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 agency reader-turned-consultant Erin Whittemore of Red Pen Script Consulting.
“I have a B.A. in film and screenwriting from the University of Michigan, and am also the proud recipient of the Hopwood Award in screenwriting that boasts such alumni as Arthur Miller and Lawrence Kasdan. After graduating, I relocated to Los Angeles, where I worked for United Talent Agency as a freelance script reader. Two of my own scripts have been produced as short films and premiered at film festivals.”
1. What was the last thing that you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well‐written?
I loved Nightcrawler and The Lego Movie as scripts. Nightcrawler’s story was really lean and mean and practically seamless, and The Lego Movie was not only a great narrative in itself, but was also incredibly cheeky and self‐aware at the same time. In terms of TV, Marvel’s Agent Carter put other network shows to shame. In my humble opinion, of course.
2. How did you get started reading scripts?
After spending two arduous years as a pre‐med undergraduate, I finally became so miserable that I switched to film and never looked back. I learned to do coverage through screenwriting courses, and was lucky enough that UTA was hiring part-timers after I graduated. Full disclosure: I did know somebody in the story department, but even then I almost didn’t get the job due to the amount of competition for the position. It all comes down to your “test coverage.” (When an agency gives you a sample script to cover.) If you’re aiming for reading professionally, make sure you have your own sample coverage ready to go as well, preferably showcasing two different genres.
Eventually, though, I needed a better‐paying and more stable job, but I wanted to continue reading scripts as well. Having been a part of “the system” I knew it could take up to three months for writers to get any feedback on their submissions, which is kind of agonizing, especially if the writer ends up getting rejected. I figured, why not give writers a chance to see what a professional script reader would say about their material before sending it out to agencies and production companies? Thus, Red Pen was born!
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
I believe if you’re willing to be taught, you can learn. You have to watch a lot of movies and read a lot of scripts, and you have to learn to think critically about what you ingest. It’s not enough to say “I like this” or “I don’t like this,” you have to think about why. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, you have to ask questions like “why does this work” or “why doesn’t this work?” and “how could I make it work?” Some people naturally think this way, others have to train themselves to make it a habit.
4. What are the components of a good script?
A good script generally has an intriguing premise, strong characters, and an original and compelling execution. As a script reader, I look at character, story, theme, dialogue, visuals, and tone to determine what areas need work. In general, a great script knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to achieve
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
-Unlikable, uninteresting characters that do uninteresting things. This doesn’t mean your protagonist can’t be an unlikable character, but they must be at least be interesting and do interesting things. (See There Will Be Blood, Nightcrawler.)
-Exposition in dialogue. The golden rule of screenwriting is “SHOW, DON’T TELL.” A little exposition is usually necessary, but too often I see writers trying to cram entire backstories or plot elaborations into a talking scene. Firstly, we only need to know what’s relevant at the time, part of the fun of watching a story unfold is piecing things together. Secondly, remember, it’s a movie. It’s much more dramatic and emotionally immediate to watch a sequence about something important than to hear a character talk about it.
-Inconsistent tone. Is your script Silence of the Lambs or Fargo? Guardians of the Galaxy or Interstellar? 12 Years A Slave or Django Unchained? When a script yo‐yo’s back and forth between tones, or spends the first half of the movie a comedy only to turn serious drama it can be very confusing for the audience and takes us out of the story. Know what tone you want your script to have and stick with it.
-No structure. A story is more than just a series of events, it’s a series of events that influence each other. If you’ve ever had a friend who is terrible at telling stories, they most likely sound something like this: “So Jack and Jill fall down this hill. No, wait, sorry, first they go up this hill. Then Jack falls down. And then Jill falls down. And then they get married.” As opposed to someone who might say, “Jack and Jill grew up together as next door neighbors and they hated each other. They were mean and played pranks on one another until Jill left for school. Jill married an orthodontist, but got divorced soon afterward because life became too predictable for her. Jack had a string of girlfriends but nothing ever seemed to stick, especially since none of them seemed to appreciate his sense of humor. Having both moved back to their hometown at a low ebb in life, one day Jack spotted Jill on top of a hill while walking his dog in the park. Jack smacked Jill in the back of the head with a snowball. Jill yelped, slipped, and tumbled headfirst down the hill. Alarmed, Jack rushed to her aid only to slip and fall, himself. The two ended up in adjacent hospital beds and wouldn’t speak to each other, until they both started laughing. Soon after, they fell in love, and have been married for 35 years.” In other words, remember that each beat of your story should make sense and be relevant in the larger context.
-It’s a movie not a book. Give us just enough flavor text so we get the atmosphere and the characters, but don’t go overboard. I should be able to read your script in the same amount of time it would take to watch the movie, if not less. Don’t bog the reader down in unnecessary description. That doesn’t mean what you write can’t be poetic and evocative, but just remember to keep it lean and mean. If you’re lucky, the type of person reading your material will give it their full attention, but this is not often the case.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
Okay, first a disclaimer: most stories are tropes in one way or another. There’s an adage in Hollywood that goes “give me the same thing, only different!” What that basically boils down to is, “give me something I can latch onto, but surprise me!” It’s okay if you have an “everyman protagonist” (The Lego Movie) or if your story is about a rag‐tag bunch of people in space (Guardians of the Galaxy, or alternatively, Star Wars) – what really matters is the execution, or what you do with those characters and set‐ups. That’s where the originality comes in. That being said, here are a few that leap to mind:
-Women with no agency! Or alternatively, women who are portrayed with agency only to have it stripped from them at important points in the story by male counterparts.
– Actually, on that note: stereotyping certain genders, races, or sexual orientations into negative tropes like “the magical ethnic minority” or “token black person” or “exceptionally shallow and flamboyant gay best friend” at all. For a comprehensive list, Google “gender/racial/ethic/gay/transgender/bisexual tropes in media.”
-“You were really working for the bad guys all along.”
-Gritty for the sake of gritty, not because it actually works or makes sense.
-Teen love triangles.
-The ex (Marine, Army, Navy, etc.) whose family or significant other is kidnapped or killed, and must rescue them/seek vengeance. (Sorry, but I’ve read this script a hundred times)
-Scripts that are mostly music‐video segments strung together without much story.
-Manic Pixie Dream Girls
-Inexplicably bloodthirsty military males
-The scientist who knows everything. Ever.
-The brooding, emotionally unavailable romantic interest with no reason to be brooding or emotionally unavailable.
-The hacker who can hack into anything. Ever. Also, it’s probably a guy who lives in his parents’ basement.
-The magical cure‐all that can bring everybody back to life if they die, so there are no consequences or stakes!
-The love interest because there needs to be a love interest.
-The unnecessary cliffhanger, because it’s an unnecessary trilogy!
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
-Rewrite. One of the most common things I hear is “I hate rewriting my material.” Nobody likes taking a chainsaw to their baby, but more often than not it’s a vital part of the creative process. Let’s face it, we’d all like to believe we’re capable of writing a perfect first draft, but in reality turning out something great takes a lot of work and usually a good number of drafts. As a script reader, I see that squeamishness about rewriting get in the way of some good scripts, and that’s a real shame when they could be great scripts. Just “polishing” your material is sort of like watering around a sick plant and expecting it to improve.
-For screenwriters: make every scene worth watching. Almost every scene should a) have some sort of conflict, be it internal or external, b) move the story forward, and c) tell us more about the characters involved.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without‐a‐doubt, “recommend?” If so, could you give the logline?
I have actually read several, but most of them were under an NDA, so unfortunately I can’t share any loglines. Sorry.
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
The Nicholl is definitely worth submitting to, as there is some fairly significant exposure in the industry the farther you make it into the competition. I would also recommend submitting a polished script to the Black List.
10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
You can get more information at www.redpenscriptconsulting.com or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also have LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. If you’re just looking to get your script proofed, though, I would check out my friend’s fantastic service at www.scriptproofed.com
11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
Strawberry‐rhubarb is always an instant win with me, but sometimes I like a good old-fashioned apple topped with vanilla ice cream. Am I allowed to have two favorites?