A few takeaways from 40 scripts

Well, that was an experience.

As 2020 wound down, I’d already made the decision to devote 2021 to focus on improving as a writer.

In addition to writing more, that also meant reading scripts more.

I wanted to really work on developing my analytical skills, so on the last day of the year, I put the word out on social media. Want notes on your script? For free? Let me know.

And let me know the screenwriting community did. And then some.

Out of the 75 or so people who responded “Yes, please!”, 40 actually followed through and sent their scripts.

(Apologies to those who missed out. That window is now closed)

It was a fair mix of shorts, pilots, and features.

Since I also wanted to still work on my own material a bit, it all came down to time management. How much time could I dedicate to each script? It worked out to one a day, and about three to four a week.

Granted, these were not the most extensive of notes. Some general observations, questions and comments about the story and the characters, and an insanely large amount of inadvertent proofreading.

I also made sure to preface my notes saying that these were just my thoughts and opinions, so the writer was more then welcome to use or ignore them as they saw fit.

For the most part, the reactions were positive.

“Thank you so much! These are incredibly helpful! This will really help my next draft get to the next level!”

No comments wishing me bodily harm or proclaiming I was an idiot who simply couldn’t grasp their genius, so going with the theory that they approved of what I had to say and just never got around to saying thanks. I’ll ignore this horrific breach of etiquette and still count it as a win.

There was a wide variety of genres and story ideas to be found. Some truly unique and original stuff, as well as more than a few “familiar, but different” approaches to some classic concepts.

What was probably the most surprising result was that the same comments applied to a majority of the scripts, including:

WHAT’S THE STORY?

Since there are no definitive “rules”, I do like to adhere to some strong guidelines regarding structure and plot points.

If I get to around page 25 or 30 and still don’t know what the main story or the protagonist’s goal are supposed to be, there’s a problem.

The writer was too focused on minor issues and details that the main storyline got lost in the shuffle.

SHOW, DON’T TELL, or HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?

A lot of writers would explain what something meant, or what somebody was thinking, or why they were doing it, rather than portraying it visually.

For example, a scene might say something like “Bob stands at the sink, washing dishes. He thinks about the girl he took to the senior prom and how she dumped him to run off with a plumber and now they live in Dayton with four kids and a cranky Pomeranian.”

You know what we’d see on the screen?

Bob washing the dishes.

Or “Jim was lonely.” How would that look?

There was a lot of reminding the writers that film is primarily a visual medium. Describe what we’re seeing and hearing, and let the characters’ actions and words do the heavy lifting.

A subcategory of this is TRUST YOUR READER/AUDIENCE TO FOLLOW ALONG AND FIGURE THINGS OUT

By explaining what we’re seeing or what’s going on, you’re denying the reader/audience the pleasure of figuring things out to help move the story forward.

This might also count as a subcategory, but there were quite a few times a line would say something like “Bob looks to Mary. He apologizes.”, followed by Bob’s dialogue of “I’m sorry.”

I can’t help but think this is because the writer wants to make absolutely sure that you understand what’s happening, so they tell you, and then show you.

Something else a lot of writers fell into the trap of was OVERWRITING (aka BIG BLOCKS OF TEXT)

There would be 4 or 5 lines at a time to describe what was happening in a scene, which for me, really slowed down the read. I want to be zip-zip-zipping along, not taking my foot off the gas to make sure I don’t lose my place.

“The more white space on the page, the better.” Can that paragraph of 4-5 lines be done in 3? 2?

There was also frequent use of “one the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE” (shoutout to Richard Walter at UCLA) Try to say the most on the page with the least amount of words.

A lot of writers would go into exquisite detail about things not relevant to the plot, such as the decor of an apartment that’s in one scene, or what the extras in the background are wearing, or what happens to a random character in a fight scene. These sorts of things would distract me from following the flow of the primary storyline. I’d read it and wonder “what does this have to do with ____’s story? Would it make a difference if it wasn’t there?”

This one can’t be stressed enough – SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!

I get that not everybody has amazing spelling skills, and your eyes might be kind of tired of seeing the same text over and over again. But any writer should really know the difference between ‘your’ and ‘you’re, ‘there’, ‘their’, and “they’re”, and so on.

But when I read that a character “sets down a bag of frozen pees on the kitchen counter”, it makes it kind of tough for me to concentrate on the rest of the story. How can I think about anything else for the next 60-70 pages?

Not sure about spelling or punctuation? A lot of writers make for good proofreaders, so don’t hesitate to ask around for some help.

Friendly reminder – there is no apostrophe in “sees”. It’s “Bob sees Mary,”, not “Bob see’s Mary.” That popped up more than a few times.

Question for anybody who’s ever written a screenplay: do you ever read it out loud? Especially the dialogue. This really helps you get a grasp of how it should sound.

DOES THIS SOUND LIKE SOMETHING SOMEBODY WOULD ACTUALLY SAY?

You don’t want to run the risk of your characters sounding flat or dull, or too “movie-like”, which can include pure exposition (“As you know, I’m the wealthiest man in town who moved here sixteen years ago after striking oil in the Yucca Salt Flats, and now my twin daughters are running against each other for mayor.”) Let your ears be the judge.

Read it out loud. Host a table read (via zoom or eventually in person)

And speaking of dialogue-related items, I try to limit my use of parentheticals as few per script as possible. A lot of the time, they’re either not needed, or can be replaced with an action line (Bob points.) preceding the dialogue (BOB – “Look over there!”).

The context of what the character is saying should convey the appropriate emotion or interpretation. If I had a dollar for every time I saw the use of (sarcastic), I’d have…a lot of dollars.

As has been stated many times on this blog and throughout the screenwriting community, it takes a long time to learn how to write a screenplay, let alone a really good one. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I believe I have a pretty firm grasp of what it involves, and am glad to have been able to offer my two cents to help other writers improve both their skills and their scripts.

Since this was a pretty significant undertaking, it was also a bit exhausting, so I don’t think I’ll be making the blanket offer again. I’m still open to reading scripts, but am taking a little time off to recuperate and recharge, so drop me a line after 1 April. Schedule permitting, we can work something out.

And a HUGE thanks to everybody who offered to read one of my scripts, which I might take some of you up on as the year progresses.

Okay. Back to work.

I (and others) will not hesitate to help

Unless you’re collaborating with a co-writer, the actual process of screenwriting is for the most part a solitary process. All of the work involved depends on you, and you alone. It can be tough and frustrating.

And that’s just the writing part. We haven’t even touched on dealing with notes, rewriting, or marketing your script.

It’s an uphill climb. Practically vertical, even.

“Argh! It’s too much for one person to take on by themselves!” you might exclaim.

Never fear. You are most assuredly not alone. Every other screenwriter has gone through the exact same things you have, and will continue to do so.

And one of the most powerful weapons to help you get through it all is easily at your disposal: those other writers.

I can honestly say both my writing and my career (such as it is) would not be at the level they are today if it hadn’t been for other writers lending their helping hands over the years.

Whether it was notes, leads, or connections, my network of writing associates has proven to be an indispensable resource.

The writing community wants to see writers succeed. Sure, we all want it for ourselves, but if you can give somebody else a boost, why wouldn’t you?

I get all the usual “scripts wanted” emails. About 98 percent of the time, I don’t have a script that matches what somebody’s looking for. But due to interaction with all my fellow screenwriters, I might see something and think “Hey! I think _____ has a script like this.” I’ll then forward it to that writer, saying I thought of them when I saw it. Sometimes they’ll have already seen it and applied, or it’s totally new and they’re very grateful for the lead.

Additionally, because I’ve spent so much time cultivating relationships, a lot of these writers know me and what scripts I have, so they’ll send me a listing. Even if it doesn’t work out, it’s still more results than I would have gotten by myself. Like with the writing, any progress is good progress.

And speaking of the writing, after I think a latest draft is ready to show, I’ll go to my usual circle of reliable note-givers to get their feedback, and they’ll do the same with me. Every once in a while a writer I’ve only interacted with via social media will contact me, asking if I’d be willing to take a look at their script. If there’s no deadline, and I can squeeze it in, I’ll gladly tell them to send it along.

There will also be those times where you’re feeling low; like nothing’s going right. Guess what? This is definitely another one of those “it happens to everybody” scenarios, and believe me – everybody can relate to it. Want to talk about it and get it off your chest? Writers are willing to listen – and offer a solution if they can. Just getting it out of your system can be helpful.

Also very important – return the favor. Somebody’s helped you out? Offer to do the same – in any capacity you can. When I ask somebody for notes, I make sure to say I’m more than happy to return the favor – because I am. They were willing to put in the time and effort to help me, so the least I can do is the same for them.

A big part of all of this is to accomplish any of this, you have to become part of the community itself. Fortunately, even that’s pretty easy. There are so many ways to get to know your fellow writers.

My recommendations:

-screenwriting groups on Facebook, but mostly the smaller ones. The bigger ones tend to be a lot of egos and sniping.

-Script Pipeline’s #PipelineWriters on Twitter. 5pm PST on Fridays. Especially helpful if you like mugs.

-#scriptchat on Twitter. 5pm PST on Sundays

Regarding all of these, groups and communities overall, you get out of them what you put into them.

Leave your ego at the door. Be nice to people. Treat them the way you’d want to be treated.

Ask questions. Make it about them, not you.

Establish relationships. Be supportive for good news and bad news.

You may be working on your scripts by yourself, but you’re most definitely not alone.

Reading truly is fundamental

marilyn book

Even though I’ve been spending a lot of time working on new scripts, I’ve also made a recent effort to start reading more scripts.

The contents of the folder on my desktop labeled “TO READ” include around a dozen scripts of well-known produced films and those of my associates within my social network, along with a few I received with the advice “you really should read this”.

It’s a lot of scripts to work my way through. I’ve completed three so far, and each one has been amazing. It’s a fantastic experience I can’t recommend enough.

What’s probably the most important aspect is that taking a look at all these different scripts lets you see the multiple ways of how a story can be told on the page. Each and every script does an amazing job with its own interpretation of “Show, don’t tell.”

It also helps because many times we’re so wrapped up in our own material that reading something new and original where you have no idea what’s going to happen gives your imagination a much needed rest. You can literally just sit back and enjoy the ride.

When you get so wrapped up in the story that you can easily visualize it playing out in your head, and the words and pages just fly by, then you know you’re in the hands of a skilled writer who knows what they’re doing.

Very important – while you shouldn’t try to straight-out copy somebody else’s style, you can at least let it influence how shape your own. Don’t just read a script – study how it’s put together.

Is the writing crisp and colorful? Are you able to follow the story? Is the sequence of events organized so that you can’t imagine it happening any other way? Do the scenes make their point fast and move on? Do the characters seem like actual people? Does the dialogue sound natural and get the point across without being too on-the-nose?

These questions – and so many more – will come up while I’m reading a script for the purpose of giving it notes. But if somebody says “Read this. I think you’ll like it.” and notes are NOT involved, then it’s easier for me to read it just for the sake of enjoying it, and not feel the need to be critical.

That being said, it’s still tough for me to take off my editor’s hat – even for a casual read. It’s not uncommon for me to find the occasional typo or ask a question about something I’m just not sure about. This isn’t me being critical on purpose. Quite the contrary. When something like that takes me out of the story, I want to let the writer know so they can fix it and prevent it from happening for the next reader.

Even though this is a read for enjoyment, certain technical factors still come into play for me. Does it look good on the page? Is there a lot of white space, or do I have to endure big blocks of text? How’s the formatting? Any misspelled words? Pretty much – do they have the basics down?

And the stories themselves – WOW! Some are in genres I love, others totally new to me, and even a few offering a totally new take on an old standard. Even though I may not be a fan of something, I can still appreciate and enjoy a well-told story.

Also very important – after you finish reading, especially if it’s a friend’s script, thank them for letting you take a look, and let them know what you thought of it (preferably in the positive). If it’s a produced script and the writer is on social media, you can let them know that way. I’ve done this a few times, and each time the writer was very appreciative.

At my current rate, I’m getting through about two to three scripts over the course of a week, so I have at least another month to month and a half before the folder empties out.

I’m looking forward to getting through this batch, and even more so when it’s time to start compiling the next one.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re here to help

daffy typing

Currently working my way through the latest draft of the horror-comedy. It’s coming along nicely, primarily due to the incredibly helpful notes I’ve received from my readers.

It’s been a mixed bag of comments – loved this, this kind of fell flat for me, didn’t understand this, maybe try a different approach on this. While I may not agree with all of them, each one has merit and is worth taking into consideration. A lot of them involve ideas and suggestions I hadn’t considered, let alone thought of.

It’s tough to evaluate your own script. You know the story you’re trying to tell, so how you interpret what’s on the page is going to be completely different from how everybody else does. You “hear” a line of dialogue being spoken in that character’s voice in the way you imagined them saying it, whereas a reader will see…words on a page.

This is really what it comes down to: NOTES HELP YOU SEE WHAT YOU MIGHT NOT BE SEEING.

Remember – You might not like what the reader has to say, but the whole point is to help you make your script as solid a piece of work as you can. It’s tough, but don’t take it personally. They’re critiquing the work, not you.

A few years back, I gave a writer some extensive notes on a script that had a great premise but the execution of the story needed a lot of work – especially in terms of really showcasing what the premise was all about.

About a week after I’d sent my notes, they responded by telling me they were initially angry and upset about what I had to say, but then they went back and read my notes again. Upon that second review, they couldn’t argue with what I said, and were grateful that my notes helped them realize that.

Notes should be about helping you shape your script into what you want it to be. Be wary of readers whose notes are about changing your script so it matches the story they think it should be.

There are also going to be notes that completely miss the point. Maybe the reader was having an off day. Maybe they’re not a fan of this genre. Maybe they lost interest and just skimmed. All of these are possibilities, and have been known to happen.  There’s not much you can do besides say “thanks” and move on.

Which brings up another point – no matter how you feel about the notes, especially if they don’t seem to be very helpful – is to BE POLITE AND THANK THE READER FOR DOING THIS. They took time out of their schedule to help you out, so the least you can do is thank them.

DO NOT berate them with a rant of “How dare you doubt my genius?!” It’s not a good look.

And if a swap is involved, make sure to hold up your end of the bargain. I speak from experience as one who’s been burned.

In the end, this is your script to do with what you will. Find a reader whose opinion you trust and let them know what it is you’re looking for. Help with the story? Characters? Dialogue? Grammar and punctuation? They and their notes are here to help you.

Let them do that so you can reap the benefits.

(please note that paying for notes was not discussed because it’s an entirely different topic for another time)

My two cents on giving my two cents

nickel
Plus an extra cent to cover expenses

After a brief hiatus, I’ve started giving notes again. It’s always helpful to step away from your own material and dive into somebody else’s. More often than not, it’s a win-win situation.

Sometimes there are exceptions to that rule, but more on that in a minute.

The quality of the writing has ranged from just-starting-out to seasoned professional, so my notes and comments are provided with the level of feedback most suitable to the writer’s level of expertise. One writer might still be learning about proper formatting, while another might want to consider strengthening up that second subplot.

One of my cardinal rules of giving notes is to not be mean about it. I never talk down to the writer, because I’ve been in their shoes. I do what I can to be supportive and offer some possible solutions, or at least hopefully guide them towards coming up with a new approach to what they’ve already got.

One writer responded by saying they were really upset about what I’d said, but then they went and re-read my notes, and couldn’t argue or disagree with any of them.

I’ve always been fascinated by the expression “This is a reflection on the script, not you (the writer).” In some ways, the script IS a reflection of the writer; it’s their skill, their storytelling, their grasp of what should and shouldn’t be on the page, that are all being analyzed. After spending so much time and effort on a script, of course a writer wants to hear “it’s great!”, but as we all know, that doesn’t always happen.

Sometimes I worry my comments are too harsh, but just about every writer has responded with “These are SO helpful!”

About a year ago, a writer I was connected to via social media asked to do a script swap. Some quick research showed they seemed to be experienced with writing and filmmaking, so it seemed like a good idea.

I read their script, and didn’t like it. I said so in my notes, and offered up what I considered valid reasons why, along with questions raised over the course of the story, along with some suggestions for potential fixes.

What I was most surprised about was that this person presented themselves as a professional, and maybe I was naive in taking all of that at face value and believing the quality of their writing would reflect that and meet my expectations.

It didn’t.

It also didn’t help that they opted to not give me any notes on my script. At all. Just some snarky retorts. Guess my lack of effusive gushing hurt their feelings, and this was their method of retribution.

Oh well.

Interesting follow-up to that: I later saw them refer to my notes in a quite negative way, along with “this script has even gotten a few RECOMMENDS”, which is always a great defense.

Follow-up #2: we’re no longer connected on social media.

Could I have phrased my comments in a more supportive way? I suppose, but I figured this person wanted honesty, not praise. And like I said, I assumed they had a thick skin from having done this for a while.

Guess I was mistaken.

And I’ve been on the receiving end of it as well. A filmmaker friend read one of my scripts and started with “Sorry, but I just didn’t like it,” and explained why. Did I pound my fists in rage and curse them for all eternity? Of course not. Their reasons were perfectly valid.

Or the time a writing colleague could barely muster some tepid words of support for one of my comedies. I was a little disappointed, but after having read some of their scripts,  realized that our senses of humor (sense of humors?) were very different, so something I considered funny they probably wouldn’t, and vice versa.

I’ve no intention of changing how I give notes. If I like something, I’ll say so. If I don’t, I’ll say so. You may not like what I have to say, but please understand that it’s all done with the best of intentions. My notes are there for the sole purpose of helping you make your script better.

Isn’t that why we seek out notes in the first place?