Secondary Characters

I’m working on a script right now, and I have been intently focused on nailing the protagonist and antagonist arcs to perfection. They are best friends who end up as enemies when a difficult coming-of-age event sets them on different paths. Their arc has to be nuanced so that you feel deeply for both of them. They have to be fully human, so that you see this film and cry and give it tons of awards.

I’ve been intently focused on making all of that sing on the page. During our last reading, my partner and I noticed a little issue. We had some less-than-subtle scenes with the antagonist, Estelle, and her mom. We also noticed that her mom was literally just called Estelle’s Mom. Who doesn’t like to be wholly defined by their relationship to another character? How about I just call you Joe’s Daughter or Karen’s Brother from now on? Funny thing, it works about as well for fictional people as it would for you. See the Glenn Close/Jonathan Pryce movie The Wife for more on that.

We’d only thought of this woman as Estelle’s mom. We knew her basic function in those scenes. We knew what Estelle needed to play off of, and how her mom’s issues complicated and motivated some of her own choices. But Estelle’s mom was just a paper tiger.

We started talking about her: what drove her to become the person she was; why she was hard on Estelle; what she feared, loved, needed, and wanted. In other words, we did all the character work we’d taken the time to do for our main characters. As we talked, it emerged we both knew people who weren’t as extreme as Estelle’s mom, but who were driven by the same motivations and fears. Suddenly, we had a whole new insight into her and what made her tick. The scenes between her and her daughter took on new depth and felt less Movie-Of-The-Week. Even better, they felt like scenes a name actress might love to sink her teeth into, to raise the profile of our little script without taking too much time commitment.

This character finally had a name. Beatrice is a far more interesting and nuanced human than Estelle’s Mom ever was, and Estelle will shine all the brighter because of it. I highly recommend you do the work of developing and exploring all your characters, not just your main characters. It’s the details that make any piece of art great. Secondary and supporting characters are where your script can shine.


Why not workshop your characters with us? We’re off to Orvieto, Italy, for this year’s Italy Screenwriting Retreat from Sunday, September 1 to Saturday September 14. There’s only one spot left. It only takes $50 to reserve yours, so apply now.

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Wrong Reasons

I was chatting with a fellow script coach about her new client. She was excited about his project; it was a really cool premise; and he seemed open to feedback—always important to ask even though it seems obvious. She was, however, a little concerned about a teeny red flag.

She’d asked why he wanted to write this particular story. He responded that he wanted to prove to himself he could write it. Great. He also wanted to prove wrong all his friends and family members who’d doubted he could do this. Fair enough. Who hasn’t wanted to exceed loved ones’ opinions of our limitations? And—this was the kicker—he wanted to throw it in the faces of all the women who’d made the colossal error of rejecting him.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed.
“I know, right?” my friend sighed.

Didn’t the Isla Vista shooter say something similar? OK, maybe that’s extrapolating too far. I’ve certainly wanted to make exes envious of all I’ve accomplished without them. However, the difference is that he intended these exes of his to be characters in his script.

Often characters are inspired by people we know. The problem is that writing characters (antagonists, usually) based in anger or revenge against someone who has wronged us rarely yields robust, artful creations. Most often, it leaves us with two-dimensional characters who can seem oddly out of place against a more multi-dimensional story.

We need to find love for all our characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, so that we can fully understand and empathize with their motivations. This makes them richer on the page where they can act as bigger challenges for one another. Authentic characters arise from the writer’s empathy for those characters. When a character is based on someone who hurt us or someone about whose villainy we want to be right, finding any empathy can be tricky.

When I have writers dealing with this, I encourage them to do what work they can to find forgiveness. Not for the real life villains. For all I know, they should be in jail. But for us. For the sake of our own health and that of our art.

If you can forgive, you can more easily get to a bird’s eye view of the story. You can begin to see this person as just another character you need to shepherd through your pages. You can begin to see that their actions are consistent with their fears, wants, needs, and goals. Then you can write that character from a much more grounded and authentic place. As an added benefit, you may find you can bring more empathy to the real person or situation as well, and release some of your hurt.

For example, I am currently working on a piece with a character based on someone who I feel hurt by. As I did my character work and the intertwined forgiveness work, I found I could see this person’s choices with more clarity and empathy. As a result, I feel less wronged by them, and I have a richer character emerging as the story develops more depth and balance, thus giving the script more emotional resonance. That’s worth far more than being right or getting revenge.

I wished my friend luck in dealing with her new client. I hope she can get him to see the value of simply writing from the desire to tell a really good story. If you get a little revenge along the way, bonus points for you. But give us a solid story with fully fleshed-out, relatable characters over broadly drawn paper tigers. When you’re walking that red carpet because your work has been nominated, you can strut in the knowledge that an ex or two is watching, thinking, “Dang, I let that one get away.” I know I’m counting on it.

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Roma and the Passive Protagonist

I’m pleased to turn this space over to my partner in PageCraft (and life), Carlo Cavagna: 
We just saw Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant ROMA, which has us thinking about passive protagonists. Every screenwriting resource (including us, we admit) will teach that protagonists must be active. They must try to solve their problems and become masters of their own fate. No audience will care about a protagonist to whom things just happen. Why is that an interesting story?

Cuarón’s ROMA is enjoying accolades despite a passive heroine, the nanny Cleo. [Spoilers follow] In most of the scenes, she is just trying to fulfill her employers’ wishes to the best of her ability. Things happen to her: she gets pregnant; Fermín (the father-to-be) refuses to have anything to do with her; her employers’ family falls apart.

It’s tempting to look at ROMA’s success and decide the rules are meaningless. Who cares about a three-act structure? It’s so much work putting conflict in every scene! Why not a passive protagonist?

The rules exist for a reason. Usually, when your script isn’t captivating anyone, referring to the rules will help you diagnose the problem. The rules can be broken, but doing so requires careful thought.

It seemed to us that Cuarón knew perfectly well that he had a passive protagonist, but he was determined to tell this very personal story anyway. Further, Cuarón made several intentional and smart choices to overcome the passive protagonist challenge. Three stand out.

First, Cuarón chose an interesting context by setting the story during a tumultuous time, the Mexican Dirty War, which culminates onscreen in the Corpus Christi Massacre. This context touches his characters’ lives, most notably because Fermín is one of the perpetrators of the massacre. Thus the context creates tension. And, the film poses fascinating questions—without offering answers—about social structure and hierarchy, so it keeps the audience busy on the intellectual level.

Second, Cuarón has a deeply observational style. He uses static camerawork and long takes, but the shots are densely composed. There is always something to look at or piece together, even if only in the background.

And third, perhaps most importantly, Cleo is not entirely passive. It’s easy to miss because she is so quiet. But there are a few key moments when she becomes active. She searches for Fermín, to try to get him to face his responsibilities. And of course, at the climax of the film, she saves children from drowning, despite not knowing how to swim herself. The fact that Cleo occasionally takes necessary action, combined with her unshakeable goodness, is why we like her and root for her.

Rules can be broken, but they can’t be ignored. A master filmmaker like Cuarón could set aside one of the most fundamental rules of screenwriting, but he took the risk that his audiences wouldn’t be interested in his heroine. With his other choices, he minimized that risk and made one of the year’s best films.

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Barf Drafts

“The outline’s done! Write the script and we’ll be in production!” declared a director friend I’d been working with. My heart palpitated. As one of my favorite Coen brothers character says: “would that t’were so simple.”

We’d worked on the outline for weeks and were happy with the flow. The emotional content was there, the external goals and obstacles. It felt like we were going to hit all the right beats and create a compelling story. She was eager to get a script and share it with our production partners. I was too but I knew this next part of the process would be more involved.

I churned out that first draft and gave it to her. She was by turns excited and alarmed. It had little of the art of our previous collaborations. We started on an edit session. “Um, well, this scene is really one the nose,” she hedged, clearly not wanting to hurt my feelings.

For a moment I panicked: had we lost our excellent collaborative flow? Then it dawned on me, I hadn’t shown her such an early draft in our previous works. She might have been under the impression that scripts leapt, like Athena, fully formed from the mind of their creator. “Oh gosh! Of course! This is just the barf draft!” I realized I’d never shared the concept with her.

As writers, once we have our solid outline, once we feel like we know the mechanics of the script, we write the first draft. It’s called the barf draft because we are often metaphorically barfing onto the page everything these characters think, feel, want, need, etc. Few of these pages are things you’d want representing your creative genius but this draft has the important function of keeping us in the flow.

I always tell my writers: this is the time to avoid all self-censorship. Yes, “I’m so afraid that if I don’t kiss you now, I’ll lose you forever!” is a ridiculous line but it will help you get to the right line in the next draft. Write it down! My god, that big fight at the family reunion is melodramatic, but now you know how each character’s emotions arc through those beats. Write it down! The barf draft helps us transition from the outline which is more conceptual to the written scene which is more literal and concrete. It helps us see more clearly the emotional machinations of each scene and it helps us through the drudgery of blocking the physical movements of the characters and settings.

Only when these vital pieces are complete can we then dig into the next draft, the real first draft, where we can take all this information and elevate our garish ingredients. The next draft is when we begin the true craft of submerging all those emotions into the subtext, making dialog more oblique and natural, cutting scenes and moments we can now see are superfluous. That’s the draft to worry about what our characters sound like since we’ve worked out how their feeling and what they’re doing.

“Don’t worry!” I comforted my friend “we’ve done the barf draft, now we can sit down and create art.” To say the least, she was relieved. I was happy our creative flow was on track.

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Coach Notes – The Book Of Henry

So many films would be better films had they gotten coaching and feedback at the script stage. By helping you avoid pitfalls that trip up even the pros, our goal at PageCraft is to help writers craft watertight scripts that go on to be sought-after, fought-over properties in Hollywood. 

The Book of Henry:

I went into this film knowing little about it other than it had an impressive team behind it. I love Naomi Watts; that kid from Room is amazing; the story sounded charming, a potentially compelling blend of light and lethal. Sadly, as you can read in many reviews, the film did not live up to its hype or the talent involved. It was both twee and dark with oddly contrived situations and on-the-nose emotions. Could it have been fixed at the script stage? I will share some coach notes here, avoiding spoilers as best I can.

The official plot summary is:

Sometimes things are not always what they seem, especially in the small suburban town where the Carpenter family lives. Single suburban mother Susan Carpenter works as a waitress at a diner, alongside feisty family friend Sheila. Her younger son Peter is a playful 8-year-old. Taking care of everyone and everything in his own unique way is Susan’s older son Henry, age 11. Protector to his adoring younger brother and tireless supporter of his often self-doubting mother – and, through investments, of the family as a whole – Henry blazes through the days like a comet. Susan discovers that the family next door, which includes Henry’s kind classmate Christina, has a dangerous secret – and that Henry has devised a surprising plan to help. As his brainstormed rescue plan for Christina takes shape in thrilling ways, Susan finds herself at the center of it.


You can see from the summary that the story is trying to marshal a lot of elements. Unfortunately, this gives us an overlong and plodding script, which speaks to the perennial need to streamline. Many story details and moments don’t relate to character goal or move the story forward. For example, Henry is always building Rube Goldberg contraptions. Beyond showing that he’s creative and good at stuff, they don’t really do much for the plot. There are numerous moments of Mom tucking the kids in. Yes, these establish ritual and intimacy, but we don’t need so many to get it. Mom is not very good at her waitressing job. We get from her finance avoidance, consistent lateness picking up the kids, and her video game obsession that she’s bad at adulting; we really don’t need the world of her job too. These sorts of things could have been cut, and the story would have been tighter and more compelling.

Protagonist gives story structure:

Whose story is it? From IMDb, the film’s log line is, “With instructions from her genius son’s carefully crafted notebook, a single mother sets out to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather.”

The rule of a good log line is: describe the protagonist, the goal, and the obstacle. Often this set-up gives us the act one problem and the goal that takes us into act two. Based on this log line, it seems the producers feel the mother is the protagonist. However, she spends the first half of the film passive and inert, “an endearing mess,” while young Henry moves and shapes the world around him, creating said “carefully crafted notebook.” He seems to be the character most in pursuit of a goal at the start – one of the protagonist litmus tests.

Mom takes up the action well past the midpoint (in fact past the low point) when she finds Henry’s notebook. She has a sort of coming-of-age arc as she continues the ‘rescue Christina’ quest. In the end, her character changes the most in the story – the other protagonist litmus test. No wonder the script is overlong if the true action of the log line doesn’t start until an hour into the film! Because the log line essentially only refers to the third act, the film doesn’t fulfill the promise of its premise after we invest so much in Henry’s arc. As a result of this uncertainty, neither Henry nor Mom’s arcs are fully developed, and both leave the audience short-changed.

Without a clear protagonist driving the action through scenes anchored in their goals, any story will feel flaccid and plodding. While true masters can sometimes pull this off, switching protagonists mid-film almost never works. Psycho is the most famous example where it does work – but the lack of many other great examples shows you how difficult it is. (Of course this rule does not apply to ensemble stories like Short Cuts or Magnolia, but that’s another kettle of fish.)

Update your story:

The script had been written twenty years before production. This can be fine; many scripts take circuitous routes to the screen. But technology and social norms change. Unless you’re doing a period piece, your story has to change too. For a while I thought this was a period film until Henry uses a new Macbook Air. Characters speak of six hundred thousand dollars as though it’s enough to retire on and support a family of three. Maybe twenty years ago.

Henry needs to gather evidence against the evil stepfather next door. What would any person do in that situation now? Shoot a video with their phone, right? Henry makes no such attempt because twenty years ago that technology didn’t exist. If the audience can solve your problem more easily than your protagonist, you’ve got a major plot hole. If you want to keep that situation, you better find a strong, logical way why our solve wouldn’t work for your protagonist.

Speaking of plot holes, Christina lives with her not-so-great stepfather. We learn her mother is deceased. So why can’t she live with her father? This is another point of logic that could be addressed easily, but it never is. If your audience can ask logical questions the script doesn’t answer, we hold onto a sense that the story is built on shaky ground.

Get dimension into your characters:

Another way this script feels oddly dated are some of the character tropes: the impossibly handsome, single, successful surgeon with the heart of gold who naturally becomes interested in Naomi Watts’ overwhelmed single mom. Come on now. Don’t forget Mom’s wonderful spunky mess of a best friend who has hidden depths. Been there, done that. These things may have been fresh twenty years ago but now we’ve seen them so many times (or simply wished they actually existed) that they come off as flat, two-dimensional conveniences rather than fleshed-out characters. Frankly neither of them were necessary to the story at all. If a character doesn’t bring something of great value to your plot, cut them.

Likewise, the main characters were full of tropes and easy indications. Mom can’t understand finances and doesn’t want to. Instead she is obsessed with single-shooter video games. So childlike! She’s ripe for a coming of age! Henry is a flawless brainiac of a kid who is kind to his average and adorable younger brother in a way that feels storybook perfect. These aren’t real people. All of us have good points as well as flaws and foibles. Your characters should too. It will make us love them more.

Look for ways to push beyond the obvious when creating a character. Start with what your character wants, and what they are willing to do to get it. What’s at stake for them? In what way are they desperate? Then build personalities, habits, and quirks around their wants and needs, instead of using copy-and-paste character types. I often tell my clients: each character thinks they are the star of the show just like we think we are the stars of our own lives. That means for a successful, meaty script, you have to give just as much thought to the character development of the incidental best friend character as you to do your main character.

OTN dialog:

In addition to on-the-nose characters, the dialog in this film is first-draft quality much of the time. Characters say exactly what they mean with extra earnestness. In real life, we rarely talk about what we’re really talking about, so when we see it onscreen it rings false. Most writers put on-the-nose dialog in their first draft, but it’s important to submerge it into the subtext in the following drafts. This makes for richer scenes that are more relatable and human.


At the start of the screening I saw, the film’s director told us it had taken twenty years to get this script made. Sadly, it could have used more work. It can be frustrating when we struggle so hard to craft our own writing to see flawed work not only make it to the big screen, but also be championed by experts and artists we respect. All in all, if I had read The Book Of Henry script in competition, I would not have advanced it. I would have instead given it middling marks and many of the notes above. I hope they help you avoid the same pitfalls in your own work.

Have you seen a film that frustrated you and wondered exactly why it didn’t work? Let me know! I’d be happy to give it the Coach Notes treatment here.

Want to make sure your own script is watertight? Workshop with us in ITALY this summer or get one-on-one coaching HERE.

Italy Screenwriting Retreat

The 2017 PageCraft Italy Screenwriting Retreat takes place in storybook Orvieto, Italy, from Sunday, August 27 to Saturday September 9. The retreat is designed to move everyone’s project forward, offering analysis and discussion with our leader and collaboration with fellow writers. And this year we’re featuring a special, more affordable price! See our Registration page for details, or use the links below to learn more.

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The Value of Community

This weekend I spent a day ensconced in a fabulous Malibu ranch surrounded by fellow writers. Everyone pitched ideas and gave input on one others’ projects, whether they were fleshed-out series or feature scripts or just an inkling of a concept. I loved seeing the energy zing around the small group as insightful questions were posed and idea built on idea.

There is something so powerful about creative minds coming together. Writing can be such a solitary pursuit that building a community of writers is a tricky thing. Let’s face it, we writers can be prickly about getting feedback when this thing we’ve just poured our hearts into gets shredded by well-meaning opinions. Trust is fragile and so important to nurture when you find people whose input you value and respect.

As I sat there in the lazy Sunday sun, it dawned on me: this is part of what makes our Italy retreats so valuable. It’s a space of trust and good taste (at least where story is concerned!). It’s a space where questions get asked and we work together on the answers. It’s a space where writers can get the instruction they need to sharpen their skills, or the space they need to escape and create.

Everyone left the Sunday gathering with their projects bettered, and further along their creative paths than they had started. “Now imagine this level of forward movement, but for two weeks straight. And in Italy!” I couldn’t resist exclaiming. I’m hopeful one or two of my new Malibu friends may join us in Orvieto this year. Either way, I’m looking forward to that kind of space, both literal and creative, to move writing forward.

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She Persists

I’m so flattered and honored by this article from Rewire on my script coaching, video production, and how I got here.

Posted in film making, Michelangelo Screenwriting, PageCraft, PageCraft Writing, Screenwriting, Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Integrity Times Creativity: Simple Rules for Show Biz Success

I’ve talked previously about the importance of surrounding yourself with a solid team that you trust. Recently, this point was driven home to me like never before. Perhaps I’m a dork, but it seems self-evident to me that operating with integrity in this business is the way to go. It always shocks me when I’m reminded not everyone operates this way. I’d been working with a favorite film client on a concept that would shoot in a dry lake bed in the desert. I’d wanted to shoot something with dancers for a while and the client agreed it was right for this. The final concept featured one dancer backed up by one model. When our production date moved up by a month, I was able to cast a great model we’d worked with before but we found ourselves scrambling to cast our dancer. As the date drew closer, we got lucky: the DP had a friend! Our savior was from another desert town and she’d meet us there.

I brushed off the red flags of her not looking quite as pro-dancer as she had in her photos, and her shrugging answers when I’d asked her what choreography she’d prepped as she’d promised. We got to set around noon on an admittedly hot day. But we all knew what we were getting into when we signed on for a desert shoot. The crew set up a nice shelter and we had a leisurely lunch. Understanding we’d not shoot for several more hours until the light improved and the heat abated, we moved into doing camera blocking (which means we figure out camera placement, framing, moves, and actor placement for each shot we want). It can be boring. For everyone but the DP, it mostly involves standing around. The crew armed themselves with umbrellas, water, and spray bottles, ready to head onto the lake bed. But I couldn’t find our dancer.

I finally located her, whimpering in her car’s AC. She said she didn’t like this and didn’t want to do this. She suddenly claimed she was allergic to the sun and refused to get out of her car. I was gob-smacked. I wanted to argue that she was from an even hotter desert town and remind her she’d agreed to exactly this heat and exertion, not to mention sun. I wanted to scream that she was the star of the whole concept, that we’d already spent tons of money to get everyone out here, that we didn’t have a video without her, and how could she possibly be so completely lacking in integrity? I wanted to growl that, on shoot day, it’s not about what anyone wants but what we’ve promised to do. But I didn’t do any of those things. I gaped like a fish. Then I reminded her we didn’t plan to shoot her scenes until near sunset so the heat would not be nearly as bad. I assured her I didn’t want her to do anything that might hurt her body. I asked her to stay in her nice AC, drinking water and taking care of herself. I told her we’d do the camera blocking without her and could she please just consider waiting, cooling, and see how she felt in a few hours? ‘Before she sinks my whole production,’ I thought. She sulked and shut the door.

The confused crew and I headed out onto the lake bed and duly blocked the shots we needed. This was going to look great; by far our best visuals to date. I turned back to the camp and sort of choked.

– Guys, her car’s gone.

– Gone, gone?

– I don’t see it.

– She just left?

– Who does that?

– Maybe she went to get more gas for her AC?

– Did she text you at least?

– Nope, you?

– She just left!

– Ohmigod, what a…

And a string of expletives and disbelief followed from all. None of us could believe that a performer would just leave a whole production hanging like that. None of us could believe the lack of professionalism she’d displayed. We couldn’t believe it because none of us would have ever chosen to behave that way. We laughed over shoots we’d sucked it up for, injured, sick, or in over our heads. We looked at our little circle. We were the people who step up.

I turned to our model:

– So. Can you dance?

– Sure!

And just like that we rewrote the concept, redid the costuming, and pulled together as a team. The rest of the day was a blur as we ran for shots, pulled off costume and location changes, and captured some true magic.

In the end, the dancer did us a favor by removing herself from our equation. She may have had more training but she could never have pulled off the stunning transition our model did or the furious passion of her dance. Who knows how unpleasant she would have continued to be if she was unhappy. Who knows all the other ways she may have slowed down our production, even making us miss critical shots. As much as it may be gratifying to be mad at her, in the end I can only wish her well as she made our video much better by not being part of it. By abandoning us, she forced us to dig into our own creativity and the project was better for it.

Weeks later, the dancer finally reached out to the DP… not to apologize but to say his later post asking how to communicate with a friend who’d disappointed you (with no reference to her or the shoot) would hurt her career. No sweetie, having no integrity hurts your career. Be your word. Do what you say you’ll do when you say you’ll do it. If something changes, be in communication. If you’ve made a commitment, honor it or replace yourself. Your issues should not become the production’s problem. Live by these simple rules and this business will be much more rewarding for you and those who work with you.

I can’t wait to work with my crew again. I have objective evidence they are the best. And as always, I look forward to working with new artists and seeing where their talents take us. And next time one turns out to be a flake, I wouldn’t mind finding out some time before we’re about to roll cameras.

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Reading Is Sexy

I was very proud to be a returning judge for this year’s Slamdance Screenplay Competition, one of several prestigious competitions I judge for. If you don’t know, Slamdance was set up in response to what filmmakers saw as the over-commercialization and inaccessibility of Sundance. The festival itself happens concurrently with Sundance in Park City and has a more edgy, scrappy, fun vibe. However, their screenplay competition happens in the summer.

This year out of 3,600 submissions, I read over 300 scripts in competition. I’m very proud to say that of the thirty-two scripts that ten of us judges took into final deliberations, eight were scripts I had personally advanced and championed. Of those, one became the overall winner, two more won their categories, and three others placed in their categories’ top three. I am pretty proud of that track record.

Early on, one of my mentors told me “Read all the scripts you can. They’re a great education.” Ugh, I thought, the last thing I want to do is spend my time reading other idiots’ work when I could be working on my own stuff. So I didn’t. For a long time. But that mentor was right. I started reading. In all my consulting and judging, I’ve read around 500 scripts this year alone. Who knows how many more in the last ten years.

In all that reading, patterns emerged and my own style greatly shifted. This has made me a better writer. This year I have two different pilots making the rounds at MIPCOM and gaining attention from producers and outlets I never dreamed of working with.

This also has also made me a better reader. When you read a lot, you see the same mistakes over and over, you learn what frustrates you on the page, you see what a lean, muscular script really looks like, you develop a facility for spotting the truly unique, and you learn how the masters who break our hearts or make us cheer make it happen on the page. I can get to the heart of what working, what’s not working, and what could be working better in your script. I can communicate why and how to you in digestible language and help you with the roadmap for your next draft. All because I’ve finally read a lot.

Like my mentor, one of my most common recommendations for clients now is “read as many original scripts as you can get your hands on. Not shooting scripts as these will fill you with bad habits such as ‘we see’ and camera or edit directions like ‘the camera pans over’ or ‘cut to’. Many original scripts for your favorite shows and movies are easily findable online.” I stand by this recommendation: Read all you can. You never know just how it will benefit you and your writing but benefit you it will.

Want to enter next year’s Slamdance competition? Submissions start in February. Maybe have me give you feedback first so you submit the best version of your script that you can.

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Common Script Mistakes: The Lucky 13

I recently guest lectured a class for Slamdance and Roadmap Writers on pitch polishing. We talked about common format mistakes I see as a contest reader, and looked at how story structure and character motivations feed into a log line and therefore a pitch.

One student asked if poorly formatted slug lines would keep her script from advancing in a contest. I said, “As judges, I think we’re all looking for a good story most of all. But poor formatting can be a tie-breaker. For every script I choose to advance, I have to believe it could win the whole contest. I have to be willing to stand up and defend it to my fellow judges. If the only format issue is that the slugs are off here and there, I can do that. If there are a lot of format errors, I’m not going to stand up for you. I’m more likely to give that writer notes and hope they submit a cleaned-up script next time around.” So while a wonky slug* won’t kill your script in contests, a wonky slug on top of misused parentheticals, wrong use of VO vs. OS or OC, mis-formatted intercuts or montages will. All those add up to a writer who hasn’t bothered to learn the language of screenwriting.

“Why does this matter?” you may ask. “I’m a bad-ass who doesn’t play by the rules and I have a killer story so none of that should count.” Well, me too and bully for you. Screenwriting is a very particular writing discipline with very particular rules we all must follow. The script functions as a blueprint for building a movie and it must be executed in the language that all the builders recognize. Good luck getting your killer story read by a busy executive who doesn’t have time to figure out that when you write, “INT. JOE – LATER,” you don’t actually mean we should set up a camera inside Joe (ouch!) but that we’re with him in the scene that is actually in a bar.

So here are my top thirteen most common script mistakes I see with regard to format.

  1. (Did you guess?) The Slug Line!

The slug line exists to tell us where and when a scene takes place. That’s it. The rules specifically are that it should contain: a) INT. or EXT., b) a location (not an event like JAY’S PARTY but where you want a camera crew to set up), and then c) DAY or NIGHT. Such as:


Anything more specific like “The Next Day” or “Early Morning” can be in the action/description lines. We can tell if a scene is continuous from how one scene follows onto the next. So that doesn’t need to be in the slug line either. For example, if you show a bank being robbed and two robbers running for the door and the next scene is those robbers running down the bank steps, I can connect the dots. That’s obviously a continuous sequence so please don’t put CONTINUOUS in your slug line. When the script is shuffled into scheduling software, there won’t be any reference to what happens in the scene, so if all I can see is CONTINUOUS I have no idea when to schedule that scene. Keep the time designation to DAY or NIGHT. Also, if I’ve been interrupted while reading and come back to your script later, I’ll see ‘continuous’ and have to flip back several scenes to remember when that is. Annoying.

You don’t need a new slug line if you’re in that bar with Joe and we’re looking at several different points of action. For that you can give us a:


and then his riveting actions. When the story shifts to what’s going on elsewhere in the bar, you can say so with a:


or perhaps:


and then give us the actions over there. This also hold true for when you are in the same location but time has passed. You don’t need a whole new slug, just a:


and then the rest of the scene. This is also great for expediting scenes where you need us to know a lot of things have happened, such as a contract negotiation. We don’t need to see the whole negotiation as part of the plot, just the beginning and the outcome.

  1. Character Introductions

I’ve seen it all, from characters being introduced in a parenthetical, to never being introduced at all and just suddenly existing in the scene. Then there’s the “Woman’s Voice” who three pages later we find out is Angie. Your viewers can be surprised by that, but please just tell your readers it’s Angie from the get go. Additionally, in a script breakdown, Woman’s Voice and Angie will look like two different characters your casting director needs to find. What fun will ensue when you have to fire an actor you didn’t need hired in the first place!

When you first introduce a character, give us their name in all caps, even if they are minor. Then for more important characters give us their age or a range in parenthesis and a phrase of description. You get one chance to give us a taste of what makes this character tick. Use it! This is Hollywood, so go ahead and assume your actors will be beautiful. Why waste time with “TERRY (30s) attractive” when you can give me something like “TERRY (30s), every bar fight is a chance to work out his daddy issues?” That gives me such a fuller picture of who Terry is and what drives him as I read the script. I’m confident he’ll be easy on the eyes.

And those minor characters. How about making them visual and memorable? Instead of Kid #1 and Kid #2, how about Snotty Kid or Clumsy Kid or Shy Kid or Boisterous Kid? You’re a writer! Use your words! Tell me something more about this character that may be just background for the protagonist but has a world of his own. Besides, an actor would much rather play Star Trek Geek Kid than Kid #3.

  1. Cut To:

There is a deceptive guide on the internet that fosters many a bad habit in a screenwriter: the shooting script. As you do your research reading scripts in your genre (as you should), you are likely to find more shooting scripts available and Google-able than you are to find original scripts. This is an issue because we, my friends, are writing original scripts. Anything like CUT TO, CLOSE ON, DISSOLVE TO, FOLLOW, and PAN are camera or edit directions. These belong in shooting scripts. A director reading an original script will often consider such things too much direction from the page. After all, she’s the person shaping your creation. It’s up to her to put a dissolve or a pan or—more power to her—a crazy follow shot.

Besides, by virtue of the fact that there is a new slug line, we know there is a cut. And because we are crafty, we can imply things like CLOSE ON by how we choose to showcase a shot in our action lines. Something like:

Kelly’s hand stabs at the buttons on the remote.

That shot will clearly be a close up on her hand but I’ve avoided writing it in a way that steps on the director’s toes. Instead, I’ve sidled up to the director and given her a firm nudge and then she can say “a close up on Kelly’s hand would be great here, what a fab idea,” and I’ll say “Yes, I know, because as a writer, I am the wind beneath your wings.”

While I’m at it: Another edit decision to leave out of your script is where and when the title sequence goes. You do not need to point this out. It will be designed later.

  1. We See

Along those same lines of shooting script versus original script is the supremely irritating “we see” device. Nearly every contest judge I know has a special place of pet-peeve in their hearts for “we see.” I recommend you avoid this at all costs. We are not a “we.” Saying so tends to remind us that we are reading a story we are outside of rather than simply saying what we do see and taking us into the story that way. Think of the wasted line space!
“A camel trudges along a sand dune” is so much more visual and concise than “We see a camel trudging along a sand dune.”

  1. We’re gonna need a… Montage!

Montages or series of shots can be great ways to show time passing or things progressing in your story. One mistake I most often see with these is this: “A montage shows Heather and Dean walking on the beach and getting to know each other.” And that’s it. You are writing a blueprint for building a visual story, so give us those visuals. If you want a montage, it’s up to you to define exactly what you want the camera crew to capture for that. So:

— Heather and Dean stroll on the beach
— Dean hands Heather a pretty shell
— They build a sandcastle together
— Heather splashes Dean as they let a wave catch their toes
–a giant asteroid kills them both

What are the visuals that you feel will tell us that story? Don’t make me or your camera crew guess.

  1. VO OS OC

I see a lot of confusion on this one. Let me clear it up: VO means Voice Over, as in narration. You know, what you hire Morgan Freeman to do. You’re probably not going to have much VO in the average script, as it’s really hard to do well. (Voiceover is often a crutch rather than a necessary story telling tool.)

More likely, you’re going to use OC: Off Camera or OS: Off Screen for speakers we hear but don’t see. You’ll use these if we only see one side of a phone call but hear both sides, or if we hear someone in another room, etc. OC has roots in TV scripts while OS is more from film but they’ve become used interchangeably for the most part.


If you’re doing a phone scene and you do want us to see both sides, you’re going to use an intercut. To do this right, give us the first person’s slug line, establish them in the action lines and maybe give us their first line of dialog on the call. Then you’ll do an:


Then give us the second person’s slug line, a quick phrase of establishing visuals, and their dialog. This allows the editor to make those choices about when to be on which speaker for the greatest emotional impact in the scene and you don’t have to waste tons of lines going back and forth each time. Everybody wins! You can intercut simultaneous actions the same way. Easy peasy.


Jane stomps along, dials a number, yells into the phone:


What were you thinking?



Kyle sinks into the couch, phone to his ear.


I didn’t think you’d notice. It’s only a car.


I reported it stolen. I hope you go to jail.

We now see and hear both sides of that scene and the editor can choose what works best.

  1. Weird title pages or no title pages

This is a simple way to make your script look more professional: have a clean, simple title page. It should be center-justified and contain the script’s title, by, and your name. You can get away with a “Based on a true story” if that’s the case but not much else. If you like, you can add left-justified at the bottom of the page your contact info, your copyright, or your WGA registration. But those aren’t required.

What’s definitely not required are: visuals, log lines, descriptive paragraphs of why I’ll love this script. I should get all that from reading the script. All that stuff is great for a pitch package your script or pitch can be part of but it should not be on your title page.

Do include a title page, though. It always seems a bit weird when I see a script with no title page and instead the title and writer’s name above the FADE IN on page 1.Or worse: at the top of every page. A title page is like a Maître ‘D in a jacket. I’ll still trust him to seat me if he’s not wearing one, but he just seems so much more professional if he is. (Note: I cannot remember the last time I ate somewhere that had a Maître ‘D.)

  1. Caps

All caps are for character introductions and occasionally a key prop or key sound you need us to remember. They are not for emphasis like Joe RUNS along the BIG WALL. Or KATHY sits and KATHY stands and then KATHY runs away. We only need her name in all caps the first time we meet her. All caps are definitely not because  you got really excited AND THEN THE HELICOPTER EXPLODES ALL OVER THE PLACE WITH LOTS OF FLAMES!!!!! While we’re at it, cut it out with the exclamation points too. If I’m not excited by what I’m reading, throwing a bunch of bangs on the end of a sentence like a tween thrilled to see ZAYNE!!!!!! won’t change that.

  1. Specific Songs

Sorry, my fellow world-building control freaks, this is not a choice we get to make. Song syncs can cost from $5-$10,000 for an average song and closer to $50,000 for something super-famous like a Prince or Beatles song. Tying your budget to songs is a quick way to blow it. But because seasoned writers know this is a no-no, they don’t do it so when you do it just makes you look like a newbie. Definitely don’t waste page space writing out lyrics unless you are actually writing a musical.

A good fix is to put something like “An 80’s booty shaker like Prince’s 1999 thumps through the party.” That gives us the idea and trust me, if she can, your music supervisor will get 1999. If it’s out of your budget range, she’ll get some awesome band you may never have heard of but that will serve the emotion of the scene perfectly.

  1. Scene numbers or Scene notes

I see a lot of scripts with things left in them that are meant to be for your working reference only. Scene numbers are one of those things. Those are a tool for you. Those aren’t for me to see how many scenes you have. When you save your version of your script for contest entry, etc. make sure to turn off scene numbers. Again, they only make you look like a newbie.

Along the same lines, I’ll see phrases (or god help me, paragraphs) of actions that read like script notes to the writer, rather than fleshed out scenes. They might look like “Ash and Matt sit and have a great chat about where they should have dinner and they work out their differences.” OK, where’s that scene? Either write out the actions and dialog showing me that event or cut the action lines saying that, because it just makes it look like you and meant to come back to it later but instead forgot to write a scene. What happens exactly? What are the actors saying? What is the director shooting? You’re the writer – don’t ask someone else to write your scene.

  1. Mores and Cont’d

Look, I know this is a feature in some software programs for a reason but as a reader it’s super annoying. I recommend eliminating “Mores and Continueds.” In Final Draft it’s a simple setting you can turn off. We know from context that a scene or line continues. These extra designations clutter up your page and take away valuable line space. In this visual blue print that is the script, brevity is king. Or, as Shakespeare once said, brevity…is wit.**

  1. Typos

For the love of god, proofread your script. Or get a friend to do it for you. Or just freaking Autocorrect. In today’s advanced typing technology age there is literally no reason why there should be a single typo in your script. Wrong word choice I can understand; a ‘board’ instead of a ‘bored’ is going to slip by your spell-check, but it should not slip by your eyes because you a writer who knows how to use words.

Executives and their readers are notoriously finicky and will look for any reason to put a script down. Typos can be enough. Poor formatting will do the trick regardless of how amazing your story may be. Don’t give them a reason like that to stop reading.

Worse than that, such mistakes look like you didn’t care enough to get them right and if you didn’t care enough to spend your time learning your craft to the best of your ability, why should I spend my time reading your work? You’re a writer and typos make you look like you can’t write.

Taken by themselves, these things can either seem nit-picky or dogmatic but taken as a whole, they show your professionalism alongside your writing skill. When you get to Shane Black or Charlie Kaufman levels, sure, break the rules all you want. But until then, hone your skills in speaking the same visual blueprint language all the craftspeople in Hollywood speak.

Now get back to that script and fix all this stuff so I can enjoy your story without distraction and advance your script! You wrote it because you felt it was worth it. I just want to be on the same page.

* The Wonky Slugs are my new String Cheese Incident cover band.

**Yes, I know that’s actually a Simpson’s quote purposely bastardizing the Bard. I was just testing you.


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