Thursday, September 25, 2014

Tracking Character Through Preparation and Aftermath

(SPOILERS: Aliens, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Godfather)

One of the hardest things to do in a screenplay is to reveal the progress of the internal journey of the character – their “character arc.” Part of the challenge is that in many of the big scenes with significant plot advances, the character will either want to hide their emotions or won’t have time to have an emotional reaction. This is one area where scenes of preparation and aftermath can be particularly useful.

As you might expect, scenes of preparation are scenes that show the character getting ready for something. They give us an opportunity to see how the character feels about the upcoming event. Are they excited? Confident? Afraid? Determined?

Scenes of aftermath give the character a chance to react after a major event. We can see how they feel about what just happened. How did the event impact them emotionally?

The movie Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) has two scenes that demonstrate this quite well.

First, we get a scene of preparation on the space ship before Ripley and the marines land on the planet. Ripley is briefing the marines on what she knows about the alien life forms. Ripley is clearly anxious and scared of the aliens. The marines are unconcerned, however, making jokes and goofing around. One marine confidently says she only needs to know one thing: “where they are” and them makes a shooting motion with her finger. At that point Ripley tries without success to convince the marines of the impending danger.

About halfway through the movie we get a scene of aftermath following the marines’ first, mostly unsuccessful encounter with the aliens. The characters’ attitudes are reversed. The surviving marines are freaked out, arguing about what to do next. But Ripley’s been in this situation before. She begins to take charge, coming up with a plan. Now the marines listen to her.

These scenes set up the characters’ expectations leading into the action and then show us the impact the action had on them psychologically. That in turn helps the audience stay emotionally involved in the story. It also illustrates progress in Ripley’s character arc – tentative and anxious initially, determined later.

This summer’s hit movie Guardians of the Galaxy (written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) demonstrates the power of good aftermath/preparation scenes. After the team’s failure on Knowhere, we get a scene of aftermath where we see Drax’s devastation at being defeated by Ronan. Drax’s sole purpose was to avenge his family’s death, and he has failed. Without this scene, Drax’s storyline would lack emotional punch.

A bit later Drax, Rocket and Groot are reunited with Peter and Gamora. In another aftermath scene, most of the group is depressed, feeling like there’s no hope. They’re ready to give up. But Peter attempts to rally them with a new plan. At first there is skepticism, but eventually everyone comes around and commits. The filmmakers do a particularly good job undercutting the emotion with humor so it doesn't become too cheesy. But we do get the emotion, and we see how these characters, all self-centered loners at the beginning of the film, have become a team. Character arc.

Often scenes of aftermath become scenes of preparation for the next event, as in the second Guardians of the Galaxy scene. This also happens in the scene from Aliens after the marines are decimated. Once they come to terms with their failure, they start to make new plans: to take off and bomb the site from orbit. Of course if you’ve seen the movie you know those plans don’t work out so well either.

Scenes of preparation can reveal character in another way – by establishing the character’s plan for the upcoming event. Then, if the character does not do what was planned, it will tell us something about their emotional state.

There are a couple scenes of preparation in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) before the big set piece where Michael kills the rival Mafioso in retaliation for the attempt on his father’s life. First, we see one of the Corleone hit men giving Michael a gun and explaining how the hit will go down. He makes a particular point of telling Michael to drop the gun immediately after the killing.

That’s followed by a second scene of preparation where the family waits for a call that will give them the location of the meeting between Michael and the rival Mafioso. Everyone’s nervous, snapping at each other. At one point, someone suggests they should call the whole thing off – it’s too dangerous. After they get the call informing them the meet will be in a restaurant, they decide where the gun will be planted for Michael – behind a toilet. Michael is told to use the restroom and shoot his targets as soon as he comes out. He’s also reminded again to immediately drop the gun.

These two scenes serve several purposes. First, they tell us that this is going to be a dangerous mission and that Michael is inexperienced. Second, they tell us the plan so we can judge how well Michael’s doing as it unfolds. When Michael comes out of the bathroom, he doesn’t follow the plan. Instead of immediately shooting his targets he sits back down. We understand that he’s on the verge of chickening out – something we wouldn’t know if we didn’t know what he was supposed to do. Then after he finally does shoot the rival Mafioso, he forgets to drop the gun until he’s halfway out the door, reinforcing his anxiety.

There are additional uses for scenes of preparation. They can provide the audience with the information we need to appreciate the bigger set piece. They allow us to plant things that can be paid off in the later scene. For example, in The Godfather scene, we need to know the gun will be hidden behind the toilet so we understand what's going on when Michael retrieves it.

In both the outlining and the rewriting phases, be sure the character’s emotional journey is being tracked. If you’re losing focus on how the character’s feeling, consider adding a scene of preparation or aftermath.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Personal Journey: The 2nd Edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible

NOTE FROM DOUG: This week, Let’s Schmooze will do something a little different. This blog entry was co-written with Ken Aguado, who is a producer and also my co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. We wanted to talk a little bit about why we did a new edition of the book.

Personal journey: The 2nd edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible.

When we wrote the first edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible, we really didn’t know what to expect. We certainly knew that we were writing about a subject matter that was both incredibly important for Hollywood career longevity but also suffered from an incredible dearth of good information. We also knew from our teaching experiences how students struggled with pitching, and this gave us insight into the most challenging aspects of the pitching process. Still, when a new book is set free upon the world you never know what the reaction will be. The good news is that the book received uniformly positive reviews and the book is now required reading at several film schools around the country.

But nothing is ever perfect and we took the last year or so to listen to feedback in the hopes we’d eventually get it together to write a 2nd edition. We got a few requests to include more examples of pitches, and also some requests that we continue to develop some of our more unique and interesting ideas about the nature of pitching. More on that in a moment.

But first, a little recap:

The first edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible came about when Ross LaManna (the Chair of the Undergraduate and Graduate Film Departments at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California) asked if we would help create a graduate level class in pitching. Ross, being an established Hollywood screenwriter and a bright guy, was deeply acquainted with the value of learning to pitch. He knew that, while many film classes can teach you how to write a script or operate a camera, understanding how to present your ideas (and present yourself) is where the rubber meets the road in showbiz. He knew that sending a graduate into the working world without knowing how to sell themselves and their projects is leaving them half-armed. In retrospect, Ross’ idea was pretty clever: take a Hollywood screenwriter (Doug) and put him in an arranged marriage with an experienced producer (Ken) to create a pitching curriculum that was able to explain pitching from “both sides of the desk.” Prior to that, Doug and Ken had never met. But it worked, and our first edition was the successful offspring of our combined knowledge.

Back to now:

The new edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible was released in late August of 2014. We call it the “expanded second edition” because it has more content than the first edition by 50%. As mentioned, we dig even deeper into pitching, with many more specific examples of pitches. Maybe more importantly, we also greatly expanded some of the core components and unique principles we originated in the first edition – especially our ideas regarding how the process of pitching can help uncover and perfect the DNA of an idea. In this regard the book is much more than just a book about the verbal selling of film and TV ideas. We are solidly in the fundamental territory of screenwriting and storytelling. As far as we know, this is a unique aspect of our book.

In addition, we also expanded our coverage of reality programming and added more information about pitching from a director and producer’s perspective. We added many anecdotes from top Hollywood professionals about how they actually pitched and sold their projects that got made. All of these contributors did a stellar job and their stories are really illuminating. You can read some of them on the Hollywood Journal website. It is our sincerest hope that this will help make the 2nd edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible a definitive and practical resource for years to come.

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Below is an excerpt from our section on creating a good log line. You will see how we use this element of a pitch to access the DNA of an idea. In this excerpt we discuss two of the six elements you need in a stand-alone log line.


Identify Your Protagonist. Who is the protagonist? In other words, through whose point of view is the listener experiencing the events of the story? Try to identify the primary aspects of the protagonist that matters for your log line. Referring to the protagonist merely as a “man” or a “woman” is almost never enough. It is often better to identify the protagonist by what they do. Is he or she a cop, a superhero, a doctor, a mother? But make sure your description is relevant to what comes later in your log line! In other words, if you describe your lead as a cop, and what follows is not a story that involves cop-things, there might be a better way to describe the lead. One other important thing – if your lead is under 18, specify the age exactly. Calling someone a child or kid is vague. There’s a big difference between a 5-year-old and a 12-year-old. But in general you probably won’t specify the character’s age in the log line unless their exact age is important to the story – for example, a story about a character’s first trip to Las Vegas at 21, or forced retirement at 65, etc.

Usually, the earlier you can identify your protagonist in your log line the better. So, “a resourceful scientist fights back when the Earth is attacked by aliens” is better than “after the Earth is attacked by aliens, a resourceful scientist tries to fight back.” Do you see how the first version keeps the primary focus on the lead? (If the aliens are the stars of this film – never mind.) You want your protagonist at the center of your story’s reason to exist.

You don’t need to give your protagonist a name. In fact, you should almost never give your protagonist a name in a short log line, unless they are based on a famous or real-life person – in other words, if your listener will recognize the name when they hear it. If your character’s name is something like Harry Potter, Noah, Santa Claus or Kermit the Frog, by all means let your listener know! This is a marketing decision.

If your story is told from multiple points of view - if it involves a group, or a team, or an ensemble - try to characterize the group. “A team of superheroes,” “a dysfunctional family,” or a “motley band of soldiers,” are all good examples. This usually applies if there are more than two central characters. If you were doing a story with two equal leads, such as a romance or a buddy story, each character would more likely be described individually. For example, “Notting Hill” would probably be described as a romance between a “British bookseller and an American movie star.” A typical exception would be for a comedy like “This is 40,” where the two protagonists might be collectively described as a “middle-aged, married couple.” Of course, some romances and buddy films have more than two leads, such as “Love Actually” or “The Hangover,” respectively. In films like these you will need to summarize the group in some way – “A cross section of Londoners” or “Four groomsmen.”

One last aspect of establishing your protagonist is the use of adjectives to enhance the description of them. In most cases you should choose an adjective that will help the listener zero in on the protagonist’s primary quality: “a lonely housewife,” “a reluctant superhero,” “a dysfunctional family,” and so on.

Adjectives can be a log line’s best friend if done right. Two tips for doing it right:

First, try to choose an adjective that confers a dramatic, dynamic, sympathetic, or admirable quality to your protagonist. You’re describing your lead, after all. This doesn’t mean your choice has to imply heroism or perfection. Flawed characters are okay, but there’s a huge difference between describing them as a “loser” versus “down on their luck.” The latter is much more sympathetic. Remember, the listener does not have the benefit of knowing all the complexity of your character that will appear in the screenplay. They will build their impression entirely on what words you use to describe them here.

Second, your choice of adjective must be relevant to the events or actions that follow in your log line. So, a lonely housewife finds true love, a reluctant superhero rediscovers his courage, and a dysfunctional family learns to live together. Do you see how these character descriptions and actions that follow compliment each other?

One last piece of advice, it is very easy to slip into some bad clichés with adjectives if you’re not artful. Some of the examples above come pretty close, but we chose them just for clarity. Use a thesaurus; find the best words, ones that are both fresh and evocative.

Protagonist’s Goal. Once we identify the protagonist, next we must articulate their main goal for the bulk of the story. What do they really want? So, for example, in the movie “Gravity,” the astronaut’s main goal is to survive a disaster and return to Earth. It’s not to repair the Hubble Telescope, although that is her initial goal. This is a crucial distinction. You must identify what drives the drama for most of your story. If your log line is for a movie, the protagonist’s goal should be the thing that drives the story for perhaps 90 minutes of screen time. If it’s a television series log line, it might have to help drive the stories of 60 episodes, or more! In almost all cases, the protagonist’s goal will be described with a verb – “survive” and “return,” in our “Gravity” example above.

Be careful when selecting the appropriate verb. Make sure it describes something that can be ongoing and sustained. Stay away from verbs that imply very transient things for the protagonist. Verbs like “discovers” or “realizes” or “decides” imply a very brief screen time, unless followed up with another verb that describes the protagonist’s actions after that discovery, realization or decision! It only takes a few minutes of screen time for the astronaut in "Gravity" to discover her space shuttle has been destroyed, but it takes the rest of the film for her to survive and return to Earth, so the latter is an example of what you want to capture in your log line. Also look for external, visual verbs. If you say your character “contemplates” something, the listener might imagine a movie of someone looking out the window pensively. Remember, film is a visual medium.

If you’re having a hard time identifying your protagonist’s goal it is probably a good indication that your story has some fundamental flaw. Once again, this is an example of how pitching can be a tool that helps you uncovers the DNA of your story, and make it better. This is a core principle of this book.


* * *

The Hollywood Pitching Bible
is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, for Kindle, Nook, and at bookstores nationwide.

See more excerpts at The Hollywood Journal

Friday, September 12, 2014

When to Dump a Project

A few weeks ago I asked for suggestions for blog topics on Twitter. Marc Wobshcall responded with, “How many rewrites are too many. When to dump a project.”

It’s a complex question, so naturally the answer is complex. As long as you have an idea that can make the script notably better, you haven't done too many drafts yet. I did over 40 drafts of Sweet Home Alabama before I sold it.

Of course, this assumes continuing with the project is worth the effort. Sometimes it may be better from a career standpoint to just move on – such as when a movie with a depressingly similar concept to yours comes out. Also, note that I said “notably better.” I believe in polishing a script as thoroughly as possible before sending it out, but the reality is you can always noodle with a script. Eventually it’s just becoming different, not better.

I think what Marc’s really talking about, though, are those times when a script just isn’t coming together and you don’t have a clear idea how to make it work. It happens to most writers – it’s certainly happened to me. When do you give up?

Prevention

Before I address giving up, let me discuss techniques for preventing this situation in the first place. I’ve noticed many of my students reach a point in the outlining phase when they get frustrated and just want to start writing the first draft. They’re imagining great scenes and dialog in their heads and want to get them on paper.

It’s a trap.

If you have a clear, well-defined idea of what you’re trying to do before you start that first draft, you’re less likely to run into a wall down the line, or worse realize three drafts in that you need to fundamentally reconceive your story or character. If your idea isn’t working in the outline phase, it won’t work in script form. It’s even possible there’s a fatal flaw in the underlying concept – in which case spending months or years writing drafts won’t solve the problem.

If you do have great ideas for scenes or dialog, my suggestion is to go ahead and write them down. And then get back to outlining.

I now develop all my ideas as pitches first, even if I plan to spec them. Then I try those pitches out on trusted friends to get their reaction. I don’t proceed to draft until I’m sure I understand the fundamental core of the story and character, and that those things are compelling and viable. A pitch helps you hone and focus your vision.

Hitting a Wall

Let’s say, though, that you do hit a wall. You know your script isn’t working but you don’t know how to fix it. Maybe you’ve given it to several people for feedback, and the feedback is contradictory or confusing or just doesn’t seem right to you. How do you know when to abandon a project?

I’ve thrown out two scripts after the first draft because I just didn’t like them. It actually was surprisingly easy to let them go. I felt no compulsion to keep working on them, and I had tons of other ideas. I also think many writers have a bad script in them that they just have to get out (for some reason these are often coming-of-age stories). So get it out and move on. There are no wasted scripts. Even if they don’t sell, you will grow as a writer by writing it.

If you’re feeling like your script is hopeless, I would recommend not thinking of it as “abandonment” but rather as “setting it aside.” I have several times gone back to troubled scripts a year or two later and discovered, with the aid of time and a better perspective, I knew exactly how to fix them. Other times I’ve gone back and realized the story was fatally flawed at the core level. Or that, though I could see how to fix it, I just wasn’t that interested in the idea anymore. It’s much easier to face (and admit) these facts when you’ve had some time away.

So if you can’t see the solution now, put the script aside and write something else. If you’re in this for the long haul – and that’s really the only way you’ll ever get a movie made – you’re going to write a bunch of scripts. You’re probably going to have to write a bunch before you sell your first one. Might as well start the next script. You learn something from every script, and sometimes what you learn will be the solution to an earlier project’s problem.

A caveat to this: I would not suggest abandoning a script in the middle of the first draft until you’ve got several scripts under your belt. In my experience, you will hit at least one rough patch on every project. You have to learn to push through those and finish. It takes experience to tell the difference between a tough problem and a fatal flaw.

I wouldn’t even really recommend abandoning scripts after the first draft. I believe in allowing the first draft to be bad. Writing is rewriting – rewriting is where you make stuff good. However, if you're three or more drafts in and you feel like there’s no hope, give yourself permission to move on.

Of course I’m talking here about spec scripts. When you’re writing or rewriting screenplays for assignments you kinda have to finish. But in those cases if you can’t find the solution they’ll probably fire you anyway, so the question of whether to move on will be out of your hands!


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For information on how to find the core of your idea and build a pitch, may I humbly suggest The Hollywood Pitching Bible.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Observations from a Pitching Panel

Back on August 16th I moderated a panel on “The Art of the Pitch” at Screenwriters World Conference. The other panelists were screenwriter Rob Edwards, screenwriter Patty Meyer, script consultant Daniel Manus and producer Calix Lewis Reneau.

Because I was moderating I wasn’t able to take notes, but here are a few of the insights I remember.

I started out by asking what was the key to a successful pitch. Most of the panelists talked about the importance of selling yourself as much as selling your idea. The primary goal of most pitching is to build a relationship with the listener. We also discussed what a big risk you are asking the listener to take, so you have to convince them you are responsible and reliable. You also have to be someone they’d like to spend a lot of time with over the next couple years. As Daniel Manus said, “You have to be normal.”

Someone made the point that this means that when you are trying to sell the pitch is not the time to debate plot points. In the room you have to be the most cooperative, easy-to-work-with writer ever. Once the project is underway you can choose a few story battles to fight.

Another key to success everyone agreed on was the importance of passion for your project. Passion is contagious – and the lack of passion will make the listener think even you are bored by your idea. Rob Edwards described how he learned to pitch by pitching his favorite movies, such as Star Wars, into a mirror. He tries to capture the same passion for his ideas as he has for those great movies.

When I asked what the biggest mistake writers make when pitching, Calix mentioned not doing your homework and pitching the wrong kind of material for the buyer. You have to be aware of the genre and budget levels the company makes. Another mistake one of the panelists mentioned was continuing to talk after the buyer has said yes or no. I brought up the pitfalls of focusing on plot over character.

Somewhere along the way the question of “telling the ending” during a pitch came up. All of the panelists agreed that you must be ready and willing to tell the ending of your story. If you are trying to get someone to read a full screenplay, you may not volunteer the ending, but if you are asked, “How does it end?” you should tell them. Of course if you are trying to get someone to hire you to write a screenplay, they aren’t going to do it without knowing how the movie ends.

During the question and answer session, a woman said she had several movie people interested in an idea of hers based on a true story, but she felt she couldn’t tell the story in two hours. Pretty much everyone on the panel responded, “Yes you can,” which naturally didn’t make the woman very happy.

I think my fellow panelists are right – any story can be told in two hours. The key is figuring out why you are telling that story and building a plot that supports that central idea. Then discard everything else. However I think there’s another thing to consider: knowing your market. People who make feature films are in the business of making feature films, and feature films are two hours long (roughly). If you can’t tell your story in that time frame, don’t pitch it to feature producers!

All in all it was a great panel and over much too quickly. And that was largely because of my wonderful panelists!

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The second edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible is now available!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thirty Minutes for the Last Line

Recently I was in a notes meeting for a screenplay I had been hired to rewrite. In addition to myself, the producer and a development exec were in the meeting (I’m going to avoid using names because I’m not sure if I’m really allowed to talk about the project). The script in question is a romantic comedy.

At one point the development exec pointed out that the last line in the script was delivered by the love interest instead of the main character, and wondered if that was a problem. What followed was a half hour discussion about the last line of the movie. Half an hour – about a single line of dialog.

The first question was, does the last line actually need to go to the main character? The general consensus was “not necessarily.” Giving the last line in a romantic comedy to the love interest didn’t seem inappropriate. But, we kicked around ideas for what the main character could say as a last line, just to see what we could come up with.

Or rather the producer and development exec kicked around ideas. I mostly sat and listened and thought. Finally I threw out a suggestion – a call back and twist to an earlier line that served as a thematic tag on the story and the character’s arc. It went over so well the other two people actually applauded. It was the first time I’ve gotten applause in a notes meeting!

I’m not telling you this to brag (well, maybe a little), but because I think most aspiring writers would be surprised to find that we would spend this much time in a meeting discussing a single line of dialog. I think there are a few things this anecdote reveals about the real world of professional screenwriting.

First, they care a lot. True, I’ve had many more meetings where someone gave me notes who only read the coverage and a couple pages of the actual script. Which is frustrating. But this screenplay is about to go out to movie stars, and everyone knows they only get one shot at any given star, so they want the script to be perfect. And this producer and exec are experienced filmmakers who know the importance of the final moments of a movie. So if they are unsure about the last line of dialog, they will work on it until they are sure.

Second, details matter. Students often grumble when I criticize them for formatting, grammar or spelling errors, but those little mistakes send a signal that you are sloppy about the details. And the people who hire writers care about the details.

Third, screenwriting is a collaborative business even though 98% of the time you are in a room by yourself staring at your computer. You never get to just hand in the final script and walk away – unless they’re going to replace you with another writer. You have to work with your fellow collaborators on the movie. And that’s good, because often those people are smart and experienced.

A corollary to this is that a great screenplay does more than just follow the structural outlines described in “how to write a screenplay” books. You need to have a sense for how movies work. That means understanding what final emotion you want to leave the audience with and how to achieve that emotion. It means understanding that the ending should be about the main character because that’s satisfying, not because someone gave you a “rule” that the main character should get the last line.

Fourth, a big part of your job is finding the best solutions to these kinds of problems. I’m really glad I came up with the perfect last line – because that’s why they hired me! You have to know your craft better than the other people in the room. This doesn’t mean I (or you) will always be the one to come up with that great line. I have been given terrific bits of dialog during notes sessions, ones where I was kicking myself for not having thought of it. But if they’re giving me all the best stuff, pretty soon they’re going to wonder if they really need me at all.

It’s extremely hard to write a good screenplay. But the job of screenwriter actually requires more than just that ability. Hopefully this little anecdote makes clear why that is.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Five Tips for Writing Good Dialog

I was having trouble thinking about what to write about this week, so I asked for suggestions on Twitter. I got a bunch of good suggestions that I will address in the coming weeks (and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments). But producer Ken Aguado, my co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible, suggested I discuss writing good dialog. It’s a great topic – and one that could fill several posts. Today I will offer five of my best dialog tips.

I’m going to break the tips up into two groups. The first are things you should think about before writing a scene. The second are things that you would apply in the rewrite phase. Why the distinction? In the first draft you need to turn off your inner critic and let your imagination run free. In the rewrite phase, you apply more critical skills to hone your dialogue.

Just because you are letting your imagination loose in the first draft, however, doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do to encourage good dialog. This first group of tips are things you should think about before starting in on the first draft of the scene:

1. Characters should have distinctive voices. There’s a saying that in a good script you should be able to black out the character names and still be able to identify who’s speaking. A character’s background and personality should affect how they use language. I write diary entries in my major characters’ voices until I can hear them in my head. Then I know I’m ready to write for them.

2. Strong goals mean strong dialog. Dialog should be action. To achieve this, characters should speak in order to achieve a goal, whether it’s to hide something, convince someone else to do something, hurt someone or comfort someone. Of course, there needs to be some obstacle to that goal or else the dialog will quickly become passive. In dialog-driven scenes this obstacle is often another character with an opposing goal, or a goal that is mutually exclusive from the main character’s goal.

If you have characters with distinctive voices and strong opposing goals when you start to write, two thirds of your dialog job is done.

3. Reveal exposition in conflict. Expository dialogue (dialogue that reveals crucial information for the audience) is the most difficult kind to write. In real life, the most dramatic reason people speak information is to support an argument. So if you need your characters to give crucial information, create a disagreement that will prompt them to bring that information out.

4. Good dialog has subtext. This means that underneath what is being said, there is an unspoken scene going on. In real life people seldom say exactly or entirely what’s on their mind. Dialog without subtext is called “on the nose” – and that’s almost always a bad thing. If the dialog in your scene seems too direct, give your character a reason not to reveal their goal. For example, maybe it would embarrass them, or maybe if the opposing character knew what the main character is trying to achieve they would be less cooperative. Maybe the main character just doesn’t want to make themselves vulnerable.

I learned from Matt Weiner, the brilliant creator of Mad Men, that subtext is all about preparation. In order for the audience to grasp the subtext of the scene, they must know the context in which the scene is taking place.

Tip number four is both a first draft and a rewriting tip. You should try to have subtext in your first draft, but very often you will still find yourself writing on-the-nose dialogue. In your revision, try to find a reason for the character to be less direct. Here’s another dialog rewriting tip:

5. Cut the boring parts. Movie dialog should have verisimilitude, meaning it should seem like real speech but not actual mimic real speech. In real life people ramble, digress, repeat themselves and eat up a lot of time with pleasantries. If we mimicked this on screen, a simple conversation might take up half your movie. So you want to cut all the boring parts.

Particularly watch out for pleasantries like greetings and farewells. Try to cut into the scene as late as possible and out as early as possible. And only include the part that’s relevant to the story – if a scene takes place in a restaurant, don’t show the characters ordering (unless that’s critical to the drama). If you have a scene of a character shopping we almost never need to see them at the cash register paying.

Let’s look at a brief bit of dialog from Shaun of the Dead. In this scene, Shaun has learned that a strange man has bitten his stepfather, Philip. Shaun knows this man was a zombie and that Philip will now become a zombie. He races to his mother’s house to save her. The only trouble is, Shaun arrives before Philip has turned. So in this scene, he’s struggling to tell his mother, Barbara, that he has to kill her husband. (Remember what Matt Weiner said about subtext needing context? Shaun and the audience know something the other characters don’t, and Shaun has a reason not to speak directly – he doesn’t want to cause his mother emotional pain.) We pick up where Shaun has gone into the kitchen to help his mother prepare tea.

Shaun: Mum?

Barbara: Mmmm?

Shaun: how much do you love Philip?

Barbara: Two sugars, is it?

Shaun: I haven't had sugar in my tea since 1982.

Barbara: Oh, yes. Will you cut me some bread, love?

Shaun: Mum, how much do you love Philip? 


Barbara: Oh for goodness sake Shaun, must we go through all this again? 

Shaun: I’m sorry but… what would you think if I told you that he has, over the years, been quite unkind to me?

Barbara: You weren't always the easiest person to live with.

Shaun: Mum, he chased me with a piece of wood!

Barbara: Well, you did call him a “you know what.”

Shaun: Did he tell you that?

Barbara: Yes he did.

Shaun: Motherfucker.

Barbara: Shaun!

Shaun: Sorry, Mother... Mum! Did you know that, on several occasions, he touched me?

(Barbara flashes Shaun a look.)

Shaun: That wasn't true. Made it up, shouldn't have done, sorry. You don't understand...

Barbara: No, you don't understand. Philip is my husband and has been for seventeen years. I know you haven’t always seen eye to eye but I would at least expect you to respect my feelings. You must be more adult about these things.

(Philip appears in the doorway.)

Philip: (Growling) Yeah. Come on, Shaun. There comes a time when... you just... gotta be a man.

(Shaun looks at the knife in his hand)


Notice how each character has a distinctive voice – Shaun’s is impatient and a bit pouty, almost childish. Barbara starts out sunny and only snaps when pushed. Also, notice how Barbara says “you-know-what” instead of swearing, while Shaun has no problem swearing. Plus, you get a sense of their relationship in the way they interact.

Shaun has a clear goal – to convince his mother they need to kill Philip, and a clear obstacle – his mother loves Philip. This also gives him good reason not to state his case directly. Moreover, Shaun knows that his mother is not likely to believe in zombies, meaning he has to broach the subject cautiously.

Barbara gives a lot of exposition about the family relationship in this snippet of dialog. Shaun would already know all this information. But it doesn’t seem false because Barbara is using it to justify and defend her position.

You may wonder about the inclusion of the dialog about tea and bread. Isn’t this the boring stuff I said to cut? In many scenes it would be, but here it reflects Barbara’s goal. She wants the family to sit down to a nice snack together. This actually provides an obstacle to Shaun – he has to get her to change the focus of her attention. (This business also justifies why Shaun has a knife at the end.) Every line in this section of the scene advances the plot. Everything else has been cut out.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

How Eric Heisserer Pitches

Today I am featuring a guest blogger: Eric Heisserer. Eric wrote and directed The Hours, starring Paul Walker. He also wrote the 2011 The Thing, Final Destination 5, and the 2010 version of The Nightmare on Elm Street, plus the upcoming Story of Your Life. I asked Eric to describe his pitching process to get quotes for the second edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. His approach was so interesting I asked if I could use it as a blog post. He kindly gave permission. So here is how Eric pitches:

I despise pitching. I used to say I preferred writing on spec to pitching because I felt the proof is always in the writing, but that was just a clever excuse draped over my anxiety in the room with executives staring at me intently. Like everything, repetition and practice has made it bearable. You improve by doing something over and over. And if you're looking to make screenwriting a career, you have to accept that you'll work up a hundred pitches (or more) in your tenure.

Here is what I do for a pitch now: I use visual aids. Note cards. I find a dozen or so images that really speak to the look and feel or the tone of the project I'm pitching, and sometimes I'll even "dream" cast the movie or TV project, selecting photos of actors that most closely fit their characters. I avoid using much text on the cards, because as I've learned you don't want your audience reading what's on the card instead of paying attention to your story. The one vital element I include on the cards? Character names. Execs hear an absurd number of pitches per week, plus they have a ton of projects going, and so it's difficult for them to remember who your hero is versus the villain or the love interest. Having a quick reference (with a photo of an actor beside it) is helpful for them.

The cards are helpful for me, too. If I veer off-topic or forget my place, I can look down at the next photo or concept art in my stack and pick up where I left off. Occasionally I will break out a story pitch by sequence, laying down a couple of visual cards for every sequence in the movie (typically 7-10), but if I'm not working with sequences, I make sure to announce at regular intervals what page we're on in the story. This puts the audience at ease, because they've been stuck in pitch meetings before that drone on for twenty minutes until the writer mentions "all of that is backstory, here is where the movie starts." Execs want signposts so they know where they are within the narrative.

Finally, I've come to realize I can't pitch on something unless I have a personal, emotional connection to it somehow. A story from my own youth. A main character drawn from my father or in-law. An event that changed my life or the life of a loved one. It's critical your audience understands where your heart is with the story, they don't want it to be merely business. Or to put it this way: If two writers come in and pitch, and both takes are competent, the one who demonstrates why it matters to them or how it's based on a personal story will get the job, because it suggests the material will be written with passion and emotional drive otherwise missing from the other take. Whether this is true or not, it's how many execs operate, and it's how I've come to realize I write best.

Of course, sometimes your greatest tool in a pitch can be rendered useless, so try to find out the circumstances of the pitch meeting beforehand. Since I use note cards with visuals, I make sure not to pitch over the phone, but one time, for a project at Dimension Films, I was brought into a conference room where three execs were ready to hear my pitch... along with the head of the company via Skype on a TV screen at the end of the room. He was the one I had to impress, and he had no way of seeing the cards. Furthermore, the connection wasn't the greatest, and when he talked to me the transmission would clip parts of his words, which meant that's likely how he heard my entire pitch.

Needless to say, I didn't get that job.

Thanks Eric! You may wish to follow Eric on twitter - his handle is @HIGHzurrer

And now about the aforementioned 2nd edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible - it is now available on Amazon! (eBook editions should become available in the next few weeks). The new, expanded 2nd edition includes:

-More information on pitching for producers and directors
-Expanded section on pitching for television
-More sample pitches
-Expanded section on pitching for assignments
-Anecdotes of successful movie and television pitches from the creators who sold them
And much more!