Ask a Script Consultant who’s also a Working Writer!

September 2, 2014

mark sanderson

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape.

Mark Sanderson (aka @scriptcat) is a Los Angeles based screenwriter, script consultant, and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with a spec sale and a dozen screenplay assignments that have produced seven films. Mark’s long association with award winning Hollywood filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay and has since worked with Academy Award® winning producers, veteran directors, and Academy Award®, Emmy®, and Golden Globe® acting nominees. He offers script consultation services on his website at www.fiveoclockblue.net and also offers advice on his screenwriting blog MY BLANK PAGE. Look for his upcoming book A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success coming out later this year on Amazon.

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

I don’t have much time to spend watching a lot of TV or movies, but the best writing these days is on television in my opinion. I manage to catch an episode here and there of shows, but don’t really spend a lot of time watching many series. When I watch movies, I tend to be really picky and very few films out there today don’t really draw me in—so I go for the classics. On television, I really thought the limited series Sherlock was excellent writing, Mr. Selfridge too, and I got hooked into the The Following for a while and that was good serialized writing. I’m just getting into the old pulpy Doc Savage novels from the 1930s and the writing is great and so visually ahead of its time. I read that Hollywood is planning on making a Doc Savage movie and if done right, could spawn a series of new films.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Well, I’ve had a professional screenwriting career for the past fifteen years and during the last few years I decided to open my consulting business on the side.  I’m always reading scripts even if I’m not consulting on them. I have a small group of writer friends and we trade our scripts back and forth for feedback.

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

I believe it comes from years of learning and studying the craft of screenwriting. When writers build a strong foundation of experience reading scripts, studying structure, character, writing scripts, executing notes and mastering their craft—this is when they can finally give experienced and critical feedback if a script is good writing or not. It also is vital to know the language of cinema. I’m aware that some consulting sites farm out the reads to “readers” and one never knows who is actually reading the script or their experience level when giving notes.

4. What are the components of a good script?

It starts with a compelling story and something that you can clearly see grew from the writer’s passion for the material. Too many times I read scripts that are trying to chase after Hollywood’s big budget blockbusters and they fall short because the writing is boring, clichéd and trying to emulate something that has already been created. The scripts read like a rehash and not something original. A good script showcases the writer’s unique voice and the best of their talents. It has interesting characters that we care about and written in a fluid, efficient way that includes only what is necessary to keep the story moving forward. A good script also has a rock solid structure and a series of reveals, surprises, setups and pay offs that keep us captivated to read until the end or sit through the film until the lights come up in the theater.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

I’m shocked that many screenwriters still have no respect for the professional format of a screenplay. They believe the reader will look past the format and typos issues to see their genius idea and buy it for that alone. A script lives or dies by a thousand small details and considering the volume of scripts that bounce around Hollywood every year, the industry has no patience for unprofessionalism. Other common mistakes I see happen when screenwriters do not work from a solid outline or treatment before they jump into pages. Approximately three quarters of your work usually goes into the story even before you type FADE IN. Other mistakes come from overwriting and micromanaging the scenes. Aspirants need to learn what to put in a script—and equally as important what to leave out. I tell writers: “Stay the hell out of the way of the story.” Many are so eager to put their fingerprints all over the pages and that’s just ego. The best writing is when the screenwriter is almost is invisible on the page and the script reads as if you’re watching the film. I also find too many mistakes with structure and the story happening too late or not enough story to facilitate 100 pages. The set up in the first act many times is way too long. Hopefully these writers learn from their mistakes and focus on becoming better screenwriters by creating stories they are passionate about rather than chasing fame and fortune.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

One big one that I can’t stand is the use of “Deus ex Machinaor using a contrived way at the end where a character or action saves the day. It shows lazy writing and ends the story on a weak beat leaving the reader unfulfilled. Another one is the “fall” or “twisted ankle” of a character escaping that is usually followed by the line, “Go on without me!” Another one I’m tired of seeing is the “I hate my job, my boss and do nothing but complain” routine.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

1. Disrespect the craft at your own peril. You will never be bigger than your craft because screenwriting is an ongoing learning experience.

2. You must become a collaborator and ultimate team player because if you grimace at their notes, they will brand you as “difficult” and not work with you again.

3. You may have to write five, six or seven specs over a period of years to even get one optioned or maybe sold if you’re lucky. But if you’re impatient and looking for fame and fortune, you’re in the wrong business.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Well, I don’t give “recommends” because I’m not reading for a producer, but I do tell writers if they were successful in the execution of their idea. Screenwriting is all about the execution. Good ideas are a dime a dozen in Hollywood—they’re everywhere and it’s the execution of a script that’s vital to its final success. Yes, I did read a few scripts during the last year that were superb and written by experienced filmmakers—so that helped. I can’t give out the loglines as I have a non-disclose agreement with my clients, so I’m not allowed to discuss the elements of their projects with anyone.

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

Yes, many of the top contests are worth entering as a chance to “make some noise” and get noticed. Back in the day, I entered a spec in the Nicholl Fellowship and it ended up in the top twenty scripts out of thousands worldwide. They picked the top eight that year for the fellowship, but since I had placed in the next dozen, agents and mangers were willing to give it a read. Eventually it found a producer who championed the script and it was produced, played in film festivals worldwide, premiered on TV and distributed globally. But, be careful and read the fine print of the contest you are entering as some stake claim to your script if you win. Do your homework on the various contests and make sure you are putting out your best material that will properly represent your talent and ability. If it’s not ready, go ahead and miss the deadline because there is always next year.

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

Screenwriters can find more information about my consulting services on my website at: www.fiveoclockblue.net. I’m also on Twitter: @scriptcat

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

Oh that’s an easy one…definitely a tie between boysenberry and cherry. I could eat both with ice cream as a “last meal” and die a happy man. Apple pie comes in a close third, but all pie should be heated.

 

 


Moose, squirrel, and two guys in drag

August 29, 2014

 

rocky & bullwinklesome like it hot

It’s been a very long time since I attempted to write a script that did not involve the phrase “rollercoaster ride” as part of the description.

So while I wait for notes on the western and mystery-comedy, I’m taking my time in figuring out the story of what is shaping up to be a low-budget comedy.

Which also means it has to be funny, yet another mountain to conquer in itself.

Funny is subjective.  Something somebody else considers hilarious might make me shrug and say “I don’t get it.”  But I know what makes me laugh, so that type of humor is what I’ll attempt to incorporate into my story.

For me, a very important part of this is re-educating myself in how the jokes work and how they’re constructed. As I figure out the story, I’ll also be watching and learning from some prime examples of how it’s done.

Among them: episodes of ROCKY & BULLWINKLE and SOME LIKE IT HOT.

Part of what I like about them is how the jokes feel organic AND smart. The humor comes from the situation and how the characters react, rather than feeling forced.

Each also does a great job of gradually setting up punchlines, and not just going for a rapid-fire bombardment of one-liners.

Something else to keep in mind: both are over 50 years old and still hold up – further proof of their durability. The subject matter may be a bit dated, but the jokes still work, and that’s really what matters.


Ask a (Nicholl-winning) Script Reader!

August 26, 2014

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This is the first in a series of interviews with some script readers who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape.

Today’s spotlight on: Doug Davidson!

Not only is Doug Davidson a Nicholl Fellow, but his script LETTER QUEST has the distinction of being the only animation script to ever achieve that honor.

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

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. The most compelling character to hit the movies in a while is an ape. Caesar is a textbook protagonist. An extraordinary individual doing extraordinary things under extraordinary pressure. When you can end a movie by zooming in on the lead character’s face, and not have it feel cheesy, you know you’ve done something right.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I started in a screenwriting group, a large group that lasted several years. Early on, we agreed on always giving each other formal written feedback, because if you don’t have to write your feedback down, then you don’t think nearly as hard about it. When you put your feedback in paragraph form, you realize you have to make sense, you have to be consistent and you have to justify what you say. It gave me the discipline to write constructive, reasoned feedback instead of just tossing out opinions.

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

Recognizing perfect writing is easy and intuitive. Anyone can do it. Recognizing the potential in a promising script that isn’t quite working yet, that takes more experience. And it takes a writer’s mentality. You need to study the craft for years. There are rules that are easy to memorize, but how to apply them, that’s much more difficult. Blindly applying the rules doesn’t lead to good writing, or good feedback.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The craft has to be there, and then there has to something else, a plus one. It could be funny comedy. It could be insight. It could be a new idea. That’s the “talent” part. You might think it’s this “plus one” that’s missing from most scripts, but I find the opposite to be true a lot of the time. Often a script has this amazing unique element, but the nuts and bolts of the story just aren’t in place yet. That’s when making the extra effort to put all the craft elements together really pays off.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

One of the most common mistakes I see is writers thinking a plot point (or character trait or thematic element) is clear on the page when in actuality it’s really not. At least not clear enough. It happens all the time, even to seasoned writers. That’s why feedback is so important. It’s not about saying your vision is wrong. It’s about saying your vision isn’t quite visible. Yet. The trick is to make sure everyone can see it.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Just about any story idea could work with the right execution. That said, I’ve come across a surprising number of scripts about screenwriters writing screenplays. Autobiography finds its way into most scripts, but it really helps to disguise it just a little.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

(1) Don’t (2) Give (3) Up.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Nothing is absolute, but I’ve read more than a dozen really excellent unproduced scripts that I would recommend. I won’t go into the loglines here, but they’ve spanned just about every genre. I love to stay in the loop with the scripts I’ve read, especially the great ones. Several are optioned, several have placed very well in major contests and two have well known actors attached. Many of the writers of these scripts have secured representation as well. It requires some grit, but first-rate work will eventually get you places in this industry.

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

Screenwriting contests are absolutely worth it. It’s not the only path to success or a guarantee of success, but I know a fair amount of writers who have benefited greatly from contest placements. If you get an opportunity to read for a contest, I recommend that too. I’ve done it and learned a lot from the experience.

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

My website is www.fourstarfeedback.com. I have a screenwriting blog there based on my experiences in the industry (and the numerous mistakes I’ve made). I’m also happy to answer specific questions via the email listed on my site.

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

I love pie too! I like to bake my own key lime pies. They’re pretty easy to do. I also love coconut custard, blueberry and anything with peanut butter. But my favorite would have to be . . . pecan. A great pecan pie has a sludgy quality – an intensely sweet sludge – balanced by a nutty crunch. Thanks for thinking of me, Paul! We’ll have to get together sometime for some coffee, and pie.


Constructive criticism – a force for good

August 22, 2014
If I can't hear you, then it's not true

If I can’t hear you, then it must not be true

If you met someone who does the same thing you do, but has been doing it longer and with more success, wouldn’t you ask them for advice on how you could get to their level, and more importantly, heed that advice?

While I’m not a professional writer (yet), others, mostly on the newer side, will ask me for feedback on their script.  If I have the time, I’ll do it, and offer up what guidance and suggestions I can.

My notes are sent with the reminder that these are just my opinions to do with as they see fit. Fortunately, most of the responses have been positive and appreciative.

But once in a while, somebody will disagree with what I’ve said or totally ignore it. That’s their choice. They came to me seeking help, and I guess didn’t like what I had to say.

I once asked somebody what kind of material it was, and the answer was long-winded and very academic. While they were droning on, I couldn’t help but think “If they tried to pitch this to a producer, that meeting would probably be over right about now.”

Asking another writer for their logline, I got what sounded more like the short paragraph you’d see on the back of a novel. I tried a few different approaches, each time hoping to point them in the right direction as well as coax out some of the creativity they claimed to have. No such luck. After offering up what you do and don’t want to have in a logline, the response was a curt “Got it. Thanks.”  Can’t say I didn’t try.

Part of me wonders if my advice would be taken more seriously if I charged for it.

You came to me for help, remember? Just because you don’t like the answer doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I’m not trying to be mean. Quite the opposite. There are hard truths about this business that some people just refuse to acknowledge. All of us who came before you learned them the hard way, and if you want to make it, then you’re going to have to do the same.


Is it really too much to just ask?

August 19, 2014
Show of hands for who'd want to read this based on the logline

Show of hands for those who’d want to read this based on the logline

While some people don’t have an issue posting their entire script online, I’ve always opted to offer up just a logline. If the script has had any kind of success in a contest, I mention that as well. That’s how it is on my Scripts page here, and on a few online community sites. Nothing against those who offer up the whole thing. It’s just a personal preference.

My hope is that this sample (for lack of a better word) piques somebody’s interest, which then would prompt them to contact me, saying “Hey, this sounds pretty cool. Could I read it?” In which case, I’m more than happy to send it along. This has happened a few times.

But last week, I got this response from a recent connection:

“…I read the synopsis on your four, all very interesting, but without a script to peruse, quite meaningless – let me know should you decide to upload any.”

Okay…

Like I said, I was hoping the small write-up would motivate you to get in touch with me asking for more, but I guess not. And responded with words to that effect (in the most polite way possible, of course.)

The response:  ” I don’t like to criticise (sic – international spelling) and how you conduct your scripts is your business, but so many writers here claim award winning scripts, wonderful reviews and the sun shines out off a certain orifice – I’m a great believer in put up, or shut up – yes, of course I can ask the writer to send a copy, then there is the pressure, real or otherwise, of a review and feedback – I like to read screenplays unannounced, if I like it I will say so, no hard feelings, no pressure – all of yours have a nice synopsis, I’m sure your scripts stack up.”

I honestly didn’t know what to say, so I never responded. The person seems set in their beliefs that the finished product won’t live up to the hype created by the author. Although I have to disagree with the part about “award winning scripts”, since most contest results are available online, therefore easily verifiable.

And maybe it’s me, but both responses seem to come across as just a little bit on the snarky side.

But back to the matter at hand.

No idea where the parts about “wonderful reviews” and “the sun shines out of a certain orifice” come from. I never post anything like that about my material, nor should anyone. It reeks of amateurishness.

If I want notes, I will come to you because I seek your opinion. If I don’t know how much experience you have as a writer, let alone who you are to begin with, what’s make you think I’m going to ask you for notes?

If somebody asks to read my script, I’ll send it along with this note: “Here’s the script. Thanks for asking. Hope you like it.” I might come back to them in a month or so to ask if they’ve had a chance to read it. A majority of the time, the response is “Oops. I kind of forgot about it/got sidetracked, but I’ll get to it soon,” which is totally understandable. It’s a real commitment to read a script, and it’s not always easy to find the time to just sit down and read it. Happens to me all the time.

Everybody has their own way of how they do things. You do what works best for you, which may be totally different from somebody else’s. That doesn’t mean either person is wrong.

But imply that your way is better than mine, and any credibility you may have had to begin with is now gone.


What comes after you ride into the sunset?

August 15, 2014
And the journey continues...

And the journey continues…

At long last, the latest rewrite/polish of my western has reached a satisfying conclusion.

For now.

Several drafts later, it’s 6 pages shorter than the original, and packed with more character development and tighter scenes. That’s how I see it, anyway. Looking forward, as always, to the helpful feedback from trusted friends and colleagues.

This happened just in time, too. I was feeling pretty close to total burnout, so now I can rest and recharge, let alone even contemplate the idea of taking on another inevitable rewrite.

It’s an odd experience when you finish a project to which you’ve dedicated so much time and effort. You work, toil and slave away at it almost to the point of obsession, and then all of a sudden, poof! It’s done. You might not even know what to do with yourself.

“What now?” you might wonder. Treat yourself to a little reward? (Pie, as always, a great option) Take a break? Start something new? Maybe just kick back, relax and watch something (Netflix sent us THE MONUMENTS MEN, so maybe that) There is no wrong choice, so enjoy it. Bask in that glow of self-accomplishment. You’ve earned it.

I haven’t decided what to do yet, but knowing me, it’ll probably involve a day of not actually writing combined with thinking about the next big project, followed the next day with actual writing.

Not sure yet about the pie, though.


Find what works for you

August 12, 2014
I offer information. What you do with it is up to you.

I offer information. What you do with it is up to you

Way back when I was working behind the scenes at various radio stations, trying to break in on the air as  DJ, I would approach the on-air personalities and ask for their thoughts on my aircheck tape.

Did I sound okay, or at least have potential? What needed work? How could I improve?

A lot of them had very insightful comments and helpful suggestions.

Except one guy. What he had to say wasn’t negative, but it wasn’t necessarily helpful either.

After listening to my tape, he started with “Here’s how I would do it.” Everything after that I totally ignored.

I don’t care how you would do it, because that’s you. My way is not your way. Everybody has a different approach.

I only bring this up because I’ve recently been reading the work of some writers who’ve asked for notes and feedback.

I’ll make suggestions about how a script could look better (less text, more white space) or ask questions only they can answer (what’s a different way this could happen? how do we know this? does this play a key part in the story?), but I will never, ever tell them how I would do it or how they should do it.

It takes a while for a writer to find their individual voice. Don’t let somebody else tell you what it should be.


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