June 9


WHAT MAKES A GOOD STORY? (Classic Post)

I was wondering what makes a good story. Because I feel if you can’t write a good story, your movie is just another movie.

Jon from Haydenville Massachusetts

That’s a very big question. Many of us spend our entire careers answering it over and over, hoping each time to get it right.

I will give you my answer, but ultimately, you have to create your own. How you answer it defines you as a writer and, as I’ve said many times, your individual voice is one of your most important assets.

The other important limitation on giving an answer is that, no matter what the answer, there are always stories that match none of the criteria that are excellent and broadly recognized to be so. With those caveats, these are the characteristics which, to me, make a good story:

1. Remarkability.

2. A central theme arising out of an important moral conflict that is symbolic of a conflict we all face. For example, in Jerry McGuire, the central conflict was how to stand up for the values that brought him into the business in the first place and how to deal with the cost of standing up. The values at the heart of the story were important to its audience. A substantial number of middle class employees face this question daily. They are not top sports agents, but even as mid-level insurance executives, they wonder whether they will ever escape the grind.

3. Excellent craftsmanship. Writing is a craft as much as anything else. Well-crafted scenes, dialogue and structure mean a great deal to me.

4. A story tightly wound around the important thematic questions the story is intended to explore. No waste – nothing superfluous. Every scene is an interesting exploration and deepening of the theme. A few examples of this kind of story are “Pleasantville”, “High Noon” and “Casablanca”.

5. Intelligent and witty writing. A good story expresses itself in ways the average audience member recognizes he or she could not do if he or she sat down to write a movie. Audiences recognize exceptional storytelling and respond to it.

I am personally less interested in whether the story has a traditional resolution. For example, I enjoy tragedies and non-conventional stories. Examples include “The Perfect Storm”, “Confessions of A Dangerous Mind” and “Barton Fink”.

But, that’s just me.

June 26


PACKAGING AGENTS (Classic Post)

One way into a writing career is to make a splashy spec sale. However, it is rare and not the only way. Another way is to get a movie made, even a small movie with independent distribution. Every major agency in town (that would be L.A.) has a department to help you do this. They call it “packaging”. Packaging means taking a great script, finding a director, talent, money and distribution, and bringing them all together. Yes, that is what a producer is supposed to do, but the agencies realized some time ago that they have ready access to all the elements and can charge huge fees for doing the same thing as long as they don’t call themselves producers.

The rub is, there is tremendous competition for the attention of packaging agents just as there is for all other agents. However, unlike in ordinary spec sales, elements you bring to the table besides the script itself can help in packaging. For example, if you have interest from a bankable director, if you have raised part of the budget, or if you have interest from a bankable actor, you have a good chance of at least getting the project reviewed by a packaging agent. And remember, what is bankable to the indie market is much broader than what is bankable to the studios.

Packaging is particularly suited to quality scripts that can be made on a budget. Quality genre scripts are very popular for packaging. There is also a fairly strong market for schlock genre scripts, but because there are so many of these mediocre scripts out there, you really need to bring some other strong element to the table to get your mediocre script noticed.

The money for packaged scripts is typically not nearly as good as for studio projects, but you are launching a career. It pays to consider packaging as another avenue into the biz.

July 3


THE EXPLODING SCRIBOSPHERE (Classic Post)

(Ed. Note: Entry originally entitled “The Exploding Blogosphere”. Changed to “Scribosphere” courtesy of Craig Mazin. See below.)

BOMBNobody knows nothing. When I started The Thinking Writer about four years ago, I coded each page in HTML and recoded the home page every time I added an article. It was time consuming and it had no ability for reader comments. I had never heard of a blog. A few years later, I discovered blogging software. Poof – the new Thinking Writer was born. When I first put up this blog, I located only one other screenwriting blog, johnaugust.com. If there were more, they were pretty well hidden.

Flash-forward to today and the screenwriting blogosphere is exploding. From A-list writers (like the folks at Artful Writer) to a guy who read a hack book on how to write “Screenplays That Sell” and is about to start his first draft of his first idea (link omitted) to those in between (including me), everyone has something to say about screenwriting. It seems that it’s much easier to “be a screenwriter” on your blog than to actually make a living writing movies.

And everyone is offering advice….

Do these people (including me) know anything? Well, not really. Even at the A-lister level, they can’t agree on much. At least they’ve proven they can write and build a career. But they haven’t proven they can show you how to do it. Then there are those with a modicum of experience (like me) who sound like we know a lot. It’s just a writing trick, really. None of us has any magic answers. Then there are the complete amateurs who’ve never worked in Hollywood, never sold a script, sometimes never even really written a script. Still, they have a lot of advice to give, too. And they are more certain than any of us of the right answers.

So is any of this noise worth anything?

Well…sure it is. Listen to everything and everyone. Stay inside the conversation of screenwriting. Pick up ideas wherever you can. You never know when someone will say something that makes a difference. (I heard something from Craig Mazin just the other day that made a difference for me. He said that he considers the job to be writing movies, not writing screenplays. Nice distinction.)

But here’s the kicker. If you’re not writing, the advice means nothing because none of it translates directly into execution. You can’t tell a damn in the thinking about writing. It’s not like computer programming, where you learn a principle and simply use logic to apply it later. No, writing is like playing piano. You must do it to learn it. In the doing, you find out if the advice held any benefit.

So next time you read some great advice here or on any writing blog, just know, we don’t know. We only think we know. And we only think we know what works for us. The only way for you to know what works for you is to do. Look, learn, then do…and do and do and do….

Got it? Good. Now go write.

June 30


SO NOW WHAT? SHORT STORY RIGHTS PART DEUX (Classic Post)

QUESTION

This is a followup to my previous question about obtaining short story screen rights…

I recently contacted a publisher to get motion picture rights for a 40-year-old short story. The publisher wrote back requesting a financial and creative proposal for the rights.

What exactly needs to be addressed in this proposal? Or should it be two separate proposals? Or does this look like a job for a legal professional?

I’m very excited (and completely nervous) about this, especially since it’s a story I’ve thought about adapting for the screen for the past 9 years.

Alan from Norfolk VA

Thanks for following up with your progress since last time and congratulations on getting someone’s attention. There is no standard proposal and you should not need a legal professional to prepare it. There is also no right answer to what you should include in your proposal. I imagine the agent wants to know how much money you are proposing or, if you want some rights without money, why you should have them and how the agent’s client will eventually get paid.

In the past when I have sought rights to material, I have sold myself rather than offering a lot of money (mostly because I didn’t have the money and I had some interesting industry credentials). I have, over the years, secured some quality material that way. However, when I was required to deal strictly with an agent, I was not as effective because agents usually focus on the money. Nevertheless, if you have some special credentials that make you the right person to exploit the property, share that with the agent. Continue reading