The goodness of just over 50 percent

March 14, 2017
writer

That was just the warmup

A most pleasant update to report regarding progress on the pulp spec: the point of no return has been reached (and even slightly surpassed).

Something incredibly significant has just happened to my protagonist, and everything between here and the end of the story is not only about answering the central question and everything connected to it, but also dealing with this important new development, which is also tied in to the main storyline.

From here on in, the stakes are consistently rising and my protagonist’s situation will continue to get more and more difficult.

As it should be.

Fortunately, a lot of these details were mapped out during the outlining process, which has once again proven to be extremely helpful. But even that’s not written in stone; one big sequence was deemed too similar to another, so the relevant elements of both were combined, which actually helped tighten things up on several levels.

To be perfectly honest, there’s not much I can gripe about regarding working on this script. It’s in a genre I love; this was always “something I would want to see.” I’ve made a real effort to make this an exciting read, both in terms of story and how it actually reads.

Like with some of my previous projects, I’m continuing to have a fantastic time writing it, and hopefully that excitement and enthusiasm will be evident on the page.

Sure, the ongoing plan of 2-3 pages a day has been slightly off, so it’s taking a bit longer than originally anticipated, but that’s par for the course for me. But every writing session, no matter how long or short, gets me a little more further along.

Today, the midpoint. Next up – pushing my way forward to the next plot point, which is about halfway through the second act of Act Two.


A refresher course we can all use

September 25, 2015
Okay, class. Who needs more time to work on their script?

Okay, class. Who needs more time to work on their script?

I’ve had a lot of goings-on with loglines over the past couple of days, which prompted me to re-post this gem from a little over 2 years ago.

Enjoy.

“Scenario:  You’re at a social function, engaged in idle chit-chat. The topic of you being a screenwriter comes up.

“What’s your story about?” they will undoubtedly ask.

The chance you’ve been waiting for!  What do you say?

You want to pique their curiosity, and not bore them.

In the simplest of terms:  provide a quick summary of the main characters(s) and what happens in the main storyline.

Avoid too much information, non-essential characters, intricate subplots, how it’s a metaphor for this totally different other thing, or generic phrases like “and learns about themselves” or “stumbles into a world she wasn’t prepared for” or the ever-dreaded “wackiness ensues.”

What are the components of an effective logline? Just the following:

1. A protagonist with a flaw.

2. An antagonist with a goal.

3. The situation that pits them against each other

4. What’s at stake/what happens if the protagonist fails?

That’s pretty much it. Keep it simple. Nothing too specific or generic.

Make sure you emphasize the genre. If it’s a comedy, play up the comedic angle. A thriller, go for the suspense. That sort of thing.

And most importantly, make it sound interesting. This is your best chance to grab their attention, so make the most of it (and make sure the script is just as good).”

-3rd half-marathon of the year this weekend. Training’s been more sporadic than I would have liked, so hoping to break 1:55, but will settle for under 2 hours.


Ask a More-Than-Ready-for-Prime-Time Script Consultant!

March 3, 2015

Jen Grisanti

 

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 is about writing for television, with the spotlight on Jen Grisanti of Jen Grisanti Consultancy, Inc.

International speaker Jen Grisanti is an acclaimed story and career consultant with her own firm, Jen Grisanti Consultancy, Inc., and a writing instructor for Writers on the Verge at NBC. She spent 12 years as a studio executive, including working as VP of Current Programming at CBS/Paramount. Jen also blogs for The Huffington Post and is the author of Story Line: Finding Gold In Your Life Story, TV Writing Tool Kit: How To Write a Script That Sells, and Change Your Story, Change Your Life: A Path To Your Success. She teaches classes for TV Writers’ Summit (LA, NYC, London and Israel) and Story Expo. She has taught at the TV Writers’ Studio (Australia), Scriptwriters’ Network, The Screenwriting Expo, and The Great American Pitchfest. Jen has also served on panels for the WGA, Scriptwriters’ Network, Final Draft/The Writer’s Bootcamp, and ScreenCraft. Her company hosts online Storywise Seminars.

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

The best movies I’ve seen recently include: The Imitation GameGuardians of the GalaxyLocke, and Chef.

Some of my other favorite movies from the past I think are incredibly well-written include: The Lives of Others, The King’s SpeechThe Untouchables and Argo.

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

After studying Communications with TV & Cinema at USC, the first job that paved my way to where I am today was working as an assistant to Aaron Spelling. While working in his office I began to voraciously read scripts. Spelling was my mentor. We had a routine where I’d read all of the scripts for the current shows he had on the air and he’d review my notes and tell me what worked and what didn’t. I learned so much about what makes story work by watching him in the edit bay during rough cuts. I got my Bachelor’s at USC, but I always say I got my Master’s degree in TV in the Spelling office. It was the best place to learn.

I climbed the ladder while I was at Spelling and eventually ran Current Programming covering shows including Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place and 7th Heaven. I went on to become Vice President at CBS/Paramount where I covered shows including: Numb3rs, Medium, NCIS, The 4400 and Girlfriends.

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

I believe that for some, writing comes naturally. They have a sense of their voice from the start. They may need help with structure, but the voice is there.

With others, I do believe it can be taught or learned. I’ve definitely seen this happen many times in my career. There is no greater reward than to see the growth of a writer, to help guide them in finding their voice and to help them understand how to use story structure in the best way possible to bring their voice to life.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The components of a good script are a strong trigger incident that leads the central character into a dilemma. This creates empathy. Then, the choice that they make as a result of the dilemma defines the goal. We should be clear on what the central character wants and why they want it. Another thing that really adds to a good script is when the personal dilemma is connected to the professional pursuit. With this, when the writer comes from a place of emotional truth, it really helps to connect what they are trying to say.

A strong script should have a concept we can feel and a story with a clear message.

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

We don’t know what the central character wants, or we don’t know why they want it. If you don’t know what the central character wants or why they want it, then there’s no rooting factor. The central character reacts to things that happen to them versus taking action toward the goal, giving you a reactive hero instead of an active one. The obstacles happen to the central character versus being a result of an action that the character took. There is no external stakes arc. We don’t know what the worst thing is that can happen if the central character does not achieve their goal.

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

I wouldn’t say there’s a specific story trope  I’m tired of seeing. I’m just tired of seeing films being made where the story wasn’t ready. I feel like TV is in a much stronger place than film with regards to writing.

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

-Make us empathize with your central character from the start.

-Have a clear goal.

-Establish the internal and external stakes.

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

I’m not a reader. I analyze story from the studio executive perspective, so I don’t give “recommend” or “pass,” which is what readers do. I give development notes that help the writer to know how to elevate their script to the best place possible.

That being said, over two dozen of the writers I’ve worked with have sold pilots. Four of them went to series. So I do have lots of projects that I work with people on that go on to sell and be produced.

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

Some are very worth it. I like ScreenCraft, Final Draft, the Austin Film Festival and the Nicholl to name a few.

Competitions allow writers to put something on their bio that shows their writing has been recognized. This is a town that loves heat. If someone else thinks you’re great, everyone wants to know you. So the competitions do serve a purpose in building heat and creating possibility.

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

Through my website – www.jengrisanticonsultancy.com, or they can email me at jen@jengrisanti.com.

If you want to see how I work with writers one-on-one, I recommend reviewing my Writer Proposals Page – http://jengrisanticonsultancy.com/services/proposals/

Plus, if you mention this interview, I’ll give you 10% off of your first consult.

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

I love it. I’m big on baking, and my favorite is cherry pie.


Ask an Up-through-the-ranks Script Consultant!

February 17, 2015

Bill Pace

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 William Pace of scripteach.com.

*Editor’s note – April 2016: Bill is currently teaching at Seton Hall University, so has temporarily put his consulting services on hold. He plans to resume consulting in the summer. Contact him at his website for details.

William Pace received a Masters of Fine Arts in Film Production from New York University’s acclaimed Graduate Film & TV program where he wrote and directed “Echo Canyon,” an award-winning short film that was televised nationally on the USA Network.

His script CHARMING BILLY was a finalist for the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Screenwriting Lab. William also directed the award-winning feature film of the script, which premiered at the AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival, whereupon a lead VARIETY review proclaimed his “notable cinematic and storytelling craft.” CHARMING BILLY was then distributed by a division of Miramax and broadcast on the Independent Film Channel.

William teaches filmmaking and screenwriting at The New School in New York City, where he serves as its Screenwriting Certificate Director. He is also a screenplay consultant who’s worked with such authors as Douglas Blackmon in adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning book SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME, and many others whose scripts have gone on to success, from making the influential Black List, winning competitions at Slamdance, obtaining mangers & agents and being produced & distributed.

Currently he’s Creative Consultant & Associate Producer for the independent feature film HARROW, which is now in post-production.

And — believe it or not — he’s actually listed in Warren Allen Smith‘s book CELEBRITIES IN HELL.

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

There are a lot of good movies that are out right now, but I’m going to go to left field and say THE GOOD WIFE.

It’s TV, and not even one of the “hot” shows that’s popular to tout, but this is a damn well-written show with rich characters who the writers aren’t afraid to have do the wrong thing, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. The journey Julianna Margulies’s character has gone on is almost as transformative as Walter White’s in BREAKING BAD. Different arena, different stakes, but almost every bit as cynical and sometimes almost as dark.

That’s what leaps out at me first thing, but to include a film…

BIRDMAN. But it’s really hard to separate the filming of that movie from its script, as they are seamlessly enmeshed and were designed that way from the start – even though it’s supposed to look like there are no cuts in the film, the editors were actually brought in before shooting begin to help design where the cuts could most effectively be digitally “erased”. That kind of “writing” and planning, along with the audaciousness of the film’s story & thematic concepts, really spoke to me as something on a higher level.

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

When I was a film student at NYU’s Grad program (during the — cough-cough — Paleolithic period), the only scripts around to read were hardcopies, and you had to either know someone in the business to get a hold of one or buy one of the badly Xeroxed copies from the guy in Union Square selling them from his folding card table. It wasn’t until I started teaching and the internet came into wide existence that I began to really read a lot of scripts. Once I could download them, I started devouring them. I especially loved reading early drafts of produced scripts because you could see more of the process that went into crafting the final film by noticing what had changed from its initial drafts. I mean, how else would you know that the scene in INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (ugh) where Indy seals himself in a refrigerator to escape a nuclear blast was originally the concept for how Marty McFly traveled in time!?

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

Absolutely it can be taught. And teaching how to recognize good writing is a hell of a lot easier than teaching how to write “good”.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Oh man… how many pages can I go on here? Okay, I’ll try to be a good screenwriter and shorten it into a condensed version: As much as we teachers and analysts can go on about strong characters, good technique, use of genre, theme, etc. – and they are really, really important — I think that if you have a bad story idea, the rest doesn’t matter.

Not one… little… bit.

Now, what makes a good story? For that I would need lots of writing room to expound upon, but for now let me say that I’ve become a big believer in the logline, the one sentence “pitch” for your script – if you can’t create a compelling logline about your script’s story idea, then nothing else is really going to matter. If you can’t, people might read the script and you say, “Oh, I really like the protagonist,” or its imagery or nuance or its tone/mood/feel, blah-blah-blah…” But they won’t spend money and buy it if the story isn’t there.

I’m not saying you have to write what used to be call high-concept scripts – even if you’re writing a kitchen sink kind of realistic drama, the story should still have sufficient and clear conflict and stakes and that can create an interesting logline.

Once you have the story, then everything has to be in the right balance and proportion and wrap up with a resonating theme to be a really good script. But start with a compelling good story and we can work on all of the rest.

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

• The “I’ve seen other movies get away with this kind of crap so I can too” kind of approach. To stand out in a highly competitive field, your script needs to be better than what you see in the movies. It needs to be fresh and cliché-free.

• Protagonists who are not active, whose goals and actions do not make the story happen. Instead, the story happens to them, not because of them, which significantly lowers our interest in both them and what happens to them.

• “It’s just a script, so the writing don’t have to be good.” Just because it’s going to be a movie does not free you from the work of knowing your writing craft and presenting a grammatically correct and enticing read.

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

Hmmm… can I put superhero stories here? Growing up I loved comic books and I still enjoy a great superhero movie now and then, but really, do we need the entire Marvel universe brought to life and each one getting its own movie? And zombies. Getting tired of them. Love THE WALKING DEAD to death (although it constantly breaks my heart) and I thought that both ZOMBIELAND and WARM BODIES were fun takes on the genre, but enough now. Let TWD ride it for as long as that show works, but that should be it. But those are genres more than tropes. When I think of tropes, I think of clichés, and any screenwriter using a tired old cliché is just shooting themself in the foot. If you feel you simply can’t avoid one, then you have to put a fresh, unique spin on it. SCREAM still stands as one of the best scripts ever to take clichés and use them while at the same time standing them on their head. Great, smart writing.

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

Instead of rules, I’ll state qualities: Passion, Dedication & Persistence.

You need all three or you can forget it. If you’re in screenwriting just so you can “cash in on all that big money,” you’re doomed for the start. Most writers never see anything happen with their first half-dozen — and often even more — screenplays. If you can’t look at that fact and honestly say, “I can deal with that,” then you will fail. It takes time to get better at your craft, develop your writing voice and find avenues to get your work seen and appreciated.

“What about talent?,” you ask. Yes, that is required, but too many writers value talent above the three qualities I stated because they want to believe that if they have true talent they’ll write something so great they can skip all the hard work it takes to succeed. If you think that, then you might as well play the PowerBall — your odds might even be better.

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 couple, but the one I’m happiest about was JUG FACE, written by Chad Kinkle, an alumnus of The New School (where I teach). Before JUG FACE, Chad had written several very good, interesting and highly intriguing scripts, but with this one everything just came together in that special way that makes the story, characters and words leap off the page. And it wasn’t just me that that thought so, as he not only won the Grand Prize at Slamdance’s Screenwriting Contest, he was able to parlay that into getting the film produced with him directing it. It came out in 2013 and was named by many critics as one of the best indie horror films of the year.

Now, the logline – but first, you have to understand that it is a horror film and a particularly disturbing one at that… which should be quickly evident: “A young woman, pregnant with her brother’s child, fights to not be sacrificed by her clan to the entity they worship lurking within in a backwoods pit.” Yeah… I warned you. But despite such a potentially off-putting premise, the writing was so strong that it won several awards and got made.

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

Absolutely worth it, as Chad’s story directly above should make abundantly clear. And even if you don’t win the grand prize and get to make your film, if you place well in a contest you get to use that as a calling card to help bring attention to your work. Another student of mine made the Black List and had her script sold, moved to LA, now has an agent and a manager, and is working in the industry.

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

Either directly via email at bill@scripteach.com or at my website: www.scripteach.com

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

My lifetime favorite is pumpkin pie. I don’t care what time of year it is – it can be stifling hot in the dead of summer, and I will still want a slice of pumpkin pie. The vanilla bean ice cream melting on top will help deal with the heat. And to be even more specific, I have to admit that both my wife and I have developed an incredible love for Whole Foods’ pumpkin pies. There’s something about the combo of spices and the “heft” of their pie’s consistency that I have not found anywhere else. I know it is probably heretical to proclaim a love for a store-made pie, but forbidden loves are often the strongest.


Ask an In-the-Director’s-Chair Script Consultant!

January 20, 2015

Jeff Richards

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-filmmaker Jeff Richards.

Jeff Richards is a story consultant, filmmaker, and writer with over twenty projects either optioned, produced, or sold. His clients range from award-winning novelists to creative writing professors to screenwriters working for major studios. His own writing includes feature films, TV series, graphic novels, and short stories, as well as writing for children’s animation and computer games. His background includes information technology, a decade as an opera singer, and he is an honorary member of the Takaya Wolf Clan of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation.

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

The Karla trilogy by John Le Carré, and if you ever need a lesson that character is king, look to those. The books are often very low on action; they largely consist of dialogue (most of which is people recounting events, as you’d expect in a book about counter-intelligence) and the characters are so magnificent you don’t care that you’ve just spent hundreds of pages essentially listening to people talk. The protagonist for two of the books, Smiley, often isn’t even doing the talking; he’s merely listening. Yet it works.

As for watching, I’ve been re-watching Doctor Who, and “Blink” is possibly the best hour of television I’ve ever seen. Stunningly imaginative and original, incredibly atmospheric, and one of the very best examples of burying exposition I have ever seen in any medium. If I write something that good, I’ll die happy.

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

I spent several years as an independent filmmaker and although I did write most of the projects we were developing, I’d occasionally work with an outside writer and help them. That made me realize that I could apply what I’d learned as a writer to helping others with their scripts.

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

Absolutely. The love of words is probably pretty difficult to instill in an adult, but if someone is already interested in it, then it is definitely possible to learn to recognize good writing. The secret is to read widely and actively, both good and bad material; once you’ve read and analyzed enough writing, and worked out why it works or doesn’t, you start to see the patterns very clearly, particularly in screenplays. Objectivity about our own writing? That’s trickier…

4. What are the components of a good script?

What’s most important, and what I don’t see enough of, is a unity of character, plot, and theme. People talk about “character-driven scripts” or “plot-driven scripts” when, in reality, they should driven by the same engine.

As for the rest, it’s about what you’d expect; an active protagonist, strong pacing, dialogue with subtext, an original concept, rising stakes, good conflict, a surprising but inevitable ending… all that sort of thing. However, the only absolute must-have is that it is interesting. For every other must-have you’ll see on a checklist, you can usually think of a great script that didn’t have it. Passive protagonists are death… unless you are talking about The Graduate. Or Being There. But these are scripts by master writers; you need to be very sure why you are going against the grain, and how it makes your story better. (And, as you can tell by the age of the examples, rule breaking isn’t that popular anymore in Hollywood.)

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

Going back to the previous point, a disconnect between character, plot, and theme is common. This usually causes protagonists with unclear goals and flat second acts. However, the most common thing I see is on-the-nose dialogue. Characters who say exactly what they feel and think, or who sum up the central conflict in a speech. If you ever read “You know what your problem is?”, then that’s probably a bad sign.

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

I think I’m almost unique in that my answer is “none”. Every trope is ready for a great script to make it fresh. Amnesia is the most tired device in writing, yet The Bourne Identity comes along and is fantastic. There’s always room for a great script.

The thing that tires me isn’t story tropes, but clichéd dialogue. Don’t have lines from other movies in your movie. Be original.

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

-Read widely; lessons are everywhere, and most of them are outside your genre and format. So if you’re a sci-fi feature film writer, read historical fiction. Read detective comics, manga, sitcom scripts. Expand your brain.

-Writing is rewriting; every first draft is a huge bundle of problems waiting to be solved. So solve it. And not by editing, but by rewriting. Changing words in action or dialogue is just editing. Changing characters, plot points, deleting or adding scenes, that’s rewriting. Do multiple passes, focusing on a different thing each time. One pass (or several, more often) for plot, one for each major character’s dialogue, one for action lines… if you’re building a shelf, you don’t sand and paint at the same time.

-Don’t get hung up on systems. Read how-to books, sure, but pick and choose your advice. Being a slave to a particular checklist is usually indicative of poor writing. If I can tell that you’ve read Save the Cat by reading your draft, then there’s probably too much Snyder and not enough you in your script.

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

Unfortunately, I can’t share loglines due to confidentiality. But for me, “recommend” can’t focus too much on the logline. Concept is important, sure, but the writing is what matters, what makes it a “recommend”. I’ve had writers with straightforward concepts come to me and, after we hone the execution, they get jobs at major studios or get 10 on The Black List. That doesn’t come from the logline, but the execution, how they wrote (and, as per rule 2 up there, rewrote!) Chinatown’s logline doesn’t set the world afire, yet it is generally regarded as one of the great scripts. So a logline wouldn’t really illuminate why I feel a particular script is great. Loglines only show whether something is the type of script an exec should read (e.g. it’s high concept sci-fi and that’s what they’re looking for). The logline gets you the look; the writing gets you the job.

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

I personally don’t do them very often. I have in the past and placed well, but I never found the contest actually led to a job; what worked for me was my personal networking. However, every path is different and obviously you hear success stories. What is important is that you put in the time, both into the writing (mostly) and into building your career, whether that’s contests, pitchfests, networking… Whatever seems to be working for you, do that. If nothing’s working (and the writing is genuinely where it needs to be!), then change things up.

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

*Editor’s note: Jeff is no longer actively seeking clients, but is still open to receiving requests via his website.

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

Pumpkin, no question. With fresh whipped cream. A great pumpkin pie will turn me into the seven-year old kid who eats so much he feels sick. It is inevitable.

I probably need help.


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