Does your script sound like you?

When was the last time you read a script that was really hitting on all cylinders?

Great story, cinematic writing and vivid imagery, compelling characters, the whole kit and kaboodle.

What’s the one thing that ties all of them together?

That writer’s voice.

We hear about it all the time, and I’ve always described it as how the writing in a script is a reflection of the writer’s style.

If you read a script by Shane Black, Judd Apatow, Nora Ephron, or Quentin Tarantino, you’d know it by the way it reads. Each one is written in the distinctive voice of each writer.

And that’s what you want to achieve with your writing. When somebody reads your scripts, they’ll know it was you.

The need to establish your own voice when it comes to your scripts can’t be stressed enough.

I’ve read a lot of scripts that try to mimic an established writer’s voice, and it usually falls flat. Part of the reason is that the writer is trying too hard to sound like the established writer, which seems counterproductive. If I want a script that reads like Judd Apatow wrote it, I’ll read a Judd Apatow script.

It also doesn’t help that some of these established writers created a niche for themselves with their writing style, so anybody who comes after them with the same approach will immediately be labeled a pale imitation. You might have a phenomenal script, but if the only thing somebody remembers about it is that it’s just ripping off Tarantino, you’ve just wasted everybody’s time.

Now this isn’t to say that you can’t write in a similar style, but you need to put your own spin on it to help it stand out.

What are some of your strengths, writing-wise? In what areas do you really shine? Is there a way you can apply that to other aspects of your script? You want your script to have a real impact on the reader; one with a strong voice can help accomplish that.

Another benefit of a script with a strong voice is that it helps make it that much more memorable. Not only does it leave an impression, but chances are it’ll stick with the reader long afterward. Many’s the time I’ve finished reading a script and within five minutes don’t remember a thing about it. Sure, the writing may have been adequate or possibly just slightly above average, but a lack of a distinctive voice from the writer is a key missing ingredient.

Then there are those I’ll remember a long time after. Maybe it was the story or even just the concept, or the protagonist, or a great scene/sequence. No matter what it was, you could come to me a few months from now, or maybe even next year, and ask “Hey, do you remember that script about ____?”

Chances are I will BECAUSE of the writer’s voice.

Which is exactly what you’re aiming for.

From the archives: Introduce your character with character

BETTIE, mid 20s. Don't let her all-American looks fool you. Trouble goes out of its way to avoid HER.
BETTIE, mid 20s. Don’t let her all-American looks fool you. Trouble goes out of its way to avoid HER.

Author’s note: had a great in-person notes session this week. Among the many topics we discussed was character intros, and what made for a good one, as well as a not-so-good (i.e. boring) one. That reminded me of this post from April 2014. Enjoy.

“When we, the reader, first meet an important character in your script, how do you describe them? What are the important details?

A lot of the time, the emphasis is on their physical traits – “tall”, “imposing”, “blonde”, “handsome”, “drop-dead gorgeous”, etc.

Or maybe it’s a simple adjective or two – “bubbly”, “funny”, “a nice guy” and so on.

These are okay, but you have to admit they’re kind of dull, which makes it more challenging for us to be interested in wanting to follow their story.

So how do you fix this? Time to ramp up that creativeness and really focus on what kind of person this character is, rather than what they look like. Unless a physical description is a key character trait, don’t worry about it.

One of the most memorable intros I ever read described the best friend of the teenaged protagonist – “James Dean cool at 15.” That’s it. Pretty effective, and in only five words.

Doesn’t this give you a better idea of what this character is like than say, “cool and aloof?”?  This is the kind of writing that catches our eye AND makes an impression.

A former co-worker of mine used to describe a very talkative friend as “If you asked him what time it was, he’d tell you how to build a watch.” See how it goes beyond the good-but-simplistic “chatty know-it-all”?

Cliched as it sounds, we really are painting pictures with words – not just for the story, but the characters in it. You’re already crafting a unique and original story, so why not develop a unique and original way to tell us about the characters in it?

This isn’t saying you should always strive to be clever and witty about it, but at least try for something different. This is just a small part of showing off your writing skills.

Take a look at how you introduce the characters in your latest draft. Does it really tell us what you want us to know about them? If not, how could you rewrite it so it does?”

The heart of the matter

The past few weeks, part of my writing schedule has involved revising the outline of my animated fantasy-comedy spec. It’s been fun to develop – having a previous draft to work with really helps. The action sequences, the story, the jokes and sight gags haven’t been too difficult, but I’ve been making more of an effort to build up the emotional aspect.

This isn’t to say I’ve never included that. It just hasn’t been as prevalent in the early stages of planning and plotting process.

It’s not enough to just show the stuff that’s happening, you need to show how it’s relevant to the characters. While the plot is about the external goal (what do they want?), there’s also the importance of establishing their internal goal (what do they need?).

Sometimes the internal and external goals work together, and sometimes a character will achieve one and not the other. There’s also the tried and true “they got what they wanted, but it wasn’t what they needed” (and vice versa). It all depends on how the writer wants to the story to go.

To help myself get a better grasp of this, I’ve been reading the scripts for and watching other animated films to see how they approach it. There has also been the occasional “read a few pages of the script, then watch how it plays out onscreen”.

*helpful tip – for prime examples of incorporating emotion into story, you can’t go wrong with well-made animated films. They do a fantastic job of setting everything up as fast and efficiently as possible. Sometimes singing is involved. And as it should be with live-action, each scene manages to include advancing the characters’ emotional arc as well as the story arc.

As more than a few readers have said to me, sometimes my writing is more about what we see onscreen and not as much about what’s happening to the characters on the inside. Hopefully that won’t be the case this time around. Since I’m still outlining the story, I try to include what the emotional impact is in each scene. Does the point of the scene affect the character(s) the way it’s supposed to?

At first, this was pretty challenging, but watching how other films accomplished it, it wasn’t as daunting as I initially thought, plus the more I think about it and plan for it, it’s not as bad as I thought. It’s helping with the overall development because I’m taking that sort of detail into consideration as part of the initial planning stages, as opposed to trying to work it in later, along with avoiding a few unnecessary rewrites.

Since this is a slightly different approach for me, I’m sure it’ll be chock-full of trial and error along the way, but am fairly confident it’ll yield the results I’m hoping for.

The spark is lit once again

I hadn’t realized it had been quite a while since I’ve written about how my writing has been going, mostly because there hasn’t been as much of it as I was hoping, and what there has has been proving to be a bit of a challenge. Therefore…

The past few months have been me working on rewriting/overhauling the fantasy-comedy I wrote last year. For some reason, it just wasn’t clicking for me, hence the lengthy break.

So when I decided the time was right to dive back in, I really had to figure out what the problem was.

I still loved the concept, and a lot of what I’d already written, but something still seemed off. So I went to my tried-and-true practice of “take a step back for a closer look”.

What was it I liked about the story? Did the way it played out seem like the best way to tell it? What could be done differently, yet still yield the same results (or something even better)?

When I was first putting the story together, I must have gone through at least half a dozen different ways to start it. Each one had it’s own pros and cons. I don’t strictly adhere to “this plot point HAS to happen on THIS PAGE”, but I do what I can to stay in the neighborhood.

As I wrote down scenes I wanted to include, a pattern started to emerge. If I started the story THIS WAY, that would lead to THIS happening, and maybe I could rearrange a few things so as to get the full impact of what I was going for.

Then another realization came to me. The story was working, but my protagonist was the wrong character. Another character initially created as a big supporting role seemed to hold more potential, plus having things revolve around them would really punch up the tone of the story.

More pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.

Because of this drastically new approach, I don’t have the option of just recycling scenes from the previous draft. Each scene has to be rewritten to accommodate this new perspective and really play up the impact this new protagonist has on everything around them.

It’s a challenge, but the new story is slowly coming together. My enthusiasm for putting myself through all of this and my confidence in the story is as strong as ever.

I’ll admit this is also taking longer to than I wanted it to. My initial hope was to have completed the outline a while ago and have a new draft done by the end of the year, but that ain’t gonna happen.

Instead, I’m totally fine with the rest of 2021 being all about hammering out the outline and its subsequent fine-tuning. Kicking off the New Year with pages isn’t a bad way to go.

As we head into the weekend, here’s hoping for a whole lot of productivity for everybody’s current projects.

Q & A with Scott McConnell

Scott McConnell is a writer/story consultant who has worked as a producer in Los Angeles and in fiction development. Scott edits stories from inside them as a writer. He finds solutions to story problems and can especially focus on improving a story’s premise. Scott believes this is where most films/scripts succeed or fail. He also finds that many good writers don’t focus enough on theme. It is through theme that a writer moves an audience emotionally. Scott can edit low budget features as well as big budget blockbusters. He fixes scripts for individual writers and production companies around the world.

Scott started in the business as a story analyst in Los Angeles; analyzing scripts for Roger and Julie Corman, Samuel Goldwyn and the Sundance Institute, among others. He was later the showrunner (writer/producer/director) of the U.S. nationally syndicated LIVE LIFE AND WIN! and he co-wrote the reality series HOLLYWOOD BOOT CAMP. He has found the story by studying footage, reading scripts/books, pre-interviewing talents, and writing or editing the script. Scott is a member of the Producer’s Guild of America and of the Australian Film Institute (AACTA.)

What was the last thing you read or watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

Regarding television, I’m a big fan of the English series VICTORIA, about Queen Victoria. The writing is often excellent, especially in season one, which dramatized a young girl developing herself in high stakes circumstances to become queen of an empire and the loving wife of a man she admires but who often has different ideas to her and is at times in romantic conflict with her because she is also his queen and leader.

Regarding film, I think SAVING MR. BANKS is brilliantly written, especially its dramatization of a profound theme and the integration of its two main plot lines from different time periods. The characters were intelligently written and layered, while the arc of the protagonist is beautifully climaxed.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

My first start in the business came after I graduated from UCLA Extension (scriptwriting) and did some interning work at industry places in town and started my own script analysis business. The study and volunteer work allowed me to get experience so I was skilled and employable.

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

It is something that is learned. But there are great individual differences in how much someone might actually know about what makes a good story. And it’s hard for readers to see a story objectively as it really is and not be prejudiced by their own values and tastes.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

There are two basics to any script. First there is the mechanics of how well it is written: its structure, clarity of its theme, use of dramatic devises, the development of its character and relationship arcs, the nature of its climax, and so forth. That is, the storytelling skill.

And then there is the values side of the story, the actual nature of the specific content. For example, its theme and sensibility, the values and goals of the characters, the nature of the conflicts and the theme resolution. That is, the values the story is dramatizing.

A good script has skilled storytelling and universal, important and personal values that the audience cares about. It is the nature of these values that especially makes a story or film an enduring classic.

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

The biggest mistake I often see is that writers do not give their characters agency (free will). That is, more specifically, the writer does not create a protagonist who has a big main goal that drives the story and underpins its structure. One of the negative consequences of this lack of agency in characters is that it becomes the writer who drives the story by dropping contrived and coincidental problems onto the heads of the characters. Such a story lacks logic, believability and suspense.

Another common writing mistake I see all the time is that the concept of the story was not developed properly. Many scripts, for example, have unoriginal, uninteresting or one-layer premises. Creating a strong premise is the hardest and most important part of writing a story.

A mistake I see in good writers is that they often haven’t mastered theme, so they don’t know how to use it to give depth to their story and to induce deep emotion in their audiences.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Some writers want to throw in the latest political fad or fashion.

Other writers think that chases, fights and explosions are what make an action script great. They aren’t. Look at two of the great actioners, DIE HARD and GLADIATOR: both of these stories have layered and driven characters enduring terrible personal problems.

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

The first rule of all writing is to have something interesting to say or show. If your story – its premise, characters, plot, climax – are not interesting then it doesn’t matter how well you structure your story, for example, no one will care.

I think every creator of a script should have a story expert outside of their story bubble vet and edit their script, and the closer to the front end of the story creation this is done the better.

Have a writing process. Many writers who don’t have a writing process never finish their story or don’t know how to. A writing process can be learned and should be. A good writing coach can teach you one.

Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it.”? If so, what were the reasons why?

That’s pretty rare. Most scripts, produced and unproduced, have issues. But I remember a script I edited about two years ago where I was impressed that these two writers were really in charge of the story and the writing. That is, that with some fixes this script would make a good movie. These writers had a layered, intriguing concept, an escalating plot line and characters who I cared about and I was anxious to see who among the leads won. (The three leads in conflict were all good guys but in a big conflict.)

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

That’s a good but difficult question. At best I’m mixed on contests. Yes, there are some good ones that can help a writer get doors opened or be noticed, but for other contests you have to worry about who is reading these piles of scripts. My concern is that too many contest readers seem to be straight out of college where they haven’t studied the great classic plays/novels nor analysed the
truly well written films. They tend, I also worry, to be naturalistic and PC in their reaction to story content. I hope I’m wrong but….

My suggestion to those considering entering contests is to vet carefully. For example, look to see if the contest has some clout, that being a winner or a placing near the top will truly open doors, etc. Also try to see the loglines of previous winners. If they’re rubbish, be wary, as you should be if any samples of coverage by the contest’s graders indicates a focus not on story essentials. Also try to determine if that contest prefers a certain genre over others. Good luck. Caveat emptor.

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

I edit scripts of many genres and forms, have a mentorship program to teach writers a writing process while they actually write a script, and other writing and development services. People can learn more about me on LinkedIn at this page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottamcconnell/

Or write to me via email: scottm100@gmail.com

People can also find my articles on screenwriting on Script, Creative Screenwriting and MovieMaker.

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

American Pie! (the song, not the movie)