For those unaware, I had the good fortune last year to connect with a producer-director seeking a writer for their microbudget feature project.
After hearing their ideas and what they were looking for, I started developing the story, keeping them updated as things progressed at a decent clip.
One of the comments occasionally made during all this back-and-forth was, and I’m paraphrasing here – “Is there a way to cut the costs on that?” Since this is a micro-budget project, it’s imperative we get as much out of every dollar as possible.
Thus the changes and alterations began. A scene originally intended for a hospital room now takes place in somebody’s bedroom. A scene in a restaurant now has the two characters drinking to-go coffee and talking on a park bench.
You get the idea.
As the writer, it can be a bit of a challenge to revise a scene or sequence to accommodate the budget, but it also forces you to dig deeper into that creativity and come up with a solution that works just as effectively, if not more so.
If this were a regular spec, working within a budget wouldn’t be an issue. I’d just write whatever worked for the story. But if that script got picked up and the producer needed changes made, then they would be made.
Looking over some of the revisions, I also realized that some scenes could pack even more of a punch by utilizing sound and lighting (or lack thereof) for emphasis, rather than on just what we see. Leaving things to the imagination – what you hear and don’t see – has the potential to be much more effective.
(For a strong example of this, check out the 1942 classic horror-thriller CAT PEOPLE.)
Taking this “less is more” approach also helped with resolving a story problem in a significant way. A sequence that would already have been challenging to make is now drastically different but would be very simple to pull off, and we’re both very enthusiastic about how the end result would look.
While some aspects of the story and how it’s presented may have changed, the tone remains the same. There’s still a ways to go with the script, but writing it with this kind of mindset helps me figure things out so the story is just as compelling while also getting the most bang for the buck.
The past few weeks, part of my writing schedule has involved revising the outline of my animated fantasy-comedy spec. It’s been fun to develop – having a previous draft to work with really helps. The action sequences, the story, the jokes and sight gags haven’t been too difficult, but I’ve been making more of an effort to build up the emotional aspect.
This isn’t to say I’ve never included that. It just hasn’t been as prevalent in the early stages of planning and plotting process.
It’s not enough to just show the stuff that’s happening, you need to show how it’s relevant to the characters. While the plot is about the external goal (what do they want?), there’s also the importance of establishing their internal goal (what do they need?).
Sometimes the internal and external goals work together, and sometimes a character will achieve one and not the other. There’s also the tried and true “they got what they wanted, but it wasn’t what they needed” (and vice versa). It all depends on how the writer wants to the story to go.
To help myself get a better grasp of this, I’ve been reading the scripts for and watching other animated films to see how they approach it. There has also been the occasional “read a few pages of the script, then watch how it plays out onscreen”.
*helpful tip – for prime examples of incorporating emotion into story, you can’t go wrong with well-made animated films. They do a fantastic job of setting everything up as fast and efficiently as possible. Sometimes singing is involved. And as it should be with live-action, each scene manages to include advancing the characters’ emotional arc as well as the story arc.
As more than a few readers have said to me, sometimes my writing is more about what we see onscreen and not as much about what’s happening to the characters on the inside. Hopefully that won’t be the case this time around. Since I’m still outlining the story, I try to include what the emotional impact is in each scene. Does the point of the scene affect the character(s) the way it’s supposed to?
At first, this was pretty challenging, but watching how other films accomplished it, it wasn’t as daunting as I initially thought, plus the more I think about it and plan for it, it’s not as bad as I thought. It’s helping with the overall development because I’m taking that sort of detail into consideration as part of the initial planning stages, as opposed to trying to work it in later, along with avoiding a few unnecessary rewrites.
Since this is a slightly different approach for me, I’m sure it’ll be chock-full of trial and error along the way, but am fairly confident it’ll yield the results I’m hoping for.
As we stand on the cusp of a brand spanking new year, do you know what you want to accomplish, writing-wise?
More importantly, do you have a plan on how that’s going to happen?
I’m finding that it really helps to take a realistic approach, focusing more on the things we can actually control, rather than the things we would like to happen.
Knowing your own productivity and output, how many scripts do you think you could write/rewrite?
For me, I’m looking at 1-2 new ones, and 2-3 rewrites. Might be a bit of a challenge, but still doable.
I’ve also noticed an increase across social media of writers offering to give notes to other writers, so that’s something also easily achievable. Doing that once or twice a month benefits both you and the other writer, and a lot of the time the other writer will reciprocate, so…win-win.
Lots of writers are also directors or filmmakers, so maybe making a film or a short is part of your 2022 to-do list. Count me among that number. Got a horror-comedy short I’m just itching to make, and have started the ball rolling to see that happen.
No matter what you’re hoping to accomplish this year, I hope you not only do that, but also manage to enjoy yourself along the way. You should be getting as much out of the journey as you do finishing it.
And keep in mind that while you might be flying solo on a project, you’re definitely not alone. Just about every other writer out there is going through the exact same thing. Don’t hesitate to ask for help, advice, or feedback, or to offer it.
I hadn’t realized it had been quite a while since I’ve written about how my writing has been going, mostly because there hasn’t been as much of it as I was hoping, and what there has has been proving to be a bit of a challenge. Therefore…
The past few months have been me working on rewriting/overhauling the fantasy-comedy I wrote last year. For some reason, it just wasn’t clicking for me, hence the lengthy break.
So when I decided the time was right to dive back in, I really had to figure out what the problem was.
I still loved the concept, and a lot of what I’d already written, but something still seemed off. So I went to my tried-and-true practice of “take a step back for a closer look”.
What was it I liked about the story? Did the way it played out seem like the best way to tell it? What could be done differently, yet still yield the same results (or something even better)?
When I was first putting the story together, I must have gone through at least half a dozen different ways to start it. Each one had it’s own pros and cons. I don’t strictly adhere to “this plot point HAS to happen on THIS PAGE”, but I do what I can to stay in the neighborhood.
As I wrote down scenes I wanted to include, a pattern started to emerge. If I started the story THIS WAY, that would lead to THIS happening, and maybe I could rearrange a few things so as to get the full impact of what I was going for.
Then another realization came to me. The story was working, but my protagonist was the wrong character. Another character initially created as a big supporting role seemed to hold more potential, plus having things revolve around them would really punch up the tone of the story.
More pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.
Because of this drastically new approach, I don’t have the option of just recycling scenes from the previous draft. Each scene has to be rewritten to accommodate this new perspective and really play up the impact this new protagonist has on everything around them.
It’s a challenge, but the new story is slowly coming together. My enthusiasm for putting myself through all of this and my confidence in the story is as strong as ever.
I’ll admit this is also taking longer to than I wanted it to. My initial hope was to have completed the outline a while ago and have a new draft done by the end of the year, but that ain’t gonna happen.
Instead, I’m totally fine with the rest of 2021 being all about hammering out the outline and its subsequent fine-tuning. Kicking off the New Year with pages isn’t a bad way to go.
As we head into the weekend, here’s hoping for a whole lot of productivity for everybody’s current projects.
Brooks Elms is a screenwriter and independent filmmaker. His specialty is grounded personal characters and writing stomach-churning story tension.
He’s written 30+ screenplays, a dozen of them on assignment, and sold several scripts, including one this year with Brad Peyton as Executive Producer. Brooks was recently hired to rewrite a screenplay started by an Oscar-winning writer. Brooks began his career writing, directing, and producing two indie features (personal dramas) that he screened all over the world.
Here’s an interview with Brooks from last year. He also loves coaching fellow writers who have a burning ambition to deeply serve their audiences, and has two new programs available to give them a helping hand.
You started your new mentorship program ANSWER THE CALL in late 2020 and the online course UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER in early 2021. There are a lot of similar screenwriting courses and programs out there. What is it about yours that sets it apart from the rest?
Depth. I go ALL IN on the success of my writers. Most consultants give you their best for an hour or two, or maybe for the month you take their online course. And they play the numbers game. But since I only work with a few writers at a time, I’m better positioned to move the needle for you in a BIG way. I fully invest in writers: giving my time, my contacts, my everything – for life. I love helping them succeed as much as I love serving my audience with my own screenplays.
Is this a course more applicable for screenwriters just starting out, those with a few scripts under their belts, or both?
I enjoy new writers, but the best way I can help them is through my free tips found here https://www.brookselms.com/new/. I’m on the planet to serve my own audiences, and to help talented intermediate-level writers turn pro ASAP, and to keep them working at their highest levels – for life. And by intermediate, I mean they’ve written a couple scripts OR they’re a working professional in an adjacent creative field: copywriting, journalism, novels, acting, producing, directing, etc…
Do you consult with writers regarding which program would be the best for them?
The website helps writers with that. But the summary is that if you want a working WGA screenwriter to uplevel every facet of your game, consider the in-depth 1:1 story development program – ANSWER THE CALL. If you want help getting your script to people in Hollywood to launch your career forward, consider the outreach course & community – UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER.
What was the inspiration for calling the programs ANSWER THE CALL and UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER?
ANSWER THE CALL is from Joseph Campbell’s work about the mythic CALL that begins every great story. Too often, writers Refuse The Call to get the support they need to move to their next level – and they remain stuck in Act 1 in agony and cynicism. My program is for writers ready for the emotional risk to ANSWER THE CALL. UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER is just a fun way to think about branding and outreach, because that side of the game, more than any other, needs a playful approach to be GREAT at it.
One of the aspects of your ANSWER THE CALL program is that you work with several writers as a group, as opposed to just keeping it one-on-one. Do you find that more beneficial, and why?
The group coaching calls add dimension to learning the system. Sometimes, I’ll show you a craft adjustment 1:1, and you kinda get it, but then in the group call you see me coaching a different writer on that same principle and it will now totally click for you. And the writers I select are super-creative so our group calls are an amazing sounding board for getting quick collective reactions. Plus, having a circle of peers that are ambitious, team-oriented and active in the business – keeps you inspired. Because when one of us win, all of us win.
How extensive is your work with writers for ANSWER THE CALL? Do you help them develop a script from beginning to end, or should they come in with one already written?
We go the full distance. So you can repeat the process, for life. We’ll take a deep dive into your favorite films & shows and why you love them. Then discuss an idea for a new story, or it could be re-writing a previous story you couldn’t crack.
I take you through every step in my simple, proven professional process, to be sure you’re squeezing ALL the creative juice from your story idea. I help you answer all your audiences questions that you didn’t think to ask yourself. I am your first and best audience member that’s rooting you on every step of the way.
And even when you get several drafts into the screenplay, I’m still with you and tapping into all my personal contacts to get this project set up, get you representation, and get you all the other success you want.
I can’t guarantee WHEN this will happen for you, but I do guarantee you WILL cross significant career milestones with this system if you keep using it.
And I haven’t found a more comprehensive and effective system for success as a screenwriter anywhere — because of the in-depth 1:1 attention, and the inspired community I cultivate.
Part of the ANSWER THE CALL program is that you select 5 out of all applicants to participate. How do you determine who makes the cut, and what if somebody applies and doesn’t get selected?
I help everybody that applies. Some writers will be the best match for me, and I work with those 5 people myself. And because I’m getting so many serious writers applying, I’ve also brought in 2 guest mentors (with better credits than mine!) to support others I can’t work with myself. IF the writer and that other mentor hit it off, they’re still in my program with my community and group coaching calls, and they just get their 1:1 support from an even more fitting working writer than me.
For the writers that aren’t the best fit for my program, I still make an introduction to another amazing mentor colleague who works hourly, which allows them to still get custom support.
The qualities I look for in the writers that are a match for this program are:
– ambition while being open to earn how to fulfill that ambition
– team player
– talented – I don’t have to love their genre, but I have to love their creative approach and POV on life
– demonstrated commitment to the craft (written several screenplays, or created something else at the professional level and are ready to write screenplays)
– willing to go to the deepest places in themselves, so they can move their audiences in the deepest way
But most of all, I get a feeling when I do the first free coaching session that tells me “Hell yeah I want to help this person succeed myself AND they’re ready” or “I love that this person applied and I’m excited to help them a different way.”
It’s a soft landing for you either way, and just filling out the free (and fast) application will get you leaning forward in your career anyway. Easy!
While ANSWER THE CALL covers the actual writing of the script, UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER is more about what a writer can do once the script is ready to go. Is this a topic that’s challenging to a lot of writers?
Oh yeah. Writers tend to create a lot of drama in the outreach process, and that’s the single biggest factor that’s slowing down your career. Whatever level of talent you have, the speed of your success hinges upon the quality of your outreach game. Lean into your outreach game, and you’ll move into the fast-track of your success.
Follow-up – how would you work with a writer who at the very start says “I’m a complete mess when it comes to pitching”?
I welcome that! We all are on the journey. Myself included. So we just practice, and then we become a little less of a mess, and practice some more — so we become “okay.” And we practice some more until we get good… and even great. And what’s most important is we enjoy that journey of developing our game, and to not take ourselves too seriously as we’re learning. It’s lots of fun.
A lot of writers say lack of access to the industry is one of the biggest obstacles to establishing a screenwriting career. What are your thoughts on that, and how do you help writers with it?
When writers say their problem is “lack of access,” I see the real problem is “lack of a good habit” to face their fears of socializing.
News flash: over half of Hollywood is online posting about all sorts of things. Go to them directly! Get into genuinely engaging conversations with YOUR people – for the sheer fun of it.
Some of those online conversations will escalate into deeper colleague connections and even attachments to your projects – IF and only if – you’ve got the goods. So… the only thing stopping writers from their own amazing outreach game is their habit of wallflowering. But since they chose that habit, they can choose a new one. With practice. Totally in their control and power.
Say a writer completed a script in ANSWER THE CALL that you felt was of above-average quality. What would your next steps be? Pass it along to an agent, manager, or producer? Recommend they enroll in UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER?
Once I make sure their script is as great as it can be, I map out a sales strategy for them and introduce them to my own contacts. I got one of my mentees signed to my own manager. Everybody in the core development program ANSWER THE CALL is automatically enrolled in UNLEASH YOUR SUPERPOWER as part of me helping them succeed.
Are there any success stories regarding former students you can share?
There sure are. In the very first year of the program, writers have already been advancing in contests, got an 8 on the Black List, gotten a handful of paid writing assignments, got producer attachments, and a former client won a Nicholl Fellowship last year (top 5 out of 7200 scripts).
Did I mention it was the first year of the program?
Success begets success, and this snowballing has just begun.
How can somebody interested in either or both of these courses get in touch with you?