Category Archives: Screenwriting Biz

Be gentle?

I was at the monthly Chicago Screenwriters Network (CSN) meeting this past Sunday and was chatting with a guy who asked me to read his script awhile back.  For the purpose of this post, the original conversation went something like this:

THE GUY
Do you want to read my script?

ME
I’d be glad to!  I’ll read it, then we can get together before
the next meeting and go over the script and my notes.

THE GUY
Oh, I don’t want any feedback… it’s done.

Oh, it’s done?  Okay.

… back to this past Sunday…

While I was chatting with this writer, he dropped a couple of hints like “Oh, I think I sent it to you, right?”

I finally said, “Listen, you said you didn’t want any feedback so, to be honest, I put it on the back burner.”

He seemed a little taken aback — which is understandable — and admitted he probably shouldn’t have said that.  I shared with him how I have paid for professional coverage in the past and have actually gotten even better notes from members of the CSN group on the same material that got a “professional” CONSIDER rating!  In fact, based on those later notes, I’m surprised the earlier version of that script got a CONSIDER rating from one of Hollywood’s top coverage services.  But that’s a topic for a whole other post…

So, he said he’d like for me to read his script and give him honest feedback.  That night, he sent me an updated version with one line in the email:

Be gentle lol.

Really?

Be gentle?

Why?

So you can just feel good about your script and not grow?  So I can spend hours reading material by another aspiring writer only to be put in a position where I can’t be totally honest?  How does that help either of us?

That’s right, I said “us.”

Look, I’m not here to be preachy, but at this stage of my development as a screenwriter, I learn a ton by reading screenplays and putting together notes for fellow writers.  It seems when I’m focused on someone else’s material, my shortcomings as a writer — along with flaws/plot problems in what I’m currently working on — always float to the surface and the process of helping someone else becomes an amazing opportunity for personal growth.  It’s a win/win in my opinion.

I have no illusions that I’m any kind of expert on the subject of screenwriting.  But I do know one thing: I certainly know a helluva lot more about story and screenwriting than the average Joe.  Ironically, trading scripts to provide brutally honest feedback is one of the main purposes of the CSN group!

Coincidentally, I drove home from the meeting that night with another writer who has sold scripts and had his material produced, and he said, “By the way, thanks for your notes on <SCRIPT>, it just won <SUCH AND SUCH> contest.”

Because I agreed to,  I will spend the hours it takes to read and put together honest, coherent thoughts on this writer’s script.  I can only hope that my time and effort will help him.  Regardless, I know it will help me.

On a positive note, I also got a script from another friend of mine who wants nothing less than painfully honest notes.

I felt a little like Josh Olson there for a minute.  Except he’s a talented, successful screenwriter and I’m, well… feeling a bit better for having written this. :)


Scriptnotes Podcast

Scriptnotes Podcast - Subscribe in iTunes

In the 4 episodes released since the new Scriptnotes Podcast launched on August 30th, screenwriters  John August and Craig Mazin are already covering a variety of topics ranging from the writing process itself to the business side of screenwriting as it relates to pros as well as aspiring writers.

With the recent addition of 30+ hours to my work week, this entertaining podcast is a welcome addition to my listening queue as I commute an hour each way, 3 days a week.  Thanks, guys!

Definitely check it out!


Story is Everywhere!

One of the fascinating things I’ve learned as I study story and mythic structure is that, as human beings, it seems how we assimilate story is actually part of our makeup and coded into our DNA.  So, it only makes sense that story structure is not limited to books and movies, but is actually part of our everyday lives and can be seen all around us in just about everything — from how a friend tells us an interesting story, to static magazine ads, to TV commercials.

The late-great Blake Snyder (who wrote the marvelous Save the Cat! screenwriting books) got an email from a reader about how he was able to use all of Blake’s 15 story beats in a :30 second TV commercial.  While there’s much more opportunity to tell stories in Branding ads (think Geico), Direct Response ads (price-based, get-the-phone-to-ring types) don’t typically get to tell stories quite as engaging.

As an example, here’s a TV commercial my company recently created for Four Seasons — one of Chicago’s oldest and well-respected heating and air conditioning companies:





Even in a simple, direct-response ad like this one, we can still find elements of story structure:

Opening Image/Set-Up:
The Thermostat.   The statement of the problem is that your hard-earned cash is being sucked into it.  The Set-Up also typically shows the world as it is before the necessary hero’s journey and contains what Blake and other authors describe as “Stasis=Death” — if things stay the same, the Hero will perish.  Here, if things stay the same, the homeowner’s money will perish… so they must take a journey!

Catalyst:
What gets the story going?  Well, here comes the Four Seasons Truck!  This “vehicle” element is also a sign of the “Break Into Act 2” where, in story, the hero typically changes location to begin the journey.

Fun and Games:
This is sometimes described as the “promise of the premise.”  As I’m sure we’re all used to, that promise in a direct-response ad is usually “What are you selling?” and “How much money can I save?”  This section also moves us along the logical path toward resolution with the mention of Interest-Free financing.

Final Image:
The Thermostat again, but this time the cash is going the other way…  Yay!  Oftentimes in story, the hero returns home with a new perspective after taking the journey to solve the problem.  This leads us on to the peaceful title card and jingle, which could be the denouement: “the final outcome of the main dramatic complication in a literary work.”

Some of the branding-type concepts we’re currently developing with Four Seasons will allow us to use even more structural elements to tell a fuller, more entertaining story in just :30 seconds.

Are there any commercials you think are outstanding?  If so, please drop me a note so I can check them out and see what kind structural elements are used to tell the story.


Screenwriting: A Visual Art? (repost)

UPDATE:  I recently traded notes with a working screenwriter (which was extremely helpful!) and noticed he bolds and underlines his sluglines.  While I’ve seen this in produced scripts, it seems this is becoming more of an acceptable trend for aspiring screenwriters.  Back in May, John August addressed this question in his article “Okay to use bold for scene headers?

Since I’ve recently started bolding my sluglines — and love the way it looks/reads — I thought this visual aspect of the craft related to the following article I posted back in January…

The closest I ever came to having a nervous breakdown was during “Intro to Design 1” at the Illinois Institute of Art. All because of a damn pen…

Foundations of Visual Design

“Intro to Design 1” focused on the 4 visual building blocks that make up everything in the physical world:

  • Point – marks a position in space.
  • Line – an infinite series of points.
  • Plane – a flat surface extending in height and width.
  • Negative Space – the space around and between the above elements (sometimes referred to as White Space).

    Line Study

To ingrain these foundational principles that define space, for each project we were required to use a Rapidiograph — a drafting pen with a needle-like tip used by engineers, architects, and designers. Well… used by them until CAD and disposable nylon tip technology began to replace this ulcer-inducing device.

With the right technique (which I hadn’t quite mastered yet while doing projects like the one on the right), the Rapidiograph creates a crisp, consistent line. But used incorrectly, or lose focus for just a moment, and hours of work are trashed in the blink of an eye with a straying line or a blob of ink. Needless to say, I had to pull several all-nighters to completely redo projects from scratch.

But after all the stress, flurries of expletives, and what felt like a borderline nervous breakdown, only in hindsight do I see the value of this method of learning because…

Achieving visual balance is a permanent part of my creative self.

What a heartwarming story, but what the hell does that have to do with screenwriting?

A lot, actually.

Following is a comment from a coverage report for one of my scripts:

“From a pure readability standpoint, this script is a well-oiled machine. Pages nearly always reflect the concept of white space and the writer has an excellent understanding of how to guide a reader logically through a scene lingering only on those details or moments that are salient to this particular story.”

“The concept of white space.” What a marvelous paradox of screenwriting:

In a practice that’s about putting words on paper, the white space (negative space) is as important as what is written (points and lines).

This concept did not come easy to me, however. Sure, I “got it” in my head, but without that real gut-level connection, I could only see my words as the most important things on the page.

Then, while reading William Akers’ book Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great, a connection was made. In the “Format” section, I came across examples from well-known scripts like Alien and The 40 Year Old Virgin where, like the framed art image above, Akers uses lines instead of actual words to show how text should fill out a page (or NOT fill out a page, as the case my be).

This bridge between screenwriting and design was a real eye-opener. No longer was I just trying to distill my writing because I knew I was supposed to, but began to feel how a page should look, just like when creating an artistic work. The effect on my writing was tremendous.

Now some of you might be thinking…

“But if my…

…concept is original and my story is good and my characters are interesting and the dialogue is crisp and the twists are clever and the plot is… and… and… and… why does any of that matter?”

Good question.

The Hollywood Reader
Readers expect (demand) that scripts have lots of white space. Sometimes readers and industry professionals will flip through a script and immediately decide if the author is a good or bad writer. That’s because they’re looking for white space above all else. And if my script doesn’t have it, the reader will often assume the script is a “PASS” even before reading the first page.

Beats
I’m a big fan of story structure. If my script is bloated with unnecessary action description and dialogue, it throws the beat structure out of whack, which throws the pace out of whack, which throws the story out of whack, which throws the… well, you get the picture.

The Purpose of a Screenplay
This is strictly my personal approach. Even as I’m trying to write the most vibrant, interesting content, I still view the script as a blank canvas or as raw material to be used to fuel someone else’s vision. Although a screenplay should only contain what is seen and heard, I don’t like to write HOW something is seen or heard unless it directly affects the story and/or plot. This typically saves me from letting unnecessary content make its way into later drafts.

Finding the Story
Oftentimes, by eliminating unnecessary text to achieve visual balance, I’m led to hidden aspects of the story or the true essence of a scene. It also helps me see when a chunk of the script is completely unnecessary. While it can be painful to “kill my darlings,” the personal reward is so much sweeter in the long run. I knew I was becoming a better writer when I was just as excited about deleting content as I was creating it.

DISSOLVE TO:

This connection between writing and visual art also served to further enhance my belief that each and every visual and audible artistic endeavor is just a different paint job (no pun intended) on the same thing: the soul, the Universe, God, the collective unconscious, a Higher Power, whatever you want to call it. If anyone should understand this, it’s we screenwriters since what we do is directly connected to almost every other category of artistic medium.

Tip: While I’m writing, I often print to a .pdf to review because it looks different than in Final Draft (almost as good as actually printing the script). Then, while the .pdf is open, I’ll sometimes shrink the window to where the text is illegible to see how the content fills out the page.