What’s new, missing, or different?

It happens to every writer. You start the rewrite of your latest draft, and you need to figure out what needs to be cut or changed. Sometimes it ain’t that easy, and sometimes you hack and slash with wild abandon.

Part of my recent focus has been rewriting the fantasy-comedy spec, which has involved a little bit of both.

It already needed some trimming – at least 5-10 pages’ worth, so that’s just one of the many things taken into consideration as I work my way through it.

I’ve been told my writing is pretty sparse to begin with, so finding material to tighten, let alone cut, has been somewhat tough.

Tough, but not impossible.

There’s the small stuff. A widow/orphan word here, a snippet of dialogue there. Finding some way to get those three action lines down to two, or one if you can swing it.

Then there’s the big stuff. One noteworthy item was a particular story detail that had been around almost since the story’s inception that wasn’t syncing as well with the story as it was now, so that had to be changed. This caused a domino effect on all the things it impacted, which meant making sure all those connections had to be adjusted so everything still meshed in a smooth and organized manner. It was a bit of a pain to deal with, but it had to be done.

The big stuff also has its fair share of little stuff. A scene or sequence that needs a major overhaul – already dealt with a few of those, as well as a few half-page scenes that I hated to cut. Then there was a character I initially loved that proved to be ultimately unnecessary, so out they went.

If I maintain this amount of cutting, there’s no reason the finished draft couldn’t fall within the target range of the aforementioned 5-10 pages. If it ends being more than that, great (but at this point seems highly unlikely). If it’s just a few pages shorter, that’s still okay, and I’ve no doubt my beta readers will have plenty of suggestions that I probably never even considered.

No matter what gets cut or changed, it’s all for the benefit of the story. As long as the script is a tight, succinct and solid read, that’s a win.

(Turns out I’ve written about this before, waaaay back in 2013. A lot of it is still applicable, except for the part about my time in the half-marathon. Those days are long past.)

Friendly reminder: my book Go Ahead And Ask! Interviews About Screenwriting (And Pie) Volume 3 officially comes out on October 7th (two weeks from today), and the final setup of the links on Amazon and Smashwords is just about done, in case you’d like to purchase it slightly ahead of schedule. Signed copies will be available. Just let me know.

Let’s start with the basics

I’ve been reading for a contest these past few weeks.

It’s a safe bet to say that a lot of the writers who entered may not be as familiar with how to write a screenplay as one would expect.

This, in turn, inspired some helpful suggestions for any writer to keep in mind:

-SHOW, DON’T TELL. Convey the information in as visual a way as possible.

-GET IN LATE, GET OUT ASAP. Get to the point of your scene as quickly as you can, then move on to the next one. Don’t have the characters chitchatting back and forth for another page.

-GET THINGS MOVING. Get us into the story from the outset. Keep the momentum going.

-EVERY SCENE NEEDS CONFLICT. Two opposing forces; anything from a subtle gesture to an epic battle.

-INVEST IN SCREENWRITING SOFTWARE. It makes a huge difference to write something in Final Draft as opposed to Microsoft Word. This can also help with..

-FORMATTING IS IMPORTANT. If you’re not sure how a script should look on the page, there are tons or resources online with good examples. You can also read some other scripts to get an idea.

-DO YOUR RESEARCH. Fleshing out a story or characters with relevant info adds to the authenticity of the material. Don’t go for the information dump; use what’s important/necessary.

-SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. There’s no ‘e’ in ‘lightning’, nor should somebody ‘waist’ an opportunity, just to name two.

-THE THESAURUS IS YOUR FRIEND. Mix it up. There are 142 alternate words for “walk”.

-CHARACTER INTROS. Describe their personality, rather than just their height & appearance – unless either plays a part in the story. Also, their name in ALL CAPS only when they’re first introduced; NOT every single time after that.

-“HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?”. Action lines are for describing what we’re seeing transpire onscreen (i.e. action), not explaining why something’s happening, why somebody’s doing something, or what something really means. Find a way to get that across visually, or through dialogue.

-KEEP IT BRIEF (or WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE). While a book may allow for lengthy descriptions, a screenplay needs to be tight. Lots of unnecessary text will slow things down, and an important detail might get overlooked if it’s in the middle of a dense paragraph.

-IS THIS IMPORTANT TO THE STORY? While you may consider it vital to meticulously describe the decor of your protagonist’s living room, or every item of clothing they’re wearing, unless that information plays a part in the story, it’s unnecessary clutter.

-IS THIS HOW PEOPLE TALK? Do your characters talk like real people or like they’re in a movie? Helpful tip – read your dialogue out loud to see how it actually sounds.

-ACTIVE, NOT PASSIVE VERBS. “Bob runs” is more effective than “Bob is running.”

-WE SEE/WE HEAR. Personally, not a fan. If you have to use them, do so as sparingly as possible.

-CAMERA DIRECTIONS. Again, not a fan. I find them distracting. You don’t need to remind us we’re “watching” a movie

These, of course, are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but still pretty important to keep in mind.

Q & A with Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a novelist and author of best-selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, screenwriter, script consultant, lecturer and recently retired Professor and Associate and Interim Dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television where, for more than forty years, he chaired the graduate program in screenwriting. He has written scripts for the major studios and television networks, including the earliest drafts of AMERICAN GRAFFITI; lectured on screenwriting and storytelling and conducted master classes throughout North America as well as London, Paris, Jerusalem, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney and Hong Kong.

He is also a pop culture commentator, blogger and media pundit who has made numerous appearances on The Today Show, The O’Reilly Factor, Hardball with Chris Matthews, ABC Primetime, Scarborough Country and CBS News Nightwatch, among many other high-profile national television programs. More than a hundred newspaper and magazine articles have been published about him and the program he directed at UCLA.

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

The new bio MIKE NICHOLS, A LIFE by Mark Harris.

How’d you get your start in the industry, and was that connected to you instructing at UCLA?

I came to California over fifty years ago for, I thought, three weeks, but fell into USC film school at the last minute, and never looked back. It was through faculty and classmates there that I learned screenwriting and made the earliest connections that led to professional assignments.

A little more than ten years later, at a glitzy showbiz party in Malibu, I was invited to join the faculty at UCLA. I was busy adapting my first book, the novel BARRY AND THE PERSUASIONS, for Warner Brothers, who had bought the film rights and hired me to write the screenplay. I was not seeking work. Still, as I would advise my children, you don’t have to eat the whole thing, but at least taste it. I tasted teaching and found that it was the perfect complement to writing.

As someone who actually teaches screenwriting, is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Yes and no. No one needs education to decide what scripts or movies they like. That said, there’s good evidence that studying the art and craft in a worthy program goes a long way toward launching and maintaining a career.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

First of all, story; that is, what the characters do and say. What they do and say also establishes who they are. Regarding the latter, that is, what the characters say, dialogue needs to be worth listening to all for itself, but it can’t be all for itself. It needs at the same time also to advance the story and advance the audience’s appreciation of the characters. Conflict, controversy, and confrontation are required throughout the narrative, and those are just the ‘cons.’

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

Overwriting. Too many pages. Too much dialogue. Too much description, especially regarding instructions to the actors regarding pauses and gestures and such. 

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m weary of superheroes and comic-book adaptations.

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

Less is more.

Successful writing is not about adding paraphernalia to a narrative but taking it away, revealing a story that’s somehow already there.

Don’t have one character tell another what you’ve already told the audience.

Movies must appear real, but in fact they are fake. Writers should be wary, therefore, of writing ‘the way it really happened’ and creating dialogue that captures the way people ‘really speak.’

What ‘really happens’ in life is, for the most part, boring. The way people ‘really speak’ is available in the streets for free, you don’t need to go to the movies for that. Also, and again, the way people ‘really speak’ is, for the most part, tedious. Know what I mean? Get what I’m saying? Understand my point?

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

Sure. The give-away is economy: few words that reveal a lot, instead of the other way around. Nothing is present for its own sake but exclusively for the advancement of the narrative. Fancy language that might be appropriate in literature will swamp a screenplay.

**AUTHOR’S NOTE – I’ve often said one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever heard was “Write as if ink costs $1000 an ounce”. Richard said that at a seminar of his I attended very early in my career. It really stuck with me, and I’ve used that as a guideline in my writing ever since.

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

There are some that are absolutely worthy.

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

Visit www.richardwalter.com. There’s info regarding my books, limited-enrollment online screenwriting webinars, whose enrollees’ scripts I’m willing to read, script consultation services, and more.

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

Pecan. And I don’t mind a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it.

Q & A with Tim Schildberger of Write LA

Tim Schildberger is an experienced writer, script coach, and co-founder/Head Judge of Write LA – an annual screenwriting competition that gives writers a chance to get read by managers, and hear their winning script read by professional actors in LA (and posted on YouTube). He cares far too much about helping writers improve their craft and get access to the industry. Tim is an expat Australian, a former TV journalist, writer on the globally popular soap opera NEIGHBOURS, newspaper columnist, creator of a comedy/reality series for the Travel Channel called LAWRENCE OF AMERICA, and one of the key members of the original BORAT team. He has stories.

In his spare time, Tim is a husband, parent, tennis player, road tripper, and he and his family foster kittens. Seriously. Twitter: @write_la Instagram: @writela

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

I hate to be a cliche, but THE CROWN – sets the bar very high. Peter Morgan is a genius. His ability to tell story with and without words, and build tension in scenes that on the page might appear boring, is remarkable. THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT had similar skill, attaching us to an unconventional character quickly and effectively.  Feature films – I loved PALM SPRINGS – structurally, and characters/dialogue, and who doesn’t love a woman solving the problems using education and intellect!

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I was 22, living in Australia (where I’m from), working as a trainee TV News Producer. I had applied to newsrooms, and I’d called up various TV series, asking if they needed a writer. It was a simpler time. A nightly soap opera, NEIGHBOURS, let me do a writing submission, which they liked – and said they’d get back to me. In the meantime I got the job in TV news.

One day, six months later,  I got a call in the newsroom, it was NEIGHBOURS, asking if I’d like to write an episode. I said yes, obviously. They mailed me the scene breakdowns, I typed my script on a typewriter, and ten days later mailed it back. All after working a full day in the newsroom. I did that 5 more times before it all got far too overwhelming. I was the youngest writer they’d ever had, and that experience made it clear to me that writing, in all its forms, was my future.

What was the inspiration for creating the Write LA competition?

We wanted to create a competition we’d want to enter. I’ve been writing for a long time – and I’ve entered competitions large and small. I’ve won a few, placed in a bunch, and it became clear that many of the writing comps out there don’t really do much when it comes to attracting attention, gaining industry access, or launching careers. And pretty much none put any kind of focus on helping writers improve their command of craft. So our goal was to build a competition that somehow combined both goals – to help with the craft, and to help with the access.

What makes Write LA unique compared to other screenwriting competitions?

Two things I think separate us. First, we are a competition run by actual writers. So we are able to deliver a certain degree of respect and admiration for the act of actually finishing a script and entering it – that many competitions lack. We know how it all feels.

Second, we stand proudly in front of the competition. Everyone knows I’m the co-founder and Head Judge. When you email a question, it comes to me. I do an enormous amount of reading, and I’m supervising every aspect of the competition. We try hard not to be a faceless comp where sometimes it can feel like you’re sending your script into a void, and then hoping something emerges. It matters to us that the entrants feel ’seen’.

A big concern for writers entering a screenwriting competition is the quality/experience level of its readers. How does Write LA address that?

I hear that. And I’ve experienced it first hand. A script will make the Nicholl semifinals, and won’t make it out of the first round somewhere else. And then you get ‘feedback’ that feels like it was written by someone who never actually read the script, they just strung a few buzzwords together.

So to address that – I’m heavily involved in the reading process. I’ve handpicked our small team, I do a ton of reading personally, and I set pretty clear parameters when it comes to what I’m looking for when it comes to command of craft. Every script that makes it into our top 15 semi finalists will have been read by at least three different people, including me.

We give every script, whatever the genre, or whether it’s a TV pilot or feature, full respect and attention. And all the additional feedback (offered at an extra fee), is done by me personally. So there is a consistency of the feedback, and a name attached to it (mine). I’m not interested in telling anyone what I would do, I’m focused entirely on maximizing the opportunities presented by the writer and doing my best to empower them to bring the most out of their idea, and their skills. 

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Gosh – this isn’t easy to answer quickly, but I’ll try. For me, a good script needs fleshed out characters, who face clear challenges – no matter how big or small. Because no matter how detailed the world, or ‘big’ the story, if we don’t care about the characters, it’s all a waste of time.

Also, an understanding of the audience experience is awesome. A writer who is aware of audience expectations, and is able to manipulate those expectations is exciting. And finally, a clear sense of where the story is heading. Not a lot of extra clutter. Just a solid story, competently and confidently told.

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

Misuse of Scene Description is HUGE. Using it to reveal character details an audience couldn’t possibly know. Using it to show off a writer’s literary command – with all sorts of flowery descriptions that waste time, rather than establish ‘mood’.

Not writing an outline. I’m confident I can pick within 5 pages if a writer has an outline, and a firm idea of who this story is about, and where it is going. And taking too long to dive into story. Spending page after page building a complicated world, and then finally starting some sort of story – is a big mistake. Even STAR WARS had a brief title explanation, and then we were into Darth Vader storming Leia’s ship. The rest we figure out as we go.

Lastly, I have to add too many spelling errors. A sloppy script does not inspire confidence.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

A character waking up, turning off their alarm, and getting into the shower as the first thing we see. Happens WAY more often than you would expect, and is not only dull, but unwise. What viewer who sits in a darkened movie theatre wants to see a feature film start that way?

I’m also not a fan of drawn out action sequences. It’s great that you see the car chase in your head, but all a reader cares about is ‘does someone important die?’

Oh, and a shot of ‘overdue bills’ on the kitchen table. Anything but that please. I see a lot of stereotypes with the characters too – which usually tells me a writer is basing a character on another character they’ve seen in a movie or on TV – rather than an actual, flawed, complex human being.

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

What you are doing is more about hard work than flashes of inspiration. It’s less about talent than it is about grind.

Accept that re-writing is inevitable. Your first draft will not be a work of art. It’s a starting point.

Learn to receive notes as comments on the words on a page, not a personal attack, or a statement on your writing ability.

Characters are more important than story nowadays. Put the extra effort into figuring out who they are, and their emotional journey through your story.

What you are doing is brave, and awesome, and you should feel very proud of yourself every time you finish anything. Every time. Plenty of people talk about writing something. You went and did it. That’s huge and should never be ignored.

There is no work of art in the history of human beings that has ever been loved by 100% of the people. Accept that your work will not be universally loved – because humans are humans.

Details matter. Every scene matters. Every line of dialogue matters. Everything you do is conveying a message to an audience. Understand and embrace that.

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

I read many scripts like that! I read hundreds of scripts a year, so I regularly find writers who are very skilled. As for reasons, I would say the absolute, clear number one is making me feel something. I’m not alone in this. I tell anyone who’ll listen if you can make a reader feel a genuine human emotion, that is FAR more important and impactful than any set piece, world, intricate story or cute scene description. It isn’t even close.

Also, it’s fun to read scripts by writers who think about the audience, and work hard to provide us with a rich, enjoyable experience. I know the expression “write what you know” is popular. My version is “write what you know, but make it accessible to strangers.”

And while I’m here, let me add that writing what you know really refers to your emotional experience and authenticity. Not your time in middle school. If you can dig into your emotional space, which is uniquely yours, and share that on the page – that authenticity connects you with a reader/audience, and goes a long way to establishing what the industry likes to call your “voice”. I’d like to say it was easy to do. It’s not. But it’s important.

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

I have to say I’m a big fan of custard. There’s a custard tart in my homeland Australia – a mini pie – which is very much my favorite. But as that doesn’t really exist here – I’m going to say I like banana cream, apple, peach, and I’m a big fan of all the cobblers and crumbles too. I don’t think I’d refuse any pie that came my way.

Q & A with Cody Smart of Next Level Screenwriting

Cody Smart is an L.A.-based Latina writer, script consultant and script doctor with degrees in English Literature & Linguistics, Screenwriting, Development, and Producing, who prides herself of helping writers take their work to the next level, in both English and Spanish. She moved from Santiago, Chile to L.A. to pursue her masters, fell in love, and now enjoys family hikes chasing her toddler around in the perfect L.A. weather.

She worked as a script analyst at Sony for three years, reading hundreds of scripts, and honing her craft and learning to appreciate the development of scripts and how to best guide writers to deliver the best script possible.

She also works as a judge for seven film and screenplay competitions, where she’s learned what makes scripts engage readers and attract the attention of managers, agents and producers. As a writer herself, Cody has placed in multiple competitions, and won some awards.

Cody is also the head of coverage of Story Data, a script-hosting site, where she does a bi-monthly vlog with tips for screenwriters.

She also currently teaches two courses about Screenwriting, Script Doctoring and Get Your Script Contest Ready, as a UCLA Extension instructor in the Writers’ Program, and is developing a new TV Workshop for the fall quarter.

Cody has worked with a wide variety of clients, helping to provide in-depth script analysis, and also rewriting/doctoring hundreds of scripts in order to get them ready for production. She loves working directly with her clients, understanding their needs, and staying true to the essence of the story the client is trying to tell, in order to elevate the story and characters.

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

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. I was a little bit late watching it, as it came out in 2020, but I was so legitimately impressed at the quality of the writing. They managed to take chess, a “boring” subject that doesn’t lend itself to be that visual or entertaining, and turned it into an exemplary work of character development.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

While I was in grad school, I started interning at Sony, and that’s were I fell in love with the development side of things. Before that, I always thought my path was to be a writer only. Then I discovered how interesting developing and consulting was, helping other writers improve their work, and getting scripts ready for production.

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

Yes, definitely. I believe everyone can learn if they have the will and want to do so. If you study scripts and films, and study your craft, you can learn what good writing is. That’s also what makes any writer a better writer: studying the best in the craft, lots of practice, and lots of rewriting.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A good script is a great mix of different things: amazing characters that are three-dimensional and realistic, with real wants and needs, and great arcs. A world that aligns with the tone and genre, and that hopefully is also new in some way. A premise that either feels fresh and new or that is a new take on old ideas, making it feel fresh and new. Writing that has a voice of its own, and that makes you want to keep turning pages.

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

As a consultant & doctor as well as a judge for multiple festivals, I’m constantly looking at issues in scripts. Doing that, I’ve found these to be the most common:

– A premise that doesn’t work from the start. Usually this means you just have an idea, but no plot. Or you have an unoriginal concept or one we’ve seen hundreds of times before.

– Not proofreading, which leads to bad formatting, typos, grammatical errors, etc.

– Not outlining first – then you don’t know where your story is going, and it shows in your draft, as the story loses aim. Part of this could be when the story/the protagonist has no clear goal.

– Dialogue that doesn’t feel natural or no use of subtext.

– Starting scenes too early and leaving them too late.

– Not killing your darlings – some scenes may be greatly written, but if they don’t advance the plot, then you don’t need them in your script.

– Directing in your script – this tends to take the reader out of the world of your story.

– Not grabbing your reader/audience in the first 10 pages (or even the first 3!)

– Overusing transitions.

– Use of flashbacks that don’t move the story forward or don’t reveal any new information.

– Zero character introduction/description. No memorable introductions, so we forget them. Also too many characters being introduced at the same time, so we forget who’s who.

– The world of your story isn’t clear.

– Long chunks of descriptions – Readers are known to skip past these. 

– Too much exposition.

– No subplots or interesting supporting characters.

– Antagonists that are two-dimensional or formulaic.

– Writing a formulaic script just with the intention of selling it, instead of writing a unique story you’re passionate about that’ll definitely get you noticed (even if just as a writing sample).

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Tropes work for a reason—audiences expect certain things in certain movies, like a falling in love montage in romcoms. But just because people expect them, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be surprised. The tropes I’m tired of seeing are those that just follow tropes to the letter. I love when a writer turns a trope upside down and surprises the audience. When they don’t and deliver the same old things, then that’s when they’re boring and I don’t want to see them anymore.

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

– Show your voice in your script. That’s what will set you apart from the thousands of scripts being written every year.

– Write the story you want to tell as a writing sample to impress people, and open doors for you, even if it doesn’t get bought or filmed.

– Formatting exists for a reason. Follow it and don’t play games, or your script won’t get read, even if it’s amazing.

– It’s hard to come up with new ideas that haven’t been told. But new takes on old ideas that make the ideas feel fresh can be a great way of creating something that feels new.

-The best antagonists are just as interesting as the protagonist, and they’re the hero of their own story. When we understand their reasoning, that makes them much more powerful.

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

I remember when I read the script for JUNO. It had such a unique voice and point of view. It had a protagonist that felt real, with flaws and dreams. It explored what felt like real teenagers. It had amazing supporting characters, and we could understand everyone’s POV in the story, as different as they all were. And it was pretty contained. It could be shot for cheap. But most importantly, it wasn’t something completely new: we’ve seen stories about teen pregnancy before but it turned the idea upside down, making it feel so fresh that it ended up winning so many writing awards.

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

Totally worth it. I even developed a course called “Get Your Script Contest Ready” for UCLA Extension that debuts in June 2021. That said, having a contest strategy, knowing what appeals to contests, identifying the best contests to propel your career forward, and understanding that you also need to network and take an active role in getting your scripts out there are key things every screenwriter needs to know.

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

For information about my script consulting & doctoring services, or my writer services, they can check out my Facebook page (@NextLevelScreenwriting), my Instagram page (nextlevelscreenwriting), or send me an email (nextlevelscreenwriting@gmail.com).

I can share more about my services and background information, and we can talk more in detail about what they need help with, as I offer very personalized services.

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

Wow, this is such a hard question, because I have such a sweet tooth. But if I had to pick just one, I’d have to say my grandma’s pecan pie recipe. It brings back so many amazing childhood memories by the smell and taste of it, especially living far away from my family, and missing them all the time.