Dirty Little Secrets
Many, many years ago, when I first went to Hollywood to become a writer, like a lot of people,
I bought books with titles like "How to Sell a Screenplay" and "How to get an Agent."
After a short time, I realized those books weren't worth the paper they were printed on, not because
they didn't give some good advice, but because they didn't tell you real story of the entertainment industry,
the "dirty little secrets" of how to really make it in Hollywood. On this page I'll give you some real advice;
I certainly don't know everything, but I'll tell you what I've learned.
by Stacey Bean, Director, Hot Spring Screenplay Competition
(unless otherwise noted)
No, the Butler Didn't Do It... The Real Criminal Was the Boring Writing
February 2, 2022
After we started this competition, I joined "Screenwriting Twitter" and there's a lot of discussion about competition and industry script readers and their reasons for rejecting scripts. There are stories of scripts being rejected because of bold slug lines or fantasy flashbacks or misspelled words or for whatever godforsaken reason. Let's hope those readers aren't that shallow, if they are, shame on them. But it made me think about what kills a script for me. And it's always the same thing: boring writing.
I read a script the other day that was competently written, not great, but not awful, but after several pages it just seemed to go nowhere. Nothing exciting happened, the characters weren't very interesting... and soon I found myself fidgeting with things on my desk, looking around the room and thinking about my grocery list. Suddenly, I looked back at my computer screen and remembered I was supposed to be reading a script.
I've read hundreds of scripts over the years and even more so now with our Competition, and I can forgive almost anything except for boring writing. Boring writing doesn't mean the story being told has to be my type of story; I've read lots of scripts that were written in genres that I really hate, yet I couldn't wait to turn every page of those scripts to read more. The same goes for scripts that start out as exactly the type of story I've been waiting for and then, twenty pages in, it puts me to sleep.
So what makes boring writing? Remember that script writing is story telling. Imagine that you're telling the story of your screenplay to a roomful of strangers. Is your story interesting enough, on every page, to keep those strangers in their seats? Or do you have a great premise that starts well and then you spend thirty pages slogging through boring, repetitive action and dialogue? If so, those strangers are going to move heaven and earth to get the hell out of that room... as will a reader of your script. I don't care how great your story premise is, or your ending, if those middle ninety pages aren't just as interesting as the first ten and the last ten, then your writing is boring.
Here are some suggestions:
-Not every single word or page of your screenplay has to be super exciting, that would exhaust an audience, but even in the quiet moments, you have to find ways to make your writing sparkle with wit and creativity. I've read scripts that made even the action paragraphs fun to read because the writer's choice of words was so original.
-Exposition. Yes, every story has to have a certain amount of exposition, but keep those paragraphs as short as humanly possible. And then make them shorter.
-Repetition. Don't repeat ideas or dialogue. You only have to introduce an idea one time and your audience will get it. I just read a script the other day that repeated the same idea multiple times. First it was boring, then it became irritating, then I wanted to throw the script in the trash. I repeat, don't repeat. (See how irritating that was?)
-Dialogue. Every line of dialogue has to be in your story for a reason. Don't create conversations between characters just to have conversations, dialogue is meant to advance a story or reveal something about a character. If you have a line of dialogue that doesn't have a specific reason to be in the story, take it out. With dialogue, less is definitely more.
Your job as a screenwriter is to entertain and you have to make sure that every character, every situation, every page of your screenplay is entertaining. Your screenplay doesn't have to be perfect, it just can't be boring.
The Myth of The Perfect Screenplay
October 31, 2021
How many times have you read screenplay advice articles which tell you that to get noticed in Hollywood, you have to write the perfect screenplay? Sorry, but like Bigfoot, unicorns and overnight Hollywood successes, there's no such thing. Judging any type of art, especially writing, is subjective; what one person loves, another person hates. The perfect screenplay doesn't exist.
But all the advice articles tell you you have to write a perfect, mind-blowing script that readers can't turn the pages fast enough to see what happens next in order to even have a chance of making it. Again, don't buy it. One of the dirty, little secrets of Hollywood is that Hollywood is divided into two groups: those "inside the door" and those "outside the door" trying to get in the door. Those inside the door are the people actually working in the industry, i.e. actors, writers, agents, executives, producers, directors, etc. and those outside the door are everyone else who'd like to have those jobs. Those inside the door can get their scripts read by people who can buy them or produce them, even if the scripts aren't that great, while the people outside the door find it almost impossible to get their scripts read. One of the worst myths every created about screenwriting was when Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won the screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting. And suddenly, every writer in America thought they could make it in Hollywood; if these two young, unknown guys could win an Oscar for screenwriting, they could, too! The only problem was that all the articles which chronicled Damon and Affleck's success never mentioned that they were already "inside the door of the industry", as working, represented actors. They had a way to get their script read. If they had been outside the door of the industry, just two young guys in Boston who wrote a good screenplay, the chances are likely their script never would have been read.
But how to make it in Hollywood is not necessarily the point of this article, that advice is for another day. The point of this column is to discuss how to write a good screenplay. Because hopefully, if you network enough or place in enough competitions, you eventually get "inside the door" of Hollywood or at least meet someone important who will read your script. And that's when you're going to need a good screenplay.
So what makes a good screenplay? Well, again, the perfect screenplay doesn't exist. What blows one reader's mind puts another reader to sleep. Trust me, I've seen dozens of examples of a screenplay which makes the finals of a competition and then a week later, doesn't make the Top 500 quarterfinals in another competition.
There are plenty of really good screenplays, though, and over the next few weeks, I'll give you my thoughts about what makes good screen writing. But remember, and this is really important, don't let one person or one reader's opinion affect your writing. When you get notes from a screenplay competition, take the good, constructive notes and make changes in your script that might be needed, but ignore the bad notes. I've received some really good notes over the years that I put to good use, but I've also received some notes that were so bad they were cringeworthy. Most screenplay readers, whether they know it or not, aren't really judging your work based on the quality of your writing, they're letting their own personal opinions, likes and dislikes, influence their judgement.
And always remember: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter was rejected by 12 publishers before being published, Dr. Seuss received 27 rejections and Stephen King's story, Carrie, was rejected a stunning 80 times. If your writing is good, don't give up. Eventually, you'll find someone who loves it!
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Notes on Your Screenplay
November 3, 2021
I've received lots and lots of notes on my screenplays over the years and I've learned there are good notes and bad notes. It's natural for us, as writers, to take notes as if they're the voice of God, written on stone tablets and brought down from the mount by Moses. They're not. Readers of screenplays run the gamut of experience, from established writers and industry professionals to intern flunkies who somehow got rooked into doing the job for no pay. And remember, even if the notes are from an experienced professional, it's still only one person's opinion. I've actually been in Hollywood pitch meetings where I was told no one would watch my t.v. show, only to watch helplessly as a show just like mine premiered on t.v. the following year and found great popularity. Not even the experienced professionals know everything. Just as an antique's real value is only what someone is willing to pay for it, the only person's opinion that really matters about your screenplay is the person paying to produce it.
So how to tell good notes from bad ones? Good notes are from readers who respect the story you want to tell, even if he/she doesn't like that story and the reader tries to help you tell YOUR story better. Bad notes are from readers who don't like your story and try to convince you to change your story so it becomes the type of story they'd like to tell. Good notes will focus on whether your script is original, has credible dialogue, has interesting characters, is a fun and exciting read, has an interesting conflict and yes, if it's formatted correctly. Bad notes will focus on things the reader doesn't personally like, whether those things work in your story or not. The job of a reader is to judge your script on the quality of your writing, not whether he/she likes it. I just read a screenplay that was written in a genre that I really, really hate, but I had to admit, the script was well-written. Whether or not I liked the story didn't matter.
Don't take your bad notes too seriously, but don't take your good notes too seriously, either. In both cases, those notes are only one person's opinion. As Rudyard Kipling said, If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same. In other words, don't let one bad note derail your passion, but don't let one good note go to your head. Even the best scripts can always be improved and the best notes will help you do that.
At the end of the day, you do you. Tell the stories you want to tell. And yes, your screenplay has to be interesting with credible dialogue and interesting characters, etc., etc., etc., but don't let one person's negative opinion discourage you from telling the story you want to tell. Tell your story and if you love it, someone else will, too.
November 5, 2021
Dialogue, almost more than anything, will make or break your screenplay. There's not a lot to write here, it's pretty simple; dialogue has to sound authentic. Your characters should talk the way real people talk. I just read a screenplay in which the middle-aged characters talked like teen-agers. The plot and action of the script were good, but I couldn't help but wince every time one of the characters spoke. The same goes for teen-agers who are written way too wise beyond their years.
Another trap in dialogue writing are cliches. If you're writing a comedy, avoid jokes, punchlines or catch-phrases which are already worn. Having one character tell another character, "Go, girl!", might be the perfect line for your scene, but most readers are going to wish you'd written something a little more original. And you can wreck a drama by making your characters too over-wrought. Just as worn-out jokes or punchlines are cliches in comedy, a drama in which the characters express their feelings with crying and lots and lots of sad dialogue can also sound a little tired. Remember that even in sad dramas, your characters still have to be likable; people we'd want to be around. Try to think of some new, original, less-cliched way for your characters to express their sadness.
A big no-no in dialogue writing is repetition. I know you've read this advice about screenwriting because I've read it hundreds of times over the years. Once you introduce an idea through your character's dialogue, don't repeat it. Most readers will understand the idea, conflict or situation you mention the first time and when you repeat that idea, it starts to sound clunky. Reading a script is like climbing a ladder, each new idea presented is like reaching a new rung on the ladder and when readers reach one rung they want to go to the next one. When your dialogue repeats the same ideas or premises, it's almost as if you're forcing the reader to climb back down to a rung he/she has already mastered.
A Little Goes a Long Way
Say a lot with a little. If your characters are explaining every idea or situation in incredible detail, they're probably talking too much. This also fits in with the age-old advice about screenwriting: don't tell, show. If you're writing long paragraphs of dialogue to explain something, try cutting down that dialogue to only what's absolutely crucial. Again, your readers will understand your premise more quickly than what you might expect and they don't want to be bored by reading clunky and boring dialogue.
Your Calling Card
Writing fresh and witty dialogue is your real calling card into the industry. If your characters are likable or funny or move someone to tears, then readers will forgive a lot of other problems with your script. I've often heard from script readers that while they didn't particularly like a script, they loved a character in the script and wanted to read more about that character. And writing great dialogue is the way to make your characters likable and hopefully, unforgettable.
Baiting the Hook
by Clayton Guiltner, M.A., M.F.A.
Guiltner Creative Productions, LLC
I'm especially excited to present this piece of advice from Clayton Guiltner, an L.A.-based producer and director. His is the first of what I hope will be many guest articles.
Baiting the Hook
Let’s say you have the most brilliant idea for a script that has ever been thought up in the history of the world. Okay, well, we all believe that to be true of our ideas, right? And that’s a good thing! First and foremost, we have to believe in our ideas and in ourselves as writers. And let’s say that we have the perfectly formatted, most engaging dialogue, relatable characters, and a jewel of a script sitting on our hard drive. It’s a sure-fire win! All we must do now is get it in front of a producer. In our mind it’s a no-brainer and we’ll be walking the red carpet soon! But there are many factors far outside of our control and our perspective as writers and it helps to understand some of these.
One issue I see in Hollywood as a writer is that my idea, no matter how brilliant and how well executed, must fit within the business strategy of the producer. How do I know what their strategy is, and do I write stories that fit? My advice is, don’t try to fit someone else’s mold. Write what resonates with you, what you are passionate about and what you love. Be comfortable in your own skin as a writer and know what you do well – and do it! But understand that your greatest idea might not be something that a producer can sell. What sells one season will be old news the next and even producers can’t predict the market trends and audience tastes. That's why it’s important to keep writing, keep pitching, and not be discouraged with the barrage of “no’s” you’ll inevitably get.
So what can we control when it comes to getting our scripts optioned? One strategy we can employ is to find producers who tend to produce the types of stories we write. Find a match. If we know that certain production companies or producers are successful with certain genres and stories that fit their business. Think of it like going fishing. We might think that throwing a large net out in the ocean will eventually result in a fish, but often we might just get some garbage and a few shells. It’s unpredictable. I would argue that baiting the hook with the right type of bait, for the right body of water, and the right time of day will increase the chances of getting a bite. Hollywood is like the ocean, and we have to be more strategic with our approach than just throwing out our work in that sea of uncertainty.