Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Screenwriting Basics #2 – Sluglines and Action Sequences


3771819483_a7e0db754a_zBe honest; when you saw the word ‘sluglines’ is this what you imagined in your head? I hope not but, if you did, allow me to suggest that you make a quick pit stop over at part one of this tutorial series? It’ll take you but a moment to read through it, and it’ll give you the intro to the terms we’ll be using throughout the series… which is kinda useful, right?

So… in this lesson I’m going to be teaching you a little about sluglines – the lines of text which tell us where a particular scene takes place – and action sequences which, frankly, covers just about everything else you see on the screen that isn’t dialogue. Seriously, dearest Trainee Writer, this is the big one. You’re going to be using these things a lot, so let’s get on with it.

Slugline Structure

Unlike the trails left by actual slugs, the sluglines we use in the language of film are actually completely straightforward and come in three parts. Actually, come to think of it, most things in screenwriting come in three parts. Yes, we’re going to pick that conversation up in future, too. It’s a doozy, though, so stay tuned…

The first part of the slugline is very simple; it tells you what kind of location we’re in. Most of the time, this is going to be one of two options: Interior or Exterior. When we use them in a screenplay, we tend to just abbreviate them to INT. and EXT. – the shorthand makes for a much easier read which, ultimately is always our goal.

The difference between the two should be fairly self-explanatory; an interior location is one that takes place inside a building, while an exterior location is outside. As I said, simple, right?

The second part of the slugline is the location itself. This part, again, is very straightforward. It’s where we are. A warehouse, a dog track, a church, a park, a house, even a particular room of said house. As long as your INT. or EXT. match up with your location – you know, you’re not writing INT. A FIELD or something – then you’ve got this one nailed.

See how simple this is so far? That’s what we’re going for. I’m not going to bog you down in unnecessary complications on this journey. I want you to be able to read these tutorials and get going. Although, to be honest, I’m probably burning more words than I should be. Ah, well. If you’re a writer and you’re not a little verbose, I’d be surprised. Although, ironically, that’s actually not a good thing in a screenplay always. More on that later, too!

Let’s wrap up our slugline by talking about the third part: the time. This can be simple, or it can be complicated, but here’s the most basic way of doing it: use NIGHT or DAY. If it’s supposed to be light outside, it’s daytime. Dark is night-time. Simple, right?

Now, there are other ways of doing this. You can be more specific as long as you’re consistent and the information is vital to the script. Is it DAWN? Is it DUSK? It could be. Does one scene immediately follow another? Then it’s CONTINUOUS. Is this scene in the same location as the previous one but at a different time? Try LATER and variations of it. Maybe you’ve lucked out and you’re writing an episode of 24 or something in a similar, ‘real time’ vein… you could even specify the exact time. There are no hard and fast rules here, but as a Trainee Writer, I say keep everything simple. Baby steps, you know? Stick to DAY or NIGHT for now and the rest will follow. I promise, I’ll get deeply into when the other variations are appropriate down the line, or you can feel free to ask me in the comments section.

So, what does the complete slugline look like? This:

Frozen slug

Yeah, I went back to my graphical well. Sue me. (Please don’t sue me.)

Seriously, though… how easy was that. Try writing one of your own. See how simple that is? Dearest Trainee Writer, you just started writing your first scene. Awesome right? Good job!

Ready to move on to writing an action sequence? I’ll bet you are! Let’s do this.

Action stations

Remember what I said before? That writing action is the bulk of writing a screenplay? Master that and the rest will follow. I promise.

An action scene describes EVERYTHING that happens in a scene that isn’t someone talking. Think about that. If a character walks across a room, opens a jar of pickles, punches a cop, drives a car or turns into an alligator… it’s an action and you have to write it down. But here’s one caveat that I’ll have to really cover in detail at a later date: only write it down if it’s important. If it doesn’t matter than your character opens that jar of pickles, don’t write it down. Simple enough, right?

You also use action to introduce characters to a scene. This is an important thing that many writers will continually get wrong that I want to address while you’re still a new Trainee Writer. If it’s the first time a character appears in a script, you capitalise their name. If it’s the second, tenth or thousandth, DO NOT CAPITALISE THEM.

The reason for this is for the benefit of your reader. If a name is capitalised, it draws attention to the fact that you’ve introduced someone new that they need to add to the casting breakdown if they decide to buy from you. It doesn’t matter if this character is your lead, a supporting character or the waitress that appears for one scene, when they appear for the first time, you have to call that out.

The other key thing when you introduce a character, and only when you introduce that character, is to give some kind of description of who they are. Don’t be too specific if it doesn’t need to be specific. When I started to write screenplays the rule of thumb was that you always write the character’s age and a physical description every time you introduce them. Frankly, this is becoming obsolete and many writers don’t realise it. Yes, I’m trying to start you ahead of the curve again. Instead, try to write what the character actually is. You don’t need to state a gender unless their name is gender-neutral or the character is somewhere on the non-binary scale (most screenwriters won’t tell you about

You don’t need to state a gender unless their name is gender-neutral or the character is somewhere on the non-binary scale (most screenwriters won’t tell you about this, because it’s so new as a concept for society. I’m trying to keep this progressive!)

You don’t need to tell us the character is ‘pretty’ or ‘attractive’ – this is the movies. Everybody is pretty unless you state otherwise! You don’t need to say that a character is tall or fat or Asian or Jewish, either, unless it’s relevant to your plot.

Keep it simple. Just tell us their name and a few personality traits, along with their actions. For example:

  • This is DAVE; clumsy and impulsive, he’s carrying a traffic cone.
  • Meet JANE, a carefree schoolteacher trying to juggle textbooks and coffee.

Why do we do this? In the past, there was an almost overbearing trend of casting on the page. Everyone was 19, white and blonde or 85, black and walked with a stick. It never had any bearing on their character, though. Dave is clumsy and impulsive. Why tell anyone if he’s black, white or Martian or how old he is if it’s not absolutely vital? If you’ve said he’s a 25-year-old tall white guy, but the guy who can play the role best is Kevin Hart, why would you rule him out at the script stage? Leave the possible casting for your roles as open as possible. Same with Jane. If you give her a wooden leg and tell us she’s overweight, you’re limiting the casting pool. Without that description, maybe that’s the perfect role for Jennifer Lawrence. How many overweight, one-legged schoolteacher type actresses can you name? I’m waiting…

We’re trying to sell these screenplays. Don’t put up unnecessary roadblocks.

I guess we should talk about the actual exercise of writing action. Here’s what it looks like:

labor day action

Notice how it looks like prose but… badly written prose? Well, that’s kind of how it is, but it’s a fantastically written action passage. We’re trying to tell as much story as we can, in actions, in as few words as possible. That means we have to cut corners sometimes. Short, even abrupt, sentences peppered with descriptions. Describe as much as we can as quickly as we can.

The other thing to notice is that we always write in active verbs. Everything is happening now, not in the past-tense. Notice how the hand in the example above ‘goes’ through the closet? The clothes ‘are’ worn and a little dated? Imagine it like this: you’re watching the scene happen, not telling your friends about something you just saw. Take a look at this GIF:

giphy

Think about how you would describe that in prose, or if you were telling a friend about it. “Batman glided to the ground, lowered his cape and stared menacingly” or something similar, right?

Well, in a screenplay, we’d describe it like this: “Batman glides to a the ground, halting abruptly as he wraps himself in his cape and stares menacingly..”

It’s a simple change of tense, but see how that one tiny detail makes everything seem way more important, immediate and urgent? Try it yourself. Pick a movie scene, and write it in past and present tense and see which one you like the best. See which version you can imagine in your head.

And with that, I think I’ve covered most of the basics of how to do sluglines and action sequences, but – as always – if you have questions or if you’ve spotted anything I’ve missed, let me know in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter (@chasinglamely) and I’ll try to answer as best I can.

Thanks for reading, and have a productive week!

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July 29, 2016 Posted by | Ideas, lessons, screenwriting, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Screenwriting Basics #1 – Layout, Format and Elements


hardatwork

Does this look familiar? You’re sitting in your curiously lavish apartment, wearing the jeans you’ve owned since you were fifteen (but refuse to throw out because of the memories) whilst your faithful dog stares at you expectantly, as if to say “you told me you were going to be a screenwriter, but your laptop isn’t even on. Come on, man, make with the typing already.”

Probably not, but I couldn’t find a free stock photo of the reality, which is probably of you, the Trainee Writer, sat in either a dingy coffee shop or your living room; laptop open, cursor blinking, pile of screenwriting books at your side and a dream of writing down your big idea… and wondering where to start.

Well, fear no more, for I was looking for something to teach this week and decided to fire out some screenwriting lessons for absolute beginners… just in case one happens to stumble across this little blog of mine.

As you’ve probably deduced from my extremely creative and catchy title, we’re going to go right to the very beginning and talk about the layout, format and elements that make up a screenplay. We’ll talk about what they are, what they do and how to use them.

Margins of error

I’m going to start by talking you through one of the absolute most common questions I see new Trainee Writers asking: “how do I set up my margins for a screenplay in Word?”

Simple answer? You don’t. Back in the olden days, when your choices were to spring for the cost of buying Final Draft or just forcing your way through with your custom margins in the copy of Word 98 that came with your PC, it made sense for the Trainee Writer to spend their time fiddling with these things (and, if you still want to, you can Google those measurements – have fun!) but, honestly, it’s really not worth it anymore. There’s so much great screenwriting software on the market – both commercial and free – that you really don’t need to ever dust off that copy of Word For Dummies to do this.

Let me get you started by talking you through some of the products that I’ve used and would personally recommend. You should feel free to do your own research, but these are the three that I’ve used personally:
final-draft-9-box-writers-store_medium

Final Draft has, for the longest time, been the absolute industry standard in the movie business. Anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a professional screenwriter owns a copy. That doesn’t, however, mean that you have to rush out and buy it. You’re a Trainee Writer. You’re learning. Just as nobody ever learned to drive in a Formula One car, you might not want to learn to write screenplays using the top-line software. After all, if you get to page ten and decide this writing thing isn’t for you, that’s an awful lot of money you’ve just thrown away.

Here are the basic, though: Final Draft is the best there is. When you’re ready to commit to this as a serious career pursuit, and I really hope you’ll decide that it’s for you, then you can buy it very easily by clicking here to make a purchase. The current asking price is $249.99, but this is my personal go-to as a writer. I’ve been using it for nearly a decade and, even though I’ve tried almost everything else at one stage or another, I always come back to Final Draft.

Celtx-logo

Celtx started out as a small freeware project designed for Trainee Writers like you and me. When I started using it way back in around 2004/5, it was the best free screenwriting software on the market. Versatile, easy to use and small enough to run easily on any of our antiquated PCs of the day. In fact, Celtx 1.0 is such a favourite that I keep the install file on me at all times (it’s saved on my phone’s memory card) just in case I’m not near a laptop of my own and need to throw something on the page.

Thankfully, they’ve now rendered my methods terribly old-fashioned, by switching to an effective and free cloud-based service. If you want to give them a shot, go sign up at Celtx.com and see it for yourself.

writerduetlogowonly512

WriterDuet is my final recommendation. It’s a rapidly up-and-coming contender in the screenwriting market and offers full compatibility with Final Draft, which is a huge plus. It’s completely free unless you want some subscription-based extras, and the developer, Guy, is an incredibly friendly chap who can often be found sharing his insights – as well as offering first-hand, first-class customer service – over on Reddit’s screenwriting subs. One of the great benefits of WriterDuet is that it allows for collaborative working, with multiple writers able to simultaneously view and amend the same script. Very useful if you’ve decided to work in a partnership with someone!

WriterDuet can be found by clicking on this link and signing up to the service.

Okay… software advice out-of-the-way – and I should now have convinced you to avoid the horrors of using a word processor – it’s time that I broke down each of those individual elements. So let’s…

fade-in

For those who have seen these mysterious words before, that’s usually the first thing we see when we open a screenplay. It tells us where the beginning is and should be immediately followed by a Scene Heading, which is most often referred to as a ‘slugline’ by most writers. Have a look at this example from the screenplay from Frozen, as written by Jennifer Lee:

Frozen slug

If you’re not yet used to reading screenplays – and I highly recommend you read some, because you really can’t be a screenwriter until you’ve read an awful lot of them – then this (and every) slugline gives us three very important pieces of information.

EXT. tells us that this is an exterior scene; that is, it take place outside. A scene held inside would be marked as INT. – shorthand for interior.

The second part tells us where we are exactly: the ‘snow-capped mountains.’ It doesn’t matter if we’re in an office, underwater, on the moon or over the rainbow. It’s vital information and it always forms the second part of a slugline.

Finally, you’ll notice that there’s a dash followed by the word ‘dusk’ – the third part of a slugline gives us the time at which the scene takes place. It can be day, night, dusk, dawn, morning, afternoon… whenever. I’ve seen screenplays use the exact time in the slugline. As a Trainee Writer, though, it’s best to keep it simple: stick to ‘day` and ‘night.’

You’ll notice, and this is very important, that it’s written all in capitals. A slugline is ALWAYS capitalised.

Let’s get into the heart of the story: the action. This sample comes from Jason Reitman’s script for Labor Day:

labor day action

That’s a small sample of what we call ‘action’ – we use it any time that we describe what’s going on in a scene and it’s the screenwriter’s best friend. This is what you’ll be writing, ideally, around 70% of the time. If anybody in any scene does anything, this is how you tell your reader. Characters are introduced in action lines, too – something that will be a little alien to you if you’re coming at this form the angle of being a playwright or writing long form fiction – with their name capitalised and vital details given. But I’ll explain how to write each of these elements in a future installment dedicated to the art of writing the action sequence.

Next on our list of screenplay elements is the one most people get excited about: the dialogue. Let me show you this sample from the wonderful Pixar animation Inside Out, written by Pete Doctor, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley:

inside out dialogue

For those who haven’t seen the film, or even passingly aware of it, Fear, Disgust and Anger are characters in the movie who live inside the head of a little girl and control her reactions to everything… it makes sense in context. Anyway, notice that Character names, which are listed as ‘character‘ in your choice of elements, are capitalised, whereas dialogue – marked as such in the elements drop down – is written similarly to prose. You’ll also see ‘parentheticals‘ listed in your drop down menu. These should be used sparingly, between character names and actual dialogue, if – and only if – it’s essential to indicate that the dialogue is said in a certain way. Please, please, please don’t use this unless it’s not completely obvious what the intent of a line is. Actors hate it. Directors hate it. I hate it, too.

Like action scenes, I’ll be dedicating an entirely separate post to the art of crafting dialogue in the near future. When I do, that’ll magically become a link to the page, too. You know, for ease of navigation and all.

There is one other element you’ll see listed in your drop down box that you will actually use when starting out. That one is transition.

Transitions should, like parentheticals, be used extremely sparingly. There isn’t an image from a famous screenplay that is going to make this any easier for you to understand, but it does exactly what the name suggests: it denotes the style of transition from one scene to the next. These are also always capitalised, and common transitions include ‘CUT TO:’, ‘FADE TO:’ and ‘FADE OUT.’ The meanings of these terms should be fairly self-explanatory, but I’ll go into it in a little more detail when we get further into these lessons.

That should cover all the basic elements of the layout and format of a screenplay. You’ll probably be wondering what certain terms in that elements drop down box mean that I haven’t covered. Depending on which software you use, you’ll have options like ‘shot,’ ‘act break,’ and ‘cast list’ among others. Ignore them – for now. They’re used in very specialised parts of the writing process and I’ll cover those in due course. For now, stick with the ones I’ve just highlighted and make sure you understand what they’re all for.

If you have questions, I’ll answer them in the comments below or on Twitter (@chasinglamely is my username) and see where we go from there. I next week’s lesson, I’ll be covering the use of sluglines and action in more detail, and as a bonus for the intermediate writers (and to give the new ones a bit of a head start) I’ll be teaching you how to make your action sequences and sluglines really tight in the process.

Until then… happy writing!

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Kriss

 

July 22, 2016 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Letting Trends Set You


Okay, so it’s been a little while since I updated this little blog of mine with any kind of insightful hints and tips into the craft of writing and – as usual – it’s been birthed by my recurring and endless struggle with writer’s block.

So in today’s long awaited post, I’m going to be exploring some ways of finding inspiration through social media. Actually, I’m going to be doing it from a single source of social media (a social medium?) that we all know and love to hate: Twitter.

funny-twitter-facebook

Now, even though I haven’t blogged about this myself (because, as anyone who has read my blog *ever* will attest, I update about once every four years) a lot of the expert writing teachers are strongly recommending that all aspiring writers flock to Twitter. It’s supposed to teach us about engagement, character voices, brevity and all sorts of things that I’ve forgotten are things. Basically, the message is ‘tweeting good’ and you should take this opportunity to follow me on Twitter so that you can receive great insights like this from me on the daily:

Yep. Insights.

So why am I talking Tweeting today? It wasn’t actually to shamelessly plug my own feed, surprisingly, but to point you to the one handy tool that can help the blocked writer find inspiration: the list of what’s trending.

Now, as most of my audience is probably aware, a lot of what Hollywood does (or the publishing industry – I don’t want to forget the budding novelists) is trend-based. They’re either trying to follow one or set one at all times. Now, obviously, unless you’re a super-powered self-publishing novelist, your chances of getting your work out there whilst a trend is ongoing on Twitter are approximately similar to my chances of persuading Mila Kunis to let me film her playing NES atop Mount Everest. That doesn’t make them useless…

Most writers are familiar with the concept of a ‘word prompt’ contest; Writing.com offers one almost daily and the basic concept is this: Every day you get a word. You write a short story, or poem or haiku or ransom note based upon that word. Winner gets plaudits.

Think of Twitter like the world’s biggest word prompt generator. Instead of getting one a day, the trending function gives you unlimited, ever-changing prompts every second of every day. And you can use these to inspire you to write your way out of that block. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what’s trending right now, and we’ll see if we can’t find some loglines in there…

Trends

What should be immediately apparent is that you can’t and won’t be able to use every trend to generate an idea. For example, Pokemon and Shutter Island are existing properties. I don’t own the rights to them, I can’t use them outright… but maybe we can take Shutter Island as a concept, not a property, and do something. Things like “Bellator 158” are okay to discard out of hand, though. Unless you have a great sports movie in mind, of course. MTV Hottest, likewise, doesn’t spark anything great.

So what does that leave? Let’s take a look.

Life Lessons In Five Words sounds for all the world like it has the potential to be some kind of romantic comedy or romance novel; think “Silver Linings Playbook” or similar. Let’s think about it some more; what might those five words be? We could look at the trend and see what people are replying with, but that’s cheating our creativity. Let’s pick those five words:

Live. Love. Laugh. Dream. Believe.

I think those are five strong words we can use. They would even be title cards if we played five acts, or leitmotifs to draw from. So where’s the logline here? How about this:

Life Lessons In Five Words

“A cubicle worker is inspired in a journey of self-discovery by a cryptic five word note that he receives in his father’s will.”

I can see that movie. I already know how that could go. It feels almost like the beginnings of a Nicholas Sparks book, doesn’t it? Let’s try another…

Unmade Film Prequels could be interesting in some ways. Obviously, this goes back to the rights issue: we don’t own any film franchises, so how can we write prequels?

Well, simple. An idea isn’t something that you can own. Just because James Bond exists, doesn’t mean that a similar idea like The Bourne Identity can’t. So, let’s think of a film and figure out what happened before it, and how we can make that idea into something original.

Let’s try Rocky out for size, just for the simple reason that it’s a movie that everyone knows with a simple premise: An unknown club boxer gets the chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world and win the heart of the girl he loves. But what happens before we meet Rocky Balboa for the first time?

Think about what we know about him: He’s a small-time club boxer, he’s involved as some kind of enforcer for a loan shark, he’s a labourer. He loves animals. That’s a lot of unanswered questions to work with. Why did he become a boxer? How did he get involved with the mob? Why does he love animals so much? Rocky’s backstory could be a great movie.

So, let’s turn this into a logline:

Unmade Film Prequel: The Boxer

“After witnessing his father’s murder, a young farm hand trains as a boxer in an attempt to infiltrate the mob family who killed him.”

This character isn’t Rocky, but I’ve taken just a few unanswered questions from his past, given them an answer and spun a story from it. It makes sense in the context of who Rocky becomes, but it’s original enough that nobody can sue for it.

Now, I’m going to semi-skip “Turkey” for good reason: they’re currently having a bit of a sticky political situation (a coup which might eventually be a movie in its own right) but I will say this: there’s one hell of a Christmas or Thanksgiving comedy that could come from that as a name itself…

Finally, because I’ve now written more words in this entry than I ever intended, let’s circle back to “Shutter Island.” Now, obviously, that’s already a movie: an outstanding mystery-thriller set on a psychiatric facility on the eponymous island. That doesn’t mean that’s all the title has to offer. It’s time to channel my best Ted Mosby impression.

“Kids, way back in the day, we had this wonderful invention that we called a Dictionary, which was sort of like spellcheck but with some work involved. A Dictionary told us what words mean. It had a companion book that was also useful, called a Thesaurus. That told us what words were similar to the words in a dictionary. Together, they allowed us to do more with the English language.”

The kids, naturally, shrug at this point and return to Pokemon Go. But we’re going to go old school: we’re going to put the words ‘shutter’ and ‘island’ into a dictionary.

So, we learn that a ‘shutter’ can be a cover for an opening, a person who shuts (or closes) something or it’s a mechanical part of a camera lens. Those are things we can use for inspiration. And an island? Obviously, we have the geological definition of land surrounded by water. But it’s also something isolated, it can be a kitchen work surface, something a fuel pump sits on or a clump of woodland. That’s a lot of possibilities from two words. Maybe there’s something interesting about a man who photographs fuel pumps? Perhaps there’s a story about a hidden island in there. Interesting places to start. Let’s see what our Thesaurus throws our way, shall we?

So, a ‘shutter’ could be replaced with a screen, a cover, a shade or a curtain… all things which we use to hide things. Suddenly we’ve got a theme developing. Maybe our guy who photographs fuel pumps is doing it to solve a mystery? That’s certainly interesting. Can we add to that? I think we can.

Take a long look at some of the synonyms of the word ‘island’ and remember, we’re not necessarily taking them at what they mean in context.

Key. Refuge. Haven. Shelter. Retreat. Bar. These are all very evocative, versatile words. Maybe that fuel pump thing isn’t the most interesting thing we can do with the word ‘island’ after all. What if we take our photography theme and our mystery that needs solving and find a logline that looks a little like this:

“A photojournalist investigating a mysterious murder takes shelter among refugees in the aftermath of a tsunami.”

Yes, it needs work. It’s imperfect. But there’s a story there. You know that one of the refugees is going to be the killer without being told. You know that he’s got all kinds of difficulties to prevent him solving it. It’s a beginning.

And a beginning is the one thing every story has in common.

Try it for yourself, and let me know in the comments (or on Twitter) if you manage to make this work for you. It’s worked for me – my block is gone (for now!) – and now I have a whole bunch of new ideas to work on.

Keep writing, keep smiling.

Kriss

July 16, 2016 Posted by | Ideas, lessons, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Frustrating Firsts


Remember the first time you typed the magical words “FADE OUT”? That feeling of accomplishment of having finished your first script and feeling ready to take on the world? Amazing, wasn’t it? So, for my first blog post in far too long, I want to address something that’s been bothering me of late – the debut screenplay.

Why has this been bothering me? Because in the 21st century, anyone with a laptop and a bootleg copy of Final Draft has decided that they’re a screenwriter, and they expect that their first 90-page (or, more usually, 72- or 175-page) effort will sell immediately and they’ll be catapulted to the Hollywood A-list. And it happens once per million scripts. In fact, your chances are only mildly slimmer of winning the lottery than they are of selling a debut script.

As a big internet trawler (it’s not ‘procrastinating,’ it’s research), I come across a lot of forum/discussion posts by folk who’ve written their first script and are asking how to sell it. Don’t waste the effort is my advice. Just open a new window, type FADE IN and start again. Even starting the post with “I’ve just written my first script, it’s AWESOME and AMAZEBALLS! Now, how do I get it to Tom Cruise?” is a massive waste of effort. Tom Cruise isn’t going to read your first script unless, if you ever become ‘lucky’ enough to make an impact on this business, become a major director and slowly befriend him, you decide to show it to him as a bit if a laugh twenty years from now.

See, your first script is a lot like those other milestone firsts in life: the first step, the first kiss, the first car, the first home, the first time you had sex… all felt like they were awesome at the time, right? Except you fell over after your first step, the first kiss was sloppy, awkward and too wet, the first car was a rust bucket that cost you £200 and you only got 100 miles out of and the first home was actually a dingy, damp room in a house that you shared with a crack addict and an unemployed musician who was “just working at Starbucks until I find a new drummer, man.” And the first time you had sex… well, I mean, I was pretty awesome the first time, but I know for most people it was probably the most exciting thirty seconds of their life before one of them had to use the time-honoured phrase “I’m sorry, that’s never happened to me before…”

See, it is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the first scripts every screenwriter – aspiring or successful – ever wrote was terrible. Mine would be charitably describable as a steaming pile of dog shit on a hot day. Most people have similar experiences to relate.

So kids, don’t sweat the first script… just get it done, put it in a draw, and use it as a learning tool. Zepplin wrote a lot of crap in the early days, too. And there’s a reason you’ve never heard any of it. The first five scripts (minimum) are your apprenticeship. They’re where you apply the lessons you learned from the last screenwriting book or blog you read. Sure, if the premise is good, they might one day see the light of day in some form; maybe you win an Oscar, remember the script you wrote about the Clown with AIDS when you were nineteen and decide to play with it again. I don’t know. But selling takes time. Don’t panic, don’t worry and – for the love of Christ – don’t go on the internet telling people it’s the greatest thing since Citizen Kane. Those of us who know better just treat such claims with mild amusement – and that includes every experienced writer, director and producer on the circuit.

I’ll be back very soon with an update on the irons I have in the fire, but until then… look after yourselves, and each other. (Springer ending!)

Kriss

March 28, 2013 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, specs, writing | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking after the pennies…


Inspired by a comment on Shades Of Grey by Jane Frost (Thanks, Jane!), I’ve finally found time – and a way – of talking about an oft-overlooked issue for the spec writer: budget. But this isn’t just about the cost of shooting your script, but the way everything you write on the page affects somebody on the production team and the importance of being aware of that. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to budget. Nobody wants to spend $100m producing a script by an untested writer – admittedly, there are a couple of exceptions – even if you have written the next Avatar. So in today’s lesson, we’re going to talk about the importance of making sure that your scripts are as production-friendly as possible. In an ideal world, a producer would love to see a script that he can shoot for free. He has more chance of finding a Golden unicorn ridden by a mermaid, of course, but the lower you can make the budget on your specs, the more chance you’ll have of someone producing it.

Making it as low-budget as possible should never mean you sacrifice quality, however. If your screenplay is a retelling of the 300 in space, it’s natural that we’re going to see massive fight scenes, lots of special and elaborate effects. I don’t see much chance you’d sell such a spec anyway – it’s a deliberately extreme example to illustrate my point – but always be aware.

So how do we tell the story we want whilst reducing budget to its bare minimum? Well, if you’re writing space-based sci-fi or the next Die Hard, I probably can’t help you too much. SFX will cost money and they’re genre staples. So here comes my first advice on that score: If you can write them, stick to the low-budget genres. What are the low-budget genres? They’re the ones that, when you walk into Blockbuster, you see hundreds of. (I’m assuming you still use Blockbuster. If you’ve gone strictly Netflix/LoveFilm you need to hunt down a Blockbuster and take a look sometime!) We’re talking horrors, psychological thrillers, comedies, romances, coming-of-age dramas and their crossovers and ilk. You see so many of these being made because they cost much less to produce. And people are making so many of them for exactly that reason: it’s good business. These genres have huge fanbases and a low-cost, which makes them infinitely profitable.

Interesting fact: Remember that scene in Swordfish where the helicopter is flying the bus around Los Angeles? That scene cost $13 Million to shoot. In The Bedroom (starring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Nick Stahl, written by Todd Field & Robert Festinger, directed by Field and produced by Good Machine Films) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that same year. Its total production budget? $1.6 million. You could almost have made that movie ten times for what it cost to shoot that one helicopter scene. You don’t have to go big budget to make a big impression.

To keep your budget low, there are some pretty obvious things to keep an eye on. First, you need to reduce the ‘essentials’ as much as possible. Kevin Smith shot Clerks for $28,000. How? It has three locations, around six actors and no special effects. It’s also a classic, won two awards at Cannes, one at Sundance and was nominated for three at Independent Spirit and launched Kevin Smith’s career.  Again, an extreme example, but it’s exactly what producers hope for – a break-out hit that cost (effectively) nothing to make and made a 1000% profit. And guess what? You could easily write the next Clerks if you just keep an eye on your budget as you write.

A good grounding for writing low-budget spec features is to become a student of TV, especially sitcoms. Sitcoms have a core cast of four-six and three or four regular locations. You can test this for yourself if you wish – look at any sitcom and count the locations that appear regularly. Friends had four (five in later seasons), Cheers essentially had two, Frasier three, How I Met Your Mother had two for the early seasons. TV, for the most part, writes to a lower budget. That’s why the lessons learned there are so good.

So what have we learned so far? Keep characters and Locations to a minimum. But how does this affect the rest of the production crew? Location scouts and set designers are often paid by the day – per diem – the less locations you have to find or build and the less locations you have to dress, the less time you need to have these guys on the payroll. That saves money. You can save even more money by keeping the events that go on inside a set as neutral as possible. If you destroy a set in your script, you have to redress it if it appears afterwards. Another day’s money for the set designer. Likewise, if you keep the number of cast members to a minimum, you have to spend less time casting them. That reduces the money you’re spending on casting directors. Also, less actors means less actors salaries. And the two play into each other, too. Try and choose less populous locations for your scenes; a scene at Grand Central Station will require not just hiring the station for a day (tres expensive anyway) or building a replica but also filling it with extras. If each extra is costing $80 a day, that adds up. Nobody is going to believe your lead is at Grand Central in the morning rush if there are five people milling around. Always be considering how busy your scene is versus the cost of it if you want it to appeal to a producer.

Now, my next piece of advice goes against the grain. Assuming you intend to forge a career as a writer rather than having a one-shot hit (if you do, great, but it’ll take much, much longer) then your first sale is most likely going to be a production company you’ve never heard of, one you’ll Google a hundred times to check they’re legit, and they’re going to want the budget to come in just above zero whilst shooting in ten days. An easy way to achieve this is to fly against accepted technique – and it is technically very wrong in the world of features – and tell, don’t show. Obviously, if you’re submitting to top dogs or people who read too many screenwriting books without getting any real knowledge, they’re going to hate this. But here’s a simple home truth: Sometimes you can save money by having actors talk more. Again, Clerks is the best example of this. Rather than showing events that affect the story, the characters simply talk about them. Why? Because showing them required building an extra set, finding an extra location or hiring an extra dozen actors. You have to be skilled at this though. Don’t turn your film in to a monologue or have an extended scene filled with a conversation about ‘that time we were involved in that massive car chase where seventeen people died, that oil tanker exploded and half the LAPD smashed up their vehicles’ unless there’s a punchline. Because people would rather see that stuff. But in situations where you can save a scene by having someone talk about it, do it. I see a lot of writers using flashbacks to show trivial events and, yes, it’s great in theory. It adds colour. But shooting that insert gag where we see the guy running through the Mall Of America in a mankini being chased by dogs is going to cost money. And it’s just as funny as an anecdote in the scene you flashed back from.

Again, reduction of scenes, characters and budgets.

Assuming you absolutely must fulfill some latent desire to write the next Star Wars, I’ll give you a little advice regarding budgets and special effects: Minimise the use of special effects as much as possible, and always be thinking about their plausibility. I always wanted to see a film where the guy gets kicked off the space shuttle and his helmet comes off, forcing his head to explode. But you can’t just force an actor to put an M-80 in his mouth and film it. How are you going to shoot those pick-ups later on? Besides, I bet M-80s taste horrible. To do it more practically – and legally – you’re going to have to use CGI. CGI requires hundreds of man hours by animators and technicians. They don’t work for a daily rate, either – most charge by the hour. If that head-exploding scene needs a hundred animators putting in a hundred hours each at $100 an hour, that’s a million bucks you just added to your budget. I could shoot Clerks 33-ish times for that. Imagine you go more elaborate – Waterworld, for example. I know of several SFX experts who laughed when they heard about that film. Set designers panicked. You, as a newbie spec writer, cannot write that sort of film and hope to sell it as your debut picture.

You may not be a SFX guru yourself, but always be thinking of the plausibility of any special effects. Stunts apply here, too. As a golden rule, if you’ve never seen something similar done, assume it can’t be. It may not leave room for originality, but therein lies the challenge. Earn respect for that first work, though, and people will listen to the next one.

My final word on this – for now – relates to setting again. But not locations. Oh no. We’re going to talk time. See, you may have looked through the first few paragraphs and thought ‘Well, I’ve got a comedy, it has three actors, one location and no SFX. But it’s set in the 1720s.’ Guess what? That’s your budget through the roof. Period pieces cause untold hell for location managers, set designers, prop masters and costume designers. They now have to find or build locations that are architecturally relevant to the time period, design and make costumes that are period-appropriate and make sure that none of the props are anachronistic. Often these jobs cross over each other, causing chaos, confusion, extended production time and major, major headaches and budget problems. This came to mind as I have a passion piece I’ve been planning for a while; a TV teen drama set in the 1920s. I’ve wanted to try this for a while but, in my heart, I know I can’t sell it on spec. I can’t sell this until I have the credits to establish my credentials as a writer, a showrunner and (probably) a producer.  Will it stop me writing it? No. Will I be pitching it? No. Not until I have a reputation that means I can demand that agents, producers, networks and studios trust me with their time to pitch it. So there goes my final piece of advice for spec writers: Avoid period specs entirely.

I’ll be back as I think of more (maybe Jane will spot something I missed. Feel free to weigh in, Jane!) but, in the meantime, I’d like to invite you all to join my Writing Workshop & Forum. We’ve started slowly, but I’m eternally grateful to the eight members who’ve joined so far; we’re all welcoming enough that you’ll enjoy your stay, and don’t be disheartened by the lack of activity so far. We’re still taking baby steps, so come along, post whatever’s on your mind, ask questions and enjoy. Whilst I’m plugging things, I’d also like to recommend a new social networking site for industry personnel, aspiring or otherwise: Stage32. It’s basically Facebook for the film industry. Except without getting a thousand invites to join Farmville every hour.

On a very personal note, I’d also like to plug a favourite charity of mine, which you’ll see advertised in the sidebar to the right also. They’re called To Write Love On Her Arms, a charity that focuses on helping people – particularly young people – who are struggling with depression, self-harm issues, addictions and suicidal feelings. I’m pretty open about the fact that I’ve suffered with all four problems, and I wish there were more charities who were willing to reach out and help folk with them. I don’t want to guilt anyone into doing it or beg, but I would like to ask that if you’ve enjoyed my blog and found anything I’ve posted useful, please click on either the link above or the one to the right and help them out a little. Even if it’s only a dollar, I’m certain they can put it to good use. Who knows? One day I or someone you love could use their help. The work they do is so valuable, so important, and I cannot state my passion for helping them out strongly enough.

Until next time, in the words of Jerry Springer, take care of yourselves… and each other.

K xx

October 2, 2011 Posted by | lessons, networks, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Shades Of Grey


Though the name might suggest I plan more discussion on characterisation, I actually want to discuss another grey area in screenwriting. The near-sale.

Just as there are three acts to a screenplay, there are three ‘acts’ to the career of a screen writer. Act one, as always, is the beginning.

In act one, our hero – you – has decided that s/he wants to write a screenplay. To do this, they have certain things they must accomplish before setting out on their journey towards success. They must learn the craft, the format and the art of storytelling. They must find their story and work out how they’ll tell it, planning meticulously as they do so.

In ‘act 3’ we find our conclusion as the hero finally makes a sale, finally sees some money in their pocket, their name in lights and earns the title of ‘professional screenwriter.’

My focus today is on the second ‘act’ of the screenwriter’s story, which I call the ‘grey area.’ As with a screenplay, act two is often the most torturous, emotional rollercoaster on the writer’s journey. It has highs and lows, twists and turns, brings happiness and heartbreak. The grey area is the longest part of our story, but it’s also the one with the greatest learning experience along the way.

The grey area covers that wonderful time between our initial education and our first sale, a time when we’re regularly completing scripts and trying to market them. How long does this period last, you ask? As long as a piece of string. Some get lucky, selling their first script within weeks. Others, myself included, wait years within touching distance of that first sale.

For years we plug away, knowing that what we produce is good enough. But still the producers don’t call, the agents don’t respond, the futures looks bleaker. It looks bleaker, but it’s an illusion. The future doesn’t ever get bleaker; we’re always learning something new to take us forward and make our futures brighter.

So why write this particular post? Hope, I guess. I wanted an excuse to renew my own, but also to give other screenwriters in the same position, who feel stranded in the ‘grey area’ a little hope of their own. To reach out and to tell you – all of you – that you’re not alone. That your frustrations are understood by your peers.

More importantly, I wanted you to know that, if you keep plugging away, that first sale will come. It will. That much I promise you. And should I ever sound like I’m losing that hope when I post here, I want you, all of you who read this, to jump on me and remind me of what I said.

September 20, 2011 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Opening a dialogue…


As I promised in my previous post, Back To Basics, I’m going to be taking a look at methods of constructing great dialogue. This may be as much a learning experience for me as for you guys; although I’ve been told I wrote strong, believable dialogue, it’s always come naturally to me. I don’t mean that as a boast, either. Some people find writing beautiful-yet-economical descriptive easy, some find getting pacing right is their forté, I have a strange aptitude for dialogue. So in this post, I’m going to try to tell you all how I do something that I’ve never really thought about. I’ll also hit Google towards the end and see what tips I can find from the pros.

Yes, I'm being ironic

I keep getting e-mails from WordPress telling me to use pictures. So here's one.

I guess the best, most simple advice I can give you on writing dialogue also serves as solid advice for life in general. First and foremost: Listen.

Listen to the people around you. If you’re writing a script about teenagers, go find some teenagers and hang out with them. Obviously, you’re not necessarily going to have slumber parties – I hope – but try volunteering to do youth work. It’ll be both spiritually and creatively rewarding. Likewise, if you’re writing about the elderly, try an old people’s home.

For more technical dialogue, find people who’ve lived the life and talk to them, interview them. If your protagonist is an ex-Marine, go find some ex-Marines to talk to. If they’re a doctor, see if your GP will meet you (off the clock) to advise you. Most people are only too happy to help. And if they aren’t, a credit will usually bring them around.

Never stop listening to the people around you. How do they express themselves? How do different nationalities, cultures and generations phrase things? All of these things will bring your characters to life, but you can’t do any of them without opening your ears!

Another thing that comes up often in screenwriting is word economy, especially in your description. But did you know that it can be a useful tool with dialogue, too? The rate at which you give the audience information can make or break a script.

Cut any and all meaningless dialogue. Greetings, unless they’re conveying subtext, are useless. Nobody asks each other how they are on TV unless it’s supposed to be awkward or they’re dying. Don’t have your characters constantly gossip mindlessly – you aren’t writing for The Hills. Or if you are, you shouldn’t be reading this blog. Screenwriting talent is not a requirement for writers on that show, so long as you can write endless streams of nothing.

Avoid massive amounts of expository dialogue unless absolutely necessary. For a good example of what’s ordinarily considered wrong (tough works in context), check this out:

In the film, it works because it’s meant to be brilliant, utterly unnecessary exposition for comic effect. If you did this in the middle of a drama, it would seem completely out-of-place for all the wrong reasons.

The final piece of advice is probably the oldest int he book, though you should note that it applies much more in film than TV: Don’t have a character say something you can show. Or, as it’s usually phrased, “show, don’t tell.”

As an extreme example, consider this: I can have a long monologue where the character tells the audience that he and his buddy Jack were traipsing through the jungle. It was hot, humid, they were carrying a massive weight on their backs. Jack had been shot in the legs, it was dark. They’d lost their platoon and then the Vietcong appeared, surrounding them.

Or, I can write this:

INT. JUNGLE – FLASHBACK – NIGHT

BOBBY and JACK stumble through the jungle, weighed down by equipment and sweating from the heat. Jack has a pronounced limp, blood pours from a gunshot wound in his thigh. In the distance, GUNSHOTS can be heard. As they enter a clearing, Vietcong soldiers appear, surrounding them.

BOBBY
Oh, shit.

So, that’s it for my advice on dialogue. It’s not the most advanced breakdown of the art of dialogue I can provide, but it should give you an idea of what you need. But let’s see if I can find those quotes from experts…

What the professionals say:

“The real secret is to remember that people will do everything they can to protect themselves from hurt or betrayal or embarrassment. So no one wants to let anyone but their closest friends know what they’re really feeling. Therefore we use humor, cynicism, and other defense mechanisms to protect our feelings. Truly put yourself into the beingness of your characters and write from their point-of-view, rather than have them spout things you want them to say. Characters will then surprise you – say things you didn’t expect or do things you didn’t expect them to do. This is when characters really come alive.”

Glenn Benest (as interviewed by Jeffrey Berman)

“…imagine watching your scene, but in a foreign language with the subtitles turned off. What does the talking feel like? What’s the emotion behind the words? Who’s in control? There’s a classic drama exercise in which actors have to stage a scene speaking only faux-Chinese. That’s what you’re looking for at this stage. Not the words, but the texture.”

John August

“Remember when you first met your in-laws? You were most likely trying to project an image of being friendly and respectful, right? In order to get their approval. Or how about when you first met the banker handling your mortgage? Truthful. Serious. Grown up. In order to get the loan. We all have an agenda and when we converse, we get to use our words to paint the picture of ourselves we want others to see. So do your characters.”

Julie Gray

“Great dialogue does not come from having a good ear for dialogue. It does not come from having some innate gift or talent for writing dialogue. It comes from this: knowing your characters so well that you know what they will say and how they will say it when faced with specific people, situations or events.”

Rob Tobin

“Your characters are part of the mis-en-scene. The same can be said for their dialogue which must be true to the mis-en-scene, and reflect the character’s reactions and thoughts. Unless for some special artistic or creative purpose, your dialogue should always engage your character within the mis-en-scene, moving the character forward.”

Michael Daniels

“Dialogue should be as short, or crisp, as possible. The standard dialogue line is three inches long. Three of those lines is about as long as will play well. When it is longer, it needs to be focused, broken up, or polished. “

Dorian Scott Cole

“While your narration will (and probably should) be written in grammatically complete sentences, your dialogue will not (and probably should not) always be so. The reason for this: People don’t always speak in complete sentences.”

Robert Piluso

So there you go; some advice from me, some advice from the pros. If you want more, you can click the links in the names to go to the full articles I lifted those quotes from, or hit Google yourself. See what you can find. If it’s good, why not drop it in the comments section for everyone else to read?

That’s all from me for now. Until next time…

Kx

September 2, 2011 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Back To Basics…


One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from running the Trainee Writer contest (that isn’t really a ‘contest’) is just how difficult a job studio readers, agencies and the like actually have. As writers, we like to bitch about how hard it is to break in. Some people have even tried to sue their way in. The truth is hard to swallow, but here it is: The vast majority of scripts they receive aren’t good enough.

How do I know this? Because most of the scripts I’ve received so far haven’t been good enough. And I’m getting just a small fraction of the number they receive. Luckily, I’m patient enough to look for the potential in a script; I’ve no financial incentive to do this, I just want to help make the people who take the time to send their scripts my way better writers.

As you’ll have noticed, nothing I’ve received so far has inspired me to champion it, but everything I’ve seen so far has had the potential to be something special with just a little work.

It’s in that spirit that I decided to write this post. You see, a lot of the places things have fallen down are on the most basic tenets of the art of screenwriting: layout, structure and characters.

Layout

The first thing that any reader will notice, whether that’s just little ol’ me or the guy who does Ari Emmanuel’s reading for him, is the formatting and layout of your script. There’s a standard format for a screenplay, yet many writers have fallen at this most obvious of hurdles.

If you’re writing in Word – which is almost as old-school as pen and paper – there are readily available templates on the internet to help you get it right or, if you Google hard enough you can find actual margin measurements.

The easiest way to jump this first, most basic of hurdles is to get yourself some good screenwriting software. For my money, there are only two that are worth a damn: Celtx and Final Draft.

Celtx is free to download and the ideal tool for the beginner screenwriter; it has format templates for film, stage and radio scripts as well as the facility to write prose and doesn’t complicate itself with too many advanced options. Whilst I’ve found it’s not idea for writing teleplays, it is the software that I started out on, and it still has a place in my heart.

For those of you willing to spend some money for a more complete screenwriting program, there really is no other option but to buy a copy of Final Draft. Priced at $249 (a free demo is available), Final Draft is the industry standard, used by all the top writers the world over. Whilst it still does all the basics of formatting, it has alternate templates for different types of movie. For television writers, it has templates for almost every major television show currently on the air, too.

Whilst there are other alternatives, none of them come close to giving as complete a set of tools as Final Draft does.

With a screenwriting program, you can immediately avoid the embarrassment of having a script rejected on first sight because of something so easily fixed.

Structure

Structure is another easily fixed aspect that people often overlook, usually because (in their zest to finish the script) they don’t spend enough time planning out the story they want to tell. I realize the irony in my saying this, as I openly admit that I’m not much for planning on paper – only in my head – but it’s a skill that many writers, especially beginners, will find to their benefit.

I could write a hundred thousand words about structure, but the truth is that I’m going to hand you off to people who already did; as a screenwriter, it’s vital to constantly evolve, to always be studying your craft. These four books will answer all of your screenwriting questions, especially those about story structure:

Screenplay by Syd Field is still, for my money, the greatest book for the newbie screenwriter ever written. It covers everything from layout to story structure to characterization and everything else. This is the book that taught me how to write for the screen and I still use it as my first point of reference for any questions I might have on the craft.

Successful Sitcom Writing by Jurgen Wolff is a wonderful ‘how-to’ guide to everything you could ever wish to know about writing sitcoms. Wolff, a former writer on such shows as Benson and The Love Boat, breaks down the sitcom to minute detail and this book is a must-have for any and all wannabe comedy writers.

The TV Writer’s Workbook by Ellen Sanders and Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin are equally good resources for television writers in general. Though both break down many of the same things, including everything I’ve brought up today, the small differences between the two make it worthwhile to own them both; what you don’t learn from one, you’ll learn from the other. And if you read both, you’ll know almost everything important about TV writing.

Characters

Whilst by no means the easiest thing to write, it’s arguable that characters are the most important part of your script. You can have the most rigidly formatted script and the most intricate, beautiful and emotionally involved story of all time, but it ultimately means nothing if the characters don’t work.

The characters are the conduit by which we, as the audience, become involved in the story, how we relate to the events on-screen. There are two main types of characters: protagonists and antagonists. Your protagonist is your lead character, the person who drives the story, the person you want us to relate to most. The antagonist is largely the opposite; the character you want us to hate, that your protagonist hates. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t relate to them – you want your audience to form a relationship with every character.

To do that, the key is making every character you write as three-dimensional as possible. I don’t mean by using some tacky cinematic gimmick that forces the audience to wear glasses; every character needs to feel real to the audience. And the best way to mak that happen is to make the character feel real to you.

The following advice is as valuable to you in the pitching stage as it is in the writing stage: Know everything about your character. The best way of doing this is to write a full biography of your character. The best way I can demonstrate this is by giving you a sample bio from one of the leads in Improper Representation, Scott Weismann.

Scott Jonah Weismann was born in Los Angeles, California on November 25, 1985 to parents Joseph and Linda; raised in the LA suburbs by orthodox Jewish parents, he found himself in an unorthodox friendship with the kids next door, JJ and Rosie Marquez. They were, and remain, lifelong friends.

At school, Scott was a top student. Straight As, great extracurricular activities, class valedictorian. As a high school senior, after JJ had graduated, he began to date Rosie – a relationship they kept secret from her brother – until the morning after prom night when he suddenly left Los Angeles without giving her any explanation.

He attended Columbia University, gaining his Law degree and graduating top of his class before going on to work at a prestigious New York law firm. It was whilst working there that he started dating Vanessa, a fellow associate and recent Yale graduate who he would eventually move in with and become engaged to.

Eventually, the pressure of life in the fast lane got the better of him and he began to slip into a moral downward spiral; after cheating on Vanessa with a paralegal he met whilst in trial, his relationship with her disintegrated: the paralegal worked for Vanessa’s brother at a rival firm. The situation exploded mid-trial, erupting into a fist fight between Scott and his brother-in-law to be.

With Scott’s reputation destroyed and his career in tatters, he’s decided to return to Los Angeles in an attempt to rebuild his life.

Scott’s hobbies and interests include music and video games; he has an affection for hip-hop, reads obsessively and hates cats. His favourite film is Manhattan and his favourite author is Elmore Leonard.

From that most basic of information, I have a basis on which I can build an entire personality, a template by which I can predict his reaction to every situation.

Once you know your characters, the next challenge is dialogue. And dialogue is something I’m going to save the explanation of for another time…

August 20, 2011 Posted by | agents, Contests, lessons, screenwriting, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Triggers for a premise.


I was recently directed by my friend Shaula to a web article about creating a show for the USA Network, which inspired me to talk about the things that can trigger you into writing.

In a nutshell, the article observes that all USA shows have titles that are common phrases in the English language, that they all take place on a sunny locale and that the lead character always has a wacky sidekick and an obvious love interest. Given these most basic parameters, it wasn’t long before I’d come up with a premise for a show, Boxing Clever, about a crime-fighting boxer/college genius.

The lead character would be a Columbia student who boxes to pay his way through college; his wacky sidekick would be his trainer, an ex-NYPD detective. His unattainable love interest the trainer’s daughter, who serves as a homicide detective with the NYPD. Yep, two quirky sidekicks, a love interest and family politics. This is almost HBO.

So let’s take it through the steps:

1. Find a Catchy, Bland Title, Preferably Two Words, That’s Already a Phrase in the Lexicon.

Boxing Clever – ‘To use inventive thinking above all other attributes in order to achieve an end goal.’ (UrbanDictionary.com)

Catchy? Check. Bland? Check. Two words? Check. Already a phrase in the lexicon? Bingo!

2. Create an Unlikely Duo; One Rule-Bending, The Other Uptight.

Oops. Still, I have an unlikely trio. The daughter would be uptight, by the book. The boxer will bend rules, he won’t think like a cop. The trainer? Thinks like a father who used to be a cop.

3. Make Someone a Rookie With a Desireable Area of Expertise.

The boxer? Used to be a Marine. And he’s studying Forensic Mathematics. Boom, done.

4. Add Will-They-or-Won’t-They Chemistry.

Look, the boxer is an ex-Marine, so he’s tanned, muscular and good-looking. Shes a bad-ass detective who’s also very, very hot. It’d be a crime if they didn’t get it on. And the victim would be the audience.

5. Add a Sunshine-y Locale…

I have it on good authority that New York sees sun in the summer. That’s good enough for me.

6. … So You Can Have a Poster With Characters in Sunglasses.

Well, the show’ll have actors, right? I can probably make them wear sunglasses for the time it takes to use a camera. Boom.

So that’ll be my sure-fire USA Network hit. I’m only half-joking with that pitch – they annoying part is that some people will actually consider that a good idea… which means the bad part is that by putting it on the internet I now have to write it faster than they do. Balls.

Anyway, let’s go interactive: Use the guidelines and the comment feature to pitch your own USA show to me. Best show wins a thumbs up.

I’ll be back with more shortly…

Kx

July 7, 2011 Posted by | lessons, networks | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Speculate To Accumulate


I know, it’s a cheesy-as-hell title. You’ll get over it, because what I want to talk to all of you about today (and it’s a growing number; I couldn’t have dreamed so many people would be reading my little screenwriting blog – thank you!) is every aspiring television writer’s biggest nightmare: the spec script.

Whilst I am not an expert – and if you’ve mistaken me one, I’m sorry. In this field they rarely exist – I just wanted to give you my point of view on this whole messy area.

Read any book, listen to the advice of any old-school screenwriting guru and they’ll talk about the spec script until the cows come home. They’ll tell you the following almost entirely too vague things:

  • Write an episode of a popular show that’s currently on the air.
  • Never write an episode of a show in its first season.
  • Never write an episode that continues, or makes reference to, a series’ story arc. As an addendum to this, they’ll tell you to (essentially) ‘always put things back where you left them’ – especially when writing a sitcom.
  • Never introduce a major new character.
  • Never try to get too ‘cute’ or ‘clever’ with your script; always write an episode that fits with the tone of the show.

Okay, perhaps not actually all that vague. And, for the most part, solid advice. But that doesn’t tell you what you should be speccing or how to work out what your script should be about. So I’m going to give you the benefit of my $0.02.

First of all, we should assess the aforementioned rules.

Write an episode of a popular show that’s currently on the air is good advice, but should never be taken as gospel when speccing for a show. Sometimes there are no good shows on the air in a particular genre. Trying to find a decent political drama on the air in 2011 is like trying to find Charlie Sheen in rehab – you know it should be easy, but it’s just not happening. So what do you do?

Well, you have two choices: the first is to write an episode of the best show ever made in the genre you’re struggling to find a current example of. If that’s a political show, that means writing an episode of The West Wing. The other is to take what some ‘gurus’ might tell you is a huge risk and write a spec pilot for a show in that genre. If you can pull it off – and, to be honest, if you can write a West Wing then a pilot in that genre should be a cakewalk – you’ve told your potential agent or employer two things: ‘yes, I can write a political show’ and ‘yes, I am capable of creating a show of my own.’

An offshoot of this advice is when there’s only one show on the air in a genre, when a modern show bears similarities to an older one or if the showrunner/production company has a history of predominantly working in the same genre. Under those circumstances, the choice becomes a little harder. The spec pilot is always an option, but if I were trying to get a staff job on Fringe, for example, that would not be the path I’d take.

Fringe, created by JJ Abrams, is basically a science fiction detective show. Each week our heroes go out and solve a case that brings them one step along the myth arc. So if we’re not going to write a spec pilot, which was are we going to go? Well, Fringe, bears striking similarities to one of the greatest sci-fi shows of all time: The X-Files. So one option to get to that writers’ table is to write a really good X-Files spec. Every book you’ll ever read will probably tell you this is a horrible idea; there’s a whole generation of TV execs who’ve never seen the show. But this is my blog, so I’ll give you the advice I think makes sense.

If you also think that’s a risk, I’ll present you with a ‘Plan B’ – JJ Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, was also the force behind a very similar show, Alias. You can pick up a series box set for peanuts these days, watch it over a couple of weeks and get all fuzzy over unraveling the Rambaldi mystery. Now write an episode of the show (I’d recommend something that slots in mid-second season or late-fourth, to demonstrate you can add to or carry the show’s mythology) that they never did, that works within the boundaries of the show.

Never write an episode of a show in its first season is advice given for the following two reasons:

  1. You don’t know if it’s going to be popular enough to get a second.
  2. You don’t have enough episodes to watch to get to know the characters properly.

The first part is true, and it’s a risk you’d have to knowingly take; understand that, if you do, the show may get cancelled and, if it does, it probably didn’t have the popularity to guarantee that any decision makers saw it. And if they didn’t see your show, they’re not going to understand how brilliant your script is.

The second part, however, is an outright lie. I know people are going to point me to a thousand other blogs where guys who wrote a million episodes of Star Trek say the opposite, so let me counter with this question: when was the last time you saw a show in which all the first-season episodes were written by the same writer? The only shows I can think of, in recent years, that had the same writer throughout the first season were Aaron Sorkin’s masterpieces of television, The West Wing and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.

So ask riddle me this: if one guy wasn’t writing every episode, that means more than one person must’ve been involved in the writing; how did they get to know the characters so quickly? Exactly – I’m not just picking wholes in the accepted wisdom, I’m also offering a new perspective. It’s perfectly acceptable to write an episode of a show in its first season; the truth is that the producers of that show will never read your script whilst that show is on the air anyway because of the massive legal minefield that puts them in. Which brings me to another point:

Always remember, when writing a spec script, that you’re not writing for the show you’re trying to get a job on. I promise you that David Shore is not reading House specs. I promise you that Al Jean (I’m assuming he’s the head honcho right now, it changes so often it’s hard to keep track)  is not reading Simpsons specs. And I promise you that Kevin Williamson is absolutely not going to read that Vampire Diaries script you’ve poured your heart and soul into. Or lack of soul. I’m not sure how that works with vampire shows.

If you’re speccing, spec for the opposite show. The rival show. Every showrunner has a vague idea of what their nearest rival in the genre is about, what they’re doing, etc. You want to write for House? Write a Grey’s Anatomy or a Castle. Want to write for The Simpsons? Show them a really good Family Guy. Want to write for The Vampire Diaries? Show them a great Pretty Little Liars or Dawson’s Creek. (Why Dawson’s? Remember what I said about ‘unique shows’ and ‘showrunners’ previous work’? KW created Dawson’s Creek.)

Never write an episode that continues, or makes reference to, a series’ story arc is theoretically good advice. And I thoroughly disagree with it. What if the show you’re speccing for often has several story arcs running at once? Dramas and soap operas often do. This is the one area I would absolutely advise not writing for a show in its first season. Why? Because you can always spec that ‘missing’ first season episode, elongating a story arc by 46 pages and showing how neatly you could’ve slipped into that writers’ room and contributed.

As an addendum to this, they’ll tell you to (essentially) ‘always put things back where you left them’ – especially when writing a sitcom. I actually agree, in part, with this addendum; the convention with animated sitcoms dictates that thirty minutes later everything goes back to normal. However, a large number of live action sitcoms do have a continuing storyline (Arrested Development being a prime example) that is constantly called back to but almost all of them do occasionally take a break for a stand-alone, animation-style episode. Frasier was particularly good at this.

Never introduce a major new character. Never, ever do this. Seriously. If you think there should be wiggle room on this, that I should have some counterpoint, you’d be wrong. Imagine reading a Simpsons episode and – boom – in walks Bobby Simpson, Marge and Homer’s 15 year-old eldest son that we’ve never seen before. And he’s still there at the end of the episode. You could get away with it if you write him out by the end (as they did with Herb, Homer’s older brother) but, for the most part, it’s best to stick with the show’s regular characters. Only staff writers can get away with such big moves and, well, sometimes they go wrong. The Cosby family had more grandparents than the average nursing home.

Never try and get too ‘cute’ or ‘clever’ with your script; always write an episode that fits with the tone of the show. This sounds like basic advice, but you’ll be surprised how often people submit things that they think are ‘quirky’ or ‘interesting’ enough to make them stand out in the mind of the reader. That episode of House you’ve written where the good doctor decides he wants to try being a blacksmith for the day and cures some obscure equine illness will stand out ad the reader will remember you – at best, for being an absolute whack job; at worst, for being a terrible writer. Either way, it’ll probably be the last of your screenplays they agree to read.

That said, a trend has begun recently for writing modernized versions or classic shows; 21st century-style episodes of Lucy or Bewitched have been known to capture the attention of readers as a novelty spec. And 21st century-styled episodes of things like Charlie’s Angels and Knight Rider have, terrifyingly, even started to go into production.

Now, having deconstructed the ‘rules’ of the plot, I’m yet t answer the question that I wrote this with the intent of answering. What exactly should you be speccing?

Well, you need to be conscious of two things: the genre you want to be working in and what everybody else is submitting.

So what genre do you want to write for? This is the most important question you’ll ever ask yourself as a writer and, very rarely, is ‘any’ the answer. In addition, what genres are you qualified to write for? You can research your House spec until you go blue in the face and probably produce a great one, but if you don’t have any medical knowledge, that’s going to take you months. But the great script is all that matters, right? The foot in the door? Not necessarily.

Should you be lucky enough to make it onto a top-rated medical drama, you’re going to be expected to turn in a script, at times, in under a month. Sometimes (although rarely) it could be less than a week. You might not have time to research a fantastical medical disease to keep viewers enthralled in that time, and Dr. Gregory House doesn’t deal with cases of the flu, no matter how entertaining your B-story featuring Wilson, Cuddy and Thirteen entering a speedboat race is.

So what should you be writing? Always start with a show or genre you know well. From my point of view, and speaking on a general basis, the genres I know best are teen dramas, police, legal and medical procedurals, sitcoms, reality-based sci-fi and female-oriented dramedy; what I don’t know is alien-based sci-fi, action, horror or soap operas. So I’m going to be very, very uncomfortable speccing a Coronation Street (or General Hospital for my American readers) or an episode of Battlestar Galactica because I don’t watch those shows. I don’t know the characters, the formats nor the genres.

On the flip side, I can very easily write a West Wing, House, Cougar Town or One Tree Hill. The lesson here is to always play to your strengths and, as Mark Twain once said, “write what you know.”

The other piece of advice I’ll give (gleaned from years of reading screenwriting books and other writers’ blogs, I’ll admit) is to be smart about what you spec. Never write for the most popular show in a genre if you can help it. Everyone who wants to do procedurals is speccing House or Law & Order or CSI now. Everybody who wants to do animated comedy is writing a Simpsons, Family Guy or South Park and, frankly, both are best avoided by now just because almost every plot that can be done has been done.

So, to close – and help you out – I’ve compiled a list of the shows for each television genre that I feel are worth speccing. This list is not exhaustive, but intended to provide inspiration. Incidentally, if you’re reading this, now would be a good time to check the date I’ve posted it (May 16th 2011), because these lists only have around a 12-month shelf life. Hopefully I’ll have posted a newer one by then anyway. Click the ‘spec lists’ tag to find out.

  • Action: 24, Sons Of Anarchy, Spec Pilot.
  • Cartoon: You probably still can’t go wrong writing a Tom & Jerry or Scooby-Doo, to be honest.
  • Animated Sitcom: American Dad, Robot Chicken, King Of The Hill, anything [Adult Swim].
  • Teens: Just take a look at the Disney or Nick listings; personally, I’d recommend Victorious, Big Time Rush or Wizards Of  Waverly Place. Spec pilots can be strong here.
  • Historical: The Tudors, Spartacus or Boardwalk Empire. Also a strong spec pilot genre.
  • Science fiction: Battlestar Galactica, Fringe and V seem to be popular. Flashforward and Jericho make great novelty pilots. If you want to go retro go X-Files or take a risk with a Dark Angel or Mutant X.
  • Fantasy: True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Buffy/Angel, Spec pilot.
  • Dramedy: So much scope here. Glee fits. Otherwise, Desperate Housewives, Ally McBeal, spec pilot.
  • Legal: The Good Wife.
  • Western: You have a choice here: Go retro with a Lone Ranger, modern-ish with a Deadwood or go post-modern with a Firefly. To be honest, this is a genre crying out for a good spec pilot.
  • Serial Drama: To be honest, you can throw s stone and hit one. Still stuck? Brothers & Sisters or maybe Treme.
  • Teen Drama: Hellcats, Pretty Little Liars, The Secret Life Of The American Teenager, 90210, Gossip Girl, The O.C. or Dawson’s Creek. If you feel super-ballsy, you could write a Veronica Mars or Life UneXpected, but definitely avoid writing a One Tree Hill. It’s just going into its ninth (and probably last) season, and people have been reading them for the last nine years.
  • Sitcom: So many to pick from, I’ll tell you which ones nobody wants to see another of for a while: Friends, Earl, Will & Grace. Only submit a Frasier if it’s exceptionally funny. Otherwise, go wild.
  • Soap opera: To be honest, they’re all the same and they’re only going to be read by soap opera producers. Best avoided, but if you must, be very careful on character usage. Watch a few weeks’ worth, you’ll see what I mean. And if you don’t, ask.
  • Police procedural: Rookie Blue is supposed to be the best thing to pilot in this genre at the moment. Though, if you get desperate, swing for a spec pilot and mid-season episode combo.
  • Medical: Everyone is sick of reading House and Grey’s now. Write a spec pilot, maybe write an ER or an episode of Mental. Not a wide choice in the medical genre in today’s market.

On that note, one last, all-encompassing pilot secret. One I shouldn’t be telling you because I’m going to dump one on the market myself soon: Get writing Castle specs. It covers three genres (police procedural, serial drama and dramedy), has strong characters and masses of unexplored potential. And, actually, the best spec I’ve ever read was a Castle that I reviewed recently by my friend Jennifer Zinone. Maybe, if I ask her nicely, she’ll let me upload it for you to read. Either way, definitely remember her name, she’s gonna be huge.

Until next time,

Peace x

May 16, 2011 Posted by | lessons, screenwriting, specs, writing | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments