Q & A with Geoffrey Calhoun

Screenwriter/script consultant Geoffrey Calhoun of WeFixYourScript.com has been previously featured on this site. This time around, he’s answering some questions about his new book The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

It was inspired from a class I designed when I was asked to teach screenwriting to film students in Ghana, Africa. Unfortunately that class fell through so I took the materials and broke them into seminars, then hit the road teaching at Film Festivals. Eventually, people attending the classes asked if I’d put this in book form. That’s when I realized I needed to create The Guide For Every Screenwriter.

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

Books on screenwriting tend to be one of two things: overly wordy textbooks or focus on a specific area of screenwriting. What I wanted to do was create a book that’s easy to read and comprises all aspects of screenwriting. Thus, The Guide For Every Screenwriter was born. It covers everything from concepts, character design, formatting, branding yourself as a writer, and beyond. All of it done in an easy to access reference guide which gets straight to the point. I wanted to break down the mysteries of our craft into something that anyone can pick up and understand. This is the book you keep on the shelf next to your desk as you’re writing. After reading this book you’ll be able to confidently write a screenplay, even if you’ve never done it before.

Some screenwriting books are geared more towards covering the basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. How is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

I wanted to write a book that even veteran screenwriters could read and walk away with something new or feel refreshed. The Guide covers some really interesting aspects about screenwriting which isn’t really covered in other books. Such as subplots, loglines, how to collaborate with other writers/producers, or even busting myths about queries.

Continuing on that theme – part of the book discusses the basics of formatting. Is this more of an issue than we’d normally expect?

Yes! As a professional screenwriter and consultant, I’m brought in to fix a lot of scripts through my website WeFixYourScript.com. One of the biggest problems I see is a lack of properly using format. Some writers believe it’s optional. Unfortunately, it’s not. So, adding format to the book was a must. I also wanted to delineate between a few of the finer aspects of format, such as montage vs. series of shots. Many writers think they’re interchangeable. The Guide explains exactly how and why they’re used and what makes them different, all with fun examples.

Early on in the book you mention how time, talent and tenacity all play a key role for both the writer and the act of writing. Could you elaborate on that?

The three T’s are my own personal mantra. The funny thing is, I never strung them together until I wrote the book. When it felt like I’d never get a script made I would tell myself I needed more time. Screenwriting is about the long game. Talent was a given. I knew I needed to be the best I could be, which is why I became a lifelong student of this craft. Tenacity is who I am as a person. I don’t quit. I don’t give up. I’m not built that way. I have to see things through. When I sat down to write the Guide, I wanted to create a section that was my own personal truth but also filled with hope and the three T’s were born.

A lot of writing guidelines say “write what you know”, but you’re of a somewhat differing opinion. How so, and how come?

That’s a great question and observation! I break the myth of “write what you know” in The Guide For Every Screenwriter. My hope was to introduce a different perspective to my peers. I believe we as writers need to be two things: experts on what we write about, and chameleons. In order to write about a particular topic or genre we need to master what it is first. Writing is one of the only fields in the world which encourages you to explore all facets of life in order to grow at your craft. The Guide provides a fun way to do that.

We also need to be chameleons. I know many writers scared to work outside of their comfort zones. That’s stifling creatively and also can make it difficult to find work as an indie screenwriter. I love working outside of my comfort zone. It makes me be better at what I do. It pushes me in directions I never expected and thus my skills improve.

I really liked your concept of what you call the “mind map”. Could you explain what that is, and how a writer would use it?

The mind map is a great little trick to get your brain thinking outside of the box. You can do it anywhere. I’ve seen a screenwriter do it at breakfast on a napkin and create their entire concept in ten minutes and it was good! You simply place what you want to develop in the middle of a paper and then branch off wild ideas around it. This isn’t just limited to concept; you can use it on anything including a character or even a story beat. I believe mind mapping in a busy public space can help as well because you’ll find inspiration from the surrounding environment.

There’s a section of the book that deals with a seldom-discussed part of a script: subplots. Why is the subplot important, and how can a writer get the most out of them?

When properly developed, a subplot can add a surprising amount of depth to your story. Subplots also fill out your script. Many writers tend to get lost in the main character’s struggle and end up underutilizing the supporting characters and underdeveloping the antagonist. This can lead to scripts struggling with anything from page count to a meandering script which can’t find its footing. A well developed subplot’s job is to reinforce and prop up the main plot. That’s one of the great keys to creating a killer script. In The Guide For Every Screenwriter, I explain what subplots to use and where they land in the script.

The final section of the book is appropriately called “What Comes Next”, in which you discuss what do after the script’s written – everything from getting feedback to queries. What prompted you to include these topics?

Screenwriting is about more than just writing scripts. If you really want to get out there and start landing writing gigs, then you need a road map of how to do that. I wanted to make sure the Guide can you lead you in the right direction. That’s why it covers topics such as properly protecting your script, a synopsis template, branding, networking, etc…

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was pumpkin with a big dollop of whipped cream. Still the same, or something new?

I don’t know why, but pecan pie has been calling to me.

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Learning never stops. Never.

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Sure, I may be tired now, but wait until you see the end results

So far, so good, at least in terms of how the rewrite of the sci-fi adventure spec is going.

Already managed to trim a decent amount of pages, with more potential targets coming up fast.

However, one of the most surprising results this time around is seeing more and more opportunities to really get the most of not just the words on the page, but HOW they’re presented.

I already knew overwriting was one of my biggest obstacles. I tend to go into more detail than is necessary. Not “this is the color of his t-shirt, and this is what’s on his breakfast plate”-type stuff, but more in terms of excessively describing what you’d see transpire onscreen.

This has become painfully obvious for some of the fast-paced action scenes. In the old draft, there’d be several lines about what a character was doing. This time around, I want to get to the point faster – partially for less ink on the page, and partially to help speed things up – so I highlight only the parts that the can’t do without.

It’s probably safe to say each scene has become shorter by at least some degree. Some by a few lines, others by half a page, etc. But the overall impact is becoming more noticeable. Scenes seem to be flowing more smoothly. Even though the descriptions aren’t as detailed as they were before, the new, tighter versions are just as visual.

Of course, since I’m the one writing it, I already have a strong sense of how it’s supposed to “look”. The real test comes when a reader gets their hands on it. Will they experience the same results? I sure hope so, so in the meantime, I do what I can to write it so everything is easy to follow and all questions are answered.

What’s most surprising at all about these new developments is I’d written my last few drafts of several scripts with the same approach I’d always used, but there’s just something very different about it this time around. The way this draft is being put together has a much more analytical feel to it. It’s as if something holding me back has been removed, and the positive results are coming in rapid-fire. One can only hope this sensation endures.

Once again, there’s no firm deadline for a completed draft, but as I mentioned, progress has been strong and steady, so “slightly sooner than possibly expected” will have to do for now. And even when that one’s done, there’s a strong suspicion that just a little more touch-up work will be in order.

Thrilling times, chums.

-Screenwriter/filmmaker Ally May has launched a crowdfunding campaign for her packs-an-emotional-wallop short film project In A Breath. Donate if you can!

-Major congrats to screenwriter/overall mensch Bob Saenz for the upcoming US release of the film of his script Extracurricular Activities, a journey almost two decades in the making. Here’s a great interview Bob did for Script magazine.

Plodding to the next finish line

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Well, one tough part’s out of the way. Got the latest draft of the sci-fi adventure done, clocking in at a respectable 118 pages. (And accomplished in just under a month, so – yay.)

Now it’s time to move on to the next tough part – the initial wave of cleaning it up, which will include cutting at least 7-10 pages.

It’s been a while since the last time I did this sort of editing, and it always seemed to be more problematic than expected. The best way I can describe it is “I couldn’t really see the forest for the trees”. The problems and their prospective fixes were there, but it would be difficult for me to identify them.

This time around, I’m taking a different approach.

I printed out a hard copy of the script, and went through it, scene by scene, and wrote down a very brief summary – a snippet or two of what was happening in each one. No frills. No dialogue. Just “here’s what happens here”.

Along the way, questions would constantly insert themselves into the discussion. Was there a way to still have this happen, but in a fraction as many words? Is this scene really necessary, or could it be combined with another? How can I describe what’s happening so it’s easier for a reader to “see” what’s happening? Everything geared towards telling a story in the most effective ways possible.

Additionally, new ideas and approaches would spring up when they were least expected. A scene or sequence I thought was just fine would suddenly feel totally out of place, or seem like it needed a drastic overhaul. With this still being a work in progress, any and all new ideas are welcome.

Another new development is how I’d initially type something like “MAYBE X DOES THIS” as a potential new part/development of a scene. Then while working on a later scene, see how that suggestion could be incorporated into it. This would then result in me going back and deleting “MAYBE” from the original. Sometimes your gut reaction really is the best one.

Didja also notice how those last-minute inserts are written in ALL CAPS? Just my little way of having a note stand out a little more so it’s easier to spot when I come back to it later on. Simple, but effective.

Even as this draft steadily grew, there were always sections of the story I knew would need some extra attention in the next draft. Rather than spend time going back and trying to fix things, it was just easier to leave it as it and keep pushing on.

Current focus is all about going through the pages and being as analytical as possible. A few minor story problems have been dealt with. Some unanswered questions are no longer unanswered. Opportunities to throw in a small dash of character and story development are opening up.

The strongest takeaway from this latest effort is that the overall process of putting a decent script together, while still quite challenging, is becoming slightly more manageable and somewhat less insurmountable.

Seeking that which lies within

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I won’t say the tough part of this rewrite is over, because it’s not. Well, part of it is. Sort of. Still working my way through Act 3 of the current draft, along with taking care of some minor story developments that have popped up as a result of changes along the way. Seriously hoping to wrap things up in the next week or so. Depends on how all of this goes.

But there’s one thing that’s been weighing heavily on my mind as I crank out the pages and start planning for the next draft. As good and solid as the action parts are, I also want to make sure the characters’ emotional arcs are just as effective.

Every character needs an internal and external goal. While the latter has never given me much of a problem, the former can sometimes be a bit trickier. Sure, there’s the protagonist and antagonist, which really drives the main storyline, but what happens with the supporting characters is just as important.

I’ve always been impressed with seeing how other writers incorporate little details or necessary information about the characters into the story that really help flesh them out AND add to the story. That’s what I’m seeking to do here. It’s also helpful to approach it with the mindset of “how to convey this information without it seeming too expository or on-the-nose?”.

As a writer, you want your characters to come across as realistically as possible, and by offering up some details about them – especially the why they do the things they do, it can help us better relate to them, and also make us wonder if they’ll be able to achieve their goals. When the story’s over, will we have seen how they changed from when they first showed up?

I’ve given myself the homework of watching films of a similar nature to get a better grasp on how to work these sorts of developments into the story. Going over the pages I already have has shown the foundations for each character are more or less in place, and will require digging a little deeper to really put them on full display.

While I’m glad I was able to produce this draft relatively quickly, I’m equally as eager to get started on the next one, taking care of everything it’ll require. That’s becoming a long list, but I’m feeling pretty confident about being able to effectively handle every item on it.

More work now, better results later

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It can be safely said the extensive overhaul of the outline for my pulpy sci-fi adventure story is just about wrapped up. Still have a lingering handful of small details in need of fleshing out, but I’m eagerly anticipating jumping into cranking out pages in the very near future.

Figuring all of this out – including several attempts on the beginning, and then working out the development of events over the course of the first act and the first half of the second act- took a lot longer than I expected, and definitely longer than I wanted. There were many times all I could think was “am I EVER going to figure this out?”.

A lot of writers feel that way while working on a project. We’re an impatient lot, and the ongoing struggle to find solutions doesn’t help. We want it already written. But learning how to do so effectively is necessary. How else will we improve?

It’s probably a safe bet to say that my development skills are stronger than they were – even compared to a couple of years ago, or else this overhaul wouldn’t be where it is now. Every story problem would require a lot of thought and mulling-over, and maybe I’d come up with a slapdash, roughshod placeholder of a solution – just to be able to move on.

A bad and counterproductive idea.

I like to put together stories with a lot of moving parts, and each one requires the same amount of attention in order to make the whole thing a smooth-running machine. If that means taking a little more time to do so, then so be it. I’d much rather make sure as I go along that everything works and connects the way it’s supposed to than have it come to a screeching halt because of something I overlooked or forgot about, or even worse, felt was “good enough for now”.

An added bonus to all the work on developing this story in the outlining phase is that since I’ve already written down what’s supposed to transpire in each scene, including the purpose and the conflict, it’ll make it easier (and in theory, a faster process) to transfer all of that to the actual pages.

Once I do start on pages, I can only hope to see a slight increase in my daily output. After having gone through the outline a few times, editing and tweaking as I go, I’m getting a stronger feel of flow for the story, seeing ways to incorporate more development for the characters, and just an overall sense of “I like the previous draft, but this one feels so much closer to what I set out to do”.

And I most definitely would not have gotten to this point if I hadn’t put in the time and effort to make sure every single part of it did exactly what I needed it to.