How does “gamut” make you feel?

emotions
Somewhere in here

No matter what your screenplay is about, or what genre it is, it really comes down to one thing: telling a story about the characters and what happens to them.

While some may put more emphasis on the latter part with its vast number of variables and possibilities, it’s equally important to put a lot of effort into developing the former.

You want your characters to be relatable. Let us see ourselves, or at least part of ourselves, in them. How they act and interact. What they do. Even if it’s within a completely ridiculous or unbelievable scenario.

A good example: the works of Judd Apatow. “Comedies with heart,” is often used to describe them. By injecting emotion into what might otherwise be just something silly, he adds that extra layer of humanity. Notice you never heard the phrase “wacky hijinks ensue”? Because it’s about the emotion within the comedy, not just going for the cheap laugh.

Nobody only experiences one emotion, and neither should the fictional population within your pages. If a character’s happy, sad, or angry, show us why. Don’t hold back. Put it there for us to see.

Do they act like a real person? Is this how they would act in this kind of situation? Is it a real reaction or a “movie” reaction? Getting your characters to act using their emotions makes them come across as more realistic, which makes for a better story.

“The characters are too one-dimensional,” or “He/She’s just a one-note character.”  Heard those before? If your character only acts one way, or remains static and never changes, or doesn’t even react accordingly, that’s what the response will most likely be. And you don’t want that.

A savvy writer knows how to use emotion without being blatant about it. Maybe it’s a subtle action, or a turn of phrase, or the subtext within a line of dialogue.

Find the way that works best to develop and advance the character both within their own story and the story overall.

Digging towards the emotional core

big-dig
I don’t think you’ll need that much gear

Due to both of our busy schedules, my daughter and I go for some quality father-daughter time when we can. Sometimes that means we’ll watch something together.

It might be a movie or a TV show. We’re not picky. No shame in admitting she’s picked up my enjoyment of superhero- and fantasy-based (LOTR, Hobbit, etc) material.

Despite her occasionally sullen and blase teen exterior, V is, at heart, an empathetic and sensitive soul, so no matter what we’re watching, if there’s any kind of hint of emotional resonance in a particular scene, she will feel the full brunt of whatever emotion the film/program is conveying.

Almost any kind of a joke (the sillier the better), and she laughs her head off. Something scary and she hides under the blanket. Something sad and she immediately tears up. Even after years of me saying, “You do know this is just a movie/TV show, right?”, her emotional receptors remain cranked up to 11 (and the teenager reappears with the immediate response, “Will you stop saying that?”)

Looking at these from the writer’s perspective, I can’t help but examine how the writers were able to do that. How did they get to the emotional core of the scene? Jokes and scares aren’t hard to figure out, even though each is pretty subjective, but a good, solid tug at the heartstrings, when done effectively, can be some pretty intense stuff.

A key part is making it relatable. Love. Joy. Heartbreak. Loss. All are universal. Everyone’s experienced them in some form or another. As the writer, you want to convey that emotion so anybody reading or watching your story will not only immediately identify it, but also connect with it on a personal level.

Like this. One of the most effective emotional sequences ever. And not a single word spoken. If you don’t feel anything as a result of watching it, you have no soul.

Even though we may not have gone through the same things as Carl and Ellie, we can relate to a lot, if not all of it.

This isn’t saying that every scene has to be a major tearjerker, but you want to really let us know how the characters are feeling in that particular moment. They’re human, so they feel the exact same things we do. Make us feel how they’re feeling.

Each scene serves three purposes: to advance the story, the characters, and the theme. Let the emotions come through via the best way you envision them enhancing the scene (making sure not to overdo it). It might take a few tries, but the deeper you venture into the emotional level, the easier it’ll get for you to show it, and it’ll also be easier for us to identify it and relate to it.

A tentpole frame of mind

 

kids-movies
My objective. Every single time.

Here in the US, we are heading into what’s known as Memorial Day weekend, where we honor those who have given their lives in the service of our country. It’s also considered the kickoff of the summer season, even though summer doesn’t officially start for a few weeks.

Once upon a time, Memorial Day weekend was when the summer movie season kicked into high gear, with each weekend seeing the release of a potential blockbuster. It has since crashed through the barrier of time limitation, with some summer-appropriate fare being released as early as late March.

I was fortunate enough to have come of age when each summer saw its fair share of films that could be categorized as prime examples of not only filmmaking, but also of storytelling.

Definitely storytelling.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. GHOSTBUSTERS. BACK TO THE FUTURE. ALIENS. ROBOCOP. DIE HARD.

Each one has made its indelible mark on me, making quite the impact on my psyche and personality, and severely influencing the way I write. I make no secret about loving to write these kinds of stories.

(Author’s note – I’m no fool. Nobody’s going to take a chance on a mega-budget script from an unknown. Hopefully once I establish a foothold with my smaller scripts, I can eventually bring out the bigger ones.)

Some may see a summer release as Big Dumb Fun, which admittedly some of them are, but I make a point of treating the audience as intelligent people and want to give them a story that goes beyond simplistic expectations.

I strive to write material that entertains more than just the eyes and ears; I go for the brain, too. It takes a lot of effort to put together a story that stimulates the viewer on more than just a sensory level, but when it’s done in a smart and efficient way, the satisfaction of seeing it pay off is well worth it.

Will I ever get paid to write these kinds of stories? I like to think so. It doesn’t hurt to at least daydream about it.

Imagining that sometime in the relatively near future, a trailer will come up that features snippets of characters and dialogue, all of my creation, all culminating with those words laden with the excitement of anticipation:

“Coming this summer to a theatre near you”

A big smile and chills up my spine, believe you me.

Ask a Significantly Astute Script Consultant!

Laurie Ashbourne

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 Laurie Ashbourne of 1st10pages.com.

After seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit in an old theater in Philly, Laurie knew that she had to be a part of that process.  Within 6 months she was in Disney Feature Animation‘s new studio in Florida working on a Roger Rabbit short and The Little Mermaid, and stayed on through the production of Lilo and Stitch. Leaving that cocoon to create and own her work, she quickly segued to live action and documentaries as a writer, producer and script supervisor. Currently Laurie is ghostwriting 2 features, producing 2 features and 2 pilots (in development through connections made on Stage 32), and a documentary she served as producer on just won a special jury award the New Orleans Film Fest, 2 other feature work for hires are in production right now. As if that wasn’t enough, Laurie has an illustrated middle grade novel in editing and is shopping 2 new scripts, all while running her day-to-day story development and script coverage services. A sought-after script supervisor and longstanding judge and coverage provider for some of the top screenplay competitions. She also provides this service for many independent producers, writers and is consulting story analyst for Amazon Studios Feature Films.

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

I recently read a screenplay for a competition that was amazing. It was so well-paced and had such a perfect economy of words, twists and great characters – I wish I could share it with you, but I have no doubt that sooner than later everyone will have a chance to see it on screen.

For watching, the film LITTLE BOY. About 4 years ago the casting director asked my son to read for the part, so I was sent the script. It was such an emotional story that read really well, even though it broke some traditional pet peeves of mine, I completely overlooked them because I was so engrossed in the story. My son ended up sending in a video read because I was on a job in Virginia AND he had just lost his 2 front teeth so we knew the read wouldn’t go over at its best. Regardless, we went to see it (and I have to say the boy they had for the lead did a great job). I immediately could see where they had to change some things but it mostly stayed true to the script. I enjoyed the film and it was completely emotional, but I could definitely see how it read better than it played.

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

My first job in the industry was with Walt Disney Feature Animation, and as a department head I was in on a project from development through to final reels. But I didn’t start reading them professionally until I left the company to work in independent film, over ten years ago.

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

The tenements of the craft can be taught easily but if a sense of story isn’t there than those ‘guidelines’ become hard and fast rules that can overlook a good story and what it needs to be brought up to industry standards. Learning story is possible, but it’s not for everyone, those that it is for can’t let it go. I’ll use my son as an example again. He will watch a movie until he knows it by heart and then pick apart the structure and characters, all by his own will. He said to me the other day, “When a movie does well, they automatically make a number two, and they do it quickly, and when that doesn’t do well they spend more time working out number three. Number twos always stink.” He’s 10, so I think it’s safe to say that a sense of story is ingrained in his psyche with no teaching other than immersing himself in something he enjoys.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Characters with an emotional want that comes across as genuine – in this case it’s the difference between a homeless person holding up a sign that says “will work for food” and one that holds up a sign that says “hungry, broke please give”. The audience is much more likely to attach themselves to a character who is willing to do what it takes to survive – the character that is willing to work for his food.

Craft contains a lot of things that get a bad name as hard and fast rules, and it’s true that if you are trying to break in you have to look like you are willing to adhere to industry standards, truth if your craft demonstrates mastery of cinematic story SOME formatting issues can be overlooked. So at the top of the mastery of cinematic language is, giving the actors something interesting to do that advances the plot and peels the layers of their character. This does not mean writing verbose prose; that is not cinematic. Cinematic is thinking like a director in your mind, but conveying that action in words that do not include camera direction.

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

-Misuse and abuse of parentheticals and exclamation points

-Typos and poor formatting

-A great idea poorly executed, usually in character and pacing

-A poor balance of dialogue and action (which is usually because of way too much dialogue)

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

It seems to be cyclical; every year there is more of one than another, so I guess that falls into chasing trends. Right now, there seems to be a lot of smaller character pieces, which is good for independent film, but with specs that are trying to break in (rather than going out and producing the indie on your own), it’s really difficult to get behind a moody character wandering the town or country instead of facing an uncomfortable truth. So it goes back to the homeless analogy – why do I care about this person, and please make it interesting without a having a diary in voiceover.

I admit it’s a bit of a catch-22, it’s also very difficult for an unknown to break in with a tentpole, but there is a happy medium where there are just enough elements to give the audience and producers something worth the investment of time and money.

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

-Your material will not resonate with everyone, but if it’s not resonating with anyone, it’s time to analyze those notes you thought were shit.

-Write because you have to get a story out of your system, not because you want to strike it rich or win a contest.

-Let the audience (or reader) get to know your character through the action we see them take on screen, not via a laundry list of their traits.

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

Sure. I’ve had the pleasurable honor to move a lot of scripts forward and nothing makes me happier than to see writers I worked with or read be working in the industry. Frankly, most scripts that come to me don’t have a logline, and I craft one for the coverage – no contest scripts ever come with loglines. Loglines when done well are a craft unto themselves and contests are won on these concepts, but a great logline does not make a great script. This goes back to one of my top three: Most great ideas fall short on execution and again, I really think that comes down to sense of story. I personally write a logline before (during and after) I write a script. Writing it out at the start helps shape your outline. But just as the outline will change as you write, the logline should too, by becoming tighter.

I recently read a logline on LA Screewriter called The Muffin Men – it was really brilliant. But who knows if the script is?

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

Yes, but do your homework. There are more scams than legitimate career changers. It’s worth it to get your script in top-level shape and submit to the top-tier contests (which there are less than 10) the odds are tougher due to the number of submissions but if you seriously want to advance your career, there’s no use in wasting money on the Podunk USA’s screenplay competition.

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

Through my blog 1st10pages.com or via Stage 32 – https://www.stage32.com/LAstory.

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

I’m not much for desserts, but I like apple if it’s fresh and not overly gooey, or key lime. When I was a kid I was all about Tastykake cherry pie.

Ask a Truly Superlative Script Consultant!

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.