Trev asks:

How do you feel choice of subject matter influences commercial success. Do you think Hollywood is more interested in another LETHAL WEAPON or SCREAM 3 rather than another AMERICAN BEAUTY?

If you were starting out–what genre would you write for spec?

That’s really three separate questions, so here are three answers:

How does choice of subject matter influence commercial success?

Subject matter per se has little to do with commercial success. Unlikely subjects often turn into successful movies. E.G. “Shindler’s List” (Holocaust), “A Beautiful Mind” (life of an obscure – at least to the public – economist), “Sideways” (wine tasting). The real question for the spec writer (and probably any writer) is whether you can make the subject accessible to your audience. If you desire to write for mainstream Hollywood, then you want the subject to be accessible to mainstream audiences. At the risk of getting a parade of horrible subject matters, I can say that there is almost no subject that, with the right story treatment, cannot be used to create a marketable spec screenplay.

That having been said, the more uncomfortable the subject matter, the more difficult you may find it to create the right story treatment. You will walk a fine line between honoring the subject matter and telling an accessible story.

Do you think Hollywood is more interested in another LETHAL WEAPON or SCREAM 3 rather than another AMERICAN BEAUTY? Continue reading “WHAT SHOULD YOU WRITE?”


In commenting on another post, Mark (last name unknown) shared with us that he is eight years out of a UCLA MFA in screenwriting, has a large body of scripts and has four of them currently in the market. He expressed his frustration at being a starving artist, but says:

“I wrote because I’m a writer, and to get good at it…you gotta write.

I wish more so called writers realized this, but they don’t.
Sad thing…some of those that don’t are selling scripts and writing in Hollywood now, and are part of the reason there’s so much junk being made.”

First, hats off for hanging in, Mark. A lot of aspiring writers are envious of your degree and your ability to focus on your writing. Good luck with the scripts currently out in the market. I picked out your comment because it fits in exactly with the post I’ve been working on and helped me a great deal to focus it.

As a pre-amble, I want to say for serious writers who have been at it awhile and are looking for a break, the answer is frequently to bring the writing up a notch. Keep in mind, I’m not saying Mark needs to do this. I haven’t read his writing. Hopefully, we’ll read about him in the trades next week with three out of the four scripts having been picked up in huge sales. What I am saying is that, if you work hard at your writing, you circulate it regularly in the mainstream Hollywood community, and still it’s not somehow getting real attention (e.g. sales, options, significant mainstream attachments of producers or other real objective elements that establish some degree of acceptance – and don’t fool yourself, you know the difference between real attachments and fluff), then you should consider what you need to do to the writing to get to the next level in your career.

No surprise, I have a suggestion on where you might turn for an answer. Read (or reread, as the case may be) Terry Rossio’s brilliant columns at Wordplayer. Not just a few of them, but all of them. Terry Rossio and his partner Ted Elliott are two prolific screenwriters at the top of their game. They’ve done it all and love to share, in eloquent and extremely helpful terms, the secrets to their success. To me, these columns are particularly useful to writers who’ve already been at it a while, writers who have a solid appreciation for the challenges of writing and a burning desire to get better. Consider the columns an advanced course for turning good writers into great writers.

But enough kissing up to Terry. That’s not really the purpose of this post. Rather, the purpose is to talk about junk screenplays. Mark expressed a frustration that is common, and understandable, among writers at Mark’s level. Namely, that crappy writers seem to get breaks when serious writers work for years without them. There is no question that every producer in town is inundated with total garbage scripts. They clog the system and make it hard to get any script even looked at.

But that’s the business –

and that’s not who we’re competing with. Continue reading “COMPETING WITH JUNK”


I hear a million horror stories about writing with partners. I’ve written both alone and with partners. Sometimes the partnerships worked. Sometimes they did not. I like writing alone, but there is something about writing with the right partner that is very satisfying. For the last several years, I’ve written exclusively with one partner. I like writing with him; we are able to do things with the writing neither of us does when we write alone. This is our approach to partnership and why I think it is effective:

1. We leave the idea of individual authorship at the door. We recognize that every idea generated out of our mutual work is a mutual idea. It would not exist without the joint work we do, period. It does not matter who said it first, who thinks they thought of it first, who thinks they had the idea ten years ago but only mentioned it now. If the idea comes up in the context of joint work, you cannot separate it from the whole of the work nor should you try. The WGA calls writing partners a “team” and treats them essentially as a single writer. You should, too. If you do not, you are not a partnership. You are two people competing with each other and keeping score while trying to jointly create a screenplay. This is a hard way to write anything, let alone develop a lasting creative relationship. Continue reading “WRITING WITH A PARTNER”


What does that mean, “Is it a movie?” We hear it in pitch meetings, from producers and agents, really all over the place. It is a Sword of Damocles used to fend of approaching concepts. The question isn’t really even a question. It is the listener’s assertion that your idea/script/pitch is not worthy of a 60 million dollar investment from the listener’s studio or from anyone else’s. It is a pronouncement that your idea fails to contain some basic element contained in every movie that should ever have been made and every movie that should ever be made in the future. The very question itself suggests that your concept should be taken out with the trash. When you hear, “But is it a movie?”, pack your bags, make nice for the next time, and get on the bus home.

But what is missing from your idea/pitch/spec that makes it not “a movie”?

This criticism is a particularly tough one. First, any joe can use it and mean anything he or she wants. Sometimes, it’s used just to avoid telling you the hard truth about your script, pitch or idea. Remember, producers aren’t out there to train you. They want to find the next picture and get it made. Second, to a large degree, execs who use this do so specifically to avoid thinking in terms of specific analysis. Something like, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. That’s all I can tell you.”

So what do you do if you begin to get this response? Look at your story. Is it clear enough, compelling enough? Is your presentation being understood? Why? Because maybe, just maybe, the exec is right about your pitch. It isn’t yet a movie.


Before you get too attached to an idea for your next spec, remember you will be investing months of work into it and repeat the following:

1. Studios are not more likely to buy my script because I think it has great sequel and franchise potential. They are more likely to buy it because it is a solid concept that is well written.
2. If I am not a novelist, I will not write my story as a novel first in order to sell it to Hollywood. It is no easier to sell a first novel than a first script.
3. Studios will not buy my script because it has a good message. They will by it because it is a solid concept that is well written.
4. The fact that I can say my idea in a single sentence does not mean it is a good idea.
5. Evil corporations are lousy bad guys.
6. The fact that it really happened does not mean it is a good idea for a movie.
7. The fact that it is “just like” a highly successful movie is not necessarily a good thing.
8. I will not come up with an idea that is just what the market is looking for. By the time I’m done writing it, the market will not be looking for it.
9. I will not write something because the top A-lead likes to play that kind of a role. The top A-lead is unlikely to see my script or select it out of the barrelfuls shoved at him/her on a daily bases.
10. I will not write a script because it is an easy no-brainer that is guaranteed to sell. There is no such thing.

The only reason to select a particular story idea for your next spec – “I really really love it.”


I’m going to share with you a powerful screenwriting secret. Take notes. Here it is: You can’t learn to write screenplays in a weekend. Don’t try. Don’t get dejected when you haven’t done it. It doesn’t matter how many tips, structures, frameworks, conflict patterns, ennagrams, secrets, approaches or anything else you’re given; it won’t happen. Here’s another secret: You can’t learn to write scripts by reading a book. There is no magic process to follow that results in a “script that sells.”

Am I saying don’t go to weekend courses? Don’t read books? No. Do whatever you want. There are lots of great books out there and lots of popular weekend courses. Some of them have valuable insights. But here’s how you actually learn to write scripts. Read scripts on an ongoing basis, write scripts, study scripts, rewrite, examine ideas about writing, write more, challenge your approach, strive to improve, sweat, think, imagine, write and rewrite more, hone, polish…repeat as necessary.

Writing is a complex and difficult process. It’s like playing piano. It involves hard work over a sustained period of time and it never gets easier, only better.

Nothing less will forge you into a real writer.

Got it?


This is really part two to of the last post. It’s about “text” and “subtext”, only looked at in a very practical way. And it’s a kick in the pants to new writers. Listen, your dialogue stinks.

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 large part because the writer has no conception of what “dialogue” really is. While only a few writers can consistently write awesome, incredible, dialogue that raises the art form, every professional writer must write competent, engaging, interesting dialogue. Dialogue is inseparable from story – not something to add on later – but an integral part of the conception of the scenes and the story itself. If you’re having trouble writing quality dialogue in a scene, your troubles run deeper than dialogue.

So how can I help? Continue reading “THINGS TO DO: (1) WRITE BETTER DIALOGUE”