Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Screenplay - What every Barrista in LA is Writing

This article is about the screenplay.  The screenplay is at the core of what we, writers, do.  The screenplay serves as the only means by which we show our ability as a writer.  It is the thing by which we are all judged.  While the resulting movie may be done well or done poorly, that does not matter: for the writer only the screenplay matters.

A speculative screenplay is structured very simply.  It only has a title page, FADE IN, FADE OUT, sluglines, narrative, and dialog.  It has one inch margins all around, no scene numbers, all the writing is left justified, and is never more than 120 pages in length.  However, like in life the devil is in the details.

Here are some ‘rules’ about sluglines, narrative, and dialog.  Yes, I know the word ‘rules’ in regards to screenwriting is a no - no.  How about ‘suggestions?’

The slugline identifies where the action and dialogue are taking place.  Once identified, all action and dialog must take place within that location.  Use the words DAY or NIGHT in the slugline.  There is no AFTERNOON, EVENING, or MORNING.  Describe those specifics in the narrative.

Start with the general and move to the specific; a city to a building to a room.  Add specifics to the slugline to further define the place and period.  To identify an historical period, use EXT. PARIS, FRANCE – DAY (1945).  For indicating a mobile situation use INT. JOE’S CAR – DAY (MOVING).  For inside a character’s mind use INT. JOE’S BAR – NIGHT (FLASHBACK).  Do not forget to bring the reader back to the present with INT. JOE’S BEDROOM – DAY (PRESENT DAY).  These are a few examples.  Continue to refine your sluglines so that you can get the reader to ‘feel’ the places in the story.

Sub-sluglines serve to even further define how you want to reader to view the story.  Sub-sluglines are used to change the reader’s focus but remain within the general slugline.  Sub-sluglines are used instead of the use of the words ‘WE SEE.’  For sub-sluglines, you can use ON TOM or ON THE HAT RACK.  You can even use such simple phrases as THE DOOR or THE TABLE.

Narrative, also called exposition, provides the reader the scenes’ action and instructions.  Narrative establishes the d├ęcor and props necessary for the scene.  It explains how the characters dress, behave, and interact.  Sounds other than dialogue are represented in the narrative.  Narrative is written in the present tense and standard prose.  Do NOT give stage directions.  This is a screenplay not a stage play.  Avoid use of “we see” or “we hear.”  Yes, I know Shane Black did it but you cannot.

Dialog is the words spoken by the characters.  Dialog only tells us what has happened or what will happen.  Do NOT repeat in words what has already appeared or is appearing in the action.  Avoid the characters providing the reader with biographical, psychological, or situational information unless you can find a visual means to do so in the narrative.  Keep your use of parentheticals in dialog to a minimum.  Avoid the use of PAUSEs or BEATs in dialog.  Build those into the Narrative.  After reading a script of mine, an actor friend told me to get rid of the ‘that extra stuff’ in the dialog.  He gets paid to act.  I get paid to write.

Here are some do’s and don’ts.  While the do’s are self - evident, pay attention to the don’t’s.

·                 Follow screenwriting rules;
·                 Use Courier 12 point font and one inch margins all around;
·                 Get the best print and photocopy you can;
·                 Use two (2) good quality brass brads to bind your script the cute washers from The Writers’ Store are optional;
·                 Register your script with the WGA;
·                 And, PROOFREAD your script.

·                 Create a title page with giant fonts, colored letters, or use colored paper (Come on.);
·                 Put a quotation on the title page (Sounds smart, but don’t, really.);
·                 Put a second page with the theme, main characters, or back story of your screenplay (The characters are going to come alive on your pages.);
·                 Put blank pages in the script to set things apart (It’s just a waste of trees and wasted on Hollywood executives.);
·                 Include any illustrations, music, or pictures (No music, please.  You may not own the rights and even if you do the prodcos are hiring a writer not a song writer.);
·                 Use anything other than 20 pound 3 hole punch paper (Office Depot, come on.);
·                 Expect to have your script returned to you (Not ever.).

There are five big, common mistakes writers make in their screenplays.

·       Mistake number 5 is on - the - nose writing.
When you write dialog that is exactly how the characters are thinking and feeling the audience quickly gets bored and believe me you do not want a bored audience.  They are being spoon fed and that does not require their attention or entertain them in any way.  You need to give them dialog with deeper meanings that adds interest, intrigue, and causes an audience to have to interpret, thus giving the audience an internal experience of the story.

·       Mistake number 4 is inviting boring characters to the party.
One of the many things that young writers tell me in my classes is that they have written the dialog just as the real people would have spoken.  If you want reality, go watch the History Channel.  You are writing fiction.  The truth of the matter is that ordinary people doing ordinary things are dull.  And writing a screenplay is not about lulling an audience into slumber.  Just don't.  You need to make sure there is something special about your characters, even if they appear to be ordinary.  Give the reader hints and foreshadowing.  In that way, you will make the journey believable for the audience.

·       Mistake number 3 is too much exposition and not enough real story.
I read a script for my class that had five pages of nothing but narrative exposition.  Give me a break.  I do not need the loading procedures of a 3” Parrot gun explained to me in a script.  Readers also do not need to be told all about the characters through unending dialog or narrative.  Give the readers some credit.  Giving all that information upfront is not entertaining. In fact, it is deadly boring.  Remember, you are writing a screenplay not a documentary.  Writing exposition is a balancing act, but anytime backstory is brought into the script just remember to make it interesting to the reader and enveloped with some sort of action.

·       Mistake  number 2 is thinking the details will save a bad story.
Screenplays are structure.  Story is structure.  Unfortunately, writers will start a screenplay based on a favorite scene, set of scenes, or singular idea rather than looking at the story as a whole.  A scene or group of scenes is only as good as the whole story.  Like the decorations in your house add to its character and detail, scenes stand as details and add to the character of your story.  If your house is in obvious need of repair, adding decorations just makes it clear that you are covering something up.  However, if your house is in perfect shape the decorations spice it up and emphasize its beauty.  Therein lies the problem.  There are so many poorly structured stories covered with the icing of quirky details.  In most cases, no amount of icing can save a bad story.  So, structure your story and all the magical details will shine even more.

·       Mistake number 1 is marketing a script before it is ready.
You know you want to.  You have done a first draft and it’s pretty darn good.  It’s ready to be marketed now.  The timing is right.  It has the concept that will cause the audience to plop down fifteen smackaroonies to sit in a seat for a hundred minutes.  Only the script needs a few more stitches here and there.  You say to yourself, “Look, if I just sell it because the concept is so good and timely the prodcos will pay me to re-write the script.  That’s how the pro’s do it, right?”  Wrong.  The pro’s submit their best work every time.  Whatever the concept, and concept is important, it will wait until you have written the best script you can write.  Your first draft, your second draft, are dreck.  Write it again and again.  Make the story pass.  Make the character pass.*  Just make sure that whatever you market is the very best it can be before you send it off.  Why, you ask?  Because people remember.  Readers remember.  They remember your name.  They remember your style.  Even if you change the script title and your name, the major prodcos keep detailed records and they remember.  So, just do the very best every time.


Talent, opportunity, risk, and luck all play a part in a writer’s life.  Through networking, a writer can establish the opportunities and weigh the risks of committing to an action.  The writer can also avail himself of the information flow and ‘make his own luck’ by just showing up.  The bottom line is that while all the foregoing is true, without the core aptitude, or talent, for writing the writer will not be successful.  Talent is not only the knowledge, acquired skill, of writing but an aptitude, innate component, of being able to put words to paper successfully.  While you can be taught how to write a screenplay, the innate nature of writing is in contrast to an academic achievement which represents knowledge or ability that is gained.  There is no ‘Q Score’ for writers.  To be a writer, you must write and you must continue to write.  You learn the skills.  Exploit the skills.  Talent comes from the love of writing and the doing of the art.  Some of you may never become ‘screenwriters’ in the William Goldman sense.  However, you can become skilled enough and love the craft enough to be able to pay the mortgage, buy diapers, and put food on the table.

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.

*  Thanks to Pilar Allesandra at On The Page.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Agents and Managers - Can’t Live Without Them, Can’t Kill ‘Em

This week’s discussion is on the necessity and worth of agents and managers.  The questions I will try to answer are what is the difference between agents and manager and why do they take so much of my money?  Why you should fire your agent?  Do you really, really need an agent to succeed in Hollywood?

First off, let me just write that you do not need an agent to sell a script in Hollywood.  I have sold two scripts without an agent.  Believe me you can succeed in Hollywood without an agent.  As you end up negotiating everything yourself, it makes for a sporty environment.  However, the more success you have the more folks, like agents, will come out of the woodwork.

But that begs the question, what does the agent do for you the writer?  He (or she) gets you the meeting.  You are relying on their contacts in the industry to line up meetings so that you can, hopefully successfully, pitch your ideas.  This means that an agent works for you, not the other way about.

So, you ask, how does this all work?  First, you go to the WGA site and take a look at their list of signatory agents (  Getting a guild signatory agent ensures that there are recourses to follow should there be a disputes.  A guild signatory agent gets 10% of the negotiated fee.  All California state licensed agents get 10% of the fee, but being signed to the guild guarantees that.  If you hire a manager, these folks can get 15% of the fee.  So, if you have an agent and a manager you could be out 25% of the fee before you ever see a penny.

Just remember, an agent (or a manager) works for you not the other way around.  A normal contract between you and an agent is for a period between 90 and 180 days.  If an agent tries to get you to sign a one year or even life - time contract, walk away fast.  The agent is supposed to get you the meetings.  If that person is not getting you the meetings, or is not returning your phone calls, or is not negotiating for you fire them.  Also, you have the right to see who they have been sending your story to.  If the agent refuses to tell you who they have sent the script to, or gives you a song and dance about all the production companies they have sent the script to, or can’t tell you who they have spoken to about the script fire them.

However, you must hold up your end of the bargain.  If your agent sets up a meeting, Go.  Be presentable.  Do your best pitch.  Whatever happens, your agent going to hear about the exchange between you and the production company.

Just remember, your agent is not your parent.  It's not the agent's job to encourage, support or validate your creative ambitions.  Your agent is in business to make money.  This is not a crime against humanity, an affront to the arts, or a personal repudiation of your aesthetic dreams.  It is a fact.  Your agent may indeed admire your talent, and share with you lofty creative and financial goals, he or she is not inclined or obligated to care about them as much as you do.  In fact, No One cares about your career as much as you do.  Your artistic aspirations, income, reputation in the field, and level of personal and professional satisfaction rests entirely on your shoulders.

13.  Taste

Taste is defined (at least in Wikipedia) as an aesthetic, sociological, economic and anthropological concept that refers to cultural patterns of choice and preference.  To which you might reasonable ask, ‘so what?’  Judgments about what is ‘tasteful’ vary from person to person.  Certainly within the motion picture and television communities the issue of taste varies not only from writer to but from production company to production company.  And, you include all the outside influences such as “Ain’t It Cool News” and “Big Hollywood.”  This issue of what is good taste or bad taste is not really the purpose of this discussion.

The purpose of this discussion of how you as a writer must write honestly about a subject that intrigues you.  In the course of this writing, you must make esthetic choices about the form and design of your story.  Remembering that taste is about drawing distinctions between things such as styles and manners and remembering that you are writing a an unsolicited script for a mass market, your ability to write an understanding of the events of our story that is expressed in actions between people helps the audience perceive the many social phenomena that you have described that otherwise would been inconceivable.  That is an intellectual way is writing that you have to write what you think is right for the story while considering that you are trying to sell that script to production companies that have to worry about how many butts they can put in seats.

Do not be driven by a cynical position that since the majority of the movie goers are males between 15 and 35 and all they want to see is violence, authority defied, and nudity, therefore all my writing will be centered on that fact.  The formula is never that simple.  Also do not fall into the trap of bad taste for the sake of bad taste.  While bad taste is generally defined as any object or idea that does not fall within the normal social standards of the time or area and the implication of this definition varies from society to society and from time to time, the writing of scatological material just so that you serve the focus group in the first sentence is “kitschy” or lacking in technical awareness of your craft.  The other side of this coin is that some production companies do deliberately create and sell movies ordinarily regarded as vulgar, relying on the scatological themes to maintain a sort-of Emperor's New Clothes effect amongst viewers.  Your choice.  Your career.

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Networking – Making the Most of Your Face Time

This article is about a subject not often talked about in screenwriter circles: networking.  Go to any podcast, chat page, blog, or other source for screenwriters and either an author is telling how “he made it” or talking about some technical detail about writing the dramatic scene and so forth.  Networking is an area not spoken about very often.  However, this issue is truly the elephant in the room.  This process all amounts to make the most of your face time.  Your query letters are not going to cut it.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming more interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you” Dale Carnegie.

Unlike paper publishing, where agents do the grunt work for the writer (mostly, sort of), the motion picture business to based in large part on personal connections.  Therefore, developing the skills for these personal interactions is important.  If you have never read or encountered Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Make Friends and Influence People,” I can only encourage you to find the book and read it.  Written in 1936, the book outlines some of the basic steps regarding how to deal with people on a realistic and effective level.

I am not advocating developing friends for life.  I am also not advocating you become a door mat for others’ opinions.  Further, I am also not advocating a lack of sincerity.  If you exhibit a “canned” behavior or lack of sincerity in which you are somehow acting, the receiver (in this case agents and producers) can feel that “vibe.”  Do not “act” your pitch.  Feel it.  Be sincere.

What I am advocating is developing skills in which you can interact with the decision makers in Hollywood and being able to influence them into at least reading your script.  These Carnegie principals are as true today as they were a century ago.

Fundamental Techniques in Handling People

·         Don't criticize, condemn, or complain.
·         Give honest and sincere appreciation.
·         Arouse in the other person an eager want.

Some folks are genuinely good at social interaction.  They are very successful in social settings and manage to convince folks very easily to read their material or start the way for a production.  On the whole, I am not one of those people.  I have had to work on the underlying skills of social interaction.  Social skills are something you learn, implement, and refine (lather, rinse, repeat).  Coming from a military and technical background, social interaction was not something that was encouraged.  So, I have had to learn by doing.  Yeah, you can too.

Being a writer means that you are constantly alone with your thoughts.  What you are creating is about you.  When you sell your product, that process is not about you.  To be effective and therefore sell your product (the screenplay), you should develop some additional skills.  Carnegie lays out seven ways to help you allow people to appreciate the information you are going to impart to them:

·         become genuinely interested in other people;
·         smile;
·         remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language;
·         be a good listener.  Encourage others to talk about themselves;
·         talk in terms of the other person's interest;
·         make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely;
·         make that person comfortable and give equal attention to them.

One more more item - Pay attention to details – it’s not “all about you”

There are some basic contact management rules that are applicable to all writers trying to “make it” in Hollywood.  The 5x Rule is that it takes a writer five times before they make a lasting impression on that agent, producer, etc.  When you meet a person take their business card and write something on the back; blond, tall, smelly, whatever.  Write something that will jog your memory later.  Also, you a writer remember?  Carry a writing tool.  At your earliest opportunity, send the person with whom you communicated an email or letter with a gentle reminder of the conversation and how much you enjoyed the time.  When you attend work-oriented social occasions, it does not hurt to have along with you a “wing person” to introduce you as a sort of third party endorsement.  You can do the same for them.  Believe me, my writing partner and I did this back and forth act using each other as third party endorsement and it worked very well.

Here are some more suggestions that may help your ‘socialization:’

·         Attend the Hollywood Networking Breakfast (;
·         Visit the Margaret Herrick Library (;
·         Attend Pitchfest (

Of course, there are many more events that occur.  Most of them cost money - a lot of money - budget wisely.

There are some additional skills that screenwriters need to develop.  First, get out of your comfort zone.  Most writers hang around with, well, writers.  Increase your comfort zone through volunteering for various entertainment centered charity groups.  And no, do not try to pitch your script while doing so.  Develop a healthy self – esteem; expect, even welcome, rejection.

See movies outside of your comfort zone.  In other words, if you like to write romantic comedies go see an adventure movie.  Believe me, watching movies that challenge your concepts of storytelling will get the brain cells working.  Remember, that the process is ½ craft – ½ networking.  You are in a business.  Act like a business person.

12.  Advocates

One of the things that certainly helps a writer succeed in this business is having an advocate.  An advocate is not necessarily an agent or manager.  They could be a fellow writer.  What can an advocate do for you?  Depending on their position within the industry, they can influence decision makers within the industry.  Will an advocate get you “the job?”  Not necessarily, but they could teach coping strategies to make that ‘pitch’ or presentation more effective.  An advocate is not a ‘sugar daddy’ or ‘investment angel,’ but someone who can argue with you effectively to support or guide you.  An advocate is someone who supports you so that you voice can be heard above the milieu so that you can sell that great screenplay.

Why are you reading this?  Go write!

John still practices screenwriting in King County, WA along with a small rat dog, a mortgage, and a great view of the valley.