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 former consultant Derek Ladd. His script Nina NANO was a Silver Prize Winner in the 2013 Page International Screenwriting Competition.
Award-winning screenwriter Derek Ladd started telling stories as a kid and never stopped. He lives in Portland, Oregon where he spends as much time writing as he does shaking off the rain (which is pretty much all the time).
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
The last exceptional script I read belongs to Matt Tolbert, a client of mine. I can’t go into specifics but it’s an historical screenplay about the Nordic Vikings. It’s refreshing to work on a script that pulls me in on page one and doesn’t let go. All of the elements (pacing, plot, characters) came together to create an immersive reading experience. As for movies, the last one I saw that featured great writing was Dallas Buyer’s Club. This is a movie that nails the writing on all levels: the visuals, the dialogue, the subtext, all of it. Another surprisingly good movie I loved is an indie foreign film (horror comedy genre) set in Ireland called Grabbers.
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
When I started my script consulting service, one of my early clients wanted to produce a movie. I’d written a couple dozen short stories and a few novels by this time and this client had read some of my work. And since a screenplay is the first element one needs to make a movie, she recruited me to write one. The only obstacle was that I had no idea how to write a script. So I bought two books on the subject and they didn’t help: each book contradicted the other. Then I bought one of those fancy bound scripts at Barnes & Noble – Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman, based on Susan Orlean’s book). Of course, it was more of a transcript so it didn’t help much either. I finally gave in to the fact that I would need to attend a class, and in Portland, Oregon the master of screenwriting was Cynthia Whitcomb. I took both of her classes, read her books and picked it up pretty quickly. My first script was an adaptation of my novel, Without Wings. From there I started reading scripts written by my classmates so I could give them feedback. The writers I worked with were so pleased I started doing it professionally. To date, over a dozen of my clients have won or placed in a variety of screenwriting contests.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
I would say ‘Yes’ to both questions simply because one has to know how to recognize good writing in order write good material. While writing novels I found inspiration in everyone from Heinrich Boll, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and David Sedaris to William F. Nolan, Anne Rice and Stephen King. If an aspiring screenwriter thinks Gigli or Showgirls is a great screenplay, trying to write a great script will be damn near impossible. If, however, the same screenwriter dives into work by Michael Mann, the Coen brothers, Joss Whedon, or Luc Besson (to name a few), or any brilliantly written script (JAWS, Fargo, The Matrix, Harold and Maude, Serenity, The Silence of the Lambs), that writer will strive to achieve the same level of success in their own work. Excellent writing that makes you laugh and cry and get goosebumps has more power to teach aspiring writers than any classroom instruction ever could.
4. What are the components of a good script?
The Seduction Element: I watched a good DVD lecture featuring Michael Hauge a while back called ‘Grabbing The Reader In The First 10 Pages’. Mr. Hauge opened the lecture by explaining that part of the title is a misnomer: he said that ‘grabbing’ is too forceful a word and that what a writer should aim to do is seduce the reader. That’s at the top of my list. Seduce me with your words. Make it impossible for me to put it down: make me laugh, make me anxious and/or make me curious in the first five to ten pages. If you can evoke a strong emotion in the reader as soon as possible and keep it flowing that reader will be yours to the end. A famous writer (don’t ask me who) once said, “The first sentence should make you want to read the second. The second sentence should make you want to read the third…”
Strong characterization: A fleshed-out, intriguing character has the power to lead the reader anywhere. If a script starts out with three pages that describe the inside of a barn or a ton of details to set up what’s to come, I’ll put it down, or throw it at you if you’re close enough. The writer may have created the most awesome outpost on an alien planet anyone has ever dreamed up, or constructed the greatest plot ever conceived in the history of the written word, but without a solid character to invest in it won’t matter. For me, strong characterization is the whole shebang: a memorable introduction, sharp, believable dialogue, behavior that’s consistent with how the character would act in a given situation, etc. If the character has an arc (not required in some genres, but strongly recommended) it should be begin and end at the proper times – no rushing and no shuffling. Steady as she goes…
Originality: Is this a script I’ve read a hundred times before, or will it surprise me? I’m not saying it has to be about a group of purple, basketball-shaped alien opera singers from the planet Snergle. When I say ‘original,’ I’m referring to the unique spin a writer puts on the material. As an example, a good detective story populated with adults is okay, while a detective story populated with high school kids (like the film Brick) is original and stands out. No need to reinvent the wheel; popular genres are popular for a reason. Just find a way to spin them and surprise the reader.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
Everyone’s guilty of typos and grammatical errors (myself included), so it’s a given that any editor/consultant will find them. Aside from that, one common technical mistake I see involves scenes that spill over into other locations without new scene headings. Drives me crazy. I also see a lot of scene headings written improperly, missing words, character name inconsistencies and factual errors (names of objects, cities, states, countries or famous people misspelled). To a lesser degree, I see action lines that are jumbled: a character enters, pulls a gun, fires. Then it’s noted that the light is flickering overhead. Oh, and the guy in plain sight by the pool table (who was never mentioned before) fires back. It’s like when someone tells a joke and stops in the middle to say, “I forgot to mention, the guy riding the donkey is a priest.” It’s distracting. Unless you’re writing a narrow-to-wide shot, set the scene: describe who’s there and what they’re doing then describe the action. Otherwise it feels clunky and awkward.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
The expression “I get it” is everywhere now. I don’t know where it came from. Maybe it’s like the cicadas that surface every 17 years or whatever and it’ll disappear soon. Here’s an example: “Hey, getting hit in the crotch with an umbrella ticked you off. I get it.” The biggest users of “I get it” are the writers for ‘Supernatural’, ‘Criminal Minds’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy’, all great shows that would be even greater if they’d stop using “I get it” six times per episode. It’s superfluous. Think about it: if one character describes what another is feeling, is it necessary to cap it off with “I get it.”? No. It isn’t. So please stop it. A visual trope, as it were, is the weird technique where the action goes into slow motion then speeds up again. I think the movie 300 started that whole thing. Hopefully a better movie will come along to put an end to it soon.
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
The following answers are based on the assumption that the writer has developed a unique concept and story that he/she is passionate about. My answers further assume that the fundamentals of story, characterization, plot, dialogue, writer’s voice, pacing, style and overall balance (60% action, 40% dialogue) have been carefully considered throughout the writing process.
-The first 5-10 pages are life and death for a writer. As an editor/consultant, I get paid to analyze a writer’s work. Studio script readers, on the other hand, get paid to say ‘No’ to conserve a producer’s valuable time and an investor’s money. So unless you give the reader a solid reason to say ‘Yes’, your script is headed for the recycling bin. Set the hook as soon as possible and set it deep. Make that studio reader take your script into the bathroom (to read).
-Unless you’ve written a character-based indie script, structure is critical. Do your own structure analysis to see where you land: inciting incident by around page 12, plot point one by the 1/4 mark, strong midpoint by the 1/2 mark, plot point two by the 3/4 mark and the climax in the last 10-15 pages. You’re allowed a brief end-cap/denouement of 1-3 pages and then FADE OUT.
-Formatting DOES matter, especially for a spec script. Know the average length for comedies, thrillers, horrors, dramas, etc. Turning in anything under 90 pages or anything over 120 is a longshot. Know that formatting varies between different genres and how to use these varied techniques to your advantage. Barb Doyon’s book, ‘Extreme Screenwriting’, has an excellent chapter on formatting and how to use it to enhance a spec script.
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 a few scripts over the past ten years I would strongly recommend, which is probably right in line with the industry percentage of one half of one percent. I don’t have loglines to share (without a client’s permission), but the clients whose scripts I would recommend include Chanrithy Him (When Broken Glass Floats), Santa Sierra (spec episode of The Good Wife), Bill Johnston (Requited), Erin McNamara (Boru), Mike McGeever (Smilers) and Dorothy St. Louis (El Cubano). Others can be found at ProofEdge.com on the Testimonials page.
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
It really depends on the contest. My advice is to do some research, comb the web and read message boards. Moviebytes has a lot of info on contests and how contestants rate them. Find a contest that’s a good fit for your work. Some contests aren’t as open to traditional Hollywood blockbuster-type scripts (Zoetrope), while others offer a range of categories to accommodate all writers (PAGE Awards). If it’s a sizeable, reputable contest (PAGE Awards, StoryPros, Nicholl, among many others) I strongly recommend using it as a measuring stick to see where you stand as a writer. A writer shouldn’t get too bummed if his/her script doesn’t make it past the first round – a script can do poorly in one contest and win another, it happens all the time. Many contests offer notes for an additional fee, which can be quite helpful if done by a professional. Keep in mind that, while winning is the goal, simply making the Finals can attract studio attention, and doing so looks good on a resume when querying agents and producers. Winning or even placing in a contest can make the difference between an exceptional, unknown writer and an exceptional, discovered writer.
10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
*Editor’s note – Derek has since retired from offering script consulting services.
11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
Apple, hands down. My mom always made the best apple pie when I was growing up. The way she makes it, the apples aren’t too sweet and they’re not overcooked and mushy. A couple of years ago I made a butter crust from a simple recipe I acquired as a sous chef. The combination of her perfect filling and my crust (which melts in your mouth) is pretty spectacular.