Thursday, October 23, 2014

Three Techniques for Developing Complex Characters

Creating believable characters is, of course, one of the most important skills for a screenwriter to master. If the main character of your story feels like a real person, then we will care what happens to them. That will get the audience involved in the story. So how do you create characters that feel like real people?

Many writing teachers recommend creating a detailed backstory, and that can be useful. But I find it nearly impossible to determine a character’s backstory until I know who the character is now. I have the same problem with those long lists of “character questions” – you know, the ones that ask what their favorite food is and where they went to second grade. The answers feel arbitrary until I really know the person the questions are about. And if I know the character, why do I need to answer all those questions?

So here are three techniques I use to create realistic, complex characters.

1. Develop Them in Three Dimensions

From the initial story conception I’ll know some of the character's characteristics, such as maybe their job or family situation. Next, I’ll start fleshing out the character in three dimensions: physical, social and psychological.

In screenplays we generally avoid extremely detailed physical description such as hair or eye color unless for some reason it’s critical to the story (Legally Blonde, for example). This is because we want to allow some range for casting. However, there are still several aspects of physicality to consider. What is the character’s age? What is their race? How athletic are they? Are they graceful, clumsy, sexy or sickly? Naturally attractive or ugly? Do they have a high-pitched, squeaky voice or a deep soothing voice? All of these things affect the character’s attitude toward the world.

Social characteristics can be thought of as demographics. Is the character single, married, divorced? Are their parents alive and do they get along with them? Are they popular, stylish, a jock or a nerd? What religion are they? Socio-economic class? Education level? What ethnicity, and are they a minority in their environment? What social groups are they part of – friends, work groups, hobby groups? Where do they live – what city and what kind of domicile? Who do they live with?

Psychological traits are about the character’s personality. Are they outgoing or shy? Optimistic or pessimistic? Patient or short-tempered? Greedy, overly-sensitive, confident, competitive, charming, uptight, lecherous and/or kind? What are they most afraid of? What do they enjoy?

2. Give Them a Contradiction

As I said, some of the character’s traits will be suggested by your concept. If the story is about a doctor, then he’s going to be well educated. You’ll need to decide how long he’s been a doctor and how much experience he has. Think about what kind of people are doctors. They’re often smart, motivated workaholics. Usually they make a lot of money. They’re respected.

Now, look for contradictions – character aspects that separate this specific character from the norm. What if this particular doctor is actually lazy? Or maybe he’s broke… why would that be? Does he have a gambling problem? Or maybe he’s been divorced a bunch of times and spends most of his paycheck on alimony.

The hero in the excellent film Edge of Tomorrow (screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez Butterworth & John Henry Butterworth) is a soldier. We expect certain things from soldiers - bravery, toughness, discipline, maybe a little macho. We probably assume they're from working class backgrounds and have a modest education. But in this film, they made the hero a slick, fast talking PR guy for the military - and someone very afraid of going into actual combat. Those contradictions made him interesting and unique.

3. Give Them Plans

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

-John Lennon

John Lennon’s quote neatly crystallizes a valuable concept in creating characters. In order for your characters to seem like believable human beings, they can’t just be sitting around waiting for a story to happen to them. The story has to interrupt a life in progress. In other words, your characters have to have other plans.

I like to think through my characters’ short term, medium term and long term plans. Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) demonstrates this well. Richard, the main character, isn’t sitting around waiting for his daughter, Olive, to get into a beauty pageant. He has plans.

His short-term plan involves the inconvenience of taking in his brother-in-law, Frank, after Frank’s attempted suicide. In the medium term he’s trying to confirm a book deal for his “9 Steps” plan. In the long term he wants to be a motivational guru. One of the main reasons we show the characters’ plans is to establish who they are and what they want.

Let the story happen to your characters while they’re busy making other plans. After all, that’s life!

It's not unusual for me to read scripts by neophyte writers with a central character who's a loner - single, no family or friends, etc. Dedicated to their job with no outside hobbies or interests. Often they're white, middle class, mainline protestant, and in their mid-twenties - generic "movie character" demographics. Unless the story requires the character to be so one dimensional, this is usually a sign the writer is lazy. And it comes off as unrealistic - few people live like this. If you want us to care about your characters, you have to give them full, complicated lives.


I’m grateful for all my readers! If you find this blog useful, may I humbly suggest a way to show your appreciation: back my Kickstarter campaign and help me finish my short film, Microbe. Pledging just $10 will get you a digital download of the film. And, I’m offering a professional script analysis if you pledge $300 – that’s more than half off my usual rate.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Five Lessons from Making a Short Film

A few weeks ago I shot a short film called Microbe. It is a sci-fi/thriller story about three astronauts who struggle to survive after an alien microbe turns one of them homicidal.

I had several reasons for tackling this film. First, I want to get into directing and need a sample to show people. Second, I want to change my “brand” and start doing more science fiction. Third, I wanted to learn some of the latest film technology. I studied production in film school, but the process of filmmaking has changed greatly since then. I pushed myself with what I’m attempting. We’re using green screen, CGI, wirework stunts, and we even shot in 3D (or “stereo” as the pros call it).

We had a great time on set – I had a fantastic cast and crew – and I have learned a bunch. Now we’re moving into post-production. I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned so far about this process.

1. Make sure you actually have what you think you have before you start. I had a few problems with people offering something for the film (money, their services, free use of equipment or facilities) only to pull it back before we started. Similarly, sometimes people would say they could do something for a certain budget, only to come back later and say they needed more money – after I’d already committed to using them.

Once you start spending money on a film, it’s pretty hard not to keep going until it’s done. Not finishing means you lose everything invested to that point. So when the budget goes up, you have little choice but opening up your wallet. The more you can lock down everything, in as clear and firm terms as possible, before you actually hit the “go” button, the better. Of course filmmaking is a chaotic endeavor, so you should always have contingency of 10% in your budget.

2. Good collaborators are critical. Get people who know their jobs and listen to them. As I said, I had a great cast and crew. There was a point where we finished a shot, the actors and I stepped off the set, and I just watched the crew work. The art department was bringing in a set wall while the camera team laid dolly track, the gaffer set up lights and the grip set up C-stands. It should have been chaos – everyone running into everyone else – but instead it was like a beautiful choreographed ballet. I realized this was a century of Hollywood figuring out how to make films distilled into my well-trained crew.

Filmmaking is complex and you can’t know everything – especially on a shoot as complicated as mine. I had to rely on my stereographer to ensure the 3D was working, my VFX Supervisor to confirm the shots fit what he needed, and tons of other people to do their jobs so I could focus on the staging and acting. Especially valuable was my script supervisor making sure we got each piece we needed and that it would all cut together.

3. Take the big swing. It’s the only way to get noticed, and it makes people excited to get involved. Okay, I don’t know for sure yet that this will pay off. But my theory here is that there are tens of thousands of short films made every year. If you want someone to pay attention, you have to do something different, something interesting. So I took a big swing with a very ambitious project.

What I did find was that people were very excited to get involved. For some it was an opportunity for them to experiment with certain technology (particularly 3D for many of my crew). And it was just more fun than doing another short film shot in someone’s apartment. I was pleased to see people using the breaks in production to take pictures of themselves in the cool set my production designer constructed. And that kind of excitement helps get everyone through the long days.

4. Preparation is critical. Do and plan as much in advance as you can. Especially with complex effects, it was critical to have a carefully planned shot list and storyboards so we could figure out where to put the camera. We were constructing shots from multiple elements, so we needed to be sure everything fit together, and that we didn’t forget to shoot a particular element.

Production is chaotic – and things will go wrong. Preparation allows you to adapt and prioritize so you get what you need. One place I fell down in this regard was costuming. We didn’t do fittings with the cast in advance. Fortunately, the costumes fit them well, but we should have checked them with the harnesses for the wirework. The costumes didn’t cover the harnesses properly, forcing some creative nipping and tucking on set, and extra work for the visual effects guys who will have to digitally smooth the clothing. There was no need for this trouble – we could have tested all this in advance.

5. All jobs, and all parts of the process matter. The costuming issue was a good example. I didn’t think the costumes would be a big deal so I didn’t really pay attention to them. But a film is only great if no part fails. One bad performance can ruin a film. So can a bad score, or bad cinematography, or bad effects, or bad editing. To succeed you need everything to be good. That’s why making a great film is so hard. Fortunately, the costuming issues on our shoot were minor and fixable!

If you’d like to see more about Microbe, check the Facebook page and/or website.

As I said, I’m now in post-production on the film. We have created a Kickstarter campaign to help us pay for equipment, facilities, etc. that we need to finish. I hope you’ll check it out and consider backing us!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hollywood Conventional Wisdom Fails

Much has been made about the huge failure of this summer’s Hollywood movies. The numbers are grim: Total U.S. box office was $4.02 billion, a drop of 17% from last year and the worst total since 2006. But actually, adjusted for inflation, this was the worst summer since 1997 – seventeen years ago! Moreover, the National Association of Theater Owners reports that this summer’s ticket sales (501 million) was the lowest since they started keeping seasonal records in 2002. Also of note, no film crossed the $300 million mark at the box office during the summer (Guardians of the Galaxy made it after summer ended). That’s the first time that’s happened in fourteen years.

So what does summer 2014’s box office mean for screenwriters? We are independent contractors – essentially small business owners – so the fate of the marketplace affects us. Of course, it’s risky to try to deduce trends from a single season. Movies are unique products, and variations in quality make for volatile short-term economic numbers.

However this summer has offered ample evidence that much of Hollywood’s “conventional wisdom” no longer applies (if it ever really did). Whether or when Hollywood producers and executives recognize this remains to be seen.

One bit of conventional wisdom is that teenage boys drive box office. A corollary to this is that movies with male leads will be more successful.

Yet this summer female driven movies such as Maleficent (ranked #3), Lucy (#12) and The Fault in our Stars (#13) were some of the most profitable films. And this follows the success of Divergent this spring. Among the broad audience films, the ones that appealed more to women such as Guardians of the Galaxy (#1) did best. The exception was Transformers: Age of Extinction (#2 with a heavily male audience).

( has an interesting article showing that films that pass the Bechdel test – two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man – are typically more profitable than those that don’t.)

The emphasis on youth also seems to be outdated. According to The Hollywood Reporter, frequent moviegoers between the ages of 12-17 plunged 15% last year (2013), while moviegoers 18-25 plunged 17%. Or perhaps, given that total box office is also dropping, what this really means is that what Hollywood thinks will appeal to young people is completely outdated. Perhaps being out of touch with the young audience is a big reason for the weak summer.

The Hollywood Reporter article compares this summer’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the 2007 Sam Raimi Spider-Man 3. The recent movie’s audience was 39% female compared to 46% for the former, while only 41% of the recent movie’s audience was under 25 vs. 65% of the 2007 movie’s audience. The result? This summer’s Spider-Man movie was the lowest grossing of the franchise.

In fact, the reliance on franchises and well-known properties (the safest approach according to Hollywood conventional wisdom) didn’t pay off very well this summer. While the latest X-men movie managed to nearly match the last one, the latest Transformers and Spider-Man movies were among the lowest grossing in their series.  And the reboots of Teenage Mutant Turtles ($188 million) and Godzilla ($200 million) did just okay at best. The only real exception was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which beat its predecessor. (Maybe this indicates that the other franchises were simply played out.)

The summer’s biggest hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, was technically based on a comic book, but one almost nobody had heard of. This might indicate audience really want something fresh. Lucy, which grossed $125 million on a $40 million budget, is also a point for originality.

On the other hand, perhaps the scariest summer movie for studios and screenwriters was Edge of Tomorrow. It featured big stars in Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, was a high-concept genre movie, was loved by critics (90% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and well-liked by audiences (B+ Cinemascore). Yet it was a big flop, grossing just $100 million domestically on a budget of $178 million. If a high-quality, commercial movie like that can fail, what does that mean for original content?

Perhaps it means, like William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything” when it comes to box office.

The other real question is whether domestic box office really matters anymore. International box office can completely change a movie’s fate. Though Transformers: Age of Extinction was pretty ho-hum domestically, it is the number one movie of the year worldwide, with a gross over a billion dollars. (Interestingly, the female driven Maleficent comes in at #2, and Lucy holds the #12 position for the year-to-date worldwide.)

Of course box office gross might not tell us much either. Studios typically take a much lower percentage of the box office from foreign theaters than domestic, so grossing $100 million in China is not as good as grossing $50 million in the U.S. And, gross isn’t the same as profit – why Lucy is wildly successful while Edge of Tomorrow is a bomb. Furthermore, theatrical exhibition is only a small part of the studios’ revenue stream, though box office success does tend to increase the value of secondary revenue – television and cable networks, Netflix, Hulu, etc. pay more for a hit movie than a flop. Hits can be licensed to toy and video game companies; flops seldom are.

It’s enough to make a poor writer’s head spin. My takeaways are: First, the industry should stop ignoring the female audience and avoiding female stars. Second, we desperately need some fresh franchises. Perhaps that will influence the kind of material I choose to work on going forward.

(Note: I relied on Box Office Mojo heavily for my numbers)

(UPDATE: Apparently Box Office Mojo shut down within hours after I posted this!)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Making a Good First Impression

A couple months ago I solicited suggestions for blog topics here and on my Twitter feed. My friend Paul Guay suggested I talk about the crucial importance of spelling, grammar, punctuation and format. Paul, a top professional screenwriter (Liar Liar, Heartbreakers, Little Rascals) obviously doesn’t need to be told about format and grammar. I’m sure the suggestion came from his frustration in dealing with students from his classes and consulting business.

Screenplays have a very specific format (or really several specific formats if you consider sitcom, hour drama and feature film). It should not surprise you that if you want to work as a professional writer you need to use the proper format. It should not surprise you… but for some reason I’ve encountered an amazing number of aspiring writers who moan about learning format.

Using proper format is important for several reasons. First, it makes you look like a professional. Second, properly formatted screenplays should roughly time out to about one minute of screen time for each page of the screenplay. This helps the studio know if the screenplay is an appropriate length for a movie. Finally, many things about screenplay format are designed to help in the production of a film – for example, slug lines indicate a new location or time of day, which is helpful for scheduling the shoot.

There is a difference between a production formatted screenplay (a script which has been “locked” and is in pre-production) and a development script. Most of the time, writers are dealing with development format.

Here is a format guide for development scripts I’ve prepared with Paul’s help.

Note that format changes subtly over time (this is why it’s risky to use a guide printed in a book from 1988). For example, when I started out it was considered proper format to put “(CONTINUED)” at the bottom of each page. These days few professional writers do that.

The other thing that will help you is to use screenwriting software. Final Draft is currently the industry standard, though Movie Magic Screenwriter has its adherents. There’s even Celtx, a fairly good freeware product. Once you load the proper template for the kind of script you’re writing, the software will take care of most of the formatting for you. There is a small learning curve with any of these, but you’ll get the hang of it quicker than you think and wonder how you ever wrote without them.

Similar to format, you have to use proper spelling, grammar and punctuation in your script. Most of the executives and producers in this business have degrees from top universities. They know the difference between “lose” and “loose,” “than” and “then,” “its” and “it’s.” If you don’t know how to use those words, the executives are going to think you’re kind of stupid. Is that the impression you want to give? As a writer, your tool is the English language. You are expected to have mastered that tool!

There are two places where you will violate the rules of grammar. One is dialogue. People rarely speak in perfect English and your dialogue should reflect the way people actually speak. The second is for stylistic effect. For example, screenwriters often use sentence fragments to create a sense of pace and tone. But in these instances it will be clear that you are violating the rules intentionally for effect. On the other hand, if you confuse "their" and "there" everyone will know it's out of ignorance or sloppiness.

Now, if you read professional scripts you won’t have any trouble finding the occasional spelling, punctuation, format or grammar error. That isn’t really surprising when you consider that unlike a novel a script isn’t intended as a final product. Studios don’t employ copy editors the way publishing houses do. But don’t take that a license to be sloppy.

A few errors will never get your script rejected. But if an Ivy League educated producer finds half a dozen spelling and grammar errors on the first page of your script, you can bet she won’t bother to read the second page. If you haven’t mastered Basic English what’s the chance you’ve mastered dialogue and plot?

Similarly, if you use a slightly dated format people will still take your script seriously, though if you’re writing in a format used in the ‘40s or if you number your scenes (as is done in a locked production script) it’s kind of a tip off that you’re not a working professional yet.

If, however, you write in a radically non-standard format, people will absolutely not take you seriously. First of all, if you can’t be bothered to learn something as simple as formatting you probably haven’t bothered to learn anything else about the craft of writing either. The moment a producer or executive or movie star sees an improperly formatted script they immediately assume it’s awful. Experience says they’re probably right.

Remember, seldom are people in Hollywood obligated to read your work. Especially if you are trying to break in, any indication that you aren’t ready will be an easy excuse for a producer or executive to toss your script aside and move on to the next one.

Of course the thing that will ultimately determine your success or failure is your storytelling ability. The prettiest script in the world won’t sell if the story isn’t compelling. But format, grammar, punctuation, and spelling create an impression on the reader before they even get to the quality of your story. You want to create the impression that you are a smart, skilled artist who has spent time learning your craft.

In the end it’s all about being a professional.

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.

* * *

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?


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!


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