A few important reminders (for me and anybody else)

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“I know you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped, so look at this as a learning experience.”

Yet another busy week around Maximum Z HQ, including quite a bit of doing script notes, polishing the latest draft of the comedy spec and punching forward on the horror-comedy outline.

Fun stuff all around.

It also included my western placing in the top 15 percent of this year’s Nicholl, which is the second time for this script, and third overall. Not bad, but still not enough to get to the quarterfinals. At first I was feeling kind of down about it, but realized (and was reminded by more than a few colleagues) that a much larger number of scripts didn’t even make it that far, so I should still regard this as a positive.

Suffice to say, it looks like there’s a little more tweaking in store so as to get this script and at least one other ready for next year (along with a few other top-tier contests).

Since this blog recently hit the 9-year mark, of course there are some previous posts of relevant content.

A screenwriter’s 5 stages of grief (contest edition)

A little-post comp analysis

My race, my pace

Fall back. Regroup. Hit ’em again.

In it for the long haul

To all of you who had a script advance in PAGE and/or the Nicholl, my heartiest of congratulations. Steps are already being taken to reinforce the notion of me being among that group next year.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Stuffed just a tad beyond capacity

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All my script needs now is the line “…and a dozen hard boiled eggs.”

As the dog days of summer lazily drift on by, each of those days sees me dedicating a portion of it to working on the next small section of the horror-comedy outline. So far – it’s coming along nicely.

For now, it’s just filling in the blanks between primary plot points. Not counting those, I tend to think and plot things out in a linear manner; going from A to B to C and so on, rather than A to B to J, and then maybe filling in that stretch between D and F. This approach helps with not only crafting the developments of the main storyline, but also the subplots and figuring out how all the interconnections work. Others may do it differently, which is fine. This way works for me.

What originally starts out as one to two sentences summarizing what happens in a scene quickly becomes lengthy descriptions, including specific character actions and snippets of dialogue. This has caused the outline to appear dense and bulky, or at least that’s how it looks at first glance.

At first this would appear to be a bad thing, but keep in mind that this is only the outline, so a scene write-up that appears as an impenetrable block of text here might translate to, say, half to three-quarters of a page, including dialogue. Not a bad exchange rate.

Just as an example, as a scene was playing out, it kept getting longer and longer, which would have run way too long for both script and screen. Realizing that simply would not do, I made some minor modifications and managed to break this exceptionally large scene into three slightly smaller ones. Each one still retains the point I wanted to make, as well as continuing to advance the plot, theme, and characters. A win all around.

The way I figure it, it’s a lot better to have an overabundance of material during this stage, and then be able to cut, trim, or maybe even add more where necessary down the road.

Another key part to all this development is making sure everything I come up with plays some kind of role in the overall context of the story. Call it the “keep only if relevant” rule. If there’s something on the page that has nothing to do with the story or the characters, then why have it there in the first place?

Q & A with Brian Smith of Monument Scripts

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Brian Smith of Monument Scripts grew up on Cape Cod, long a favorite haunt of writers and artists, surrounded by and loving well-told stories. When he left the Cape, it was to study the techniques and principles of good story telling at the University of Southern California. There he earned an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

He began his career in the industry working for Disney, and then Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation, and he has credits on 24 films and television series. Brian’s been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for such companies as Walden Media and Scott Free Films.

Brian currently lives in Los Angeles, with his wife, three daughters and two dogs.

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

If we’re talking incredibly well-written, I would say the last thing was Coco. Full disclosure here, my background is in animation. I’ve worked in animation my whole career, but I’ve been kind of down on PIXAR for about the last 10 years or so. I felt like it had been at least that long since they put out a complete film. I thought Wall-E and Up were both half-great films in that the first half of each of them was great, but the other half was mediocre to just bad. Other films that they put out during that stretch, like any of the Cars movies, Finding Nemo/Dory, or even Toy Story 3, were really lacking in strong stories. They always had wonderful characters that the audience fell in love with. That allowed for hyper-emotional endings, which was ultimately why those films were so successful. I thought with Coco, they put everything together in a way that they hadn’t since The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and they finally made a complete film. The story was thematically very strong, the stakes were very high, and they gave us a twist at the end I did not see coming. I don’t cry during movies, but I had a lump the size of a golf ball in my throat at the end. The quality of the writing in the script had everything to do with that.

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I fell into it, really. I was working on the Curious George feature years ago, and we were all about to get laid off as the show was wrapping. One of my co-workers suggested script coverage as a way to make some money while being unemployed, and he put me in contact with a creative executive he knew at Walden Media. I contacted him. He had me do a test, which they liked, and they started sending me work. I fell in love with evaluating stories and writing, and have been doing it ever since.

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

Absolutely, and it can be both taught and learned. Writing is one of those unique disciplines that’s equal parts creativity and technique. You have to use your imagination in order to be a good writer, but you also have to use dramatic structure. Determining the merit or quality of a premise or an idea can be a subjective thing, but evaluating a writer’s technique and skill level is absolutely something that can be taught. What a lot of writers don’t understand is that good dramatic structure makes you a better writer. Just as anyone can be taught to implement that structure in their writing, others can be taught to evaluate how successful the writer was in implementing it and how that implementation strengthened or weakened the story.

What are the components of a good script?

A good script is a story well-told; that takes the reader on a journey to a world that the reader can envision and become a part of. In order to do that, a good script needs to have been spawned from a strong premise. A strong premise usually gives way to strong thematic elements, which are also necessary for a good script. A script is almost always better when it has something that it’s trying to say. A strong thematic component is also a way to make us care about the characters, which is probably the most important component. I need to care about the characters and what happens to them. I need to feel some emotional attachment. Without that, you’ve got nothing.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Not adhering to proper story structure is a big one. The transition from Act II to Act III is one that tends to trip people up the most. Poorly written dialogue is another one. Writing good dialogue is hard, and most writers from whom I get scripts haven’t yet mastered the art of subtext, which is crucial to writing good dialogue. It also seems as though a lot of writers think that big words mean good dialogue, which isn’t necessarily the case. Finally, flat characters are a common problem in scripts I get. It’s especially problematic and common in protagonists. Many writers are reticent to give their hero a flaw or some other issue that gives him or her depth, and it’s so important to do so.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The post-apocalyptic sci-fi thing. I love science fiction and there have been some great post-apocalyptic stories. There’s a reason The Hunger Games was huge. It was a terrific story with real pathos and drama. Unfortunately, it made way for a lot of other stories that tried to do the same thing, but just didn’t do it as well. Even The Hunger Games went out on a whimper for me as the last movie wasn’t nearly as good or as compelling as the first. I had the same opinion of the books as well. But that’s a trope I kinda wish would just go away.

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

Story structure, story structure, and story structure.

Have you ever read a script where you could immediately tell “This writer gets it.”? What was it about the writing that did that?

Yeah, and it was actually a bit annoying. I was reading for a contest, and got a script written by a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer, and the script was about a woman who was a doctor and a lawyer. I know this is super-petty of me, but I really wanted to hate it because it’s really annoying when someone is good and successful at everything they try. But I have to admit it was an exceptional script, with an interesting protagonist, a compelling storyline and meaningful thematic elements, all written in a cinematic style. It was easy to envision this as a courtroom drama worthy of the genre. The writer really understood what it took from a technical standpoint to write a story well, and her personal experiences allowed her to tap into material that was interesting and dramatic.

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

I believe it is worth it, especially nowadays. With studios less likely to option or buy spec scripts, doing well in a screenwriting contest might be the best way for some writers to break in to the business. And the beautiful thing is, you don’t even have to win. You could be just be a finalist, a semi-finalist, or even a quarter-finalist, and there’s a good chance someone from a studio is reading your script and could possibly be impressed with your work. Even people who aren’t winning these contests are getting meetings that could lead to work. You might not sell your script this way, but your talent could be recognized by someone who has the power to hire you to write something else, and that could break you in to the industry. I personally have a friend that experienced that. She got her script into a couple of contests. She didn’t win any of them, but her script caught the eyes of people that could do something with it, and she’s been taking meetings and getting offers for representation. So if you have a quality script you can’t get past the studios’ Threshold Guardians, enter it into a contest, and there’s a chance that the studios could be calling you.

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

People can check out my website: http://monumentscripts.com/ or follow me on Twitter @monumentscripts.

You can also email me directly at briansmi71@gmail.com

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

We must be kindred spirits, because I am definitely a pie guy. I’d rather have pie for my birthday than cake, and will never turn down a slice of pie for anything. That said, I prefer fruit pies to crème pies, and my favorite of all the fruit pies is blueberry. My favorite way to have it is warmed up with vanilla ice cream on top. That is, unless I’m eating it for breakfast. Then it’s just plain.

blueberry pie a la mode

Pushing my way forward (x2)

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Really putting my back into this

This has been a most interesting week. Based on some quality notes, I wrapped up a polish of the dramedy spec (which is now in the process of getting notes). Feedback so far has been encouraging, which is nice.

So now the focus can shift back to developing the two new stories. With most of my recently-completed projects having been worked on for extended periods of time, it’s been a while since I was really starting out from the very beginning.

I’d totally forgotten how much I enjoyed the process of putting a story together. I know what the core concept for each one is, and now it’s all about finding the best and most entertaining way to tell them.

At times it feels like my mind is going in a thousand directions at once, so I’m constantly writing stuff down. A scene or sequence idea here, a line of dialogue there, plot twists, character development, turning the scene on its head; pretty much the whole kit and kaboodle.

Main storylines have been established, with the expected constant fine-tuning and adjusting, and as I work my way forward, the subplots are making themselves known.

Entirely new worlds (or maybe “settings” might be appropriate, since each story is on the smaller side) are being created, populated with unique and hopefully somewhat original characters.

While one of the stories is based on an old script, there’s a constant discarding of a lot of the original content and trying new approaches. Not necessarily “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks”, but kinda/sorta along those lines.

For the other, this is dipping my toes into a genre I enjoy, but wouldn’t call myself a major fan, so doing what I can to avoid tropes and cliches (of which there are apparently many). If that proves more challenging than anticipated, will do what I can to least go for the unexpected.

Added bonus – watching movies of that genre and style to get a better feel for both.

Sometimes I’ll read a writer’s account about what a chore it is for them to develop a story, or how much they loathe this part of the process. I don’t see it that way. Organizing the story and putting it all together is a key part of screenwriting. Too many times when reading a spec, you can tell when the writer didn’t put in the effort to get all the details of the story right before they started on pages.

I recently asked my online screenwriting newwork their thoughts on outlining versus a “seat of your pants” approach. The responses were overwhelmingly in favor of outlining. Granted, there are some writers who prefer the latter, but I’m not one of them. I’m a firm believer in having a rock-solid outline before starting to write the actual script.

But that’s what works for me. Others may feel differently regarding their own process. No matter how you achieve the end result, as long as you’re happy with it, then more power to you.

The whole creative process in developing a story is a beast unto itself, but I think all the long-term work I’ve done for other scripts is really paying off for these two. For now, it’s still a big and unwieldy mess, occasionally feeling very unorganized and all-over-the-place, but a little bit of work every day will gradually pay off. When all is said and done, I’ll have two new scripts.

Like I said – I’m enjoying it.

Q & A with Melody Jackson of Smart Girls Productions

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Melody Jackson, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Smart Girls Productions and Hollywood Business School, is a self-described “Marketing Person” and Entrepreneur.  After working as a Marketing Person selling to the film industry for several years, she started Smart Girls Productions in 1992.

To learn more about Melody and the services provided by Smart Girls Productions, check out their screenwriting blog.

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

That question is a little bit funky for me to answer and I’ll tell you why.  Years ago I took the famous/infamous Robert McKee screenwriting course, and there was one thing that really stuck with me. In that legendary, deep gruff voice with his big scary face belting from the stage, McKee shouted out:  “I’m not doing this class to try to make you guys win Academy Awards…. I’m teaching this class to try to raise the overall quality of films that are out there.” Something to that effect.

He talked about how, when he was a young boy, he would go watch every single film that came out in the theaters near him — even as a young kid, he went to see everything.  All types of films. He just loved the medium of film.

The thing I learned from him is not to be so hung up on what is great writing, but to learn to enjoy film as a whole.  Most scripts are not going to be great or really well-written. It’s easy to critique and criticize most of them. But in that class, I learned to have a different perspective, and that makes a difference for me as a script analyst and for my clients.  

Sure I can go deep into “analyzing” structure and character arcs and all kinds of stuff. But ultimately, it’s a question first and foremost of “did this script cause me to have some kind of emotional experience? Regardless of anything else.”  Then, and only then, do I engage my left brain and start seeing how it could be made better. With better writing, you tend to appeal across a broader group of people.  

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Prior to starting my company Smart Girls Productions, I worked for a company that was involved with film distribution — both domestic and international — and I learned a fair amount about that.  At one point, I just had to quit — no really good reason; they were great. But I just wanted to do a business on my own. That’s when I started Smart Girls.

I was actually working on an acting career at that point and need to figure out how I was going to make money.  Since I read scripts as an actress, I thought, “Hey, I could make money typing scripts.” Yes, typing! I ran an ad in the Writer’s Guild magazine and got a call right away.  The truth is, I didn’t even know how to type a script. I called an aspiring producer friend of mine who was also my mentor. And I asked him desperately, “How do I type a script?”  He told me to get some book from Samuel French bookstore and I did. It took me forever to type those first two scripts. But after that, I typed a LOT of scripts…. we still do!

Then once I learned to type a script, I took lots of classes on screenwriting. Then I began writing my own scripts. Got hired to write a couple. I got a WGA agent. I went on to get my Ph.D. in mythological studies.  And along the way, I added script analysis to my list of services and it turns out, I apparently have a knack for it. I ended up being rated one of the top 5 Script Consultants on three different occasions by Creative Screenwriting Magazine.  

Your company’s called Smart Girls Productions. What’s the story behind the name, and what kind of work does the company do?

This one is short.  When I started my company, I brainstormed a list of about 30 company names. I read it to my Mom, and she said, “Definitely Smart Girls.”  And so it was. Told you it was short.

You have a PhD in Mythological Studies. Has that helped you in analyzing scripts?

For sure. Joseph Campbell, the father of bringing mythology into an understandable form, is the one who identified The Hero’s Journey.  That’s the foundation of almost every great Western story. My studies in mythology looked at story from innumerable angles…. not just Campbell’s but many others.  So yes. It is in my DNA that it informs my analysis.

What are the components of a good script?

For me this is where the Hero’s Journey meets Aristotle’s Poetics.  The Hero’s Journey focuses more on the experience of the character and the inner transformation.  The Poetics has more of an emphasis on plot. But if you work both angles, then you’re going to have things that appeal to more audience members.  That’s the big picture.

If I had to say what those elements are, it would be something like… You need to have a character that has something he or she NEEDS to learn, some kind of lesson, some area of their life where they are misguided.

They then get pulled into some external plot in which they will be forced to confront that thing they have not learned. They will come face-to-face with it in the external plot.

Their choice and how they handle it is the big lesson for them and for the audience.  The biggest component for a good script for me is that the the main character has some kind of transformation. That they are somehow a bigger, better or wiser character by the time the story ends.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The most common big mistake I see is no solid theme developed in the story. You have to have some point to telling the story, otherwise it’s a boring story about going to the store.

Gotta have some point about human nature that is revealed in your story, or what’s the point? That is the biggest mistake new writers make. I would also venture to say it’s also why more sophisticated movie-goers don’t like straight-up action films. Too many times, the focus is not on any kind of transformation, but on other fun stuff like chase scenes and explosions and cool special effects. Nothing wrong with that, but it does nothing for the soul. The soul longs for transformation, and personal development. The theme is the highest articulation of that. The most common mistake I see — actually I don’t see it as a mistake, but more like the most underdeveloped aspect of scripts I read is theme. And I say it that way, because I find that most writers have some place of meaning they are writing from; they just haven’t consciously identified what it is.

One of the non-writing necessities of screenwriting is the writer’s ability to market themselves. Seeing as how that’s one of your specialties, what are some key pieces of advice that writers should keep in mind?

You’re not going to be successful overnight or next week. You’re not going to sell your first script for a million dollars. Or even $250,000. The first person who reads your script is not going to fall in love with it and suddenly introduce you as this newly discovered gem that Hollywood has been waiting for.

Many screenwriters really have no idea how hard it is to get a deal and then get your movie made. It’s a long shot. I’m not saying you should give up, but I am saying that my best advice is to learn more about the BUSINESS side of the business. It’s far more likely that a writer will get hired to re-write a script if they’re a great writer than it is that they will actually sell their film and have it be produced. Trying to convey this idea and educate writers on this is why I launched my Hollywood Business School at HollywoodBschool.com.  My mission there is to help actors and writers better understand the business so they can have a much better chance at reaching their goals.

To boil it down to a few simple bits of advice:  Keep learning as much as you can about the business. Get great at your craft. Market market market. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.  Enjoy the pursuit. Be positive and be persistent. And don’t quit your day job. — BUT… do everything you can to help your career while you still have that job.

Part of your bio lists being the former emcee at the Hollywood Networking Breakfast. Could you provide a little more detail about the event and is it something screenwriters should consider attending?

My dear friend Sandra Lord is the Networking Guru of Hollywood. She was my manager for a period of time when I was acting. She started The Breakfast at that time, and she excelled at finding top level producers and agents to speak.  For the nine years I emceed that and heard the speakers, I got a deep education in how Hollywood works and what execs want.

Sandra still hosts the breakfast several times a year.  She also runs an event called “Let’s Do Lunch” and the L.A. Film and Television Meetup.  She is the first person that I recommend for every aspiring filmmaker, actor, set designer — anyone who wants to get into the business — go to her events as much as you can.  You will definitely start making connections. And it’s also not just for newbies. You’ll find a lot of working industry people there as well.

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

“Most” important?  I tend to stay away from hyperbole because how can I really boil it down to MOST important?  It’s a great question that writers need to know, so it’s not the question that’s an issue — it’s just my picky resistance to saying what is my most anything…Let me slightly modify and simply tell you what I think are some generally important rules.  Here are the three I pick for now:

  1. Learn story structure.  Study screenwriting. If you haven’t studied screenwriting, I guarantee you don’t know how to do it well. 100% guaranteed.
  2. Tap into your authenticity and write from there. In a very positive way, I think everyone has a great story to tell — of their own life even — if you find the right bits and pieces. Whatever it is that moves a screenwriter to spend weeks, months, and years on their screenplay, that tells me they have something important to say.  This goes back to the theme I mentioned above. They may not have completely identified what their theme is — and why their story is important to them. But I will also guarantee this …. if they tap into their authenticity and why they are so moved by that story, that story will have a hundred times more impact — on them and their audience.  If they get to their authenticity about it, there is deep fulfillment and satisfaction in writing a story like that. Then your passion makes it much easier for others to see its greatness.
  3. Don’t take anything you hear from a producer or agent at face value. You have to know how to read between the lines.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s less a story trope that I’m tired of because they can be told in different ways.  What I find hard to watch or read is when the writer or filmmakers have not tapped into their unique vision — again I would call it lacking authenticity — but then … I don’t want THAT to come across as a TROPE!  If I had to say it another way, it’s when people are not digging deep enough into their soul to get to their authentic, unique perspective.

You could see the same story ten different times and if the filmmakers or screenwriter truly tapped into their own unique take deep within, it could still be interesting. It’s like when a great song is recorded by many different artists.  Whether it’s “Over the Rainbow,” “Amazing Grace,” “Yesterday,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love” or “To Love Somebody,” when a great singer does their unique rendition, we can hear it over and over and still be moved by it. The same with a story or a story beat.  The problem lies in the lack of tapping into the truth of the individual writer.

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

Gotta be pumpkin!  I need to find a good source for pumpkin pie here in Los Angeles. Got one?

pumpkin pie