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.

The path through is around here somewhere

The actual writing-of-pages for the current project may be underway, but wow did it take several attempts to get there.

A lot of it involved figuring out how to best set up the world in which the story takes place. I’d considered starting it one way, then thought “how about if…?”, which resulted in another way, naturally followed by “then again, I could try…”

At the time, I’d settled on the one I thought worked best. Feeling confident about the state of the outline, I started on pages.

Progress was slow, but steady. After a couple of days, I was already up to page 20.

Which of course was MUCH MORE than it should have been.

Not that I strictly adhere to the “THIS happens on Page ____”, but there was just too much going on, which was slowing things down a lot more than I’d intended.

What to do, what to do?

One option was to keep pushing forward and then go back and edit like crazy, but at the rate I was going, I’d end up with a script approximately 150 pages in length. Not an option.

Or I could go back to an earlier version of the outline that only includes part of what’s already there.

Yet another option was to go all the way back to how I initially envisioned the whole thing starting.

Quick side note – you know how they say the first page really sets the tone for the rest of the story? This is a guideline I’ve always tried to work with, especially in this case.

The first pass didn’t cut it, nor did the second one. Something needed to be done.

So I went through my extensive notes, hoping to find a solution.

And I found it. And it was the original idea. It had exactly what I needed, and I’ve seen variations of it in other scripts and films, so there was no reason I couldn’t make it work for my story.

I got to work reorganizing it and streamlining it to help things move along faster. This including having to jettison a majority of material I was very sorry to see go, but it was necessary. No reason some of those details couldn’t be implemented later on.

Oh, and another small detail I forgot to mention – my computer’s OS updated, which my screenwriting software hasn’t been adjusted for yet, so working with that became quite a pain. Luckily, some recent contest success resulted in me receiving another screenwriting program. After a quick installation and a few “how to” videos about using it, I was on my way yet again.

All of one page so far. But I like it better than the previous versions, and it’s significantly better than having no pages at all.

Let the pushing forward commence.

Chipping away…until it breaks

spongebob chisel

So how do you put YOUR story together?

For yours truly,  progress in developing the outline for the fantasy-comedy spec is slow but steady. The notebook filled with ideas and potential scenes and sequences is filling up at a somewhat rapid pace.

After much internal deliberation, the plot points are in place, and the task of connecting them continues.

Storylines, subplots and character arcs are being established and fleshed out.

All in all, it really is coming together – even though at times it’s like trying to figure out a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle but the image on the cover of the box is out of focus and has a few water stains.

As much as I enjoy the overall writing process, there’s a certain appeal to this part of it. Coming up with ideas. Mapping it out. Putting it all together.

Breaking the story.

You start with a premise, then figure out how to build on that. A seemingly never-ending assembly process.

Then the questions come rolling in.

What kind of world is this? What are the characters like? Who’s our hero? What do they want? What happens to them? Who or what is standing in their way? What happens if they fail?

You will come up with SO MANY ideas, some of which you might later on wonder what the hell you were thinking and toss (or possibly set aside for use in a future draft or totally different script). But for now, each one seems valid and usable.

Ask yourself questions. Work that imagination. What if my hero does THIS instead of THAT? What if this happened HERE instead of HERE? What if the total opposite happened?

(This is also part of why I’m a big proponent of outlining. It allows me to take the  disorganized chaos of a big pile of notes and assemble them into a streamlined, fast-moving linear layout.)

Very important – work at your own pace. Don’t base your output and productivity on how it’s going for other writers. You saw somebody post on social media how they cranked a script out in two weeks? Good for them (and I’d be curious to know how it reads). I’d rather take the time to really fine-tune my story before even considering starting on pages. Results may vary. It takes as long as it takes.

Since there are certain familiar elements to the genre with which I’m working, I have the added challenge of my story needing to not only be original with the initial concept, but in the execution. The last thing I want to hear is “this is just a ripoff of _____” or “didn’t they do this in _____?” I’m okay with “similar, but different”, and want to stay as far away from “very similar” as possible.

While the process of breaking the story sometimes feels insurmountable, I accept the fact that it’s necessary; to the point that I practically embrace it. Working my way through it helps me become a better writer in the long run. When I first started out, my stories were what you could call somewhat basic and simplistic. A few scripts later, I continue to push myself, always trying for something a little smarter and more complex.

I won’t say the more I do this, the easier it gets, because for the most part it doesn’t. Each script is always a challenge to put together. What I have learned is to not be as intimidated by it, and instead eagerly jump in, ready to take it on.

Time: make it work for you

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One of the things I’ve tried to take advantage of during the ongoing sheltering-in-place is being able to set aside time to write. Every day, if possible.

Sure, some days all the other stuff that requires your attention might whittle it down to practically nothing, but hopefully you’ve allowed yourself that window of opportunity to work on your latest project.

So far it’s worked out pretty well. My current project is THIS CLOSE to being done.

Would I have been able to made this kind of progress if I hadn’t been confined to my house all this time? Maybe. Maybe not. The important thing is I PUT IN THE WORK. That’s the only way anything gets written. A writer writes.

If you’re like me, you know writing requires discipline. It takes a real effort to keep at it on as regular a basis as you can manage. Any progress is good progress.

Even if all you can manage is a page a day, that’s still something. It’s a page more than you had yesterday. And the more you write and strive to constantly develop your craft, the more you’ll improve. Because you put in the time to do it.

This isn’t to say you should devote every available second to working on something. You don’t want to burn yourself out. Allow yourself a little downtime and relax. Go ahead and recharge those batteries.

Hard as it to believe, you are allowed to spend some time NOT writing. You can even do something that’s not even related to writing in any way, shape or form. Shocking, I know.

My wife and I have been enjoying the Miss Fisher Mysteries on Amazon Prime, and I’m slowly working my way through all those “I’ll get around to watching this eventually” movies in my Netflix queue.

I’ve also been able to do a little more exercising, which has been beneficial for both mind and body. It helps clear my head, gets me out of the house, and keeps me active. Even just taking the dog for a walk is good.

But my writing still manages to find a way to remind me it’s still there. It’s not uncommon for me to be out on a run and, even though I’m all sweaty, out of breath, and still have several miles to go, I’ll be mulling over potential solutions to a pesky problem involving something in the script.

No matter how you spend your time, I hope you’ve been able to make the current situation work for you as best as you can, and are happy with how your writing’s coming along.

Some tasty tidbits to tide you over

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Go ahead and dig in! More than enough to go around!

Maximum Z HQ is in a transitional phase, geographically speaking, so all attention and efforts are focused on that for the next two weeks.

As a result, no new posts until at least the end of the month.

In the meantime, here are some classic posts from years past.

Enjoy.

All that on a single piece of (digital) paper?

The good bad of your antagonist

Introduce your character with character

The twiddling of thumbs is strictly prohibited

Characters are people!

Work those writing muscles!

I see what you did there, Mr. Kasdan

Respect your reader/audience

That’s not the question you should be asking

Hey! Long time no (preferred form of communication)