Ask a Fount-of-Knowledge Script Consultant!

Matt Lazarus

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 Matt Lazarus of The Story Coach.

Matt Lazarus has worked in the industry since 2003. He started in development with jobs at Untitled Entertainment, CAA, and Platinum Studios (Cowboys and Aliens). He joined the WGA in 2007 by selling a horror script to RKO, and he sold a movie to Cartoon Network in 2011. Matt’s story coaching was designed to be affordable, regular, and useful, and he excels at breaking advanced concepts into simpler processes and exercises.

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

Short Term 12, a thoughtful, sad drama about a foster home for displaced youth and the human condition. I saw the trailer and it hooked me. The world, performances and characters are all on point. It’s a great example of a drama, and of wringing the most entertainment and potential out of a simple concept.

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

I moved to Los Angeles in 2003, and I got my first assistant job after working really hard at an unpaid internship. I wanted to be a writer, and I talked about it way too much. Anyway, I got good at reading scripts and it always provided me an entry to meeting lit agents and executives who wanted to ask follow up questions on material. I’ve been a freelance reader for some studios for years, and there was a time I was even unironically working on a book on how to cover (most of it made it onto my blog). I’ve been a sporadically working WGA writer since 2007, but the financial security of coverage has always given me something to fall back on.

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

Good writing is hard to define. You want it to be accessible: a mediocre scifi appeals to scifi fans, a great one appeals to everyone. You want it to be engaging: no one goes to the movies to not be affected. You want it to help your career. It’s great to sell a script, but if a script doesn’t sell but gets me in a room with someone who can hire me for my next job, I’ll take it.

Anything can be learned. Not everyone who studies piano will become Glen Gould, but they will get somewhat better at piano. I was pretty cineliterate when I moved to LA, and my years in the development trenches helped me marry my base of knowledge to a working understanding of how the industry works and what the powers that be tend to look for.

4. What are the components of a good script?

“Good” is a hard term to define, a semantic minefield. The components of a good script are the same as the bad ones: they both have the same main four (character names, dialogue, sluglines,descriptions), they both take up the same amount of space.

The difference is harder to measure. We see a thousand faces a day, but only a few make us stop and say wow. We hear new songs on the radio every day, few of them will become our favorite. Most would agree that a good writer can do more in the same space than a bad writer, but the ways in which they are better will always and should always be argued over.

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

The most common is writing a script without a premise. I use something called the premise test. It breaks things down to what’s simple. It’s not the only way to look at scripts, but it’s as good as any, better than most:

“An <ADJECTIVE> <ARCHETYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and (optionally) learns <THEME>.

This seems simple, but the doing is the real meat of the movie. If a naive accountant must raise 100k or his daughter dies, different doings give you very different movies (for example, he could win a surf contest, kill a vampire lord, or invent a time machine and go back to 1979). If you can’t explain what’s interesting about your script in 50 words, you’re unlikely to improve things by writing out 100 boring pages.

Writing is a lot like being a chef. Both are creative forms that have structural limits and immense room for interpretation. Tastes are subjective, but a good chef can anticipate the audience and when he serves something he should have a rough sense of why the average patron might find it delicious.

Most writers write without a real sense of the audience. We’re writing to entertain, to deliver a satisfying emotional experience to the audience. If a writer isn’t writing with a sense of empathy for the audience, the end result is likely to be disappointing.

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

-Scripts about Hollywood power brokers written by people who haven’t met Hollywood power brokers.

-TV pilots that spend their entire length explaining how we got to the premise without every showing what’s fun or interesting about the premise (see #5). There won’t be a second episode. What are you saving it for?

-Comedies that aren’t funny. I recommend taking an improv class and reading the UCB Handbook.

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

The word “rules” needs to die. It always starts a fight. People have an unending appettite for hearing that they can write, but any suggestion of how one might approach writing is generally taken as a suggestion of how one ought to write, and then an unproductive argument ensues. Here are three general principals:

-Entertain. You should know exactly what feeling you want to create in your audience.

-Use unity. Once you’ve set up your script, you want everything to feel connected, organic, and like a ramification of what’s come before. Bad scripts keep inventing random stuff throughout the second act, and it leads to a script that feels arbitrary.

-Be specific. A lot of writers will write in variables, keeping things loose (my character is either an architect or a deli owner… I haven’t decided which) because they think it will prevent them from getting lost or stuck in the later stages. This never works. Imagination thrives on immediacy and specifics. It’s better to commit to an idea and follow it to its conclusion. Even if you went in a wrong direction, the specifics you generate add value to your story. If you keep things vague, you’re building on sand and it’s hard to move the story forward when things exist in a vacuum.

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

In 2003 I read a really funny script called Underdogs. I couldn’t stop reading it or quoting the dialogue. It ended up turning into DODGEBALL starring Vince Vaughan. The movie is really funny, the script is funnier.

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

It depends on the contest. When I was at big companies, execs would usually read the top Nicholl scripts out of a morbid curiosity, but other big script contests (Scriptapalooza comes to mind) would try to get executives to read their top three, and the execs were lukewarm. For instance, a lot of people are selling off the Black List right now. It’s useful now, but might not be in three years.

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

I can always be reached at thestorycoach.net.

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

Humble pie. If you’re serious about writing, you’ll be served it more times can be counted. Alternately, strawberry rhubarb. I’m from Vermont, and it reminds me of a childhood garden.

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