Archive for December 2009

The Black List

December 12, 2009

Ah, it’s the annual release of the Black List, Hollywood’s unofficial list of the best unproduced scripts of the past calendar year. Executives are polled anonymously about their favorites, and it’s all compiled into a document that includes the title, author’s name, a logline, and representation. (Plus the status of the project.)

Short story is, this list began circulating a few years back and has now become widely known within the industry as a shorthand guide to recognizing up-and-coming writers and great new scripts from established writers. Rather than simply being a way to pay these guys on the back, the Black List has actually taken on new significance. Young, hungry execs are expected to know the names of every writer boasting a script in the top 10. Even if you’ve never had a produced movie in your life, having your name appear on the Black List can give you a newfound cache because it means you didn’t just come up with a good idea — you wrote a good script, too. That means you might be a good choice to write other projects.

For the fledgling writer, the Black List is a valuable resource for many reasons. For one, it’s always useful to see examples of loglines. It’s difficult to explain to someone how to write a good log, but easy to show them what one looks like. For another, it helps you become familiar with the names of young agents and managers who represent the authors. These are the guys you’d like to rep your script one day. Finally, the Black List is a good cheat sheet to show you what’s getting attention in the marketplace these days (hint: thrillers, comedy and more thrillers).

The Black List’s top 11

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The Art of Titling

December 1, 2009

How important is the title of your script? Many writers assume that it’s an inconsequential part of screenwriting, a way of keeping track of what you’ve written so you can refer to it as something other than “Script #3.”

In fact, a reader makes a lot of assumptions about your script by looking at its title. Where an unimaginative, boring title can work against you, an original or witty title sparks immediate interest and makes us wonder, “What’s this about?”

There are also hidden dangers to titling a script—making it sound like it’s about one thing when it’s about something else can make the reader feel duped and unclear about what genre you’re writing in. “The script is called ‘Tears of Sorrow,’ so why does it read like a romantic comedy?”

Taking the time to come up with an appropriate and memorable title can pay off for you in the long run. Some movies just sound interesting:

–         The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

–         Legends of the Fall

–         Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

–         Blood Diamond

These four movies have one thing in common: their titles suggest something intriguing, moving, funny or disturbing. The conflict of the story is hinted at in the title, giving us an idea of what the audience about to see. They promise tragedy, adventure or comedy. We haven’t seen the movie, but we’re already hooked.

As easily as a title can help a project, it can hurt it. Watch out for these all too common pitfalls of script titling:

–         Calling your script “The (Whatever).” No matter what that “whatever” is, demonstrate that you can come up with something more imaginative than the word itself.

–         Overlong titles. “The Rise and Fall of Incorrigible Sam, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Clean His Room” is not a good title—nobody is going to go to the trouble of remembering the whole thing except you. It will inevitably be shortened to “Incorrigible Sam,” which is a better title anyway.

–         Vague, pretentious titles like “Transcending Reality” or “In the Mind of Man,” which do nothing to illuminate the subject of the actual script. You might as well scream, “Reading this will make your brain hurt.”

Some good tips for script titling:

–         A pun or play on words always helps a title stick in a reader’s brain.

–         Use a classic song lyric or recognizable phrase. If it’s the solution to a puzzle on “Wheel of Fortune,” it can be used as a script title.

–         Combine words that don’t go together but suggest something weird or curious. A script called “Lunchbox Warriors” might not end up being good, but a reader will pick it up long before we get to the one titled “The Red Car.”

Armed with these tips, titling your script should be simple—and, done well, will put you out in front of a pack of unimaginatively titled script. Happy naming!

The Importance of Copyediting

December 1, 2009

Would you apply for a job without proofing your cover letter? Then beware of submitting a script for consideration—anywhere—without proofreading it first.

The first job I ever held in the entertainment industry was as an office production assistant on a sub par network multi-camera sitcom. Among my various responsibilities (which included carrying twelve cups of Starbucks red eyes up two flights of stairs to the writer’s room each day, and driving from Burbank to Santa Monica and back at five in the afternoon to purchase a specific kind of cooking pan on shoot night) was vetting the resumes that flooded our office through the fax machine on a daily basis.

The resumes ran the gamut from elegant and professional, to the barely legible. One thing I knew—if the cover letter was full of typos, errors and sloppy syntax, it was going in the garbage bin. It wasn’t that you had to be particularly smart to work in television. It was just that there were already so many other resumes piling up that it simply wasn’t worth anybody’s time to consider applications from people who didn’t already know the difference between “there” and “their.”

Today, as a professional reader, I’m always secretly amazed by how many scripts squeak through the system without ever having benefited from the aid of a spellchecker program or a good, merciless copyedit. As a grammar geek, I wring my hands over lines like “The sun set’s over the mountains.” I itch to break up a comma-less run-on sentence into the kind of neat, short sentences and clauses that are reader-friendly.

If I had time to delve deeply into every script I read for the hidden kernel of artistic brilliance nestled within, I would. One of the tougher aspects of the job is being forced, in the interest of quick turnaround, to spend no more than a few hours reading and writing up notes on a script. It’s unfair to the writer, who spent months of effort creating it. It’s unfair to my employers, who are getting only superficial feedback.

But it’s what I’m paid to do, and so the reality remains: I’m reading as many scripts as I can, and I have to pass on almost all of them. I have no choice in the matter. And if a script is poorly written and unedited, it takes longer to read and comprehend it. The longer it takes to read, the less time I’ll be able to spend actually thinking about the potential of the script itself, and writing up coherent notes on it.

So, what exactly is the big deal about a few spelling errors in a script? Why should that influence the person reading it if, on the whole, the script has good ideas and is interesting? Nobody ever rejected a script because they found a typo on page seventy-two, it’s true. However, if your script has a considerable number of grammatical, spelling or syntactical errors in it, to the point of being obvious, it says a few things to me:

–         You sent out your script before it was ready. How can a writer convince someone that what they’ve submitted is the absolute best they have to offer if they didn’t think enough of it to run it past a spellchecking program?

–         You don’t respect my time. Bad writing is difficult to read. It takes longer to comprehend each individual sentence, and longer to comprehend the story as a whole. If a word is misspelled beyond recognition, or if the writer has strung a bunch of run-on sentences into a twenty line paragraph, it takes the reader twice as long to figure out what’s happening in the story. Professional writers write concisely and clearly, so that the script flows smoothly across the page without distracting from the story it wants to tell.

Typos slip through the cracks, no matter what. The more you read the words you have written, the more likely an error will escape your attention. But errors that cloud the clarity of what’s going on in your story are an unnecessary obstacle. The odds are stacked high enough against you as it is—why make things needlessly harder on yourself?

Always, always, always think in terms of clarity. When your script is easy to read, it will be a pleasure for others to read it. Your plot, characters and dialogue will stand out on their own without any messy errors to distract and get in the way. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.

So run spellcheckers and grammar checkers through their paces. Beg your nitpicky friend to give your script a once over with a red pen and flag any conspicuous errors. Use as frequently as possible. It’s worth the extra time spent, and if your script is something you care about and believe deserves to be read, then do it a solid and send it out in the best shape it can possibly be.

The Page 30 Barrier

December 1, 2009

The old saw goes, “You’ve got 10 pages to hook a reader.”

Actually, it depends. Readers can tell almost immediately if a writer knows what she’s doing, or if she’s just an amateur. Think of us as contestants on the old game show “Name that Tune”—we can name that writing style in three pages or less. Edgy, Current Writer with Strong Voice. Established Veteran Trying to Get Back in the Game. Recent Film School Grad Enamored of Fancy Camera Angles.

If we could, we would choose to put down a truly bad script after ten pages like anybody else. But our job is to truck through to the very end—and this gives you, the writer, added opportunities. Your script may get off to a slow start, then kick it into fifth gear, throw in some unexpected twists, and take us completely by surprise. But here’s the kicker: if we’re not on board by page 30, we’re not going to get there.

It might sound obvious to point out the necessity of a clear, intriguing first act that lays proper groundwork for the rest of the story. But many writers fail to do just that. They may be afraid of giving away too much early on. They may be so concerned with introducing the setting and characters that they forget to kick-start the action. Whatever the reason, by the time a reader gets to page 30 of your script, she must be able to determine:

Who is the main character? What is his primary goal and what are the tools at his disposal to attain it? Who or What will hold him back? What is this script about?

–         Don’t let fear of revealing your Big Twist too early keep you from writing clearly and understandably. Readers have limited time—your script gets one read and one read only. Include too many veiled references, or conversations about subjects we don’t understand, and a reader will lose interest before she has the chance to figure out what the hell you were talking about.

–         If you’re setting your script on a distant planet with its own laws of physics and a dozen different species of intelligent life, don’t sweat having to explain everything to us right off the bat. Twenty pages of exposition are pointless if they fail to pull us into the action right away.

–         Don’t make the common rookie mistake of sending your characters on a string of unrelated wacky adventures that have no identifiable endgame. Even Harold and Kumar had a goal: to get to Whitecastle. We must understand where your characters are headed by page 30 and why, even if we don’t yet know how exactly they will get there.

A professional reader is a captive audience—use that to your advantage. A fantastic, white-knuckle opening is meaningless if the remainder of the first act is an unfocused mess. Set up your story clearly and deliberately, identify your major characters, and send us into the second act with a confident idea of where your story’s headed. Your script will be a pleasure to read.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

December 1, 2009

Ah, clever writer.

You are a wellspring of screenwriting knowledge. You are well versed in the art of crafting the commercial concept. You pushed aside those pesky starter screenplays (mostly autobiographical) and now have come up with something that could really, actually sell. (Maid in Manhattan meets Groundhog Day? Yes! Run with it!) You have written a seriously juicy role that you know, just know, Will Ferrell would be perfect for.

Things are looking good, and your confidence in your own writing is a beautiful thing. Confidence on the part of the writer usually makes reading a script a pleasure for the reader, rather than a chore. We love the zing of unexpected dialogue. We love becoming invested in your characters, and imagining who would fit each role perfectly. We like to believe you know what you are doing, and that we are being spirited away on a breathless ride by a master storyteller.

The problem arises not when you are clever, but when you get too clever, and become too focused on making sure anybody who reads your script knows it.

Think of it this way. There’s the guy at the club who looks good and acts like he knows it. He’s kind of a jerk, maybe; he’s a little more confident than he should be, and he doesn’t seem to care that much whether or not he scored with you or not. As a result, he has hooked up with four women by the end of the night.

Then there’s the guy whose cologne announces his presence. He comes on really strong, and when one of his witty pick-up lines doesn’t work on a woman then he tries out a different one, and when that one doesn’t work then he hits on her best friend instead. He tells everyone he works at William Morris and gets bitter when it doesn’t result in women throwing their panties at him. He tries too damn hard. Nobody wants to be that guy.

How can you be a confident writer without trying too hard? Avoid these pitfalls that scream, “Look how smart I am!”

Don’t use your movie to reference a whole bunch of other movies. Yes, sometimes a movie will reference another movie within it (or even in its title—Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, anyone?). It’s a good way to draw thematic parallels between an instantly recognizable classic and a new film, to name check, to acknowledge an original source of creative inspiration.

There’s a difference between drawing a parallel to a pre-existing classic film, and having your characters make repeated and endless references to a list of films. “This is just like that scene in Goodfellas” one character might say, and another character responds with a line from The Godfather, and moments later there’s a shoot-out evocative of that from Scarface. What you’ve done is remind the reader of three films that are all much better than what you’ve written.

This advice goes double if the references are obscure. Dude, we know you went to film school. But when your character can’t seem to stop drawing parallels between his life and the lives of characters in Jim Jarmusch films, it comes off as effortful because that’s exactly what it is. Chances are, you aren’t doing anything to improve your story, so don’t waste your energy.

In this vein, try to completely avoid allowing your characters to speak in lines of famous dialogue from other films. When you do this with your friends, they think you’re funny and are able to respond in kind. When you do it in a script, it suggests that you aren’t creative enough to think up your own line of brilliant, soon-to-be-famous dialogue.

In general, breaking the fourth wall is not advisable. It reminds the reader that the story we’re reading is not actually real or true. This has become an increasingly common phenomenon in scripts, as audiences become more aware of the components of a traditional narrative (this reader blames Seth Cohen from “The O.C.” for making post-modern irony trendy.)

The breaking of the fourth wall is usually accomplished by a character momentarily turning to the camera to speak directly to the reader, or to make a comment to another character that reveals they both know they’re figments of a writer’s imagination. It’s usually intended to be clever, but it has the effect of jerking us out of the moment and ruining the flow of the reading.

Examples? For one thing, don’t reference the craft components of a script within the script. If you’re writing a romantic comedy and your climactic scene is one character running frantically to the airport in time to stop her true love from getting on the plane, don’t let either of them make reference to the “romantic runback.” Don’t let your characters mention the “gun in the first act,” the denouement, the unifying theme. Don’t let your protagonist talk about his “low point.” It’s like a fart in a job interview—just because you both know it happened doesn’t mean it’s a wise decision to bring attention to it.

Avoid the temptation to have your protagonist speak directly to camera. Narration is a great thing in small quantities, but it works because there is a clear-cut separation between the narrator and the protagonist. Even when your protagonist narrates the action in his own story, there is a marked difference between the older-but-wiser voice of the narrator (who presumably has already lived through the story and knows how it’s going to turn out) and the innocent voice of the present-time protagonist, who doesn’t yet know what’s going to happen to him.

Let the story speak for itself, and the characters for themselves. If you do it well, we will understand exactly what we’re watching without having to be explicitly told. Tell the joke without having to explain the punch line, and allow your screenplay to dip occasionally into the shameless cliché without punishing yourself by forcing one of your characters to point it out. After all, until Summer Roberts wised up, Seth Cohen never got a date.