Friday, January 29, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Happy Anniversary to me!

Today marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, and I just want to thank everyone who's been coming here for the past year for all their support and participation via comments and emails.

When I started this blog a year ago, I knew it would take a few months for it to really find an audience and I just hoped that I'd have enough interesting things to say until that point arrived. A year later I'm really enjoying it and have found that working on this blog has been a welcome motivator for my own writing. I've also met several great people through it, and it's probably made me a better writer as well.

There are several people who deserve thanks:

First, thanks to Amanda the Aspiring TV Writer for being the first major screenwriting blogger to link to my site when it was just a few weeks old. That definitely helped land me on some people's radars.

I also owe Dan Callahan a great deal of thanks for doing that five part interview with me last June. Dan and I mostly know each other through mutual friends, and though we chat now and then, I see him about once a year. Since, it's not like we're best buddies, it was insanely cool of him to give me as much time as he did, and to be as blunt as he was in that interview, especially considering my audience was so small at the time. It gave me some interesting content to publicize the site with and within a few weeks of that interview I noticed that my daily hits shot up from about between 50-100 a day to at least 300 a day and climbing.

Scott Myers over at Go into the Story featured an interview with me soon after this, and my numbers spiked again by about 200 hits a day. Being discovered by Scott's posters also seems to have had the benefit of bringing over some of my more active commenters and that's kept the site lively at times. Checking the archives, you can really see how many more people began commenting regularly around July. I can always tell when Scott's referred his reader's to one of my posts because my hits seem to double.

I've also gotten some very nice emails and Tweets from creative types who I not only respect, but look up to as well.

And thanks again to all of you who come here every day. You are not unappreciated.

So it's been a good year. I didn't start any feuds with Nikki Finke, and I despite my best efforts I haven't been re-tweeted by Wil Wheaton, but at least that gives me something to shoot for next year.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Calling all industry pros!

I've gotten a couple of emails in recent weeks from a few pros in the industry who have professed to being fans of my blog, and a recent check of my Twitter followers turned up a few more people of that nature. I'd like to intergrate some other professional voices into my blog so consider this an open call for any industry pros to drop me a line.

I've already got one such individual working on an article for later this month, and there will possibly be a Q&A in the works. If you're an agent, producer, development executive, working screenwriter or any other sort of industry professional who enjoys the blog and might have something to say about the world of screenwriting, please drop me a line at

I've got a couple interviews in the works for the coming months but I'm always trying to schedule more, and I'd welcome any writing contributions you have, if you've got a burning desire to be a guest blogger here. So please, don't be shy!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Coverage scams

I got an email from Benjamin last week:

Got a situation with a coverage provider who I paid already, but he does not return emails? He said he was going to have the coverage Sunday. But nothing so far and no replies. And he emailed me last week begging to cover my scripts?????

But he works for one the biggest contest around. Any advice?

Let me just make sure I'm hearing this right. A guy you don't know emailed you and said, "Hey, I'd love to read your scripts and do coverage on them if you just pay me $100 a script!" You sent him the payment and now he's not returning your emails.

I think you got taken.

What was the benefit to you in paying money for him telling you what he thinks? I don't criticize the decision to pay a script consultant, as I've covered that topic before, but I always encourage writers to do their research on the people they pay for their opinions. You say he works for one of the biggest contests around, yet I still don't see how that really helps you. Contests can help you get discovered, but only if you're a finalist.

Always check the credentials of the people you hire to do coverage on your scripts. Ask on other screenwriting boards and do some Googling to make sure that the person is legitimately connected to the agencies they claim. Never pay money to someone whom you haven't vetted, and always consider "How will this benefit me?" For example, if you were to pay me for notes, you could expect that the benefit is that I've been reading for almost seven years, I have a fair amount of knowledge about what makes a screenplay good and marketable, and I can tell you how your writing stacks up relative to what is being sold and represented those days. I might not be able to pass it on to people above me, but I can at least help you improve it.

What were you looking for in sending your script to this reader? Validation? Constructive notes? The hope that he'd use his contest connections to get you an agent? This whole scenario sounds shady for me from word one - when you say that he contacted you. That's almost on the level of responding to a phone solicitation or a spam email.

Let's say some agent or manager reads this blog and emails me with an invitation to read one of my specs. It would be extremely bad form for them to say, "Hey, if you pay $100 for coverage, I'll take a look at it." A reputable person who requests your script won't then insist that you pay a coverage fee.

Having someone who works for a contest read your script MIGHT help - but only if they can pass it on to someone else. True, they could tell you how your script stacks up to other submissions and suggest ways to improve it but why does this person's opinion matter enough that you're willing to pay for it?

I'm not saying you shouldn't pay someone for coverage - but buyer beware. If you don't know much about the person you sent your script to, then how do you know they won't rip you off?

There might not be anything you can do about it this time, but be more careful in the future.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Death of the Slush Pile

Our old buddy Dan Callahan sent me a link to this Wall Street Journal article last week, entitled "The Death of the Slush Pile". It paints a pretty bleak picture.

Getting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot—in large part, editors and Hollywood development executives say, because most unsolicited material has gone unsolicited for good reason. But it did happen for some: Philip Roth, Anne Frank, Judith Guest. And so to legions of would-be novelists, journalists and screenwriters—not to mention "D-girls" and "manuscripts girls" from Hollywood to New York who held the hope that finding a gem might catapult them from entry level to expense account—the slush pile represented The Dream.

Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction. Film and television producers won't read anything not certified by an agent because producers are afraid of being accused of stealing ideas and material. Most book publishers have stopped accepting book proposals that are not submitted by agents. Magazines say they can scarcely afford the manpower to cull through the piles looking for the Next Big Thing.

I bring this up not to scare you, but to remind you of the importance of networking. Even if the old-style slush piles are on their way out, there's still the "screened" slush pile, which is my term for all the scripts that make their way to me through favors and personal connections that have been cashed in with agents and producers.

The days of sending out a script and waiting for it to get you discovered are gone. You need to be your own advocate, essentially being your aggressive agent before you have an agent.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Crybaby crying

One of my big pet peeves is when a writer has their characters - usually female, but not always - cry at the drop of a hat. It feels like too easy a way to show emotion, especially when an entire scene is spent showing a character break down. Be aware that though it might not play so on the page - such extreme emotion can often feel overwrought on screen.

I once read a script where the female protagonist broke down in tears three times in the first act. That's a bit excessive, and I couldn't help but feel that on-screen she'd come off as a crybaby. I think it's more interesting to show a character trying NOT to cry. In real life, people try hard not to show their emotions like that for fear of seeming weak. The phrase "Jenny fights back a tear" always is more effective for me than, "Jenny's eyes fill with tears and she loudly sobs as she collapses to the floor."

Here's the thing - crying often looks awkward on screen. No one looks good when they cry and there are many actors who are TERRIBLE criers. Some scrunch their face too much, some have a hard time producing tears, and some have awkward things happen to their voices when they try to speak and cry.

If you are going to have your character suffer a breakdown like this, try to have it happen later in the script. This way, we've gotten a feel for that character's emotional range so that breakdown will mean something. It'll play as a chink in their armor. Even so, less is often more. An actor can convey a lot with body language and physical acting, so give them the chance. Maybe play them as more numb and stunned than truly overwrought. Or perhaps whatever upsets them causes them to tap into their anger, or take their frustrations out on someone or something near them.

Never write "They fall to the floor and sob" until you have exhausted every alternate possibility.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Chad, Matt & Rob

Today's Friday Free-For-All is going to focus on some friends of mine, the comedy team of "Chad, Matt & Rob." Last week they released their latest comedy short - a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure piece called "The Birthday Party." By taking advantage of You Tube's annotation feature, they've been able to set it so that when a particular video ends, you are presented with a choice to make, and three clickable links that will send you to the corresponding video.

Chad, Matt & Rob pioneered this sort of comedy over a year ago with their first Choose-Your-Own-Adventure "The Time Machine." This was the first of its kind and they even got written up in the Wall Street Journal.

However they've also done some straight up comedy ones too. Their most popular one is known as "Roommate Alien Prank Goes Bad" aka "Chad Hates Aliens" which has over 12 million views on YouTube alone!

I'm also a big fan of some of their others, such as "Prison Break," with the instant catchphrase "Somebody grab my balls!"

And "Cops & Robbers"

They have many more, so be sure to check them out at their site. And please, pass along "The Birthday Party" to all your friends. Mark my words, you'll be hearing a lot from these guys in the coming years.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A few formatting nuances

Jeff writes in with a couple questions:

Mr. Bitter Script Reader,

Please, "Mr. Bitter Script Reader" is my father.

You can call me "Doctor."

Let me start by stating how depressed I was to find you are not repped.

After a joke like the one above, are you still surprised?

If you don't have an agent, well, let's just say it doesn't make a poor amateur like myself feel better. Good goals though.

Is it distracting to the reader to incorporate different screenwriting styles or does it add to the style of the script?

I've been reading a ton of screenplays lately. A move I should have made before I even attempted to actually write one. I noticed how some writers use different tools to convey the same meaning.

Example: when stating the age of a character, some choose (21), while others go with the simple, 21.

I'm sure there's a Formatting Nazi who's even more rigid than I who will cringe at this, but I'm not sure it makes a great deal of difference. I've seen both, though the (21) format is FAR more prevalent in the pro scripts I read. Either one is preferable to not including the age at all, or saying "She's 45, but looks 30" which is a maddening description that leaves me wondering "So who am I supposed to imagine here, Sandra Bullock or Katie Holmes?"

He continues:

Another example: when transitioning, some simply end the sentence. Start a new logline. Others will give the ol' ... at the end ... then use a simple logline like "KITCHEN", bypassing the "INT" and "DAY".

Misha Green uses it a lot in Sunflower.

Goes into the ...


... where Eve is setting the table with plastic utensils.

What do you think? If I give character names or just transition from scene to scene using different techniques, is it too distracting, or is that what people write about when they write about style? I'd hate to think I have to stick with one way throughout the entire script.

Minor point: you're actually talking about sluglines not "loglines."

I tend to favor the full sluglines, and again I see that a lot more in the pro scripts.

I hesitate to bring up secondary sluglines because I've seen instances on other boards were doing so conjures up all sorts of raving madmen who have such raging hard-ons for secondary slugs that they drag you into a fight about style, to the point where just engaging them ends up escalating the debate to such a degree that YOU end up sounding like the crazy one.

Here's my personal rule of secondary slugs: use them only in cases of sub-locations within a larger set. Example:


The wealthy mingle and socialize, as JAMES VANDERMEER (30) makes his way to...


He sits down, then looks across the room at...

SENATOR BIGOT's (pronounced Bee-Go) TABLE

Now, my feeling is that one room in a larger house doesn't count as a sub-heading. So I'd write INT. DINING ROOM, INT. KITCHEN, and so on.

At the end of the day, though, these are really, really minor nuances. Using the wrong font is a much bigger deal than alternating between either of the options you're asking about above.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cliches I'm Tired of Seeing - Part Eight - Bets as a catalyst

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to get your story going. And I get it, if you know all the fun and games you want to have with your premise, it can be tedious to line up the dominoes to get to that result in a plausible way. So the lazy screenwriter opts to artificially motivate some implausible behavior with that tried and true method - the bet.

The terms could be anything from the hero having six weeks to turn a outcast girl into the prom queen (She's All That, brilliantly parodied in Not Another Teen Movie) or a ridiculously convoluted story where the male bets that he can get any girl to fall in love with him in ten days, only to be set up with a woman tasked with alienating a guy within ten days (How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days). It almost always feels contrived and artificial. If you find yourself using a bet to get the action going, please give serious thought to any other way to get your characters to interact.

One of the big problems I have with this is that it not only makes the set-up contrived, but in romantic comedies involving bets, it all but ensures that the turning point at the end of Act Two will find the object of the bet finding out about the terms of the wager. Thus, they'll feel used and lash out at the person who was using them. However, this won't happen until just after the film's protagonist has expressed either misgivings about collecting on the bet, or has affirmed that the experience has caused them to develop genuine feelings for the other person. Thus, even though the whole relationship is built on a lie, genuine feelings have resulted, thus creating emotional stakes for the protagonist when the other character predictably says "I never want to see you again."

Then the third act becomes all about the protagonist winning back their former mark, usually by appealing to some emotional tie that was established during a bonding moment between the two midway through the story.

I'm sure there's an argument to be made that such premises are high concept and easy to promote, but I feel the predictability of such a story is likely to work against the script. If by page ten I can already guess exactly where the story is going to go, it's going to be a boring read. Never forget the First Commandment of Screenwriting - "Thou shalt not bore the reader."

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Your first script

I have to admit, I usually subscribe to the theory that no one's first script is any good. It's a necessary step to get better, but usually when someone wants me to look at their first script, I brace myself for every amateur mistake that I so often rail against. Given that, I never expected that anyone would sell the first spec they every wrote - which is why I was so surprised a while back when Dan Callahan told me he did just that with College.

However, it's worth noting that Dan had always been writing. College might have been his first full-length feature, but he'd written many other things. He was a writing major in college, he'd been writing stories all his life and he had read many, many scripts. Thus, he'd written creatively before and he had a pretty strong knowledge of the craft of screenwriting. Judging but the first-timer scripts I've seen, that sort of background is rare. Because of this, most people's first scripts are crap. In fact, a lot of writers have made the mistake of burning a few of their good contacts on a first script that simply isn't good enough to compete with the other specs out there.

I came out to LA with exactly one spec - a screenplay I'd written for a screenwriting class my senior year in college. It was a story I'd toyed with all through college. When I came up with the idea, it was a whodunit that I figured I could make into a 25 minute short. As the years went on, every few weeks I'd pull it out of the drawer, add a few more twists and red herrings, and before I knew it, the idea had gotten to feature-length. Even then, I hadn't formally structured it, at least not consciously.

When it came time to pitch ideas for the class, I hauled my synopsis out and was amazed to discover that the story broke neatly into a three-act structure. In fact, it conformed almost exactly to the three-act diagram that my professor provided. This was more a coincidence than anything else, likely the result of me absorbing pacing and structure by osmosis from all the films I'd watched over the years.

The result was a procedural murder-mystery that was heavier on the plot twists than it was on character development. I had a mild arc for the lead character, but it is little surprise that most of my classmates who read it felt that it played like an episode of Law & Order. (Fortunately, most of them felt it would have been a good episode of L&O!)

Despite that, it didn't have much in the way of a high concept hook. It was the sort of thing that people might read and go, "It's a decent writing sample, but it'll never sell." I showed it to an assistant and a manager at my first internship and got some great notes back. Their input actually helped me cut the story down, improve the pacing and add a few red herrings. Looking at that first draft I gave them, I'm aghast to note that I had written the script using Microsoft Word, with the margins set manually. Not only did I have the margins wrong, but I wrote the script in Times New Roman. The result was that the formatting errors threw off the length of the script. And it looked pretty amateurish.

After about three rewrites and exporting the script to Final Draft so I could painstakingly fix each and every last formatting error, I'm left with a script that is at least decent enough to show people if all my other specs fail to get a response stronger than, "What else do you have?" (This is actually a compliment, in some ways. If the reader in question thought my writing was terrible, they'd never ask that.) I'm not embarrassed by the script in its current state, but its a far cry from what it was when I came out here.

So tell me about your first script? Does it embarrass you? Have you rewritten and salvaged it? Do you look back on it and cringe? Did you make the mistake of showing it to people before it was ready?

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Get me a beer"

Stereotypical characters annoy the hell out of me, but stereotypical dialogues for stereotypical characters is worse. Let's try an experiment. I'll say a line, and you see if you can get an image in your head of the character and scene it's likely to appear in.

"Get me a beer."

Innocuous? Not if you read the scripts I do, for if you did you would know that a man asking a woman to get him an alcoholic beverage is perhaps one of the most unspeakably evil things he can ask her to do. If you see this line in a script, and it comes from a man to a woman who is not a bartender, then you can safely assume the writer wants you to know that this man is SCUM. Utter evil. He might as well have shot a dog, smothered a baby and killed someone for their ethnicity/sexual orientation.

"Get me a beer."

One of two things will happen. The woman will give in, which shows that she's a broken, submissive frail woman stuck in a loveless marriage she desperately needs to escape. OR she'll resist, at which point the man will backhand her and call her a misogynistic slur just so we get that he has no respect for her.

If the woman brings the man a beer, it's never because it's no big deal for her to do a favor for her husband, and if she turns him down, the man never takes it maturely. But let's face it, the mere fact that he asks is iron clad evidence he's a cad.

Note this - an abusive husband never asks for something non-alcoholic. The scene never plays out like this:

HUSBAND: Get me the apple cider.

WIFE: Sorry honey, I'm eating. Can't you get it yourself?


Husband backhands Wife, then shoves her into a wall.

Yet if you replace "apple cider" with "beer" I've read that scene a hundred times.

I can feel some of you retreating because of my use of the "c word." (No, not "cider" you morons!) I assure you it was only for education purposes.

The worst was a script I read where an entire scene hinged on if the woman was going to give in and get the beer. It starts with some social worker waiting for the woman to get back to her trailer. As that woman gets home, her husband sticks his head out of the trailer and shouts at her, "Where the hell have you been? Get yer ass in here and get me a beer!"

The social worker tells the woman that she doesn't have to live like this, remaining stuck in an abusive relationship, that she can help her. The man shouts to his wife, "Well? You comin'?" The wife's shoulders slump and she looks back and forth between the husband and the social worker, eventually turning towards the trailer with a sad look at the social worker and then telling her husband, "I'll get you your beer." And then we're all supposed to feel sad for this poor abused woman.

So think about that the next time you ask your wife to bring you a frosty beverage simply because she's in closer proximity to the fridge.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Built a Time Machine to kill Hitler

In honor of Time Travel Week here I thought I'd find an undiscovered comedy bit dealing with time travel and illustrating some of the paradox and causality issues we've discussed this week. This is called "Built a Time Machine to Kill Hitler" and is from the people at

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Using time travel - lessons from J.J. Abrams' Star Trek

In two earlier posts this week, we've covered the most basic approaches to time travel, so why not confuse the hell out of everyone and try to explain the notion of alternate timelines?

Back to the Future part II dealt with an alternate timeline in the form of Biff's distorted future (though technically all of BTTF, save for the opening of the first movie in 1985, happens in timelines that get altered by Marty's actions in the past.) The notion here is that there's one timeline and it is completely mutable. In changing things, you're really creating an altered timeline rather than an alternate timeline, despite the language Doc uses in Part II.

A truly alternate timeline would likely exist parallel to the "real" timeline. Thus, if you do something like going back to 1963 and saving JFK, you would have no impact on the history you just left. Instead, your changes would cause a new timeline to branch off from the old one, effectively creating an entirely new universe without wiping out the old one. I mention this because it can be a great way around the "paradox problem" one might encounter when writing time travel movies.

According to writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, this is the approach they took to time travel in last summer's Star Trek. Star Trek is also novel because it's a time-travel movie set entirely in an alternate timeline, with the characters themselves not becoming aware of that fact until at least midway through the script. In other words, it's a time travel movie told from the point of view of the people who have been impacted by changes the others faced. Supposed that the assertive George McFly we meet at the end of the first Back to the Future learned that he was actually supposed to be a wimpy nerd married to an overweight alcoholic and you'll get a sense of what I'm trying to explain.

Star Trek's approach is smart because it found a way to honor over 40 years of existing canon without making it a flat-out reboot that erases everything to start fresh. The film starts when a Romulan ship from the future ends up in the early 23rd century. This triggers a battle with the Starfleet vessel Kelvin, which in turn causes Jim Kirk's mother to go into labor early. Not only that, in the course of the battle, Jim Kirk's father George Kirk ends up sacrificing himself and the ship to save the rest of the crew. This is significant because in the original timeline where this encounter didn't take place, Jim Kirk was born weeks later in Iowa, and his father George lived to see him become captain of the Enterprise 30 years later.

Thus, Trek history has been altered at the moment of Kirk's birth and everything that happens after this is an alternate timeline. This is confirmed later, when a now-adult Kirk is stranded on an ice planet and encounters a version of Spock from 130 years in the future - a Spock played by Leonard Nimoy, the actor who carried the role through the earlier incarnations of the series. This was smart on the part of the writers because not only does it allow them to say to fans, "That history you loved still happened. We're honoring it, not ignoring it," but it also makes clear that this new history that has emerged is going to be significantly different from that which is documented in the original series and movies.

To drive home the point, the planet Vulcan - a significant element in the original series timeline - is destroyed in the course of the film. Even though the film ends with all the classic characters in their familiar positions, it's clear that none of their fates will be the same as in the first series. Kirk could be killed in the next movie, if the creators saw fit.

The writers have said that the way they see it, the "original timeline" that the Nimoy Spock left still exists and marches on parallel to the new one. I'd argue that nothing shown in the film itself specifically supports that notion, but there's nothing that either disproves that either I suppose. Since it's unlikely we'll ever revisit the original, prime timeline again, it's probably a moot point.

I mention all this because it shows there's a way to use time travel without relying on the paradoxes, as Back to the Future does. Here, the time travel is a way of achieving and "in-the-box" reboot and giving all the characters a clean slate. So keep in mind that if you want to use time travel, you don't need to rely on the old "we have to put the future back exactly the way it was meant to be" chestnut. In Star Trek, the mission isn't really to restore the original timeline - it's to stop the Romulan Nero before he does further damage to this one.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Using time travel - lessons from Back to the Future

On Monday we discussed "closed loop" time travel, so today we're going to take a look at a movie series where the characters are able to use time travel to change history: Back to the Future I-III.

Back to the Future plays rather fast and loose with time-travel logic as the series goes on. The first film is built around the premise that Marty McFly travels back in time from 1985 to 1955 and accidentally prevents his parents' first meeting in high school. In doing so, he has a week to fix things and get them together before time gets screwed up beyond repair and he misses his one chance to get back to his own time. Thus, the logic is pretty simple - Marty messed things up, and now he has to put it right. Pretty simple, right?

First, let me say that Back to the Future is one of my favorite movies, but I have a feeling that if it was released today, it would be nitpicked to death, as audiences are a lot savvier about time travel logic 25 years later. For example, in the process of getting his parents back together, Marty ends up creating a situation where his father George not only stands up to school bully Biff, but actually beats him up, and he ends up encouraging his father to take a chance on his own dreams of being a writer. This evolution is a sharp contrast to the way his father was in the original timeline. The 1985 George seen at the start of the film is a complete wimp who is still being bullied by Biff, but when Marty returns to 1985 at the end of the film, George is a successful writer, his parents' marriage is stronger and now Biff cows to George.

So Marty's visit changed some major stuff. Yet amazingly all of these major changes apparently had zero effect on the nights where Marty's parents conceived him and his siblings and despite their fortunes being much better in this new timeline, they still live in the same house. If the movie was held to strict logic, this probably would seem cheesy. However, because writer Bob Gale and director Bob Zemeckis crafted the film with a fun, almost whimsical tone, no one is likely to cry foul.

This fudging works because the script's own approach to time travel has been pretty loose. It helps that when Marty prevents his parents' meeting it's a big moment. It's not a butterfly effect-like set of dominoes like "Marty taking too long to place his order at the diner results in George not getting his food until five minutes later than he was meant to, which means that he leaves the diner later, which means that when he falls out of the tree after peeping into Lorraine's window there is no car to knock him out." Marty makes a BIG mistake, and then makes a BIG fix, so that keeps the audience focused on the broad strokes rather than the tiny details.

I do have to wonder about the fact that all of Marty's memories of growing up belong to a timeline that doesn't exist. Shouldn't the people living in the house be total strangers to him, more or less? What happens when his mother says, "Remember that summer up at Uncle Todd's cabin?" and Marty has no memory of it? And what happened to the Marty that those people knew? We've seen that he leaves this timeline much in the same way that "our" Marty did, but I'm left to wonder about his fate, and his life.

Another thing I find amusing in looking back at the films is how the second film was probably one of the first movies to really play with the idea of an alternate timeline. See, while Marty and Doc are visiting 2015, old Biff steals the time machine and uses it to deliver a sports almanac to himself in 1955. Thus, his younger counterpart has the results of every sporting event until 2000 and is able to put that to use by betting on the outcomes and amassing a significant fortune. Becoming a wealthy industrialist, he ends up corrupting the town and vastly altering the 1985 that Doc and Marty know.

The interesting thing is that the movie actually stops for two or three minutes so that Doc can literally pull out a blackboard and use it to deliver a lecture to Marty (and the audience) on how time travel has resulted in this alternate 1985. If I read that in a script today, I'd probably accuse it of overexplaining things, or talking down to the audience. I assume that at the time, there hadn't been many alternate timeline stories. so the filmmakers felt it necessary. (It's a Wonderful Life is the most obvious example I can think of. Can anyone think of any other major "alternate timeline" movies pre-1989?)

I also have to wonder about why Doc and Marty don't disappear when Biff alters time - and especially why the Delorean doesn't. In the alt-1985, Doc is committed in 1982, before he builds the time machine. Thus, there should be a paradox that results from the time machine not existing to cause all these problems. Wisely, the film avoids raising this issue at all. In the first film a big deal is made about how Marty's changes will cause him to be eventually erased from existence. It's an additional ticking clock. In Part II, Marty and Doc are merely working to set things right to prevent Biff's horrible future from coming to pass.

This is why I recommend that time-travel writers be aware of these little details, but do what they can to keep the audience from thinking on that micro-level. As cool as it is to think on the butterfly effect/chaos theory level of tiny changes producing huge results, if you open that can of worms then you're inviting the audience to nitpick a lot more closely.

Pick a set of time travel rules and stick to them. Then do what you can to keep things from getting too complicated.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Confusing time travel movies

Since we're discussing time travel all week, I thought I'd ask not what your favorite time travel movie is, but which time travel movie you find most confusing.

For me, it's Primer. I don't doubt that if I was to sit down and diagram all the alternate times lines that it would hold together, but it's incredibly complex to the point of incomprehensibility.

So what's your most confusing one?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Using time travel - lessons from The Terminator

So you've decided to write a time-travel movie. Congratulations! Now you can look forward to all manner of story discussions about causality, paradox and other wonderful issues that will confuse the hell out of your audience if they don't make sense, and probably will confuse them even more when they do make sense.

The very first question you should ask yourself if time-travel is part of your idea is: "Am I dealing with a 'closed loop' theory of time-travel or a 'multiple timeline theory?'" Confused yet? Hold on, we'll take it piece-by-piece.

Closed loop time-travel is the easiest to explain. Essentially what it means is that your characters can't change history because there is only ONE timeline. Even if they go into the past to change things, those "changes are already accounted for in the history they left. In a closed loop, when one enters the past, they aren't changing history, they're fulfilling it.

The first Terminator movie is an excellent example of a closed loop. In an attempt to alter history, Skynet sends a Terminator back in time to kill John Conner, the future leader of the resistance against them. To do so, they actually send their machine after his mother Sarah before she becomes pregnant, the theory being if she dies, John won't be born. However, the Resistance sends back their own fighter to protect her, a man named Reese. Though he dies fighting the Terminator, he eventually preserves her life - but not before sleeping with her. At the end of the movie, Sarah is pregnant with Reese's child, the baby who will become John Conner.

See the closed loop? If the Terminator hadn't come back, than Reese wouldn't have come back and fathered John. Thus, the Terminator couldn't have ever succeeded in its mission because the mere fact that John's birth - a conception that the Terminator attack is a catalyst for - is a part of the future it left means that those events are set in stone. The Terminator could no more kill Sarah and alter its own past than Hitler could suddenly win World War II and immediately alter the history we know.

Another movie that plays well with this theory of time travel is Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, when the titular characters realize that their future selves can get them out of present jams so long as they remember to come back in time and make certain things possible for them.

When working with time travel it is essential that you lay down your rules at the earliest stages of plotting. I've read some scripts that start off with clear evidence of the closed loop theory, only to have the characters suddenly able to rewrite history in the third act.

One of my current scripts deals with characters who think they're dealing with a closed loop sort of time travel, only to have the events of the movie reveal the timeline is more malleable. It's been a tricky one to plot because I have to make sure all the evidence lines up the right way without any inconsistency by the end. It's a tricky thing to plot because I have to make sure that the characters' misunderstanding makes sense. The evidence all needs to track in the end, and I need to make sure that all the misinterpretations can be explained away.

On Wednesday, we'll discuss examples where the future is mutable. Bring your Advil. I feel a headache coming on.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: Happy 75th Elvis!

Today, January 8, 2010, would have been Elvis Presley's 75th birthday. In honor of the King of Rock and Roll, today's Friday Free-for-All is dedicated to him

This is from his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show,9/9/56:

And this is from his final concert, two months before his death in 1977, singing Sinatra's "My Way":

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Should I write a scriptment?

Benjamin writes in with another question:

"Is it advisable to write a scriptment rather than a script? Like the one James Cameron wrote [for Avatar]?"

For those not in the know, a "scriptment" is a hybrid of a script and treatment, combining elements of both. It's longer than a treatment - largely because it includes and summarizes dialogue.

In a word: no. At least not if you harbor any delusions about selling the scriptment before writing the full script. Unless you are an established, known quantity in this town, no one is going to pay you money for a script unless you've actually written a script. Guys like Cameron can use scriptments because they're not only established writers, but also the director who'll be bringing the project to life. Thus, the scriptment is a tool that they can show around to their producers, studio execs, or agents saying, "This is is the story scene-for-scene, beat-for-beat. You know what I can do, so if this piques your interest then maybe we can be in business together."

It's useful because there's a lot more detail to a scriptment than there is to a pitch or even a treatment. Making these details less vague is especially useful when you're talking about a $100+ million dollar film.

I personally have seen a few scriptments for franchise films done by companies I've worked for. In those cases, the known quantities were not only the writer/director, but also the characters and the world they inhabited. These sorts of scriptments not only gives everyone a strong idea of how the story will continue to evolve, but it also could be of use to the various departments in preproduction. When the studio has already selected an impossibly close release date, time is of the essence.

And yes, a scriptment might be useful to you as a document for your own personal reference. I can see the value in laying everything out scene-by-scene and then summarizing each scene as a way of revving up for fully writing every scene. (Personally, I can't work this way because I feel it robs my ideas of their freshness. I'll work on structure for a while, and refine my treatments over weeks or months, but when working on the first draft, I don't like to overthink every single conversational beat too long before I actually start dialoging.)

But for an unsold writer, selling a spec script would probably be a piece of cake compared to selling a scriptment.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How not to frustrate the reader

Benjamin sent me this question:

I just came across the most scary screenwriting tip in the world: "When you’re writing a horror/thriller, there’s a very fine line between maintaining a sense of mystery and the unknown and frustrating the hell out of the reader."

Oh my god, this is intense and nerve wracking. What's the best way to approach this technique?

Easy. Don't confuse the reader.

It's hard to hang an entire script on one drawn out mystery with ONLY one answer. The trap a lot of writers fall into is that they add a lot of extraneous red herrings that don't contribute to the main mystery at all. Usually it happens when a writer introduces one of these red herrings (say, a suspect as the killer), hits that red herring hard for about 20 pages, to the exclusion of everything else, then debunks that - usually by "cleverly" killing of that red herring - which means that nothing has changed.

I call this treading water, and it is frustrating because the story never advances. It takes a tangent into a dead end, and then cuts off that dead end so it can go back to the initial question.

The trick is to juggle a few mysteries, or a few questions at the same time. Don't just point a neon finger at Steve as the killer. You can make Steve the prime suspect but muddy the water with a few other suspects at the same time as well. Scream was excellent at this. Billy remained the prime suspect, but every now and then there'd be a moment that made you wonder, "hmm... the principal is acting might suspicious... and Randy seems a bit creepy too. And isn't it possible that Dewey's hiding something?"

But you have to be careful not to overcorrect and create the opposite problem - too many simultaneous red herrings. I've read scripts that seem determined to set up 7 or more characters simultaneously as the true killer. Shove too many red herrings at the audience too fast and they'll say, "Screw this, it's one of those films that's a total circle jerk and the end will have the killer pretty much pulled out of the writer's ass."

That's why I'm a big believer in the rule of threes. If there's a mystery and you're trying to lead the audience to a specific suspect and/or reveal, it's best to muddy it with no more than two alternate possibilities. One additional possibility is too few - an audience might either get bored or out-guess you with an either/or possibility. Three additional theories/suspects might be too much to keep track of. Two keeps your options open and is just complicated enough to keep the audience off-balance.

Of course, you're free to toss in all kinds of hints, clues and complicating details that toy with the audience's imagination, but be subtle with those. They're garnish. When it comes to major questions that entire scenes and sequences turn on, keep your possibilities to three or fewer.

And don't forget to have mini-payoffs that advance the story. If a red herring gets killed off, have it expose more of the mystery beyond just "Well, he can't be the killer." There has to be a reason to sit through those red herrings beyond just keeping the audience off-track.

Don't just write the same sorts of scenes over and over again. Act Two shouldn't be a game of stalling the mystery. You know how it ends, so make sure that every scene gets us closer, whether it's preparing the characters so that they can solve the mystery, setting up a few clues so that the revelations make sense, or helping us get to know a character so we care about them when they die.

I hope that answers your question, Benjamin. It was a bit broad so I did the best I could.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: New Year's Resolutions

With a new year often comes the determination to make this year "the year I ________," with that blank being filled in with goals along the lines of "get an agent," "sell a script," "get on staff" or "sleep with Blake Lively." (Statistically, that last one is about on par with the other three, and just so I'm not misunderstood, that's not a joke implying rampant promiscuity on the part of the lovely Miss Lively.)

Anyway, last year I had the goal of writing three scripts and getting repped. In truth, I got about one and a half scripts done, and still have yet to get repped. This year I'm going to be stricter with my deadlines. I have a February 8th deadline with my writing group for the first draft of my latest spec. Right now, I've got the first act written, so I'm left with about five weeks to write another sixty pages. It's doable, or at least it would be - if I had a full treatment.

(Yeah, you read that right. I'm breaking one of my cardinal rules about how you should never start a screenplay without a solid plan. This is an experiment in how well I can structure the story as I go, with only a vague outline to work from. I'm sure that by the time I get around to sending this out, it will have been rewritten and restructured many times, but I wanted to attempt this sort of writing at least once.)

Anyway, my goal is to have the first draft done by Feb 8, a second draft done by March 15, third draft by April 12, and then (hopefully) a final draft by May 1. ("Final draft" might be a misnomer... let's call it a "Draft suitable for submitting.")

By the end of this year, I want at least two new marketable feature specs, at least one or two new short films, and perhaps a new TV pilot. Oh, and I want an agent too.

So which seems more attainable - those, or dubbing 2010 "The Year We Make Contact (with Blake Lively?)"

So tell me, what are your New Years Resolutions with regard to your writing goals?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Lazy writer shorthand

You know what really annoys me when I read a script? Laziness. Every now and then a writer might need to take a shortcut in order to get the story going, but there are limits. I'd explain all this in greater depth, but it would take too much time.

Annnywaaay... one shortcut that almost always earns a script a PASS from me comes in the form of this simple phrase in the description: "They instantly fall in love."

I pause because I hope that 99% of you are able to tell where I'm going with this just by being presented with this evidence. Are you all at least half a rant ahead of me? Good.

For the slower kids in the class (Hi Robotard and Paul Haggis!), the reason this is lazy screenwriting is that it doesn't require any work on the part of the writer to do any of the following:

1) create believable chemistry between the characters.

2) show the growth of a romance through several stages: attraction, infatuation, and so on.

3) develop the characters and their dynamic through that growth.

4) reveal things about the characters through the ways their feelings become known. (i.e. what is it that turns them on initially? Do they try to hide their feelings from the other or do they boldly declare them? Why does this attraction exist? How do they attempt to figure out the other partner is interested in them?)

See all the great things a writer misses out on by typing "They instantly fall in love?" No, check that, see all the great things the audience misses out on through that shortcut?

Try to avoid taking the easy way out - at least when it's as blatant as this bit of corner-cutting is.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year and a few ground rules

Happy New Year all! With a fresh year upon us, it seems like a good time to deal with some housekeeping issues/FAQs that have been cropping up lately. I've been noticing a trend in some of the emails I've been getting and I think I need to lay down some ground rules.

A few of you have sent me emails pitching your films and often you include PDFs of your screenplays. I cannot stress enough how important it is that you do NOT do this. First, I do not open any attachments due to the risk of viruses. Secondly, you should never email ANY professional your screenplay unless you have first gotten their permission to send it. No one in the business will read your script until you sign a release stating that you will not claim they stole your ideas or sue them should they one day develop a story that is similar to yours. This is why if you shoot CAA, ICM or any other agency an email with an attachment, you'll likely be sent a response that says something to the effect of "Your email was deleted without being read."

Let's say I'm writing a werewolf movie and you send me - unsolicited - your brilliant werewolf script. Then, six months later, I sell my idea for $2 million and you open the trades to see that the guy you sent the script to just sold his "Twilight with werewolves" idea for big bucks - and you're certain your concept has been swiped. With luck you find a lawyer ready to sue the pants off me for "your" money. Maybe I'll be lucky and the case gets thrown out, or it goes to court and I win anyway - but I'll still be on the hook for legal fees and I'll have lost valuable time, to say nothing of the stigma that comes from the accusations of stealing ideas. That's aggravation I don't need, and that's exactly the situation a writer creates when they blindly send their script to someone.

You might as well cough on me and say, "Hey, do you want to sample this great strand of Ebloa virus I've got?"

(Not that I'm comparing the quality of your script to the experience of having Ebola, but if you're naive enough to send your script without asking first, the odds of your script being terrible certainly rise.)

Bottom line - unless I've sent you a release and you've returned it to me signed, don't send me your screenplay. It protects me, it protects you, and it protects your ideas. Most of all, I hope that by telling you this, I'll keep you from making this mistake with agents and producers, which would be a lot worse for you than annoying some anonymous blogger on the internet.

I should probably mention that I'm really not in a position to accept pitches or queries, so if you email me hoping that I'll request a script and pass it on to someone I work for, you'll probably be disappointed. I have to be strategic about when I approach those people with my own writing, let alone the works of people I've never met.

And let's face it, if I did say, "Send me your pitches and scripts -Anything you have!" I suspect several of my more savvy readers would probably find that fishy and perhaps even post that such behavior seemed shady.

There's one spammer who keeps sending me a pitch for his golf movie, and I'm getting a little annoyed at the lack of social grace. The letter would probably be at least two pages printed and it's "BAM! Here's the whole plot of my movie." It's written in the same sort of style as those Nigerian emails that try to get you to help a deposed royal access his bank account or some such. If this keeps up, I will print the text of the email in full. (Have any other screenwriting bloggers gotten something from this guy?)

This is not to say that I don't appreciate your emails. I do, and I try my best to respond to as many as I can, time permitting. If you ask a question that covers something that would be of interest to my readers, I'll probably answer it in a blog post rather than a personal email. Sometimes those posts will show up soon after you send in the email, but since I try to plot out a month's worth of posts at a time, it might happen that I decide a particular answer will work better later on the schedule. Anyway, if I think what you've said/asked merits response, I promise I'll reply to it.

Anyway, I think it'll be a great year here. I'm working on lining up some cool interviews, so let's hope they work out. Also, I've asked a few of my friends to contribute from time to time as a way of both providing you guys with more content and in giving you a perspective outside my own. (For those of you in my writing group - consider this my reminder about the open invitation all of you have to pitch me ideas for articles you want to write.)

And with that, let's all have a great 2010 everyone!