It is most definitely NOT a sprint

I haven’t written about it in a while, but one of my other interests is running. It’s inexpensive, good exercise, and I’m fortunate to live in a place well-suited for it.

Added bonus – plenty of time to think about whatever script I’m working on at the time.

However, the passage of time and some good old wear-and-tear are starting to take their toll. My pace is a little slower than it used to be, but I don’t mind.

I especially enjoy half-marathons. 13.1 miles is a good, solid distance. In the Before Times, I’d run about 6-8 a year.

This year, kinda-sorta. All but one of the races I’d signed up to do this year were cancelled. Race organizers, however, were undeterred. Runners were given the option of doing the races virtually, as in “you run the same distance, but on the route of your choosing, then send us your time and a map tracking your route, and we’ll send you your shirt and medal.”

With all of this going on, one of the things I’d always wanted to attempt was running a full marathon. 26.2 miles. Running a half wasn’t too hard, but taking on a full seemed much more formidable.

But the biggest challenge was I wanted to see if I could do it.

So I trained. A lot.

This is also where that part about wear-and-tear really started to make itself known – primarily in my heels and ankles.

But I kept at it, always trying to push myself a little more each time. I was confident, but still plenty nervous.

As the days wound down to Race Day, my anxiety levels were growing. The biggest question on my mind was “COULD I DO THIS?” My family were as supportive and encouraging as possible, but in the end, it was all me.

So I started out. The app in my phone announced at the onset that “tracking would continue for 26.2 miles”, which is quite intimidating during those first few steps.

“It’s the distance, not the time,” I reminded myself.

Off I went through the pre-dawn streets. Sunrise was still about 80 minutes away, and save for some hills and a bridge colored international orange, it was a pretty flat route.

The miles ticked away. I got to the halfway point, feeling pretty confident the second half might not be as challenging as expected.

Mile 19. So far, so good. At this pace, maybe an hour fifteen to go.

Mile 20. The wear-and-tear decides to kick in. For my heels and ankles. Steps got a little bit tougher to take. Then a stabbing pain at the base of my left shin. That doesn’t seem good.

I wanted to keep going, but was more concerned about inflicting further damage, so I chose the safest option: I stopped running, and walked. Not what I wanted, but at least I was still moving.

It’s the distance, not the time, remember?

I got to Mile 24 and thought “maybe I can run these last 2.2 miles” and ran for about 4 steps. Nope. The walk continued.

But I kept going, and eventually did cross the virtual finish line, with a time of 5:11:33.

Not the results I was hoping for, and despite some unexpected problems to deal with, the important thing was I DID IT.

One of the most apt metaphors about screenwriting is “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” It takes a REALLY long time to be able to do it, especially properly, so you need to keep working at it, constantly trying to do better.

The journey to finishing a script, let alone establishing a career as a screenwriter, might not be the one you anticipated. Everybody moves at their own pace, so don’t be discouraged if it seems like everybody but you is moving forward by leaps and bounds.

The important thing is to focus on becoming a better writer and making your script better. Work on crossing the finish line that’s waiting for you, and you alone.

Giving yourself a medal, however, is totally optional.

Lesson learned

A very recent post was all about my effort to read more scripts. I’ve been doing that, and from the ones I’ve read so far, the biggest takeaways are:

Wow, these are some fantastic scripts, and…

I need to be a better writer.

Not that I’m terrible. Maybe decent. Somewhat above average. But they don’t want decent or somewhat above average.

They want AMAZING.

PHENOMENAL.

MIND-BLOWINGLY AWESOME.

They want a script that once you read it, you can’t forget it.

My game needs to be severely upped if I want to make that kind of an impact and achieve the desired results.

What’s been truly eye-opening has been the overall quality of the scripts. They’ve been more than exceptional on several levels – originality, story, character, plot, etc.

The writing is vivid – incredibly so, and really makes you feel like you’re right there in the story. It wows me while I’m reading and compels me to keep going. This is something I strive for with my own work.

Reading these makes me want to do better when it comes to the quality of my scripts. I can only hope that I actually will.

Arrivederci, contests! For now.

waving goodbye
Normally, one would say “Don’t forget to write!”, but that seems a bit off in this scenario

Starting a few weeks ago, and continuing into the coming months, the results of numerous screenwriting contests will be made public.

For the most part, my scripts won’t be part of them. I’ve opted to skip the 2020-2021 season to focus on creating some new scripts and fine-tune some pre-existing ones.

Contests and I have had a rocky relationship. The primary reason I enter is for industry access (or at least the potential for it). As nice as a cash prize is, I’d much rather my award be my scripts shown to a manager or production company.

Naturally, even that’s not a guarantee of success. Somebody could read a script that’s done exceptionally well in a contest – even win it – and decide “I like it/It’s good, but not what I’m looking for.” This has happened to me, and even a few writers I know who’ve claimed a finalist spot in some prestigious contests still couldn’t make anything happen with it.

Them’s the breaks, and usually means it’s back to square one. But not this time.

I don’t have anything against contests. They can help motivate you to work towards beating a deadline. Some of them might lead to something, but many just mean you get a nice set of laurels. And no slight to smaller contests, but I’ve seen lots of comments from reps and prodcos that contests don’t really matter that much to them. What’s important is if they like the script and want to do something with it.

Additionally, those contests fees can get pretty steep. I try to keep things on the lower end (early bird deadlines, discount codes, etc) because the fees can really add up. And this isn’t even taking into account paying an additional cost for “notes” – something I don’t usually do anyway.

Added bonus for me – I also shell out some shekels for 6-8 half-marathons each year. You think screenwriting contests are expensive? Ha! Many of the races I’d signed up for for later this year have been cancelled or postponed until next year. So not having to pay for races or contests definitely works in my favor.

So that’s it for me and a temporary “so long”. At least until around this time next year. Until then, it’s all about the writing. My scripts are good, but I know they can be better.

Since deciding to step back, it’s kind of nice to be able to consistently delete the barrage of emails announcing “LAST CHANCE TO ENTER!” or “CLICK HERE FOR SPECIAL DISCOUNT CODE!”, and then get right back to work. I won’t say it’s still tempting to want to enter, but it is getting easier to read an email from a contest, and then kill it without hesitating.

Interesting side note – it would seem I entered 2 of my scripts in a pair of contests several months ago. In fact, one was in October of 2019. Turns out each advanced through the contests’ respective first rounds.

Since I adhere to the “send it & forget it” rule with my scripts, guess my putting more emphasis on the latter half of that phrase really came into play. As one friend put it – “you seem to do better in contests you forgot you entered.” Can’t argue that.

So now that I don’t have contest deadlines or announcements to deal with, I can focus on these two new scripts. Both have been percolating for quite some time, and I figured lockdown and shelter-in-place were the ideal times to jump into both.

Would I have been able to dedicate so much time and effort if the world hadn’t changed? Possibly, but having the opportunity to do so has definitely worked in my favor.

The latest draft of one script is out with a batch of savvy readers, and the other is still in the outline phase. Feeling pretty confident about both.

I’m more than content to let the 2020-2021 contest season pass me by as I write and write, then rewrite, and then write some more.

For all you writers looking to enter contests in the coming year, you now have one less competitor to worry about.

Catch you on the flip side.

Q & A with Jeff Kitchen

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Jeff Kitchen was classically trained in playwriting technique, specializing in the work of the groundbreaking Broadway script doctor William Thompson Price.

Jeff worked as a dramaturg in the New York theater, Playwrights Preview Productions (now Urban Stages) and taught playwriting on Broadway at the Negro Ensemble Company. He then started teaching screenwriting and has taught for over twenty years in small high-intensity hands-on groups.

He teaches the craft of the dramatist, advanced structural technique, the core of dramatic action, script analysis, and plot construction. Jeff is a sought-after script doctor, plot construction specialist, and rewrite consultant.

He has taught his techniques to development execs from all the major Hollywood studios and they consistently say that he teaches the most advanced development tools in the industry.

One of his students, Ted Melfi, was recently nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Awards for his film about the black women mathematicians at NASA, Hidden Figures.

Jeff is the author of the book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting. Jeff is now doing high-intensity training programs for professional scriptwriters as well as script consulting.

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

Narcos: Mexico on Netflix. It was so gripping, so watchable. Hard to believe it was true. I kept telling my wife how great it is, and said to her several times I thought it was better than The Godfather. They move through so much story in just two seasons, with so much intensity and depth, great casting and acting, great writing, and so much material to weave together. The corruption makes your blood boil; the loss, the genius, the brutality, the nobility, the adventure, the chess game, the betrayal, the power and murder and love and ambition, and the pure history—there’s so much going on and it’s so compelling.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I was mostly self-taught. A friend who was a playwright taught me the basics of Aristotle and gave me two old obscure books on playwriting to read. They were quite fascinating and very difficult, but I spent three years studying them intensely. The guy who wrote one of them, William Thompson Price, was a pioneering Broadway script doctor for top producers pre-1920 and he founded the first school of playwriting ever in the history of the world. Twenty-four of his twenty-eight students had hits on Broadway.

Price created several seriously groundbreaking tools for the dramatist and I emerged with a mastery of what he created, then improved on them and taught these tools nonstop for twenty years. People kept saying they’d never seen anything like what I taught and said they worked better than anything they’d seen. I trained development execs at all the major Hollywood studios and they consistently said I taught the most advanced development tools in the industry. So I found these old tools and ideas for tools, and studied them like crazy, then synthesized them into their current form. I taught and consulted with them for years, and got deeply experienced with them from working hands-on with them on thousands of students’ works in progress.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The short answer to that question is my 352-page book, Writing a Great Movie. Of course I can say something in a paragraph or two, but a proper answer can go deep and wide and long. A great premise, first of all, because if your raw idea sucks, then no amount of structure or character or storytelling elbow grease will get that clunker up in the air as a commercially viable project. In the industry, it’s called Polishing a Turd. I always say well-structured crap is still crap. So start with a great idea.

Also crucial is a good strong Dilemma of Magnitude for the protagonist, but it’s not easy in such a brief format to properly communicate how to make that one dilemma occupy the full proportion of the script, build to a Crisis, force Decision and Action in the face of crisis, and then conclude with the protagonist’s active Resolution of the dilemma. The way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma expresses the Theme, and it’s crucial to have a solid sense of theme as you build your story. You need distinct characters who are deep and complex and colorful in various ways, and who are deeply flawed, contradictory and universal.

You need attack as a storyteller, so you’re not making safe, cliché, or stock choices. Your script must be actable and it has to be stageworthy. The action of the story must move ahead aggressively, with nothing unnecessary bogging it down. It needs good cause and effect, escalating conflict, structural unity, dramatic action, and so much more. But mostly, it has to hit the audience where they live. If it doesn’t connect to the audience, then it’s not compelling.

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

Weak ideas, lack of imagination, lack of attack, poor execution, poor structure, lazy storytelling, stale characters, lack of depth, lack of color, overwriting, over-describing, overbearing, too much exposition, attempting to dictate an emotional response rather than earning it, lack of empathy for the main characters, underpowered ending, doesn’t pass the So What? test, crappy dialog, boring, derivative, packs no punch, uneven tone, peters out, holes in the story’s logic, lack of conflict, no clear goal for the protagonist, stupid, a simple plot vs a complex plot, episodic, formulaic, wooden characters, preachy, predictable, miserable writing skills, lack of follow-through, writing not cinematic, story not commercially viable, no sense of vision, no entertainment value, flat dramatically, lack of magnitude.

Just to name a few.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not sure how many more serial killers I want to read about, or how many more procedurals, or special forces dudes, or nuclear annihilation. They can all get tiresome, but it obviously has to do with the execution, because each of them can kick serious ass when done well. But I think that things like a serial killer can be just a cardboard prop or a vastly overused excuse to write something brutal and adventurous for people who can’t or won’t do the work to go deeper and find a freakier way to mess with people’s heads.

Watch a movie like Bad Boy Bubby or Bad Lieutenant with Harvey Keitel to see something fresh and wacko. People sleepwalk through the writing process sometimes, and it’s tedious because so many people are out there writing the same warmed-over tales. There’s probably room for a story about a serial killer who kills writers who are writing about serial killers.

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

Shake things up. You’re a writer. Do something to me, mess with my head, defy my expectations, violate my sense of how a story should go. Tell a story that really tweaks me, that seriously makes me care, that grabs me by the throat and makes me notice. Make me fall in love, or go through something unimaginable, or face death, or embrace life—but do it full tilt and do it well. I don’t need the same old tired stories coming at me all day long. I’m looking for adventure, depth, love, heartbreak, power, in any genre.

Make the overall structure for your story work first. If it does not, then the details do not matter. A beautifully written scene in a script that doesn’t work is meaningless. It’s like having an ornately finished room in a house that’s falling down. Learn to work from the general to the particular. Make the overall story work, then make each act work, then each sequence, and then each scene. You gradually develop and dramatize your work as you build it.

Learn to separate the Necessary from the Unnecessary. The work of the amateur is characterized by the Unnecessary. Dialogue and description are overwritten, scenes may not be needed, whole sequences may only be dead weight, sometimes an entire act can end up being unnecessary, and in fact your entire script may be unnecessary. Which may sound funny, but it’s not. The Unnecessary kills scripts. Most scripts are unreadable—and that means 98% of them—UN-READ-ABLE. Atrocious. And in many instances, the Unnecessary plays a major part in how unreadable it is. Clean, crisp cause and effect separates the Necessary from the Unnecessary, and moves the action of the story ahead crisply and cleanly.

Master the craft of the dramatist. Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s tricky, it’s slippery, it’s hard to pin down, hard to predict, and hard to diagnose or cure. But the more craft you’ve got, the more mastery you have in addressing every type of problem. People forget that scriptwriting is a performance medium—intended to be acted out in front of an audience in such a way that it’s gripping. So take the time to really learn your craft, to master it. Because almost doesn’t count, and people don’t want to read scripts that could have been good but the writer didn’t have the chops to make it work.

Take the time to build or discover deep, complex, dynamic, unpredictable, flawed, dimensional characters. Explore the Enneagram (EnneagramInstitute.com is a great resource) for each of your main characters because it’s such a remarkably powerful resource. A mixture of ancient wisdom about human nature and cutting-edge psychology, it purports that there are nine basic personality types, and each of these types has a healthy aspect, an average aspect, and unhealthy aspects. This helps you go deep and complex, to develop substantial flaws, hidden strengths, the mechanics of failure, a path to greatness, and complex, sophisticated human emotional reality.

What was the inspiration/motivation for your book Writing A Great Movie?

I wanted to get down on paper the know-how I’d accrued from teaching non-stop for eighteen years while it was still white hot. I had always taught small hands-on classes, maximum six people, and each person had to bring a script idea with them to develop so I could really get them using the tools. This helped them not only learn how to use the tools, but their scripts improved so much in the process that word of mouth on my classes was through the roof. I never taught large groups because the material was too complex. I knew that if I just talked at people about sophisticated techniques without showing them how to really use the tools that it would be mostly useless, because they couldn’t go home and use it to build their own script.

But when they started doing a big Screenwriter’s Expo in LA, they dragged me into teaching 150 people at a time. And there were riots outside my classroom of people trying to get in, so I realized that with this many people having heard about my training, it was time to write my book. So I cranked one out and self-published it by the next year’s Expo and sold a lot of them. I shopped that version and it got me a lit agent in New York who got me a publishing deal at Watson Guptill where two phenomenal editors helped bring out the best in my writing.

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What about this one makes it unique?

Not only are the tools unique, unusual and powerful, but I worked hard to emulate the hands-on aspect of my small classes in which I worked with each participant on their script as I explained the tools. So I explain, illustrate, and demonstrate each of seven tools in the first half of the book, and then I build a real script from scratch in the second half of the book, using all the tools. I start with a one-line idea and build the whole script, demonstrating the full use of the tools as I utilize them to create, develop, structure and write it.

Because I was rewriting the self-published edition, my editor wanted to clean up the second half of the book. I argued, saying that it had to remain unvarnished because the process of using these tools to create from scratch is necessarily messy. I needed it to remain fumbling and exploratory and rough, because cobbling a story together and dramatizing it is like feeling your way along in the dark. And I wanted to show them the raw reality, not the cleaned-up varnished version.

In the introduction to part two, I say that the first half of the book is as different from the second half as training in medical school is from working in an Emergency Room, or as studying a bear in the zoo is from wrestling one in the wilderness. I jump from tool to tool bootstrapping the story into existence, using Dilemma, the Enneagram, the 36 Dramatic Situations, Crisis, Theme, Research and Brainstorming all at the same time. And then I put the story through two structural tools, the Central Proposition and Sequence, Proposition, Plot, which help dramatize the narrative, strip out everything that’s unnecessary to the forward action of the story, and create consistent, coherent, compelling Dramatic Action.

I build the whole script with my readers looking over my shoulder, and I think it did a good job of showing the tools in action in order to give the reader genuine know-how and experience in utilizing the tools.

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

The top five or ten are definitely worth it and have launched many careers. I myself wouldn’t bother with many others, but it totally depends on what you’re up to as a writer. If you just want to put your stuff out there to see what people think of it, then you can use it as a learning opportunity. But you can also just hire somebody to give you notes on your script and that might give you more specific feedback. But there are books and websites that can help you sort the contests for value, and people who know everything about them, and they’re definitely worth taking a look at as part of a career strategy.

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

My website is BuildYourScript.com and I can be contacted through there or directly at jeffkitchen88@gmail.com. I offer a free class on Reverse Cause and Effect at my site. This is a powerful class that shows how to take a story you’ve roughed out and work backward from the ending, chaining backward from each effect to its cause. This enables you to stitch together the main building blocks of your story, and then to gradually flesh out the details as they become necessary. I demonstrate the process in action by working on a real script.

There’s also a paid class on a remarkably powerful plot construction tool called Sequence, Proposition, Plot which is a groundbreaking way to structure and develop your script, working from the big picture down to the details. I do consults on scripts as well as private classes on technique. One of the coolest things I do is to help people build their script from scratch, or to work with them rebuilding it once they’ve gotten a script up and running.

I’m about to roll out a high-intensity training program for scriptwriters that I’m really excited about. It’s an online immersion program in which I train apprentices for a year as we work together building multiple scripts. We’ll work two hours a day, plus one hour of homework, five days a week. In what’s called a Community of Practice, I communicate know-how through using the tools to build real scripts on the spot, and I also have students do extensive drills and rigorous exercises, handling the tools, practicing them over and over, and learning to think in that language until it all becomes second nature.

This type of learning process is called Cognitive Apprenticeship, in which writers work hand-in-glove with me to learn how to think like me. I communicate both explicit knowledge and the more ambiguous but crucial tacit knowledge, that feel for things which is indispensable for full expertise. This will be a high-intensity program, similar to a trade school, followed by a year in which I work with these highly-trained writers on building their own scripts. They will emerge as trained dramatists with key skills and experience, who can forge a career as working writers.

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

It’s hard to pick, but right now I’d have to go with cherry.

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Q & A with Brooks Elms

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Brooks Elms creates and consults on films big and small. He’s a proud WGA screenwriter who’s written over 20 scripts and directed a few indie features. He started at NYU and now has a blast teaching a class at UCLA Extension in addition to privately mentoring writers and filmmakers at all levels. He also runs the script consulting service FinishMyDamnScript.com.

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

JOKER. Because it’s difficult to build empathy for protagonists with flaws that lead to violence against innocent people, especially with all the mass shootings these days. I have ethical questions about whether this was a worthy screenplay to produce because the film can’t help but celebrate what it’s also trying to condemn. And I suspect it will inspire as much (if not more) negative consequences as positive ones – but that makes the screenwriting all the more impressive and skillful. Because this was a very popular film and the bar was VERY high for that level of success.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Making movies with my friends in high school, which led to NYU film school, then making indie features. In the last decade I’ve mostly focused on screenwriting. I also teach a screenwriting class at UCLA Extention and I mentor writers when I have time. I love every aspect of making content and mentoring.

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

What’s the alternative theory – that people come out of the womb knowing how to write well? It’s a matter of defining what you love about other stories and getting familiar with the craft choices that lead to those results. I teach this to everybody from beginners to veteran writers so…. yup.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

It’s about the harmony between components. The craft is taking elements (premise, hero, goal, conflict, structure, relationships, setting, theme, tone, etc..) and adjusting aspects of them (size, shape, style, amount, etc..) until we find the right collective balance which allows something bigger to speak through the parts.

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

Losing touch with the delight of the process. And stopping because of that.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Every trope has the potential to be powerful if created with authenticity. It only feels cliche when there’s too much emotional distance from the truth of the intention.

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

I stay away from language choices like what “every writer should know X”. Those types of words can be a distraction from listening to the subtle impulses of your voice. Instead, I invite people to follow their passion. What excites us about our current story? How can we play with elements to unleash more of that excitement? When we share material for feedback, what’s blocking other people from deeper levels of excitement? “Confusion” is the most common blockage followed by “tepid goals and conflicts.”

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

The Duffer Brothers’ HIDDEN, which they wrote before STRANGER THINGS. It was a masterful display of milking tension using minimal assets in a scene. I used that script to teach myself how to make a huge impact on the way I write tension.

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

ALL the paths toward advancing your career have you pitted against the odds. So just pick the paths that speak to you and your budget. Contests can certainly be helpful so have fun playing that game, and detach from the outcomes. It’s about enjoying the journey and welcoming those that come along that happen to love your work as much as you do.

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

Check out my website – FinishMyDamnScript.com

And if writers want professional support at a great price I invite them to check out my new tight-knit online community: THE FINISH MY DAMN SCRIPT WRITERS GROUP. It’s a collective of my favorite clients and UCLA students banding together for accountability and awesomeness. There are live group calls, a Facebook group and more! A link can be found on the homepage of my site.

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

Now we’re getting to the essential question. The answer is pecan. It’s rich, heavenly and it shines beneath a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Shout out to banana cream for a close second place. It can be spectacular when it’s baked well, but breaks my heart when it’s often messed up.