be aware of the third question — why do we care? We must be endeared to the hero (or despise the villain) and the hero’s goal must be worthy and important. The implication is obvious. If we’re not emotionally attached to the hero, we won’t care what happens. And if his goal isn’t both worthy and important, we won’t care if he attains it.

-Until the premise is revealed, the story is pointless. In other words, until the audience knows what the hero WANTS, the story has nowhere to go. Example: In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we open with Indy in an Amazon jungle cave stealing some artifact. He barely
escapes with his life and manages to return to his work as a professor at Chicago University. Now what does any of that have to do with the Lost Ark? Nothing. Indy has stated no particular goal so the story is nowhere. But then… he learns of the existence of
the Ark and decides to find it before the Nazis get hold of it. Now the premise becomes, Indy WANTS the Ark. And everything he does from that point on is aimed at achieving his goal. I like to see the premise revealed within the first 20 pages.

-Love is a process. You can’t just put two people together in a story and tell us they’re in love. We may believe it but we won’t feel it. You MUST give us the scenes showing us the behavior that causes one person to fall in love with another. What is it in her that he needs? What does he have that makes her desire him? And it can’t be only physical attraction. We know that people in bars can be physically attracted, fall into bed and the next morning regret it and never see each other again. That’s lust, not love.

-Once the hero has attained his goal… THE STORY IS OVER. Think of it this way. You’re watching a film full of danger and intrigue keeping you on the edge of your seat as the hero hurtles ever onward toward his worthy and important goal. The drama builds. Tension is unbearable. Then, in the exciting climax, the battle between good and evil is waged and the hero wins (or loses as in a tragedy). At that moment, all of the dramatic tension that was built is released like air out of a balloon. At this point, the audience is ready to rise and file out of the theater. THE STORY IS OVER. A common mistake these days is for a writer to keep going with the story even though there is no more tension to be derived. Yes, you often have to spend time to tie up loose ends but this must be done
quickly so you can get out and fade out.

-Think about what the audience is seeing onscreen. I often read a scene wherein two people are at a restaurant. They order. The waitress leaves. The two people converse for about thirty seconds and the waitress returns with their chateaubriand.

-Think of a script as a document of information. Something happens. And that something is first registered in the brain, right? We see and hear the event. Now if that information stops in the brain (intellect), then you’ve failed as a writer. Once it registers in the intellect, then it must go further into the heart or the gut. Those are the places emotion comes from.

-Character development occurs when we create the scenes that show the character behaving in the manner we want him identified with. Don’t tell us Joe is wonderful, he’d give his shirt off his back. Give us the scene where Joe gives the shirt off his back or “Saves the Cat.” Don’t tell us Sam is so evil he’d stick a knife in his grandma’s back. Give us the scene where Sam not only stabs his grandma in the back, but then twists the knife. Those scenes hit straight at the heart and gut.

You’ve written for both TV and film. How does writing for one medium compare to the other?

No difference unless you’re writing for a series. Then you have time (page count) considerations. I’ve written a number of movies for cable television and every one I wrote as though writing a feature film

Have you ever read a spec script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

Yes. And the reasons are hard to explain. First, it followed all of the requirements listed above concerning proper mechanics, economy, etc., but beyond that it grabbed my interest on page 2 and never let me go. It had complication, conflict and invention. It gave me the satisfying ending I wanted but in a way that was unexpected.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

Go to my website at www.PaulCooperScreenwriting.com or my IMDb site: http://www.imdb.me/paulw.cooper

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

Coconut cream. The best I ever found was in a little diner/pie shop in Williams, Arizona. My wife and I always stop there on our trips between California and Oklahoma.

coconut cream

All that on a single piece of (digital) paper?

bad 1st impression
It can only go downhill from here

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. And that also applies to a screenplay. If your first page doesn’t make us want to keep going, why should we? Chances are the rest of it is exactly the same.

The first page is your golden opportunity to start strong straight out of the gate. Show us from the absolute get-go you know what you’re doing. A lot of the time, I’ll know by the end of the first page what kind of ride I should be expecting.

Just a few items to take into consideration.

-First and foremost, how’s the writing? No doubt you think it’s fine, but face it. You’re biased. You want a total stranger to find it fault-free, so look at it like one. Is it easy to follow and understand? Does it flow smoothly? When I read it, do I get a clear mental image of what you’re describing? Does it show, not tell?

-Is there a lot of white space? Are your sentences brief and to the point, or do they drone on and on with too many words?

-Do you point the reader in the right direction and let them figure things out, or at least get the point across via subtext, or do think it’s necessary to explain everything, including what a character is thinking or feeling? Yes, that happens on the first page.

-If your protagonist is introduced here, are they described in the way you want me to visualize them for the next 90-110 pages? Does a notable physical characteristic play a part in the story? Are they behaving in such a way that it establishes the proper starting point for their arc? Are they doing something that endears them to us, making us care about them?

-If your protagonist ISN’T on the first page, does it do a good job in setting up the world in which the story takes place? Do the characters introduced here play any kind of role later on in the story?

-Are there any mistakes regarding spelling or punctuation? Are you absolutely sure about that? SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. A team does not loose a game, nor do I think they should of won either. Two glaring errors that your software will not recognize. But a reader will.

-Does it properly set up the genre? If it’s a comedy, should I be prepared to have my sides ache from laughing too hard? If it’s a horror, should I make sure the lights are on, even if it’s 12 noon? If it’s a drama, should I have a box of tissues within arm’s reach to dry the expected river of tears?

-Do your characters sound like people saying actual things, or are they spouting nothing but exposition and overused cliches?

Not sure about any of these? Read it over with as critical an eye as you can muster, or get help from somebody within your network of savvy writing colleagues. DO NOT go to somebody who doesn’t know screenwriting.

Think I’m being overly critical? Ask any professional consultant or reader, and I bet 99 out of 100 will say they know exactly what kind of read they’re in for by the end of the first page. And number 100 might also agree.

Then again, there’s also the possibility that the first page could be brilliant and it stays that way until FADE OUT.

Or the wheels could fall off anywhere between page 2 and the end.

Your mission, and you should choose to accept it, is to make that first page as irresistible as you can, grab us tight, and not let go. Make us want to keep going. Then do the same for page 2, then page 3, page 4, etc.  Make us totally forget what page we’re on.

Take a look at the first page of your latest draft. Does it do what you and the story need it to?

-Didja notice the spiffy new look? Had to make some behind-the-scenes changes, and this is the result.

Required: a second pair of eyes

reader
It’s “should’ve”, not “should of”, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a participle that dangled this much

I’ve been doing a lot of script notes the past few weeks, and most of them haven’t been early drafts. These are long-in-development projects, and I can really see how the writers have poured heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into their efforts.

These scripts shows tremendous skill applied to the usual fronts – story, characters, plot development, etc.

But there are two categories that sometimes get overlooked:

Spelling and punctuation.

And yes, each does count.

I’m quite a stickler for both, and have had more than a few writers thank me for pointing out such items as a missing comma, or how a character has nothing to “lose”, not “loose”.

I would imagine that after having read through your own script countless times, reading fatigue can set in, and you might overlook things you might ordinarily not. It happens.

The solution: get yourself a solid proofreader. Preferably someone who knows scripts. You’d think that would be a given, but there are some writers out there who don’t take that path. Do so at your own risk.

I recently read a draft that was riddled with misspelled words and poorly-written sentences. When I pointed this out to the writer, they were surprised because they’d used a proofreader who was a writer, but not a screenwriter. I believe that to be the wrong approach on several levels. (And the fact that the spelling and punctuation were still bad after their proofing makes me seriously question their qualifications to begin with.)

After you’ve read a lot of scripts and written more than a few of your own, you develop an eye for it. But your own skills can only take you so far, hence the potential need for a proofreader.

Some might claim “My writing’s fine. I don’t need a proofreader!” I’m not saying everybody does, but what’s the harm? I read scripts from writers of very high quality, but they’re still human and sometimes they make mistakes too.

Wouldn’t you feel better about your script if somebody whose skills you trusted took a look at it? It’s very possible they might spot something you missed.

“But where/how do I find such a generous person willing to give up their precious time in order to help me out?” Once again, let’s refer to that all-powerful word: networking.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with paying for a proofreading service. Some people swear by it. But you also can’t go wrong in asking someone within your circle of trusted colleagues; preferably someone who knows what they’re talking about.

So whenever you think your script is ready, put together a list of writers of skill within your own personal network. Five is a good number. Politely ask each one if, time permitting, they’d be willing to take a look at your script. And definitely make sure to offer to return the favor. If they say yes, great. If they turn you down, thank them, say “maybe next time” and seek out another name.

While all the elements of storytelling play a vital role in writing a script, never underestimate the importance of making sure a word is spelled correctly or a sentence is properly written. Because people will notice when they aren’t.

Q & A with Babz Bitela

Babz Bitela

Barbara “Babz” Bitela is a literary manager operating out of northern California, a “hired gun” editor for fiction writers, and hosts the Babzbuzz internet radio show “because folks were nice to me and helped me, so I’m trying to pay it forward, and believe me, I’m keeping it real.”

“We want voice on the page. We KNOW it when we ‘hear’ it.”

Her book Story of a Rock Singer is currently being adapted as a Broadway musical.

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

Justified and Bates Motel are my top two. Joss Whedon is by far one of my favorite writers. Buffy the TV series –  WOW!  You can youtube his interviews: it’s like an AA degree in writing and it’s free to anyone.

How’d you get your start doing representation?

I pitched a semi-retired agent named Ed Silver on a book I wrote. He was Lee Marvin’s manager and finance guy, also for James Coburn and many others. The guy’s ‘seen’ stuff, man – Hitchcock napping, for one. He loved my style and offered me a gig to take over and he’d mentor. We clicked big time. He’s Jewish, I’m Italian. As Sebastian Maniscalco says, “Same corporation, different division.” That’s us.

Is recognizing good writing something you believe can be taught or learned?

You for sure can learn it IF you want to. Here’s why – bad writing obviously sucks. It just does. How do you know that? By reading GREAT (not just good) scripts. I read so much so often I can now tell what’s going to go and what MAY go but here’s the rub: in the absence of money behind it, it may not matter. And I may love it and another may say “meh”. So pov does matter.  So you can learn and pitch but Lady Luck is no lady: she’s a tramp in cheap shoes and she’s fickle. We press on because we believe in the story/writer we hawk. If it goes, it goes, if it doesn’t, well, I’ve had the benefit of “seeing” incredible “movies” and the only down side is, so few others will see that. THE WRITER however, benefits. Why? Job well done. And if you don’t write for the JOY of the craft, there’s no point. Write for the sale? That’s an industry sucker punch. I’ve learned to find great scripts and I’ve learned it can be like screaming in space once you do.

What are the components of a good script?

VOICE, RISING ACTION and TWISTS.  What is voice: it’s a lot like porn – I know it when I see it but it’s hard to describe. Think of it this way: you open a novel, settle in and by page two you’re thinking “Ugh, this just sucks”, but you press on and by page ten you know it’s not the book for you so you donate it to Goodwill. It’s the same with a script. I once read a tv pilot by my client that I couldn’t read it fast enough. Why? I WAS DYING TO SEE WHERE IT WOULD LEAD. The action and characters were alive on the page. That is what makes a good script: I call it NARRATIVE TUG.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Where to start? Typos, for sure. It’s a speed bump.

Wrylies. Just don’t. UGH! Makes me crazy. There’s only one time I’ve seen it used where it worked. ONCE. And that writer is a five-figure-income writer.

Novels posing as scripts. The writer MUST understand the economy of words and do VISUAL storytelling. Telling a story with pictures is a movie. Telling a story with talking is a soap opera.

Avoid using “ing” words – slows narrative, slows the readers eyes.

Avoid “very”. Just find what IT IS. Don’t say “very smart”, say “bright”  – just pick! Not kidding. You’ll thank me. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder is invaluable for writers.

And never fall in love with your stuff. It’s gonna get cut.

What story tropes are you tired of seeing?

Well, many work. Some don’t. My favorite recently was probably in draft form: “Fire all phasers!” But instead he said “Fire everything!” Love it!

But I say write bad and cliché in the draft, leave it there, then go back and rewrite it.

Lots of folks say “Not my first rodeo.” I say “Not my first rocket launch.” Anything to WAKE UP the reader.

What are the three most important rules every writer should know?

I’ve got more than three.

-Don’t enter a script contest pitching a word doc.

-Don’t send a script unless invited.

-Don’t ask me what I think if you don’t want to know.

-Don’t go past 120 pages. I mean it. Try to stay around 100 if you can.

More rules? I think it’s just wise to do 12pt Courier font as it’s tradition. The Coen Brothers don’t use Courier. But they’re already famous, so when you’re famous do what you want. In the meantime, stick to tradition.

What do you look for when it comes to potential clients, both personally and professionally?

No dope. No booze. No drama.

Feet on the ground, and committed to spending tons of time doing what you love, regardless of the outcome.

My clients pitch themselves. They must. If that’s not for you, then I’m not the agent for you, and also, you’re in the wrong business.

Yes, the agent makes inroads, but you must pitch you and build relationships. When you do; AVOID using “I” and ask the person “What do you do, and how do you do it?” Ask about them. We’re people FIRST. That’s why I do Babzbuzz. People like me. They helped me. So I take what they tell me and mush it up with what I’ve learned, and talk about it on my show to try to help.

I’m a small company: I’m WGA.

Meh. Folks hang up on me all the time.

Why?

“Babz, love the script! Who’s funding?”

Crickets.

“Babz, baby. Call us back when you have the dough and I’ll show my client. He may want to star in it.”

EEEK!

What happened to love of story?

Hell, that left the building and moved to an island the actor/director owns. He’s got to feed his family too, ya know. So bring the bricks.

EEEK!

Lightning can and does strike. That’s what I do. I’m really a stormchaser who looks for folks with money who want to buy.

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

Oh man, you had me at the fridge door. Dutch apple. Key lime. Rhubarb when you can find it. And pretty much any clever use of chocolate.

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.