From the archives: My brain’s helping hands are ready to go

No job too small! (schedule permitting)

There’s been a slight uptick in my recent coffee chats with connections new and not-so-new. A majority of them have been of a more “just catching up”-type nature, but a few have included the exchanging of script notes and related items. That prompted the re-posting of this gem from July 2018. Enjoy.

Thanks to my ever-expanding network of savvy creative types, I get lots of chances to be on both the giving and receiving ends when it comes to reading scripts.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to get exceptionally helpful notes from a lot of really talented folks. All this feedback has somehow managed to influence my writing for the better, and for that I am overflowing with gratitude.

So the least I can do when somebody asks me “Will you read my script?” or “Can I pick your brain about this idea?” is to say “Of course.”* Maybe I can offer up a few scraps of advice that might somehow work to their advantage. If anything, I can at least point out where a fix in spelling or punctuation is needed. For a script, anyway. That counts, right?

*caveat – it’s taken a lot of work spread over a long time for me to build up my network and establish connections, so I don’t mind if somebody I actually know drops me a note with such a request. If our only connection is being connected on social media and we’ve never interacted – at all, you’re little more than a total stranger to me. So heed that one word and be social. It makes a difference.

I had the pleasure of such an experience this week. I’d connected with another Bay Area creative, and we’d been trying for a while to arrange a face-to-face meeting. After much scheduling, cancelling and rescheduling, we finally made it happen.

This person had an idea for a project, wanted to talk about it, and see if I was interested in being involved. I stated at the outset that I had enough work on my own for now, but would be open to giving notes – time permitting.

After the initial introductions and our thumbnail backstories, we focused on their project. I won’t go into specifics or details about it, because those aren’t the important parts.

What was important was:

-this was a story they’d had inside them for a while, and even though they knew it needed A LOT of work, they were still happy with simply having written it all out

-they were totally open and willing to listen to my suggestions. Some they liked, some they didn’t. Totally fine.

But the more we talked, the more the seeds of ideas were planted in their head. Even though a lot of the details we came up with, including possible paths the story could take, ended up being totally different from their original incarnation, it was easy to see that spark of excitement reignite inside them.

Seeing that happen with somebody you’re trying to help is more satisfying than you can possibly imagine.

We parted ways, with them really rarin’ to go and start developing the latest draft. They added that they really appreciated me being so willing to help out.

I just like doing that sort of thing. I never had that kind of person-to-person help when I was starting out, so why not do what I can for others? Granted, the internet and social media didn’t even exist then, so it’s a lot easier now.

I got a few emails from them the next day showing me what they’d come up with since our meeting. Same concept, but a totally new approach (and, in my opinion, provided the opportunity for a lot of new possibilities). This also included a more thorough write-up of “what happened before the story starts”.

Even though it can be tough to read emotion in text, it was easy to see the spark was still burning strong within them. The way they talked about their plans for what comes next, I could tell they were actually looking forward to working on this.

It was nice knowing I had a little something to do with it.

We exchanged a few more emails (mostly me asking questions about story and characters and them providing sufficient answers), and I wrapped up with “Keep me posted.”

Their response: “Definitely. Thanks again. You’re a good dude.”

That was nice too.

Notes: givin’ ’em and gettin’ ’em

Simply put: notes can help make a script better. This also heavily relies on several factors, including the experience level of the person giving the notes, the notes being of high quality, and the relevancy of the notes in relation to the script.

I’ve had the recent experience of being on both sides, and both proved to be extremely helpful on several levels.

First: the giving.

I’d been invited to take part in a group Zoom call giving notes on a new script from an established writer-producer.

I thought the writing was okay. Nothing stellar.

As the call progressed, the comments seemed to go back and forth between honest, critical feedback and flat-out gushing. Were those doing the latter doing that in order to get in the writer’s good graces? I hope not.

When it was my turn, I started with what I liked about it (the characters and the strong establishment of tone, in particular) and then segued into what I thought could use some work, which was mostly tightening up the writing, and trimming scenes or sequences.

Just to clarify – I wasn’t trying to tear anything down; just offering some suggestions of what I thought could help make the script better.

The writer appreciated my positive comments, but the other ones were met with a lot of “well, these other people I work with in the industry LOVED that” or “Nobody else mentioned that. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong; just in the minority.”

I’m not really the biggest fan of a writer who gets defensive when they get notes. It’s what they asked for. I don’t have a problem if you disagree with what I’ve got to say. Just say thanks and move on. Don’t try to make me feel small or wrong. If you wanted praise for your script, you should have started with that.

I had to hop off the call soon after that for work-related business, so don’t know how the rest of it went. While I’m slightly curious if any of the other participants had a similar experience, I’ve no pressing desire to find out.

Despite this bump in the road, I still enjoy giving notes and will continue to do so; maybe just a little more selectively.

Second: the getting.

A few weeks ago, I wrapped up the latest rewrite on the animated fantasy-comedy spec. My usual m.o. is to contact a few colleagues to ask their availability to give notes. This time, I opted to keep the number even lower and asked two.

Still waiting to hear back from one, but the other sent back a thorough set of notes. They explain what worked for them, what didn’t, and ask a lot of questions centered around the story and the characters.

It was my intent to get notes that would help make the script better, and that’s exactly what these are – and what I need. Yes, it would be great for someone to say what a fantastic script it is, and how much they loved it, but that’s not going to help improve the script, or why I asked them to read it.

An outside pair of eyes is more likely to see things that I, as the writer, might not. How could I argue with that? Maybe there’s something in there I don’t initially agree with, but would still want to know why they said it – the “note within the note”.

Getting solid notes from those within your network of writers can be a priceless resource, and hopefully you’ll be able to reciprocate with the same level of quality.

Let’s start with the basics

I’ve been reading for a contest these past few weeks.

It’s a safe bet to say that a lot of the writers who entered may not be as familiar with how to write a screenplay as one would expect.

This, in turn, inspired some helpful suggestions for any writer to keep in mind:

-SHOW, DON’T TELL. Convey the information in as visual a way as possible.

-GET IN LATE, GET OUT ASAP. Get to the point of your scene as quickly as you can, then move on to the next one. Don’t have the characters chitchatting back and forth for another page.

-GET THINGS MOVING. Get us into the story from the outset. Keep the momentum going.

-EVERY SCENE NEEDS CONFLICT. Two opposing forces; anything from a subtle gesture to an epic battle.

-INVEST IN SCREENWRITING SOFTWARE. It makes a huge difference to write something in Final Draft as opposed to Microsoft Word. This can also help with..

-FORMATTING IS IMPORTANT. If you’re not sure how a script should look on the page, there are tons or resources online with good examples. You can also read some other scripts to get an idea.

-DO YOUR RESEARCH. Fleshing out a story or characters with relevant info adds to the authenticity of the material. Don’t go for the information dump; use what’s important/necessary.

-SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. There’s no ‘e’ in ‘lightning’, nor should somebody ‘waist’ an opportunity, just to name two.

-THE THESAURUS IS YOUR FRIEND. Mix it up. There are 142 alternate words for “walk”.

-CHARACTER INTROS. Describe their personality, rather than just their height & appearance – unless either plays a part in the story. Also, their name in ALL CAPS only when they’re first introduced; NOT every single time after that.

-“HOW DO WE KNOW THAT?”. Action lines are for describing what we’re seeing transpire onscreen (i.e. action), not explaining why something’s happening, why somebody’s doing something, or what something really means. Find a way to get that across visually, or through dialogue.

-KEEP IT BRIEF (or WRITE AS IF INK COSTS $1000 AN OUNCE). While a book may allow for lengthy descriptions, a screenplay needs to be tight. Lots of unnecessary text will slow things down, and an important detail might get overlooked if it’s in the middle of a dense paragraph.

-IS THIS IMPORTANT TO THE STORY? While you may consider it vital to meticulously describe the decor of your protagonist’s living room, or every item of clothing they’re wearing, unless that information plays a part in the story, it’s unnecessary clutter.

-IS THIS HOW PEOPLE TALK? Do your characters talk like real people or like they’re in a movie? Helpful tip – read your dialogue out loud to see how it actually sounds.

-ACTIVE, NOT PASSIVE VERBS. “Bob runs” is more effective than “Bob is running.”

-WE SEE/WE HEAR. Personally, not a fan. If you have to use them, do so as sparingly as possible.

-CAMERA DIRECTIONS. Again, not a fan. I find them distracting. You don’t need to remind us we’re “watching” a movie

These, of course, are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but still pretty important to keep in mind.

Does your script sound like you?

When was the last time you read a script that was really hitting on all cylinders?

Great story, cinematic writing and vivid imagery, compelling characters, the whole kit and kaboodle.

What’s the one thing that ties all of them together?

That writer’s voice.

We hear about it all the time, and I’ve always described it as how the writing in a script is a reflection of the writer’s style.

If you read a script by Shane Black, Judd Apatow, Nora Ephron, or Quentin Tarantino, you’d know it by the way it reads. Each one is written in the distinctive voice of each writer.

And that’s what you want to achieve with your writing. When somebody reads your scripts, they’ll know it was you.

The need to establish your own voice when it comes to your scripts can’t be stressed enough.

I’ve read a lot of scripts that try to mimic an established writer’s voice, and it usually falls flat. Part of the reason is that the writer is trying too hard to sound like the established writer, which seems counterproductive. If I want a script that reads like Judd Apatow wrote it, I’ll read a Judd Apatow script.

It also doesn’t help that some of these established writers created a niche for themselves with their writing style, so anybody who comes after them with the same approach will immediately be labeled a pale imitation. You might have a phenomenal script, but if the only thing somebody remembers about it is that it’s just ripping off Tarantino, you’ve just wasted everybody’s time.

Now this isn’t to say that you can’t write in a similar style, but you need to put your own spin on it to help it stand out.

What are some of your strengths, writing-wise? In what areas do you really shine? Is there a way you can apply that to other aspects of your script? You want your script to have a real impact on the reader; one with a strong voice can help accomplish that.

Another benefit of a script with a strong voice is that it helps make it that much more memorable. Not only does it leave an impression, but chances are it’ll stick with the reader long afterward. Many’s the time I’ve finished reading a script and within five minutes don’t remember a thing about it. Sure, the writing may have been adequate or possibly just slightly above average, but a lack of a distinctive voice from the writer is a key missing ingredient.

Then there are those I’ll remember a long time after. Maybe it was the story or even just the concept, or the protagonist, or a great scene/sequence. No matter what it was, you could come to me a few months from now, or maybe even next year, and ask “Hey, do you remember that script about ____?”

Chances are I will BECAUSE of the writer’s voice.

Which is exactly what you’re aiming for.

Reinforcing the shoestring

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.