Q & A with Mario Martin of Scriptdick

Mario Martin’s love for storytelling originated as a young boy when he felt inspired to tell stories through writing. Early on he honed his craft at the Maine Media Workshops and Boston Film & Video Foundation, and has attended many screenwriting boot-camps, worked with multiple coverage companies as well as many screenwriters.

Mario helped develop and produce the award-winning film LA LUZ, on which he collaborated heavily, and helped finance the indie feature GAS STATION JESUS starring renowned actor Patrick Bergin.

Mario followed this success with his writing-directing debut CITY LOVE, a provocative short about a soulful, flamboyant talk radio host starring critically acclaimed actor poet, and performer, Antonio David Lyons of AMERICAN HISTORY X and HOTEL RWANDA.

Mario has dedicated the majority of his life to becoming a better storyteller, writer, and filmmaker. When asked “Which part of the creative process do you enjoy most?”, he often responds, “All of it. The writing, crafting and fully developing your story, making sure it’s on the page.”

Mario enjoys rolling up his sleeves to work with fellow screenwriters. Taking an average story and making it a page-turner “is a lot of work, but fun and so worth it.”

What was the last thing I read or watched that I considered to be exceptionally well written? 

BREAKING BAD and OZARK. I love the simple concept and plot. The writing on both these TV series is brilliant at every level.

How did you get your start in the industry?

I made my first film CHECKMATE at eighteen. That experience hooked me for life. I later wrote, directed and produced CITY LOVE, which played in nine film festivals, and worked on several feature films. Primarily my time is invested in the craft of screenwriting. I’ve written eight screenplays and am working on my ninth as we speak. I truly enjoy it.

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

Yes.I believe it must be taught. It’s important to study film as to how it works so we can become better screenwriters. Understanding the technicals and there are a lot of them and knowing how to apply. Watching a movie or TV show is only what we SEE and HEAR. In a screenplay, that’s how it must be written. Only what the audience will SEE and HEAR.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Great question. I’ve constructed an algorithm for screenwriting for just that reason. Action lines properly written. Character development, plot, and structure. Really it’s many things. At a bare minimum, there are twelve essential elements working together for great storytelling/screenwriting.

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

Action lines that read like a novel. Action can only be what the audience will see, period. “Show, don’t tell.” Giving each character their own voice.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Detective/Cop movies.

What are some key rules or guidelines writers should know?

-Action lines. Write them properly!

-Know your plot

-Know your genre

-Character development and characterization of characters.

-Structure

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

I most certainly have. A well-written screenplay is exactly like watching a movie. I become completely engaged, lose track of time, am entertained, I care about what’s happening, and find myself thinking or talking about it later. How enjoyable that story was. All the elements needed for a screenplay to work were present and in place.

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

I don’t have a hard and fast opinion on that. If you win or place highly in a contest, that’s a high honor and might open a door for you. There are many other ways to get your work out there these days. Contests are just one of them. 

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

Check out my website at www.scriptdick.com  I post on all the social media platforms daily, including @thescriptdick on Twitter and script_dick on Instagram. I also have a podcast and a blog.

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

Favorite pie? You may have met your match! Ha ha! Pumpkin. Hands down. All others are a close runner-up. I love pie too.

Q & A with Kyle Andrews

Kyle Andrews is a screenwriter, actor, producer, script consultant and writer advocate living in Los Angeles. As a writer, Kyle has written for or worked with several film hubs and online screenwriting resources. As an advocate, his “Kyles List” has helped several up-and-coming writers attain success in the industry. He is currently in development on three features, two as producer and one as writer.

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

There’s so much thoughtful, inspiring, engaging, and downright special (yeah, I said it) content out there at the moment, sometimes it’s difficult to narrow that down to just one or two. So, I won’t!

Lately I’ve been watching a lot more television than film. This past weekend I binge-watched Ted Lasso and I’ve never been left so deeply inspired by such a lovable goofball. For dramatic flavor, Raised by Wolves reminds me a lot of how I felt watching both The Leftovers and the reboot of Battlestar: Galactica, and I really wish more people would take a chance on it. WandaVision is also fantastic—though if folks enjoy a Marvel show that takes risks, I’d encourage them to check out FX’s Legion (also on Disney+).

I listen to a lot of audiodrama podcasts (a term than encompasses comedies, dramas, sci-fi, horror—basically any fictional podcast). The production/entertainment values are wildly disparate, but some of the standouts I’ve listened to in the last few months include The Magnus Archives; NORA; The Mistholme Museum of Mystery, Morbidity, and Mortality; and 1865.

There have also been a number of exceptional scripts I’ve read from undiscovered writers recently, and I’ve got those up over at my Advocacy page: kylefandrews.com/advocacy

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I’ve been writing screenplays and stage plays for 20 years, since I was a high school drama nerd and indie video store manager in my hometown in Massachusetts. At the risk of being too honest, this is where I admit writing wasn’t really my pursuit—I just enjoyed doing it while I focused on trying to be an actor, a much safer career choice. I ended up at Emerson College where I got a BFA in Acting with a playwriting minor, both of which taught me a great deal about craft…and very little about how to actually apply it all to the real world.

After moving to LA a little over a decade ago I had some moderate success acting in commercials but didn’t start finding real momentum until I started writing and producing my own projects. After a short film I cowrote, coproduced, and starred in got some traction at a few festivals I was approached by a competition and coverage service to help run their contests and manage their reader staff. That gave me the freedom to start meeting kind and generous industry pros while stretching my writer legs. This led me to where I am now: advocating for screenwriters, developing scripts and writer skills, lining up a few feature productions, and writing for myself and on contract.

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

Any skill can be taught or learned, so long as someone puts in the time, has a level of humility and self-awareness, and is willing to admit they don’t know what they don’t know.

When it comes to recognizing good writing, I would hesitate to make it too binary a distinction, that you either can or you can’t. I think the most important thing is to recognize your own approach to what the author has written is inherently biased, subjective to your own experience and perspective, and—most importantly—not canon. Criticism free of judgement is how you empower artists to flourish.

For me, the most important thing is to recognize whether the writer met the goals they set out to meet, if doing so was an engaging experience for me as an audience member, and if not, how best to help them achieve those goals.

Anything else is just, like, your opinion man.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, and Heart. Go Planet.

The thing I look for most is how a script ties its various components together. The threading of the various aspects of character, plot, theme, relationships, personal history and backstory, setting, and even tone and genre together in a way that makes sense as we come to learn about and experience them for ourselves, and grow as we watch them succeed or fail (or both).

Another thing writers hear a lot is “don’t be boring,” and like, yeah, that’s generally good advice. But how do avoid boring your reader? Interesting characters, smart dialogue, fun action are always useful—but for me, it’s making the threads of the story as dangerous as possible. When a script is connecting with a reader on a visceral level, it’s because we care about the people we’re reading and we don’t know whether they’re going to get out of it.

And danger doesn’t always, or even typically, mean physical—it just means the stakes behind it are life and death, even in comedy. For instance, a character in unrequited love might feel like they’ll die if their love interest ever found out; the opportunity for a potential yes gets overshadowed in the misery of all the ways they could say no. Get some real tension in there and we’ll care what happens regardless of the answer.

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

Writers make the mistakes that fit their level of experience, so every mistake is common in that sense. For a newer writer, it’s thinking that formatting is the biggest concern and not spending enough time in the pre-work before diving into the script itself. For a pro, it’s leaning on habits that may no longer be serving them.

Not following through with actually marketing the script is another concern. Personally, I look to elevate the craft whenever I can, and I love seeing writers who do the same—but our art form is one that is only going to be appreciated by a handful of people. Figuring out how to get the script made into a visual piece of art is something I encourage writers to focus on, at least for a bit before they jump into the next great script idea that they’ll lovingly craft and not pitch to anyone.

I run into plenty of “basically ready” scripts, but the writer has no idea how to market their work—or worse, throws obstacles into their own way through assumptions. Instead of trying to pitch what they’ve got, they spend their time writing new scripts and their money and energy competing for the approval of anonymous screenwriting competition readers with indeterminate levels of experience to soothe their ego.

Combine that time, energy, and money into learning how to pitch your work and grow your network and you might actually see the results.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m actually a huge fan of using tropes if a writer is able to subvert it with purpose and puts it in a new light. Which on some level makes it not a trope, I guess?

That being said, I don’t consider misogyny, racism, ableism, or the like to be “tropes,” but rather a deeper indication of something inherent in the writer’s worldview It’s very easy for me to tell the difference between a character with these qualities and a script that actively or passively engages in these things. I tend not to make time for these works and I let those writers know it.

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

-Script rejection is not about you, it’s about them and their current needs.

-You will never get anywhere if you don’t let people read your script.

-Disagreeing with a note is as important as agreeing with one because it helps the writer clarify for themselves what their intention is.

-Invite and embrace constructive criticism and encourage yourself not to dismiss all criticism as “unconstructive.”

-At the same time, respect yourself by recognizing when someone isn’t respecting you and allow that person’s opinions to fade into the background.

-“Formatting” is less about demanding adherence to a strict set of rules and more about making sure a script reads clearly to the benefit of potential collaborators.

-Please for the love of all that is holy stop focusing on whether to bold sluglines or use “we see” or include songs and just tell a good story.

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

Absolutely, often, and with great aplomb, from new and “elder” writers alike. In these situations, the writer has deeply explored the backstory, invested in the characters’ individual perspectives, and connected the relationship threads between them, their world, and the events of the plot, found the organic rhythm for the story, and presents it to the reader in a way they can engage with, understand, and visualize as often as necessary.

Do all that and no one will care if you’ve bolded shit.

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

Hoo boy, this is the most complex question phrased in the simplest way. Having worked within that system, I know first-hand how some writers and their careers have benefited from winning or placing high in them. I have personally worked with contests to help them promote their writers and have connected several with managers, gigs, and a larger network as a result. I’ve even developed a couple of services that certain contests still employ to the benefit of their writers.

I’ve also heard from reps and producers that they’ll receive a Top 10 list of writers from a competition or coverage service and none will get signed because the folks judging the scripts don’t have a frame of reference for what is ready for market. This gets compounded when some writers whose scripts are close but do need some work get an outsized impression of their impact and don’t bring it the rest of the way.

There can also be a lack of transparency that that doesn’t serve to build trust. I don’t want to disparage individual competitions, but some of them also pitch relationships they don’t actually have or prizes that they can’t fulfill. There are also a couple full-on scams, but I don’t want to get sued by the sociopaths who run them (they are, thankfully, fewer and farther between than you might think).

I guess my feelings boil down to how an individual writer uses it to their personal benefit. If they can win or make finals and they promote themselves with those victories, then that’s great. If the service has a presence in the community a writer finds helpful, that’s also good. If the writer is newer and they’re looking for basic, no frills feedback, then it can certainly be a starting point for development. For everyone else, I think they’re best as accessories to the main work—fun for adding some flair but won’t provide you much cover in public.

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

My website kylefandrews.com includes all aspects of my work including Consulting, Writer Advocacy, and my own Acting/Writing/Producing work.

Kylefandrews.com/consultation is where writers can find my services, read testimonials from past and present clients and industry pros, and reach out to me directly for collaboration.

They can also find me at @kylefandrews on Twitter and Instagram.

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

I’m more of a cake guy, but if all we have is pie and “pizza” isn’t an option, then I’m going with pumpkin because it’s savory/sweet, seasonal, and nostalgic—it’s the McRib of pies.

Q & A with Jeff Kitchen of Scriptwriting Mastery

Jeff Kitchen has taught thousands of students from Broadway to Hollywood. He was classically trained as a playwright, worked as a dramaturg in New York theater and taught playwriting on Broadway. A top-rated teacher, he taught for thirty years and wrote the book, Writing a Great Movie: Key Tools for Successful Screenwriting. For the past three years Jeff adapted his training program into a comprehensive digital apprenticeship. Scriptwriting Mastery is the result.

What was your inspiration behind putting this together?

I taught people for many years in these intensive 30-hour seminars, and worked hard to give them genuine know-how, limiting the groups to six people, with each person bringing their own script idea to work on. I explained each tool, illustrated it with classic films, and then got each student applying that tool to their story so they got experience using it properly and their scripts improved quite a lot, so the word of mouth was huge. But it was essentially firehose teaching, hammering them with a complex array of information about the tools and principles, and I always felt like I could do more.

After teaching non-stop for eighteen years, from Broadway to Hollywood, I took a break from teaching, focusing on script consultations. Then as I moved back toward teaching again, I didn’t want to do it the same way because it didn’t transfer expertise at the level I intended. Don’t get me wrong, they learned a lot, and many went on to successful careers as writers, directors, producers, and creative executives, including multiple Oscar and Emmy nominations. But I wanted to do much better as a teacher.

So I spent time circling the problem, trying to find a way to transfer deep expertise much more effectively and how to teach much larger groups. Finally I hit upon the question: If I could wave a magic wand and teach writers in any way that I desired, what would that be? The answer was to take as long as needed, and I decided I could do it in about two years. I studied the science of how people learn, how to train people to expertise, and Cognitive Apprenticeship, which not only conveys deep skills to an apprentice, but also the subtle thinking processes that underlie expertise. Then I built a new training program that incorporates all these instructional technologies into a rigorous and demanding process in the craft of the dramatist.

What makes this course different from other online screenwriting education programs?

Some of the tools are entirely unique, coming out of my intense study of a legendary Broadway script doctor from around the early 1900’s. William Thompson Price helped revise every script that producer David Belasco staged on Broadway and created several brand-new tools to help make stories work dramatically. So many playwrights wanted to learn from him that he founded the first school of playwriting ever, and of his twenty-eight students, twenty-four had hits on Broadway.

A prominent playwriting teacher, Bernard Grebanier, said of Price’s groundbreaking work, “If we ourselves were asked to whom we were indebted for the basis of our ideas about playwriting, we should have to answer, ‘Aristotle and Price.’” One tool, the Proposition, which uses the power of logic to pull all the components of a story together into a coherent whole, is known to some, but Price’s three-step tool Sequence, Proposition, Plot lay completely undiscovered until I found it in one of his books. This tool is a remarkably powerful way to tighten and dramatize the parts of a script. It uses reverse cause and effect to create a tight chain of events, rigorously separating that which is Necessary to the forward action of the story from that which is Unnecessary, as well as creating compelling conflict that helps keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

You apply these three steps first to the overall story, making it tight and dramatic. If the big picture doesn’t work, then the details don’t matter. Then you divide the overall story into acts, and you do the same three steps to each, making them tight and dramatic. Next you divide the acts into sequences (there are two-to-five sequences in an act, and two-to-five scenes in a sequence) and you do the same three steps to each sequence.

You’re gradually developing the details as they become necessary and dramatizing it as you go. This is a lot of work, but so is twenty-five rewrites. Then you break the sequences into scenes. You apply Sequence, Proposition, Plot to the first scene, making it tight and dramatic, and then you write that scene. Then you structure the next scene and write it, and you keep going until you have a working draft. And because you’re constantly excluding the Unnecessary in a ruthless fashion, that draft consists of only the Necessary, so it’s a lean and mean draft, not some bloated mess. Sure the script needs work, but it’s clean and functional, and much easier to work with.

I teach Dilemma as the dramatic engine of your story, building in intensity throughout Act Two to become a Crisis, forcing Decision & Action, with the protagonist actively resolving his or her dilemma. The way in which the protagonist resolves the dilemma expresses the Theme that’s emerging organically from the story. I use the story-creation resource, the 36 Dramatic Situations as a volcanic brainstorming tool, and the personality-profiling system, the Enneagram to deepen, dimensionalize, and flaw your characters. Research and Brainstorming help you explode your idea and violate its perceived limits, think it through, amplify its strengths, and get it up to speed. The Central Proposition uses the power of logic to pull all the clever story elements together, fusing them into one coherent plot that grips the audience. And Sequence, Proposition, Plot helps you construct and write the script.

People constantly say they’ve never seen anything like the powerful tools I use to build and dramatize a story, but it’s straight out of classic dramaturgic principle and technique. I’m mostly self-trained in an obscure school of thought in playwriting, but I’ve trained development execs at all the Hollywood studios and they consistently say I teach the most advanced development tools in the industry. So my tools are distinct and now my training methods are unusual, too.

Science has proven that the harder it is to learn something the deeper you retain it, so I work my students hard, constantly changing gears and switching topics, keeping them off balance, and staying unpredictable. I call it Disruptive Teaching. It forces them to dig deep and apply themselves, to be aggressive independent thinkers, and to stand up to a serious challenge. It’s good professional training because the real world doesn’t bring you neat arrays of predictable problems. They learn how to take a punch and fight their way out of a corner. Trying to make a living as a professional writer is notoriously difficult and they need grit, serious skills, and a rough-and-tumble capability. I’m constantly challenging them to think through complex new ideas before I instruct them in it, making them work hard, think straight, and apply their mind. They are not allowed to ask stupid questions. They learn to generate ideas and also to evaluate them critically, with a professional eye, and to articulate their reasoning aloud to the class.

One main difference between this program and others that I know of is that the center of the training is that we’re constantly working on multiple scripts of different genres and in different stages of completion. I train the students by ranging from one project to the next, and we function as a team to make each one work, with teaching moments thrown in as they arise. Students also have daily exercises, writing assignments, learning games, story creation, collaborative competitions, movie nights, and assigned reading. Plus we read one classic script each week because it attunes them to great writing and story ideas.

This training workshop runs for eighteen months and each student gradually acquires the skills and knowledge of a trained dramatist, plus the subtle cognitive skills that underlie substantial mastery. Because this program is constantly ongoing and requires some training before they jump in, each student starts with a three-month video course, working as my virtual apprentice as I create, develop, and construct a complete original script from scratch. They hand-copy all the notes I generate in creating the story, handling all the tools as I build it with them. Then, based on the detailed dramatic outline we’ve created, each student writes their own version of this script in order to graduate to the main program. So there’s a three-month course to start them off, and then there’s another separate three-month program after they’ve trained for eighteen months in which they pick an idea from our group Story Bin and build the script on their own in our open workshop, periodically demonstrating their mastery, their progress, and their challenges to myself and the group. This consolidates all their training into a fully integrated set of skills and professional knowledge.

There are lots of uses of the label “dramatist” in addition to “scriptwriter.” Are there similarities and/or differences between the two?

What I teach is plot construction and dramatic principle—the craft of the dramatist, the ancient art of adapting a story for a theatrical presentation, whether in film, on TV, or onstage. It’s about making the story actable so that it can be performed and will grip an audience. Consistent coherent compelling Dramatic Action is the name of the game. Dramatic Action is not car chases and shootouts, it’s a state of action you put the audience in, where they’re up on the edge of their seats—and you keep them there because they must know how things turn out. If you have sections that are flat dramatically then you lose the audience there, which contributes to the script not working.

It’s all about the audience. A movie playing to an empty theater has no power—it’s just shadows on the wall. The power of the film or TV show or play resides in the response of the audience. Anyone who’s done live performance knows intimately that it’s all about the audience, but amateurs often forget they’re writing for a performance medium. So a dramatist is one who crafts a gripping performance. Whether it’s a bone crunching thriller or a wacko comedy, the story must work dramatically.

Dramatic writing is generally considered the most elusive of all the literary disciplines. It’s tricky, it’s slippery, and it’s unforgiving. An extremely stripped-down literary form, it demands complete economy with no room for the Unnecessary. I’m training people in the craft of the dramatist, which covers screenwriting, TV writing, playwriting, and any form of dramatic content. Once you have substantial technique, you can tackle any medium because you know how to make scripts work.

What are the benefits of the course for the screenwriter just starting out, and where would be a good place for them to start?

It gives a beginner comprehensive training in a method that really works. Apprenticeship is how we naturally learn best, working beside a master craftsman to absorb all the skills and thinking processes. If someone is a novice and knows they are, then they’re much easier to teach because they’re not brimming over with their “knowledge.” They also have no bad habits to overcome and, while they’ll need a lot of working experience to polish their craft after they’ve completed the training, they will know how to make scripts work. But everyone needs years of work, even after mastering the craft of the dramatist, to achieve true greatness as a writer, polishing and refining their voice, attack, smoothness, clarity, and many other subtle aspects of excellence. A good place for them to start is to take this program. It’s designed to be quite doable for raw beginners while also being challenging to experienced writers.

You reference on the website that there are varying lengths for the courses. Why does one take three months and another eighteen?

It’s actually all one course, divided up into three components. The first three months, Course 1: Tools & Fundamentals is the video training program in which, as I said, the students work as my virtual apprentice as we create a thriller from a one-sentence idea, develop it, and construct it, and then they write the actual script based on our detailed outline. This gives them enough training to jump into the eighteen-month main program, Course 2: Techniques & Principles, which is continuously ongoing. They might walk in on us spending the whole week figuring out the ending to a romantic comedy, and because they’ve worked with all the tools in Course 1, they can join right in.

Now their training begins in earnest, working with the group as we build multiple scripts at the same time, ranging from one to the next making each one work, tackling an action-comedy TV series one day and a psychological thriller screenplay the next. It’s heavy-duty learn-by-doing in an apprenticeship format, so they get serious experience and training as their skills coalesce. They’re being highly trained in seven tools over two years, spending months on each one, so they gradually acquire more and more expertise as they integrate all the tools. It’s like learning how to juggle while riding a unicycle on a tightrope—separate skills that must be learned independently, and then are integrated into one fluid capability.

Once they’ve achieved that level of mastery at the end of the eighteen-month Course 2, they’re ready to build a script on their own, which is Course 3: Solo Script Project. As I mentioned, this is the last three months, and they choose a story idea from our group Story Bin, develop structure, and write it, all in our open-workshop format, so their work is open to the group. I stop by regularly with students in tow like a teaching hospital, and the writer articulates their progress, their mastery, and their current challenges. When they finish the script, they graduate, now a seasoned versatile dramatist who can make scripts work in any genre, and who can tackle any medium.

What about a screenwriter with a few scripts under their belt? How would this course benefit them?

It’s a way to improve their craft and take their abilities to a higher level. One thing a writer quickly learns is that it’s hard to be consistent. Sometimes a script works and they’re not sure why it did, and sometimes it won’t, and they don’t know why it wouldn’t. As I said, scriptwriting is notoriously tricky and slippery. But with substantial craft, they can pin down a tricky script, get a good grip on it, and make that part work. If they have a sense of what their strengths and weaknesses are, then it makes them open to learning more to correct their weaknesses and reinforce their strengths. The tools create certain distinctions, and if they utilize those distinctions properly, they get the full power of the tools. If they muddy those distinctions every time they become inconvenient then they lose their power. So this adds a few more powerful tools to their process, and then trains them to a high degree of expertise in them. Good is the enemy of great and I train them long and hard in a sophisticated set of tools. They’ll emerge like a Navy Seal, able to reassemble their rifle in the dark, under fire.

You offer three courses of study. What are they, and how would somebody determine which one was the right fit for them?

There is only one course, the two-year program. The three courses originated because with such a long training period, it’s not practical for someone to wait a year for the next class to start. To allow people to jump in at any time, I created the initial three-month video training. If you’re a scientist going to live in the International Space Station to do experiments, you’d do a three-month training to prep you in how to travel to space and operate in the space station. As I said, the eighteen-month section is the bulk of the training, focused on constantly building scripts and the three-month period at the end build a script on their own to consolidate all their skills and demonstrate their mastery before graduating.

You use the film Training Day as an extensive part of your teaching process. Why this film in particular?

In the first three-month course the script we build is a thriller, so it’s a useful example. Jake, the Ethan Hawke character, has a good strong Dilemma, trapped between his ambition and his moral compass, so it’s a great model for our protagonist’s Dilemma. Training Day has dynamic conflict, deep and complex characters, great storytelling, phenomenal writing, and Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning performance, with Ethan Hawke nominated for Best Supporting Actor. We’ll be reading one great script a week in the main program and using other classic scripts as teaching examples and research as we develop and write scripts of different genres.

It looks like this is a course with set deadlines, rather than a “work on your own schedule”-type one. What’s the reasoning behind that?

Scriptwriting Mastery has rigorous deadlines but is also relaxed in other ways. It is a highly-focused, demanding course that puts students through substantial training. The use of the tools is precise because the difference between a reasonably skilled practitioner and highly-trained expert can be razor thin, with hundreds of subtle differences that add up to mastery. But it’s also designed to be fun and relaxed because creativity is so central to story creation. We have contests of who can come up with the stupidest story idea, the most wacked-out title, and the craziest solution for a story problem.

But we’re working five days a week for two years, two-to-three hours a day, constantly creating, developing, constructing, and writing original scripts so it’s a heavy workload. It prepares you for the real world of turning out quality material with real deadlines. It’s a mix of live and recorded sessions, and the live sessions are recorded so you can watch when you can, but it’s a serious professional training program.

This is similar in many ways to on-the-job apprenticing to a plumber. You’re being trained in substantial skills, all of which relate directly to what must be done for each job. You learn the materials, the techniques, the underlying principles that guide your process, the thinking involved, and the critical distinctions that make all the difference. You’re gradually acquiring mastery in joining pipes, fixing plugged drains, and plumbing a house, but you’re also being trained to install hot water heaters, devices that can explode and kill people if you install them incorrectly. Because scripts are more constructed than written, it’s very much a blue-collar job rather than an ivory tower one. It’s not esoteric, it’s nuts-and-bolts, wrestling stories into shape that can be performed, and which will grip an audience.

You said you’re utilizing techniques for expert training and Cognitive Apprenticeship?

Yes, and it’s quite fascinating that these two distinct specialties capped off several years of studying the science of how the brain learns. The entirely new science of training experts was created in 1983 by Anders Ericsson, who studied elite training facilities around the world that were turning out disproportionate numbers of chess champions or Olympic ski racers or world-class violinists. He collected the innovative and counterintuitive methods that these top coaches and trainers utilized and studied them scientifically, then improved them to a high degree. His book, Peak: The New Science of Expertise is widely considered the high-water mark for how to train people to expert performance and is in fact course material for my program. Part of its science is that the trainee becomes part of the coaching team.

If for instance, you are an Olympic runner, you very quickly know as much as your coach and trainer about your exercise routines, diet, rest, and stretching as they do. You would in fact be part of the coaching team, actively helping to train yourself. My students study the book, Peak, and I turn them into active participants in the training and coaching process.

The science of how we learn has made incredible breakthroughs in the last fifty years, to the point where they know how your brain’s wiring grows and changes as you develop a particular skill. Through a process of myelination, secreting an insulating fat around the neural network which the brain assembles to perform that skill, continuous deliberate practice gradually makes that neural wiring thicker and broader and faster, upgrading it into an information superhighway, and that skill remains permanent in that person.

I found an amazing essay on Cognitive Apprenticeship just as I was pulling together the final shape of this program, and it was a total game changer. It’s about thirty pages was and written by several top PhDs in the field of how we learn. I devoured it ravenously because it fit so precisely with what I was doing, advanced training in sophisticated tools, and it changed everything. I read the article, then read it again with a yellow highlighter, and then yet again with a pink one, highlighting the best of what I’d marked in yellow. Next I typed up all the highlighted material and cooked that down even further, absorbing and digesting it so deeply that I ended up with key components of it on 3×5 cards spread out on my desk. I used them to create highly specific methods of training apprentices in the rigors of my craft, and also training them in the subtle and hidden cognitive processes that underlie my own expertise.

Cognitive Apprenticeship is focused on the cognitive skills of the expert. In a field like law or medicine, the thinking process is central, and to achieve professional-level expertise in those fields, how and what you think is paramount. And it’s not only cognition, but meta-cognition, your own awareness of your knowledge, so that you can evaluate your professional process and adapt it as needed. It’s a mastery over your own mastery, and it’s key to true expertise. So Cognitive Apprenticeship had a huge formative influence in how I designed the program. I literally swallowed it whole, spending an entire month studying these thirty pages, and I built much of my program with it. And integrating that with what I learned about teaching in a disruptive fashion, plus the science of expertise, I rebuilt my entire training process from stem to stern, and it’s been quite exciting.

Last time you said your pie of choice was cherry. Still the case?

I’m going with lemon meringue this time even though I haven’t had it in years. But since you’re a pie aficionado and I’m a Vermonter (now living in LA), I thought I’d share this slice of pie lore.

To the European, a Yankee is an American.

To an American, a Yankee is a New Englander.

To a New Englander, a Yankee is a Vermonter.

To a Vermonter, a Yankee is someone who eats apple pie for breakfast.

And to a Vermonter who eats apple pie for breakfast

a Yankee is someone who eats it with a knife.

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?

Editor’s note – Ethan no longer does script consulting

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.