Ask a Penchant-for-Verbs* Script Consultant!

May 26, 2015
*Actually, he's skilled in all aspects of grammar, but his company is named for three very important verbs

*While Brad is skilled in all aspects of grammar, his company is named for three vital screenwriting-oriented verbs

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. Today’s spotlight is on writer-reader-consultant Brad Johnson of ReadWriteWatch.com.

Brad is an experienced screenwriter, producer and script consultant who, in addition to operating his own script consultancy, has also read for the Nashville Film Festival and been a judge for the NYC Midnight Screenwriting Challenge. His scripts have reached the semi-finals in Final Draft’s Big Break Screenwriting Contest, and a second place finish for the Walt Disney Screenwriting Fellowship. Additionally, Brad has worked as a producer on the short film Tesla versus Cthulhu, and a production assistant on My Boring Zombie Apocalypse. Brad is also a regular contributor to Script Magazine where his Specs and the City column discusses methods for beginners and pros alike to improve their writing. You can learn more about Brad, his script services, and the 52 Script Challenge on his website, ReadWatchWrite.com. He can also be found on Facebook and on Twitter @RWWFilm.

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

Nightcrawler was a fantastic character study, and I recently rewatched the FX mini-series Fargo. That writing room did such an amazing job of telling a compelling story with interesting characters, and capturing a specific tone and voice while doing so; perfectly capturing the feel of the Coen Brothers movie. As for reading, I just finished Body Heat (again) and continue to be blown away by it. Lawrence Kasdan makes you feel the humidity in his words in that script. The heat becomes its own character. It’s palpable. Go read it right now if you haven’t had the chance yet.

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

On a personal level, I started reading scripts as part of a challenge I set for myself – to read one produced script a week for an entire year. It worked so well that I’ve continued the tradition (you can find the 2015 list of scripts I’ll be reading, along with downloadable PDFs for each screenplay on my website).

For my clients, I decided to start consulting after several people read the column I write for Script Magazine and contacted me, asking if I’d be willing to look over their screenplays. As I started doing more of that, I discovered I have a genuine love for helping other writers learn to tell their stories in the best way possible. There’s nothing more satisfying than helping a writer break their story, or realize how they can tell it more effectively. At its best, consulting is a truly rewarding experience for both sides.

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

It’s definitely a learned skill. Sure, you can be taught the basic structure and formatting of screenwriting, but what makes a good script is something you learn by reading lots and lots of screenplays. The more you read, the better you’ll get at realizing what works – and what doesn’t.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Showing rather than telling – it’s a cliché for a reason. Remember that you aren’t writing a story, you’re writing a story that is going to be watched on a screen, so be visual. Don’t tell us that someone is disappointed by a piece of news – tell us their shoulders slump and the smile fades from the lips; paint the picture of what we will be seeing should your script be made into a film.

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

Not knowing the story you want to tell – or a lack of narrative focus. I see scripts all the time where so much time is spent jumping back and forth between two different stories (which, to be fair, could each be worthy of their own film), that neither is ever developed enough to be truly compelling. Whose story you’re telling, and why it needs to be told, are the two things you should never start writing without knowing. If you keep that firmly in mind, it becomes easier during rewriting to identify and cut the things that aren’t serving that story.

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

Pretty much anything from the last 15 years worth of romantic comedies. There are outliers (Love, Actually, Crazy, Stupid, Love, and Bridget Jones’s Diary leap to mind), but the Hollywood romcom formula has gotten to point of being so generic and overused that it’s actually insulting to audiences.

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

-Read, Watch, and Write. It’s my mantra and it’s invaluable advice. If you want to be a professional screenwriter you have to get better than good – you have to get great – and the way you’re going to do that is by Reading scripts, Watching movies, and Writing pages.

-Live your life. You need to be out in the world doing things, meeting people, taking in experiences to fuel your next story.

-Less is more. Your goal with your script should be to tell as little of your story as possible, while still keeping it engaging and narratively cohesive. After you write your first draft, go back and start cutting the fat away until what’s left is the leanest most effective and impactful version of your story.

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

I haven’t, but to be fair, that’s like asking if I’ve ever found a four leaf clover. They’re real and they’re out there, I just haven’t seen one in person yet.

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

Like anything else related to screenwriting, it’s not exactly a question that has a black and white answer. A lot of it depends on what makes it worthwhile for you. If you’re looking to feel better about your writing and have bragging rights, you can submit to basically any contest out there. But if you’re looking for contests that can actually impact your life and help your career, it’s few and far between. The Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, the Sundance Screenwriting Lab (though technically not a contest per se), Big Break, and Scriptapalooza are all solid contests. Recently, the Tracking Board has also launched contests for both feature scripts and televisions scripts, and the word on that contest is great as well.

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

You can find a listing of the services I provide on my website, or reach out to me through my Facebook page, or on Twitter (@RWWFilm). I’m always happy to talk movies or writing, and answer any questions you may have before signing up for my services.

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

That’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. To eat, I don’t think it gets better than a slide of hot homemade apple pie. But I enjoy baking and, not to brag, but make a mean key lime pie. Everything from scratch. Hand squeezed lime juice, graham cracker crust, fresh-made whipped cream. The works.


The name’s Piphany. E. Piphany

May 22, 2015
If it weren't for that whole possible electrocution thing, I'd write in the tub too.

If it weren’t for that whole possible electrocution thing, I’d write in the tub too.

Progress on the first draft of the low-budget comedy spec has been slow but steady; averaging about 2-3 pages a day. It’s a smart move to accept the fact that the first draft of anything you write is going to suck, because it always does. And this one’s no different. Several cogs within this machine in drastic need of retooling have been identified.

So there I am, working on a scene, having the ongoing internal discussion of “Is this the funniest way to do this bit?” The scene as originally conceived is pretty straightforward, but the comedy part still needs something. A line of dialogue just won’t cut it. While I’m quite adept at witty conversation in person, putting it on the page is an entirely different animal.

Overall, it felt like things were slowing down and becoming tougher to work through.

No matter how hard you look, sometimes you can’t find the answer you seek because you don’t realize it’s just staring you in the face.

There was a scene much earlier in the script where, for no reason in particular, I used a joke of a particular nature just for the hell of it. Some might consider it a dumb joke, but I’m still in first draft mode, so it might not stick around for very long.

But there was something about it that really stuck with me. I thought it was pretty funny, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like exactly something I would come up with.

And there it was. The floodgates had opened, and my much-needed solution came gushing forth. These jokes would work perfectly throughout the whole thing.

Added bonus – it’s the kind of comedy I’ve known and loved my entire life. I’d been trying to write this in a way or style that’s not exactly me, whereas this rediscovered approach is practically spot-on. Coming up with these kinds of jokes is almost second nature. Hopefully I can successfully transition them onto the page.

But now I was presented with a new problem: stop here (around pg 48) and start over, or hammer my way forward?

Tempting as it was to start over, I’m opting to keep going forward (and start implementing the new jokes), mostly so I can just get this draft finished. The sooner I get to the end, the sooner I can start on the rewrite.

As I said, progress continues to be slow and steady, but it’s still progress.

-One week to the Great American Pitch Fest, so you still have time to register. Use code MaximumZ20 at checkout for a whopping 20 percent off!


Ask a Truly Superlative Script Consultant!

May 19, 2015

Terri Zinner

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. Today’s spotlight is on writer-producer-consultant-instructor Terri Zinner of afilmwriter.com.

Terri Zinner has been in story development for over 15 years. She began as a reader for Blue Cat competition and then a reader for Gallagher Literary, who eventually promoted her to SVP of Development.

Terri is also a produced writer and Producer of independent feature films such as EL CAMINOTHE BRIDE FROM OUTER SPACE and other independent projects. Terri worked on the award-winning film MONDAY MORNING.

Terri has provided story consultation on such films as AMERICAN SNIPER, ALBERT NOBBS, KILL YOUR DARLINGS, BREAK THE STAGE, THE HOWLING: REBORN, WHAT MAISIE KNEW, THE BRASS TEAPOT, LOUDER THAN WORDS and more….

Being named as one of the top story consultants in Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Terri is a sought-out story and screenplay analyst. Terri founded the website A FILM WRITER and developed the Screenplay Reader Training. She mentors and trains a team of screenplay readers.

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

I had the honor of reading the script AMERICAN SNIPER. It’s one of those rare occasions when you know that this script is something special from the very first page. The script was heart pounding and riveting from the opening through the ending. The story just came to life for me, as if I were actually watching the movie. The writer, Jason Hall, earned a well-deserved nomination for a harrowing script. I’m also always in awe of TV writers, who have a special gift with words. I admit I haven’t had much time for watching TV, but DAMAGES was one of my favorite shows because I thought the writers did a terrific job of creating a complex character in Patty Hewes. She was a fascinating, morally corrupt character to watch, and I found the dialogue to be very powerful. I try to watch a variety of films, but when I watch now, I tend to pay more attention to the structure. In fact, I forced my friend to go to a horror film, EVIL DEAD, just to analyze how the structure worked.

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

Like most readers, I began by writing screenplays. I optioned a few, but then I was provided the opportunity to become a reader for Gallagher Literary and a reader for Gordy Hoffman’s Blue Cat competition. I found that my real skills were in deconstructing a screenplay and guiding the writer in the development of their script. I read all I could on developing screenplays, structure, and what makes for a great character. I went from a reader to Sr. VP of Development. It just became a passion that I haven’t overcome. I created my own website AFILMWRITER.COM with the idea of helping writers at an affordable rate. Through word of mouth my business began to grow and expand. I also freelance for other agencies and have produced independent films. I developed a program to help teach and mentor others on how to become an effective professional screenplay reader. I enjoy nothing more than the creative process and mentoring writers in their craft.

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

Like writing, I think being a screenplay reader or story analyst is a craft. It requires a fundamental understanding of the rudiments of structure, plot, tension, character, dialogue, and what makes for a great story.

I actually teach a course for potential readers. It’s an intensive course and the reader is given the opportunity to practice coverage. I’ve seen my readers grow as analysts, but like anything, it requires ongoing learning and understanding the craft, being open to visionary worlds, and having a passion for the craft. It’s not about being punitive or negative, but for me it’s about finding the strengths in the writer’s script and helping the writer build upon those strengths. I do become concerned about people who claim to be professional readers, but know little about the craft. A reader has to have the ability not only to deconstruct what’s on the page, but also to be able to deconstruct what’s not on the page.

4. What are the components of a good script?

There’s so much that goes into writing a great screenplay. It’s a skill to bring those elements together. You can have a terrific idea, but executing that idea is the major challenge. Creating an original concept, or taking a tried and true concept and telling it from a new point of view is one step in crafting good script.

Understanding structure, pace, and how tension and conflict works is pivotal to the craft. Creating deep and complex characters with not only a well-identified external goal, but with inner conflict and struggle is part of writing a great character. Giving characters strong moral choices to make and defining moments can create powerful storytelling. Powerful dialogue can propel a script. Incorporating an emotional theme that’s well assimilated into the script can make for a compelling script.

A writer should be asking questions like this: Is there a ticking clock tension and sufficient tension to sustain the story? Does this tension build? Is there a relationship component to the story? Is there a satisfying ending that involves a hero/foe conflict or confrontation?

A reader knows a great script when they can visualize it as a film in their mind vs. on the page.

For me, the most significant component of a great script is that the script provides an emotional experience, in which not only does the character learn something about life, but so do I.

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

Normally, it’s the lack of the writer having the ability to convey a clear and compelling story. It can be challenging to read a script and not be able to visualize what the writer is attempting to convey. I honestly want to be able to provide constructive notes, but sometimes you run into a script and you’re simply bewildered by what the script is truly about. This commonly occurs when the writer doesn’t stay on task with the goal and the script isn’t goal-focused. The hero may not be proactive. Without a strong structure it’s going to be a long, difficult read for the reader.

For new writers, certainly professional presentation is a common mistake. First impressions are important, but these elements are easily correctable. Writing “ordinary” characters or on the nose dialogue is also more typical with new writers. Some writers tend to over write. They add dialogue when dialogue isn’t necessary and they forget the power of visual storytelling.

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

I recently wrote a blogpost on this topic. Several scripts involved slacker men playing video games. Script after script, all these immature men are obsessed with video games. Some of the other common tropes for me are lines of dialogue that make me cringe. My most feared line in a script has to be: “You’ll never get away with this.” If I read a comedy, most likely in the first act the character will lose their job, get evicted, and break-up with their significant other. If the character races to the airport at the end of the script to stop the person they love from leaving, it’s not original. I have to admit I’m not fond of the script in which the world is in jeopardy of being blown up. There’s always a way of taking the tried and true, and crafting it to be more refreshing.

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

-Learn the craft. Study structure. Understand conflict and tension.

-Understand it’s a creative process. Feedback, coverage, and rewrites are part of the process. It’s not personal.

-Be passionate about what you write.

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

I have been fortunate to read some great scripts ranging from American Sniper to Killing Your Darlings to Albert Nobbs. All were recommends. I’ve read other scripts that I have given a recommend to and they are in development. On the other hand, I have given “consider” to scripts that have also been produced. I’ve watched some of films I’ve recommended and haven’t enjoyed the film as much as the script. “Rating” a script can be somewhat subjective. I’ve given recommends on scripts that others have passed on, and I’ve passed on scripts others have given considers or recommends to. The lesson for writers is that every reader is not always going to love or like your script. That’s okay. You also shouldn’t just rely on one reader. I always encourage getting coverage from more than one professional reader to get a good idea of how readers are reacting to your script. Make sure they know their craft.

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

There are many screenwriting contests, so I think the writer has to be selective in which ones they enter. It can be an opportunity for writers to get their name out in the community and receive feedback, but it’s also a business and can be costly. A writer has to remember that placing in a contest doesn’t necessarily mean the script will receive a consider or recommend from a professional reader. On the other hand, a great script may not place. Contests are very dependent on the reader you get.

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

I am always open to writers or potential readers. They can contact me at afilmwriter@aol.com or visit my website afilmwriter.com

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

Cinnamon Crumble Apple Pie.


The sound I needed to hear

May 15, 2015
Oh so worth it

Oh so worth it

It’s been a very long time since I felt my heart beating that fast.

It was the weekly meeting of the writing group, where volunteers offered up ten pages of their material for a read-through and critiquing. The time was right to take the low-budget comedy out for its first road test.

Despite my confidence in my own writing ability, anxiety was coursing through me. What if they didn’t like it? What if my attempts at jokes fell flat? Worst of all – what if they thought it wasn’t funny? These meetings are held at a small cafe, so the strongest drink in the house was coffee, so I couldn’t rely on a stiff drink to steady my nerves.

To make things that much more nerve-wracking, the moderator (who knows and likes my writing) had me going last. This may have been deliberate on his part.

We worked our way through the other three sets of pages, and then finally it was my turn.

I took a deep breath, stood up, and began distributing pages (complete with assigned parts), explaining the concept behind the story. Upon reflection, the chuckles and comments of “Oh, that’s good” and “I like it” were harbingers of what was to come.

Even so, I had to force myself to take deep breaths and calm down as the read-through commenced.

Also working in my favor: the person portraying the main character was spot-on.

They got to the first joke.

And they laughed.

To say I felt a sense of relief is a severe understatement, but it was exactly the reaction I was hoping for.

The read-through continued, with laughs in the places they were supposed to be. As expected, some jokes hit better than others, but it wasn’t that much of an issue.

A few minutes later, it was over, and we transitioned to the feedback stage.

Overall, it was very positive. Comments were made about what worked, what needed work, and potential changes. Some of the suggestions had merit and worth considering, but for the most part (and keeping in mind that a few members of the group are not the greatest writers – based on reading their work), I smiled, nodded and thanked each person for their thoughts.

Once again proving it’s all subjective, one person said my character descriptions were “too much” and maybe “too flashy”, but the person sitting to my left interjected and heartily disagreed, saying “a lot of the writing in other scripts is just dry and kind of dull, but this really pops off the page and paints a great mental picture.” A few nods around the table supported the latter position. If your work sparks contrasting opinions, then it must have something going for it.

The evening came to a close, and I left, feeling just the slightest bit triumphant.

For now, I’m still working my way through the first draft, and a lot of the jokes probably need a ton of work, but at least I can say I got past this first hurdle.

Should be interesting to see how things go from here.

-Shameless self-promotion! The Great American Pitch Fest is only two weeks away, so there’s still time to register. Save yourself a nice chunk of change by using the code MaximumZ20 to get 20 percent off. I’ll be there, and hope to see you too.


Ask a Man-of-Distinction Script Consultant!

May 12, 2015

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. Today’s spotlight is on writer-consultant-Scriptmag contributor Ray Morton.

Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. He writes the Meet the Reader column at Scriptmag.com and is the author of seven books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting and A Quick Guide to Television Writing. Ray is available for script consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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

I recently re-watched ORDINARY PEOPLE for the first time in a long time and was blown away by how precise Alvin Sargent’s wonderful screenplay is. To begin with, it’s a very moving story. The construction is incredibly tight — always moving forward toward the climax. And every scene and moment in the script both reveals character and moves the narrative forward. It is masterful work on the level of a Swiss watchmaker.

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

A friend of mine worked in development at Castle Rock. She told me they were looking for readers. I was already a working writer, but was looking for work in between gigs, so I did a piece of sample coverage. They began using me and things went from there.

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

I think you have to have an affinity for good writing. Whether that can be taught or not, I don’t know. For me, it developed naturally as a result of doing a lot of reading, which I’ve always done since I was a kid. I think you can be taught what elements make a viable screenplay.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A good script starts with a strong premise. From there, a story must be developed that is well constructed and makes the most of the premise. A good script has a protagonist with a strong, clear goal that develops in the first act and that he pursues throughout the second and third acts.

The protagonist must be someone we care about — not like, necessarily, but who we have some sympathy for and in whose plight we can invest ourselves emotionally. The supporting characters should be vibrant and distinctive. The dialogue should be strong — each character should speak in her/his own unique voice. The script must be what it promises – a comedy must be funny, a horror movie must be scary, a drama must be moving, and so on. And the ending must be satisfying — it must feel like the absolutely right conclusion to the story we’ve just witnessed.

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

By far, the most common mistake aspiring screenwriters make is to spend all of Act I setting up a particular premise and then abandoning that premise in Act II and taking off on an entirely different tangent, so that the script ends up reading like two entirely different stories that just happen to feature the same characters. The other most common mistake is a lack of clarity — as to what the premise of the story is, who the protagonist is, what his goal is, what the motivations behind the major actions and events in the story are, and so on. A third common mistake are scripts written like novels, with paragraph upon paragraph devoted to telling us what a character is thinking and feeling on the inside — things that will never be seen on screen.

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

I’m tired of non-linear storytelling — there has been so much of it in the last ten years and so little of it done well. I’m tired of flashbacks, which are overused and ruin the flow of stories. I’m tired of stories that begin in the middle, jump back in time, then catch up halfway through. All of these things have been done to death to the point where I am longing to read a story that begins at the beginning and unfolds chronologically until it ends at the end.

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

I’m not a big believer in rules per se, but the three things I think screenwriters need to know are:

-Screenwriting is dramatic writing and you need to understand the basic principles of dramatic writing to be an effective screenwriter.

-You need to rewrite. Too many aspiring screenwriters are reluctant to rewrite – they’ll futz around the edges, make a few cosmetic changes, and leave it at that. You must be ruthless with your work — willing to go over it again and again and really fix what doesn’t work, or you will never write a good script.

-This is a business and you must act accordingly — there are no shortcuts or magic tricks, no one owes you anything, and you must behave professionally at all times even if the people you’re dealing with do not.

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

I’ve read two. One was the script that eventually became the Geoffrey Rush film SHINE. The draft I read was just about perfect (although the final film was very different from the screenplay and I didn’t like it nearly as much). The second was a script called CRICKET SPIT, about a young girl whose doctor father lies to her (out of well meaning kindness) about her best friend’s terminal condition, which causes a rift between parent and child. It was a “small” movie and never got made but it was terribly moving and just brilliant.

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

The top 5 or so — the NichollBig Break, etc. – can be very worth it, because most of those contests can bring you to the attention of the industry in a number of ways (hooking you up with producers, introducing you to managers and agents, etc.). The lesser ones – ones sponsored by no-name organizations and ones that keep urging you to add extra services (buying coverage, buying a seat at the awards ceremony, etc) –  are a waste of time and money.

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

They can go to my website – raymorton.com – or email me at ray@raymorton.com

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

Chocolate silk, hands down.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,518 other followers

%d bloggers like this: