unattributed gifHave a point of view. Please….

I’m begging you. For God sakes, say something with your screenplay. Anything. But have a strong point of view. It’s what separates you from everyone else writing for a living or writing in the hopes of making a living. What you think, how you see the world, what matters to you – that is what you really have to sell. Stringing together a vapid narrative is not enough – certainly not enough to build a career. Usually not enough even to get a lucky break. And never enough to give you any satisfaction in the writing of it.

Guess what Hollywood wants from you? Your point of view. They don’t want Scott Frank’s point of view from you. If they want his point of view, they’ll hire him. They don’t want a neutral point of view (even if the notes they give you tell you they do). No, they want your unique point of view. It’s what they can’t get from anyone else.

Who has made a living having a point of view? Oliver Stone (“Midnight Express”, “Platoon”, “JFK”), Gary Ross (“Big”, “Pleasantville”, “Dave”), M. Night Shyamalan (“Sixth Sense”, “Signs”), Julius and Philip Epstein (“Casablanca”), Robert Towne (“Chinatown”), Herman Mankiewicz (“Citizen Kane”), Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men”, “The American President”), Woody Allen (too many to list) – in fact, all of the greats.

You, too, have a point of view. Develop it. Think about it. Use it to your advantage. Don’t worry that it won’t fly.





If they don’t want your unique point of view, you lose. If they do, you win. It’s that simple. If you don’t have one at all, you still lose.

Better to lose hanging your ass out then to lose because you are run-of-the-mill with nothing interesting to offer. Hollywood could care less about run-of-the-mill. Art houses could care less about run-of-the-mill, too. That’s because audiences could care less about run-of-the-mill.

Be something. Don’t be nothing. Please….

Enough. Now go write.


Jim from Ada, MI asks:

I have a question re: formatting.  On a spec script, is it acceptable to begin it with OVER CREDITS?   I want to use a series of shots or montage to establish environment/ character.

The answer to all screenplay formatting questions is (1) refer to  The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats: The Screenplay, available at most national book sellers, and (2) read lots of screenplays.  They are available online at sites like Drew’s Script-O-RamaThe Daily Script, Screentalk and others.  I particularly like Screentalk because all of the scripts are in PDF format and, thus, retain the same format in which they were written.  You will see there is a baseline of formatting rules and there is wide variety in how the rules are applied or, often, ignored by very successful writers.  In a spec script, the formatting must serve the narrative.

As for your specific question, the answer is “yes”.  However, I do not recommend using  “OVER CREDITS” ever inasmuch as it takes away from the narrative.  It is never very important to your story where the credits fall.  That is a director/editor issue.  Focus on telling a good story.


WHO?   “Jerry Maguire”, “The Sixth Sense”, “Pleasantville” and many other well-written, successful screenplays share an important technique. This technique not only helps the reader and, eventually, the audience to engage in the story from the first few pages, but it helps you as a writer to write the story. It forces you to focus your story from the very beginning, something that is key to a successful spec script.

What is this magic technique? Proper character introductions.

A proper character introduction does all of the following: (1) introduces the character in crisis; (2) reveals the character’s internal conflict; (3) provides a basis for relating to or empathizing with the character – even the antagonist; and (4) demonstrates the character’s unique personality.

Character introductions are one of the few places in a screenplay where you can be very, very overt. You still need to “show, not tell”, but you can hit the points incredibly directly.

The best way to understand this is by example, so here they are:

“Jerry Maguire” (written by Cameron Crowe) – Jerry is introduced in crisis, narrating directly to us his strange dream, discussing what is wrong with his life and how he believes it can be saved. You cannot get more direct than that. After these pages, you understand his character, you know his internal conflict, what drives, and to what he aspires.

“The Sixth Sense” (written by M. Night Shayamalan) – In Malcolm’s opening scene, he expresses his worst fear, that he is really a fraud and a failure as a child psychologist, and his desire – not to be a fraud. We also hear Anna’s internal conflict, that she is second to Malcolm’s work. I prefer to introduce one character at a time, but even with these two characters introduced simultaneously, the introductions are effective. We also see both of them in crisis: an old patient has come back to kill Malcolm. We see Malcolm’s genuine desire to help.

“Pleasantville” (written by Gary Ross) – David is introduced listening to his mother argue with her boyfriend as he is engrossed in the perfect world of the T.V. show “Pleasantville”. The contrast between the real world and the TV world, and David’s reaction, reveals what David wants and what he has. His internal conflict and his desire are revealed without David even saying a word. We already know him and what he wants.

Once these clear, focused introductions are made, the writer has a compass for the balance of the story. Every scene will explore these character conflicts and, eventually, the story will resolve the character’s desire. This type of character introduction also builds immediate audience/reader engagement. From the beginning, the audience/reader wants to see these issues explored and resolved.

Not all screenplays are built this way. However, using strong, clear, overt character introductions is a strong technique with benefits throughout the writing process and one you should consider.

Enough. Now go write….


dog gifSpec scripts ordinarily undergo a tremendous amount of development prior to being put into the market or presented to any buyers. As the writer, you are personally responsible for most of that development, much of it before anyone other than your private circle ever sees your material. Developing a screenplay usually takes the form of outlining, writing and rewriting. As you near the end of the process, once the story itself is in good shape, you will want to make a number of focused passes, looking at different aspects of the story (e.g. clarity of action, humor, a particular character’s dialogue). Different writing gurus offer different “must do” passes. For me, it largely depends on what the story requires.

Nevertheless, there is one pass I always save for last. No matter how hard I’ve worked on the script, there is always room for this one. It is the “put the dogs out” pass. I go through the script and look at every line that is direct, literal and unimaginative. Instead of rewriting the line, I try throwing it out. Yes, just yank it right out of the screenplay and see what’s left. You may think you need those lines, but chances are, you don’t. Nine times out of ten, the scene tightens up, more of the story is moved into subtext (where it belongs), the remaining dialogue feels more interesting and more compressed, and the story gets shorter – always a good thing.

To summarize, on the last pass, put the dogs out – all the dogs. Your script will thank you for it.


Kathryn from Devon, England asks:


I’m not known for being subtle so…………how the hell do you go about getting an idea for a story. I’ve been walking around with a note pad and pen for the last week or so and turned out with a few threads that have no link with each other. These threads are ‘life lessons’ I’ve picked up over the years.

This is perhaps the most personal of all screenwriting questions. I suggest each writer finds his or her own answer.

For me, creating ideas is a matter of training. I am always thinking about writing and always have my antennae up for an idea. Ideas come from anything I am exposed to – a news item, a fictional story I didn’t like (which often leads me to think of how the story should have been done, which then leads me to a different idea built on that idea), a comment from a friend, a billboard, and… random thoughts that pop into my head for no known reason.

I keep a running list of ideas going; I’ve done so for years. Currently, it has about eighty or so entries on it. Some of them are useless. Others are very exciting to me and I look forward to developing them. I keep it in a database and review the whole thing regularly, adding new thoughts to old ideas as they occur to me.

The kernel of an idea that initially gets jotted down is not much to go on. There is usually not enough there to know whether it could make a successful story or not. From that kernel, I play with it and develop it. Only after some effort and development do I have an idea of whether the idea is worth pursuing.

When under the gun, I have brainstormed for ideas. My writing partner and I have gone through hundreds of ideas before finding one that excites us. It has sometimes taken months of difficult and frustrating work. I do not like to develop ideas that way. I prefer to work from inspiration.

Here is a prior post on what, to me, makes a good idea. Here is another column, this one from Wordplayer.

In short, for me, I am always training myself to create good ideas, always looking, listening and thinking about the world. I do not mind jotting down many lesser ideas to find those few diamonds in the rough.


Question GIFThe Thinking Writer often receives questions the answers to which are too brief for an entire column. Here are some of the recent ones.

QUESTION #1: Sabin from San Francisco asks:

I was curious how rewrites work with a script’s WGA registration. If you register a script, then rewrite, say 60 percent, should the script be re-registered, or does the registration still cover it? I know this is an inane question, but I was curious.

WGA registration is nothing other than evidence of the date of creation of a work. If the rewrite is really very different from the original (for example, you have included new elements), then you might want to re-register it so you have evidence of the date of creation of the new version. However (and unfortunately), most emerging writers change very little between drafts. In that case, you probably do not need to re-register.

QUESTION # 2: Steve from NYC asks:

got a question about the following statement from a previous answer:

“If they want to present your script to studios, you can give them permission to do that without an option. Let them tell you who they wish to take it to and, if you want them to submit it, give them permission to submit it. Then, once they present it, you are free to negotiate your own deal as they are free to negotiate theirs. This is a common practice in the industry; it happens every day.”

is this done without a contract? coudn’t you cut the producer out? should there be a contract saying they are the producer attached to the script and they will getting x-amount % finders fee for helping you sell the script?

Yes, it is done without a contract. Producers count on their relationship with the studio to protect them. You cannot cut the producer out because you are not in control of their deal. They introduce the script to the studio and negotiate their own deal directly with the studio. There should be no finder’s fee. Producers are paid to produce, not find.

QUESTION #3: Jeff from “Outside LA” (which means, pretty much anywhere) asks:

I have an idea for a movie in which the central plot revolves around a small handful of actors/actresses playing themselves. I have specific people in mind, but the idea works with any number of actors. I really don’t want to do the “Tad Hamilton” thing. As it is a spec script, am I shooting myself in the foot by using real actors’ names? Or will people be able to see past it and “get it?”

Yes, you will be shooting yourself in the foot. However, you are the writer. If you feel strongly about it, you should still pursue it. Just make sure the script is absolutely brilliant. If it is, it will serve many purposes for you.

QUESTION #4: Juan from Orlando asks:

My lawyer is sending a screenplay of mine to a company this week. I’ve called the company and they told me that they are excepting (sic) solicited material. So just have my lawyer send it? I am going to send my logline with the script, is there anything I should do before I give my lawyer the go ahead? For example, calling the company and telling them who I am? And that I’m sending the script? Or should I just send it in blind? Thanks for your time -Juan- I’ll let you know what happens.

Thanks, Juan. I am sorry I could not answer your question immediately. The answer is, there is no right answer. Here are some suggestions. If your attorney has industry relationships, let him or her call for you. If he does not, you can call – but be professional. You need to sound intelligent and amiable – not desperate and inexperienced.

QUESTION #5: Patrick from Portland Oregon:

Most people suggest an unsolicited screenwriter refrain from querying big Hollywood producers and concentrate on independent producers instead. But what if your screenplay is a period piece with elaborate action scenes that demand a high budget?

Query anyone you want, but make sure your query is professional, imaginative and well written. At worst, it gets tossed in the trash. On the other hand, you never know who’s attention you might attract.

Enough. Now go write….


TURKEY GIFSome time ago, MaryAn (from place unknown) suggested I provide “An Idiot’s Guide Of What Not To Do” when writing a screenplay. Here, in no particular order, is my list of some of the most common mistakes.

1. DO NOT USE VISUAL TRICKS TO REPLACE STORYTELLING. Because we hear over and over again that film is visual medium, many emerging writers believe that writing visual tricks will sell a story. It won’t. That’s what the director is for. Your script should focus on storytelling. That is what will either sell it or sink it. That does not mean the moments that actually advance the story should not be visual; they should. However, too many emerging writers overuse shot descriptions and descriptions of visual tricks in place of storytelling. For an example of how to do it right, see the script for The Matrix (not sure if this is the production draft or an earlier one).

2. DO NOT ALLOW PERSONAL EXPERIENCES TO CLOUD THE FACT THAT THERE IS NO EMOTION ON THE PAGE. Emerging writers often feel a great deal of emotion in their scripts while no else does. This happens because the writer is reflecting on a personal experience that is not shared by most readers. Instead of relying upon your own feelings, use the tools of drama, i.e. proper conflict building, theme building, character building, and structure. That does not mean you should ignore your feelings, just that you cannot use your feelings to substitute for proper dramatic writing.

3. NO MELODRAMA. Melodrama is the using of stock events to evoke emotion. The difference between melodrama and drama is that the emotion in drama grows out of central conflicts and themes developed throughout the piece, whereas in melodrama, the emotion arises out of a sudden event that is not developed out of the story. The death of a loved one is the type of stock event that can easily be misused. If it arises not out of the theme and central conflicts, it is likely melodrama. Today’s audiences are ordinarily too sophisticated for melodrama. Studio executives are, too.

4. NO MATH. Do not make the audience/reader perform complex story calculus to keep up with you. They will not do it. Everything you want the audience to understand must be clear and direct. That does not mean you cannot have subtext. In fact, you must have subtext. However, your subtext must also be clear. Learning how to remove the story calculus takes experience. Just remember, if readers get confused about or totally miss story points you thought you made clear, the fault lies in ourselves, dear Brutus, and not in our readers….

5. DO NOT SUBMIT MATERIAL UNTIL IT IS READY. The fact that you have rewritten your script ten times does not mean it is ready. A script is ready when it is clear, focused, and well-structured, when the dialogue is sharp, when you have driven all the extraneous material out of the story, when the theme is clearly and fully played out by the story, when the story feels like it must have been simple to write – a clear beginning, middle and end (although you know it was anything but simple). Only when all of this is accomplished should you submit your story. That does not mean you should not get qualified reads along the way. On the contrary, you must get qualified reads. However, those qualified reads should not be from the producers you hope will buy it. They should be from your carefully cultivating reading circle.

I hope this helps. Now go write….