Q & A with Terry McFadden

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Terry McFadden came up through the ranks as a playwright having been produced
throughout the United States, the UK and Australia and winning several awards. From there he worked as a script consultant for ARD Television, Radio and Films and Eternity Pictures before starting off on his own. He has had the good fortune of giving studio notes to producers on scripts that got made such as THE GOOD GIRL, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE.

As the founder of Story Builders Script Doctor & Writing Services, he has covered, analyzed, given notes and consulted on hundreds of screenplays, TV pilots and story ideas and is dedicated to helping writers find and hone their own unique voice.

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

JOKER. Without question. The absolute best script of 2019. From the very first page I loved the writing. Now, a lot of it is because I so identify with the charm and depth, the way it was done, the thematic and stylistic elements hit me right off. Not only was the lead character great and unique but he starts out as a very human but weird guy who has issues—issues that are clearly foreshadowed and then evolved. The story makes clear and piece by piece layers in not only his mental and delusional maladjustments but the idea that the way things turn out, as a result of his upbringing and belief systems and how he sees himself and world, is the only way it can end. This is developed wonderfully.

Screenwriters are taught to look at story, the characters and their arc, the twists, the spins, the reversals, the progressive development and surprises; a solid and rising structure with the catalyst plot points, midpoint, and the rest. All of that was there in JOKER but what kept me turning pages was the way it all weaved back in—supporting and commenting on what is already going on adding dimension. A real fresh slant on how he becomes not only his own hero but also the hero of those in need of such a person. The metaphors, the allegories, the songs, the running symbolic commentary—all snaking back and endorsing what is going on or will be, was both unpredictable, cool, necessary yet not seen coming in that way. Very well done.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I started as a musician. Eight years old, I’m taking guitar lessons and my Dad tosses me onstage with “Tommy Schaefer’s Country/Polka Band at Jim Thorpe Memorial Park”. Music is a big part of everything I do. Writing is music. I came to formal writing at Penn State, penning funny essays about people and teachers. But it took off in Los Angeles in 1993 or so, when I began to write short scenes and monologues for the theatre. I became a member of Actors Art Theatre in Hollywood and remained there for four and a half years—this is where I really developed my style of writing.

Writing scenes progressed to ten-minute plays, short plays and one acts. The director and founder of the theatre was a real mentor to me and a great means of support. From there I studied at UCLA and AFI, did coverage and analysis for several production companies for a while, continued to write, act and produce plays and scripts. I then went out on my own as a script doctor.

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

Absolutely – for both. The “craft”, to me, comes first. Learning about story, character development and structure–how to turn an idea into 110 pages of course, is the gig here. So in order for me to recognize it, I had to learn it. I had to discover what structure does, why and how–what makes great story points and all of the rest. When you are reading tons of scripts and attending workshops and seminars by a lot of the great teachers like I have, the recognition of good writing becomes second nature because you’re also seeing bad writing and discovering why.

Writers who want to grow and become better intuitively know they need some help. My job is to provide that while showing them their promise as well. Their promise is what we develop. Writers who are open to and then apply good notes will see right off how it betters the work—this is “being taught”.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A memorable story, clear and fresh characters and building structure as I mentioned above, but for most of us, that’s a given. Good scripts need to be engaging and surprising too.

Stories that emotionally move you as well as make you feel that you are there. The mark of great writing is a piece that has the reader or audience invested and rooting, one way or the other – eliciting an emotional response. Even though readers may not identify with the situation they will identify with the emotional life of what the character is going through, the actions and the way the characters behave, and this is because of the human experience.

What I consider the most important component of all of this is that the writer tell the story in a fashion that only her or she could—their own unique voice. This is who they are and how they see the world that nobody else does. The first thing I look at when reviewing a script is the description and I ask myself, “is this textbook or is this from a perspective that I’ve never seen before?” A script that has a unique and personal voice to it is already leagues ahead as the writer understands not just story, but “their” story and how to get that across.

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

Lack of prep and what’s worse, thinking that you don’t need it. Okay, great ideas make great stories but only if the idea is turned into a script that encompasses the story and structural elements to evolve, build, grow, sustain and resolve in 110 pages.

Another mistake is writing “pot-boilers”, that is, trying to copy what is out there without having a believably sustaining basis for the human aspect. Without a strong and personal character take, motivation, true want and need, you’re writing purely externals. Externals don’t get it for me. I need to know why.

Another mistake is that Act Two putters out and the scenes begin to get episodic and meandering. Biggest one is protagonist trade-offs: The protagonist, because of lack of drive, stakes, want and need is passive so the action is progressed by secondary characters thus confusing the lines and creating tangential sub-plots that do not correspond with the concept or original goal of the protagonist. I am a big proponent of using an outline. Sure, you could waver from it, but, do so in the context of the story that you are now familiar with—this is true and correct inspiration. Write an outline or treatment and get notes on that first. You’ll save yourself not only time but ego deflation and bouts of self-doubt. All comes down to execution on the page.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’d have to say voice-over as it’s so overused. If you’re going to use a narrator, and this goes for all devices and conventions, ask how is this still serving the story yet different, adding, and, could it only come from me? Is the narrator a character? Do they know the ending? Are they commenting in a way that goes against the cliché? Are they oblivious, dumb, judgmental? Are they an active character? Also, mentors who are older and have it somewhat together.

Photos on the wall or mantle showing who the characters were and what they did before we see them. I feel that exposition should be meted out when essential and in story forwarding form in crucial times and scene beats.

Lastly, villains that are too dark and mean. My take is that antagonists and villains are the protagonist in their own story; they’re just at cross-purposes with the hero. If you can show why antagonists do what they do and their reasoning, it’ll be more interesting. Watch the original FRANKENSTEIN bopping and stumbling all over the place, and tell me you don’t feel for him.

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

Write dialogue that differentiates the character as per who they are, their world, POV and experiences. Dialogue that only they could say.

Make sure it’s your world; your voice; your take—only you could have written this. The hook, the take, the scenario and the point of view could have only come from you. Not just overall conflict but inner scene conflict between the characters needs to be present evolving and resolved in some fashion, especially if they’re on the same side. Individual stakes and progressive character function is vital.

Do not have a character if he or she does not only have a role but also a function. How are they influencing the story and the hero? What happens to turn the story because of them?

Keep us guessing. Great scripts set up surprises, twists and reversals that catch readers off-guard yet make sense as per the foreshowing early on. There is no such thing as “out of the blue” (some comedies and farce exempt) even if you think it is. Everything that happens in Act Three is foreshadowed in some way and credible to this story.

Be open to changes; be open to collaboration; be open to notes that are going to improve the vision overall. Screenwriters are subjective and we need another pair of eyes that are not our own. We need to understand that getting sold, published and produced demands active collaboration. Get notes, shut up or drive a bus. Keep writing. This is a process and you learn as you go. Will you get better at it as you go? Probably. Will you evolve as a writer? Absolutely.

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

Yes. I reviewed a coming of age drama, a TV pilot, that looks at one night in the lives of several late-teen/early 20’s pizza delivery-service workers, concurrently and from all of their points of view. So different were the characters yet all dealing with their own private teen angst. Phenomenal use of subtext; great devices and conventions that were imaginative, unseen before yet fell right in line with the voice and concept.

This slice of life story very convincingly depicted the trials of young adults searching for love but settling for sex and left me with the feeling of hope and the promise of their journeys to come. Because this pilot opened up so many possibilities for all four of the leads, I felt it could go for many episodes and progress uniquely as well. Great writing.

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

Only if you do well. Screenwriting contests can help leverage a career but again, you need to have a good script that is recognized by the contest. Bigger question is how are you going to get your script out there? Contests are simply one road and not for all of us.

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

You can check out my website at www.storybuilderswrite.com. I’m also on Twitter at @Storybuilderz and on LinkedIn at  https://www.linkedin.com/in/storybuilders/

I also have a new e-book entitled, “That Sounds Like Me’ – ‘Implementing your Own Unique Voice into Act I of your Screenplay or TV Script’. The book takes a comprehensive approach to the usual refrains on getting your life and slant on the page. By delving into how the writer’s natural voice need influence all aspects of the process, it demonstrates how story tools such as Opening Image; Character Construction; Backstory and Exposition; Hooks; Allegories, Metaphors and Themes work together, complement each other, are part of the same world and why. Go to my website and sign in and I’ll send you the book for free, as a gift to you.

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

Ha! I’m going to bend the genre here and go with New York Cheesecake – graham cracker crust and bottom.

new_york_cheesecake

Q & A with Paul W. Cooper

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Paul W. Cooper has been a working freelance television and motion picture screenwriter for more than thirty years. With over 60 television credits and one feature film, his awards include three Emmys, the Humanitas Prize, Writers Guild Award and the Kairos Prize.

He wrote the critically acclaimed film ONCE UPON A TIME…WHEN WE WERE COLORED winning Best Picture honors at the Movie Guide Awards. His television credits include MURDER, SHE WROTE, HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and THE WALTONS. He served as Story Editor on Oprah Winfrey’s dramatic series BREWSTER PLACE, and has instructed Film and Television Writing at Pepperdine University.

Paul has written 21 ABC and CBS AFTERSCHOOL SPECIALS dealing with subject matter exploring every significant social issue including incest, alcoholism, physical abuse, homosexuality and racism. A number of these projects won Emmys as Best Television Specials for their significant social and dramatic impact.

Paul has written a number of films for cable television, which have appeared on Showtime, Disney, the Animal Planet and Family Channels. He wrote THE MALDONADO MIRACLE for Showtime, produced and directed by Salma Hayek. It earned 5 Emmy nominations and won the Writers’ Guild Award. His film for the Hallmark Channel, THE NOTE was the highest rated Hallmark movie of 2007 and 3rd highest rated of all time.

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

BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Visually stunning. I ached for the characters.

Two of my favorite genres to write in are straight drama and crime. There are two screenplays I constantly refer to so I’m certain the last material I read are one or both of these screenplays. The first is TERMS OF ENDEARMENT by James L. Brooks. It’s the only screenplay that actually brought me to tears while reading. The second is the crime drama SEA OF LOVE by Richard Price.

Here’s my practice. After I’ve written ten pages, I will pick up my dog-eared and worn copy of SEA OF LOVE. I’ll read ten pages (any ten) then come back to the last ten pages I wrote. Now I find myself re-writing those pages with a different tempo. I’ll knock out words from the dialogue to give it a more staccato and street feel. My shoot-outs become more cinematic because now I’m trying to write UP to Richard Price’s standard. And the more I do that, the better writer I become.

When I write a drama-charged relationship story, I use Terms of Endearment the same way. Again, I’m always trying to write UP to the standards of the masters. So those are two works I refer to constantly and believe are incredibly well-written.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I learned I had a knack for writing when, in the 8th grade, the class was assigned to write a short story. Once I started, I couldn’t stop and the world of fiction opened up before me. From that time on I wrote stories, plays, songs and poetry. But I never considered pursuing writing as a career. I was eminently practical and got my degree in business administration.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

There was a war raging in Vietnam when I graduated college. Rather than being drafted, I joined the Air Force, attended Officer Training School, then pilot training. I was a pilot in the Strategic Air Command for six years. I got assignments all over the world including three tours of the war zone and came back registering 61 combat sorties. As a crewmember in SAC, I was also required to sit alert for seven day periods. The Strategic Air Command was our first line of offense in the event of a nuclear war. So we had to be ready. And that meant living in an underground alert facility (mole hole) for those seven-day tours. There’s not a lot to do while waiting for the horn to go off. Guys played poker, shot pool or watched TV.

One night I was watching an episode of MEDICAL CENTER and thought “I can do that”. So I went to my little bombproof room, took out a spiral notebook and started writing. I had never seen a film or television script and had no idea about formatting. So I wrote my story like a play, drowning it in terms like cut to, fade out, dissolve etc. When finished I was optimistically excited and immediately began writing another episode. Then I branched out and wrote for other series popular at the time; MARCUS WELBY, THE WALTONS, SANFORD AND SON, MCMILLAN AND WIFE, and others. Now, none of these scripts was very good, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was I was writing stories, creating characters, giving those characters words to speak. And I loved the sensation, the power I had over these fictional “people” and their lives.

After a year or so of writing television “scripts” I thought it was time for the entertainment world to be exposed to my heretofore undiscovered talent. I wrote to the Writers Guild of America and they sent me a packet of useful information, including a list of agents. So I began firing my material off to agents who would summarily return fire with a politely worded rejection letter and my envelope unopened. Dissolve to a year later when I met my future wife, an Air Force nurse. On a blind date, I discovered she had lived next door to the sister of Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of THE WALTONS. What do you know, I had written two Waltons episodes. Through that connection I contacted Earl and he graciously agreed to read my scripts. I sent them and a week later, he called me and said I should be in Hollywood writing for television. So off to Hollywood I went, Earl became my mentor who put me in touch with an agent, and I was on my way.

Sad to say, my story only reinforces the notion that you have to know someone in the business in order to get into the business.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

People ask, what is or are the most important elements of a screenplay. Some will say character. Others say story. But the answer is – structure. You may have the most beloved character since Hoke (DRIVING MISS DAISY) and an absolute jaw-dropping story (THE RIGHT STUFF), but unless the pieces are stacked properly, the whole construct collapses.

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

The thing I see most often is that a story is derivative. Nothing new. All the same old plowed ground. And this, of course, makes stories predictable. I believe it was William Goldman who said, “Always give the audience what they want, but in a way they didn’t expect.” If it’s true there is no story new under the sun, then at least get us to the desired ending by way of a different road.

Too many words, not enough story. I will often tell a student, “You have a 105-page script here but it only contains 65 pages of story.”

My pet peeves are typos, misspellings and grammatical errors. There’s no excuse for these infractions. They label the writer careless at best and illiterate at worst and create an unfavorable impression for the reader.

Other mistakes are what I call re-hash and deadwood. Never tell the reader what he already knows. And omit anything that doesn’t relate to the premise. Keep the story ever moving forward.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I’m not a fan of superheroes. It always comes down to the hero battling with an equally powerful villain in an epic cinematic struggle only possible with CGI. Yes, it’s visually impactful, but for me, cartoonish. No matter what the bad guy throws at the hero, he/she
always recovers and comes back for more. After ten minutes of lightning bolts being hurled and mushroom clouds rising over the city, I’m bored.

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

-Determine what your premise is. This is found by asking who your hero is and what does he/she want, need or desire. You should be able to state your premise in ten words or less. The premise of Romeo and Juliet is Romeo desires Juliet (boy wants girl). Indy wants to find the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Rocky needs to go the distance. The premise is your searchlight that must always be in view as you write the story. If it disappears, you’ve taken a wrong turn.

-Be aware of the third question — why do we care? We must be endeared to the hero (or despise the villain) and the hero’s goal must be worthy and important. The implication is obvious. If we’re not emotionally attached to the hero, we won’t care what happens. And if his goal isn’t both worthy and important, we won’t care if he attains it.

-Until the premise is revealed, the story is pointless. In other words, until the audience knows what the hero WANTS, the story has nowhere to go. Example: In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we open with Indy in an Amazon jungle cave stealing some artifact. He barely
escapes with his life and manages to return to his work as a professor at Chicago University. Now what does any of that have to do with the Lost Ark? Nothing. Indy has stated no particular goal so the story is nowhere. But then… he learns of the existence of
the Ark and decides to find it before the Nazis get hold of it. Now the premise becomes, Indy WANTS the Ark. And everything he does from that point on is aimed at achieving his goal. I like to see the premise revealed within the first 20 pages.

-Love is a process. You can’t just put two people together in a story and tell us they’re in love. We may believe it but we won’t feel it. You MUST give us the scenes showing us the behavior that causes one person to fall in love with another. What is it in her that he needs? What does he have that makes her desire him? And it can’t be only physical attraction. We know that people in bars can be physically attracted, fall into bed and the next morning regret it and never see each other again. That’s lust, not love.

-Once the hero has attained his goal… THE STORY IS OVER. Think of it this way. You’re watching a film full of danger and intrigue keeping you on the edge of your seat as the hero hurtles ever onward toward his worthy and important goal. The drama builds. Tension is unbearable. Then, in the exciting climax, the battle between good and evil is waged and the hero wins (or loses as in a tragedy). At that moment, all of the dramatic tension that was built is released like air out of a balloon. At this point, the audience is ready to rise and file out of the theater. THE STORY IS OVER. A common mistake these days is for a writer to keep going with the story even though there is no more tension to be derived. Yes, you often have to spend time to tie up loose ends but this must be done
quickly so you can get out and fade out.

-Think about what the audience is seeing onscreen. I often read a scene wherein two people are at a restaurant. They order. The waitress leaves. The two people converse for about thirty seconds and the waitress returns with their chateaubriand.

-Think of a script as a document of information. Something happens. And that something is first registered in the brain, right? We see and hear the event. Now if that information stops in the brain (intellect), then you’ve failed as a writer. Once it registers in the intellect, then it must go further into the heart or the gut. Those are the places emotion comes from.

-Character development occurs when we create the scenes that show the character behaving in the manner we want him identified with. Don’t tell us Joe is wonderful, he’d give his shirt off his back. Give us the scene where Joe gives the shirt off his back or “Saves the Cat.” Don’t tell us Sam is so evil he’d stick a knife in his grandma’s back. Give us the scene where Sam not only stabs his grandma in the back, but then twists the knife. Those scenes hit straight at the heart and gut.

You’ve written for both TV and film. How does writing for one medium compare to the other?

No difference unless you’re writing for a series. Then you have time (page count) considerations. I’ve written a number of movies for cable television and every one I wrote as though writing a feature film

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

Yes. And the reasons are hard to explain. First, it followed all of the requirements listed above concerning proper mechanics, economy, etc., but beyond that it grabbed my interest on page 2 and never let me go. It had complication, conflict and invention. It gave me the satisfying ending I wanted but in a way that was unexpected.

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

Go to my website at www.PaulCooperScreenwriting.com or my IMDb site: http://www.imdb.me/paulw.cooper

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

Coconut cream. The best I ever found was in a little diner/pie shop in Williams, Arizona. My wife and I always stop there on our trips between California and Oklahoma.

coconut cream

Assorted ends & odds

Woman Food Shopping
Nothing like a little variety – and at such reasonable prices

A lot of developments on several fronts around Maximum Z HQ this week. Don’t want to go into much detail, but among the highlights:

-outlined a horror-comedy short, and have now moved on to writing it. Seriously considering making it, so watch this space for further developments.

-working on the short, plus some inspiring and motivating comments from a few colleagues, makes me weigh the option of revising the horror-comedy spec I wrote last year. This would be done with the intent to lower the potential budget – smaller number of characters and locations. Defnitely doable.

-I’ve always been a fan of the The Flash TV show, and came up with a story idea I think would be fun to see. So, I’ve decided to attempt to write a spec episode about it. Since I’ve never written for TV before, this will be quite the learning experience.

-forgive the self-promotion, but my western took the top spot in its category for Creative Screenwriting’s Unique Voices contest. I’m quite thrilled, and even if it doesn’t take the grand prize, it’s still something I’m very proud of having accomplished.

-Here a few external items of note:

-There are lots of screenwriting retreats, but how about one at a 5-star game lodge in South Africa? Networking. Mentoring from industry professionals. A safari. All the details at scriptoafrica.com.

-Chris Gore of Film Threat has launched a crowdfunding campaign for his documentary project ATTACK OF THE DOC. If you were a fan of G4TV and/or Attack of the Show, this sounds right up your alley. Donate if you can!

-last, but not least. Yours truly is one-third of a trio of hosts of the new Creative Writing Life podcast, which offers up our thoughts on all sorts of writing and writing-related topics. Co-hosts include author/friend-of-the-blog Justin Sloan and author P.T. Hylton. As of this writing, it’s on Spotify, and we’re working on getting it onto iTunes. No matter what platform you use, feel free to give it a listen!

Hope you have a great weekend. Go write something.

Q & A with Christine Conradt

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With more than 70 produced credits, screenwriter/producer/director/author Christine Conradt received her Bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting from the esteemed University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and then worked briefly in development and as a reader before launching herself as a successful writer. Christine naturally gravitated to crime dramas and thrillers, and eventually went back to grad school to receive a master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Boston University.

Christine’s films have aired on Lifetime, LMN, Fox, Showtime, UPtv, Hallmark, and USA.  She is the writer behind some of Lifetime’s most successful franchises including the “at 17” series, which she turned into a three-book series, published by HarperCollins. She has directed four TV movies and is attached to direct two more this year.

Christine also acts as a script consultant. More information about her services, books, and bio can be found at ChristineConradt.com. She frequently posts tips for writers on her Facebook page.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two rescued cats, and in her spare time, loves to travel.

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

Does a documentary count? Probably not, but I’ll mention it anyway because I found it to be very thought-provoking — Three Identical Strangers. It’s about triplets who were separated at birth and later found each other. I haven’t seen a lot of movies this past year because I’ve been so busy but I did think Bird Box was well done for an adaptation. Sometimes adaptations feel stilted, especially those that take place over a long period of time, but Bird Box didn’t feel that way to me. I found myself getting lost in the story which means it was well-written. One of my favorite movies was Vince Gallo’s first film– Buffalo ’66. The story is simple and the characters are really well-drawn. I can watch that movie over and over.

Were you always a writer, or was it something you eventually discovered you had a knack for?

I can honestly say it was what I was born to do. I love writing and telling stories. As soon as I could hold a pen, I was writing short stories. I won my first writing award– the Young Author’s Award– when I was in the third grade. I grew up in the Midwest in the late 80s/early 90s and at that time, there was no film industry there at all. No film schools, nothing. I didn’t know screenwriting existed as a career until I received a brochure from the University of Southern California my junior year of high school and it listed it as a major. If I’ve ever had an epiphany, it was in that moment. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I abandoned my plans to go to law school and applied to USC.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

After graduating with a BFA in Screenwriting from USC, I worked briefly in development but didn’t like it. I was constantly reading and giving notes on other people’s scripts and had to constantly sit with a jealousy that they were doing what I wanted to be doing. I did a rewrite on a USA movie, got fired off that, and didn’t get any more writing work for about four years. During that time, I was working at a YMCA as a lifeguard and fitness instructor and they promoted me to Director. Soon after, they promoted me to Senior Director. I was managing million dollars in budgets and supervising about 45 employees. The hours were long and I stopped writing for the most part.

One day, my Executive Director brought me into her office and told me they wanted to promote me to Executive Director of a branch in the neighboring city. The money they were offering was enticing but because of all the training I’d be sent to, they wanted me to give them a five-year commitment. I went home that night and realized I wasn’t living the life I was supposed to be living – I was supposed to be a writer. So the next day, I went back and told her that I couldn’t accept the job and I was giving my 30-day notice. I took out a loan to live on for six months and decided to spend every day of that period writing. If I couldn’t make it happen in six months, I’d go back and get another job at the YMCA, but at least I had given it a shot. Fortunately, during that time, I wrote two screenplays. Neither sold but both got me rewrite work, which turned into more rewrite work, and so on and so on.

At the end of the six months, I was on my way, but I wasn’t there yet. So I took a job as an editor for an international publishing company while I continued to intermittently do these rewrites. It was hard to go to script meetings because I had this day job. One day the producer asked me what it would take for me to give up my day job. He was annoyed that I could never come to meetings until 5pm. I told him I needed to make the same amount that the publishing company was paying me and he agreed to give me enough work to cover my lost income. That was the day I started to ‘make a living’ as writer. 

A large percentage of your credits are for TV movies. How much of a difference is there writing for TV (and TV movies) compared to features?

There’s a big difference between TV movies and feature films. First, the content can’t be as edgy as in a feature and it’s much more formulaic. Every network has a brand and when you write for that network, whatever you deliver has to fit within that scope, so in that way, it’s more difficult. You have to be creative and original despite all the limitations. The structure is also different. In TV movies, we use an eight or nine act structure (which basically fits into the traditional three act structure) but has three times as many cliffhangers. You have to end on a tension point before a commercial break to keep the audience from flipping the channel. In a theatrical feature, you have a captive audience so the story can unravel more slowly. Theatrical features also tend to be more high concept than TV movies. A lot of people think that a TV movie is just a movie that airs on television. There’s a lot more to it than that.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Probably the same things that most people do. For me, characters are what define a story. Not plot. The best scripts are emotional, not cerebral. They make us think but more importantly, make us feel. The way to accomplish that is with well-defined characters who have plot goals and thematic goals and who choose to struggle for what they want rather than let life simply happen to them. Those are the characters, and consequently, the stories that stay with you long after you leave the theater or turn off the TV

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

Passive characters. The most annoying thing to hear when I ask a writer what her character wants is “He just wants to keep his life the way it is.” That’s not a goal. A character adverse to change isn’t fascinating. I also see a lot of redundancy in scripts. In a screenplay, real estate is precious. You have to write clearly, economically, and infuse that writing with style without being verbose. Over-explaining in both dialogue and action pulls the reader out of the story.

In addition to your TV work, you’ve also branched out into print with your “at 17” book series. How’d that come about, and how does it compare to writing for a visual medium?

The “at 17” series is a successful franchise on Lifetime Network. It was the brainchild of one of the producers I work with and I’ve been the primary writer behind those movies for about a decade now. In 2014, I pitched him the idea that we should turn those movies into a YA book series and he championed the idea. Neither of us knew much about the publishing industry so he handed it off to me to figure out. I took the script from ‘Missing at 17’ which had already aired and wrote it as a manuscript. I went to the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference and pitched it to an agent there. He read the manuscript and loved it. He ended up partnering with another agent in NYC and they secured a three-book deal with HarperCollins. Harper wanted each book to come out one month apart in the summer and for the last book to align with the premiere of the Lifetime movie with the same title. So in May, June, and July of 2018, ‘Missing at 17,’ ‘Pregnant at 17,’ and ‘Murdered at 17’ were released.

For me, writing prose is much harder than writing a screenplay. Even though I started out writing prose, I hadn’t done it in years. When you’re writing a screenplay, you have to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’ That means you can’t write what the characters are thinking or feeling or pondering. In a novel, that’s mostly what you do. So I had to retrain myself to move in and out of the characters’ thoughts instead of just giving them actions and I had to switch from the omniscient perspective of a screenplay to first person. The books follow multiple characters in first person so that was fun to write. Picking up where one character leaves off and continuing the story with a different character. But it was definitely a challenge.

Follow-up – when can we expect to see the publication of Zombie at 17?

Ha! The movie Zombie at 17 premiered on Halloween weekend in 2018 and was a fun take on the “at 17” series. It’s about a girl who, after getting bit by a cat, contracts the zombie virus. As she teams up with an alienated guy in her high school who has an obsession with zombies to figure out how to stop the progression of the disease, she witnesses a semi-confession to a murder by one of her boyfriend’s friends. When her boyfriend refuses to rat out his friend, she involves herself in the investigation while trying to hide her zombie symptoms from the rest of the world. I don’t know if it will ever become a book because it’s a bit off-genre, but I think it would make a great one.

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

1. Give your characters goals

2. Create obstacles for your characters. Achieving their goals shouldn’t be easy.

3. Don’t obsess on formatting. Focus on writing a good story. 

4. Read scripts. Lots of scripts. Not just books on how to write screenplays.

5. Subplots (or B-stories) need to have some effect on the A-story. If you can cut out the subplot and nothing changes in the A story, you failed.

6. Don’t judge your characters. Every person feels justified in their actions. Your characters are the same way. To write them, you must believe they’re justified as well, even when they do really bad things.

7. Write every day. Even if it’s only for a half hour. And even if you have writer’s block. Professional writers write every day. Train yourself to do the same and pretty soon, you’ll stop having writer’s block and you’ll be surprised at how easily the writing comes.

What kind of impact or influence has your experience as a writer had on your work as a director or producer?

Some directors come up as cinematographers, some as actors. Coming up as a former writer, I think I pay more attention to how the visuals support the content of the story. I hate stylistic shots for the sake of being stylistic. The best shots are the ones that you don’t even realize are shots– because you’re so wrapped up in the visual storytelling. I think as a writer, I’m good at letting the moments that need to breathe, breathe. Story is always first. There are lots of visual ways to tell a story. As a director, it’s your job to choose the best one.

You’ve also spoken at a lot of conference and workshops about screenwriting. Are there any particular points or lessons you make sure to include as part of those?

One thing I mention at every conference is not to compare your journey as a writer to anyone else’s. Everyone always wants to know how professional writers broke into the industry, yet they can’t emulate it even if they know. It’s not like becoming a doctor where you go to med school and do your residency and become a doctor. There are infinite ways to become successful as a writer. And it depends on your goal. If your goal is to simply make a living writing, you’ll make different choices than if your goal is to sell a TV pilot and become a showrunner. Be laser-focused on your goal, but also be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities even if you aren’t sure how they’re going to get you there. Sometimes those opportunities turn out to be much better than anything you had planned.

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

People can contact me directly through the contact page at christineconradt.com. I’m available to speak and give workshops, and I offer screenplay consulting services as well which are outlined on my website. They can also follow me on Twitter at @CConradt or like my page on Facebook.  I post a lot of contests and other opportunities and tips for screenwriters on my FB page.

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

It’s a dead heat between blueberry and sour cream raisin.

blueberry pie

sour cream raisin pie

Q & A with Peter Russell

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Peter Russell is a screenwriter who sold two television pilots in 2018 – a crime procedural and a biographical mini-series. He is also a long-time story doctor in Hollywood whose clients include Imagine, HBO, Participant, Viacom, CBS Television and many more. Peter is in demand for his legendary seminars and master classes on film and TV story. Peter’s charismatic speaking style won him UCLA Teacher of the Year in 2009.

Peter ghostwrites for both new and established film and television writers and producers. He has consulted on many TV shows, including GENIUS (National Geographic series 2017-present) MR. ROBOT (Emmy for Best New Television Drama 2015), Chronicles Of Narnia (Lion, Witch & Wardrobe), The Da Vinci Code (Imagine Films) and many others.

Peter privately collaborates with producers, writers, and actors on film and TV story from treatments to pilots and full story development. He teaches his own classes online at: http://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/, and live at major universities, including UCLA.

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

SNOWFALL. Fantastic writing. The way both the showrunner and the staff-written eps broke the beats in every ep was insanely good. They used every trick in the book to surprise you. The beat almost NEVER went where you thought it was gonna go. Surprises, reversals, ticking clocks, raising stakes – I admire the craftsmanship of that TV writing wonderfully. SNEAKY PETE – the storylines – my god, the storylines! Sometimes 12 in a single episode! And they were wonderful. THE DEUCE – again, with the beats and the storylines! Such amazing juggling. My hats off to them. My tv eps have five storylines max, and even then it’s hard to get those to mesh.

Also just saw McQueen’s WIDOWS. Mystery thrillers are so hard to do. He probably wanted to take a swing at a commercial story. He really hit a home run. It’s such a relief, in a way, to watch a movie these days when you work in TV. The form feels so much simpler. It’s not any easier, but it is simpler. I adore McQueen. If you want to see how I talk about to do what they do, go to my newest TV lecture on creating a great story beat: https://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/course/creating-the-great-tv-beats/

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Script reading. I read scripts for CBS and then for companies like Imagine. I learned so much from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. I read scripts for seven years – waaaay too long for anybody in their right mind – it’s suppose to be a year and then you become a supersuccessful industry DYNAMO! LOL. I loooved it, though – I learned so, so much about story, sooo much about every genre. Brian and Ron taught me that a zeal and excitement for the WORLD you wanted to write about was everything.

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

You can definitely learn how to recognize good writing for sure – just read tons and tons of great scripts. Watch any great story and read along with the script. You can learn it; it just takes a while. Learning how to write? That’s a LOT harder than learning how to recognize great story. It takes a shit-ton more time to do that. I only feel like I’ve done that in the last few years, since I started selling my own stuff. But it took for-fucking-ever! LOL. That’s what you gotta know. And I’m no smarter than anybody – here’s a tip – just watch the movie or tv show 50 times! I’m not kidding. Watch the same show fifty times! You’ll see EVERY device behind the curtain. Don’t take my class, don’t listen to me, never buy a thing from me – just WATCH ONE TV SHOW or one movie FIFTY TIMES.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Scripts are the most amazingly complex devices on the planet — far more so than an algorithm. It’s a bit like asking me to explain differential equations in a sentence. Okay, I’ll try. In a movie, a hero is a wounded person given a chance to heal (or bleed out.) In TV, it’s a wounded hero with a fascinating objective and fascinating obstacles in his way. You want more? Right here: peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Okay, I lied. I DO want you to look at my stuff.

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

Characters who don’t have great core wounds. A great core wound (whether in film or TV) is the basis for 90 percent of how good a story is, especially in the first act. Bleed him (or her, or it). BLEED THEM! Show their pain! Instantly!

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I can’t watch 90 percent of network television, simply because the grooves of most of the genres are worn out for me. I loathe seeing hero-worshipping stories about superhero cops and superhero lawyers and superhero doctors – all the old, straight from radio shows (Blue Bloods, CSI, stuff like that.)

None of those professions are worthy of such praise – in fact those professions contain a higher than average proportion of assholes – probably far higher than most professions, and it makes me gag to see the hagiography. But audiences looove to see the make-believe that these people are gods on earth. It depresses the hell out of me.

I realize network TV is a factory and I honor how hard these folks work and the high level of professional product they turn out on an incredibly tight schedule – but that doesn’t mean the product interests me at all. The TALENT involved – both in front of and behind the camera – is insanely great! The level of competence and extraordinary grace under pressure is heroic. Everybody who works in TV has to have extraordinary abilities, or they don’t get on staff. I mean that. The writers I know personally who work in TV – both in writer’s rooms and out – my god, they are sooo talented! It’s just that I find the product godawful. Dick Wolf is a genius, but his product makes me despair.

I do think dark heroes are popular because most people have realized the world is a lot more like a Russian novel than a comic book. Speaking of which, fantasy superheroes, played straight, especially in the DC story world (which suffers from execs who don’t know what they’re doing), are also monumentally boring to me now. Twist the genre – DEADPOOL is genius, THOR: RAGNAROK, too, and the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – they are FUNNY. My god, that’s the greatest thing on earth to be.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Know your craft.

-Know you’ll never really know your craft and that you’ll write a lot of crap. Write anyway.

-Know that you’ve picked a profession that requires either – a) genius-level talent, or b) an enormous work ethic and persistence far beyond what you’ve imagined and that will take you far longer than you believed possible.

-None of these rules apply to a true genius. They can do anything.

-If you have neither genius nor an enormous work ethic, you will absolutely fail. Writing in Hollywood is a job for people who are as smart, or smarter, than nuclear physicists or mathematicians. It’s far harder than, say, brain surgery. I’ve never met smarter, or more mercilessly competitive people, than people in Hollywood. By the way, most of them are also massively unhealthy. This isn’t a business for well-balanced people, in the main.

-The best way forward is to LEARN how to write.

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

In my entire scriptreading life, the number of scripts I have fully recommended is a grand total of two. That’s not unusual, by the way. 95 percent of scripts you read are not good (and this is from the very best screenwriters in the biz). But the big secret is – you don’t have to be very good. You just have to be better than most people.

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

If they motivate you to write, great. Most screenwriting contests are run by mercenary assholes who are making their money by taking your contest fees. There are a couple of big ‘screenwriting’ websites who do nothing but that – they’ve turned it into a marketing algorithm. That’s okay – if they honor their pact with you and legitimately judge your work and then publicize it if you win or place. Some do, some don’t. Most just want your money. Not saying that’s dishonorable. But it’s true and they’re very, very smart in how they market.

How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

Just e-mail me at: russell310@mac.com, or go to peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Mention  this interview, and I’ll give you a ten percent discount.

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

There is nothing better than true key lime pie. Not the type that is mostly white froth. The kind with a dense, green, wonderful pie stuffing, and under that – a buttery, flaky, heart attack-inducing crust.

key lime pie