Q & A with Ethan Ransom of Screenwriting Is Hard

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Ethan Ransom began writing at a young age, but didn’t find his way to screenwriting until college, when he had a glorious realization that people actually made a living writing the movies that he loved. Right then and there, screenwriting became his discipline. After finishing two feature scripts, getting married, and moving to LA, Ethan completed the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, and then the Screenwriting MFA at The American Film Institute.

He was very fortunate to get repped right out of school, and has been hustling ever since. In 2016, he realized he needed to give back to newer screenwriters who were still struggling to learn what he had and began mentoring and coaching in earnest. He lives down the street from the Walt Disney and Warner Brothers studio lots in Burbank, California, with his incredible wife and three vivacious children.

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

THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK. Great dialogue and characters, great twists, gut punch of an ending. It puts you so squarely in the perspective of the characters, who are isolated, without information, operating on instinct, and doing the best they can, only to have rug pulled out from under them — and thus, us. Not a wasted word in that movie, and great performances to boot! Anyone looking to write a contained thriller should give it a watch and study why it succeeds!

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I made the move to LA after writing a couple screenplays, getting engaged, and getting invited to the UCLA Professional Program for Screenwriting (UCLA’s and USC’s grad programs declined my application). From there, I’ve worked a number of different day jobs — reality TV vault manager, post-production assistant, marketing production coordinator and writer-producer — all while continuing to write.

But my big boost was the screenwriting MFA at The American Film Institute, and specifically the two acting seminars that they made us take. That opened up my world as a writer and gave me a way into my craft that I hadn’t had up to that point. It helped me understand what I was actually trying to achieve on the page: a framework for real, performable emotion, created by the story I would write. I tell people that AFI made me three times the writer I was beforehand. From there, I was fortunate enough to find a manager thanks to my thesis script, and have been on the hunt ever since.

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

I think everyone recognizes good writing intuitively. They feel it — they know it’s good, whether or not they can explain why. I think the ability to recognize why writing is good and to reproduce that in your own work is what’s difficult to learn. I think it can be taught and learned to some degree, but if you don’t have an innate writer’s instinct buried somewhere inside, all the classroom time in the world can’t teach you how to write well.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Far and away, the most important component of a good script is compelling action lines and a rhythm of dialogue that creates the mood and flow of the story in the same way that the movie/TV show will. That’s what sets professional scripts apart: the action lines feel masterful, artful, and they take you through the movie in your mind’s eye in a specific and calculated way to mimic the feeling of watching the final product in your head. That’s the most important thing. That’s what makes for a compelling read, a page-turner, which to me is the best description of a good script.

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

Beyond bad grammar, bad spelling, typos, and improper format, the most common screenwriting mistake I see is action writing that describes the visual moments out of order, where we have to interpret the prose to figure out what we’d actually be seeing if we watched the filmed version of the script. That’s what screams “amateur” to me.

Second to that, I often see dialogue that doesn’t factor in character reactions — as in, the emotions of the lines don’t follow each other moment to moment. One character says something, and then the other character says something that simply would not follow from what the other character said, but is rather what the writer wants or needs to happen. That takes the reader out of the scene, out of the script, out of the story. You just can’t make that mistake and expect your script to work.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

None, really. I love tropes, as long as they’re executed in an original, fresh way. I think tropes exist because certain types of stories just work, but with how much content is being created right now, when you use a trope, you better put a spin on it, or it’s going to be absolutely dull, no matter what trope it is

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

You never need as many words as you think. Cut as much as you can.

Find your writing routine and stick to it. Defend it zealously.

Let early drafts be bad — no one will see them but you! Don’t try to be perfect on the first pass, it’ll just slow you down, and no matter WHAT you do, the first pass will suck!

Ultimately, don’t ascribe to anyone else’s method for writing. Take in their ideas, experiment, and find your own.

Don’t get too caught up with prep work or logistics work — the finished script is what you’re aiming to create. Everything else must serve that goal. Set aside anything that isn’t.

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

Sadly, I haven’t, but the elements that might earn a script a “recommend” are as follows: a unique concept and point of view, stellar writing, a tight and compelling plot, rich characters, and as a bonus, the subversion of genre conventions.

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

As long as you know that winning a contest will never get you a career — you’re basically paying for the chance to, at best, be rewarded with prize money and exposure, and at worst, be told your work isn’t good enough yet — heck, go for it. I think it can be helpful for exposure purposes and getting read in certain places, but like this business, there are no guarantees. Only spend what you’re willing to lose.

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

Email me at ransomwriting@gmail.com, or find me on the socials — @ransomwriting (Screenwriting Is Hard) on Facebook (my services are posted on this page).

People can also follow me on Instagram (@ransomwriting), Twitter (@ethanwransom), and subscribe to my YouTube Channel Screenwriting Is Hard.

I also do mentoring sessions as well as notes on completed work, and am always posting helpful info and links!

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

French silk. Mmmmm. Oui, oui.

french silk pie

More work now, better results later

lalanne

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.

Stuffed just a tad beyond capacity

marx stateroom
All my script needs now is the line “…and a dozen hard boiled eggs.”

As the dog days of summer lazily drift on by, each of those days sees me dedicating a portion of it to working on the next small section of the horror-comedy outline. So far – it’s coming along nicely.

For now, it’s just filling in the blanks between primary plot points. Not counting those, I tend to think and plot things out in a linear manner; going from A to B to C and so on, rather than A to B to J, and then maybe filling in that stretch between D and F. This approach helps with not only crafting the developments of the main storyline, but also the subplots and figuring out how all the interconnections work. Others may do it differently, which is fine. This way works for me.

What originally starts out as one to two sentences summarizing what happens in a scene quickly becomes lengthy descriptions, including specific character actions and snippets of dialogue. This has caused the outline to appear dense and bulky, or at least that’s how it looks at first glance.

At first this would appear to be a bad thing, but keep in mind that this is only the outline, so a scene write-up that appears as an impenetrable block of text here might translate to, say, half to three-quarters of a page, including dialogue. Not a bad exchange rate.

Just as an example, as a scene was playing out, it kept getting longer and longer, which would have run way too long for both script and screen. Realizing that simply would not do, I made some minor modifications and managed to break this exceptionally large scene into three slightly smaller ones. Each one still retains the point I wanted to make, as well as continuing to advance the plot, theme, and characters. A win all around.

The way I figure it, it’s a lot better to have an overabundance of material during this stage, and then be able to cut, trim, or maybe even add more where necessary down the road.

Another key part to all this development is making sure everything I come up with plays some kind of role in the overall context of the story. Call it the “keep only if relevant” rule. If there’s something on the page that has nothing to do with the story or the characters, then why have it there in the first place?

It requires some planning ahead

planning-ahead_4
Sometimes mapping it out by hand can prove most beneficial

Lots and lots going on within the hectic hallways of Maximum Z HQ, what with all the writing, note-giving, and career-developing taking place.

Much as I would love to offer up an original composition, my current schedule is a bit tight, so instead I humbly present a trio of posts, all plucked from the archives, and all dealing with what I consider to be a most important aspect of telling a story.

Enjoy.

Set up, pay off

Strong rope & solid knots required

Tying it all together

 

Now it gets really interesting

desert
First few steps are always the toughest. Good thing I came prepared.

Let’s pause now for your humble blogger-in-residence to proudly proclaim that Act One of the first draft of the pulpy adventure spec is complete.

Whoopee.

But you know what that also means.

Yep. Time to buckle down even more, strap myself in, and jump feet-first into the intimidating arena commonly known as Act Two.

I’ll also admit it’s a little thrilling, too. There was a particular charge in working out the action sequences and story set-ups in Act One, so I’ve a strong suspicion the continuing build-ups for the former and the gradual development of the latter will be equally, if not more so, fun to write.

(and believe me when I say this is the kind of story that automatically requires a sense of fun)

Maybe it’s from continuously trying to improve as I go, but working on Act Two doesn’t seem as intimidating as it used to. Not to say that it comes easily; just slightly less insurmountable. I spent a lot of time on the outline, so confidence in that is pretty solid.

I read a lot about how a spec script might have a phenomenal Act One, but then things fall apart in Act Two for a myriad of possible reasons: the characters don’t do much/nothing really happens, or the overall story’s too thin, so a lot of Act Two is empty filler, and so on.

The only writing process I know is my own, and I always strive to make sure the story feels…complete? Full? It comes down to “I know what has to happen to tell this story,”, and while the first act is all about setting it all up, the second act is about fleshing everything out.

We get a closer look at the characters and how they’re progressing through the events of the story. We can see how they’re changing from when they were first introduced. Plot threads of all sizes get further developed. The central question is continuously asked (oh-so-subtly, of course).

It also involves steadily-mounting complications for your protagonist. They’ve got a goal, and it’s our job to throw all kinds of obstacles in their way that just keep making it harder for them to reach it. Again, a lot of it happens during our second act.

Act Two really is where the meat of the story takes place, so stuff needs to happen that not only holds our interest, but makes us want/need to know what happens next, and even that better be that much more intriguing.

 

As you’d expect, our work is cut out for us.

So off I go. Dispatches from this formidable excursion as they develop.

See you on the other side.