Stuck in your script? Have a breakdown – Tips from a script coach

We’ve all been there. You start off with an idea that you know has legs. There are captivating characters, fun twists, and maybe an original set piece (no one has driven a Lamborghini onto a helicopter yet!) or deep emotional moment or two. But something’s not working. You’ve hit a wall. Maybe you’ve even gotten notes from trusted readers and either you disagree with them or you can’t figure out how to integrate them successfully. Those idea legs have gotten shaky and tired. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that script has to sit out the next round of contests.

Last week, I worked with a client on a TV pilot she’s creating. It’s a procedural with a fun twist. The problem was the procedure itself was too flat and too easy. As viewers, we’ve become really sophisticated in solving TV crime and woe to the writer who doesn’t stay a step or two ahead of our inner Sherlock.

For a start, I asked, have you seen Elementary? She hadn’t so she watched a few episodes. Do a breakdown, I suggested. She’d gotten the basic idea, she said. No, I countered. Watching films and TV that really work on a script level is fun and enjoyable, sure. But solid entertainment is also a free education just sitting there at our fingertips. We can take advantage of that education with a more active watching approach; a story breakdown. That will take a long time, she sighed. Yes, yes it will. But creating an amazing script takes time. Why not invest a little in your ongoing education?

I’m not suggesting you write a synopsis for each scene: Joan walks into the kitchen and discovers Sherlock dumping honey down the drain. Then they visit the crime scene. I’m suggesting you reverse engineer the script as though you were writing the outline. So an entry for an individual scene might look like:

B story. Joan wants to get to the sink but she can’t because Sherlock is dumping honey down the drain. She confronts him on food waste and Sherlock reveals he’s fallen out with his father who won’t be visiting again. They get a call from Det. Bell with new case info and leave.

This was a scene about their personal relationships, thus it’s part of a B or C story, not the A story which in a procedural is always the crime. The writer’s goal in the scene was for Sherlock to communicate to Joan that he’d fallen out with his father. The honey was something they had for his father’s tea. Thus Sherlock’s action in dumping the honey made that internal goal external and active—it made it visual. Imagine how boring that scene would be if Joan simply walked in, said “why are you sad?” and Sherlock flatly stated “my dad and I fought” and Joan said “Oh. Hey, Bell has a new clue.” It transmits the same basic information – hits the points on the synopsis version – but we’re not interested.

The scene started with the character goals in opposition – something that’s key to a scene with energy and engagement. That Joan’s goal was blocked pushed her to take different action which naturally led her to confront Sherlock – a character-motivated action – you want those! The way the scene was executed shows the petulance of Sherlock’s character, and also reveals the subtext that he does care about his dad and he’s too proud to admit he’s hurting over their falling out. (Writing spec dialog for a character like Sherlock is a great writing exercise because he never talks about anything he truly feels, it’s all subtext.)

Finally in the overall structure, the scene launches us into the next scene on the A story line: a new clue in the investigation.

This breakdown training was enormously helpful to my client. Seeing when Elementary plots  reveal new clues, and how those clues and complications change the trajectory of the characters, helped her restructure her own work. It helped her see how much more substance and how many more turns her pilot’s investigation may need. It also gave her some great examples of subtle character development.

Breaking down a show or film can help reveal the overall shape of the story and it throws the execution choices the writer made into high relief so that we can learn and improve our own writing. We can see character goals and outcomes, A versus B versus C storylines, story structure and plot twists.

You can probably guess I recommend doing your own script outline this way too. For each scene I answer: what story line does the scene serve? What are the character(s) goals and how are they in opposition? What’s the obstacle to the protagonist’s goal? What’s the complication or reveal? What’s the outcome? Or more simply put, for each scene I write out:  “Character 1 (protagonist driving your action) wants X (goal) but Y (complication or obstacle), so…(outcome)”

Answering these questions about someone else’s script in a breakdown can help you gain facility in answering them for your own script. Being able to clearly articulate character goals, obstacles, and outcomes will strengthen your story structure and lead to more promising scripts. It’s the best way to ferret out those scenes that aren’t doing enough to move your story forward.

For a while, doing breakdowns may make your favorite viewing less fun but I promise such suffering for your art is worth it. It will gain you the ability to craft stronger structures and scenes. And get those story legs back up and running. It will also help you articulate why such a little scene is about so much more than just dumping honey down the drain.

To get your script ready for contests, let PageCraft help!

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Quality Problems

Like most people who self-select as Angelinos, I moved here to make movies. I went to film school, I wrote a lot, produced a feature that didn’t get far, I made a lot of connections. And then I did other stuff. I worked for a studio. I ran a non-profit. I did everything but make movies.

A few years ago I was tangled in a job that was sucking the life from me and I still wasn’t doing what I came here to do. Petrified but desperate, I took a leap of faith and jumped into one no-budget music video with no other job safety net.

A scant two years later, my production partner Erik and I have built Supposable Productions with all the creations you see on the other tabs here. The fact that within two weeks of making that leap we already had five paying projects lined up told me we were on the right path. The fact that in the time since then we’ve been working so consistently that we haven’t had time to create our own company website or business cards tells me we are on that path going full throttle. I love it.

When I first left LA after undergrad, my move was largely driven by a fear of “what if I try my hardest but ten years later have nothing to show for it?”  I couldn’t bear the thought of failing at my dream so I set it aside. Instead I worked dumb, “practical” jobs for ten years and ended up with nothing to show for it. So I finally did it; I leapt without looking and here we are. I love what I get to do every day. I love the creative artists I get to work with. I love seeing where each project takes us with new techniques, artistic challenges, and talented new team members.

I can say I wish I’d learned all this sooner and gotten the nerve to trust in my dream. But then I may not have appreciated all the detours and wrong turns it took to get here. Here’s hoping we get some time to build our business website in 2016. But if we don’t, it’s a quality problem I don’t mind having.

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Get It In Writing

We’ve all heard this and it’s a smart business practice we all know. But do we live by it? In the sometimes casual world of creativity it can be hard to see that line between friends playing in the creative sandbox together and a professional situation creating for pay. Working with friends could be the best or worst thing you ever do.

One of the biggest recent lessons for me (that I should have already known) is to get everything in writing. Having a clear set of expectations on both sides is key to getting good work done and preserving friendships.

We recently worked with a client and friend who had wonderfully grandiose ideas about a huge project with many different elements and aspects. This artist is ridiculously talented and endlessly creative. The project would stretch my partner and I creatively and that was exciting. It would be an epic undertaking and we were thrilled to be involved.

The first phase was an off-the-cuff “let’s see what we get” situation. Because we’re good at what we do, we got great footage, stunning visuals and some really special moments. Great, right? Well, yes. But now the client assumed that no prep was ever needed. Story boards and location scouting were superfluous expenses and we were being silly by adding them to our budgets.

Still, as this talented artist painted the picture of the larger project, we were infected by their enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to be involved. So we did all that prep off the books because we knew it was key to a great and client-pleasing outcome.

I also started researching agreements. This was beyond anything we’d done. With the help of a lawyer, I came up with a deal memo that clearly defined our scope of work, credits and pay schedule. The client just sort of never had time to look at it.

And that’s where my mistake was. We worked with them anyway. With no signed contract we had no safety net. When I casually mentioned how much I was enjoying directing the project, the client shut me down: “No, I’m the director, it was my idea.” I was actually dumbstruck but managed to stop myself from saying “that’s not how that works.” I finally did point out “we’re the ones who came up with the story from your idea, decided what visuals would best convey it, told the cameras what to capture and when to roll, told the actors what to do… that’s directing.” That didn’t matter.

As creative industries people hungry for opportunities, we want to say yes to any chance to do something interesting that will gain us credibility and credits. You have to hand it to our kind’s inherent willingness to jump in. But that can sometimes get us in trouble. In this case, some of our best work ended up un-credited and attributed to others. A painful lesson not only in getting it in writing, but also in standing your ground when you don’t.

So lesson learned. There will be clearly understood deal memos, agreed upon budgets, and signed contracts before any work in our future. Jumping in and sharing your creative spark is a good thing. So is protecting yourself and the integrity of your work.

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Script Notes

As a script contest reader, I see the whole gamut from utter crap to sparks of brilliance. There are some writers I want to grab by the collar and say “please, delete your copy of Final Draft and do the world a favor by never writing again.” There are others whose hands I’d like to shake and marvel “how are you not already a major writer?” Most are somewhere in the middle, trying their best, doing a fair to middling job, and could do better.

As many how-to books and screenwriting gurus will tell you, there is a science to the art of screenwriting. There are rules, there are best practices, there are structures. This should make judging screenwriting a fairly scientific and objective process. And yet. I’ve fallen in love with scripts that had original premises, well-crafted humor and strong protagonists only to find a fellow judge gave the same script a barely passing score. I’ve read for producers who’ve gleefully handed me their latest gem and been astonished anyone could find a filmable story in the haphazard pages. Most pointedly, a veteran writer friend recently shared that she got her big break when she won a prestigious contest. On the same day, she heard from another contest that the very same script was not advancing past the first round.

So who is right? Everyone and no one. As scientific as we make our rubrics, a good script is still all about striking a chord with an audience. In this case a reader, then hopefully an executive and with any luck an actual, theater-going audience (and maybe with the Academy for those rare few).

My point is this: do your best to learn everything you can about the science of screenwriting (for it is a science before it is an art). Surround yourself with trusted readers (or enter contests) where you will get brutally honest critiques as they are the only ones worth anything. Be brutally honest with yourself on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Work on developing your craft. Rewrite and, for the love of god, proofread the heck out of your script. And then, if you’ve done all of this, know that any scores your work garners, good or bad, are purely subjective and from people who’ve worked as hard (if not harder) than you to be in a position to say so. The key is getting it in front of the right eyes, taking the notes and trying again tomorrow. If you’ve put in the work and the script really is as good as you think it is, it’s just a matter of finding the right reader.

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In Production

For the first time in our short production company’s life, we’ve been working on larger projects that are under someone else’s auspices. It’s both thrilling and frustrating.

We’ve shot some of the best footage we’ve ever done with incredible sets, locations and actors. We’ve upped our production game playing with new lighting styles and more advanced camera equipment with beautiful results. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished with this client. And because it’s a bigger client, we’re part of a production team that is shooting components in the UK and Miami as well as here in LA. This means we don’t simply get to finish our edit and share it with the world when the artist signs off. We must wait until each team member does their part and we feed into the larger whole. I can’t wait to share this project and our part in it with you!

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Music For The Masses

As a surly outcast teen, I hated everyone and everything that wasn’t “my music.” In those pre-Nirvana days before alternative went mainstream, we defined ourselves by our music taste. We self-selected into tribes based on favorite bands. A serious topic of discussion was whether or not you could consider dating or even being friends with members of another tribe. Depeche Mode, The Grateful Dead and Bobby Brown did NOT mix. Nor did their fans eat at the same lunch tables.

This belief system was reinforced during my college radio DJ days when we pitted ourselves against the big station behemoths like KROQ who played “the hottest new song” sometimes a year after we’d been spinning it. We considered ourselves the vanguard, the tastemakers, the music cognoscenti. Woe to he who cited a major corporate rock band as his favorite for much eye-rolling derision would follow. He’d never get it. He’d never be one of us, the poor sap.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve relaxed and even learned to embrace the music I once would have decried as derivative corporate pabulum. In fact my Christmas card these days consists of a CD-and-witty-liner-notes compendium of what I consider to be the best cheesy pop of the year and why. (All these years later, I’m still making mix tapes. My music snobbery may have relaxed and matured but the framework is still there.)

In my new life as a music video director I’ve had the good fortune to get to know many wonderful and talented musicians. As the authors of the creations to which we were so devoted, I had long assumed musicians would be even more “my tribe and your tribe don’t mix” than regular music snobs. Instead, I’ve found myself humbled by their openness. Sure, they value craftsmanship and taste. But they are first and foremost lovers of Music with a capital M.

After a recent magical day shooting in the Mojave with a new client, we settled in for the long drive home to LA. I should mention these guys are Progressive Rock artists, a genre I’ve long been intimidated by with its creators who are often highly trained and musically educated. We took turns DJing for each other off our iPhone playlists. The guitarist would play something which would remind me of something which would remind the singer of something and so we’d go. I was tentative at first, afraid my selections would be beneath them. I started with some indie rock, moved into Brit pop and finally ventured into an a cappella Malaysian siren song. They loved it. They commented on specific aspects of the songs, asked me if I knew the drummer to a friend’s track, bounced and nodded excitedly when a track really clicked for them. It was not about the genre. It was simply about good music. All those carefully cultivated and defended tribal lines of my youth have simply vanished; no longer of service. It was freeing, unifying. It was grown-up. I hid my sad whiff of nostalgia for indulging in a little music fan holier-than-thou-ness.

“You’ve got great music taste,” the singer remarked as we neared the engulfing lights of LA.  Well, yes, I agreed, thrilled by the compliment. Music genres and their fans may have all blurred into one tribe:  sometimes pop-filled, sometimes artist-driven, but defined by quality musicianship, writing or production (hopefully all three). And I may have become a kinder, gentler, more inclusively-minded music fan thanks to my musician friends. But my surly-teen music-snob heart finds solace in the fact that there is one music fan subset I can still deride: the tasteless. And with the wonderful subjectivity that is all art, I get to decide who they are.

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Meanwhile, On Another Channel

Our fourth video in our year-end shoot marathon could not have been more different in every way; theme, setting, equipment, approach.  Where our Rocket Scientist videos are structured and meticulously laid out (see my Reel tab), our shoots for Ted Wulfers reflects the laid back, beachy nature of his latest album. Not to say there is not plenty of structure behind the scenes. We had come up with the concept for Ted’s latest song two months ahead of time and I had been steadily gathering props, costumes and supplies, testing paints for effects and coming up with a look in collaboration with our model, the radiant Stacy Sellers.

Naturally, the optimal shoot day for Ted and crew was the day after the Rocket Scientist three video marathon weekend. But because I’d done so much prep and I knew the day would be easy going because that’s how Ted is. I was able to relax and enjoy (read: not totally panic).

We drove out to a Malibu beach to catch the golden light of a mid-winter afternoon and things came together better than I could have imagined. My partner had pared his equipment down to a mobile single backpack so we were very unobtrusive on the beach. The model turned on her special inner light and we filmed her frolicking on the beach. As whales spouted and pelicans swooped behind her, it was all more beautiful than we could have imagined.

Then we shot Ted playing, grinning and strumming in the waves. In the footage you can see that he genuinely wants you to enjoy that beautiful day as much as we did. It helps so much to have a client who is willing to trust our vision and be open to play. Despite the December sea, Ted was willing to throw himself, fully clothed, into the waves as the sun set.

The hardest thing about this edit will be narrowing down all the lovely footage we got. And I’m still sure there will be stuff we wish we had shot. There’s always another day, another beach, another song.

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