105ish pages down to 1

vintage gym
Not that kind of reduction process

With the page-producing phase of the horror-comedy spec now underway, I’m also finding the occasional need to do a little side work on it. In this case, it’s the 1-page synopsis for said script.

Summarizing your entire story on one solitary page (or one and a half, according to some of my associates) is, as many writers already know, not as easy as it sounds. Yours truly being no exception.

Past 1-pagers for past scripts were the usual challenge, but I managed. Somehow. Part of that challenge has always been inadvertently including too much of the story. As much as I’d like to put all of it in there, that just won’t work.

The key is to focus on the main character and what they go through to achieve their goal, with a strong emphasis on conflict. I’ve also found it very helpful to break each act down into its core components – especially key events and plot points.

Trying to include subplots and supporting characters was just clogging the whole thing up, so those quickly fell by the wayside, which really helped streamline the whole thing.

This time is a little different, probably due to having multiple protagonists. Well, at least it starts that way. This is a horror story, so as you’d expect, people are gonna die.

Not being as familiar with the horror genre, I wasn’t sure of the most effective way to put together a 1-pager for this kind of story. Is there more emphasis on the horror part? Or the story with some horror elements thrown in? “The learning never stops” indeed.

Feeling a bit stumped, I did like all smart writers do, and asked my network of savvy creatives for whatever assistance and guidance they could provide.

Glad I did.

(Hearty shoutout to everybody who reposnded and got in touch – I really appreciate it)

More than one said to focus on the one character the reader/audience would consider the heart of the story, and follow what happens to them. That I can do.

Others, who’ve also written stories starting with several protagonists and see their numbers reduced along the way, suggested listing them all at the outset, so as they’re gradually eliminated, there’s no sense of “Who’s that again?” I might give that a try.

There was the smart reminder to “keep things simple”. Don’t fall into the trap of making it too cluttered or complicated. Just tell the story in a clear and straightforward manner.That might take a little editing and revising, but I think I can also do that.

Based on all of these comments, plus my own experience, having a solid 1-pager in my possession seems definitely achievable.

Q & A with Christopher Lockhart of WME

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Christopher Lockhart is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s largest talent agency. He has produced several feature films and is an adjunct professor in screenwriting. He earned his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the WGA, PGA, and the Television Academy. He moderates a screenwriting group on Facebook called “The Inside Pitch.”

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

Because I deal with writers and filmmakers, I tend not to answer these kinds of questions. I’d never want anyone to think I have favorites. I’ll say that I’m lucky because I get to read the very best screenplays circulating town. In my personal life, I tend not to share my opinions on these kinds of things. For instance, I rarely recommend a movie to anyone – even if I loved it. I guess because my work day involves having to share my opinion with others (or force it upon them), I’d prefer to keep my opinion to myself when I’m off the clock.

How’d you get your start?

I wrote and taught for a decade until an opportunity arose to interview at talent agency ICM as the story consultant to Ed Limato, one of the industry’s most powerful agents. He ran his own fiefdom within the agency and needed someone to comb through the vast amount of material for his client list, which, at that time, included the likes of Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Denzel Washington. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but met with him for the hell of it. It was a short interview and afterward I found myself being escorted into a tiny office piled high with screenplays to read. I was hired on the spot and didn’t seem to have any say in whether or not I wanted the job. I had no interest in the agency business but figured I’d give it a chance until the end of the week, and if I hated it, I’d quit. I was asked to read a particular script for Mel Gibson, who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. On my second day, I was called into the boss’s office to discuss my thoughts. And Mel Gibson was there. We spoke about the script, and it was exhilarating. This is a business where there’s lots of talk and wheelspinning, but these people weren’t talkers, they really made movies, and I could have a small voice in that process. It was pretty cool. There’s been all sorts of ups, downs, and changes since then, but I’m now in my 21st year in the agency business.

Your official title is Story Editor. What does that job entail and what are your responsibilities?

In some ways, I do what a dramaturg in a theater does.  I’m sort of a matchmaker – looking to match projects with a handful of A-list actors. I read a lot, do research, share my opinion and recommendations, give story notes. I work with writers and directors to develop and focus their material. I work in post with filmmakers (like in the editing room) to help them crystalize their story. My whole world is story, and I do anything and everything I can to serve writers, actors, and filmmakers in reaching their creative story goals.

Follow-up – what does the Story Department at an agency handle?

A Story Department is the screenplay hub in an agency, studio, production company.  Generally, it oversees the “coverage” of material (judging the creative value of the work) through a cadre of story analysts. It also looks to bring material into the company.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?

The way conflict is utilized. The way it’s used in the concept, the characters, the plotting. For example, in screenplays creating complex characters doesn’t mean layers of backstory and psychology. It means how conflict is used to create the complexities. When a writer is adept at using conflict, I know she gets it.

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

I don’t look for good writing. I look for good movies. And there’s a difference. I read lots of scripts that are well written but will never be movies (for a variety of reasons), and they serve no purpose for me. Good writing can win you attention, get you representation, lead to writing assignments, and so on. But that’s not the business I’m in. I’m looking for movies for movie stars. In Hollywood, good writing is subjective, of course, so each person defines it in whatever way suits her needs. While there’s some subjectivity in what I do, I’m also dealing in facts. For example, maybe an actor doesn’t want to play a particular kind of role. That eliminates certain scripts, regardless of their quality. I think the recognition skills you ask about are both taught and learned. When I started reading scripts I was armed with what I was taught in film school. But in the 30 years since, I’ve read over 60,000 screenplays, and I’ve absorbed a lot of knowledge about what works, what doesn’t work, and – most importantly – why. My head is a filing cabinet of stories and story elements, which gives me a large dramaturgical perspective. That stuff I learned.

What do you consider the components of a good solid script?

I take a holistic approach to judging material.  I have to read and swallow the whole script. Scripts can often work in spite of themselves.  The one component I see missing from most scripts – especially scripts from new writers – is the story purpose. This is that singular goal your hero pursues through the story. More often than not, there is no goal. If there is a goal, it’s vague or not substantial enough to sustain 120 pages (or our interest). Another component is conflict (drama). A strong story purpose should create strong conflict. Many stories do not seem to be conceived in conflict. They’re born from themes, ideas, ideals that lack conflict; they  are not dramatized.

What are some very important rules every writer should know?

I guess my previous answer covers this question. I don’t believe in rules, per se. Rules only apply to bad writing. If you’ve written a great script, no one will quote you the rules.

Are there any trends, themes, or story ideas you feel are overused? “Not this again.”

Because I’ve read so much, nothing is new to me. I have seen it all. Georges Polti gave us The 36 Dramatic Situations, which he claimed covered all possible stories. Others theorists have reduced them to 12 or even 3. In theory, everything has been used and will be used again. Ideas are only overused in the hands of inexperienced writers. Great writers with unique voices will take the old and dress it up in a new, refreshing way.

Follow-up – are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I try not to judge those kinds of things until I see how they’re utilized.

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

I’m not much of a pie eater.  I only ever ate apple pie – baked by my great-grandmother. When I moved to Los Angeles, she would write me once a month and enclose a five-dollar bill to buy a frozen apple pie to remember her. I was low on funds in those days, and that money would often find its way to buy other things like a few gallons of gas. She’s been gone 25 years, but on the rare occasions I eat apple pie, I remember her.

apple pie

Exactly! -OR- The perfect fit

robot monster
Not as good as a gorilla suit and a retro space helmet, but mighty darned close

The new story has been in development for a few weeks now, and I can proudly say it’s coming along nicely. Plot points are in place, and the filling-in between them continues, albeit slowly. Still quite a ways to go, but any progress is good progress.

The more I work on it, the more excited I am to take this one on. I love the concept, think it’s got a lot of potential, and it just seems like it’ll be a lot of fun to write.

Full disclosure – it’s a horror-comedy, and that’s all I’m saying for now.

Part of my usual writing m.o. is seeking out feedback from other writers. Since the actual story is still under construction, I opted to start with the basics and asked a handful of savvy colleagues their thoughts on the logline.

Reactions were positive. Plus, some keen insight and suggestions as to what might make the story even more unique and original, and how to avoid “stuff we’ve seen in these kinds of stories before”. Those, in turn, triggered a new round of ideas, which then led to unearthing what may prove to be the most important idea of them all:

The thing that gets it all started.

Not the inciting incident, but a certain something that forms the foundation of the story itself – before the actual events of the story get underway. Without this, the story wouldn’t even be able to exist (or at least be a lot tougher to pull off).

It was perfect.

A feeling most satisfactory, to be sure.

But wait. It gets better.

A little more time (plus some invaluable real-life-based research) caused me to discover that not only does this new idea do a rock-solid job of tying the whole story together, but it creates constant, relevant, and increasing conflict for all the characters,  makes for a great ticking clock, and really lets me have fun with the whole concept.

Goosebumps, I tell ya!

As fun as it was to come up with that, the hard work’s just beginning. Second and third acts need a ton of work. Doing whatever I can to avoid cliches and tropes usually associated with this kind of story. And to address the comedic aspect, really trying to make it funny.

Won’t be easy, but as I’ve discovered with my most recent rewrites, might not be as totally insurmountable as expected.

Actually, I bet it’ll be a blast.

Let the ensuing commence!

mountain climber 2
That was when our heroes realized things were about to get a lot tougher from here on in…

When I write out a scene, I have a pretty solid idea of what needs to happen in it; how to make it follow the one before it, and lead into the one after it.

Sometimes it ends up the way I intended, and sometimes it needs a little more punching-up.

And a lot of the time, that punching-up involves making things more complicated, which does a simultaneously effective job of upping the conflict, which was already a necessity.

This whole process most recently came into play while working on a scene in the pulp spec. I’d planned out what was supposed to happen, and on the surface, it seemed okay.

And then I wrote it, but it wasn’t the same as I’d envisioned. It was still missing a vital component, and I couldn’t determine exactly what.

Did it successfully connect the scenes before and after? Was there conflict? Did it advance the necessary elements?  Yes on all counts, but it still seemed off.

I read through it again. It was tight and efficient, and did what it was supposed to. But this second read also revealed the hidden problem that was nagging at me.

It was too tight and efficient. The protagonist accomplished what they were supposed to, but it needed to be tougher for them to do so.

So back I went to the planning-out stage, tossing in a few more wrinkles to make it that much harder for my hero. Although they still achieve their goal within the context of the scene, this time I made sure they really earned it.

Plus, the new complications really emphasized the overall nature of the story, which is always good.

This isn’t to say that every scene has to have some kind of monumental obstacle to your protagonist, but the journey towards their goal shouldn’t be an easy one. It might not even be a physical thing; maybe your hero has to overcome an internal or emotional problem.

It may be easier for you to keep things simple and straightforward, but unfortunately that makes for dull storytelling. Making things more complicated for your protagonist may complicate things for you in putting it all together, but it will definitely make for a better story while also improving your skills as a writer.

Don’t hold back. Put both yourself and your protagonist through the wringer. You’ll both be better for it.