Some exceptionally helpful notes continue to come in on the latest draft of the animated fantasy-comedy spec. For the most part, very supportive and encouraging, along with some great suggestions for small fixes here and there.
But one note really hit home – not because it was overly negative, but because it touched on something that I’d been uncertain about.
I won’t go into too much detail, but it involves how in one sequence the focus shifts from my protagonist to set up the backstory of some important supporting characters. Even while I was putting it together, it seemed kind of odd and I wasn’t entirely sure it worked, but felt it was “good enough for now”.
Nevertheless, something about it still didn’t seem right.
Numerous options rolled around in my head as I strained to come up with a solution, but still nothing. Also not helping was that constant trepidation when dealing with a rewrite. Would I be able to come up with something that works the way I need it to?
So I decided follow one of the most important tips for writing, screen or otherwise:
I just sat down and started writing. I knew what I wanted to accomplish – have the protagonist be part of it, which helped guide things along.
And thus the words did flow.
Revised and totally new scenes were churned out over the next 60 minutes or so. As is my usual m.o., there’s probably more in the new stuff than I’ll need. Trimming the fat later shouldn’t be too challenging, but I’d rather have more than I need than come up short.
I also managed to come up with a few details that I could plant early on in the story that would pay off later, and came up with a joke that actually made me laugh out loud. Hopefully others have the same reaction.
Overall, I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. Confidence and enthusiasm for this script continue to build.
But don’t get me wrong. There’s definitely more work that needs to be done, but this is a pretty encouraging step.
A friendly reminder – just two weeks to go until the Maximum Z Winter ’22 Script Showcase goes up (Dec 2), so make sure to send in the details about your spec screenplay or TV script ASAP.
Hudson Phillips is a writer and producer from Atlanta, GA. He’s also the founder of ScriptBlast, an online community to help screenwriters navigate the emotional ups and downs of the writing journey, and host of the ScriptBlast Screenwriting Podcast.
What was the last thing you read or watched you considered exceptionally well-written?
The short story collection STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS by Ted Chiang is jaw-droppingly good. I don’t think I’ve ever read a short story collection where every single story is perfect. Each one is weird and memorable and moving and smart and tackles some big gigantic idea. I’ve also really enjoyed the Zoey Ashe series (FUTURISTIC VIOLENCE AND FANCY SUITS and ZOEY PUNCHES THE FUTURE IN THE DICK) by David Wong. Both are laugh-out loud funny with incredibly memorable characters in one of my favorite grounded science fiction worlds.
Movie-wise, NOBODY was a surprisingly fresh take on the action hero. I could use the same line to describe SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, another film that shook up traditional action films.
TV-wise, the first season ofKILLING EVE really blew me away. I can’t think of a TV show that surprised me as much as that.
How’d you get your start in the industry?
It is a very long, very winding road that has taken me here, where I still feel like I’m just getting started! I’d always been writing, but in my mid-20s I started taking it more seriously after a music career fizzled out. I ended up writing comedy scripts with two buddies of mine and the second script we wrote together (a sports comedy about church league softball) ended up getting optioned by Lionsgate films (thanks to a friend of a friend of a friend).
For a split-second we were “local celebrities” on radio and in the newspaper and then everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The writers strike happened, pushing it back a few years. Lionsgate changed out leadership and dropped the film. A local production company picked it up and made it, but completely threw our script out. I don’t think a single word of ours ended up on screen (I still haven’t seen it). So a quick high and low right out the gate. My two writing partners both gave up after a couple new scripts went nowhere, so I broke out on my own.
The problem with having writing partners is when you start writing on your own it’s like starting fresh all over again. So I leaned into the movies I loved the most – crazy sci-fi fantasy action adventure stuff – and started to write that. I’d write a script, send it out to connections in Hollywood, no one would be interested, and I’d write another one. I’d get occasional bites from a contest or the Black List, but nothing ever gained traction. I think in large part because I was a single dad to a young kid, so I couldn’t move out to L.A.
Pro tip: it’s SO much harder to make it in this industry if you’re not in the city where it all goes down. It was during this time of rejection after rejection that I started ScriptBlast as an online haven for writers to connect, talk about their struggles in a safe space, and find encouragement and inspiration.
Being stuck in Atlanta, I leaned into what the city had to offer, which was great filmmaking talent and started making short films. This was a great way to get to know local actors and crew, and we started pulling together our little “collective” of talent until eventually, in 2017, we shot our first feature film, THIS WORLD ALONE. It’s a post-apocalyptic drama / thriller about three women attempting to survive in a world without technology or power. And after a very long 4-year journey (with a year-long pause for COVID), the film was finally released in May and is now available wherever you rent or buy movies online.
THIS WORLD ALONE helped get my name out there enough and allowed me to make enough connections that I’ve since been hired to write a few other indie features. So while I’m not yet making a living at it, writing is bringing in a good second income right now. And I believe all these little seeds will eventually build momentum and add up to a career. Fingers crossed that 2021 is the year that it happens!
Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
It’s interesting that you say “recognizing good writing” and not “becoming a good writer.” I don’t think recognizing good writing is something that can be taught or learned. But I don’t look at good writing that way. Good writing is a feeling. Good writing is being whisked away to another world and laughing and crying and cheering and getting done and immediately wanting to go back. A technically excellent screenplay that checks all the screenwriting boxes is not necessarily “good writing.”
But I also think most people can be taught to become good writers (some just might take more time than others). I’d put writers into three categories:
Writers who can recognize good writing and turn around and immediately write an excellent story.
Writers who can recognize good writing but struggle to write an excellent story.
Writers who can’t recognize good writing and will therefore never write an excellent story.
The ones who can be taught are in that middle level but I think 90% of us are in that middle level. We know what a great story looks like but it takes a lot of time and work and practice and patience to create one ourselves.
What do you consider the components of a good script?
Such a great question. there’ s probably an infinite list, but here’s the first three that popped in my head:
Set-up and payoff. This is the easiest way to make your script look smart. Just set up everything you payoff and payoff everything you set up. Need a great line for your finale? Go back to your first act and find one that’s applicable. Have an item that represents something in the beginning? Make sure you bring it back in the end. My first rewrite is always looking for these things.
Emotional honesty. We’ve all seen the movies (usually starring Adam Sandler) where you get this pat life lesson at the end like “spend more time with family.” These kinds of lessons are ultimately forgettable because they aren’t honest. They are themes we’ve seen a million times before. The real honest emotions aren’t pat answers, they are deep questions. Mark Duplass decries this as “you know when you’re up at 2am with your best friend and you’ve had too much to drink and you talk about your biggest fears? That’s what you should write your movie about.” Give the audience an answer, and they’ll forget it right after they leave the theater. Present the audience with an honest and brave question, and they’ll keep thinking about it long after they’re done.
Tension & release. If a screenplay is a wavelength, it should go up and down. It’s all about pacing. A script should rise and fall and feel natural. I think this is one of the toughest things to teach because it’s a “feeling”. Lean into whatever genre you have, if it’s a horror movie it should be a little scary, medium scary, really scary, and then give us a break. If it’s a comedy, it should be a little funny, medium funny, really funny, and then give us a break.
What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?
Telling someone else’s story and not telling your own. So many writers just regurgitate their favorite movies and don’t have anything unique to say about the world. Audience members don’t care about the “what” of your story, they care about the “why.” If you’re just writing something because “it’s cool” or “it’ll sell”, the audience can see right through that. It goes back to the “emotional honesty’ thing above. It’s the old saying “write what you know” but that doesn’t mean write about your day job or your current boyfriend, it really means “write what you feel.” If you’re emotionally connected to your story, your audience will be too.
What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
Usually the things that make me roll my eyes have to do with masculinity on film. I get so bored with cold, stoic, masculine action heroes. I’m equally tired of female action heroes who feel like someone went into the script and just did a search to change “him” to “her.” And don’t get me started on shallow descriptions of women in scripts “nerdy but beautiful” or whatever. Like the two films I mentioned earlier – NOBODY and SHADOW IN THE CLOUD, these are films with warm, broken, interesting, action heroes who lean into their vulnerabilities as much as their strengths.
What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?
Here’s kind of a checklist I try to run through for every scene I write:
GOAL: What does your protagonist want in this scene and how are they going to get it?
CONFLICT: What obstacles make it difficult for your protagonist to reach that goal?
CHOICE: What difficult choice will the character have to make as a result of the conflict?
STAKES: What is hanging in the balance with each choice?
TWIST: What does this choice tell us about the character that we didn’t already know?
THEME: How does this choice push the character’s emotional journey forward?
CONNECTIVITY: Can the elements of this scene be set-up in a previous scene or lay the ground-work for future scenes?
VISUALIZE: Is there a visual or item that can replace obvious dialogue or action?
LESS: Is there a “perfect line” or action that could say it better than a long drawn-out scene?
VOICE: How can you rewrite it to be more “you”?
Have you ever read a script where you thought “This writer really gets it”? If so, what were the reasons why?
The screenplays that I love all make me feel something. They get an emotional response out of me, whether that be fear or laughing or crying or warm-heartedness. They are masters of set-up and payoff. They surprise me at every turn and never make the obvious choice, I can’t predict where the story will go. They ask big questions about the world.
How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
On their own, I think they’re worthless. I don’t know if I’d go as far as calling them scams. I think a lot of contests are well-intentioned, but it’s a model built on 99% of writers who enter paying money and getting nothing in return. That industry has created a lie that writers can write one screenplay, enter a contest, win, get an agent, and go write Hollywood films. This lie is why so many writers give up after their first script. It’s heart-breaking to me.
Having said all that, I still enter them. Why? Because I think they do have merit when combined with other things. It’s all about stacking the deck. If you google the winners of these contests, you’ll usually find that they’ve written multiple screenplays, have already made some indie films or short films, maybe published in a different medium, might even already have representation. A contest on its own means nothing, but when you put a win on your writing resume alongside a dozen other things, it helps stack the deck.
If you’re going to enter a contest, pick and choose carefully. First, only enter contests that actually give you something of value, whether that be notes or industry access. Secondly, don’t enter the big, giant contests where you’re competing against 10,000 other writers. Instead, find all the local film festivals that have screenwriting competitions, enter those and then attend those festivals! A strong connection with another filmmaker at a festival is worth a million times more than a laurel on your website.
I always tell writers “don’t put your career in the hands of someone else.” Contests are relying on someone else’s validation of your work. That’s a very unhealthy way to live. Go make a short film. Go make your own $1000 feature. Attend festivals and meet people. Seek out local producers and directors and pitch them ideas until you connect on something and go make it. Make a narrative podcast or YouTube series. There are a million options to advance your career and I suggest you do all of them.
How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?
I’ve been doing ScriptBlast as a free service for about 5 years cause I always struggled with charging for anything that wasn’t actually helpful for writers. So I just launched a new online community in 2020 where we have weekly Zoom calls, tons of free resources and courses, accountability worksheets, share notes on each other’s scripts, etc. It’s blown my own productivity through the roof just being a part of it, and multiple writers have finished their screenplays as a result of being in the group. And it’s only $10/month. You can try it free for a week at Members.ScriptBlast.com.
I also do a podcast and provide other free resources (like online courses or one-on-one consultations) you can find at ScriptBlast.com. And if you’re interested in checking out THIS WORLD ALONE, it’s available on all digital platforms. You can learn more at ThisWorldAlone.com
Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
It’s hard to beat a slice of hot apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But, if there is no heat source or ice cream, I might go with peanut butter pie.
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.