Monday, May 31, 2010

Stretching Exercises

We've all heard the phrase "one-joke idea", and it's invariably used as a put-down.

But sometimes a one-joke idea can be innovative and experimental writing, in addition to being funny.

This is an SCTV sketch from the late 1970s, a spoof of the old game show What's My Line, here renamed What's My Shoe Size?:

For more than half its length, this is a straight parody of the old show, with a number of jokes (such as Bennet Cerf's overflowing vocabulary) dependent at least in part on your familiarity with the original. It's more than three minutes before we get to the sketch's basic gag, the overspecific game show premise (a frequently-used technique in game show spoofs). We watch the distinguished Broadway types trying to figure out a guy's shoe size, the absurdity of the activity made even more ridiculous by the questioning process of the show.

The writers made the decision not to stress the shoe size bit, almost as if they were somehow afraid of committing to the idea. So they are careful to space shoe size gags with jokes based on the original logistics of What's My Line, some of them admittedly very funny (such as Dorothy Kilgallen neglecting to remove her blindfold when shaking hands).

What is in my opinion a much more innovative and, in performance terms at least, more courageous sketch had been done on the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore BBC-TV series Not Only But Also in 1965:

This sketch is sometimes erroneously credited to Cook himself, but it was actually written by a Cambridge classmate of his for a university revue in the late 1950s (those intrigued by Cook's personality quirks may wish to note how he seems to be almost hiding from the camera in this musical number -- compare his reticence to the enthusiastic up-front mugging of Dudley Moore).

The bit opens like a standard Robin Hood take-off. Yes, they're singing about Alan-A-Dale, but we know they'll get to the Robin Hood jokes soon. Well, eventually anyway. I mean, they are going to get to the main sketch aren't they? How long is this stupid intro going to go on???

Of course, we eventually realize, that's the whole point. I think everyone who watches "Alan-A-Dale" finally gets the joke, and then thinks, if only subconsciously: How long can they stretch this out?

Personally I think the sketch would've been even funnier, if riskier, with a standard leading man as Alan-A-Dale, rather than the comedian that was used. He would function as a stand-in for the audience, clearly in discomfort and confusion wondering when they'll get to his adventure.

I also think the bit could have been stretched out even further, with more "Alan oh Alan"s etc. But the fact that it lasts four minutes, with only a few other non-premise jokes (Dudley bumping into the lens, Alan being blocked in his entrance) is extraordinarily impressive. It's almost like a blues jam, as everyone watches to see how far the performers can go within the self-imposed limits of the material.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Peer Review Websites: Great Place to Start

Occasionally I'll meet new writers he blow hundreds (thousands?) on screenwriting contests and ... go nowhere. Don't place. Booted out early. Nothing to show for their entry fee if they didn't pay for notes.

Before spending money on contests or hiring professional readers, consider joining and becoming active on FREE screenplay peer review websites.


Reading scripts -- pro scripts, amateur scripts, anything you can get your hands on -- makes you a better writer. That's the idea behind peer review websites: Learn by reading scripts from other writers. You give notes and, in exchange, receive notes. Much cheaper than paying consultants for early drafts.

You can network with a community of writers. Form friendships and a circle of trusted readers. Invaluable and free feedback. These writers will move up with you through the ranks and you can form your own long-distance screenwriters group.

There are producers associated with or trolling the sites. One may find your script and want to make it. Or a young filmmaker may want to make your short and enter it in festivals. Your work it out there -- and if it's good, things can happen.

Why not?

There is a danger of receiving notes that send you in the wrong direction. Another amateur writer may not give you notes that are helpful and you may be too new and 'chase notes' -- rewriting your script where it becomes something you don't want.

Does take hours to review script after script. That's time that you could have spent writing.

The reviews on several sites are public. I suggest you get your notes and take down that draft. Repost the script and repeat the process. Don't want old versions of your script out there on public websites.

Some of the reviewers are obnoxious jerks. Welcome to the writing world. However, most are extremely helpful to new screenwriters and give great notes. It's a mixed bag -- just like the quality of scripts you'll review on the sites.

Many new writers are worried someone will 'steal their idea.' Chances are that idea has already been written by many other writers. It comes down to the execution: Did you nail the script? If it's a comedy, is it funny? Horror, did it scare me?

If you do have a million dollar high concept that's great but never been done, yes, keep that under wraps. Pay some consultants for feedback instead. But you can't copyright and IDEA. You have to have a great script to back up the concept these days. Much of the paranoia of new writers is wasted energy. You're selling your ability to write a script more than a 'great idea.' You have to get your work out there eventually to sell it.

How do you get started?

Go to the websites. Sign up for free. Visit the boards. Click on "GET ASSIGNMENT" and start doing reviews. Download the script, read through it making notes in a separate word processor document, and then cut and paste it onto the site. Circalit doesn't require posted reviews to participate but the more active and respected members give notes.

What's the best that could happen?

Your script could make it to the top on the site and, like in any contest, be read by a producer or director who wants to make it. Could lead to an option, sale, or assignment on another project.

Which website:

I've been active on a few and here's what I've found:

1. Notes on your script are open for members to read. There are 'Daily Favorites' -- recently reviewed top 10. Through that process a Screenplay of the Month is nominated (3 finalists) and one chosen.

The good: Some excellent reviewers on the site. Experienced writers that take time and care to give notes. Many pro writers, on the verge writers, filmmakers, and film nuts make it a fun place to be. Useful info on the boards. Overall, great site.

The bad: Any peer site will have newbies that give bad notes. TriggerStreet has an appeals process to remove useless reviews. The Screenplay of the Month process encourages old drafts of scripts to be left up as you can't replace drafts without losing your 'place in line.'

Again, well-run site with some talented folks.

2. Closed process (not just anyone can see the notes you receive). I've found it a more artsy crowd there than the other sites. But some solid notes and may be a good fit.

The good: Associated with a production company that actually reads the winning scripts and considers them for option.

The bad: Site can be difficult to navigate.

3. This is a new site and a bit of a sleeper. I've had two filmmakers request scripts from here in my first couple of weeks of posting there.

The good: Easy to use. Industry people and pros populate the ranks.

The bad: No required reviews or tests to assure scripts are read. A group of friends could easily push up a script in the rankings. Not sure why someone would want a pro reader to review a script that way but it's a possibility given the format. Site is in the beta-phase though and these issues will be addressed.

Only see it getting better. Good place to get in early.

4. Started by the co-founder of Final Draft, this website is easy to use. Nice design. You post scripts 'for free' but then add 'dollars' (earned from doing reviews) to your script to get reviews.

The good: Quality of the reviews I've received to date have been very good. Pro readers are on the site and there are industry members.

The bad: New site and word has to get out. Will see how it develops.

They've brought in many industry people and want scripts from the site to become films. One to watch.

In summary...

Becoming active on any peer review site is a good way to form a group of screenwriting friends and keep on top of what's going on via the discussion boards.

Reading and reviewing scripts (doing coverage) is an excellent way to improve your own writing. You will raise your standards. Pay your dues. Put in the time it takes to develop your draft.

There's a chance on any site that you may be 'discovered' or make a connection that springboards your career. More important, rewrite and rewrite your script through many drafts.

All of these sites will show you what you thought was the 'final draft' is nowhere close. A good lesson to learn early.

From there you can go to pro consultants if you want to get an idea of what a production company coverage of your script would find. See if it's ready to shop.

Then when you shop the script or enter contests it'll be with a solid draft: No typos, no format errors, no gaping plot holes. Your script won't be tossed aside in the first round or immediately booted by a production company as unprofessional.

You'll have a solid spec, the best version of YOUR SCRIPT (make sure it stays yours through all the notes and rewrites) possible. Now go enter contests and make your pitch phone calls with confidence knowing you've got a script you want the world to see.

If you are not active on a peer review site, sign up today! Best of luck.

(You can add me as a friend me on circalit: stephenhoover; Talentville: stephen_hoover; Triggerstreet: toddh99.)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Script Readers are Detectives

By Julia Bergeron

I’m a detective. Actually, I’m a script consultant. Which is pretty much the same thing.

Okay, not exactly the same thing. But there are some similarities. Knowing them has made me a better writer. I’m sharing them with you so you can help your first audience – the reader – “get” your screenplay quickly and easily.

As a reader, I’m like a detective in several ways. A detective has to solve a mystery. So do I. A detective has to figure out the “who,” the “what” and the “why” of a crime. I have to figure out the “who,” the “what,” and the “why” of a script. The detective is curious. So am I.

When I get a script to read, I have no idea what story the writer is going to share with me. It’s a complete mystery. This means that as I read, I am looking for clues that will answer some fundamental questions.

Who is the story about? What is it about? What’s the genre? Where is the story going?

As a reader, that is my mindset – figuring out the story. Knowing the reader’s mindset can shape decisions about when and how we introduce the protagonist. It can help us decide what pieces of information have to be setup early and what can wait. And what needs to be cut completely.

Let’s look at this in more detail.

As a reader, the first clue I have to your story is the title. Titles are a quick glimpse that tells us a lot. Is it a comedy? Is it a thriller? Hopefully the title gives the reader an indication. I know, I know. This sounds almost too simplistic, but titles set the stage. A title delivers information even before the reader opens the script. Deals have been made on the title alone. “Forty Year Old Virgin” anyone? A title can make a big difference in how quickly a reader “gets” your story. So create the best title you can.

The next clue is the look of the script on page one. Is it formatted correctly? Is there a nice balance of dialogue and action?

I know what you’re probably thinking. “Not another diatribe about formatting!” Okay, no. Not a diatribe. Just a word to the wise. Proper formatting is almost invisible. It’s true. Proper formatting allows the reader to focus on the story, while bad formatting calls attention to itself. Typos and formatting errors are like potholes. You can get past them, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride! Let your formatting be invisible so the reader can pay attention to the heart of your script – the story.

The next clue as to what your story is all about is the opening image. Many writers speed past this or give it very little thought. But when you watch a film, you can be sure the director thought long and hard about that first image. As writers, we have to put as much energy into that image as the production company will. For the reader, the opening image can help identify the genre, maybe the tone and sometimes the protagonist. It’s a hugely powerful moment and when it works well, it helps hook the reader right into your story. In just a few lines, they start to “get” it.

Naturally, one of the first things I want to know when I read a script is who the story is about – who is the protagonist? Until I know who the protagonist is, every named character is a suspect – any one of them could be the protagonist.

And even more specifically, in terms of identifying the protagonist, the first character who speaks is my prime suspect. Rightly or wrongly. And I keep my eye on that person.

This means, if the first person who speaks is not your protagonist, they should probably be important. That character has the reader’s full attention. So you might as well use that fact to introduce an important character and not a walk on.

Remember, the first characters I meet get my full attention. I automatically assume they are important.

Another thing to bear in mind is that if you surround your protagonist with lots of other named characters, particularly in the first ten pages, it’s hard for a reader to keep track of them all and to separate the protagonist from the crowd.

It’s much easier for a reader to identify the protagonist if the protagonist is not part of a cast of thousands. Again, it might sound simplistic but often we want to show the protagonist in action. And sometimes that means surrounding the protagonist with staff, helpers, a few henchmen, minions, whatever. If that’s the case with your script, try to make sure the protagonist stands out from the crowd. Give them a protagonist’s entrance or moment so the reader “gets” it right away. Help the reader solve the “who” early.

By making it clear early who the story is about, the reader can focus on finding out what your story is about. This is sometimes a little harder than it looks.

Often as writers we are told to be lean and mean and that readers don’t like to read lots of details and action. This is partly true but maybe not for the reasons you might expect.

When I read a screenplay, I pay close attention to every detail. Like a detective, I have to assume all the information is important since I wouldn’t want to miss a clue as to what the story is about.

You see, I don’t know which detail is a setup, which is an important character trait, or what piece of information will payoff off at the end. So, to me, it’s all equally important. But obviously just like in any mystery, it isn’t actually all equally important. Some things are crucial, some are interesting and some are distractions. Some things, like red herrings, are distracting on purpose. And some are distractions the story can do without.

Here’s an example. Suppose you write a scene where a guy cleans his kitchen after a dinner party. Around ten p.m., he puts away all the food, sweeps, and loads the dishwasher. He carefully puts all the knives in the dishwasher with the tips facing down. All but one. One knife he places tip up. As a reader that knife is like a bright, shiny object to a monkey! It’s fascinating. It grabs my attention and holds it for the entire script. I am waiting for somebody to use that knife, or slice their hand on that knife. I am waiting for the knife to payoff.

But what if the writer only put that knife in the scene to demonstrate the character was not detail oriented? And there is no knife payoff, ever. Here’s me: “Sad. Sniff. No knife payoff? But I was sure...” No, actually, I was just a monkey distracted by an interesting detail. Don’t turn your reader into a distracted monkey by including fascinating details that don’t pay off.

The thing is, for most readers it is simply not possible to retain page after page of tremendous detail. Not that the details aren’t interesting, imaginative, or accurate. Often they are all those things. And that’s part of the problem. Details can be overwhelming. When that happens, the reader will automatically try to retain the details we think are most important. And we’re not always right.

Let’s take the same scene above with the knife. Suppose this was a murder mystery and a crucial detail in that scene was that the food was put away at ten p.m. But, me, distracted as I was by the very interesting (and shiny!) knife, didn’t notice the time. I’m waiting for the knife to pay off but meanwhile the writer was trying to setup the time. I missed that important detail. So when the payoff for ten p.m. comes, it won’t have the punch it could have, because the setup was missed.

This is why we are advised to be lean and mean and to include only what is necessary to move the story forward: because the reader is trying to sort out the important clues. Therefore when you only include the important information, you eliminate the possibility of the reader making a wrong choice and focusing on the wrong detail. They won’t be confused and “the what” will be much clearer, much earlier. So being lean and mean is a great tool to help your reader “get” your story.

That’s not to say you can’t include red herrings or take some poetic license here and there. You can and you should. But do know that it’s up to you to direct the reader’s attention and make sure you help them solve the “mystery” of your script.

Once I’ve gotten the genre, the who, and the what, I’m good to go. You’ve hooked me and I am ready for the ride. I love discovering where the story goes, seeing if the setups pay off and how, and seeing what outcome the author has in store for the protagonist.

I get to solve a mystery every time I open a new script. It’s fascinating and fun. And what’s even better is that unlike a detective, I don’t have to have a mustache.


Do come up with the best title you can.

Do grab the reader’s attention with a well thought out opening image.

Do introduce your protagonist to the reader right away. We want to know who the story is about, so let us know early.

Don’t overwhelm your reader with dozens of named characters in the first ten pages. I couldn’t remember everybody I met in college and I’m not better at names now.

Do use proper formatting.

Don’t overwhelm us with cool details that don’t move the story forward. Focus the reader’s attention where you want it – not where our own distractible brains might take us.

Do remember, most readers love stories. I know I do. Help us fall in love with yours by giving us the clues we need to “get” it and by giving us those clues as early as possible.

And most of all, do keep writing!

Ms. Bergeron is a script consultant with Script Savvy.
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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Writing Dialog
by Cat Stewart

It’s one of the trickiest parts of writing screenplays. You might soar at novel dialog, sing at short story dialog, or thrill friends and family with dialog you roll off at the dinner table but when it comes to a screenplay, you choke.

You don’t think you choke, but when you read your dialog and then read dialog written by say, William Goldman, it’s almost painful. Screenwriting gurus carp all the time about how you can’t teach anyone to write good dialog. Is that because they lack the ability to do it themselves?

To start with, you really have to study the way people talk. Eavesdrop like crazy. I keep a journal of turns of phrase or subject matter that I think would make for good dialog. Take it one step further. Go to a coffee shop with a notepad. Sit next to a table of people that are talking. Jot down everything you assume about them based on what they say.

Dialog is not conversation. If you were to tape record two people talking and put it down word for word on a paper it would fair poorly. Dialog is simulation of conversation that passes on information we need for the story.

So without a primer, I set out to figure out the trick on my own. Here are my discoveries:

Step one – Read it out loud. If you tongue trip and gasp for breath midway through the two inch stack of words you put on the page, so will Brad Pitt.

Step two – When you have made it something you can read without turning blue, record it. Then put your favorite movie on you MP3 player. Alternate back and forth listening to the two when you are driving to the market.

Step three – Now that you’ve revised your dialog to sound more like something that is actually spoken in a produced screenplay, figure out what it says. What it probably says is:

Hi, Jana. How are you today?

I’m fine Robert and you?

I’m going to go get something to eat.

Robert, that sounds lovely.

Well Jana, you could come along.

I need to wash my hair, Robert.

I see. Well have a nice night, Jana.

Okay, wake up. The dialog is short, direct, all the things they say it should be with one cardinal sin that most new writers make….using names excessively. Even if you do it in real life, don’t do it in your screenplay. What the dialog isn’t is interesting. This is the type of dialog that readers would term “on the nose.” I know what you’re thinking, there’s no way to make that interesting.. Oh yeah? Well watch me.

The only two ways you have to create a picture in the mind of your reader is to write scene description and your dialog. If you write long, flowing scene description with asides that tell the reader what your character is thinking, your script will be 300 pages and in the bottom of the script dumpster. So guess what. That leaves us with dialog.

What does the dialog above say? Only that Robert wants to take Jana to dinner. We can assume this is a date, but could be Robert’s a serial killer looking for his next victim, (that’s not going in the action line or set description) a lawyer trying to woo the prosecutor into a light sentence, a dorky teenaged kid talking to the prom queen on a dare.

If the dialog was well written you wouldn’t need a slug, an action line or description of the characters to determine which of those it is. The dialog would tell you everything you need to know. So step three is simple, yet hard to do. Step three is that the dialog should tell us so much more than Robert and Jana won’t be eating together.

The things it should tell? Something about our character’s personality, age, status, a window to who that character is. Is he shy? Is he bold? Slick or sincere? The dialog should tell us something about what’s to come, why this scene is happening. The dialog should tell us something about the relationship of these two people. Nasty tall order for a few words on dinner.

So let’s try again.

Hi Jana.. How are you today?

I’m fine Robert and you?

I hear you are a big fan of blackened shrimp.

Haven’t had a decent one since I left New Orleans.

Then you should join me at Sousa’s.

I need to wash my hair, Robert.

Well if that’s what it looks like dirty, I can’t wait to see it clean.

What do we see now? One, it is more likely that Robert is looking for a date. Glad we got that cleared up. How do we know? Well he wasn’t likely to make a comment about here appearance if he was looking for a business favor. Yet if that’s what this turns out to be, a business proposition, we just learned something about the character that isn’t written in action. That would make him slick, maybe inappropriate, definitely bold. We know that he’s asked around about her, we know she’s from out of town.

Let’s try harder.

Hey, Jana isn’t it?

Yes and you’re….Robert.

I’m starving after that six hour deposition.

Feuding spouses can have that effect.

You should join me at Sousa’s; great blackened shrimp.

You’ve done your research, but I don’t think we should.

Maybe not in the Big Easy, but here the opposing part stops at the door.

Okay, loads more information. Admit it. You want to know who these people are now, don’t you? You want to know if they are going to go to dinner, wind up in love, or if he’s going to screw her over to win her case. Because in a similar amount of words on the same subject as the first try you just found out:

1. They are divorce lawyers on opposite sides of the same case.
2. They’ve noticed each other
3. Robert is the home town favorite and Jana is an outsider from New Orleans
4. He’s checked her out and she’s interested in him, but has strong business ethics.
5. Robert has a lot of confidence, he’s hitting on the opposing attorney.

Can we do more? It will take a few more words, but lets try. Short snappy dialog that really moves the story forward.

Well Jana, that was one hell of a opening question.

You countered it well….Robert, right?

At your service. Six hour depositions leave me dehydrated and starving. I hear you’ve been looking for a decent blackened shrimp.

I haven’t had a decent one since I left New Orleans. Although it looks like the specialty around here is shark.

Spending your time with spurned women sharpens your teeth. Did I mention Sousa’s has the authentic hurricane recipe?

Is that your strategy? Ply opposing counsel with booze and blackened shrimp?

Around here the word opposing ends at the courtroom door. It has to. With the hours we work, the lawyer would becomeextinct if it didn’t.

What more does this tell us about the characters. Well you figure that out for yourself. It’s how you learn to write great dialog after all. Check out the dialog in your writing buddy’s script. Don’t read anything but the dialog. Write down everything you know about the character based only on that for the first ten pages. Now apply what you just learned to your own work.

"(Cat Stewart is a freelance writer currently living in Nashville, Tennessee. Cat completed the certificate program in Feature Film and Television writing at UCLA extension and is currently a Writer’s Bootcamp Fellow.)"