Hope you like receiving what I’m giving

Despite what some may say, it’s actually kind of tough to get a gift for a screenwriter. Straight-up cash – for contests and consultants, of course – is always good, but Murray in the accounting department says Maximum Z’s budget only goes so far, so that’s not an option.

So I figured, how about the next best thing?

You guessed it. Guidance!

So in the spirit of the season, here are some helpful tips that can benefit any screenwriter. One size fits all, the color suits you to a T, and they never fade, run or tear.

WRITE SOMETHING YOU WOULD WANT TO SEE

You like comedies? Write one that could make you laugh out loud. Horror fan? Transfer the scares onto the page. Your taste runs towards small indies? Bet some aspect of your life would be a great foundation for a story like that.

When you go to the movies or sit down to watch something streaming at home, you want your money’s worth. It’s up to the script to deliver on that.

The writer’s love of the material should be evident on the page. The reader/audience will pick up on your enthusiasm for the material, so don’t hold back and have at it. You’re your own target for this, so what would you want to be included in your story?

WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE

You want the words on the page to really flow, to make the reader keep going and want to turn the page/see what happens next, right? Which do you think will do the job better? Two lines of tight, concise action, or five of excessive prose? I’ve seen both, and prefer the former by a substantial margin.

The subheading for this could be “the more white on the page, the better”. You want to make the absolute most out of that valuable real estate on the page, so why would you want to clutter it up with thick blocks of text? Grab that red pen, put on your editor’s hat, and jump in. Could this dialogue or action be trimmed down from four lines to three? Or two?

The more the writing flows, the faster the read, and the more likely you are to keep your reader’s interest. Try to use as few words as possible; the ones that make the biggest impact.

SHOW, DON’T TELL

You’d think this was a basic one, but I’ve seen a lot of scripts that include what a character is thinking, why they’re doing something, or what something really means.

In other words, “How do we know that?” Film is primarily a visual medium, so if you’re able to present information we can see that’s part of the story, do it!

Here’s an example I like to use:

“INT. KITCHEN – NIGHT

Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. His mind drifts to when he took Mary Lou to the prom, where she subsequently dumped him and then ran off with a plumber and now lives in Akron with four kids, a cat, and a mortgage.”

What would we see onscreen? A guy washing dishes. That backstory info needs to be presented visually, or as much as can be.

SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

True story: I once read a script that included the now-immortal line “She sets a bag of frozen pees on the counter.” I had a lot of trouble focusing on the rest of the script after that. Couldn’t tell you for the life of me now what the story was, but I will remember that line until the very end.

When a writer asks me to look over their script, I’m not just doing story notes. I check punctuation, spelling, grammar, the whole shebang. Having a few goofs is pretty standard; anything more than that and it becomes a problem. Sloppy writing makes it look like the writer isn’t taking this as seriously as they should. Not a great speller, or tend to overdo it with the commas? No problem. I bet there’s a writer within your network who’d be happy to do a polish for you.

DON’T BE BORING

Easier said than done, right? It’s a challenge to make any story interesting enough to hold onto the reader/audience’s attention, but it all starts with what’s on the page. Is the writing flat, or does it really pop? Does the writer have a handful of verbs they use over and over, or have they given their thesaurus a real workout?

Which sounds more visual and intriguing?

He walks into the room.

OR

He struts into the room.

Hint: it’s not the first one. Doesn’t imagining somebody strutting into a room feel stronger, more cinematic, than somebody simply walking in?

The script is your way to paint a picture in our minds using words, and words alone. It’s up to you to do that in as entertaining a way as possible, using the words that pack the most punch.

Does the writing in your script do that?

BE NICE TO PEOPLE/PLAY NICE WITH OTHERS

Another one you’d think would go without saying, but manners do count – especially when it comes to meeting people who could potentially have an impact on you establishing a career.

Which would you rather be – the congenial person who’s interested in what the other person has to say, is open to ideas and suggestions, celebrates somebody else’s accomplishments, and wants to help out, or the bitter, self-important person who constantly whines/complains about how they’re not getting the recognition they deserve, badmouths other writers, won’t change anything in their script because “it’s perfect the way it is”, and just makes it all about them?

This is an extremely tough business to break into, let alone thrive in, so wouldn’t you want as much support as you can get? And every other writer needs as much support as you do, so you should try to help them just as much. Plus, nice people are nicer to be around.

Also important – be honest. Don’t present yourself as something you’re not. If you weren’t telling the truth about one thing, why should anybody believe you about anything else? Sometimes all you have is your reputation, and you don’t want to have it work against you.

Those within the industry would much rather work with somebody who presents themselves as a team player, and not a diva. Cliched as it sounds, you really do only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure that yours puts you in the best possible light, then you do what you can to keep yourself there.

And that’s it. Hope you get some use out of these, and feel to re-gift as needed.

Wishing you all the best for a happy holiday season that involves a slice of your favorite pie and at least a little bit of writing.

A holiday Q & A with Heather Hughes & Kate Wharton

Heather Hughes and Kate Wharton have been writing together for over 12 years and worked with Disney, Hallmark, and Lifetime, as well as a plethora of indie filmmakers.

They are both graduates of the TheFilmSchool in Seattle and studied with the late, great Blake Snyder.

They are represented by The Nethercott Agency in Los Angeles.

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

Heather: I thought The Queen’s Gambit was extremely well-written. The characters were very real and they avoided all tropes. I really enjoyed the mother and that character defied all my expectations. We also just rewatched Breaking Bad, which is about as far away from Hallmark movies as you can get, but genius writing.

Follow-up: a Christmas movie, TV or feature, you think is well-written.

Heather: We detail the seven sub-genres of Hallmark movies in our book and we’re huge fans of the “fake boyfriend” sub-genre, which we call “The Christmas Fake Out” or “Rent-a-Boyfriend” and thought The Mistletoe Promise (2016) was quite well done.

We also like Mary Christmas, which has one of the most satisfying and unexpected endings of any Hallmark movie ever. It’s not The Usual Suspects, but for these movies it was a shocker!

Kate: Hallmark’s The Angel Tree is very nicely done. The plot setup involves good Hallmark-appropriate conflict and there are a couple of nice plot twists. I think it’s the best of 2020’s 40 new Hallmark movies.

How did you get your starts in the industry, and how did you get into writing Christmas TV movies?  

A producer requested our screenplay, which had done well in a contest.  He routinely asks the directors of the contest to send him the winning scripts.  When we started writing together, we were advised that some screenwriting contests were a way to get noticed. That proved to be true for us. We consider Austin, the Nicholl Fellowship, PAGE, Big Break and Kairos to be some of the best contests.

You refer to these films as Cozy Christmas Romances, or CCRs. Is romance a necessary component of the story template? 

Romance is a requirement for this genre. When we first started writing these movies we assumed that any wholesome content would appeal to these networks. We spent a lot of time pitching heartwarming stories that routinely got turned down. It wasn’t until we’d been at it awhile that we realized that these scripts had to be about—to steal from the late great Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat—two people who are better together than apart AND they needed to celebrate Christmas not just take place at Christmas. Or, as one producer told us, “It needs to be about Christmas, not just set at Christmas.”

There is an abundance of CCRs on several channels and streaming services, with new ones coming out each year. To what do you attribute the popularity of the CCR? 

There are several reasons they are so popular. These movies are predictable, safe, and uncontroversial. It’s a great escape! We like to call them the mac-and-cheese of movies. They’re familiar, warm and comforting. You won’t have nightmares after watching them and you can watch them with your 92-year-old grandma and your six-year-old niece. 

When we were researching the book, we actually found that a lot of military vets enjoy watching them because they can relax knowing that they won’t encounter any disturbing content.

What was your inspiration behind your book IT’S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE HALLMARK! WRITING A MADE-FOR-TV CHRISTMAS MOVIE?

We learned these guidelines in dribs and drabs while we were working with and pitching to companies that make films for Hallmark. It would have been helpful to us if someone had written them down. For instance: we wrote a whole spec script featuring a couple in their 50s thinking it would be perfect for them. After we submitted it, we
learned the protagonist for that project needed to be 28 – yes, they actually said 28. We wish the production company had told us that at the start!

These specific guidelines change from year to year, but it’s helpful to know the basic framework for these movies.

How much research went into putting the book together? How many Christmas TV movies did you end up watching?

If you ask our husbands they would say thousands, but it was really more like hundreds. We also did extensive research with a ton of screenwriters, agents and producers. Some were eager to share, but wanted anonymity, especially when talking about money. After doing more and more interviews we began to see specific rules emerging. There are always exceptions to these rules, and we aren’t out to stifle creativity. But when we compiled our findings, we began to see them as a roadmap for writers who would like to write in this genre.

In the book, you list the 7 main types of CCRs. Obviously, that’s not all they’re limited to, but a majority tend to fall into one of those categories. If a writer comes up with something totally different from any of these but could still be considered a CCR, does that hurt their chances of getting it noticed?

We came up with the seven after watching many movies and reading all of the loglines. We’re sure there are more subgenres or ways to put these movies into buckets. We’d love to hear from your readers who identify others!

If a writer comes up with a new and original subgenre it could be great! But the companies seem to be buying similar content. If the idea strays too far from the conventions of the world (a Christmas town full of zombies, for example), it might hurt your chances of selling to Hallmark. Other networks might love it, though! 

Hallmark has honed its brand to the point where they know the 85 million viewers who tune in during November and December and what those viewers expect.

A few chapters involve the CCR beat sheet, along with filling in the blanks about the story. Some might say that there’s a certain predictability to these stories, so what advice would you give to writers striving to come up with something original?

We’ve noticed that many writers struggle with plot. They start writing with a lot of momentum, and then get stuck around page 50 because they don’t know what’s going to happen. The beat sheet is a fill-in-the-blank exercise to teach the writer a structure that is common to all these movies. If you’re great at plot without a beat sheet, then you probably won’t need this roadmap. 

These movies are intentionally predictable, but within that framework there is a lot of room for originality. If you want to write CCR movies, your original ideas will probably center on an unusual hero, and a unique romantic combination. For example: you could find a new reason the female character needs to leave the big city, an unusual job for the male character, or a unique Christmas activity to include in your montage.

You also go into “what to do after the script’s done”, i.e. queries, meetings, etc., and reference several non-professional writers who sold their scripts. While not every script is guaranteed to sell, is this something you would recommend for aspiring writers?

When you write a script, the goal is to get someone to buy it and make it into a movie—unless you want to film it yourself, which is a great option for aspiring filmmakers. After writing your script, the second hardest thing to do is to get people to read it. Our process of research and queries is a good system for getting people to read your script, regardless of your genre.

We think this is a good place for new writers who like these movies to break in simply because of the sheer number of CCRs made each year. In 2020, Hallmark made 40 new movies, Lifetime made 30 and UPtv made 5. There is never a guarantee that a script will be optioned, but there are many companies looking for content.

The two of you are about more than just writing Christmas TV movies. How can people find out more, as well as order the book?

We love teaching and writing together. Readers can contact us through our website writingtherom.com or on our Facebook page We Heart Rom Coms.  You can buy our book on Amazon, and we’d love to hear any thoughts your readers might have about it. Feel free to reach out!

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

We both adore pecan pie with a ton of lightly sweetened whipped cream! No wonder we’re such great writing partners!

If your pie preferences run a bit more savory, we also recommend Costco chicken pot pies. They’re amazing—flaky crust, delicious chunks of chicken, and a light creamy sauce. Find them in the back, by the rotisserie chickens—It’s a cost effective, delicious meal.