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  • 50 Shades of an Amateur Screenwriter

    September 24th, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    There are probably hundreds of signs that the writer of that script I’m screaming at is an amateur. But today, I’d like to give a mere 50. Most of these may seem like common sense, yet you’d be amazed at the sheer number of projects plagued with these issues. Some of them may make you worry about your own work. But hey, at least you’ll know for next time and you’ll be one step closer to making sure your work is at the highest of professional standards.

    The following is in NO particular order and covers a broad range of script issues.

    1. Writing CUT TOs, FADE TOs, FADE OUTs, or any other Transitions between every scene.
    2. Telling us instead of Showing us.
    3. Description is in past tense instead of present tense and does not use the active form of the verb. For example, John drives – not John is driving. Danny stands – not is standing. Limit –ING verbs.
    4. Not using pronouns or articles in your sentences. THE room, HIS dog, HER chair. You don’t walk into room – you walk into THE room or A room. I know less words is a good thing, but this is horribly distracting when the reader has to fill in the word.
    5. Having wordy description paragraphs longer than 4 lines on a page without a line break.
    6. Not CAPITALIZING your characters names the first time we meet them in your description. Also, capitalizing characters names every time they are seen or mentioned (Not the case in TV).
    7. Capitalizing every single noun and/or verb in your description.
    8. Not having a new scene heading for every new location or writing things in your scene heading other than the location, time of day and relation to the previous scene.
    9. Your description tells us exactly what your characters are thinking or are about to discuss in dialogue, or tells us backstory the audience cannot see.
    10. The script is written in Microsoft Word, Notepad or Celtx. I know Celtx is free – but no one working in Hollywood uses it or even knows what it is.
    11. Not knowing the difference between a Montage and a Series of Shots. A Montage condenses numerous scenes, locations and the passage of time while progressing plot and character arcs. A series of shots is a visual style to show many different actions or specific visuals all from one scene or a short time span.
    12. Having Camera Direction in your description (“we see”, “shot of”, “camera pans” etc)
    13. Writing parentheses before dialogue on every page explaining the emotion or how the line should be said.
    14. You are not using “Intercut With” when going back and forth between two scenes instead of restating the scene heading each time.
    15. Lengthy location descriptions or too much production design – we don’t care what color the couch is.
    16. Use of Voice Over to tell us things you could express though action and dialogue.
    17. All conversations start with “hello” or “how are you” and scenes end with “goodbye, goodnight or talk to you later.” Or if dialogue is full of conversational niceties – thank you, please, your welcome, etc.
    18. The scenes lack dynamics – no conflict or tension or build or emotion.
    19. Story is missing the meat – there are planning and reflection scenes instead of execution scenes.
    20. The subplots are not tracked or seen for more than 15 pages.
    21. A kitchen sink script where everything is thrown in to make it seem more commercial and original.
    22. Scenes have no emotional goal.
    23. There is a lack of emotional/reflective reactions and moments for characters.
    24. Introducing more than 3 characters in 1 paragraph – each should preferably have their own paragraph so they don’t blend together.
    25. Using incorrect margins on the page – having too much or too little white space around the edges. Also, incorrect font, spacing, or type set.
    26. You use dreams and flashbacks interchangeably. Flashbacks are events that actually happened seen through a character’s POV. Dreams are subconscious and uncontrollable thoughts that happen while sleeping.
    27. Not giving us your main character’s LAST NAMES and AGES when introducing them.
    28. Using music – specific songs and artists – in your scenes or writing a scene to a specific song. What do the Beatles, Bowie, Beach Boys, Bon Jovi and Bon Iver all have in common? Their songs will add MILLIONS to your budget.
    29. Your main character feels like they were born on page 1.
    30. There’s nothing on the line – no STAKES – in the first scene.
    31. It isn’t clear where and when your story takes place.
    32. Your only antagonist is an emotion or a personal demon.
    33. The most commercial moments are not exploited and the dialogue, SFX and VFX don’t POP on the page.
    34. There is no time clock of any kind in your story.
    35. Your subplots and B stories are not resolved or connect to your main storyline.
    36. You are lacking in Set Up, Execution, or Payoff.
    37. Your scenes do not evoke any emotion from the reader.
    38. You don’t know how to use dialogue, actions, settings or set ups to create great smooth transitions between scenes.
    39. Your scene goes on 1-2 lines too long and doesn’t end on the most powerful or interesting moment or dialogue.
    40. You don’t know the difference between VO, OS, and OC or when to use each one.
    41. The dialogue is slight, Q&A, isn’t genuine to the characters or lacks subtext and is all very on the nose.
    42. You think a theme and a message is the same thing.
    43. Your first scene and first 10 pages don’t grab me.
    44. Your protagonist is passive and/or isn’t present in your climax.
    45. You write a comedic scene just to hit one joke or one visual gag.
    46. You think when you finish your 3rd draft, you’re done and it’s ready to be submitted to agents, producers, actors or contests. It’s not.
    47. Your story is not driven by conflict and doesn’t contain an internal, external, mental, physical and emotional conflict.
    48. You think the only difference between you and an A-list screenwriter is an agent.
    49. The first words out of your mouth when you meet someone are “I’ve written this script…”
    50. You think you can break all of these aforementioned rules and mistakes and people will still want to read your script and you’ll still be able to break in because Tarantino did it.


  • How to Make Your Scripts “Elevated”

    September 24th, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    “We’re looking for an elevated thriller.”

    “I’d like to find an elevated comedy.”

    “All we’re buying are elevated horror scripts.”

    How many times have you heard that?

    “Elevated” is an interesting buzz word you will hear all the time in Hollywood. But what the hell does it mean?

    I believe there are actually a number of ways to create an “elevated” script which I will go through below, but in general, it means there is something more intelligent and complex and involved than most normal stories. It’s not just a down-the-middle, by-the-numbers plot.

    Elevating your script often means that you have combined two genres or hooks to create a more dynamic story than you’d have otherwise. Having one great hook may make your script commercial, but having two great hooks will make your script elevated. Silence of the Lambs, for example, was elevated because it wasn’t just that an FBI Agent had to track down a horrific serial killer – it was that she needed an even worse serial killer to help her.

    Eli Roth’s upcoming film Aftershock is an elevated thriller because not only is it a disaster movie about an earthquake but it’s also a dark thriller because the focus is on an insane asylum and the patients who escape during that earthquake. See how the combination of the two makes the story much more original and…well, elevated.

    Elevated projects are movies that will appeal to larger demographics because of the writer’s new way of approaching the story or subject matter. For example, if Scream had been a straight horror/slasher film, it would not have been as broad or successful as it was due to the great sharp comedy and wit worked into the script. Shaun of the Dead could have been a run of the mill zombie movie, but instead its comedy elevated it to something much more.

    Making something “elevated” means the writer took a basic concept or story and combined it with something really interesting or original to make it completely different. Or they took a basic relationship and added a twist or dynamic to it we’ve never seen.

    And sometimes it’s about the way the story is told or the twist of the story no one is expecting or the visual style set up by the screenwriter.

    For example, if Memento were told linearly, it would be a pretty normal thriller. But because of the backwards way of telling the story, it was much more than that. 500 Days of Summer could have been a regular old romantic comedy but the way the story was told and broken up and structured made it much more than that.

    Lovely Bones was an elevated drama/thriller because of the way it was narrated and how the story started. On page one, it set itself apart. The Sixth Sense could have been a horror movie about ghosts or a drama about death but instead its huge twist and way of storytelling elevated it to one of the most successful movies of all time.

    An elevated horror is usually one where it’s not just a base story about a killer and its victims. There’s something more to it. The Shining is a great example of an elevated horror movie because it’s so psychological and it makes you think. It’s not just a gore-fest, but a character study wrapped in scare. Cabin in the Woods is another great example – it wasn’t just a young adult slasher about kids in a cabin in the woods. There was an intelligence and complexity to the rest of the story that made it much more than that.

    It could be that what elevates your project is the characters themselves or how many protagonists there are. Crash and Love Actually were considered an elevated drama and comedy, respectively, because of their ensemble nature and how the storylines came together. That is not to say that every ensemble movie is elevated. Having more characters does not always mean a better, more original story.

    Perhaps it’s your location that makes your story elevated. Hollywood loves contained thrillers and contained action movies not just because fewer locations means the budget is lower, but because the sign of a great writer is what they can do with 2 characters in 1 room for 90 minutes. That’s why SO many writers break in by writing them. “Contained” is another one of those great Hollywood buzz words, and that’s because if you can do something truly original with that one location and make it something no one has seen before, then you’ve elevated your story and made a small story much bigger. Look at movies like Cube, Buried, Phone Booth and Panic Room. All contained thrillers with high concept hooks and their locations – and how they are used – are what make them elevated and interesting.

    Everyone always asks what Hollywood wants and how to write commercially – well, coming up with elevated concepts and being able to not just SAY that your story is elevated, but prove it – is the answer. I can’t tell you how many writers describe their story as elevated but when I ask them what is elevated about it, they don’t know. They just thought saying the word would help.

    But now that you all know what it means, and some different ways to achieve it, you can go back and look at your stories and see if you’re really creating buzzword-worthy projects.

  • The Greatest Hollywood Meeting I Ever Had

    August 16th, 2012

  • Creating the Perfect One-Sheet

    May 7th, 2012

    With the Great American Pitchfest in less than a month, I know many of you are preparing your pitch, getting your script in shape, and figuring out what your strategy should be to maximize your pitchfest experience. But how many of you have completed your one-sheet?

    If your hand isn’t raised – you aren’t ready to pitch! One-Sheets are an absolute must if you are going into a pitch meeting, especially at a pitchfest event. It’s what you are going to give the executives at the conclusion of your pitch that will allow them to remember you and your story a week or two after the event, when they finally go through everything and decide what they want to read. If your pitch is your first impression, the one-sheet is your lasting impression.

    It’s the only way the executive, who has listened to 50-100 pitches that day, is going to be able to remember you after the salient details of your glorious 5 minute pitch have escaped them.  I write my comments on your one-sheet the second you leave the table – Yes, No, great concept, bad story, liked her, hated him, ask for script, smelled bad – whatever.

    Your one-pager (another term for one-sheet) is your calling card and you should always keep one on you at all times. Even if the event you’re pitching at tells you not to!

    It’s not just a selling tool for your story, but also for yourself. It differs from a synopsis in a few ways. First, as its name dictates, it’s only ONE page.  Secondly, unlike the synopsis which is just about your story, your one-sheet can be a bit about you as well. It’s much closer to the query letter but without the letter aspects. You don’t need the greeting or closing, but a good one-sheet should include the following:

    –  Your name

    –  The title of your screenplay

    –  Your contact info including email (even if they have it already)

    –  The genre of your script

    –  The logline of your script

    –  If appropriate, 1-2 lines that state anything special about you that pertains to your story or the film business in general just like in your query letter. Or mention of any major contest wins, produced projects, etc.

    –  Then, 1-3 VERY short paragraphs (about 8-12 lines on the page) about your story, your world, your protagonist and what they must accomplish, what is against them, and what’s on the line.  It should be a bit more stylized than your synopsis, which means your voice as a writer should shine through.

    –  Much like the query letter, you should not give away your ending, but you should tease and intimate your awesome ending – let the exec know that your story builds to something exciting.

    On a one-sheet, you can also include at the bottom a few more titles with genre and logline of other projects you have written (if you have others), because the executive might not like your project, but they might like YOU, and want to know what else you’ve done.

    And incredibly important for your one-sheet — no typos or grammatical errors!! If you cannot write a half a page without a typo or mistake, then you are sloppy or lazy and I don’t want to read your script. I know many execs who will throw away a one-sheet with a typo on it.

    Execs can tell if someone can write by their one-sheet, and they often will not ask for a script if the one-sheet is unimpressive, bland, boring, or doesn’t tell them anything.

    The paper shouldn’t be boring. You shouldn’t doodle little animals on it or anything, but I find that the one-pagers I keep and the ones I take more notice of have something different on the page. They are a bit more visual, perhaps there’s a picture or pattern on the page that connects with your story, or they are printed on a slightly harder stock of paper than regular printer paper. It doesn’t need professional graphic design, but I’ve seen many one-sheets that are basically the poster for the movie on one side and the synopsis and other information on the other.

    Just like with your pitch – the more visual a one-sheet is, the more memorable it will be. Is an exec not going to read your script because your one sheet isn’t visually stimulating? No, of course not. But you are trying to do things that make you stand out, in a good way. Executives may tell you it doesn’t matter, but subconsciously, it does. People like shiny objects. It’s how Transformers got made. So if there is something visually stimulating – not detracting or distracting – but stimulating about the page, chances are execs will pay more attention to it.

    But one thing you should NOT do – is put the actor you want in your movie on your one-sheet. Nothing will scream amateur more than a photo-shopped picture of Adam Sandler!

    However you design it, I cannot express to you the importance of having one. Writers always ask if a business card is good enough. As far as getting an exec your contact info, a business card works. But even if the title of your script is printed on that card, that’s not going to remind the executive about your story or your pitch or some of those key words you dropped during your pitch. Business cards get lost, they fall out of pockets or bags, get thrown away, etc. A one-sheet is a preferred.

    Some people say one-sheets are unnecessary and that if you don’t write them, an executive will have no choice but to ask for your script instead. Those people are complete morons. They have another option…not asking for anything! And if they were on the fence about your project, not having a one-sheet makes it that much easier for them to forget you were ever there.

  • …But I Thought Of It First!

    April 16th, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    There are no original ideas in Hollywood. How many times have you heard or said that?

    And generally, it’s kinda true.

    Case in point – the newly announced thriller project “The Tomb” starring Schwarzenegger and Stallone about a man who is imprisoned in the very prison he created and must seek help from a guard to escape – is pretty close in basic concept to the project I was hired to write a few months ago, which was registered and copyrighted and all that good stuff.

    Did this make me think twice? Maybe.
    Does it mean I stop writing it? No.
    Did they steal our idea? Not at all. This shit just happens.

    But it means once it’s done, my plan of attack for how I try to sell it will be different and the timing of how to sell it may change. Plus, it means I will have to come up with ways to make our script different and even more original.

    Another example – when I was still an executive at Clifford Werber Productions, we developed a project for a couple years called “Family Bond,” a family action film about a father/spy whose kid gets kidnapped and whose arch-enemy moves in next door in their suburb town. The SAME week we decided to go out with it to the town, another project was also sent out by a different producer called “Family Bonds” (with an S). Guess what it was about. Yup – almost the same exact fucking story.

    And there was nothing we could do. Yes, I looked into the chance that the idea was stolen from us after mentioning it in some meeting to someone, somewhere. But we’ll never know and it pretty much killed our project.

    Clifford and I sold a Wizard of Oz project to United Artists before two of the other Oz projects sold. Now there are FOUR other Wizard of Oz projects out there and ours is in turnaround because the others got going first (through no real fault of our own).

    There are TWO Snow White projects about to be released within a couple months of each other. Last year, No Strings Attached came out just months before Friends with Benefits.  And this is nothing new.

    Deep Impact and Armageddon came out in the same year. Volcano and Dante’s Peak.
    Antz and A Bug’s Life. Mission to Mars and Red Planet. Capote and Infamous. The Prestige and The Illusionist. The Score and Heist. Chasing Liberty and First Daughter. And The Back-Up Plan and The Switch, which funny enough also killed a sperm donor comedy Clifford and I were developing.

    They ALL came out within months of each other, which means they were all developed and green-lit around the same time as well. Did the writers of all of those movies scream and yell and wonder if someone stole their idea? Probably. But it didn’t stop them from going forward and making their movie.

    If anything, it should tell you that at least you’re thinking commercially – you’re just thinking commercially 3 months too late.

    And I can’t tell you how many times at a pitchfest I have been pitched the SAME exact idea 2, 3, 4 times in a day. If it DIDN’T happen, I’d be shocked.

    So for all you writers out there scared of pitching or sending out your project because you’re worried about it getting stolen – don’t be. Because it’s probably already been written by someone else. In fact, if you’re truly writing something that has never – in any way – been done before – there’s probably a reason for that.

    That’s also part of the reason studios like intellectual property – because they KNOW it’s not original material. They know that when they get the rights to a book, there isn’t some other writer trying to adapt it. They don’t have to worry about random writers suing them.

    This is not supposed to depress you – it’s supposed to make you realize that some things are out of your control. All you can do is write your story as originally as you can and study the market to see where you can and can’t sell it to and when the best time to do so might be. That’s the business, baby!

  • Don’t Worry About Them – Just Do You!

    April 16th, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    Two weeks ago, one of my best friends in the world got engaged. Three weeks ago, another good friend of mine had a baby. That makes (no exaggeration) – 13 friends in 8 months to have babies.  So this week, I want to pass along some advice that applies to both your writing and your life. It’s advice that I’ve personally never been able to follow, but am really trying to make efforts to do so. And the advice is…

    Stop worrying about where you’re supposed to be, and enjoy where you are.

    I have struggled with this for over 20 years now. I have never, ever been able to live in the moment – it’s just not who I am. When I was in junior high, I wanted to be in high school. In high school, I was raring for college. In college, I couldn’t wait to move to Hollywood and finally start writing for a living.

    And now I’m in my 30s doing something I love, but never planned on doing.  I’ve always been so worried about what everyone else is doing and how I’m matching up to them and where I’m supposed to be at this stage of my life and at this stage of my career, that I haven’t been enjoying what I’ve accomplished.

    Yes, a couple of my friends are selling scripts for a million dollars. Yes, my old assistant is now a staff-writer on a major network show. Yes, almost all of my college friends are married and/or pregnant while I’m still trying to find the next first date. And no, I didn’t win an Emmy by age 30 like I had planned. But, I have been working full-time in Hollywood for almost 10 years. I run my own successful business and brand that I built almost completely on my own. And sometimes I have to take a breath and just appreciate that.

    I’m sure you all have your individual accomplishments that when you think about them, make you proud of yourself. So you have to let go of the 5 and 10 year plans and focus on what you’re accomplishing right now, today.

    And the same goes for your writing. Don’t worry about where you THINK you’re supposed to be at your given age or point in life. Don’t worry about if you planned to have sold your script by now or have an agent. Don’t even worry if your progress on the script you’re writing right now isn’t on target yet. Just be content with the progress you are making and the improvement of the quality of your work from when you started writing.

    We’re not all on the same time schedule of life. It’s something I’ve had to come to terms with and realize in the last couple years, and it’s still seeping in. But if you can just be happy with the work you’re doing, the life you’re living, and if you’re still inspired to work hard to achieve your dreams, who cares if someone else has achieved theirs first?

    When you get stuck and you’re feeling like the writing is hopeless or everyone around you is eclipsing your success or talent in some way, just think – “Okay, fine, today is their day…But tomorrow can still be mine.” Good luck and keep writing!

  • The Real Deal with Sequels & Why You Shouldn’t Write Them!

    April 16th, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    Sequels mean big money for Hollywood, and they’ve become more than a trend – it’s almost a necessity these days. In 2011, there were 28 sequel films released including the 12 highest grossing films of the year. And it doesn’t look like the sequel train is stopping anytime soon.

    There are already 25 sequels planned for release in 2012 and 2013 respectively, and there will be more! And that’s not counting re-releases, remakes or reboots like the new OZ films or Alien prequel Prometheus or superhero combo film The Avengers.

    There are anywhere between 70-100 sequel projects currently in development, production or awaiting release including sequels to; 300, Spider-Man, Captain America, Avatar, Bourne, Dark Knight, Twilight, Die Hard, Expendables, Fast and Furious, Paranormal Activity, Ghostbusters, GI Joe, How to Train Your Dragon, Girl with Dragon Tattoo, Ice Age, Madagascar, Iron Man, James Bond, Major League, Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Piranha, Percy Jackson, Bad Santa, Red, Resident Evil, Salt, Scream, Star Trek, Transformers, Strangers, Taken, Terminator, Thor, X-Men, Wolverine, Zombieland, Zoolander, Grown Ups, Tron, Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit, The Hangover, Saw, Pirates of the Carribbean, Smurfs, Despicable Me, and many more!

    Already this year, there have been at least 4 projects released that did so well, sequels were immediately put into the works – Hunger Games (obviously), Project X, 21 Jump Street and Woman in Black.

    And with American Pie Reunion being released this weekend, MIB 3 coming in the next couple weeks, and the recent announcement of the Anchorman sequel, I think it’s a perfect time for writers to know the real deal with sequels – and why the word SHOULD NOT exist in your vocabulary.


    It is one of my biggest pet peeves and one of the biggest amateur writer mistakes I come across constantly! If you have not sold, set up, optioned or even PITCHED your script, and you are a first time (unproduced) writer – then DO NOT write the sequel to your script. What an unbelievably pointless waste of time and energy!

    NONE of the sequels of the films listed above were written before the first film was released! Not ONE! Even if a sequel was planned beforehand, there was still no script yet. And that is because – there is NO such thing as a sequel until someone else tells you there is. It’s NOT UP TO YOU! It’s not even up to the studio – it’s up to the audience who either makes the first film a big enough success to warrant a sequel, or doesn’t.

    The only bigger waste of time and energy would be if you wrote a sequel for a project that you don’t own the rights to. If you think you have a great idea for the next Star Trek movie – well, no one cares. Unless you have a great agent who can get you a meeting with the film’s producers or you are connected to them in some way, this is a colossal waste of time.

    And by the way, even IF you are lucky enough to get your film made and it makes a boffo amount of money and the studio wants to make a sequel – you’re probably not going to be the writer anyway. You will get an executive producer and “based on characters created by” credit and a bunch of money and they will hire other fresher writers who can look at the material in a new way to continue the story.

    Looking at the list of films that have had sequels made or where sequels are now in the works, there are three major trends that should jump out at you.

    First is that most films that get sequels, trilogies or franchises are based on SUCCESSFUL INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY that already existed and garnered a huge fan base before the first film was ever released.  Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight, LOTR, Hobbit, GI Joe, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Transformers, Mission Impossible, Resident Evil, and ALL of the superhero movies from Iron Man to X-Men to Dark Knight Rises fall under this trend.

    Do you really think a studio would have made Harry Potter if there wasn’t a ridiculously successful book series and IP to base it on first? Or what if there was only 1 book? Do you think they would have made 7 films? No, probably not. Studios make franchises and sequels when they know there is enough intellectual property and material to warrant it, they can read (or see) exactly what the world is and where it is going before investing millions of dollars and when they know that there is an already proven fan base that will keep turning out for each film.

    The second trend is that the every single theatrically-released sequel film is either a huge tentpole film (which studios don’t buy from first time writers anyway), or they are in action, horror, fantasy or high concept comedy genres. There are no dramas, no thrillers (unless based on a book series like Dragon Tattoo), no low concept comedies, no biopics, no teen movies (Mean Girls 2 and Cinderella Story 2 went straight to DVD).

    So especially if you are not writing one of the trending sequel genres, don’t waste your time.

    The third trend is animation. Almost every animated film gets a sequel these days and that’s because once the first one is done, each subsequent film is easier to make and they are constant cash cows domestically and overseas especially in ancillary products.

    And for you writers out there who love the idea of sequels, just remember – studios still have the same number of slots to release movies throughout the year. So if 50% of their slots are now taken by sequels, remakes, reboots and re-releases, that means that there’s only half as many spots available for original material.

    People want to know why more original material isn’t sold and made in Hollywood – THIS is why! Because studios only get X amount of release slots per year and the top 12 grossing films in 2011 were sequels. Where would you put YOUR money?

    Putting the business reasons aside, there are also a number of important creative reasons why you should STOP writing sequels to your projects or even planning on a second or third film.

    I find all-too often that writers that think their film will get a sequel or trilogy save ALL their best material and the real meat of their story for the second script/film. When this happens, it usually means that the first script is 75% BACKSTORY leading up to the great stuff – which we will never read.

    If ALL of your best material isn’t in your first script, then you are wasting your time and pages. There is no point to a second script because no one will ever get through the first. There is no sequel until someone else tells you there is.

    You need to tell a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. That is not to say your last scene can’t leave open the possibility of a sequel or that you can’t leave one small piece of the story unresolved to leave the audience wondering. But your story needs to END, your plotlines and conflict need to resolve themselves by the last page.

    If you are planning a second script for your story before you fully complete and polish your first script, then you will subconsciously be holding back in your writing and you will be FORCING the story to go in an unnatural direction to make sure there is no resolution, and that will ruin your script. Stories WANT to end.

    You don’t have to be worried about running out of material and ideas in case a company does want a sequel – because they are going to ask other writers to come up with it anyway.

    Leaving an audience (or a reader) unsatisfied in your climax or ending and not actually completing your story or giving us the big showdown because you want to save it for the sequel will guarantee that you never get your first script made.

    Yes, sequels are a hot trend right now and they are what’s getting made and making money. But that’s for A-List studio writers with A-list agents to worry about. If you write a successful big, high concept action film or a low budget horror and someone wants to make a second movie – don’t worry – they’ll figure it out! 

    In the meantime, STOP writing, pitching, or even thinking about sequels!

  • How You and Your Character Can Stage a Comeback & Succeed

    February 8th, 2012

    Comebacks, second acts and redemption. It’s what character arcs are all about – but it’s also what life in the entertainment industry is all about. This business is 97% NO and 3% YES. You will fail 9 out of 10 times in this industry, but I truly believe that every failure gets you closer to that success.

    Characters that fall from grace that must fight their way back are people that audiences root for. And it’s the same in real life. And the themes that cause our real-life comebacks, obstacles and redemptions are universal and can be worked into your story to make your character more relatable and your story more sellable.

    Motivational Speaker Gary Ryan Blair has laid out seven steps to staging a comeback and I’ve related them back to what your characters should be doing in your story and what YOU should be doing personally in this biz.

    1. Refuse to Die – This is the attitude your characters must have, that inner motivation that no matter what happens – they will not die. It’s what makes them a hero. They accept disaster and go from there.
    2. Decide to fight – It’s the character’s acceptance of their adventure and managing of their fears through the adventure. Regroup and plot and plot again. This is also what you need to do every time you get a rejection letter.
    3. Get Mad – Use the emotion as fuel for your story and character, and for getting your own creative juices out.
    4. Get creative – Don’t JUST have your character do what’s expected – get creative.
    5. Focus on Results – Know the character’s motivation and what the ultimate physical and emotional result for your character is. But also for you writers yourselves – know what your end goal is. Is it to sell your script, is it to break in, is it to get hired for other work, is it just to finish a script and say you did it? Know your goal and focus on your results. Because if you focus on your process, it’s probably going to be very hard to succeed.
    6. Take a chance. Take a risk – You and your characters may both be taking paths that are foreign to you, but don’t be afraid of taking calculated risks.
    7. Enjoy the ride. Not only should your character and the audience enjoy the journey, but you should as well. Otherwise, what’s the point?

    Look at every obstacle, setback, rejection, and constraint as an opportunity to show your character’s true colors, make a connection between them and the audience, show emotion, flesh out their arc, and really make a compelling character and story. And then do the exact same thing in your own personal life.

    Look at all the setbacks and rejections you get and wear them as badges of honor, because you can’t get rejected unless you’re in the game. So as long as you’re getting rejections, you’re still IN it. Maybe not in the way or to the degree that you’d like yet – but much like your characters and their goals, you’re working towards it.

    If it takes 100 No’s for every Yes, then every rejection letter you get, every bad pitch you give give, every pass you receive, means it’s one less you have to get before you hear YES.  

    Having a PRO-ACTIVE response to failure is how you grow and prepare better for future success. Having a REACTIVE response to failure is how you self-destruct and close doors to future success. Keep your emotions in check. You probably want to rip out the heart of the exec or consultant who gives you the response you didn’t want, but you can’t.

    Instead of jumping down an exec’s throat or blaming a consultant for not “getting” your writing, you should look at your writing and ask yourself WHY they don’t get it.  If an exec says they don’t think your project is commercial, then that is your chance to look at what’s selling and see WHY it’s not commercial so you don’t make that mistake again.

    This town is full of people who have made careers of FAILING UPWARDS – and that quite frankly is a great way to succeed in this town. At least you’re failing in the right direction. If you fail downwards, there’s nowhere to go. If you fail upwards, the sky’s the limit.

    But you can’t fail at something unless you’re actively doing it, so you’re already on your way just by failing.  So, don’t give up NOW. You’ve already gone through the failure, you’ve already progressed, you’ve already gotten further than 90% of the other writers trying to do what you’re doing – so just keep your head down and keep progressing towards success.  Create your own comeback.

    **February 10th starts my 90-Day Teleseminar Program “90 DAYS TO A SCREENWORTHY SCRIPT.” In weekly interactive 60-minute Teleseminars, I will personally guide you through the writing process and cover everything you need to know to write and finish a more cinematic script! You’ll also get worksheets, exercises, weekly motivational tips, some great prizes, and we have lots of GREAT Industry Guest Speakers joining us!  For more information and to sign up TODAY, please click here –

  • Making Sure Your Subplots Aren’t Sub-Par

    December 20th, 2011

    A man can’t live on ‘A’ storylines alone – and neither can your scripts. If you’re not crafting and interweaving compelling subplots and B stories into your script, your story will probably feel flat and won’t sustain for 100 minutes.

    Your subplots and B stories are what add new dimensions to your script and flesh out your concept and story. Most stories have at least 2 or 3 subplots, and can have more. But you don’t want them to take AWAY from the main storyline, only add to it!

    The first 8-10 pages of your second act is where your main character will face their first major test or challenge and take the first step in their arc. But these pages are also where you should begin introducing and developing your subplots and B stories. Somewhere in pgs 30-40ish.

    It’s a fuzzy area, but I actually think there are some differences between a B-STORY and a SUBPLOT. I think B stories usually still directly involve your main character, whereas subplots do not – at least not initially.

    The B Story is your character’s secondary motivation or mission – the OTHER thing they have to accomplish. Your B Story may be a second problem or issue that your main character has to fix. And while your A-Story presents itself at the inciting incident and is solidified at the end of the first act with the acceptance of the adventure, your B-Story often can’t be identified UNTIL the second act begins, because it’s what is illuminated by the adventure beginning. 

    For example, in The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy’s A-Story is to find the Wizard and get home, but the B-Story becomes helping Oz and her new friends. She had no idea she was going to have to do that until the adventure began.

    The B Story is often the more emotional thing, and not the visual, tangible, action-y thing. It’s connected to your concept – but is usually caused because of or caused by your concept. It’s what your hook or major storyline leads your characters to (or to do).

    For example, in the political comedy Dave, the main storyline is Kevin Kline pretending to be the President and getting away with it while adapting to his very new life as the leader of the free world. But there are two B stories – or perhaps B and C story – the first is the love story with the First Lady. The second B story, perhaps the C story, is that Dave must get this bill passed to save children and cut the budget.

    In my company’s own movie, Sydney White, the B story is how Amanda Bynes’s Sydney character affects and helps the “Dorks” characters. She’s still involved, so it’s not really a subplot. It’s a true secondary storyline. 

    Your B Story could be a love story for your main character (though in a straight romantic comedy, this would always be the A story). Very often, in action or disaster films, the B story is the love story, but it can be in any genre.

    Some examples where the B story is the love story include Juno (love story with Michael Cera), Liar Liar (love story with Maura Tierney and winning his wife back is a second mission and motivation to overcoming the issue of not being able to lie), Twister, Armageddon, 2012, Die Hard, etc – all have B love stories.

    In contrast, your subplots are basically a way for you to cut away from your main storylines and main characters and infuse different life and personality into your story. These subplots do NOT have to include your main characters, and probably shouldn’t. However, it usually does and SHOULD intersect and affect your major plotline at some point.

    It could be your sidekick, best friend, mentor character or antagonist that you’ve introduced us to in the first act, now develops their own slightly separate storyline and goals. Or it could be a totally NEW character that you introduce here.

    Your subplots actually can cause or lead to your turning points in your second act if they intersect well with your major storylines.  For instance, in The Ref, the two subplots are the son’s storyline and the Drunken Santa storyline. They eventually intersect and affect the main storyline of Denis Leary and the parents, but they are separate.

    In thrillers like Primal Fear, The Negotiator, or Long Kiss Goodnight, the subplots are the behind the scenes politics or overarching stories of corruption, dirty cops, revenge, business, etc. that affect and help drive the main action. In Primal Fear, there’s a real estate subplot that leads to discovery of clues that intersect with the main storyline, but it’s just a subplot and doesn’t directly involve the main characters.

    Or the subplot could be the OTHER side of your love story. For example, in Six Days 7 Nights, the major storyline is Anne Heche and Harrison Ford’s love story developing as they try to get rescued, but the subplot is their respective boyfriends/girlfriends back on the mainland as they get closer.

    Remember – much like your main ‘A’ storyline, your B stories and subplots should have a set up, a beginning, middle and end – they need a structure – and they need to be resolved. This is done usually by the end of your second act or middle of your third act – but it depends on how big and important the subplot is.

    Your B story – your character’s secondary missions – they have to include obstacles just like the A story does. And your subplot MUST have conflict – or else it is not a subplot, it’s just filler! I’ll say that again – if your subplot has no conflict, it’s just filler.

    The subplot must also connect with your story’s main theme. In fact, the subplot often drives home the theme even more specifically and obviously than your A storyline. Look at Crazy Stupid Love – had tons of storylines and subplots, but even the smaller subplots of Steve Carrell’s kid’s love life and the funny angry neighbors all added to, and brought out, the theme of the story.

    If you have a true ensemble piece – meaning there is pretty equal screen time shared amongst 5-10 different characters, then you don’t need subplots because each of your characters will have their own storyline and those will be more than enough to use to cut away from whatever else is going on, and progress the story. Basically, your whole story is made up of subplots that tie into an overarching concept, story or theme. For example – Crash, Love Actually, New Year’s Eve, Traffic, etc.  But keep in mind that many of these storylines should intersect in some way at some point just like your subplots would.

    And if you have created a wonderful subplot on page 32 and introduced new characters, but then we don’t see them again until page 83, then you haven’t tracked that subplot well enough and it will not seem important enough to the story. After your major structural points or turning points, that’s usually a great time to cut away from your main characters and check back in with your subplots.

    So as you develop your script, make sure that you’re creating and tracking subplots and B stories that are just as compelling as your major storyline so that your concept, hook and theme can truly shine.

  • Thematically Speaking

    December 19th, 2011

    I don’t write about theme too much and that’s because I normally don’t care much about it. It’s not what I look for in a script. Yes, it’s important. Yes, it can help drive a story and keep a story on track. Yes, it can add shape and deeper meaning to your character’s arc. But I rather have a script be driven by strong character, dialogue and story than a message or theme a writer is trying to teach the audience.

    This is a complete generalization, but I find that instilling strong themes are for the more spiritual writer, and less so for the practical writer. I’m not saying either one is better – I’m just saying those two types of writers approach their scripts differently.

    Themes are those things that I think consultants talk about when they don’t know what else to say, and I’ve had quite a few people say that to me – which is why I am also not a huge fan of some of the authors out there who talk about how theme is the key to screenwriting.

    I think if a THEME is what is driving your story, then your story is probably pretty preachy, boring and cliché. Why? Because having a universal theme is great for selling your project internationally, but your theme is not entertaining. There’s nothing visual about “true love is everlasting,” or “family is the most important thing,” or “the grass is always greener.” Yes, we can RELATE to that – we can understand it and it helps us connect with the characters, but there are no NEW themes. The newest themes I’ve found in stories relate to technology and how it is ruining or helping our lives or how it should be revered or feared instead of abused. But again – that’s not important to me unless your story brings OUT that theme in visual, compelling, engaging, original ways.

    The seven deadly sins are often used as themes. Religious beliefs or sayings are often used as themes.  Basically, themes are overarching lessons or beliefs or sayings that you probably learned in Kindergarten.

    Yes, if you have a small town story, then making sure that it employs a universal and relatable theme can help broaden its appeal. And yes, if you know your theme, this will help you plot out your character’s arcs so that you know that THEY are connecting with your theme by the end. And yes, having a solid theme may help you see, especially during your rewriting process, what scenes are helping to progress and bring out that theme and which ones are perhaps unnecessary.

    But I’ve never, ever heard anyone walk out of a theater going – the story sucked, I hated the characters, the dialogue was cheesy – but man did I love that theme.

    That being said, you should make sure that your theme has been brought out in your scenes and characters’ actions and reactions, and that your midpoint does a nice job in showing how you are attacking that theme in your story. But also make sure that we are not being nailed over the head with your theme and that your script is not becoming PREACHY or a message movie to get your theme across.

    Your theme should be a silent understanding between you, your story and the audience. It’s almost subliminal.  Your theme should be set up through dialogue or action, usually in the first 15 pages or so, but the execution and tracking of your theme should not be as obviously stated. You shouldn’t have a character every 15 pages come out and say “But true love conquers all.” That’s not how you express your theme – you do it through your characters actions and consequences that PROVE that theme.

    Theme is what the audience takes away or feels or learns THEMSELVES from watching your movie and taking in your story, with just a little bit of set up and prodding from you.  If it isn’t almost subliminal, then it’s a MESSAGE – and that is very different from a theme. Yes, there are exceptions. “There’s no place like home” is one of the strongest themes of Wizard of Oz and cinema in general, and it’s said out loud and driven home pretty hard – but that was also 70 years ago.

    A message is your personal belief, feeling, mantra or thing that you want to tell the audience. And you don’t want them to take away something for themselves – you want them to believe what YOU believe. A message is anything but subliminal. It’s usually stated by a character over and over again, even if it’s in the background. A message movie is harder to sell, depending on the message. Ripped from the headline or controversial messages are usually not a good idea. Messages about the environment are popular right now, and that’s fine, but there’s a difference between a message of “we should respect our environment” and “right wing lobbyists are the ones who should die for ruining the environment.” See – there’s a difference there.

    ‘The power of true love’ is not a message – it’s a theme. ‘You will only find true love if you date within your own race’ – that’s a message. ‘Faith can be a powerful thing’ is not necessarily a message. ‘Have faith in your Lord and savior Jesus Christ’ – is a message. See the difference? 

    A message is YOUR personal take and belief about a THEME. And as I’ve said before, I don’t give a shit what your personal beliefs are.

    So, theme is yet another thing you should be tracking throughout your script, but I always advise my clients to let the story drive the theme, and not the other way around. At least not in the first draft. But you should know what theme you want to bring out and track before you start writing, and certainly by your midpoint you should be able to tell if that is working in your story.

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