Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in review and the power of Twitter

Well, it's the end of another year. I imagine this is one of those posts that'll get missed in all the holiday hoopla, so I won't waste everyone's time with a long year-end retrospective.

As I look back on the year, the posts I'm probably most proud of are the interviews. I did an in-depth interview with TV writer Robert Levine about his time on Jericho and Human Target. Later I interviewed fellow blogger and TV writer Margaux Froley about how the Warner Brothers Television Fellowship won her a staff position on Privileged. Both of these came about through fairly normal channels. Rob Levine is something of a casual acquaintance, and I had corresponded with Margaux through comments on her blog and a few emails here and there before arranging the interview.

Two other interviews I conducted came about through a more unexpected means: Twitter. I was somewhat late to embracing Twitter and finally joined a little over a year ago. I quickly graduated from tweeting mere updates to the blog and soon made it my mission to get responses from celebrities such as Wil Wheaton and Pat Sajak. (Mission accomplished in both respects, by the way.) As I write this, I have 1156 followers, which seems like it can't possibly be right... especially when I note a few verified celebrities are among my followers.

I can't swear to it, but I think I followed A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's writer Eric Heisserer on Twitter first, and that likely led to my blog ending up on his radar. When Tripp Stryker filled in and gave an impassioned defense of reboots and remakes, Eric tweeted me, saying "Tell Tripp there's a signed poster in it for him if he likes the movie."

(I'm not sure if Tripp ever got the signed poster - but to be fair, Eric never promised it would be signed by anyone actually connected to the film.)

That was enough to open a dialogue, and I soon asked Eric if he'd be open to an email interview. He was quite generous, and in fact had the answers back to me less than 24 hours after I emailed the questions. As I had seen many reviews of the film - both positive and negative - I had the opportunity to ask him about some of the more controversial turns in the script. The result was a candid interview, and I'm left with the sense that Eric enjoyed being able to take us through his experience and show how the filmmakers arrived at the end result.

I didn't meet Eric in person until several months later at a panel of horror writers, and I found him to be an exceptionally friendly individual. We had traded a few emails before then, and he even took some time to offer some personal advice regarding some writing and career issues I was sorting out. Eric's one of of the good one's in my book, so if you ever have a chance to read an interview with him, or see a panel he's on - take it! You can find him on Twitter as @writerspry.

Twitter also put me in contact with Josh Klausner, the writer of Shrek Forever After and Date Night. If memory serves, he actually followed me first and I was ignorant of that fact until he tweeted a reply to some snarky aside I made. With the ice broken, I arranged another email interview, and Josh couldn't have been more generous with his answers. You can find Josh at @JcKlaus.

So that's a good use of Twitter - who knew? For an inappropriate use of Twitter, I could follow in the footsteps of a person a friend of mine was telling me about. This individual had over a 1000 friends on Facebook and decided to tell them all that if each of them gave him a dollar, he'd have enough for a new laptop. Classy, no? (On the other hand, I've got almost 1200 friends, so it strikes me if each person gave $.50, I could afford a new iPad... maybe class is over-rated.)

Anyway, I'm always humbled and flattered that people enjoy my writing enough to read my blog regularly and follow me on Twitter. If you haven't yet followed me, I'm @BittrScrptReadr on Twitter, and you can "like" me on Facebook by going here.

Let's hope 2011 is a great one for everyone!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Screenwriting Master Class with Scott Myers and Tom Benedek

I don't often endorse screenwriting products, programs or services on this site, and I usually try to have direct experience with a particular service before I offer any sort of endorsement. In the instances when I don't have that direct service, I make certain to admit that fact plainly and point out that my referral is based on the experience of others and not my own.

But there's one guy in the screenwriting blogsphere whose name is pretty much synonymous with "credibility" in my book - Scott Myers of Go Into The Story. Scott has been a long-time friend of the blog and his endorsement was key to putting this site on the map back in July 2009. Anyone who's read Scott's blog knows that he not only has a lot of screenwriting insight and advice to offer, he's also a damn good guy.

So that's why I have zero hesitation about endorsing his new Screenwriting Master Class before it even officially launches. I even wish I had the disposable cash to take it myself, but that'll have to wait for some future date.

So rather than offering my semi-uninformed take on what Scott and his partner screenwriter Tom Benedek have cooked up, I'll let their promotional email speak for itself.

January 3, 2011 is the official launch date of Screenwriting Master Class and all but two of the inaugural course offerings are sold out. Thanks for your interest and support!

A few questions for you:

Have you ever started a script and not finished it?

Has it ever taken you 4, 5, 6 months or more to finish a script?

Have you ever gotten so lost when writing a story, you became incredibly frustrated?

Chances are you did not do enough story preparation. Don’t you think it’s time to approach writing like professionals do and break your story in prep?

We offer a 6-week online Prep: From Concept to Outline writing workshop, a step-by-step way to develop your story, enabling you to crack it before you type FADE IN. The beauty of this approach is three-fold:

* You can go into the page-writing part of the process with confidence because you’ve already broken the story.

* Since you won’t be overwhelmed with finding the story when writing pages, you can focus your creativity on characters, dialogue, mood, pace, etc.

* By devoting six weeks to prep, you will almost assuredly cut the amount of time you spend writing your script and increase the odds you will finish your draft.

At Screenwriting Master Class, we offer two concurrent sections of the Prep: From Concept to Outline class:

* Prep [Beginning to Intermediate writers]: Scott Myers is teaching this course from January 3-February 13.

* Prep [Intermediate to Advanced writers]: Tom Benedek is teaching this course from January 3-February 13.

There are a few spots available for both courses. We are also signing up writers for the next round of Prep courses beginning February 14. To enroll, go here.

Here are a few testimonials from writers who took the Beta version of the Prep: From Concept to Outline course:

“You gave us all just the right amount of ideas, encouragement, and support to discover, develop, and design a real workable blueprint to take into the page writing.”

-- David Broyles

“The Prep class has given me a set of practical tools to use to take the bare glimmer of a concept to outline in six weeks.”

-- James Tichenor

"I honestly can't wait to get started on this script now, and to use what I've learned in Prep to go back and rewrite other scripts."

-- Paul Labich

Approach your writing like the pros do: Break your story in prep!

Don’t forget, if you go to the Screenwriting Master Class website, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter and the free 28-page Spec Script Market Analysis.

Also follow @ScreenwritingMC on Twitter for all Hollywood lit sales – from spec scripts to pitches, novels to comic books – plus screenwriting business news.

If you have any questions, you may contact Scott and Tom here:

Best of luck with the new program, gentlemen!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tuesday Talkback - The worst of the year

I'm tired of debating the best movies of the year. Tell me, what films do you consider contenders for the Worst of the Year?

I think I actually did a pretty good job of avoiding the most universally derided movies of this year. Valentine's Day and MacGruber were probably the worst of what I saw, but there was a LOT I strictly avoided. If I saw everything that came out, those two probably wouldn't have even been in the bottom ten percent.

Bonus category - best bad films to Netflix and watch while drinking. Annnnnnd go! I need to fill up my queue.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Budgeting your time - try to write regularly

So I had a grand plan to finish writing a pilot before the end of this year. Not sure if that's going to happen. In theory I had plenty of time - two months. I'd even set a theoretical schedule, but that proved to be my undoing. I know that I like to write in long bursts - sometimes as many as 10-15 pages in a shot, so I convinced myself that any day I wasn't actually writing, I was still "working" as I was thinking about those pages. Thus, I was making it easier on myself because I'd only need three days or so to write the first draft.

Yeah, that was bullshit.

My problem was that I didn't set deadlines and stick to them. When I write for my writing group, I have a deadlines that six other people hold me to. With this, I was mostly on my own. Had I written only three pages a day, I would have written the theoretical 30 pages in the pilot within ten days.

Writing is like losing weight. You have to work at it every day. Working out ten minutes a day every day is far better for a weight loss plan, than cramming in one day a week of a 70 minute workout. Indeed, this blog is proof that I can stick to a deadline. I always try to make sure there's something new up here every weekday.

So my resolution for the new year is to be more disciplined about my screenwriting and TV writing. The binge and purge method I've used before has gotten results, but I feel I can be more productive still.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thursday Throwback - "Misogynistic violence against women"

This post first appeared on March 18, 2009.

This is one of those things that is hard to describe, but you definitely know it when you see it. My “best” example of such a scene was one scene where a woman met her end by being sliced in half lengthwise, starting at her genitals. If it wouldn’t get me sued, I’d describe that whole sequence in detail just to put in context how truly nasty some scenes can be. Rape scenes are also walking a fine line. It’s possible to handle them tastefully, but I’ve read a few where it’s felt like the rapist is standing in for the writer’s own fantasies – the kind of scene that after you read, you need to take a shower to wash the dirt away.

After more than five years as a reader, I now know far too many ways to mutilate, subjugate and sexually degrade a woman. I’m by no means a feminist, and there are plenty of instances where I’ve read an act of violence committed upon a female character and haven’t raised an eyebrow at it. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying you should never hurt, injure or kill your female characters. That would be equally sexist. The problem sets in when it feels like the victimizer in the scene is a stand-in for the writer’s own sick desires.

This is one of those subliminal things that’s hard to point out without using specific examples, and unfortunately, to show the worst/best examples of such writing would likely get me sued. As blurry as the line gets, it most frequently gets crossed when some sort of sexual element is added to it. A scene where a woman is stabbed and her throat is slashed probably wouldn’t set off any alarms – but a scene where a woman is stabbed, then raped as the attacker takes obvious glee in her pain is going to be more repulsive.

Any creative attacks upon the vagina are also likely to trigger this response. Rape is a hot button for a lot of people, and doubtlessly there will be stories where such an act will serve the plot. (The Accused and A Time To Kill immediately spring to mind.) If you’re just trying to write a “fun” slasher film, I’d be careful about adding rape in there. If you’re writing torture porn, then you’re just a sick son of a bitch and there’s probably no saving you.

Yeah, I said it. I get the impression that torture porn gets bought less on the strength of its script and more on the cynical view of, “Well, this can probably make money in this market.” It seems like that genre is on its way out, and I for one couldn’t be happier. I don’t recommend writing it, but I don’t think too many readers like those scripts either, so you really don’t have anything to lose.

And don’t take it personally if agents, producers and managers who read the script think that there’s something strange about it. Readers often fancy themselves dimestore analysts, and we tend to think that a sick script is the product of a sick mind.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Overlooked Black List scripts

It's a holiday week and I don't have much enthusiasm for coming up with new posts. However, I have a number of blogs I read daily and it always frustrates me when they don't have new stuff, so how about some audience participation today?

I've seen a couple of Black List spoofs lately. You all seem like a very creative bunch - why don't you write in with fake loglines and titles for next year's Black List. Bonus points for coming up with a clever screenwriter to be the fake author of your premise.

I'll get us started:

"The British band "The Zombies" might be humanity's last hope when their reunion concert becomes Ground Zero for a zombie apocalypse."
AGENT - Endeavor
Manager - Circle of Confusion

DUDE, YOUR MOM'S HOT! by Jon Schlossberg
(Original title: "I'D TOTALLY F*** YOUR MOM IN THE A**")
"A high school freshman finds his popularity fluctuating when his classmates discover his mom's a MILF."
AGENT - Creative Artists Agency
MANAGER - Circle of Confusion

FRIDAY THE 13th by Oren Farmer
"A reboot of the classic 2009 reboot"
MANAGER - Circle of Confusion

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Tuesday Talkback - What holiday movie best describes your family?

One of the best things about the holiday season is watching the classics like National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and Die Hard and arguing over which film seems to best capture the essence of your family.

For me, at times it seems like Christmas Vacation was written by people who'd taken to living in our crawl spaces and it's probably the most quoted Christmas movie among my family and friends.

So which classic best suits your family, and why?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Does the world need another _____ movie?

I have to admit, one of my biggest frustrations as a reader is that so much of what I read lacks any sort of originality. True, Hollywood tends to look for the same types of movies, and if one serial killer movie happens to hit it big, you can bet that similar films will be a hot ticket.

But my frustration comes in when dealing with a mundane genre and a lukewarm premise. For instance, I read TWO scripts last week about disgraced cops who have to put aside their differences to crack rampant corruption in the police department before they become the patsies for the impending internal affairs investigation that's close to catching the real cops who are on the take.

There was nothing original about this - the characters were bland, the plot was slow-moving and derivative, the action scenes too few and far between. Honestly, if I waited another week to write up this post, I probably would have forgotten both of these scripts! (Or I'd have confused them with the two dozen similar scripts I read earlier this year.)

I get that the writers worked hard on their scripts, but I doubt there are few readers who wouldn't conclude that effort was wasted. So when you're working on your new spec, please ask yourself one simple question:

"Does the world really need another one of these scripts?"

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bravo, Jon Stewart

You did a good thing this week, Jon.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Worst Responders
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
9/11 First Responders React to the Senate Filibuster
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

Jon brought up a point that shocked and angered me - that NONE of the major news networks have given this a second of coverage in two and a half months. I'm disgusted by the way the Republicans have comported themselves in general lately, but frankly I don't expect them to act like human beings, or with regard to anything beyond scoring political capital. It's sad when a comedian behaves more like a responsible journalist than the three major networks put together.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Free-for-All - The Tommy Westphall Multiverse Theory

Some of you might remember that a while back I noted that actor/comedian Richard Belzer has appeared as Detective John Munch on six different shows: Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The X-Files, The Beat and The Wire. The obvious implication of this is simple - via the transitive property, Law & Order and The X-Files exist in the same universe.

Better still, since Law & Order has crossed over with several other spin-offs (Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury, Law & Order: Los Angeles and Conviction) and The X-Files crossed over with Millennium and The Lone Gunman, that means that this TV universe contains at least 12 distinct TV shows.

And yet, Homicide has a few other crossovers to add to the mix - notably St. Elsewhere, and here's where things get interesting. See, St. Elsewhere crossed over with Cheers (no, really!). Cheers spun off Frasier and crossed over with Wings, and because of NBC's ubiquitous crossover and cameo stunts in the 90s, Frasier is linked to many other sitcoms.

So in theory, it's possible that Fox Mulder could have stopped into Boston and had a beer with Norm and Cliff, then headed to New York and butted heads with Detective Lennie Briscoe over jurisdiction.

(These are the things I spent my days thinking about when I was in college. All of this is from memory - not from research.)

Ready for me to blow your mind? In the final episode of St. Elsewhere, we were shown that the entire series had actually been a fantasy existing only in the mind of an autistic child named Tommy Westphall.

So in theory, not only do all of these shows exist in the same universe - they ALL exist in the mind of an autistic child!

One night in college I was poking around the internet, and I stumbled onto a site discussing this very phenomenon... but their take on the Tommy Westphall Universe was far more comprehensive than mine. I established connections based only on direct contact between the shows - they tend to be a bit looser, using common references between different series as enough to establish a link. Currently, the site alleges a link between 282 series!

So if you're into TV geekery and want to see just how you can get from All in the Family to CSI: NY, head on over to Tommy Westphall's Mind - A multiverse explored and drink in the TV trivia. They even have a handy chart showing how each show connects to the others.

UPDATE: Thanks to poster Nat G on Ken Levine's site, I've rediscovered another TV crossover site.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More on fan fiction as a way to make a name for yourself

After my recent post debating the merits of writing fan fiction under one's own name, I got an email from Susan Bridges of With her permission, I'm reprinting it below.

I saw your blog post with the question regarding fan fiction. My husband and I are kind of in the same boat in some ways.

See, we have a podcasting company --, which we founded back in 2004. It's not the "here's some guys talking about what they think" type of podcasts -- all the shows are scripted serials released monthly. Pendant started out as all DC fan fiction, but over time we added other original shows (and we still add the occasional fan fiction show as well, both DC related and in other genres). We also maintain a comic-type continuity among our DC shows.

While no one who works on Pendant shows is paid, it's, well... huge. We have writers, editors (including a continuity editor who focuses on all of our DC universe material), actors, directors, producers, and promotions people from all over the world. As far as podcasting companies go, we're very well respected, and nobody else puts out material on deadline so consistently -- we haven't missed a scheduled release date in years. We're also popular -- right now we are slated to have over 3 million MP3 files downloaded this year.

Currently we're leveraging Pendant to get in with comic companies. We've got some comic proposals put together with the help of some of our friends, and I mention to them that Pendant basically produces scripted original serials. By having some business cards and explaining a bit about Pendant, I managed to get our proposals to editors at IDW and Aspen. So I'm using Pendant to gain some leverage and set us apart from other unpublished writers, even though much of Pendant is fan fiction related. Whether or not it'll really work... well, it's too soon to tell, I suppose.

So perhaps I spoke to soon and fan fiction can be a legitimate way into mainstream writing. Time will tell, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Reader question - "Do I have to choose?"

For today's Tuesday Talkback, I'm going to do something a little different. I got a reader question that I don't have an especially good answer for, so I'm going to poll you guys and hope you've got some good tips.

Erika writes:

I write prose fiction, have attempted to write novels, and have recently started screenwriting. How do I know which form is right for me? How long do you think I should try to do both?

I'm not sure if someone else will ever be in a position to tell you what's right for you. It's one of those things where you just... know. If you've tried each form, have you found a particular form more conducive to communicating the sorts of stories you're interested in telling? Do you find it difficult to work within the constraints of some of those mediums?

It's also possible you might have an affinity for several. There's no rule that says you have to choose just one. I've got a friend who writes scripts and prose novels and he's pretty adept at both. It just takes practice.

What do you guys think?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reader question: How to keep a silent scene with long description from being too hard to read?

I've got two questions that pretty much tread the same ground, and what's more, it's ground I've mostly covered before. As such, I'll present both questions today:

Ceinwen asks:

I was wondering about your opinion on action direction/big print. I try to keep mine as minimal as possible while still giving the reader a good idea of what should be happening visually, but I'm currently writing an action/horror which I feel requires me to write more than I usually would. How much is too much, and how much would turn off people of interest?

The only rule is always keep it easy to read. "Too much" is a subjective term. Look at Wall-E. Over half that film is "silent" so one presumes there's a lot of description there. The trick is making sure that your writing flows. Scripts like Wall-E and Alien are know for their tight prose style - a lot of one-paragraph sentences and a lot of short succinct sentence fragments.

Since I'm always looking for an excuse to link to Scott over at Go Into The Story, I'm happy to offer this relatively recent article from him, which discusses the issue in great depth.

Long paragraphs tend to be hard on the eyes since they're single spaced. A good trick is breaking things up... as my next reader's question discusses...

Beaten by Quakers asks:

Screenwriting analysts tend to advise first-timers not to make your screenplay, and especially your first ten pages, not look like a novel structurally i.e. leave a lot of white space. However, my latest script has a dialog-free and relatively lengthy first scene.

What'd be your suggestion in making sure the description and scene action doesn't pile up into novel-like paragraphs?

I've heard everything from simply breaking up descriptive passages to make it appear more spacey to including a note on the query letting the reader know the first scene is silent.

I wouldn't include a note on the query. Let the first scene speak for itself.

As far as your larger question - always break up descriptive passages as much as you can. Use short phrases and be visual. Even if those sentences were grouped together into large paragraphs, they shouldn't "read" like something cribbed from a novel. The grammar of a screenplay and the grammar of a novel are very different, so make sure you're writing in the proper style.

Here's a key trick someone told me a while back: start a new paragraph with each new action. It really works to help pace out the beats of the scene. It's a subliminal little trick and it prevents skimming on the part of the reader. You'll find that most of the time, this will keep your paragraphs to under three lines. If you find you're still writing a lot of long paragraphs, you might want to reassess your writing style and make sure you're writing visual description that conveys what you're trying to do with a minimum of words.

For more on writing action paragraphs, check out these posts:

Choreographing fight scenes
Reader question - vertical writing

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Workshop: the series

I'd like to make more of an effort to spotlight some webseries that I've come across. I have a lot of friends who work in casting, so it wasn't a surprise that Workshop: The Series landed on our radar. It's built around a group of struggling actors in LA.

I know, I know... there are too many webseries out there that are little more than transparent attempts by struggling actors to promote themselves. I was at a panel on webseries where you could figuratively see one cast deflate as a panel participant noted that even if a webseries concept became attractive to a network, likely the first thing they'd do is recast. So I admit, I went into Workshop expecting to be turned off by all the meta humor that surely would dominate the project.

But when I realized I'd just watched five episodes in a row and was still interested in seeing more, it was clear that this was worth spotlighting on the blog. I admit, some of the humor is going to be more potent if you've either tried to make it as an actor, or worked in casting, but I'm sure it's still accessible to "civilians."

You can find out more about the show at their website. This is the first episode.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Reader question - Better know a bitter script reader

Daniel asks several questions:

Hello Bitter, I'm sure you've covered some of this before on your blog, but please refresh our memories.

On average, how many scripts do you read per week?

It varies with submission volume. There were about two or three years when I was covering at least 12 scripts a week, and often as many as 15 or 16. These days, unfortunately, it's been less. I try to get at least ten a week, but it's not unusual for me to fall a bit short of that.

Do you find time to work on your own scripts in between reading, and is it distracting/frustrating/tiresome reading other people's work all the time?

It is both frustrating and tiresome. I won't lie about that. After a full week of reading scripts, often the last thing I can make myself do is sit down and write my own script. Once I've gotten some momentum going (usually after I've gotten the first act done) it's a bit easier to keep the words coming. It's also less taxing to get motivated to do rewrites than it is to finish that first draft.

I've pretty much found that when I'm ready to move to the script stage with a project, I need to pick 3-4 days where I can just focus on getting started. That means putitng reading on hold and either reading a lot ahead of time and banking money, or putting stuff aside and catching up later.

I've also learned that the creative part of my brain is far more active at night, which is no doubt a learned process from when I'd stay up until 3 or 4am in college. Once I get a project going, I can sometimes work and write in the same day, provided I finish work around seven, take two or three hours to veg, and then dive into the writing for three or four hours.

How many scripts have you written? In what genres?

As far as specs that I'd be willing to show an agent or producer? Let's see... probably four, maybe five feature specs. Those include a comedy, a comedy/thriller, a fantasy/action film, a legal thriller/superhero film and a thriller. Looking at my list of unwritten projects, I see a lot of comedy and thriller ideas, as well as a few genre-mixers so I guess you could call that my wheelhouse.

I also have one thriller TV pilot that I need to rewrite with a writing partner, a half-hour comedy pilot I'm currently writing, and a spec script for Law & Order: SVU that I wouldn't dare show around town.

That's not all I've written though. I've got two completed screenplays that I wrote with different partners. One's a horror, one's a romantic comedy. I'm not especially happy with how either of those turned out, so they'll probably never see the light of day. I've also got a few completed short films and some unproduced scripts for a few webseries.

As I assume the case is with most writers, there's a pretty big chunk of my writing portfolio that isn't strong enough for me to ever consider showing to someone. I learned plenty from the experience of writing those scripts, but they're not worth the effort to go back and revive. I'd rather just move forward.

What made you want to be a writer?

I've always enjoyed reading and telling stories, so I think it was a given that I'd end up as a writer. In school, I always worked on the school paper, often was the editor of the paper, and frequently got praised for my writing.

I even discovered that some of my English teachers were holding onto some of my papers and giving them out to subsequent classes as examples of what their writing should look like. My younger brother was rather dismayed when his 9th grade English teacher gave his whole class a copy of my character study of The Scarlet Letter's Roger Chillingworth, as it meant he would not be able to copy my work without being caught.

But if I had to guess, I'd say that being a winner in a national writing contest when I was in fourth grade was probably the moment that my creative impulses were really stoked. My teacher that year was very big into creative writing. Unfortunately, few of my subsequent teachers were as encouraging of the practice until I got to high school.

With my interest in film, it was only natural that I'd look to screenwriting as a career

What are some of your favorite scripts? Favorite movies?

My mind goes blank when I try to think of favorite scripts. I think it's a defense mechanism because I read so much. Last week, I got an email from a producer responding to coverage I'd sent him less than two days earlier and it took me a full five minutes to recall the particulars of that screenplay. (And that was a Consider!)

As far as favorite films: Superman, Jaws, the Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones trilogy, the Back to the Future trilogy, Scream, Ghostbusters, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Terminator 2, That Thing You Do, Dumb & Dumber, The Silence of the Lambs, Jurassic Park, True Lies. Those all pretty much fit the bill of a film I can turn on at any point and just sit there and watch, no matter how many times I've seen it.

Also, assume that for every film I listed, there were at least two or three that I forgot.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Reader question - Should there be questionnaire for submitting scripts?

Christian H asked:

Why do you think HWood is not demanding a form to fill out before sending a script? It could have questions that would tell you if it's worth it. Kind of like a Coverage sheet but with things like:

Last Theory
Last Book Read
Define a transition, etc.

It would be a lot easier to determine the proficiency of the writer BEFORE AND AFTER reading the script.

A movie is a script written with care and technical proficiency. It should have character contrasts, scene transitions(auditory and visual) and above all should have bad grammar and sentence fragments in the dialog.

Frankly, I don't think the people requesting the scripts would have the patience to vette the submissions so thoroughly. I also don't really know if a questionnaire would be all that useful. At the end of the day, it's going to come down to two factors: (1) how good the writer's ideas are, and (2) how strong the quality of their screenwriting is.

The way I'd screen the submissions is have the writer send me only the first ten pages of their script once I deemed their query letter intriguing enough to follow up on. Ten pages is more than enough to weed a weak writer out from a strong one. Best of all, it only would take ten minutes of my day per script (possibly fewer if the writer was really bad.)

No one in development will care about what film classes you've taken, what books you've read or what film theories you subscribe to. There are probably some very good writers who don't have an exceptionally comprehensive film education and there are definitely some very well-educated people who couldn't write an interesting screenplay if the fate of the free world depended on it.

When I sit down to read, no documentation of the writer's educational credentials will make me think, "Wow, even though I'm yawning and re-reading the same passages multiple times, I'm not really being bored to death by this script because the writer's questionnaire shows he knows what he's talking about."

It's all about the writing.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: How do you get published?

Usually I answer your questions about writing, but today, I'm hoping that some of my readers are savvier than I am when it comes to knowing how to get published. I'm pretty well-versed in the screenwriting resources on the internet, but when it comes to book publishing, I know rather little.

So is anyone able to point me in the right direction to find out the best ways to approach non-fiction publishers? This includes what said publishers are looking for - a completed manuscript? A proposal and chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book? Market research showing there is a market for a book in the proposed field.

And please, don't limit your suggestions to the web. If you know of some good books to pick up, please tell me. Or if some of you happen to work in publishing, feel free to drop me a line directly at

Thanks in advance everyone.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Reader question - Writing a big-budget writing sample

Claire asked:

What are your thoughts on ambitious projects to really show off your voice vs realistically-might-be-bought-from-a-first-time-writer?

If the initial goal is really to be noticed, surely a big budget period epic will serve your writing better if that's what you really want to write, rather than coming up with a low budget containable thriller or something for the sake of it. Or would the big budget period epic risk making the new writer look as though they don't understand budgets/the market and therefore unprofessional?

When I see a big-budget period epic spec from a first-timer, usually only one thought passes into my head: "Ugh. This will be a waste of time that can only result in a PASS." It's pretty much as you describe in your latter sentence.

The market for period pieces? Dead. D-E-A-D. Unless you're hired on assignment I wouldn't write one because it will probably be a waste of your time.

Writers are typecast as much as actors are. If you submit a writing sample that's some 16th Century epic drama, it's probably not going to do much for showing how you might write a thriller, or a romantic comedy, or a horror film. As a writing sample, all it really shows is how well you write that sort of period drama.

On the outside chance that the writing is superb - and I'm talking "can't-put-this-down-I-have-ever-reason-to-PASS-and-move-onto-something-marketable-but-I-can't-stop-reading" superb - yes, you might be invited to submit another spec script

But guess what? All that means is that the other spec you send them is going to have to be more in the vein of what they want. And honestly, if you had something that they were more likely to respond to on its own, why on Earth didn't you submit that first?

Sci-Fi is another genre that's risky to spec, but at least there's more of a market for sci-fi than for period epics. If my two specs were 2012 and Robin Hood, I'd lead with 2012. I know that I personally would probably be more likely to give a recommendation of "Let's see what else they've got" if their submission was a marketable genre (if not for a newbie) than if it wasn't much of a viable project at all.

Ambitious projects are only worth writing if you've really got the goods to pull them off. Most of the time, a writer will need to have been around the block for a while before they've reached that level.

For some other thoughts in this vein, I'll direct you to these two posts:
Everyone starts somewhere, so don't insist on being pretentious right out of the gate.
Everyone starts somewhere - even Undressed has distinguished alumni.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Hanukkah Carols

We're in the middle of Hanukkah, so what better way to mark the occasion with one of the traditional holiday classics, two great Hanukkah songs from South Park: "Lonely Jew on Christmas" and "The Dreidel Song."

And as a bonus, here's "The Hanukkah Song" by Adam Sandler.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Reader question: mistakes on treatments

Escarondito asked:

What are some common mistakes that people make on treatments? And if you don't know that. What is the one thing that automatically when you see it in the first 10 pages of a script you already know it's over(their chances).

Well, I don't read many treatments, but I think there are two mistakes people are likely to make with treatments.

1) Not making them detailed enough - if they haven't produced a full breakdown of their story with all the plot twists and character arcs, the result might be a thin script with little depth. The idea is to come up with enough details so that your scenes don't come up woefully thin when written in script form. If you can, use the treatment to highlight how every scene provokes a change in the story and relates to the protagonist's arc.

2) Spending too much time on them - writing treatments can quickly become an exercise in killing time. You might convince yourself that doing all of this prewriting is saving you a headache in the long run. You'll spend months on the treatment, all under the claim that it's helping you write a better script, when all you're really doing is procrastinating. Prewriting is important, but there comes a time when you have to stop easing yourself into the cold pool that is the script and just dive in and get used to the water.

As for the second one, what can tell me in ten pages that a script is beyond saving?

- Bad formatting
- Terrible, terrible dialogue - especially bad exposition in dialogue
- An excessively long script. A script over 120 with more than one these problems is on shaky ground. ANY script over 130 will suck, and if your script is over 140 and you STILL submit it, you have a bright future in writing argumentative emails to me telling me I don't know what I'm talking about.
- More than one instance where an action paragraph is more than five lines long.
- Description of a main character's breasts or ass that is longer than the description of any of the other main characters.
- Any sort of extra materials like concept art, a CD to listen to, or a market research pack. ("No, really. I SWEAR there's a market for this!")

Oh, and if they do what this genius did. Just go read that entry. I can't do it justice with a summary.

Great question. Keep 'em coming, folks!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reader question: using prior experience to get an agent and how to dodge the moving to LA issue

Hoss has a question:

About ten years ago, I wrote a couple of screenplays that were made into B movies, then I got sucked into an 8 yr Deadbooks web project, now I'm free again and am back to screenplays...

And need to get an agent.

If you were querying - which I'll probably have to do -

Would you mention the movies?

The web project?

And since I have no intention of moving back to LA, but love to visit ( I know the obstacles that that will create), when would you mention that?

Thanks for your help

Yes, mention any relevant experience. I've you've written professionally, mention it, scream it from the hills. Anything you can do to show that your hand has been stamped by someone on the inside can help. Having a few B movies produced gives you a serious leg up on a lot of the wannabes who are submitting.

Depending on what the web project is, I might suggest mentioning that too. I'm not very familiar with Deadbooks, but if money exchanged hands for you to produce some sort of creative writing, that speaks in your favor.


Agent seeking is not the time to be modest - you've got an edge, so use it.

As far as not wanting to move back to LA... don't put that in the query. Don't put anything in the query that gives someone a reason to consider not representing you. Don't even bring it up until they ask. If you're lucky, that won't happen until they've read your stuff, decided they love it and might even have a stake in working on it even if you refuse to move to LA.

But if you tell them beforehand, "I'm not moving," what they hear is, "I am making this harder than it needs to be" or worse, "I have a naive view of how this business works." (You note you know this comes with problems, so I'm not calling you naive.) If you can hook the agent before this becomes an issue, then it means your writing is strong and possibly marketable.

90% of the people who tell me, "I want to write but I never want to move to LA. Why can't I just do everything over the internet?" are the sort of pie-in-the-sky dreamers who'd probably never cut it in this business even if they were in L.A. If I was in the business of responding to queries, I'd never request anything from someone who actually put that in their query because the numbers tell me that the writing wouldn't be worth the time it takes to skim.

(Yes, I'm sure that you, sir, the one about to write me an angry comment or email, is a complete exception to the rule and that once you lay out all the particulars of your situation, I'll have no option but to concede you know what you're talking about more than I do, but surely even you can agree that 90% of the people like you aren't that exception.)

I never would have said, "I'd love to play for the Detroit Lions, but I hate Michigan. Can't I just work from Seattle?" or "I one day want to be a Silicon Valley CEO, but can't I just do that from Vermont? It's all computers anyway." And I sure as hell wouldn't bring it up in a job interview.

But let's say you're a tech CEO who's so brilliant that the company is beating down your door. Then you can name your terms. You can say, "If I'm so awesome, I'm going to telecommunte from home and you can all work around me." When you're coming from a position of strength, you can make demands like that and be taken seriously.

In other words, with regard to your residency, if they don't ask, you don't tell.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Tuesday Talkback - One month left

Tomorrow is the start of December. That means there's just one month left in 2010.

So how many of you haven't met your writing goals this year?

I'd write more, but I have a month to finish a TV pilot.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reader question: Should I write Fan-Fiction under a fake name?

Jordan's got a fairly unique question:

In my spare time when I'm not doing original work, I like to work on fan-fiction. While I'll drop this when I receive my first professional gig, one major plus is I am doing it in script format to hone my craft. It's mainly for fun during down-time, plus I don't have the pressure of original specs. The style isn't anything I can really submit for writing samples, although I am working on a number of specs in various genres to show my writing capabilities.

I would like to post these online to entertain fellow fans, but considering I want to be a screenwriter, would it be wise to write under an alias? I would like to go for a job on a currently running show, but would I be less likely to get an assignment if the Producers see I write fan-fiction based on the show? Would a future employer frown on me if they found out that I previously wrote fan-fiction? Can any good come of posting it under my real name? I mean, I take pride in my work and I want people to know I created these scripts. By the same token, however, I can understand the other side of the argument.

I know it sounds like a stupid question, but I'm genuinely curious on protocol.

I think the most relevant question you ask is "Can any good come from posting it under my real name?" My gut answer is, "Not really." There's an excellent chance that this won't do you any harm either. My hunch is that most employers won't really care, but then I recall hearing stories of Star Trek fans who were lucky enough to get pitch meetings on the various TV-series feeling that it was best to not advertise their fan-fiction pasts when meeting with producers.

Most of the time, the people creating your favorite shows are simply too busy to pay much attention to things like fan fiction and those online sites. Plenty of writers might lurk on fan boards to see the reaction to a particular episode or to gauge what show elements are connection with viewers and which ones aren't, but if anything, they'll avoid fan fiction like the plague in order to avoid any chance of being sued for stealing ideas.

That said, suppose you write it under your real name. Then somehow you manage to get a meeting with one of the story editors and his Google search of your name sends him to several fan fiction postings. First, he's probably not going to read it (again, legal reasons), but he might make some assumptions based on that.

So it might be a big deal, it might not be. But why take that chance? If it was me, I'd just choose a nom de plume and post under that.

Anyone else have a different perspective?

And keep the questions coming, folks. I like that I'm getting some that are "off the beaten path" this time.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: The Teleporter

My friends Chad, Matt & Rob have released their latest interactive adventure - "The Teleporter." Check it out, won't you?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thursday Throwback - “She bends over, exposing her ample cleavage.”

This post first appeared on Monday, March 16, 2009

“She bends over, exposing her ample cleavage.”

I see that line, or some variation thereof, FAR too often in the first fifteen pages of scripts I read – a completely gratuitous cleavage shot. There are a lot of aspiring screenwriters out there in need of cold showers. Sex and sexy girls aren’t bad – just make sure there’s a reason you’re getting your hot-bodied police detective to parade around in her Victoria’s Secrets.

Ironically, I get the sense that a lot of writers put scenes like this in as a way of claiming they’re writing strong female characters. If a woman uses her assets cunningly to distract and manipulate a man, she’s got to be smart, right?

Wrong. We see right through that, and usually the actress will too. In fact, it might even appear degrading to the characters – both the one doing the flashing and the one being flashed. Sometimes that’s exactly what the scene needs and if it serves a function, go for it.

But if your only thought here is “BOOBIES!” your reader is just going to roll his eyes and call that a clean strike.

And in case you’re putting this in there to make sure that your lead actress is stunning, ask yourself this: when was the last time Hollywood ever cast an ugly girl in the lead?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bang for the buck

I just read in Entertainment Weekly that movie attendance this year is down 2.1 percent from 2009. In the article they quote a moviegoer as saying that he's watched lots of Netflix, but nothing in the theatre has been worth the ridiculous prices.

Yet interestingly, the article also claims that movie ticket prices have increased less than many other prices. When one accounts for inflation, the national average ticket price of $7.85 is actually cheaper than the 1967 average, which would be $7.99 in today's dollars. Thus, the article suggests that the real reason viewers are being pickier is because they're feeling the economic pinch more of late.

That's of concern to studios that need to get people buying tickets and not waiting four or five months for the DVD. Every now and then an Inception comes along that convinces everyone they MUST see it in the theatre, but those are becoming few and far between.

However, this also means that there's a premium on scripts that will put asses in the seats at the multiplex. So the challenge falls to you, the writer, to do that. Get an idea that's multiplex-bait and the studios will fall all over themselves to win a bidding war for your spec.

So how do you do that? Pure spectacle isn't the answer. It works sometimes, but if stunning visuals did the trick alone, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World would have been tops at the box office. But then if just having sharp writing was the answer, you'd think that Easy A might have been a bigger hit than $57 million.

So what's the X-Factor. Better yet, what's your X-Factor? What do you do with your scripts that make you feel you're giving bang for the buck

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Reader question - Amazon Studios

Clint asks:

What is your take on the Amazon Studio project?

This is pretty much old news by this point, as seemingly every other blogger has had a chance to tackle this question. However, I recognize that some readers might not have seen those other bloggers or were just curious about my take on it.

And my take is: Skeptical. And suspicious. John August had a blog last week that nailed the factor that on its own would be a deal-breaker for me. Amazon's announcement said:

Amazon Studios invites filmmakers and screenwriters from all over the world to submit full-length movies and scripts, which will then get feedback from Amazon readers, who will be free to rewrite and amend. Based on reaction (“rate and review”) to stories, scripts and rough “test” films, a panel of judges will award monthly prizes.

And John asked this very, very significant question:

Do you really want random people rewriting your script?

Seriously, is anyone so desperate to "make it" as a writer that they'd bend over and take this affront? We're not talking about users giving the writer feedback which they are free to use or ignore as they see fit; we're talking about someone going in there and changing your words without consulting you.

Honestly, it would be like Project Wilson Phillips, but with a script that the original writer presumably put a lot of time and care into. Think about your most precious spec script. Think of the hours they spent laboring over every decision...

Now picture some jackass who reads it and decides that what this heartfelt tale of romance needs is more gore. Or a graphic anal sex scene. Or hell, what if the couple met at a neo-Nazi rally instead of a Starbucks? I'm sure that within a week, there'll be at least one script where the dialogue consists entirely of "Baba Booey!"

Do you really want your script treated with all the respect of the Wikipedia entry on "Joey Buttafuoco?"

Crowd-sourcing for creative ideas is an intensely dumb thing to initiate and it's even more useless to participate in. I've read scripts by the sorts of aspirings likely to participate in this. They suck. They have no original ideas, their dialogue is often hackneyed and atrocious and their plots make no sense.

I'm not attacking all aspirings, mind you. I'm just assuming that the better ones will have enough common sense to stay away from this.

I don't want to parse the legalese too much because I am not a lawyer. But it does give me pause to hand over a free option to a project for 18 months., and that can be pushed to a full three years for a mere $10,000. But look at how they word that:

Amazon Studios gets... with respect to your work:

•The exclusive right to buy it (and its associated rights) during the 18 month term of the option, for $200,000 plus other possible bonuses. We can extend this option another 18 months by paying you $10,000.

If you read that too fast, it looks like they're saying the option is $200,000. I'd like to think that wording isn't deliberately designed to confuse, but it does make one wonder.

If that's not enough of a deal breaker, their FAQ has another detail that might make some writers think twice:

So for 18 months after you create a project at Amazon Studios, you cannot display, sell or license your script or test movie elsewhere, or withdraw it for any reason. However, when the option term ends, if we haven't exercised our option and purchased your work, you will get back non-exclusive rights to your original material.

I also find this question and answer notable:

If I direct a winning test movie, and Amazon Studios makes a full budget theatrical film based on that project, do I get to direct that full-budget theatrical film?

Not necessarily. We hope to hire talent from Amazon Studios for any professional movies we make when we can but we want to be upfront that we can't guarantee this. Our priority will be to release the biggest and best movies possible with the cast and crew that promise the most commercial success.

So don't think this is the solution to all your Hollywood hopes and dreams.

And if that's not enough for you, check out Craig Mazan's take on the whole situation here.

Thanks for the question. Everyone else, feel free to keep 'em coming!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "Pangs" - PC or not PC? Writing good character conflict

With Thanksgiving upon us, I decided it was an appropriate time to revisit one of my favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a fourth-season episode called "Pangs." Written by Jane Espenson (whose blog you can find here), it not only boasts a host of great lines, but it's a fine example in character interaction and in tweaking the nose of political correctness.

The action kicks off soon before Thanksgiving, as U.C. Sunnydale hosts a groudbreaking ceremony for a Cultural Partnership Center. The Curator says the timing is appropriate because "that's what the Melting Pot is about, contributions from all cultures making our culture stronger."

In the audience, Buffy's best friend Willow scoffs.

Thanksgiving isn't about blending cultures, it's about one culture wiping out another. Then they make animated specials about the parts with the maize and the big big belt buckles. They don't show you the next scene where all the bison die and Squanto takes a musket ball in the stomach.

Thus, Willow's role as the spokesperson for political sensitivity (or over-sensitivity) is kicked off. I'm always impressed that Willow's attitude is played a much for laughs as it is treated like a legitimate point of view. She sounds preachy if you take her speeches totally at face value and assume she's the writer's mouthpiece, but there are plenty of points in the episode where her hypersensitivity is the butt of the joke.

I think this actually gives the episode more complexity. Having Willow voice disgust at what she calls revisionist history is effective at making the audience examine their own views on the subject, but Espenson makes it clear that her perspective is just one among many. To wit, when Buffy and Willow suggest not having a Thanksgiving dinner, reformed vengeance demon Anya has an interesting reaction.

Well I think that's a shame. I love a ritual sacrifice.

It's not really a one of those.

To commemorate a past event you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

It wouldn't be a Buffy episode without a mystical opponent, and as luck would have it, the groundbreaking ceremony has freed a vengeance spirit representing the Chumash tribe native to the area. Buffy runs across the spirit just after he's killed an innocent, and when she has the upper hand, the spirit shakes her faith, saying, "You slaughtered my people. Now you kill their spirit. This is a great day for you."

Her hesitation allows the demon to escape, and it almost seems that she too is on Willow's side. But even though the hero of the story has some moral problems with what she's tasked with doing doesn't mean that it's necessary the RIGHT thing to do. She reports back to her Watcher Giles, who asks her to recount the attack with the Indian. Striking a blow for PC sensitivity, Buffy dresses him down for his choice of words.

We don't say Indian.

Yes! Right. Always behind on the terms. Still trying not to refer to you lot as 'bloody colonials'.

As Giles' line comes with a dose of sarcasm, it's likely that we're meant to side with him over Buffy, thinking Buffy's being too PC. However, that's not even the point - both characters are taking viewpoints perfectly in line with their personalities. That's why this dilemma works - because no one is wrenched out of character just so the writer can make a political point. It makes sense that a college girl like Buffy would take a more touchy-feely view of the situation than the British Giles.

The thing is, I like my evil like my men: evil. You know, straight up, black hat, tie you to the railroad tracks, soon my electro ray will destroy Metropolis BAD. Not all mixed up with guilt and the destruction of an indigenous culture.

This spirit warrior -- Hus, you called him? -- has killed innocent people.

Normally, Buffy wouldn't bat an eye at killing a vengeance demon no matter the cause. That's her job - she kills vampires and demons and it's always been black-and-white for her. The particulars of these circumstances open her up to shades of grey. Notably, Giles doesn't see it the same way and he takes a similar position in an argument with Willow.

The Chumash were peaceful.

Oh, they were peaceful, all right. They were fluffy indigenous kittens! 'Til we came along... How about imprisonment? Forced labor? Herded like animals into a mission full of bad European diseases?... You sure we shouldn't be helping him?

No, I think perhaps we WON'T be helping the angry spirit with his rape and pillage and murder.

Well, okay, no, but we should be helping him redress his wrongs. Bringing the atrocities to light!

Well, if the history books are filled with them, I'd say they already are --

Giving his land back!

Preachy? I've heard some Buffy viewers over the years complain that it is. I've never taken that view. As I said earlier, everyone is pretty firmly in character. Also, I don't think Giles point is undercut in order to make Willow's. If anything Giles is the voice of reason in this scene, and the PC viewpoint is the one being undercut.

A similar argument later would seem to support that thing. A round of bickering among Buffy's gang prompts an outburst from captured vampire Spike (who's currently tied to a chair in Giles' living room.)

Oh, someone put a stake in me!

You got a lot of volunteers in here...

I just can't take this mamby-pamby boo-hooing over the bloody Indians!

The preferred term is --

You won! All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do! That's what Caesar did, he's not going around saying "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it"! The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, you massacred them, end of story!

Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of... not that I don't like Spaniards...

Listen to you! How are you gonna fight anybody with that attitude?

We don't want to fight anybody.

I just want to have Thanksgiving.

Yeah, good luck.

If we could talk to him --

You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.

Maybe it's the syphilis talking, [Xander is infected with "magic syphilis" at this point] but some of that made sense.

(under his breath)
I made several of those points earlier, but that's fine, no one listens...

You might say that Spike is the villain and that his endorsement of a particular viewpoint is intended as an indictment of said viewpoint. However, Spike was also quite frequently used as a "truth-teller," the guy who said things that weren't sugar-coated, but were true.

So is "Pangs" just an hour of PC-preachiness, as some fans claim? I don't think so. I think it uses a divisive issue to promote conflict among the main characters and present Buffy with an interesting moral dilemma.

Is every viewer going to come away from this episode with the same reaction? Hopefully not. Even if Jane Espenson had a point she wanted to make, she seems to be smart enough to know that simply preaching an idea that goes unchallenged isn't the way to win converts to your side. Instead, she presents several sides in a way that doesn't significantly undercut one belief in order to make the other belief look good.

In the end, Buffy does end up slaying the Indian warrior, though it's pretty much in a self-defense situation where if she doesn't kill him, she and her friends will be killed to. Would she have killed him had she not been directly threatened? There's no way to know. Maybe she would have tried to reason with him, or tried to pay him back for the atrocities committed on his people.

Though Buffy does her job out of self-preservation, does that mean she's embraced Giles and Spike's point-of-view, or does it just mean she had no choice? It's something to ponder, along with all the other issues the episode dredges up.

I've always admired Espenson for this episode. It's not easy to take such a divisive topic and make it work as fuel for a strong episode. It's got to be even hard to do that while keeping everyone in character and not only using that conflict for drama, but also finely honed comedy.

So if you find yourself writing something in large part because you want to make a political or social point, make sure the message isn't overpowering the story. For my money "Pangs" is successful because it works as an episode of Buffy first, and an exploration of the Native American plight second.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Biff Tannen

The Back to the Future Blu-Ray set has re-ignited interest in the trilogy and one of the more interesting things to pop up on the web as a result is the entire video biography of Biff Tannen from the alternate 1985. You might recognize this from the scene in Back to the Future part II when Marty finds himself out in front of the Biff Tannen Museum.

And as a bonus, here's a video from a stand-up routine performed by Biff's portrayer, Thomas F. Wilson. It's a short song that answers all the questions he regularly gets about Back to the Future.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Call for Questions

It's been a while since the last round of reader questions so I figured I'd open the floor up to all of you. I know I've been a little lax in responding to e-mail questions of late, so if I've missed a question you sent via email, please send it again and I'll do my best to get to it.

A lot of you guys are writers so I hope you'll challenge me with a lot of creative questions.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Have a plan - Know your theme and plot

As we've seen over the last few weeks, interesting problems result when you set out on your story without a clear plan. Before long, narrative threads are lost, character arcs loose cohesion, and the plot falls apart. Old characters are forgotten, or drastically changed mid-stream to fit the developing story, while new characters might be introduced to explain plot holes.

With Project Wilson Phillips, we had three groups all start with the same ten pages, the same main characters - and yet three COMPLETELY different stories of varying quality emerged. There were high points in each of them, and also there seemed to be details that got lost along the way in each of them. Without any direction, a lot of writers got stuck making the characters explain the story, just so there was some sense of everything fitting together. And if you go in each of the script, you'll find some small dropped threads that went nowhere. In a script with a plan, those all would have been pruned out.

And that's the danger of working without a plan. It's a little like tracing a maze with a pencil. Every now and then you'll take a wrong turn which leads to a dead end. You can back up and find your way out and to the right path, but that little detour is still going to be there, so that anyone who follows your path will see that run up to the wrong turn.

If you preplan, those mistakes don't exist.

One thing I could have done with Project Wilson Phillips to force greater cohesion would have been to assign a theme, or possibly give all the writers a logline that they had to adhere to. Such a rule would have kept the script more focused and on course, but at the expense of the freedom of the individual writers.

When you're working on a "real" script, it's essential that you know the themes and the story trajectory from the start. Let's take Back to the Future for example. If I wrote ten or fifteen pages that only got as far as putting Marty in the time machine and sending him back to the fifties, any writer that takes up after me could have taken that story in any direction. Maybe he'd get involved in the civil rights movement, or perhaps he decides to buy vintage comics and baseball cards that he knows he can sell for big bucks when he gets back. Maybe he uses his knowledge of the future to come up with inventions.

But let's say I give you those fifteen pages and also the logline: "A teenager travels back in time to encounter his parents as teenagers and after inadvertently messing up their first meeting, must get them to fall in love before he ceases to exist." Suddenly there's a much stronger spine to the story than just the novelty of sending an 80s teen back to the fifties, no?

Better still, what if I told you how the theme would be that a person's past - even small incidents in it - can have a profound role in shaping the adult he becomes. Then the subsequent writers might get that as Marty changes his parent's past, he affects who they grow up to be.

And I bet if I gave the groups those fifteen pages and those two pieces of information, the resulting scripts might have been a lot more cohesive, focused and similar to each other. There still probably would be the issue of the plot being made up as it went along, but there would be a stronger direction here than before.

So keep that in mind when working on your own screenplays. The best writers work from plans.

If we do another Collaborative Writing Project, I'm toying with the idea of soliciting loglines and themes from the participants, and then setting the teams to work with that information, just to see if it leads to a higher-quality result than the first iteration.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An open letter to the CW network and Life Unexpected's Liz Tigelaar

To the CW Network and Life Unexpected show-runner Liz Tigelaar:

Hi guys. It's me, just another opinionated writing blogger who's watched your show Life Unexpected since its premiere last winter. I wrote a long piece last spring about my appreciation for the show. What attracted me to the show was that it had a really compelling character-based premise. A 16 year-old girl tracks down the parents who gave her up for adoption following the unwanted teen pregnancy that resulted from a one-night stand their junior year of high school. Despite their very different lives, and the fact that the mother is involved in a serious relationship with another man, the trio gradually forms something resembling a family unit.

That was the core of the show - family. You had Cate, a 34 year-old woman who still had a lot of growing up to do and suddenly was parent to a teenager. You had Baze, the screw-up father who himself hadn't grown much out of the high school mentality, and you had Lux, the girl between them, still struggling with a LOT of issues that came from being given up and shuffled from foster home to foster home. And for good measure, there was Ryan, Cate's fiancee and a guy who grew into being a father figure to Cate's daughter, even while fighting jealousy over Baze's integration into their lives.

There were no smoke monsters, no vampires, no ridiculous plots about one character murdering another, or snooty upper East-side teens playing power games with each other. It was just about the characters. Even when the plots seemed repetitive (there are only so many times you can play the "Baze crashes an event and makes Ryan jealous" card), the heart of the show was the character relationships. They were so vivid that they transcended the weaker plots as the show found its legs, and eventually drove the most compelling stories.

If I may be so blunt, what the hell happened?

This season can be most generously described as a "disappointment." The quality of the recent product has left me even more disgruntled because the last stretch of season one showed what this show is truly capable of. And for this, I can't really blame Liz Tigelaar. It's been somewhat documented that the CW ordered several changes to the series in an effort to broaden the show's appeal, and in doing so you murdered everything that made this show worth saving.

Unfortunately, with the final moments of last season being Cate marrying Ryan, I could already see the brewing problem, as the show had committed to a love triangle between Ryan, Cate and Baze. The triangle was still going to be a major factor, except now the writers would have the task of breaking up a marriage rather than a relationship. Worse, the only disposable character in that triangle was Ryan, the unimpeachably good guy who's never done anything but the right thing. Cate can't dump him without looking worse than she already did.

I remember turning to my wife at the end of the season one finale and saying, "I'm pretty sure they can't get out of this without assassinating Ryan's character, and it's going to be ugly."

I was right. This season we've found out that Ryan had a serious ex-girlfriend he never told Cate about, that he slept with her when he and Cate were "on a break" last season, AND that as their wedding approached, he found out that this ex might be pregnant. He only discovered she wasn't just before walking down the aisle.

This is terrible drama, guys. It reeks of needing to balance the scales between Cate and Ryan's sins and all it has done over the last four episodes or so is turn the Cate/Ryan scenes into unpleasant shouting matches while they argue over who's wronged the other more. No character has come out of this looking good and at this point, the only thing they should be doing is walking away from each other. My wife and I used to enjoy watching this show together and now week after week we keep interrupting our viewing to vent just how BAD this plotline is.

Those rants are only broken by our dislike of one of the show's other running plots - Lux's affair with her teacher. I watch a lot of trash TV, but this plot is at the bottom of the heap. I hate, hate, HATE "students sleeping with their teachers" plots. First, it's utterly disgusting. Second, it's been done. A lot. This is another case where no character can come out of the story clean. The teacher is old enough that he should know better, and Lux has become a selfish, entitled, immature brat through this relationship. The Lux of season one would have known better.

I get that it might be interesting to explore Lux in a relationship with an older person, but making that person her teacher - a person in direct authority over her - gives the whole story an ick factor it doesn't need. Everwood handled a similar storyline better when the 16 year-old Ephram fell for the 20 year-old college student who was hired to look after his younger sister. The difference in maturity, and Ephram's growing maturity were explored without all the moral complications that come with Lux sleeping with a teacher.

Look CW execs, I'm tempted to call you a word that would bring down the wrath of Sarah Palin upon me because there is no other way to describe how great a mistake you made this year with your directives. Between those plots and a few other instances of arbitrary drama that have "network retooling" written all over them, you have destroyed this series with something I call the Zombie Bite.

Last season LUX was a vibrant living being. Then over the summer, you bit it. The show we all love died then, but not through cancellation - that would have had some dignity. Instead, you infected it with the same venom that courses through the veins of 90210 and One Tree Hill, and in it's place emerged a new show. Like a zombie, it looked like the series we once loved. It even wears that shows skin - but it's an empty lumbering shell, animated only by the instincts that drive less innovative CW programming.

"More sex! More love triangles! Bigger drama! Pregnancies! Illicit affairs! More conflict! RAWR!"

And yet, without that zombie bite, the corpse wouldn't even be lumbering. Look, I get that you've got a business to run, and that you CW execs were just trying to reach a wider audience. You tried to figure out what it is that draws people to your more successful shows and forced those elements into a concept that didn't need them. But you have several hours of programming with all of those elements. If I'm a fan of those shows, and I'm already being more than satisfied by those programs, what is LUX going to offer me that I can't find elsewhere?

The family element that drove season one is all but gone. Ryan and Cate spend most of their screentime bickering over marital issues, and Lux's plots all have to do with the teacher. Baze is involved in his own affair. There's no core to the show. Most weeks it seems to have nothing to do with a teenager who's getting to know her parents. Everyone is off in their own pods. The heart of the show is non-existent. Instead, Life Unexpected is spending its time telling stories that could be found on many other series, while ignoring that which makes it unique.

Can a network really survive by giving us more of the same? That doesn't seem smart, and it doesn't escape my notice that several of your highest rated shows actually were cultivated by another network: Smallville, One Tree Hill and Supernatural all are hits in the WB's column, outliving their network by nearly five seasons. Gossip Girl and 90210 have never been as big as those three shows. The Vampire Diaries is the first series that the CW can legitimately call a hit of its own.

So do you guys really know what you're doing? You've gotten diminishing returns every time you've applied the same formula, and yet still your solution for Life Unexpected was to turn it into some kind of 90210/One Tree Hill knock-off? You guys don't seem to be good at reading your own ratings. If you were, you execs should have ordered a new vampire character. That at least would have made sense within your track record. The Vampire Diaries is the only show you can claim credit for growing a following. The heavy lifting on your other big hits was done long ago.

Last week it was announced that Life Unexpected was not going to be picked up for the back nine. Liz Tigelaar has said it was stressed to her that this was not the same as being canceled. Perhaps there's a glimmer of hope that this show can be saved. I hope that the CW interference is lessened in the final episodes, and that the writers will get to go out on a note more befitting the first season.

To the CW - I implore you to consider what I've written. Give Life Unexpected a chance to follow its voice. Liz Tigelaar has got the goods to deliver a compelling series if you would just take the chains off and allowed her to cut loose. There's still a great show in there somewhere. This season you tried one approach to fix it, now it's time for you to back up and trust creators to deliver compelling stories. The great Brandon Tartikoff knew when to support great shows and trust those creators instincts even when all ratings logic suggested cancellation or interference. Surely someone at the CW can fight for the same quality.

To Liz Tigelaar and her writing staff - You developed a truly original premise and created some wonderful characters. I know you did the best with the dictates, but I sense this season isn't what you'd have done if left to your own devices. If LUX passes on, I'll certainly be watching for future projects, both from you and the very talented cast. I certainly hope we'll be hearing from you and I know I have plenty of readers who are very supportive of female showrunners.

The Bitter Script Reader
dictated but not read

Monday, November 15, 2010

Making your first ten pages work for you

Rather than do one long post about what we learned from Project Wilson Phillips, I decided it would be best to dedicate this week's posts to some small lessons I think we can get from it.

I've talked a lot about the importance of the first ten pages when writing a script. A while back, I spoke about the specific challenges of writing the first ten pages of a story that I didn't know the ending to. How did I overcome the problem of not having a specific plan? Easy - I made sure each scene not only contained exposition and introduction, they also posed specific questions that an audience would notice and become invested in.

For example, the first scene I wrote reveals nothing. It's a women threatening a man for information, then killing him. Obvious questions the reader asks: "Who are these people and why are they here?" They also might ask "Who is Viper's boss?"

Then after a brief interlude to set up the car chase (which like has the audience asking, "What's the motivation for the car chase?") there's a scene at the newspaper. In introducing the reporters and the editor, we learn that one reporter has gone missing while on a story. Reader questions: "What's the story they're chasing?" and most importantly, "Is this related to the opening scene?"

Aside, I think that's the key to getting away with some of this cryptic bullshit - give the audience just enough information so they can start forming their own theories rather than passively waiting for you the writer to spoonfeed them answers.

From there we go to the brothel and meet some Russian badguys working with oddball tycoon A.J. Trenton. Key things here: there's a little sex appeal with the fantasy girls, there's some oddball humor from that and A.J.'s general demeanor, and there's a fun quirky character in A.J., who verges on being larger than life. He's working with bad guys, but is he a bad guy himself? Is he Viper's boss? Is she working for the Russians?

And then of course there's the action when the car chase bursts into the mansion and leads into the shootout.

Protagonist: Doug Taylor, Jackson Mack
Antagonist: Russians, possibly A.J., and Viper (who is possibly connected to both.)
Action: car chase, shootout, torture scene.
Humor: homeless man, A.J. Trenton
Sex appeal: Prostitutes in sci-fi outfits

Now, some of the cast expanded, and the plot got a lot larger in some versions of the script, but I bet you can see how many of these elments remained consistent in later script. The main characters I introduced mostly stayed the main characters. Also, action and humor were large parts of the later scripts, taking their cues from the early scens.

That's a lot of informaiton in ten pages. Now, obviously if I was working from a master plan perhaps some of this would have been streamlined. The biggest issue is that there might be a dual protagonist issue with Jackson Mack and reporter Doug Taylor, but even that can be tied together properly if the script handles their next meeting deftly.

The big question is: have I made these ten pages interesting enough that you'd at least be motivated to keep reading? I'd like to think so. The scenes directly pose several questions that the screenplay seems obligated to solve. Even if a reader doesn't know where the script is going, there's at least a sense of it moving toward a destination rather than driving aimlessly.

I didn't write ten pages of exposition to set up the story. If anything, I avoided exposition and got the audience interested in the quesitons first. That's the best way to set up your world. Give them just enough to get comfortable, but have them actively engaging with that world and your story. When we talk about hooking a reader, that's generally what we mean.

I've read too many scripts that open with long dialogue scenes: barroom talks or parent-teacher conferences of exposition, characters sleepwalking through a boring daily routine of monotony, an endless parade of characters who seem unrelated to each other and have no apparent connection to anything in the story. Those are all things to avoid. You don't need to show your hand, but you need at least the illusion of cohesion.

And an interesting ten pages is not guarantee that the rest of the script will be any good. At that point, the script is all potential. A brilliant writer might be able to make Chinatown out of that set-up. A lesser writer might produce Troll 2 with it. But you don't know that until you keep reading. As we've seen via the three scripts - there are many different directions a story can take from that set-up, some good, some bad.

But when you read the first ten pages, are you at least intrigued to see where it's gonna go?

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Thousand Friends

My father tells this story about a friend of his - we'll call him "Rick" - who opened a restaurant many, many years ago. I'll probably mangle some of the details, but the gist of it is that, being a supportive friend, my Dad and another acquaintance dropped by for lunch on either opening day or within the first week there.

Rick was happy to have them stop by, but at the conclusion of the meal he broke it to them that he wasn't comping the bill. "I wish I could," he said, "But you know, a thousand friends, a thousand free lunches."

After my Dad and his other friend left the establishment they scoffed at the lame excuse for not picking up the bill (not that they EXPECTED free food - just that the excuse was especially weak).

"Who the hell has a thousand friends?!" my father asked.

Well Dad, as of this week, I do - at least on Twitter. It might have taken over a year, but I hit the four-digit milestone. It's no Ashton, but pretty decent.

It was a pretty cool milestone for me this week... at least until one of my crushes Mary Elizabeth Winstead joined three days ago, and had three and a half times that number by midday Thursday.

It keeps me from getting a big head. Instead, I'm just grateful to all of you who read the blog daily and who care enough to follow on Twitter. It means a lot, particularly those few of you who have inspired me professionally. I'm always floored when I see a familiar name attached to a new follower.

I've also had the pleasure of chatting with several of my readers via Twitter. And it's been fun getting to know you and debating the merits of certain films or TV shows. I never was the sort of person who went in to chatrooms to meet strangers, but I do enjoy the occasional Tweets back and forth from followers reacting to something I've said or posted.

So thanks again and I'm glad everyone still apparently enjoys coming here on a daily basis.