Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reader mail: Raising the stakes, Contests, and Queries

Greg asks a sort of general question:

I got gigged on this for two separate scripts... My protagonists each had an identifiable challenging goal... there were obstacles & complications, etc., but the stakes were never raised.

Any thoughts on how to raise the stakes?

That's a hard answer to give without knowing the specifics of the plot. Killing a character is always a popular way to raise the stakes. If the death happens in a way that leaves the hero with some guilt over the fact they might have prevented it, it leaves a scar on the character and probably makes them double their efforts. If the killed character is a mentor also could signify the moment when the protagonist has to stand on his own, without the guidence of those wiser then him. Obi-Wan Kenobi dying on the Death Star is a good example of this in Star Wars.

Maybe an even better example would be Wash dying in Serenity. He's killed off by the Reavers almost as soon as the ship gets on the ground. It's so swift and brutal that the audience is thrown for a loop. The real value of this death is that it established that the filmmakers were willing to "go there" and the action sequences that immediately follow have a lot more tension because of the sense that any character could bite it. If Wash wasn't safe, no one is safe.

There are plenty of other examples of death being used like this. Randy being killed off in Scream 2 is a major gut-punch because he is the stand-in for the audience and was a much loved character. It was a great way to show that the survivors of the first film weren't necessarily vulnerable.

Another good one is the moment in Taken when Liam Neeson finds his daughter's friend dead. The movie was pretty dark up to that point, but this moment leaves the audience wondering if it's merely a preview of the daughter's fate. The Dark Knight raises the stakes by not only killing off Rachel, but by permanently scaring (emotionally and physically) Harvey Dent.

You don't have to kill off a character. Sometimes all it takes is for a stable relationship to be ripped apart by conflict, or destroy a character's home or job. A good way to approach rasing the stakes is to ask yourself, "How can I make my lead character appear most vulnerable? What will it take to burst any bubble of security around him?"

Clint emailed this question:

What is the real-world take on screenwriting contests? Does anyone pay attention to them? And, if so, which contests are considered the best?

I don't think they help much. The Nicholl Fellowship is always held up as one of the most regarded, but speaking as someone who's read many of those scripts I find few of them are commercial. The bottom line is that this is a business. You might win a contest with your heartfelt drama about an 8 year-old boy who deals with the pain of an abusive home by teaching an ostrich how to fly, but odds are you'll have a hard time selling it.

But then, at least those scripts get read. Maybe I've just seen the dull, self-indulgent, navel-gazing Finalist scripts, but what I have read from Nicholl is usually so counter to what the market is even remotely looking for that I feel like something must be "broken" in the judging process. If I had to tell you to submit to one, I'd say the Nicholls but I worry that some snobby readers are working to quash anything that reeks of "commerical" to them.

Beyond that, I'd say the only contests of any value are ones where your work is being read by agents, managers and producers. Then you've at least got another way to access those people beyond queries and connections. Don't waste your time entering smaller contests in the hopes that you'll be able to put "I was a Finalist in the Hazard County Yee-Haw Script Round-Up" and expect that any agent or producer is going to say, "Egad! I must request this immediatley!"

Just my take.

Castor Troy wrote me with this question:

I want to better target where I send my query letter. Do you have any websites or books to recommend that list script agents by genre? Or, do you recommend doing some digging into the latest sales and find out what producers and agents are attached to projects in my genre?

I say the latter more than the former. Books go out of date pretty quickly, and if there are websites that collect information that specific, I'm unaware of them. When it comes to targeting your query letter, there's no substitute for doing your own research. Subscribing to tracking boards and industry databases like IMDBPro are a good start. The people over on Done Deal Pro's boards also seem to know their stuff when it comes to this kind of thing.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Have you met your goals for 2010?

It's almost July, so today's Talkback is a simple question: Have you accomplished as many of your 2010 screenwriting goals as you expected to by the midpoint of the year?

If not, what's holding you back?

If so, how did you stay on track?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Reader mail: Agents vs. Managers

Time to dip into the proverbial mailbag and answer a few reader questions, kicking things off with a question from regular reader Peter Dwight:

Agent vs. Manager...? Say some poor schmuck just needs a paying job. There's an impression that Agents get you the work, where Managers get your movie made. Your thoughts?

I know that no matter which answer I give, 50% of the readers will chime in with a contradictory opinion. If you're lucky enough to land an agent, that's probably all you need unless you find that he doesn't seem particularly motivated to help you build a career. Speaking as someone who's still looking for representation, though, I've found more success in getting read by managers than agents. Managers seem more responsive to email queries, whether they are targeted queries, referrals, and making contact via other business connections.

I've got a script I feel pretty good about, and so after I finish my next polish, I'm going to do my next round of calling in business connections, favors and a few specifically targeted queries to very precise people. My list absolutely has more managers than agents, largely because I anticipate a greater success ratio in actually getting those people interested in my work.

The downside is that if you've got an agent and a manager, between the two of them, you're going to lose 20% of your paycheck right off the bat to their commissions.

As far as advice that readers of this blog should probably follow, I see no reason that you shouldn't pursue both. I know a couple of people who only have had managers and it hasn't stopped them from optioning and even selling a few (low-budget) scripts.

Obviously any field is going to have some percentage of members that give the greater group a bad name. If you're a starting writer, having someone in your corner like a strong manager wouldn't be a bad thing, just as it wouldn't be terrible to have an agent who's in a good position to package your script.

When you have no credits to your name, I say take either. After you've worked one-on-one with your agent or manager for a while, you'll get a feel for their personal style, their level of commitment to you and if your work is a good fit with his plans. If the two of you seem to be on completely different pages, it might be time for a change.

As I see it, it's not an either/or, at least not in a "one size fits all" way that could sum up either profession.

Rosie asks a question I don't really have an answer for:

What do you view as the key differences between the British film industry and Hollywood? Do these variations result in vastly different scripts?

On my end of things, I don't really deal with many British scripts or productions. At least on a professional level, I can't really offer an informed answer. I know we've got plenty of readers in the UK - anyone feel qualified to weigh in?

Robert asks:

Hey Bitter, have a question on formatting. When you read a script, what type of continuance do you prefer? "..." or "--". I noticed guys like Tony Gilroy love the "--" but guys like Scott Frank (and I would argue the majority of screenwriters) like to employ the "...". Is this more a question of style, or do readers like yourself role your eyes when you see one type over the other?

Strictly speaking, "--" is used at the end of dialogue when the character is interrupted, either by a character or an action. "..." is supposed to be used when a character trails off. If the writer knows what he's doing, they shouldn't be used interchangeably.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Free-for-All: "The Script Reader"

On a lark I decided to punch "Bitter Script Reader" into YouTube and see what hits came back. One of the first links was this short film "The Script Reader." This might not be exactly what it's like to be me... but I can relate.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thursday Throwback: Clichés I’m tired of seeing

This rerun post was the start of my Cliches I'm Tired of Seeing Series. It first appeared on February 11, 2009


Screenwriters are often advised to “Show, don’t tell” and I’m a big believer in that advice. Film is a visual medium, and it’s always best to take advantage of that rather than simply spelling something out through dialogue. Still, when doing this, show some imagination in your “showing.” If you come up with the same visual cue as a hundred other screenwriters, you run the risk of the reader reacting “Not again!”

I wish I had kept a running tally of how many times I’ve seen some version of the following scene. It usually happens in a romantic comedy, though often it pops up in dramas centered on relationships. Usually, the core romance has landed on the rocks at the end of Act Two, thus forcing the protagonist to fight to save the relationship in Act Three. The penultimate scene typically plays out one of two ways – the characters confront each other and the relationship is either explicitly mended, or there’s an emotional catharsis that ends ambiguously. Are the couple still together or aren’t they?

And then comes “the scene.” Four times out of five it will be a montage without dialogue, and almost always is set “One Year Later.” Carefully, each character is revealed in this coda, culminating with….

Come on now, dear reader… surely I’ve given enough set up for you to guess?

… the woman of the couple. And guess what?

Please, people. This isn’t hard. Speak up, now.

That’s right! She’s pregnant! The guy and the girl are going to live happily ever after and the proof is in the belly! And the scene is totally showing, not telling! Isn’t that cool?

To be blunt, not really. Too often I’ve seen writers use this as an out to show that the couple’s together without doing any of the work to really make it feel like the couple is together. It’s a cheap “out.” I admire what the writers are going for, but the next time you have the urge to end your movie this way, take another day or two and see if there’s a more original way of showing the couple is going to turn out all right.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Call for Questions

It's been a while since I put out an open call for questions, so consider this an official invitation. Hit me up in the comments, at my email address or via the Facebook page.

I'll take every question that offers an interesting or useful answer. Ask anything about screenwriting, movies, this blog, working in L.A. - whatever seems relevant.

DON'T send me things like "Is this a watchable logline?" and then write what I presume is your own screenplay pitch.

DON'T send me a random quote from an industry article or screenwriting book, especially if there's no question related to it.

DON'T copy press releases from Variety in their entirety and ask me if this film in pre-production has the potential to dethrone Avatar.

All I'm asking is that you be smart about your questions. I've gotten a lot of good questions in the past and I'm hoping this will lead to some interesting and informative posts.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Best note you ever got

If you've written a script, chances are you've passed it off to a friend or a professional for notes. The odds are equally good that you've gotten back a mix of positive and negative comments. Today I'm asking you to share the best note you've ever gotten.

To be clear, I'm not asking for the strongest praise you've ever received. I'm asking for the most intelligent feedback that someone gave you. How did it help your writing? What did it teach you about writing?

Monday, June 21, 2010

What if...?

A few weeks ago a friend of mine reminded me of one of the best notes a writer can get.

A fellow member of our writing group was having trouble with a particular point in his script, which was based on a real-life ransom/hostage standoff. I don't want to get too much into it, but at one point it was proposed that after the perps get away with the loot, we eventually see what they did with all the cash. The writer was quick to point out that it wasn't possible, as before the ransom was turned over to these criminals, the FBI recorded all the bills. Thus, even though the criminals were never captured they clearly couldn't have spent the money.

To which my friend offered to the writer, "What if they didn't record the serial numbers?"

Writer: "But they did!"

Friend: "How do we know? Because they told us? Maybe the FBI got caught with their pants down and they're lying to save their own hides! Maybe these guys have been dropping milions all over the place for years and haven't been caught!"

Well, you could have heard a pin drop as everyone in the group took that in. The writer and everyone else offering him notes had allowed themselves to be trapped inside a box. Every now and then, we need to remind ourselves that as writers we have potentially limitless options. It was such an incredibly easy fix to a major problem, and all it took was someone saying "What if...?"

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: I'm a Marvel and I'm a DC - "Father's Day"

One of my favorite series of web videos is the Marvel/DC comedy shorts done by ItsJustSomeRandomGuy. Whether you're a fan of the comics or prefer the feature film adaptations, you're bound to appreciate the humor in these parodies that use action figures to unite the two comic universes. Their Father's Day tribute gives you a sense of the tone of many of their shorts.

And this is one of their more recent shorts - a musical that takes a few pokes at current comic book movie plans.

This one is one of my favorites. It's a couple years old, so the jokes are a bit dated, but still fun.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

How short is too short?

Inspired by last week's discussion of script length, Hank wrote in to ask the following:

I have two out of seven scripts that come in around 65 pages. The rest are between 95 and 120. The shorter scripts "feel complete". I don't know what to add without making it seem like "filler". Can something as short as 65 pages sell?

I doubt it. When was the last time you saw a 65-minute movie? Studio features - and independent films - are 90-120 minutes.

Despite the long development process that a script undergoes after it's purchased, a writer still needs to present a complete, potentially filmable draft if they want any hope of selling their writing. James Cameron might be the only guy who could sell a 65-page script, and even then I bet that the buyers would want reassurance that the project would time out at a lot longer than an hour and five minutes. And as I always say, it's fruitless for people in our position to debate "Could [insert A-list writer here] sell a script that [breaks sacred and acknowledged screenwriting rules?] The director of Avatar and Titanic is always going to be able to get away with stuff that a house painter who writes in his spare time won't. For writers who have yet to break in, screenwriting isn't about the exceptions. It's about the rules.

Now maybe there are some writers - and I'm not saying this is Hank's position - who take the attitude of "The studio can fix it up after they buy it and put someone else on the rewrite. I just want my big check for coming up with this blockbuster idea."

That scenario never happens. No writer should EVER try to sell a script with the thought that "Eh, they can fix it up later." If that's the attitude you're taking, you're not a real writer. A script is not a lotto ticket. Nor is it a used car with a busted radiator that you're trying to unload on an unsuspecting buyer before they notice the flaws.

Carlos left a comment on the original post about writers who turn in extra long scripts, asking:

What are your thoughts on the reverse of this? The writer who might write too little? Or the writer who might struggle to get to that 90th page?

Do you get a lot of those scripts (I'm assuming they are few and far between) and what do you usually notice about them? Poor outlining, bad pacing, not enough information, an idea that shouldn't have been a film, but maybe a short?

It's rare, but when I do get a script this short it's a story that often feels padded just to get to 75 pages or so. Most of the time the story-telling is too straightforward, there are few interesting complications in the plot and the character-work is surface and facile.

So you're pretty much on the money when you muse that scripts like that feel more like prolonged short films then potential features. The writer maybe has a decent idea or a clever concept, but they don't really know how to mine it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What kind of idiot pays $75 each to have their query and logline evaluated?

I was checking out the Done Deal Pro boards recently when I came across a posting that mentioned a blogger whom the poster had met at a pitch seminar. The post mentioned some advice that seemed interesting and provided a link to that blogger's site, so I decided to check it out. I always enjoy finding new blogs and pointing out new points of interest for my readers.

After checking out the site I decided not to link to this person, or name them for reasons that will probably become clear in a moment. As it turns out, this individual was not just a blogger, but their site mainly operates as a coverage service. I don't take issue with that. As I've said before, there are plenty of rational reasons to pay someone to critique your script. I urge people looking to purchase some services to do their research and truly examine what they hope to get out of the experience, but I see nothing wrong with it.

Screenplay consultants have often been painted as unscrupulous jackals who prey on hopes and dreams of aspiring writers. I think that it's unfair to tar all such consultants with that brush. Surely there are a more than a few services that are a waste of money, but I'm led to believe there are more than a few that are above board as well.

This is why I was so dismayed when I looked at this blogger's services and saw the following:

"Query Letter Formatting/Writing/Editing - $75."

Are you fucking kidding me?

Look, your money is yours to burn. If you want to spend $200 or $600 for studio-style coverage, who am I to judge? But $75 to read a query letter and help write another one is nothing short of outrageous.

As it happens, I wanted to compare this individual's prices to one of the more reputable screenplay consultants out there. I went back to the earlier post and decided to check it against The Script Department, and guess what? For a mere $75, The Script Department offers a "Query Letter Review." Yep, they'll read it and tell you if it's any good. $75 for what probably amounts to five - no, I'll be generous - TEN minutes of work. Considering how blind queries rarely work, that's only slightly more effective than just burning the money outright.

It gets better. For another $75 bucks they'll review your logline too. Yeah, so for a grand total, you can have professional readers look at less than a page of writing and give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. That's almost as stupid as paying thousands of dollars to someone who's never actually written a screenplay so that they can teach you how to write!

I'll be blunt. Any writer who's so desperate for that kind of validation that they'll pay $75 to get it isn't ready to play in this game. There are tens, if not hundred of books that can help you craft a sharp query letter and a strong logline. Honestly, if you've read more than one of those books and you still can't distill your script into a strong logline then chances are your story isn't that good. As for query letters, just Googling "How to write a Query Letter" will probably lead you to more than enough sites that can walk you through the process and provide examples of strong query letters.

Coverage on a script is one thing. It gives you a fresh pair of eyes and probably would even offer a few suggestions on how to improve weaknesses in the material. But "query reviews" and "logline evaluations" - particularly at those prices - might not be a scam, but they're a colossal waste of money.

For about five minutes I considered setting up a PayPal account and offering both services for $10. Truth is, I felt sleazy even taking that much money and I figured that most of my readers would be smart enough not to spend money on them anyway. Still, the sheer greed on display there couldn't help but motivate this editorial.

It's your money. Spend it however you wish, but please spend it wisely.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tuesday Talkback: Inferior Director's Cuts

When it comes to DVD releases, it seems the conventional wisdom is that "Director's Cuts" are always somehow superior to the original release. Packaging and publicity touts that the film is at last presented in the way which the filmmaker always intended, as opposed to what happened when the studio or producers took the movie out of his hands. And to be fair, there are plenty of films where the Director's Cut is superior, as well as a few where the director's cut comes up about even.

But how many cases can you think of where this Director's Cut is actually far inferior to the theatrical release? (Cue the legion of Star Wars fans rushing in to complain about Greedo firing first, "Jedi Rocks" and needless CGI.) Are there any cases where you recall seeing the "intended" version of a film, only to come away thinking that it was better before the director got his way?

I'll get the ball rolling with Death Proof. I rather enjoyed it as part of Grindhouse and given that even in his worst film (Jackie Brown), Tarantino managed to keep me entertained in places, I was interested in seeing the uncut version of the movie. Big mistake. If you thought the first version was too talky and slow in some places, do yourself a favor and steer clear of the complete cut. It adds 25 minutes that feels like 40. Sometimes, Tarantino works better when he has to kill his darlings.

Your thoughts? What films got ruined by their director?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Glee: Sue Sylvester, best viewed in 1-D?

Glee turned out to be one of the most polarizing new series of the year. Either you loved it and couldn't wait to download the new tracks from iTunes each week, or you just don't get it and are sick from all the over-exposure. Count me as being closer to the first category than the second.

The show definitely has some problems. The "glee club is in peril of being canceled by the final commercial break" plot needs to be retired permanently; major character development (Quinn and Mercedes are suddenly best buds, Jesse is suddenly a vindictive asshole) seems to have been either consigned to the deleted scenes section of the DVD or never scripted, and Will Schuster often comes off as a total ass-hat.

But there is one indisputable virtue each week - Jane Lynch as the pathologically cruel Sue Sylvester. Virtually every word out of Sue's mouth is venomous and vile, often bordering on racist and homophobic even as she crushes the self-esteem of the cheerleaders in her charge. All season she has vowed to crush Glee club and has stooped to no low to gain an advantage. She sent spies to infiltrate the club, leaked the Glee club's setlist to their enemies, drugged and blackmailed the school's principal in order to get leverage over him at her whim (which naturally she deployed against the club in a myriad of ways). And those are just the highlights.

Sue is gloriously one-dimensional. A villain who exists only to get under the heroes' skins and make their lives miserable. She's the inner asshole that exists in everyone... except she's ALL asshole.

Well... almost all. As TV writers are wont to do, they have made efforts to flesh Sue out. However, Sue is that rare breed of character that works best when she isn't given a great deal of depth. Since she's almost cartoonish in her evil, nearly any attempt to explore her as a living, breathing character is pretty much doomed to not only ring false, but to defang the character as it smooths down her rough edges.

There was a moment about a third of the way through the season where we saw Sue visit her mentally disabled sister. Suddenly the cruel coach who threatened to waterboard them and actively encouraged eating disorders showed a bright demeanor and read to her sister with the love of a good sibling. The point of the scene was obviously to make the audience go, "Awww... Sue has a soft spot!"

No, no, no.... Once you explore evil, you soften it. And Sue needs to be evil. You can't show a chink in her armor that big and then continue to write her as a mustache-twirling villain. And yet, next week she was back to her usual self. The sister thing came out of left field, save for some set-up in that episode, and it's development that has only been acknowledged once or twice since.

Some characters can survive this sort of growth. Look at Dr. Cox on Scrubs. In the beginning he was the mean mentor who took almost sadistic joy in finding fault with his charges and humiliating them for their many failures in front of everyone. It was as if he existed only to be cruel to the doctors who were learning under him. However, as time went on he exposed a few spots and it was outright stated that a lot of his issues stemmed from growing up in an abusive home.

How did this keep from declawing Cox? Easy. Deep down, one of his most consistent traits was that he cared about his patents. There was nothing he wouldn't do to ensure they got the best treatment, whether that meant picking an ill-advised fight with the chief of staff, insulting the surgeons on call... or cracking the whip on his interns and residents so their sloppy errors and inexperience wouldn't kill the very patients they have to save.

Pretty much every mean thing -called for or uncalled for - Cox ever said to J.D. stemmed from this. He saw new doctors as assassins sent to kill his patients and made it a mission to either make them improve, or make them wash out. Thus, he cares. He might be cruel, but he cares and it makes sense when examined in this context.

Sue doesn't have that kind of depth. Thus far there's been no greater motivation revealed that could account for the bullying and hatred she radiates like a sun. And there certainly seems to be no connection between her relationship with her sister and the way she consistently insults misfits in the glee club. If anything, one would expect that such history would make her more empathetic, not less.

Instead, treating Sue like a real character in isolated instances like this only forces the audience to examine all of her actions in that context. It changes the way we can enjoy her. To put it another way - everyone loves the incredibly stupid cheerleader Brittany. She's what Ralph Wiggam would be if he was a girl and could dance. She gets all manner of one-liners like "I think my cat is reading my diary" and it works because we don't take Brittany seriously.

Now imagine one episode revealed that Brittany is the way she is because she was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, or she sniffed paint in elementary school, or she has a learning disability.

She's not so funny anymore, is she? That's the risk you take when try to explore deeper sides to characters who aren't meant to be anything below the surface.

This year's finale found the right way to give Sue depth. She (implausibly) is brought in as a judge at Regionals and boasts to anyone who will listen about how she'll sink the Glee club. When the time comes, she finds that the other judges are even more elitist than her and favor the other, more wealthy schools over the public school batch of misfits found in New Directions, the club Sue has spent all year trying to crush. Even worse for Sue, the other judges (including a delightfully evil Olivia Newton John and Josh Grobin, playing himself as if he was John Mayer) lump her in with the bunch of misfits, calling her every bit the wannabe loser that they are. It cuts her to the core because it shows that she's only a big fish because she's in a very small pond

Or to put it in SAT-speak:

Olivia Newton-John :: Sue Sylvester as Sue Sylvester :: Glee Club.

As the audience - but not anyone in the club - learns, Sue is actually the only one to vote New Directions for first place. Not only that, but she makes a final deal with the principal to get him to not cancel the Glee club for next year.

Writers, THIS is the way to develop Sue Sylvester. She's tasted what it likes to be stung by someone like her and it's awakened her empathy. Just a small bit, but its there. It doesn't negate anything she's done this season, and if mined right, could propel some growth for her next year. Sue's not going to change over night, but at least we've seen a plausible first step in a journey that the writers can draw out for several years if need be.

And writers, please, please, please never try to give us a serious reason why Brittany's so stupid. Keep her in the background and deploy her as needed. Ralph Wiggam's lasted more than 20 years, so I know you can do it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: The A-Team

I barely remember seeing The A-Team as a kid. I was never motivated to check it out in reruns, and the trailer for the feature film opening today looked so bad that I have no intention of watching it before the film hits free TV.

But... I recognize that many of you may be fans. Plus I figure throwing this on the blog today can't hurt my Google hits, so without further ado here's the intro from the series.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thursday Throwback: Size Matters

It's summer and do you know what that means? Reruns! Every now and then I get a few emails that ask about something I addressed long ago in the blog. I know that at best, most of you didn't find this blog until last summer, so in the interests of catching everyone up, every now and then I like to throw in these "rerun" posts. This one is from February 16, 2009


Quick! What’s the first thing a reader does when they get a script? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

The answer: they turn to the last page to see how long it is. Though as a reader of many years and many more scripts, I can tell you that this is often a formality. An experienced reader can usually peg the script’s length just by eyeing the thickness. We often know a script is too long or too short even before we check the page number.

Roger Ebert once said, “No good movie is too long. No bad movie is too short.” That’s true when it comes to the actual movie, but in the eyes of a reader, the best script is a short script. Just as long as it’s not too short.

It’s generally been understood in the industry that 121 pages is the magic number where a screenplay becomes too long and 89 pages is the magic number where it is too short. As every screenplay writing book will tediously inform you, one page of script is equal to about one minute of screentime. In most cases a Hollywood movie runs between 90 minutes and two hours, hence those “magic numbers.”

When you’re trying to break into the business, the odds are your script isn’t going to be read first by the guy who makes the decision to buy the script, and probably not by the guy directly under him either. If you’re lucky, the script will land on the desk of a professional reader – along with another dozen for that week. If karma’s really out to get you, your script will get passed on to the new intern who just arrived in town a week ago. Either way, the pile of scripts confronting that particular reader will be attacked in the same method – shortest scripts go first.

Remember, readers get paid by the script. Why spend an hour and a half reading a 180 page script when you could get two 90 page scripts done in that time? (Though often a reader makes extra for a longer script.) This results in the longest scripts being put off as long as possible, probably until the end of the week when the reader’s patience is at its lowest ebb. Suddenly, deliberately paced stories feel slow, slow-paced stories feel glacial and REALLY slow scripts get weaseled out of with a quick verbal summary of the hook to the director of development and the exasperated remark – “It’s a three-hour movie!”

Once you’re a known writer who’s sold a few, the usual rules no longer apply. At that point, write all the 140 page scripts you want. If you’re any good, odds are that your tightly written, well-paced story won’t come out that long, and if it does, hopefully it’ll be well-crafted enough that the reader won’t care.

But when you’re Joe Nobody, you’d better believe it matters. To be honest, these days the average industry script is coming in even shorter, close to the 105-115 range. Probably one of the most common critiques a reader will give a script is that the plot is too slow to advance. You might only get one shot with some contacts, so before you send around your script, give it an extra read and make sure that every scene counts.

Expositional scenes are the ones that tend to kill you here. Particularly with films that have complicated plot twists, a writer wants to make sure that they haven’t lost the audience. Unfortunately, this often manifests through overwritten scenes or scenes that spell out what the audience had already figured out on their own. You can usually trust in the intelligence of your audience so when giving your script a final read, there are a few questions you should ask yourself:

Have you entered each scene as late as possible? Are you getting out of there as quickly as possible? When I was learning the art of economic scene length, I studied Law & Order. Though their episodes are more plot driven than character-driven, they cover an incredible length in 44 minutes of airtime. What’s more, almost all of their scenes tend to be short, succinct and give you exactly what you need to see in order to keep the plot moving. If your script’s coming in long, it might be scenes like this that end up being the culprit.

Perception is everything, though. If your reader starts the script already “knowing” that it’s “too long” they’re going to look for the evidence to justify it. They’ll be reading it primed to point out scenes that don’t fit, dialogue that goes too long, and plot points that are needlessly complicated. If – in your heart of hearts – you are certain that this is a story that demands 130 pages, by all means submit it. But cutting 11 pages and getting it down to 119 might make all the difference in how the reader perceives it.

Every reader has a horror story about the 150 page opus that went nowhere that they had to read. The vast majority of “too long” scripts are written by people whose writing would be unbearable even at 90 pages. It doesn’t take too long for a reader to start noticing a correlation: Too long = bad writing.

Is it fair? No. Is it the nature of how readers work? Almost to a man.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Quick tips #5 - Characterization

I'm going to level with you guys. I had a post all set to go for today about Glee's Sue Sylvester and the tricky thing of writing for one-dimensionally evil characters. Then the finale last night actually ended up feeding into some of what I said, so as I was rewriting to acknowledge that, I realized I was dipping a little too far into spoiler territory. Usually I'm of the mind of "Once it's aired on the West Coast, it's fair game" but since this is the finale and since I have a strong feeling that some of you might still be waiting to catch up on the DVR, I'm going to bump that post until Monday.

The problem is that for the first time in a long time I don't have any posts on standby, so today is going to have to be a "quick tip":

If you ever give your script to someone and they come back with the note that the character seems a little thin, odds are that problem isn't going to be fixed by one four-minute dialogue scene that has the character talking to a sounding board about their past and their deepest desires/fears.

Thin characterization isn't solved by a patch job. Nine times out of ten I can spot these scenes because the seams are more than obvious. Nothing in that scene affects anything in any other scene, which is a dead giveaway that the scene was wedged in later. Take pride in your work. Put in the extra effort and rewrite several scenes so that this new information can resonate throughout the film.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Transitions are a subject that I don't often see discussed on screenwriting blogs, a fact that I didn't consider until a few weeks back when I read a spec script that made no effort at smooth transitions in its first 30 pages.

Guys like me harp a lot on the importance of the first ten pages of a spec script. We tell you to get the story rolling in those pages and if possible, get all of the major characters on the board in those first ten or twelve pages. And that's sound advice, don't get me wrong. The problem is when a writer tries to put 15 major characters in play in the first 12 pages. This only gets exacerbated when the characters are introduced three or four at a time in successive scenes with no connection to each other.

Let me set up a scenario so you can understand better what I'm getting at:

Scene one: 3 pages - three terrorists (let's call them LARRY, MOE, and CURLY) are putting together a bomb and going over their plans. No one in this scene is the clear leader, so it's hard to break it down to "This is our main bad guy and these are his thugs." Worse, they all sound identical.

Scene two: 4 pages - a high-school classroom where the TEACHER lectures about how they will be expected to behave on their class trip "downtown" today. In this sequence we meet BRIAN (the geek/brain), CINDY (cheerleader/hottie), AUSTIN (the asshole bully), TRACY (the popular overachiever) and PRINCIPAL CURTIS stops in to say hi. There's tension between the Principal and the Teacher, suggesting that the teacher might be the lead, but there's also emphasis on Cindy and Tracy's friendship (Tracy helped her with her homework) and Brian's crush on both of them. The thing is that the scene could be about either Brian trying to work up the guts to flat out ask one of them out, or it could be about Cindy's exasperation with ever guy in school coming onto her. The fact that Austin smacks her ass just after knocking Brian's books out of his hand could speak to that. Or it could be about Tracy's own quiet crush on Brian and her obliviousness to how guys are interested in her.

Scene three: 2 pages - College Student BRETT packs up for the weekend, preparing to leave his dorm. He mentions he's going home and then tells his girlfriend LILY that something came up suddenly. LILY isn't happy, but then calls her sorority friends....

Scene four: three pages - A drug deal in a back alley goes wrong. A kingpin's LIEUTENANT kills a couple corner boys who it turns out have been treading on their turf. It's the Lieutenant's bad luck that while he's making the hit, his car is stolen off the street by JACK. Worse, there are about 15 kilos of coke in the car.

So I ask you, what the hell is this movie about? Who is the lead? Who am i paying attention to? What's the thru-line?

Obviously, I changed all the names and fudged some of the scene details but this is pretty much the sort of spec I was greeted with recently. Strong transitions between the scenes wouldn't have fixed everything. After all, when a movie starts off like this, it's a good warning sign that the writer is trying to juggle too many characters at once.

But let's say that the terrorists are planning on bombing a downtown government office. Furthermore, let's also assume that said office is adjacent to a downtown science center and they specifically mention that the center will be a good place to lay low and escape immediately after setting the bomb. If that building was specifically name-dropped in this scene, it might be important later... in the classroom when Brian maybe mentions to Tracy that it would be pretty easy to slip away from their field trip at the GOVERNMENT OFFICE BUILDING to the Science Center next door. Just a throwaway mention like that would have tied these scenes together and also immediately identified Tracy and Brian as the most important characters in this subplot.

And how about if that scene ended with texting his brother Brett, asking what time he'd be home? Now we know how Brett plays into this. Brian's probably the main lead and Brett will be important, but in a supporting capacity. This also suggests we don't need to worry too much about Brett's girlfriend Lily as a character. She's probably just there for color rather than being a developing subplot we'll need to pay attention to.

Now, there's not much that can be easily done to tie Scene 4 to the other three scenes, but the other three scenes do such a good job of putting a possible through-line in place that the audience can safely assume that these characters are destined to end up in the same downtown complication.

Strong transitions won't completely fix a screenplay that has other fundamental problems, and I admit, this example is an extreme one. Hopefully the point still comes across. Never underestimate how just a few lines tying one scene to the next can help guide your reader as the story is still taking shape.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Friday Free-For-All: Russell Brand as Infant Sorrow's Aldous Snow

Get Him to the Greek is out today, featuring the return of Russell Brand as rocker Aldous Snow so why don't we enjoy his music video "We've Got To Do Something."

And here's an appearance Aldous made on a Sesame Street-type program:

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Should I write a satire of bad scripts?

Michael wrote in last week with a question:

I wrote an over-the-top script with the intention of satirizing the tongue-in-cheek style of professional screenwriters and the 'breaking all the rules' style of amateur screenwriters. The problem is, now that I'm done, I'm worried that it reads less like parody and more like emulation.

Do you think most script readers would appreciate the joke or just lump it in with the rest of the too-clever-too-stupid shitfests?

My hunch is the latter, but them I'm in the group that thought that BALLS OUT was a painfully unfunny way to punish a reader and considered its inclusion on The Black List to be reason to call into question the credibility of the list.

To me BALLS OUT was like enduring one of Andy Kaufman's less funny pranks. Kaufman gags came in two flavors: there was the outlandish "is this real?" put-ons like those I linked to a while back. Stunts like wrestling women and staging fights on Letterman and Fridays would fall under this category. Essentially, they were Punk'd-type gags on his entire audience. (And that's probably the only time anyone has ever compared Andy Kaufman and Punk'd.) The outlandish Tony Clifton deception also fits here. The reason these jokes work is that they're something that a person can enjoy whether or not they're in on the gag. People who "get it" have fun with the reactions of those who don't, but even so, those who don't "get it" aren't really hurt. They're harmless participants.

And then there are the ones that I call the "screw the audience" variety. These are the gags that are funny to exactly one person - the perpetrator. Even when you're in on the joke, it's not funny, you're just aware that the perp is a dick. One of Kaufman's regular stunts was something he'd pull when facing a crowd not amused by some of his sillier gags. To punish the audience, he'd stop his act, pull out The Great Gatsby and then spend the rest of his stand-up set reading from it.

I don't find that sort of filibuster funny, and if Andy did that during a comedy set that I was paying to attend, I'd be sorely tempted to ask for my money back. Sure, it's funny to him, but no one in the audience is going to find that entertaining.

That's BALLS OUT, as far as I'm concerned. Yeah, I get that it's an "exaggeration" of every bad aspiring screenwriter trope, but that doesn't make it funny in and of itself. This isn't a case where I need the joke explained to me. I get exactly what the writers are going for. It's just utterly unamusing to someone in my shoes.

Here's the reason why - no matter how much you try to exaggerate the "bad writer" tropes I can guarantee you I've seen a script that commits the same sin in all earnestness at the same proportion. There are a lot of talented people who read this blog, but I bet if I gave you an assignment to write a deliberately over-the-top ultraviolent scene, no one would come close to the worst offenders. If I told you to grow write the most misogynistic and violent rape scene you could imagine, grossly exaggerated and made inappropriately sexual, none of you could touch a scene I read years ago that still makes me wretch.

Guys like me have seen it all at levels that are so intense that you'd think the writer MUST be aware of their own hackitude. Voiceover narration that never shuts up the entire script? Seen it. Shane Black-like asides to the reader amused with their own cleverness on every page? Seen it. Inappropriate camera direction and editing notes? Seen it.

You know those off-tune singers who turn up every season to annoy Simon Cowell at American Idol tryouts? The real nutjobs who show up in strange costumes with odd gimmicks and can't hold a note if it was covered in crazy glue? How would you parody them? The reality is already so over-the-top and so insanely ridiculous that it defies parody. No matter what you tried to do to "spoof" the Idol contestants, there's bound to be a legitimate head case who's already done something crazier.

I'd ask what you're trying to achieve with this "parody." It's not easy for most people to get their material read by pros who are in a position to do something with it. What makes you think you're better off rolling the dice with a joke that's so inside baseball that it only really would land with people who read scripts? (That's my other issue with BALLS OUT - it's completely unproducable as a movie, which means it fails as a screenplay.) Even in a best case scenario, you're still going to need a "real" spec to get your career going, so what are you gaining by leading with this inside joke?

Best case scenario - You write a parody of bad scripts. The reader totally is into the joke, but since his boss can't do anything with it, they ask you to submit something else. They read your second script, love it, decide it can be a movie and sign you.

Worst case scenario - They read your parody, decide you're a hack and the door slams shut.

Thus, you have everything to lose and nothing to gain by leading with this script because it's still your "real" spec that will made the final decision for them.

Don't think I don't get the impulse to write something deliberately bad just to get a reaction. I flirt with that idea every now and then. I've even considered writing one and putting it on one of those peer review sites just to gauge how effective said sites really are. I never do because it's time consuming enough to write something that I'm serious about. I can't see spending almost as long writing a script that isn't going to lead anywhere.

The sheer length of a screenplay usually precludes this joke from being funny. If I got BALLS OUT as a work submission I'd know within a few pages that finishing the script would be a waste of my time, but I'd still have to finish it and write it up. Is the meta-joke really so funny that it's worth 105 pages and potentially 3 hours of my life? (More or less the time it takes to read and write up a script.)

Most of the time, I satisfy my urge to tell bad stories by coming up with lame pitches like those that KG Madman regularly posts as part of his Bad Query Letters series. The joke doesn't wear out its welcome, and neither the writer nor the reader have wasted valuable time that they'll never get back.

Just my opinion. Thanks for the question. It came at a time when I was again considering writing a terrible spec, so you saved me a lot of time.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Screenwriting resources and cool blogs

It's well past time that I throw out some plugs for cool blogs, so here are a few other things to check out in between new posts here:

First, friend of the blog Scott Myers has put his loyal army of writers to work at Go Into The Story and they've come up with a what they consider a definative list of the best scripts in each genre. These are scripts that they feel every screenwriter could learn from. This post over at GITS explain more, and provides a link to the list as well as links to the scripts themselves. (Don't worry - these are all scripts from released films, so nothing here is "in play.")

I also recently stumbled onto "I Liked the Trailer Better," a blog maintained by industry insiders named Brian and Golan. Their introduction reads "We both love movies. We both teach at film schools. We both work in development. One of us worked on MUTUAL APPRECIATION, worships Mumblecore and is Asian. One of us worked on IRON MAN, loves studio fare and is Jewish. We're not going to tell you who is who, to retain the mystery."

I don't usually endorce blogs that aren't updated regularly. These guys don't keep to any kind of consistent posting schedule, but when they do put up a new blog entry, it's pretty comprehensive. It's certainly enough to keep you busy for a little while.

This next plug isn't movie-related, but I know that a fair number of my readers are comic book geeks like myself. A while back I attended a talk by writer Peter David at L.A's Golden Apple and met a few bloggers with Collier Comics who were there to interview Mr. David. I've been lax in tossing them a plug, but I hope to rectify that now with a link to the Peter David interview. Check out their more recent material if you're so inclined.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Seinfeld finale and why putting your lead character on trial can backfire

Last week I pontificated a bit about the Best and Worst Series Finales, and there were a few who definately felt that the Seinfeld finale really should have been on the Worst List, if not leading it. I gave a brief explanation of my reasons in the earlier post, but I figured that it was worth discussing the Seinfeld finale on its own, as there are some lessons to be learned from it.

For those who don't know, the basic plot is that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are charged with violating a "Good Samaritan" law and are put on trial. Their defense attorney, predictably, is Jackie Chiles, the Johnnie Cochran-style attorney who reacts with bemusement to the gang's nicknames for all the witnesses against them. In an effort to make an example of the foursome, the prosecutor calls as many witnesses who have been wronged by the gang as he can find. These included Jerry's virgin girlfriend who was repulsed to learn about "the contest," The Soup Nazi," whose business was ruined by Elaine, and the large-breasted woman Jerry dated who was inadvertently groped by Elaine.

Basically, it was an excuse for Larry David to bring back every memorable character the show created, and give them a few seconds of airtime. Occasionally there were a few clips of their first appearance tossed in, but not nearly enough for me to tar this with the "clip show" brush.

Why this fails as an episode of Seinfeld - with only a few notable exceptions like "The Chinese Restaurant," most of the classic episodes of Seinfeld featured multiple plotlines that would then somehow intertwine and collide by the end. This Rube Goldberg style of domino-plotting took a while to evolve, but it's pretty much the standard from the third or fourth season onward. The problem with "The Finale" is that it's all A-plot. There's no B, C, or D story. Thus the most recognizable traits of a Seinfeld episode are completely absent from this story.

It might have worked if just one of the characters - let's say George - was on trial for his life and that was where subplots for Jerry, Elaine and Kramer ended up intersecting in the end. It would give the main characters something to do instead of spend at least half the show sitting next to each other at the trial. Which brings me to...

Why this episode fails as a piece of writing - So you've got a script where your main character is accused of some dastardly crime and faces stiff penalty for it. Most of the story is a trial, and you probably figure you'll have the audience captivated. After all, the stakes are pretty high if they're found guilty. The wrong verdict could completely change that character's life so this can't miss as compelling drama, right?

Guess again.

The defendant spends most of the trial sitting there, listening passively as everyone else gets their say against him. He doesn't question his accusers, he usually doesn't take the lead in his strategy, and he generally doesn't have much to do.

Who gets to "kill the bull" in these stories? The attorneys, either the prosecution or the defense, whichever one wins. They confront the witnesses, they get to pull all the courtroom theatrics and they're the ones doing the heavy lifting of figuring out how they're going to either lock up this evil bastard, or turn him loose on the streets.

See the problem with the Seinfeld finale? Jackie Chiles is pretty much the main character.

Look at all of the great courtroom films and note the protagonist:

A Few Good Men - Lt. Caffy, the defense lawyer.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Atticus Finch, the defense lawyer.

Philadelphia - Duel protagonists in Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington's characters, but notably Hanks' character is the one bringing suit in this story. He's not charged with anything, he's the one trying to sink his former employers.

A Time To Kill - Jake Brigance, the defense attorney.

There are probably a couple instances where a crafty screenwriter found a way to clear this hurdle and make the trial story work with the defendant as the protagonist, but most of the time those are the exceptions that prove the rule. If you're ever working on a legal drama, don't make the mistake of trying to center it on the guy who has to just sit there and remain silent the whole time until he finally takes the stand. Passive lead characters can drag a whole script down with them.

And that's why the Seinfeld finale doesn't work as a piece of writing. It's not really about the main characters - it's about everybody but them!