Ask One of the Great Brains Behind the GAPF!

Signe Olynyk

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 especially significant for writers ready to pitch their material, as it features an interview with ScriptFest/Pitchfest co-founder Signe Olynyk.

Signe Olynyk is a writer/producer, as well as the co-founder of ScriptFest and www.pitchfest.com, which includes the Great American PitchFest, the Great British PitchFest, and the Great Canadian PitchFest.  She is also the co-founder of the Ultimate Logline Contest, and Your Career In A Day industry workshops. She lives in Canada, and runs the highly regarded Sooke Writers Retreat from a secluded, oceanfront home, where dozens of select writers join her each year for their personal writing retreats. In addition, Signe has written and produced a number of television pilots, series, documentaries, and feature films, and works in the industry. She has professional credits on more than 120 productions, including her two latest feature films, Below Zero and Breakdown Lane. Her work has been seen around the world on the CBC, Discovery Channel, Scream Channel, Fox, the BBC, and various others.

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

Great first question. There are so many. The ‘smartest’ movies I can think of right now include Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, and The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which was incredibly smart and well written. These two films were dramatic thrillers, but I actually feel that comedy is some of the most difficult to write – it has to be smart and well-written, and generally, a brilliant mind must be behind a comedy to successfully pull it off. Creating original characters, situations, and dialogue that makes us laugh, and that we haven’t seen before, is an incredible feat.

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

I got my start reading scripts by writing scripts. For years, I was writing and sharing my work with others in my writing groups. At the time, I didn’t understand the value in reading, but the group I joined took turns reading a screenplay each week for a film that had been recently produced. Reluctantly, I started to read other screenplays. I just wanted to create new material and share script notes by reading each other’s screenplays, not spend my time reading the screenplays for movies that had already been produced. I thought it was going to be a waste of time when I could just watch the films. But that was when my world changed.

When you read scripts, you learn a rhythm and start to see the style in which a writer puts their words on the page. You see how evocative language and onomatopoetic words like ‘sizzle’ and ‘slap’, make your script come alive visually on the page, and in your mind’s eye. When you read other scripts, you discover and absorb lessons that you automatically start applying to your own work. And you are a better writer because of it, thanks to the work of other writers. It’s invaluable to your own development as a writer.

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

Physical limitations are an interesting thing. I love to play soccer, but I know I’m not the best player on the field. My coach can make me run drills, and practice for hours, but my skill level is only going to get me so far compared to others, because there are others who are simply more skilled and talented than I am.

Writing is the same way. Same with math, with physics, with music, art, or sports, or anything really. Someone’s physical brain or body has developed in such a way that they are stronger at a certain skill than someone else.

What really matters is attitude and perseverance. Good writing can be taught or learned, but there has to be a certain level of natural ability and talent in the first place. And then there has to be a passion behind whatever skill you have to really drive success at anything.

As an aside, I have been very frustrated by some of the ramblings of some who like to criticize consultants and say that ‘those who can’t, teach’. What a hugely unfair, offensive and dismissive thing to say. I am the founder of the annual screenwriting conference ScriptFest, which is held each year in Los Angeles. We have had hundreds of speakers teach at the conference, and they are educated, brilliant, and generous people who give back to the community and help writers become better at what they do. Since when did we decide it was okay to criticize teachers? It is not an easy task, and great teachers are a huge gift to those of us who are still learning – which is all of us, isn’t it?

Yes, teaching can be taught. I’m incredibly grateful to all of those who have mentored me in my life. It is the moral obligation of each and every single one of us to share what we have learned with others, so that we can all learn from one another.

4. What are the components of a good script?

I want to see characters I care about in situations I haven’t seen before overcoming outrageous obstacles in the singular pursuit of their goals. I want to feel something, and root for them to achieve their goals. I want to go on a ride with them, and experience an emotional journey as they give everything they have towards reaching their goals, being beaten down and nearly defeated as they pursue an eventual triumph. That doesn’t mean a character must always reach their goal – and by triumph, I mean they’ve learned something meaningful that has changed them forever, for better or worse.

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

Many writers write characters and stories they think people want to see, hear, or read. They cling to stereotypes, which does nothing to create originality or anything of interest to an audience. Finding your own voice as a writer is something that develops the more you write, because your confidence grows as you do.

I also see many writers fall in love with their first script or book, then spend years and years rewriting and tweaking it, and doing rewrite after rewrite. If you want to be a professional writer, you must generate new work. This is important not only because you are creating a body of work, but because you get better with everything you write.

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

Cats leaping out at people in horror stories. The guy who develops a cough, dying part-way through the story. Girlfriends who go after the girl their boyfriend cheated on them with – how stupid is that? Go after the ass who cheated on you! I want to see characters pushed as far as they can in directions and towards goals I haven’t seen before, and making decisions that are real for that character and that people can relate to. I want to see characters overcome their obstacles by making choices that only they would make. Story comes from your characters. Make your character’s reactions realistic for who they are, and have them respond in ways that only they would. Just as each of us has our own backstories, and these experiences shape who we are, our characters need to be developed the same way. Then you create characters and situations that are as real as each of us.

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

-First, don’t miss out on your life because you feel a need to be writing or working all of the time to create success. You must have a life in order to be a great writer. Every experience you have helps to shape you, and you need those experiences to shape your characters and their worlds.

-Second, take care of your health. Watch your posture and get a good chair to support your back. Go on long walks so your characters can speak to you, and you’ll be amazed how ideas will come to you when you’re least expecting it.

-Third, go to every event you can and constantly educate yourself on your craft. You never know who you will meet, or what you will learn that will inspire you, enlighten your work, and help you to create your best work.

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

I’m still seeking that script. I find lots of screenplays that are ‘recommends’, sure. But even then, rarely do you find any script that doesn’t need work, or still has tweaking or ideas, characters, or dialogue that need to be finessed a bit more. There are tons of loglines I read that make me smile and that I get super excited about, and keep visualizing the various scenes, and putting my producer hat on to think about logistics. Although I can’t give a logline exactly, what I can tell you is that they all have certain things in common:

  *TITLE: The title of the script captures the full essence of the story. We know what it is about, just from the title, and the theme of the story is also hinted at. JAWS. UNBROKEN. WILD. UP.

  *CHARACTER: They have a protagonist who is interesting to me, relatable, but who is someone I haven’t seen before. They pursue goals in a way that only they can do, and their backstories make their actions real and believable.

  *PURSUIT OF A CLEAR, IMPOSSIBLE GOAL: They have a goal that seems impossible, and the journey of following this character as they pursue that goal becomes irresistible to me. I must watch them pursue their goal.

  *OBSTACLES: They overcome increasingly serious obstacles in pursuit of their goal. The stakes get more serious as the story progresses.

  *NEMESIS: they have a formidable foe. A Goliath for every David. Goliath keeps putting obstacles in David’s way

  *LESSON LEARNED: the character is different by the end of the story than who they were at the beginning. By going on this journey with them, I am also changed in some way. It is the magical, emotional moment in a movie when your character becomes who they were meant to be, regardless of whether their goal is achieved or not.

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

Anytime you have an opportunity to get your work in front of someone who can make a difference to your career is worthwhile. It’s always a bit of a crapshoot whether your work will resonate with a particular judge. However, a lot of industry people find scripts by judging contests, and really, it’s a matter of the right script finding the right producer at the right time. If that’s the situation, then it behooves any writer – especially without an agent – to get their work out there and in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

Writers may also want to really examine the prizes. What is the real opportunity? Is it just to win a cash prize? Or is it industry exposure? What is more meaningful?

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

I would encourage writers to check out ScriptFest and the Great American PitchFest. It’s an annual, 3-day conference with more than 40 classes, panels, and workshops offered. Writers who’ve written a book or screenplay can pitch it to more than 120 agents, managers and production companies. Visit www.scriptfest.com to learn more.

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

That’s like asking my favorite ice cream! So many kinds, so many flavors! Lemon meringue, pumpkin, butter pecan, coconut cream, banana cream, apple with cheddar…If I have to choose only one kind, I would probably say blueberry-rhubarb. I like the sweet with the tart (kind of like my favorite movies).

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