Q & A with Christine Conradt

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With more than 70 produced credits, screenwriter/producer/director/author Christine Conradt received her Bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting from the esteemed University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and then worked briefly in development and as a reader before launching herself as a successful writer. Christine naturally gravitated to crime dramas and thrillers, and eventually went back to grad school to receive a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University.

Christine’s films have aired on Lifetime, LMN, Fox, Showtime, UPtv, Hallmark, and USA.  She is the writer behind some of Lifetime’s most successful franchises including the “at 17” series, which she turned into a three-book series, published by HarperCollins. She has directed four TV movies and is attached to direct two more this year.

Christine also acts as a script consultant. More information about her services, books, and bio can be found at ChristineConradt.com. She frequently posts tips for writers on her Facebook page.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two rescued cats, and in her spare time, loves to travel.

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

Does a documentary count? Probably not, but I’ll mention it anyway because I found it to be very thought-provoking — Three Identical Strangers. It’s about triplets who were separated at birth and later found each other. I haven’t seen a lot of movies this past year because I’ve been so busy but I did think Bird Box was well done for an adaptation. Sometimes adaptations feel stilted, especially those that take place over a long period of time, but Bird Box didn’t feel that way to me. I found myself getting lost in the story which means it was well-written. One of my favorite movies was Vince Gallo’s first film– Buffalo ’66. The story is simple and the characters are really well-drawn. I can watch that movie over and over.

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

I can honestly say it was what I was born to do. I love writing and telling stories. As soon as I could hold a pen, I was writing short stories. I won my first writing award– the Young Author’s Award– when I was in the third grade. I grew up in the Midwest in the late 80s/early 90s and at that time, there was no film industry there at all. No film schools, nothing. I didn’t know screenwriting existed as a career until I received a brochure from the University of Southern California my junior year of high school and it listed it as a major. If I’ve ever had an epiphany, it was in that moment. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I abandoned my plans to go to law school and applied to USC.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

After graduating with a BFA in Screenwriting from USC, I worked briefly in development but didn’t like it. I was constantly reading and giving notes on other people’s scripts and had to constantly sit with a jealousy that they were doing what I wanted to be doing. I did a rewrite on a USA movie, got fired off that, and didn’t get any more writing work for about four years. During that time, I was working at a YMCA as a lifeguard and fitness instructor and they promoted me to Director. Soon after, they promoted me to Senior Director. I was managing million dollars in budgets and supervising about 45 employees. The hours were long and I stopped writing for the most part.

One day, my Executive Director brought me into her office and told me they wanted to promote me to Executive Director of a branch in the neighboring city. The money they were offering was enticing but because of all the training I’d be sent to, they wanted me to give them a five-year commitment. I went home that night and realized I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to be living – I was supposed to be a writer. So the next day, I went back and told her that I couldn’t accept the job and I was giving my 30-day notice. I took out a loan to live on for six months and decided to spend every day of that period writing. If I couldn’t make it happen in six months, I’d go back and get another job at the YMCA, but at least I had given it a shot. Fortunately, during that time, I wrote two screenplays. Neither sold but both got me rewrite work, which turned into more rewrite work, and so on and so on.

At the end of the six months, I was on my way, but I wasn’t there yet. So I took a job as an editor for an international publishing company while I continued to intermittently do these rewrites. It was hard to go to script meetings because I had this day job. One day the producer asked me what it would take for me to give up my day job. He was annoyed that I could never come to meetings until 5pm. I told him I needed to make the same amount that the publishing company was paying me and he agreed to give me enough work to cover my lost income. That was the day I started to ‘make a living’ as writer. 

A large percentage of your credits are for TV movies. How much of a difference is there writing for TV (and TV movies) compared to features?

There’s a big difference between TV movies and feature films. First, the content can’t be as edgy as in a feature and it’s much more formulaic. Every network has a brand and when you write for that network, whatever you deliver has to fit within that scope, so in that way, it’s more difficult. You have to be creative and original despite all the limitations. The structure is also different. In TV movies, we use an eight or nine act structure (which basically fits into the traditional three act structure) but has three times as many cliffhangers. You have to end on a tension point before a commercial break to keep the audience from flipping the channel. In a theatrical feature, you have a captive audience so the story can unravel more slowly. Theatrical features also tend to be more high concept than TV movies. A lot of people think that a TV movie is just a movie that airs on television. There’s a lot more to it than that.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Probably the same things that most people do. For me, characters are what define a story. Not plot. The best scripts are emotional, not cerebral. They make us think but more importantly, make us feel. The way to accomplish that is with well-defined characters who have plot goals and thematic goals and who choose to struggle for what they want rather than let life simply happen to them. Those are the characters, and consequently, the stories that stay with you long after you leave the theater or turn off the TV

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

Passive characters. The most annoying thing to hear when I ask a writer what her character wants is “He just wants to keep his life the way it is.” That’s not a goal. A character adverse to change isn’t fascinating. I also see a lot of redundancy in scripts. In a screenplay, real estate is precious. You have to write clearly, economically, and infuse that writing with style without being verbose. Over-explaining in both dialogue and action pulls the reader out of the story.

In addition to your TV work, you’ve also branched out into print with your “at 17” book series. How’d that come about, and how does it compare to writing for a visual medium?

The “at 17” series is a successful franchise on Lifetime Network. It was the brainchild of one of the producers I work with and I’ve been the primary writer behind those movies for about a decade now. In 2014, I pitched him the idea that we should turn those movies into a YA book series and he championed the idea. Neither of us knew much about the publishing industry so he handed it off to me to figure out. I took the script from ‘Missing at 17’ which had already aired and wrote it as a manuscript. I went to the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference and pitched it to an agent there. He read the manuscript and loved it. He ended up partnering with another agent in NYC and they secured a three-book deal with HarperCollins. Harper wanted each book to come out one month apart in the summer and for the last book to align with the premiere of the Lifetime movie with the same title. So in May, June, and July of 2018, ‘Missing at 17,’ ‘Pregnant at 17,’ and ‘Murdered at 17’ were released.

For me, writing prose is much harder than writing a screenplay. Even though I started out writing prose, I hadn’t done it in years. When you’re writing a screenplay, you have to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’ That means you can’t write what the characters are thinking or feeling or pondering. In a novel, that’s mostly what you do. So I had to retrain myself to move in and out of the characters’ thoughts instead of just giving them actions and I had to switch from the omniscient perspective of a screenplay to first person. The books follow multiple characters in first person so that was fun to write. Picking up where one character leaves off and continuing the story with a different character. But it was definitely a challenge.

Follow-up – when can we expect to see the publication of Zombie at 17?

Ha! The movie Zombie at 17 premiered on Halloween weekend in 2018 and was a fun take on the “at 17” series. It’s about a girl who, after getting bit by a cat, contracts the zombie virus. As she teams up with an alienated guy in her high school who has an obsession with zombies to figure out how to stop the progression of the disease, she witnesses a semi-confession to a murder by one of her boyfriend’s friends. When her boyfriend refuses to rat out his friend, she involves herself in the investigation while trying to hide her zombie symptoms from the rest of the world. I don’t know if it will ever become a book because it’s a bit off-genre, but I think it would make a great one.

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

1. Give your characters goals

2. Create obstacles for your characters. Achieving their goals shouldn’t be easy.

3. Don’t obsess on formatting. Focus on writing a good story. 

4. Read scripts. Lots of scripts. Not just books on how to write screenplays.

5. Subplots (or B-stories) need to have some effect on the A-story. If you can cut out the subplot and nothing changes in the A story, you failed.

6. Don’t judge your characters. Every person feels justified in their actions. Your characters are the same way. To write them, you must believe they’re justified as well, even when they do really bad things.

7. Write every day. Even if it’s only for a half hour. And even if you have writer’s block. Professional writers write every day. Train yourself to do the same and pretty soon, you’ll stop having writer’s block and you’ll be surprised at how easily the writing comes.

What kind of impact or influence has your experience as a writer had on your work as a director or producer?

Some directors come up as cinematographers, some as actors. Coming up as a former writer, I think I pay more attention to how the visuals support the content of the story. I hate stylistic shots for the sake of being stylistic. The best shots are the ones that you don’t even realize are shots– because you’re so wrapped up in the visual storytelling. I think as a writer, I’m good at letting the moments that need to breathe, breathe. Story is always first. There are lots of visual ways to tell a story. As a director, it’s your job to choose the best one.

You’ve also spoken at a lot of conference and workshops about screenwriting. Are there any particular points or lessons you make sure to include as part of those?

One thing I mention at every conference is not to compare your journey as a writer to anyone else’s. Everyone always wants to know how professional writers broke into the industry, yet they can’t emulate it even if they know. It’s not like becoming a doctor where you go to med school and do your residency and become a doctor. There are infinite ways to become successful as a writer. And it depends on your goal. If your goal is to simply make a living writing, you’ll make different choices than if your goal is to sell a TV pilot and become a showrunner. Be laser-focused on your goal, but also be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities even if you aren’t sure how they’re going to get you there. Sometimes those opportunities turn out to be much better than anything you had planned.

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

People can contact me directly through the contact page at christineconradt.com. I’m available to speak and give workshops, and I offer screenplay consulting services as well which are outlined on my website. They can also follow me on Twitter at @CConradt or like my page on Facebook.  I post a lot of contests and other opportunities and tips for screenwriters on my FB page.

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

It’s a dead heat between blueberry and sour cream raisin.

blueberry pie

sour cream raisin pie

Ask a Million-Dollar* Script Consultant!

chris soth

*this number represents the estimated value of Mr. Soth’s advice, rather than the actual cost.

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 writer-producer-script advisor Chris Soth of ScreenplayMentor.com.

Writer/Director-Producer Chris Soth has authored over 40 screenplays and is a frequent speaker on the topics of story structure and independent filmmaking, teaching screenwriters around the world how to write great screenplays AND pitch them for success. Chris is the writer of Firestorm, released by 20th Century Fox, and the independent hit Outrage: Born in Terror. He is currently developing a slate of independent films, the first of which, Don’t Fall Asleep, has just received distribution. His directorial debut SafeWord is presently in post-production. Chris has taught at USC and UCLA, and currently guides screenwriters from concept to FADE OUT using the “Mini-Movie Method” in his mentorship program at ScreenplayMentor.com. His ebook “Million-Dollar Screenwriting: The Mini-Movie Method” and DVD “SOLD! How I Set Up Three Pitches in Hollywood,” among other great screenwriting resources, are available at ScreenplayMentor.com.

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

Sustaining a story for an hour or more with brilliant writing at every turn is so difficult I find myself attracted to the short form, even w/my own writing these days. That, said, we ARE in a Golden Age of Television now, with some creators getting to not only decide a story that will take five or more years to tell and lay it out beforehand — occasionally with guarantees that all the episodes will air — and not only control a very complex and novelistic story, BUT also control the rate at which it’s consumed. No artist has ever had that before, even novelists…Tolstoy could be sure reading War and Peace would take you while, but not throttle your reading speed to piecemeal over 5-8 years, the way Weiner or Gilligan have. I really appreciated how all the Mad Men were…going mad. How all of them were continually pitching a product, themselves, and none more than Dick Whitman, whose greatest pitch was Don Draper…and living in that gap between the presentation of your self and the reality, or worse, what you FEAR you are…is the madness. I think if you’re in show business, you get that. So, as I said above, hard to sustain for an hour, let alone all those years, but some amazing brilliance every single episode.

Here’s one favorite in the episode from the penultimate (full) season, where all of Sterling Cooper’s taken acid and a Hippie Flower Child puts a stethoscope to Don’s chest to listen to his heart.

HIPPIE FLOWER CHILD
Let me listen to your heart…(re: stethoscope)…it’s broken.

DON
(re: his heart) You can HEAR that…?

How long has that double entendre been staring us in the face, and how GOOD are these writers to keep giving us insight into their brilliant central character even that late in the game? He’s broken-hearted. He hides it. He always will be. A tiny thing, but the last time I remember really thinking “Wow, good writing!”.

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

My first idea was to teach a seminar in my own screenwriting structure technique, “The-Mini-Movie Method”. I did that, and also offer the resulting videos and audio course. I found a real thirst after that for hands-on expert consulting developing screenplays with expert advice on this method. I don’t really do a classic “reading”, or that’s rare anyway. I consult and help writers build scripts, usually from FADE IN. I will work with clients thru my website ScreenplayMentor.com with works-in-progress. My usual procedure, whether starting fresh, or jumping in partway, is to outline a vision for the next draft and mentor and guide it, page by page (Mini-Movie by Mini-Movie) until Fade Out…then I’ll read the resulting, and much stronger, screenplay thereafter. I started my side business after some success as a writer myself, because I really like to work everyday, but like different work and different stories and continually changing ideas. Also, the steady work and income that my consulting provides lets a guy with a daughter in college sleep at night even between studio writing assignments.

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

I absolutely think so. There are certainly rules, best practices, etc. Some so oft-repeated they become cliches: “Show, don’t tell”, etc. But developing an aesthetic for what good writing and what good storytelling is, should be vital to each and every writer. We all want to make THE BEST MOVIE EVER, right? Well, if we have no yardstick for measuring quality, how will we do that?

4. What are the components of a good script?

The list goes on and on. Most important and first: TENSION. A hope and fear for a viewer/read to root for and root against. So I’ll use this as another opportunity to say it: TENSION, specifically TENSION REDUCTION is the source of ALL pleasure we take in drama and in story. A good story will continually build tension, every beat, every scene, every sequence and release that tension in an explosive and gratifying climax…make sure YOURS does. I’ll leave it there.

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

The lack of tension, of course. Unnecessary scenes, which I define above as scenes that don’t build or add to tension. It seems common to the point of epidemic that first acts run 45 pages in early drafts, and writers are often still setting up dominos as they break into the third act…dominoes that should have been set up WELL before, often in act one and should be falling with dramatic cataclysm and knocking over BIGGER dominoes now… A lacking “narrative drive” that makes each story event seem, in retrospect, inevitable, not arbitrary. It seems like many early drafts are written just to fill pages, but there IS a perfect twist for the end, the midpoint, the first act, that is dictated by the concept or idea…

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

References to other movies or TV shows. You have to be very clever and original to do this well, and it fails most of the time, Quentin Tarantino aside, and even HE blows it a lot of the time.

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

-TENSION = Hope versus Fear  (T = H v. F is the E = MC squared of story) After that, I’ve never thought what might come second, let alone third, but I’ll put a few down here.

-Don’t get it write, get it written. The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t.

-Craft character to story and story to character by asking, over and over: Who’s THE WORST person for these events to happen to, and What’s THE WORST thing that could happen to THIS person?

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

I don’t do a classic read, nor grade on that studio scale, nor should I probably divulge the scripts of my clients here, but MANY come to mind. I read a screenplay every day my first year at USC and the ones that really stood out are THE PRINCESS BRIDE and FIELD OF DREAMS. Both made me cry more than the movies made from them had, the first because it does actually exceed the movie in the sheer beauty of the writing, I like the movie fine, tho’ I’m not in the cult, but the SCRIPT…oh, that script…the second perhaps more for memories of seeing the movie itself.

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

I never had any luck with them. But I think they’re a real tool for getting your work read and getting exposure these days.

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

Everyone’s welcome to contact me at chrissoth@aol.com, chrissoth@gmail.com or look at ScreenplayMentor.com

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

Easiest question. My mom’s chocolate chess pie. I grew up eating this at Thanksgiving instead of pumpkin pie and had to learn to make it myself when I struck out on my own. I’ll have it all through the holidays and Mom still makes it for us when we come home. I’ve only found one restaurant that serves it, but just developed a lead on another in Los Angeles, so stay tuned…

Ask a More-Than-Ready-for-Prime-Time Script Consultant!

Jen Grisanti

 

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 is about writing for television, with the spotlight on Jen Grisanti of Jen Grisanti Consultancy, Inc.

International speaker Jen Grisanti is an acclaimed story and career consultant with her own firm, Jen Grisanti Consultancy, Inc., and a writing instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC. She spent 12 years as a studio executive, including working as VP of Current Programming at CBS/Paramount. Jen also blogs for The Huffington Post and is the author of Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story, TV Writing Tool Kit: How To Write a Script That Sells, and Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Your Success. She teaches classes for TV Writers’ Summit (LA, NYC, London and Israel) and Story Expo. She has taught at the TV Writers’ Studio (Australia), Scriptwriters’ Network, The Screenwriting Expo, and The Great American Pitchfest. Jen has also served on panels for the WGA, Scriptwriters’ Network, Final Draft/The Writer’s Bootcamp, and ScreenCraft. Her company hosts online Storywise Seminars.

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

The best movies I’ve seen recently include: The Imitation GameGuardians of the GalaxyLocke, and Chef.

Some of my other favorite movies from the past I think are incredibly well-written include: The Lives of Others, The King’s SpeechThe Untouchables and Argo.

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

After studying Communications with TV & Cinema at USC, the first job that paved my way to where I am today was working as an assistant to Aaron Spelling. While working in his office I began to voraciously read scripts. Spelling was my mentor. We had a routine where I’d read all of the scripts for the current shows he had on the air and he’d review my notes and tell me what worked and what didn’t. I learned so much about what makes story work by watching him in the edit bay during rough cuts. I got my Bachelor’s at USC, but I always say I got my Master’s degree in TV in the Spelling office. It was the best place to learn.

I climbed the ladder while I was at Spelling and eventually ran Current Programming covering shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and 7th Heaven. I went on to become Vice President at CBS/Paramount where I covered shows including: Numb3rs, Medium, NCIS, The 4400 and Girlfriends.

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

I believe that for some, writing comes naturally. They have a sense of their voice from the start. They may need help with structure, but the voice is there.

With others, I do believe it can be taught or learned. I’ve definitely seen this happen many times in my career. There is no greater reward than to see the growth of a writer, to help guide them in finding their voice and to help them understand how to use story structure in the best way possible to bring their voice to life.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The components of a good script are a strong trigger incident that leads the central character into a dilemma. This creates empathy. Then, the choice that they make as a result of the dilemma defines the goal. We should be clear on what the central character wants and why they want it. Another thing that really adds to a good script is when the personal dilemma is connected to the professional pursuit. With this, when the writer comes from a place of emotional truth, it really helps to connect what they are trying to say.

A strong script should have a concept we can feel and a story with a clear message.

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

We don’t know what the central character wants, or we don’t know why they want it. If you don’t know what the central character wants or why they want it, then there’s no rooting factor. The central character reacts to things that happen to them versus taking action toward the goal, giving you a reactive hero instead of an active one. The obstacles happen to the central character versus being a result of an action that the character took. There is no external stakes arc. We don’t know what the worst thing is that can happen if the central character does not achieve their goal.

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

I wouldn’t say there’s a specific story trope  I’m tired of seeing. I’m just tired of seeing films being made where the story wasn’t ready. I feel like TV is in a much stronger place than film with regards to writing.

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

-Make us empathize with your central character from the start.

-Have a clear goal.

-Establish the internal and external stakes.

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

I’m not a reader. I analyze story from the studio executive perspective, so I don’t give “recommend” or “pass,” which is what readers do. I give development notes that help the writer to know how to elevate their script to the best place possible.

That being said, over two dozen of the writers I’ve worked with have sold pilots. Four of them went to series. So I do have lots of projects that I work with people on that go on to sell and be produced.

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

Some are very worth it. I like ScreenCraft, Final Draft, the Austin Film Festival and the Nicholl to name a few.

Competitions allow writers to put something on their bio that shows their writing has been recognized. This is a town that loves heat. If someone else thinks you’re great, everyone wants to know you. So the competitions do serve a purpose in building heat and creating possibility.

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

Through my website – www.jengrisanticonsultancy.com, or they can email me at jen@jengrisanti.com.

If you want to see how I work with writers one-on-one, I recommend reviewing my Writer Proposals Page – http://jengrisanticonsultancy.com/services/proposals/

Plus, if you mention this interview, I’ll give you 10% off of your first consult.

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

I love it. I’m big on baking, and my favorite is cherry pie.