All that on a single piece of (digital) paper?

bad 1st impression
It can only go downhill from here

You only get one chance to make a good first impression. And that also applies to a screenplay. If your first page doesn’t make us want to keep going, why should we? Chances are the rest of it is exactly the same.

The first page is your golden opportunity to start strong straight out of the gate. Show us from the absolute get-go you know what you’re doing. A lot of the time, I’ll know by the end of the first page what kind of ride I should be expecting.

Just a few items to take into consideration.

-First and foremost, how’s the writing? No doubt you think it’s fine, but face it. You’re biased. You want a total stranger to find it fault-free, so look at it like one. Is it easy to follow and understand? Does it flow smoothly? When I read it, do I get a clear mental image of what you’re describing? Does it show, not tell?

-Is there a lot of white space? Are your sentences brief and to the point, or do they drone on and on with too many words?

-Do you point the reader in the right direction and let them figure things out, or at least get the point across via subtext, or do think it’s necessary to explain everything, including what a character is thinking or feeling? Yes, that happens on the first page.

-If your protagonist is introduced here, are they described in the way you want me to visualize them for the next 90-110 pages? Does a notable physical characteristic play a part in the story? Are they behaving in such a way that it establishes the proper starting point for their arc? Are they doing something that endears them to us, making us care about them?

-If your protagonist ISN’T on the first page, does it do a good job in setting up the world in which the story takes place? Do the characters introduced here play any kind of role later on in the story?

-Are there any mistakes regarding spelling or punctuation? Are you absolutely sure about that? SPELLCHECK IS NOT YOUR FRIEND. A team does not loose a game, nor do I think they should of won either. Two glaring errors that your software will not recognize. But a reader will.

-Does it properly set up the genre? If it’s a comedy, should I be prepared to have my sides ache from laughing too hard? If it’s a horror, should I make sure the lights are on, even if it’s 12 noon? If it’s a drama, should I have a box of tissues within arm’s reach to dry the expected river of tears?

-Do your characters sound like people saying actual things, or are they spouting nothing but exposition and overused cliches?

Not sure about any of these? Read it over with as critical an eye as you can muster, or get help from somebody within your network of savvy writing colleagues. DO NOT go to somebody who doesn’t know screenwriting.

Think I’m being overly critical? Ask any professional consultant or reader, and I bet 99 out of 100 will say they know exactly what kind of read they’re in for by the end of the first page. And number 100 might also agree.

Then again, there’s also the possibility that the first page could be brilliant and it stays that way until FADE OUT.

Or the wheels could fall off anywhere between page 2 and the end.

Your mission, and you should choose to accept it, is to make that first page as irresistible as you can, grab us tight, and not let go. Make us want to keep going. Then do the same for page 2, then page 3, page 4, etc.  Make us totally forget what page we’re on.

Take a look at the first page of your latest draft. Does it do what you and the story need it to?

-Didja notice the spiffy new look? Had to make some behind-the-scenes changes, and this is the result.

The bulletin board returns!

bulletin board 2
No need to crowd. Plenty of pushpins to go around.

Today is once again all about promoting the projects of some very savvy creative folks, each one definitely worth checking out.

-Author/podcaster/friend of the blog Justin Sloan has released an audiobook version of his book Creative Writing Careers 2. Justin is also one of the co-hosts of the Creative Writing Careers podcast, which examines careers in writing not just screenplays, but also books, comics, and video games.

-Writer/filmmaker Luke Oberholtzer has a new proof-of-concept trailer (somewhat NSFW) for his proposed horror-comedy DRAIN BABIES. Contact Luke at Luke@LegacyEntertainmentFilms.com for more info.

-Writer/author/script consultant/friend of the blog Howard Casner has launched a crowdfunding project for his short film 14 Conversations in 10 minutes. Donate if you can! Howard is also offering a great new service for screenwriters – $20 to review the first 20 pages of your script.

-Filmmaker Scotty Cornfield‘s crowdfunding project for his short film Goodbye, NOLA is going strong! They’re getting closer to reaching their goal, but can still use a little help. Donate if you can!

Got your own project you’d like to promote? Drop me a line.

Take us along for the ride

roller coaster.jpg
Hang on tight.

Here’s a two-part question for you. Pencils at the ready, please.

Up first – Are you enjoying the actual process of writing your script?

Sure, we all like “having written”, but what about getting there?

Do you get a thrill from figuring out your story? Mapping out the plot? Developing characters and crafting dialogue?

Do you get so engrossed and involved in your writing that when you check the time, you discover a lot more time has passed than you thought?

If you’re really excited and enthusiastic about your script, you’re going to feel that way even before you start writing it.

Now for the second part of the question:

Is all the aforementioned excitement and enthusiasm evident on the pages of your script? Could someone read it and think “Wow, they really like this stuff.”?

While it’s often said that you can gauge a writer’s grasp of the craft just by looking at the first page, you can also tell if they’re really into their story by how it reads.

Does it grab you from the get-go? Is the tone of the writing a solid match for the tone of the genre? This is not a case when “good enough” will cut it. What would you think if you read a horror that was “sort of” scary, or a comedy where all the jokes fall flat?

Exactly.

You want the reader to be as thoroughly entertained as you were in putting it together. You want them to be as compelled to keep turning the page as you’d be if you were reading it yourself.

A lot of the time you’ll hear a writer wrote something because “they had a story they had to tell”. That story was so strong and powerful inside them, they had no alternative but to write it out.

As creative types, that level of excitement and enthusiasm exists in all of us. We’re all eager to tap into it, but need to take the time to learn how to do it properly so it can be done in the most effective way possible.

Pencils down.

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.

Ask a Man-of-Distinction Script Consultant!

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.