OPB (Other People’s Blogs)

I received emails from a couple new bloggers recently letting me know they exist. Thought I’d pass it on to you….

Ken Levine, tv comedy writer/director with credits including M*A*S*H, Simpsons, Becker and Everybody Loves Raymond has a new blog called “by Ken Livine”.

Xander Bennett, a TV writer from Australia, also has an interesting new blog, Chained To The Keyboard.

SCREENWRITING 2.O

Web 2.0 is a phrase that refers to the new direction of the Internet: web applications that function through your browser, also known as “web apps”. For example, word processing is now available for free straight from your Internet browser from a dozen different sources, including the very slick Buzzword, Google Docs, Zoho Writer, and others. That means you don’t need to buy MS Word or any other word processor, as long as you have an Internet connection. And your documents are available from anywhere in the world, as long as you have an Internet connection. Similarly, spreadsheets that compete with Excel and Lotus are also beginning to be available through web apps. So, how does this relate to screenwriting?

ZHURA.COMThe folks at Zhura were kind enough to invite me to test drive their new screeenwriting web app at, where else, zhura.com. The idea is that you no longer need to buy any screenwriting software; you can just write your script online and, when you’re done, download it in pdf format for submission to your favorite Hollywood mogul.

Before writing this post, I took some time to play with this new toy and even asked Zhura some questions, which they quickly answered. At first, I was put off by all of the “corroberation” features. When you arrive at the front page, you see a world that looks different than that of any serious screenwriter – namely, open access to everyone’s drafts and ideas, free collaboration, and no way to ever protect your intellectual property. That is the “Public” side. It is the opposite of what working writers need. However, I quickly discovered the “Personal” side, where everything is private, your files are not accessible to anyone, and you use the web app pretty much like you would use any screenwriting software. You can even give access to anyone you want, such as your writing partner, so he or she can access the work from any Internet connection. It automatically saves, keeps revisions, and allows you to revert to a previous draft.

The fun of this program is that (i) it’s free; (ii) it works pretty well; and (iii) it exports to Final Draft (in txt format) and likely most other screenwriting programs (I don’t use others, so I couldn’t test it on them). However, it is a beta program and still has a some drawbacks, which the folks at Zhura tell me they are working slavishly to address even as you read this. First, for a full length screenplay, I found the web app sluggish, which took me right out of my work. The last thing I want to think about while writing is the software. However, for shorter pieces, and even for longer pieces if you break them up into separate files, it worked fine. Second, it does not show traditional page breaks until you save as a pdf or export as a txt. That means, while you are writing, you have to guess where you are in the script. That is a problem I have seen in other recent programs as well. Zhura says they are also working on that issue. Finally, it does not have some of the bells and whistles common to the most popular screenwriting software, including, for example, the ability to change page length by imperceptibly changing line spacing. I would not be surprised to see all of these issues addressed in the future.

In summary, I can’t say Zhura is quite there yet, at least not for the working writer or the aspiring to be working writer. It needs to have all of the features of the major screenwriting software to do that. However, it is a huge step in the right direction, a lot of fun to play with, and (with luck) will add the features needed to be really competitive. It is definitely worth signing up and checking out. Let me know what you think.

Enough. Now go write.

NINETY-NINE % AWFUL

QUESTION

I was wondering if you could tell us the common errors you saw in the “awful” 99% of scripts you read as an analyst and put them down here?

Might be really useful, as right now I’m suffering from chronic self-doubt and this could help alleviate that (er, or confirm it…)

Dan from The Middle of Nowhere

Sure. First, a note on self-doubt. Many writers suffer from substantial insecurities throughout their careers. It’s part of the package. Don’t let it debilitate you. If you get consistent feedback showing real problems with your writing, just dig in and work through it. It’s all part of the process. Although certain writers have natural abilities that are exceptional, anyone with real discipline, drive and humility can learn the craft well and create a successful professional career.

To answer your question, in a previous column, I mentioned that:

In my years as a reader (a/k/a story analyst), and even today when I’m asked to read scripts from inexperienced writers, 99 out of 100 scripts are awful to the point of being unmarketable….

In that column, I attributed much of this to dialogue, but as I hinted then, bad dialogue is a symptom of larger problems. The pervasive problems I saw and still see are the following, in no particular order:

1. Superficiality. Most scripts from inexperienced writers fail to explore genuine emotions that have sufficient weight and universality to have any hope of being engaging to a broad audience. Often, these scripts are based either on what the writer believes is an engaging story premise with little attention to deeper issues or is based upon a personal experience about which the writer feels deeply with little effort to express that emotion on the page. In the latter case, the writer is probably too close to the emotions to know whether they are communicated or not. Both of these types of scripts are, in a word, immature.

2. Lack of unity. Most scripts from inexperienced writers fail to develop the story ideas into a unity of character, theme and story. In a competitive professional script, characters are expressed through actions that do all of the following at the same time: reveal deeper aspects of the character; advance the story in a necessary manner (e.g. without this action, the story would have unfolded very differently), and force the character and/or the audience to explore the theme.

3. Lack of compression. This is closely related to unity. Movies heavily compress experiences so each moment is rich and carries great meaning for the audience. In a marketable script, each moment must carry a great deal of weight – emotionally, thematically and from the standpoint of advancing the story. Inexperienced writers often settle for one or none of these – including moments that do little other than logically move the story forward. Scenes function at a mechanical level only.

4. Technical deficiencies. Inexperienced writers often have yet to master the technical aspects of a screenplay, including illogical scenes that fail to drive one another, confusing or boring action descriptions, incomprehensible story points and errors in spelling, usage, and grammar.

5. Poor Structure. I am not one to believe that there is a perfect story structure. To me, each story suggests its own structure, whether it be in acts, sequences or otherwise. However, a story must have a real and compelling structure. The story line must progress and build in intensity; the pressures on the main character or characters must increase in a meaningful way (not just from a plot standpoint, but thematically as well), there must be a few surprises along the way and the story must resolve in an authentic and engaging manner. Most scripts from inexperienced writers fail on this basic level.

6. Clichés. See this.

And, of course…

7. Dialogue. (As per above.)

That’s my top seven (at least, as I think about it now). None of them is an insurmountable problem for an emerging writer and most writers have to work through most of them in the beginning (and always). Don’t get discouraged. Just do the work….

REMARKABLE IDEAS

If your story idea is not sufficiently remarkable, it really doesn’t matter how well you write it. The story will not sell.

That’s nothing new, yet it is the costliest mistake a spec screenwriter can make – especially writers that have developed some writing chops but have yet to make a sale. It is costly because it leads to months and months of useless work.

At one point in my producing duties, I ran across an excellent writer who had ten completed scripts, no sales. I requested one script after the other, looking for something our company could use – really wanting to give the guy a break because he wrote incredibly well. I really liked his scripts – but one after the next, they were not remarkable. We had to pass. It is impossible for almost any producer to get a story made – no matter how well written – that is not remarkable. It was a valuable lesson and one I take to heart every time I start to write a new project.

The question I ask myself is, “If this script is written very, very well, will it make a great motion picture?” The answer is “NO” unless the story idea is remarkable.

So what does that mean – “remarkable”?

Dictionary.com defines “remarkable” as:

1. Worthy of notice.
2. Attracting notice as being unusual or extraordinary.

These are good definitions – only make the standard even higher. A remarkable idea demands notice. The best way to explain it is by example. Here are three recent spec or pitch sales (as reported by Done Deal), all of which are remarkable:

A SWAT team’s top cop, who is incapable of feeling emotional or physical pain and is thereby revered for his fearlessness, undergoes surgery that will allow him to feel everything he’s missed in life. (“No Pain, No Gain”)

The chief executive of a company is demoted to the mailroom and has to work his way back up. (“CEO”)

A man learns to appreciate his life when everything in it is suddenly the opposite of what it normally is. (“Opposite Day”)

Whatever you think of the film that may ultimately result, what there is to learn is that these concepts are (a) highly focused, (b) fresh, (c) whole and complete in themselves, and (d) engender emotional values that are familiar and known.

So how do you create a remarkable concept? People do it differently. There is no one right way.

Here’s how I do it. I think of interesting ideas, write them down, then from the list, pick the one that most interests me. Now the real work starts. I write the idea usually as a single sentence in the form:

When a ______ does _______, he or she _________(active verb) in order to ___________.

Then I begin to hone the idea, sometimes for hours at a time, day after day, removing the clichés (we all write in clichés until we force them out), changing concepts that are not particularly interesting to ones that are more interesting, changing general ideas to specific ones. I write one version after the next, resulting in pages of versions of the concept. I usually arrive at more than one version that suggests a remarkable idea. When I get to one, I check it against what I thought I wanted to write – see if this version is still something I want to write (just because it is a remarkable concept does not mean it is for me), and either stop if all is good, or keep going. Sometimes I back up, if it has gone off track, and take it in a different direction.

I keep going either until the versions lead me in hopeless circles and collapse or until I get to a finely polished concept that excites me and will now lead me through outlining and writing the script. This process involves a great deal of thinking ahead – looking at where the concept will lead me in the writing – and stepping back and looking at just the concept as a producer or agent or audience member would look at it. I try to be very hard on myself and say, “Would I go see that? Would my friends go see that?” I do not cheat on the answers. Unless the answers are both a LOUD yes, I keep developing.

If you don’t create your own process for getting to remarkable concepts, you are likely to create your own mountain of well-written unmarketable scripts.

Enough. Now go write.

Nineteen Years Ago, Thelma & Louise Drove Over A Cliff

Photo by bradleygee @ flickr.com
Nineteen years after Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon took their famous turn in a ’66 Thunderbird convertible, screenwriter Callie Khouri discusses her Oscar winning screenplay for “Thelma & Louis” with Sallie King of the Los Angeles Times. Discussing the ending, she says:

People either thought it was an uplifting ending or they thought they committed suicide at the end. It kind of depends on how they see it.

Uhm? If it isn’t suicide, what is it?