I've collected all of his social advice in one place. Not only for all the other aspiring screenwriters out there, but for critics as well. Too often I read hackneyed stereotypes about the way "the business" works that were written without due diligence. One easy way to avoid misplacing praise and blame is to actively research and follow the other people in the process. They give a lot of their life experiences away for free. Take advantage.
A few people had the same idea already, but only about certain topics here and there. I've linked to those wonderful posts, but I've also added some value by putting everything in one place and in one format.
Also! Mr. Heisserer has written a very action-focused screenwriting book, 150 Screenwriting Challenges. I plan on buying a copy and maybe you'll even see some of my shoddy attempts on this blog.
All throat clearing out of the way, here goes:
Table of Contents
-2. On Subtext (8/31)
-1. 5 Must Haves for Characters (8/31)
0. Questions--and answers! (4/21)
1. TV Pitches (4/8)
2. Loglines (3/28)
3. Feature Pitching (3/15)
4. Details and Continuity (3/12)
5. Screenwriting in general (3/11)
6. Challenging Yourself (3/7)
7. Screenwriting advice (Drafts, Parentheticals, Respect) (2/28)
8. Minimalism (2/18)
9. Real or fake script notes? (2/1)
10. Female Protagonists (9/5)
11. On Output (8/18)
"In our writing, what our characters say is not the truth, but it's a map to the truth."
All right, diving in: The demon in the room I want to talk about today is subtext. Subtext makes me suffer so. Oh, the suffering. Because its delicious presence in a script is the mark of good writing, and its inverse is the sign of bad writing. But there's a catch.
Playwrights tend to rock subtext, because they have to. The dialogue has to convey more than face value because that's all there is. Consequently, people in the theater world pay close attention to the writing. They look at the words carefully. You can dine on Shakespeare.
But in film and TV subtext can also exist in imagery. You want every shot to be suggestive of something more than what's merely right there. And you need to, to attract talented directors and actors. They know quality, they've done theater, they CRAVE subtext.
And of course, writing it is incredibly hard! Let's not overlook that, shall we? It's alchemy. It's like crafting a really great joke. In subtext, everyone builds the punchline in their heads without you telling it. Without subtext, you're explaining the joke to them.
There are plenty of avenues to subtext, of course. And as script writers we have dialogue, narrative description, wrylies, etc. to play in. One Oscar-nominated writer likes to use dialogue in her narrative for it-- DAVID gestures at them, "I'm fine, whatever." And just on this tangent, what I like about that option is that we get the meaning of the gesture without telling the actor what to do. But okay, here's where it gets even WORSE for us as writers. Because guess what, we're making a transitory document. Which means...
People need to grasp the subtext in a scene or else it will turn out crap.
And by "people" I mean everyone between you and the finished film/episode/whatever. And here's how that gets tricky: Your DIRECTOR and your ACTORS will want as much subtext as possible, because it gives them room to do THEIR jobs well (if they're good). The people who get the script BEFORE them tend to fear subtext because they can't be sure how it will land on the screen. So... notes.
Holy buckets, the notes you will get about limiting, destroying, removing, reducing, and nuking subtext. Oh man.
1. "You know, I think you need to put a finer point on what she's saying in this scene..."
2. "What is she really saying here? I get that, yeah, but can you make that idea louder?"
3. "Just put the words in his mouth; just so the audience knows what he's feeling."
From strange to awkwardly porny, there are a hundred different ways execs will tell you to kill subtext. They are sometimes right to do that! Not often, in my experience, but sometimes. Because finding the right balance in the writing is HARD.
So, what do we do? Seriously, I'm asking. Why do you think I'm drinking on a Sunday? Well, yes, because it's Sunday but yeah. Here's what I've discovered on this terrible path of writing layered content with subtext, and you can use what works for you...
There is the option of simply "kicking the ball downfield" -- writing essentially "this is how we feel when we see this scene play out." That spawns description like: "This is the most heartbreaking moment of her life, and we're all in tears at the end of it." BAH TO THAT, I SAY. That is my mouth writing checks. That's me saying, "Fuck it, this isn't my job, it's someone else's, I'm outtie." We have a responsibility as writers to know what the characters are feeling AND how they both hide and express it in the same moment. Not down to the tiniest gesture (because again we're invading the domain of the actor usually) but it has to have more going on than "Here!"
So the demon I wrestle with is: How much do I need to say on the page that lets the fearful types know the director/actor will rock it? This is where the iterative process can actually help a writer. There's an episode of The Simpsons where Homer starts to take a bite of Maggie's BD cake, but Marge has made a spare for him to mess up. We sometimes have to do that as writers: Build a draft where all the emotions are signposts, and people talk like NOBODY TALKS IN REAL LIFE. And then later, before going out to talent, we offer the artful draft full of subtext, the one that will land capable voices. Of course to pull this off you need conspirators in the machine. You need a clever producer or junior somewhere.
Outside of that option, the only one I've made work part of the time is by building a script with subtextual shorthand, for lack of better. In that, I preserve the dialogue best I can where all the subtext lives, but I "explain the punchline" in the narrative immediately after. This helps a lot since actors are primarily focused on dialogue. Especially those trained from theater. (And those are the ones you want.)
TANGENT: You do not want an actor whom you often hear "cuts well together." That's not a marathon runner, there. By that I mean someone whose performance must be assembled by your Dr Frankenstein editor from a large volume of takes/shots.
But I digress.
Subtext works really damn well when it's this sandbox you build for the people taking the script from you to produce the thing. And! Oh! Sometimes you can paint subtext in negative space. By that I mean, write to what the scene isn't. Or you can make bold the juxtaposition of what's being said and what is being felt or meant on the page. Like:
Just get out. Go.
This kind of dynamic isn't easily swatted by rushed execs trying to understand the purpose of a scene. Usually.
Point is: We have a lofty goal here of trying to deliver something that works on at least two levels. You know? When people actually say what they feel, it makes them terribly vulnerable. And vulnerability is nearly extinct thanks to the Internet. So, my gorgeous monsters, let's keep finding and sharing clever ways to deliver subtext in our stories. That shit is tough, man.
5 Must Haves for Character Backgrounds
1) I need to know what the character WANTS. Overall, and on a scene-by-scene basis, too. Smaller goals leading to the big one.
2) I need to know what the character NEEDS. Took me way too long in this job to realize those are two different things.
3) What are the character's behaviors? Can be small things like habits (chewing nails, hums absently) or bigger physicality.
4) How does the character talk? The dialogue is how I can suggest where they were raised, their education, severity, etc.
And 5) How does the character deal with conflict? Because I will be doing nothing but throwing conflict at them.
Got the place to myself tonight, so it's a date with a glass of single malt and you gorgeous monsters here. Rant time.
Writers, Romans, countrymen and citywomen, send me your questions. I will share my experience (however limited) in the business. Tonight, that is. Not right away. Now is work time.
[Later that very night...]
All right, I'm back at my desk, let me barrel through some of those Qs with some As.
#1: "Does it help to get a development job like an assistant or a coverage writer before trying to make it as a screenwriter?"
A: In my experience, not if you're a feature screenwriter. TV is a different game, though. Regardless, don't put other jobs above writing. Be a writer first, in your mind and heart, or else you'll get stuck in a non-writing job somewhere.
#2: "What's the likelihood of TV shows hiring new writers?"
A: Not very likely. It's nearly as tough for veteran writers to get hired. Basically, working in TV is a giant psychotropic cocktail of luck, nepotism, talent, productivity, and faith.
#3: "do u recommend working w/ a script consultant early on in writing a spec or at all?"
A: Not a paid one. Find peers you respect first.
#4: "What is your favourite bit of dialog from a film/tv show and why?"
A: Don't have one. There's too much great dialogue out there.
#5: "what is your first-hand experience building mystery narratives?"
A: If you get stuck, start at the end and work backwards.
#6: "Do you have a set process for writing? idea-outline-treatment-script?"
A: Basically, yes. My stories need to gestate; evolve. Also I need to build a story out little by little, and going from a one-page to an outline to a treatment to script makes it digestible. I think I'm just too intimidated by starting with the script with no pre-work.
Other things that scare me: exploratory surgery.
#7: "Breaking into
A: Dunno about breaking in, but look at Alvin Sargent's credits.
#8: "what do you do when you get a creative block? For e.g. When you get stuck with creative ideas?"
A: I do writing exercises when I'm stuck. Or I get up and go do something else for a while. The more I write, the less it happens, really.
#9: "what do you do if you get stuck at the infinite possibilities as a vehicle for your good idea?"
A: I haven't found my character yet. Once I know my character(s), I know the lens through which the good idea will be seen. Makes it manageable then.
Whoops-- dinner break. I'll be back in a bit to answer the backlog.
All right, back at the keys. Sorry for the pause. Jumping back in where I left off...
#9: "What happens when you get notes and you don't know how to implement them?"
A: Ask questions of the ones who gave you the notes. Figure out what's bumping you on them. Brainstorm a bit, if it helps. I've certainly gotten notes I don't know how to implement, but it's usually because I don't understand what needs changing. If you're concerned about asking for clarification, you can frame it like, "I don't want to toss out the baby w/ the bath water."
#10: "Writing or networking, equally important? One more or less?"
A: Still dislike the term 'networking' as my Twitter friends know. But...they're both part of the business. One is nearly useless without the other. The exceptions tend to prove the rule here.
#11: "What's the most important piece of advice for a Hollywood intern to know?"
A: I've never been one, so it feels weird to try & answer.
#12: "Could you share what notes are usually like? Like could you share an example of an actual note?"
A: Uh, sure. This may take a few tweets...
STUDIO NOTE: The hero gets the lead that this woman is in jeopardy by eavesdropping on a phone call where her name is said by the villain. We think it isn't natural in conversation for villain to mention her by name there. Seems not as smart, for him. Find a better solution.
ME: [internal screaming]
Honestly though, they're right. It was a plot point that made the hero's task a bit easier. I had to make the hero do the heavy lifting. Took me a week to figure out the clever way to answer that note, but it made the story better as a result.
Know that in rewriting there are IDEAS and there are SOLVES. A 'solve' is to fix a problem, an idea adds a new dimension to it...BUT! As I have come to learn, be very, very careful using an IDEA as a SOLVE because you end up with the equivalent of legacy software. By that I mean you can "yes, and" yourself into a black hole of concepts, each trying to hold the other up with their own baggage.
I'm a little tipsy, it's a Monday night, and I just hit a milestone with the Kingkiller pilot script. Might be time to talk TV pitches.
Now, TV pitching is a strange beast. I was trained to pitch features, and there are a few notable differences in the two. I should once again declare this is all in my experience, YMMV, obviously, there you go that's outta the way.
TV tends to start with a producer or a "pod" (a company that develops TV properties), then goes to studio, and finally to networks/buyers. So you still have layers of pitching as you do in the feature world, only there are interesting new rules in this game.
At the start, the TV developers don't want me to bring them a fully-formed pitch. They just want "areas" -- visual playgrounds, characters. I believe this is largely due to the fact that the good TV producers have a constant feed to the studio/network and know what will sell. So it feels weird but usually I can start with some sketches, or central questions, and see what lights the fires in their eyes.
This means you can come in with four or five basic ideas -- and they can be completely different in scope and genre. Which is cool.
Then comes the first hard work: Building a basic pitch of the show from that initial sketch of an idea. Still with the producer on this. Once you have a five-minute version of this down, you go into the studio where that producer has a deal/relationship and share it.
Again, as a feature guy, this pitch still feels like a skeleton. Unanswered questions. Holes. But the studio WANTS that. Wants in early. So you get a lot of notes and refine that sucker. Build it out. And usually you gear it for its 'best chance' buyer: a related network, etc.
What you'll notice: The tone of the show has a tendency to shift during this course. Figure out how much you want to bend with it. There are some who can play a political game of "I'll change it to X for the network now, but write it as Y later." I'm no good at that. So sometimes you have to be willing to flip a switch and change the tone from gritty HBO to bright ABC, or walk away from your only buyer.
That is tough, especially when you're just trying to get in the door or pay bills. But my scars say: Don't make Future You miserable.
If you've seen a show that seems confused as to what it wants to be, odds are the creator(s) and the network have two different ideas. I've developed for TV for 8 years now, and nothing makes you feel like Charlie Brown vs the football more than this.
The great and wonderful thing about it is: They love original ideas. Unlike the feature pitching world, where it's OWAs galore. Half of my 8 pilot scripts were original concepts, the other half adaptations from various source material. Just FYI.
So now back to the interesting rules of this world -- the elements of a TV pitch are actually pretty strict. Like a checklist of things.
A lot of studios will have pitch documents for you as a guide -- ask for them if you don't get one early on. They can be very helpful.
The basic elements I've seen in every doc are as follows: 1) Talk about how the project is personal to you; your way into the show. Best case: You're going to be in a room generating material for years on this show, so right up front the buyer needs to see your passion.
With the personal story intro, you often talk about the overall concept or central question -- the thing that got everyone excited.
That's our 2) the central idea/question. Sometimes stated as a 'What if' question.
In features, you tend to have 2 kinds of pitches -- the ones that start "What if..." (concept) or that start "There's a guy" (character). The winning TV pitch is an engaging mix of both: "What if there's a guy..." (Or lady, depending on the story). So after that, the 3) element TENDS to be the start of the pilot. Paint a picture, get specific, talk about the teaser. Dash thru act one.
And then you pull back a bit and get into more broadstrokes for the other acts of the pilot, stepping aside for character discussion.
Some networks want to hear characters all up front, but I've found it's more organic to halt a pitch and talk characters as they're intro'd.
So if the rest of the pilot and characters is our number 4, number 5 is: What is season one? Where are we going? And beyond that -- what does season two look like from here? Who are the major villains? What is the new arc for the hero(es)? Networks will want you to have a few episode ideas loosely broken out so they know the show works week-to-week.
That is the very basic breakdown of a pitch. The whole thing should run you about 25 minutes, and you want to save some stuff for Q&A after.
Now onto some odd little tips I wish I'd known 8 years ago in this -- but you gorgeous monsters can have it now, to save you some time.
Key words NETWORKS love to hear in pitches: 1) "formula" -- that suggests what you're building is repeatable. The show is a machine. 2) "lean in" -- a term they use to stress test the pitch, basically they mean "we're fully engaged." Not leaning in = it got predictable. Note that occasionally dumb execs will misuse the term because they don't know what it means and they want to sound smart. 3) "character engine" -- the need that drives your protags and antags in the show. Ego. Redemption. Guilt. Ambition. It steers your ship.
CABLE/OTHER buyers tend to want different things, so they have their own little language.
1) "the small win" -- Cable TV loves serialization instead of episodics. No case of the week. But the ep has to feel like its own thing...so what they look for is a turn in a character that points them in a new direction, or a vital clue in a conspiracy, etc.
2) "edgy" -- a term more and more appropriated by mainstream networks trying to be as cable-ish as they can be. For some, "edgy" means "doing something no one else is doing." Others, it's synonymous with "taboo." Now and then it just = tits & gore.
Here's a good tool: Use your producers and trusted studio folks to find out what language your buyer uses, so you know how to talk to them. By that I mean, figure out ahead of time what they're saying if the buyer says "we want an edgy protag that makes us lean in."
And speaking from personal experience, try not to burst a blood vessel from the craziness that is the TV exec world.
Networks -- cable or otherwise -- generate lots of documents about what they're looking for. Producers get these. You should ask for them. They're usually a long laundry list of everything the head exec said s/he wanted for the next development cycle. It will be a bit like reading a list of people some misogynist wants to date, but it can be helpful once you look past that.
By that I mean the document will say, "We want something like Tomb Raider, but in the office world." I mean, WTF is that about?? Or it will be more vague and say, "We are open to witches." And I learned the hard way they don't mean having a Wiccan pitch them a rom-com.
Regardless, you can sometimes find a buyer with a core need that fits your series pitch, and can help guide the team to that buyer.
But there is trouble. There will always be trouble. Say you're developing a VERY cable-ish show at a big studio. It's not at all network. Over the course of your development, the studio execs will get inundated with new, revised, and desperate needs of its main network partner. So that's akin to you helping a friend find a new, high-class romantic partner all the while the ex is drunk texting "I'M HORNY" every week.
And no one else will help you keep it cable-only. Your reps know the big money is with the nets. So will the studio. You're on your own.
The one shining beacon is: This is TV, where the writer is king. You CAN put your foot down, just don't be all Joffrey about it.
I've seen my share of cringe-worthy notes, from early pitch all the way to draft 14 of the pilot script. As with life, you have options: 1) Confront it head-on and say "no no no." 2) Negotiate, compromise, find a stopgap. 3) Ignore it, save for adding * to a few lines.
Rule of thumb with bad notes is to find the real note behind it. What are they really reacting to? Is this a false symptom of a real issue?
And remember, again, you have help. Use your producers, use your studio allies, be the captain of a team, not a hermit. With my most recent pilot, I've leaned on my producer several times to find out, "What did they mean by that note?"
It gives them something really useful to do for the project and keeps you all simpatico on development. There's so much more I could brain-dump on this, but for now I'm gonna go back to work and leave you with the biggest lesson I ever learned.
Whatever you do, DO NOT give away the best moments in the pilot until you're sent to script. Hide them, protect them. They are trump cards. You'll be tested -- oh, how you'll be tested to show them. The execs will basically throw Mardi Gras beads at you for them. But hold back.
The reason is: You are partly a magician. If you explain how a trick works in the pitch/outline stage, it loses its luster later on. I've seen execs shoot down the coolest scene in a pilot only because they've known about it for six months and it doesn't surprise them now. So employ some mystery when you develop, and don't give it all away until they've ponied up for the actual script. Show it on the page.
That's all I got for you fine scripting felons tonight, now I'm gonna refill my scotch glass and pull an Espenson writing sprint. Cheers!
Notes call now has me writing furiously into the night. But a quick break to talk loglines.
The short version ("I see what you did there"): I'm terrible at loglines. No way around it. But I can recognize a great one instantly.
There is a mountain of how-to material out there about constructing an amazing logline. A lot of formulas and rules. A lot works, too. One version is the WHEN > THEN > UNTIL model. In one sentence you lob the situation, the complication, and the big conflict.
Another model suggests you clash your protag's emotional need with your antag's need. Set up both and smash 'em together in 2 sentences. Yet another model pushes you simply to tee up the movie rather than summarize it. Hit the inciting incident and drop the mic.
There is no single method to a great logline. But I can tell you the interesting versions that fire people up. The first is the one that plays the big reveal at the end of the logline. You read the conflict and then BOOM, bomb dropped. "A frantic father struggles to save his community against authorities conspiring to cover up an unstoppable disaster called GODZILLA." That isn't perfect, but that's the WHAMMY I'm talking about. You get the heart and the humanity in the front, then end with the "oh shit."
Another version uses brevity as its main weapon. It offers a question or a declaration that creates a dozen more questions in your head. One of the shortest I'd ever seen:
"A man sues God."
Another variation: "What if your whole life has been in a virtual reality?"
These can work in certain circumstances, although they fail when applied to script repositories like Black List, because lack of story. The strongest loglines speak to the big conflict the protag faces, and suggests the choice they must make without giving away the answer. In other words, strong loglines communicate the subtext and theme of your story. Which is why some writers start with one.
What is really going on in your story? The thing behind the thing.
Rather than getting into the minutia of word choices and sentence structure, let me toss out some practices that will help.
1. Have five trusted friends read your script and ask them to write a logline for it. Compare them, notice what they responded to/ignored.
2. Use a fun social game on the logline: Tell your story in one minute, then in three words, then in only one word.
3. Pick a favorite movie and pitch it in one sentence to friends. See how many guess the movie, how many agree with your logline.
All right, that's good for now, I must crawl back to the salt mines for more work. Keep creating, you gorgeous monsters.
Good in a Room has a good round-up of this one. Check out that blog for much more good advice on networking and pitching things.
All right, folks, who're my writers out there now? I'm at the mic for a bit and feel like talking about the dragon that is pitching.
All right, I'm going to be tossing around lessons learned. When I use the word "you" I mean "me" as it's what I've discovered. YMMV.
Let's make some delineations. There are pitches of original material you invented, and pitches on properties/assignments, two diff beasts.
If it's your own idea and you're pitching it, that is a crazy steep climb. Because the buyers will wonder why you don't just write it. What you need to get in the room with anyone at that point is a super strong script of something else they've already loved. Even then, pitching your own ideas first and hoping to get paid to write them is leaving money on the table. Specs = always bigger $$.
So with that out of the way, let's focus on what 90+% of pitching will be for you: Writing assignments.
So there is a writing gig up for grabs out there and you want it. Your agent or manager or friend at the front desk can get you in the room. Or maybe you have a general meeting with the producer and you use that opportunity to say you're crazy about X and want to pitch them.
Sounds silly to mention, but you have to really care about it. You have to know why you want to write this thing vs your own stuff. Even if one of the big reasons is, "I'm terrified someone else will screw it up. I'd rather be the one, if it comes to that."
But what will be your guide from the start is your motivation for this story. What do you want to say through this particular voice/world? That's a huge help going into the pitch. The next step is to share how that motivation is personal to you. How it connects to your life. That's what you lead with. Why is this personal to you, and how does it connect to the character(s) of this property? What is its soul?
This means being able to talk about yourself, sometimes sharing traumatic experiences, with a room full of strangers. Tough.
But binding yourself and your passions or fears to a thing increases both your purpose and its value. Producers want that connection.
Now I'm going to keep going by talking about the particular beast of movie pitching, but I've done TV dev for 8 years and that's tough too.
If you're swinging for something even halfway cool in this town, expect it to be a "bake-off" (lots of writers pitching). You are not really in the game with the other writers. That is the tragic mistake I used to make. Your big opponent is yourself. Not them. Focus on what you love about the property, be it an adaptation, remake, or sequel. Share what it means to you; what it does so well.
Now here are some really crazy specifics, based on tragic blunders by yours truly.
All the preamble talk can be about how you identify with the story, and how that translates, but when you get into the actual pitch...Hit the milestone at around five minutes in and declare it. For me that's the "end of act one" moment, but it can be the big sequence, etc.
The thing that launches the rest of the movie, whatever that is, gets announced. "That's our engine for act two." And here's why you say it: Producers/execs have sat through pitches for 20 minutes only to hear the writer say at the end, "That's the backstory. Now, we open on..."
This is one of their horrible fears: That you don't know where to start pitching.
Seed some "mile markers" in your pitch to help everyone know where in the story they are. It's a great relief to them, trust me. Next: visual aids. Cards. Posterboard. Maps. Diagrams. All workable. Keep something in mind when using material like this in a pitch...
If you put too much on them for your buyers to read, they'll be reading and not listening to your story. So be visual, not wordy.
Characters in a pitch. Often tricky describing them. Some people love it when you offer casting ideas, so they see the actor in the movie. I can tell you I had a pitch completely crumble on me only because the studio exec HATED an actor I used as my template for the lead. Pow.
Try to avoid: Physical description, unless it's germane to the story. Don't bother with that crap, it's superficial 99% of the time. Instead, think of one behavioral trait that paints a bigger picture of a person. A bad habit. A cute sentimentality. What real people do. "He's the kind of guy who rants about the president but never voted." "Birthdays and holidays are a big deal to her."
That sort of thing.
More hard lessons I've the scars to prove: Make it a discussion. Don't feel it's a stand-up routine. Let them ask questions. Ask them ones. I spent way too long making my pitch simply "here are the beats of the story." That's not what they want to hear. Crazy, I know.
They want the story -- they really do -- but have you ever managed to pay attention to someone telling you the events that happen in a film? It can be really... dry. Sadly. Even if the events are really cool.
GARY WHITTA INTERJECTS: @HIGHzurrer I’ll often break out of the story at certain moments to talk about why something is important, goes to theme/character etc.
You gotta keep thinking to yourself, "How does this moment make me FEEL?" And share THAT with your buyers in the room. So in a weird way, it's almost like telling someone about a crazy thing you just lived through. Yourself.
To get all chart-y, it helps to go between very specific details and broadstrokes. Give me two mental photographs then talk subtext.
Show me the plumbing of the pitch. Don't go into detail the HOW of that epic shootout, but the WHY of it. The more I understand what's in the walls of the house you're describing, the less I worry about the decorations. Just dip into some really great bit of description now and then so I get eye candy, and feel the movie you see. A little goes a long way.
And the more you talk about the main characters, the better. If it's a sequel, the question in their minds is "Will [star] love this?"
Something a few of you have already mentioned: This is a multi-tier process. You don't start by pitching to the top decision-maker. You will be pitching the same thing again and again to people at increasingly higher levels, all who want to hear what you told the others. You're like Bruce Lee in GAME OF DEATH pitching to get to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
And because you'll be pitching it a lot, practice it a lot. Get it down to fifteen minutes or less. Leave a ton of room for Q&A. Annnnd I see some of you already just said that. But yeah. Make it shorter than you think it should be, they can always ask you follow-ups.
Sometimes you'll get the sense that the people you pitch to will simply re-pitch your story to their boss. Try to avoid that. How? End the meetings by saying you'd love to get back in the room and pitch to anyone else who needs to hear it. Be direct with them. Won't always work but if you ask that to their faces you can come back and help keep the pitch's integrity vs a bad translation by execs.
Does your pitch have a villain? Find a way to say "Here's why I agree with the villain" and mean it. Make us feel s/he could be a hero....in some other version of the movie.
Next up: References and inside language. You know what can save your hide? A little homework on what movies/TV/lit the exec loves. Find out (thru your reps or your own questions in a call/mtg) what posters they hang on their walls. What they couldn't put down at home. That helps you to know what shorthand to build into your pitch. Not to pander to them, but to give them emotional anchors to your story.
And finally, a reminder: It's a scary, exhausting, nerve-wracking thing, to pitch for a story you love. It's tough. It's also the job.
Don't be hard on yourself afterward. Practice pushing through social awkwardness in non-pitch scenarios. At parties. With friends.
As scary as it may be to put your heart on your sleeve and say, "This is me, this is my heart in this story," talent does this all the time. We are the first to do it, but then we're telling people to follow our footsteps. The director does the same dance, to slightly diff music. Actors REALLY do it, in an all-in kind of way that still boggles my mind. And they're relying on your commitment from way back.
Okay, with those trial-by-fire lessons learned, I'll end with this, my worst pitching horror stories.
I once pitched to an exec who got up mid-pitch to use his private adjacent restroom, but left the door cracked for me to "keep pitching."
Yeah, that was a moment of humiliation right there.
I once pitched on a comic book adaptation using other successful CB movies as touchstones. Their reply at end: "That won't win us Oscars."
I once pitched to someone at Smokehouse Pics and mid-pitch was interrupted by GEORGE EFFING CLOONEY, totally wiped my brain.
Once, my only way to crack a tough property and make it personal was by putting it in a very different setting. So I start my windup...
ME: "We open in [setting]."
EXEC: "I hate that setting. Next?" ME: *crushed silence*
And let me reiterate: There are as many ways to work in this business as there are writers. But these are my lessons based on my path. And in my experience, feature pitching is all about writing assignments. (TV writing is a different ballgame.)
Some studios (be it TV or feature) love original ideas and buy those pitches, to make it their own. TO MAKE IT THEIR OWN *spooky music*
I pitched and sold an original idea to a studio that then got warped and twisted into something else.
That can happen. It has happened. It will happen. You have to keep swinging and act as if it won't happen again to you.
Okay I just gave myself PTSD from those horror stories and have to go lie down for a spell. Have a great day, you gorgeous monsters.
Details and Continuity
"Okay, so I'll get into one aspect of writing here that may or may not bore you, but it's work that tends to go unseen.
We are not the only creatives in this business whose detail-oriented work is largely ignored -- wardrobe designers deal with it too.
In the 1982 THE THING, we see documentary footage of the Norwegian crew using thermite to detonate ice at a site where something is buried.
I brought in a forensic archaeologist to look at the crash site when MacReady visits it plus that Norwegian footage, for my research. (And yes, there is such a thing as a forensic archaeologist, how cool is that?)
When I asked about the thermite detonating over the ship, she stopped me. "No, that's stupid. No science team would do that." Why? Because it risks damaging or destroying the thing you want to excavate. You don't blow a hole right over it, you go in from the side. So now as a writer I had the challenge of making these scientists NOT stupid while adhering to what we see in the 1982 film. Headache.
But! Did you know how many viewers in test screenings of SE7EN believed they saw Gwyneth Paltrow's head in that box? There is no such shot. Likewise, we never see the thermite placed directly over the ship. With editing we THINK it's the same place, but the footage isn't clear. So I began to craft a solution that allowed the science team to forge a controlled detonation nearby, to a fissure that offered access.
It all sounds super dorky to inject science into the movie like that but that's who most of these characters WERE.
Same goes with the block of ice found in the Norwegian camp. The hole carved out of the top, as if something were exhumed. But...Why make it incredibly hard on yourself by digging in from the top like that? You'd need a crane to lift it out. Better: from the side. Another science glitch I wrestled with in the script stage.
At any rate, you can do a ton of research, interview specialists, and then build a movie that makes sense while building drama. But...Much of that hard work can be invisible to others downstream, and choices can be made without benefit of that knowledge. Agonizing as it is.
What I miss most from the final film isn't the science, but rather all the paranoia of the script, and the characterization. Peder, the meathead of the camp, was a chain smoker. Later someone remarked how Peder hadn't smoked in 8 hours, making him suspect. Lars had more to do. As did Jonas, who had a collection of photos of crowded places in Norway as reminder of people in the world. Later we see Jonas just staring at those photos, and we don't know if he's scared he won't see home again, or as a Thing realizing populace.
Anyway, if you find that you, the director, and the studio are fighting over what KIND of movie you're making, you're in trouble.
Thanks for letting me vent about that. It was a little like picking at an old wound, but there are lessons there.
General Screenwriting Advice
Jeanne Bowerman of Storify did a great (and far more visual than mine) curation of this one already.
*takes a swig* Okay, ladies and gents, it's thunder and lightning.
In a meeting recently, an exec pitched me a movie title and showed me the poster. That's all they had. Plus marketing's word it was "gold."
You don't build a goddamn house by starting with the furniture. I don't care what the IKEA lady said, you're gonna have a bad time.
This kind of mindset is actually common in the studios. Why? THEY DON'T CREATE INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. That's our job. So what can they do? They can think up movie titles and walk them into the marketing department and get some poll done at a mall. No studio wants the motto: "Patiently waiting for original material." They don't want to believe that's a reality. They want control.
The good news is: An original story with a universal message will win you keys to the city. That right there is the REAL gold.
But if you're struggling to get a foothold in this crazy upside-down business, sometimes your only way in is with a studio property. *cough*
So what can you do in the scenario when facing an exec pitching you CATNADO? If you're struggling to pay bills? Character. It will feel like the most bizarre thing to go at it talking about theme, character, and metaphor, but crack that, you'll get hired. The mid-level people are all focused on the trailer, the poster, etc. But the top execs? They want to keep relationships with actors. How?
By delivering great CHARACTERS in their movies.
If you want to pitch CATACLYSM or whatever "summer tentpolecat" open writing assignment, make it something a star would love to star in.
I pitched for a project last year by showing up with a scripted monologue for the hero. I said, "This is the kind of person he is." That was above-and-beyond, but I saw the whole movie through that lens, and as a writer my most convincing weapon is actual writing.
On top of all this, you ABSOLUTELY CANNOT be cynical about the business. Even if you feel like Charlie Brown w/ Lucy's football. Way more execs than you realize can smell cynicism. Can sense when you truly believe they're the enemy. That attitude is cancer.
There are amazing people in the studio system, at all levels. They can be hard to find, yes! But good attracts good. Seriously. The people making STORY OF YOUR LIFE believe in movies with ideas. They have big hearts. They don't care about the 'fuckability factor.' There are screenwriters who've found their way to producing positions. They know the plight of the writer. A lot of them are way cool.
You have to silence that voice that warns you'll get fired for pushing for quality, and assume it's a monogamous movie relationship.
Also! The studio system isn't the only game in town. I got HOURS made entirely out of that world, with one producer and financiers.
None of these paths are simple or easy. You will get exhausted swinging at them. But great material gets attention. Maybe quick, maybe slow.
If your goal is to sell a screenplay, you are in for a world of hurt. Because those shouldn't be your goalposts. A sale = a START to career.
Another one: DO NOT dare watch a crap movie and think you can make it in the biz because "I can write better than that!" No no no. That is called the "shit plus one" dilemma. It means your goal was to produce something marginally better than shit.
And consider maybe that crappy movie actually started as a GENIUS script, way back when? And some writer cries over the monster it became.
*coughs* *coughs again*
So let's reach for really damn awesome writing. Let's raise the median, skew the grading curve, build a new floor.
If you're looking for total creative autonomy, you're bound for heartache in this business. It's collaborative by design. Want your words to reach the audience directly? Cool! Write a novel. A script is a thing to build what the public eventually sees. That means when you're working with producers, directors, cast, execs, etc., you have to think about what will help them in your writing.
The spec script gives you freedom to do whatever you want. Put in all the needle drops you desire. Paint the world blue. Go nuts.
The moment that spec sells, understand the realities that set in: Song rights are expensive/impossible. Digital coloring troublesome. Etc.
The biggest lesson I learned as a writer was to work on my social skills. Shyness cost me jobs early on. Fear of introducing myself, mainly.
I hate the term "networking." It's not really accurate. It's also a staid business term. What we do? Seek friends. Mentors. Peers.
When I write a script now, I don't write for the studio, I write to impress @jonspaihts, @jonrog1, @garywhitta, and my other writer friends.
So this began with me bitching about the exec with a movie poster and no script, but it ends with: They need us to show them the better way.
You're all awesome and I'm a little drunk. I'm gonna bail tonight before I start hugging everybody."
Pick the most challenging thing you could write, and swing at it. Fight above your weight class. Binge on great stories. Discipline comes easier in this line of work if you can still get a high from talking about great movies/TV/lit.
It was a terrifying challenge to adapt Josh Malerman's upcoming BIRD BOX to screen, but I'm proud of the work so far.
Likewise with the KINGKILLER pilot. Some projects take months and months to crack. And the stamina not to settle for pretty good.
Screenwriting Advice (Drafts, Parentheticals, Respect)
All right, it's Friday night and I have a glass of single malt warming my belly. Perfect time to set up camp on Twitter. Let me share some stuff I've learned as a screenwriter through trial and lots of error, in hopes it will save you some grief.
A first draft of something for producers can be everything you want it to be. Subtext. Clever setups and callbacks. Authentic dialogue. But there will come a time when you have to put some big mile markers in place, for the studio or director or whomever. It will feel on-the-nose to you. It will make you worry THIS is the draft that may get leaked. Don't fret over it. One draft will be text.
The reason this helps is because while talent (actors) don't need it, your barrier to talent will. And you want to be clear abt intent.
So, remember you're writing as an interpreter sometimes. Allow yourself to tell the reader, "This is what the hero feels here." I promise you'll have a chance to pull that back and make it subtext again later, if you have a good relationship with those involved.
But also, dear god, pour your heart into it. Love your characters. Respect them. Treat every scene like a bonsai tree in your garden.
You know what I've been toying with lately? Parentheticals. Tone can sometimes be hard to interpret. Parens are like emoticons for scripts.
An example: COMMANDER And wear your tie with your uniform, private. PROTAGONIST (die in a fire) Thank you, sir.
Also, tinker with this: Find your character arc, then write a line of dialogue stating the end of arc as your last line of the script. Like I knew Nolan's arc in HOURS was bonding with his daughter, so the very last line is, "I know you." Give yourself a finish line. From there you can craft a bit of dialogue that spells out the beginning of the arc, and if you do nothing else, you've marked that journey.
Oh, and do you like eating delicious food? Of course you do. So remember to read amazing screenplays and stories, too.
And sometimes you read a script where it's clear the writer was thinking, "If I were an actor, what would I just kill to say/do here?"
This is a really awesome job. Don't let the bullshit bleed that joy from you. Keep that chin up. Oh, and one more thing...
RESPECT YOUR FELLOW WRITER. We're all in the trenches, man. You know? Be excellent to one another.
If you get a rewrite, no matter how awkward it may feel, reach out to the previous writer. Be respectful.
Okay, I'm gonna shut up now because really you all know this shit anyway.
Oh, right. What do you say to a writer you're hired to rewrite. "Hey, I'm borrowing the keys to your car. Any advice?"
"All right my Twitter buddies, I wanna talk about a certain style of screenwriting. It will likely lead to today's challenge.
I've seen a rise in a certain style of writing in the past few months. Half of the scripts I've seen use the "haiku" narrative style. By that I mean the extremely terse Walter Hill form of writing. Soft returns, loads of white space.
First off: Yay! Congrats to all of you swinging for this minimalist style. It's incredibly hard to pull off. So let's talk about pitfalls.
The Walter Hill minimalist style isn't merely a matter of omission. You can't simply cut out a ton of action and format the rest as a poem. Every choice must be a conscious one. We need to know who the characters are in a scene. What things look like. Details. Don't be vague.
I've read scripts recently where the only description was character action, i.e. "Joe runs." This is too minimal; non-cinematic.
Likewise, there should be reason why and when you choose a soft return. Usually that choice should be directorial in motive. Suggest a new shot with the new line. Or a movement within the shot to catch a detail. Make it a cinematic choice.
So the Tuesday Challenge is this: Try out the minimalist style for five pages with these constraints: 1) With each new location/room, pick three details in the location to describe at the head of the scene. Shine a light on three sensory tidbits (at least 2 visual). 2) When you introduce a character pick three words to describe them. Make 1 physical, 1 psychological, 1 metaphoric.
The Walter Hill style isn't about omitting descriptive detail, but rather paring it down to poetics. Find the most powerful word and use it.
Do not write it like a kid in a dark room with a flashlight, waving it around and making light saber noises. Point it at the dead body."
Real or Fake Script Notes?
Reader, you decide.
"Shall we play the REAL OR FAKE STUDIO NOTES game?"
"No one has the patience for paranoia thrillers. Make it a monster movie."
"He's not scary enough. Put him in a cardigan."
"I don't get what the theme is here. So make it about redemption."
"That's not how an alien would talk."
"(When told having the hero say 'Let's do this' is cliché) 'I think you mean it's tried-and-true.'"
"I had one producer on a project some years ago actually rewrite my scientist characters to all say "That's retarded!" at odd times."
"'So there's a lot of magic use in the script. Is there a way to lose most of it or replace it?' -- real note, DR STRANGE (1993)"
"There are also completely awesome execs out there, too. People who watch love movies. Who tell you, 'You can do better here, in act two.' You want an exec with a rich vocabulary of film, genre, etc. Not someone who says, 'horror = jump scares + sfx stings, boom done.'"
"Oh god just remembered another one. Hang on."
"'It's a comic book about inner-city werewolves with guns. Your take is okay, but we're aiming for a prestige drama with it.'"
"'Make this character a man, because you wrote her all the good jokes, and women aren't funny.'"
"'The test screening audience I cherry-picked for the point I want to make agrees that the story is too sophisticated.'"
"[draft one] "Yeah, this scene should be scarier. [make portions ALL CAPS] "Not quite there yet. [draft 3, add underlines] "Bingo!" [stabs]"
"One of the big reasons why I fell in love with STORY OF YOUR LIFE was because it had a smart, well-rounded female protagonist. When my script (adapted from the story) went out, one buyer told me, 'If you want this to get made, change the lead to a male.'
And that is precisely how I could have become the problem I'm trying to fight.
And why I'd rather it be a hard slog.
You can't expect more female actors to get leads unless you write more material for them. And FYI, Josh Malerman's BIRD BOX novel features an amazing female lead. And it's a part any actor could sink their teeth into."
On Output and Other Matters
"I write for ten hours a day, six days a week. Those hours are usually scattered throughout the day, including 2-4am sometimes. I write because it's my addiction. And because it's how I get better at it, along with reading and seeing movies/plays. If I'm not producing four feature screenplays and one pilot a year, I'm not working hard enough. Also, I might be insane. When I worked an 8-5 office job in Houston, I averaged 1 feature script and 1 pilot a year. In a good year, 2 features."
"Iain Banks once wrote a shocking bit of action in the middle of a long sentence, and the effect was a jolt of punctuation-free adrenaline."
"Writing suspense in a screenplay format is a lesson in humility."
"One of the big fears in this job: having taste more refined than talent to reach it. There's always some ineffable facet of greatness."