The appeal of appealing to a younger demographic

kids
Multiple generations, engaged and enraptured. Fine by me.

During a recent phone conversation with another writer, I’d mentioned having wrapped up work on the pulp sci-fi spec.

“What’s it about?” they asked. I proceeded to give them my 10-second elevator pitch, plus the “THIS meets THAT” combo.

“Huh,” was the response. “It sounds cool, but it also sounds like it would be a kids’ movie.”

I suppose that’s one way to look at it. My preference is “a rollercoaster ride of a story, fun for anybody from 8 to 88”. That’s always been my approach when I set out to spin a ripping yarn.

Was I supposed to view their comment as some kind of insult? As if there’s something negative or shameful about writing material that appeals to kids? Because that hasn’t worked at all for Disney or Pixar.

PIxar especially has a reputation for producing films that appeal to all ages. There’s been a lot written about the immense amount of time they spend on making sure the story is rock-solid. One of the most-read articles for screenwriting is based on part of their process, and those don’t just apply to animation; they’re for ALL screenwriting.

Let me also throw a couple of “kids movies” out there. You might have heard of them.

Star Wars. Harry Potter.

One’s been around for 40 years, with no sign of letting up, while the other just celebrated 20 years of entertaining readers and moviegoers.

On the surface, both are solid, simplistic stories about the fight of good versus evil. But is that all they are? Heavens no! There’s universal appeal, engaging characters who grow and change, themes being explored, conflict like you wouldn’t believe – all told through a filter of imagination. Don’t let the presence of lightsabers, magic wands, or animated, talking animals distract you from what’s really going on.

And let’s be honest. Both of those series have done more than okay at the box office.

Not too shabby for “kids movies”.

Now, I’m not saying any of my scripts are in the same arena as those, but a good story is a good story, no matter who its target audience is. And if it appeals to a younger generation as well as my own, what’s wrong with that?

And you know what else works with kids movies? Kids grow up, and eventually have kids of their own. What do they watch? The movies the parents enjoyed as kids.

Who wouldn’t want to write something that leaves a lasting impression on a young mind, and then see them pass their love of that story to later generations?

For me, that’s what it all comes down to – writing a script that tells a fun and exciting story that anybody could enjoy. And if that includes kids, that’s fine by me.

That’s not the question you should be asking

classroom
Class, who can tell me what “familiar, but different” means?

I see variations on this question a lot throughout many online forums:

What kind of script should I write?

Seriously?

And I say that in the least condescendingly way possible.

It amazes me that somebody who wants to write a script has to ask what they should write. Shouldn’t you already know? Isn’t that why you’re doing this in the first place?

Then again, I’ve always been a writer, so it was never a question of “What do I write?”, but more of “Which one do I write now?” and “How do I write this so it’s good?”

But back to the topic at hand…

My immediate response to the question in question is “Write something you would want to see.” But that’s my approach. Others may take a different stance.

One caveat – make sure whatever you write is as original a story as you can come up with that contains original characters and situations. Do whatever you can to make it your own. Readers will instantly recognize if you’ve “borrowed” something.

I recently read a script that was a blatant rip-off of a well-known franchise. Did the writer know this when they wrote it? I don’t know, but the actual concept behind their story seemed unique unto itself, with lots of possibilities, so it was actually kind of surprising and disappointing to see them follow that well-trod path instead of seeking out something new.

Something else to keep in mind – using well-known characters not created by you is a very, very bad idea. A writer friend has a connection at Marvel Studios who handles the non-stop influx of unsolicited spec scripts. No doubt your Spidey spec is brilliant, but you’re seriously fooling yourself and wasting your time.

Wouldn’t you rather your script be known for offering up something new and unique?

A lot of newer writers see what’s hot at the box office and think “I can crank out something like that in no time!” Also a waste of time. Trends come and go very quickly. What’s hot today could be ice-cold tomorrow. And you probably think you’re the only one to come up with some variation on that current big idea.

You’re not. It’s even money deals involving clones of that idea will be announced in the near future, all while you’re still churning out pages.

DON’T CHASE TRENDS. You’ll never catch up.

A writer I’ve exchanged notes with concluded our most recent email conversation with “Also wanted to pick your brain. I want to write a script about ____ . It’s an idea I’ve had for several years, but I don’t know if anyone would want to see it.”

Their concept seemed good with lots of potential, but also sounds very similar to a recent series on Netflix, which I thought increased the chances of inevitable comparisons between the two. But if it’s a story that’s been percolating for that long and they feel really passionate about it, then by all means, have at it.

As a spec writer, you have the freedom to write whatever you want. I suspect a lot of us are inspired by the films we grew up watching up to the ones we enjoy now.  Start there and see where it takes you.

Strive for originality, chums.

Your world. We’re just visiting.

tour group
Ooh! That looks like a vital piece of exposition!

Since you’re the one creating the world of your script, you know exactly what’s going on within it. Or at least you should. This doesn’t just refer to the events of the story. It’s a bit more extensive than that.

You know the world in which your story takes place. We don’t. It’s up to you to show us how things work in here. Some writers write under the impression that everything we need to know is right there on the page for us to see. They do, so how could we possibly not?

Sometimes the information we need to follow the story is presented gradually, or it might be thrown at us all at once in one big info dump (which runs the risk of too much too fast, resulting in something being skipped over). There are also times when we get nothing, so we and the protagonist experience everything firsthand as it happens.

Who hasn’t read a script and found themselves confused about “how things work here” because it wasn’t there, or only got a fraction of what they needed? Without that, your reader’s going to spend more time playing catch-up while trying to figure out what’s going on, which will take away from them being able to focus on the story itself.

You don’t want that.

This goes beyond genre. While stories of a more fantastical nature will require a little more explanation and/or exposition, even a story that takes place in the present day with normal, everyday people will require some kind of “get us up to speed”-type scenes.

One counterpoint to this – the lack of filling us in is intentional. Part of the enjoyment of the story comes from the gradual learning of information. An ideal setup for mysteries, but that’s all I can think of.

Personally, I find it more effective to fill us in as we go along rather than just dropping us in the middle of this new environment with the attitude of “You’re on your own. Good luck.”

Make it as easy for the reader to be able to follow along with what’s going on in your story as you do. Potentially difficult, but not impossible.

A scary good Q&A with Jimmy George

JImmy George

Jimmy George, aka Script Butcher, has been writing and producing films for over a decade. Along with optioning several screenplays, Jimmy has lent his name as co-writer/co-producer to six award winning feature-length films, garnering rave reviews, and boasting international distribution.

He has a talent for engineering fun and innovative productions on shoe-string budgets with few of the modern technological marvels used in major Hollywood blockbusters. Each of his films have been praised for circumventing their meager budgets, standing out through memorable storytelling.

Jimmy co-wrote and co-produced WNUF Halloween Special (2013), which won numerous festival awards, alongside national press from The New York Times, VICE, MTV, Birth.Movies.DeathFandango, and Red Letter Media, and is currently available on the AMC Networks’ streaming service, Shudder.

After tearing up the festival circuit, his most recent film, Call Girl of Cthulhu generated enormous buzz in the horror industry. Harry Knowles of Aintiticoolnews declared it “fun, better than it should be and quite splattacular.”.

Jimmy’s current project (and his seventh feature), What Happens Next Will Scare You, will be released next year.

In addition to writing and producing, Jimmy has a passion for helping creators succeed. As the Script Butcher, he consults with screenwriters, empowering them with the necessary tools to sharpen their scripts into dynamic stories that slice through the competition.

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

The pilot episode for GLOW. The world-building is excellent. It takes you into a sub-culture that’s mysterious and relatively unknown. The characters are memorable and entertaining. We meet the lead character at her lowest point. It leaves us with so much promise for what could take place during the series. Does everything a pilot should do and more.

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

There are many screenwriting gurus out there. I am not one of them. I’m just a guy who’s written a ton of screenplays, produced a half-dozen movies of my own, and learned a lot along the way.

Over the last ten years of making movies, I’ve become the go-to script doctor for a lot of friends and colleagues. I’ve been doing this for free for a decade and it became clear a few years ago that this was my purpose. So I decided to start this service and try to make a living doing what I love.

Telling stories is what I was put on this Earth to do. Helping others fine tune their stories is a close second. I’ve been in your shoes. I know the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to complete a screenplay. This isn’t a job for me. It’s my passion. It’s what I live for.

Where does the moniker “Script Butcher” come from?

Whenever someone would ask for notes, I always delivered their script covered with red ink. The pages looked bloody. I once joked with a friend that I was their “script butcher” and it just stuck. To this day, every time I finish a set of notes my hands are covered with red ink splatters. I have a background in horror so a lot of people assume those are the only scripts I work with, but I provide the same exhaustive notes for all genres. I’d say 75% of my clients don’t write horror.

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

Writing well and recognizing good writing are skills that go hand in hand. Both can be taught and learned. For me, recognizing good writing as compared to bad has come from reading thousands of scripts at all levels of the talent spectrum. Having my own scripts brought to life on a frequent basis, sitting in theaters watching what works and doesn’t has also taught me invaluable lessons most script doctors haven’t had the opportunity to learn or pass along.

Studying the work of pros is a must too, but a lot of scripts available to the public are shooting drafts which are different from spec scripts and teach new writers bad lessons. So much can be learned from script consultants as well. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mentoring advice and guidance I received from my own trusted script doctors.

I didn’t go to film school. The notes I received from these professionals over the course of a decade and a half, became my film school. By failing time and again, by continuing to experiment with the form and seeking constant feedback, I learned the craft. I never stopped trying to get better. Growing thick skin and learning how to use feedback to improve your stories is an important skill set for a writer.

Sending my scripts for notes became a crucial part of the writing process and continues to be.

What are the components of a good script?

A good script should have an original, marketable concept.

With flawed relatable characters who are actively seeking something they care deeply about, that we can emotionally connect with and root for, and that deals with the most important events of these character’s lives.

It should present a visual goal for the character or characters to achieve which form the central story question, and present primal, relatable stakes for what will happen if they fail to achieve those visual goals with formidable forces of antagonism that cause never-ending complications, standing in the way of the character’s achieving their goals.

It’s properly formatted on the page, relies on visuals instead of dialogue to tell the story, with plausible surprises and reversals of expectation at every turn.

And it builds to an emotionally satisfying climax that answers the central story question of whether our characters will achieve their visual goal in a positive or negative manner.

Other elements such as a quick pace, character arcs, thematic resonance, and memorable dialogue are a bonus, but not absolutely necessary for a script to do its job.

(Some of this is inspired by Terry Rossio’s 60 Question Checklist, which every screenwriter should read here.)

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

1) FAILURE TO DELIVER ON THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE

A story is a promise. Imagine Mrs. Doubtfire if the story followed Robin Williams working as an accountant instead of following the trials and tribulations of trying to reconnect with his wife and kids while dressed as an old woman.

The audience is waiting for you to deliver on the promise of your concept. If your script is about killer beer, you better have a beer pong massacre scene.

2) TONAL IMBALANCE

If you’re writing Schindler’s List, there’s no room for campy comedy. Vice versa.

Even if you’re mixing genres, keep your characters’ reactions to the events around them and the events themselves consistent in tone.

3) LACK OF CLARITY EMOTIONAL OR OTHERWISE

Clarity of what a character is feeling in reaction to a situation or what is being conveyed in general is a common issue I encounter with client scripts. Because the story is alive in your head, it’s difficult to tell what is and isn’t conveyed on the page. It’s all crystal clear for the writer, but often muddled on the page.

There are many more common mistakes, but these are the big ones.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

UNDESERVED CELEBRITY STATUS – I see so many scripts that give their characters a level of celebrity status that’s unbelievable simply for the sake of telling the media-frenzied story they’re trying to tell. The paparazzi and press are very specific about the types of people they will follow. Make sure your characters are worthy of the celebrity status you’re giving them in your story.

USING NEWSPAPER HEADLINES AS EXPOSITION – Many of my clients rely on one newspaper headline after another to show the passage of time and relay important exposition. Media has changed. This is an antiquated story device that no longer holds weight with the audience.

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

1) REVERSE EXPECTATION at every turn in a way that feels organic to the story and not calculated or contrived.

2) FIND THE CLICHE AND THROW IT AWAY. If we’ve seen it or heard it before, find another way to show it or say it. This will ensure your story always feels fresh and unique.

3) MAKE IT VISUAL. If dialogue comes last instead of first when you’re crafting scenes, it will ensure your story is cinematic and not better suited for the stage.

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

I have once, it’s called BaSatai by my longtime client Suzan Battah. She’s in the process of turning it into a graphic novel. You can find out more here. https://www.patreon.com/suzanbattah

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

Not worth it. Writers put so much time, emphasis, and worst of all, money into contests. In my opinion they’d be better off spending that time improving their craft and spending their money on attending networking events and writing workshops.

While I understand the allure of getting a festival or contest win to stand out from the crowd of writers trying to break in, a contest win can be detrimental to a writer’s sense of skill level and give them a false sense of completion with their scripts.

I’ve worked with dozens of screenplays that were “award-winning” with multiple festival monikers to their name, that I don’t feel would get a RECOMMEND from a single studio reader.

Writers are paying money to contests, being assured their scripts are good enough, when they aren’t ready yet. There’s nothing more detrimental to your career than trying to shop around a script that isn’t ready.

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

My website has all the details you’ll need at www.scriptbutcher.com/services

You can also find me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/scriptbutcher

Instagram at www.instagram.com/_jimmygeorge

And Facebook at www.facebook.com/scriptbutcher

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

Offbeat answer here. My wife and I were passing through Intercourse, Pennsylvania, otherwise known as Amish country. There was a gift shop that sold Shoofly Pie with cartoonish construction paper flies advertising how fresh it was. We bought a slice. Needless to say, it was so delicious we left with two whole pies.

Just the tune-up it needs

eastwood engine
Clint knows what needs to be fixed

The latest batch of notes on the pulp sci-fi spec have been analyzed, some even incorporated, resulting in the latest draft.

Thing is, something still seemed a little off about it. But after having spent a good chunk of time on it, I opted to give myself a little break and skip jumping right back in, and instead put it aside to simmer while I focused on a few other projects.

A couple of weeks have passed since then. The time felt right. I opened it up and simply started reading in the hope that maybe the solution would simply present itself along the way.

A lot of it still held up. It’s still a fun, fast-paced action-packed story.

But what really stood out this time was how there was a lot of unnecessary text on the page. It wasn’t a matter of overwriting; more of a “maybe a little more than you actually needed.”

I went back to page one and started editing, line by line. A word here, a phrase there. More and more of my darlings were being lovingly obliterated from existence, creating a somewhat tighter story that didn’t sacrifice any momentum (so far).

Some of the notes also mentioned the occasional lack of information in terms of backstory. I occasionally have the habit of thinking I’ve included an important detail or at least allude to it, when it reality – nope.

Using this fine-tooth comb approach has also enabled me to identify and plug up holes in the plot. Sometimes I might stumble onto a minor issue I didn’t even realize was or wasn’t in there, and am able to take care of it. Again – tighter and continued momentum.

This draft continues to progress nicely, and I’m hoping to wrap it up soon – but still making a point of taking my time and thinking my way to each solution.

-I’ll be running the first half of the San Francisco Marathon this weekend. While a time of 1:55 would be great, as long as I beat the 2-hour mark, I’ll be fine.

-If you’re a screenwriter in the San Francisco Bay Area or northern California region, and want to meet other screenwriters, the NorCal Screenwriters’ Networking Shindig on Sunday, July 30th, might be just what you need. 2-4pm at Kawika’s Ocean Beach Deli (734 La Playa – a block from the ocean!). Cost – FREE! Drop me a line if you’re interested.