Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Hollywood Pitching Bible, the book I co-authored with producer Ken Aguado, is now available as an audiobook. Screen and television writer David Simkins (Adventures in Babysitting, Warehouse 13, Grimm, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, and many, many more) kindly read the book for us. So today, I am running a brief interview with David done by audiobook producer Pavan Ojha. Hope you enjoy!

Filmmaker and audiobook producer Pavan Ojha interviews screenwriter and show-runner David Simkins about the making of “The Hollywood Pitching Bible” audiobook.

Ojha: David, you’ve had a long and amazing career as a screenwriter and show-runner. Why did you agree to read the audiobook edition of “The Hollywood Pitching Bible”?

Simkins: The authors sent me a copy of the paperback version. I loved it. I thought it was a terrific and necessary treasure of insights and information that needs to be given every method of dissemination possible.

Ojha: Do you recall your first attempts at pitching when you started your career? And how important has pitching been in your career?

Simkins: I’d rather not discuss my first attempts at pitching. The pain and humiliation is still too fresh after all these years. Slowly, by trial and error (and working with a few folks much more successful at pitching than me) I began to get the hang of it. Pitching is a very important part of any storyteller’s career. It’s how I usually figure out what a story is trying to be by stumbling through a potential pitch with friends and family.

Ojha: Having read the book, do you have any insight or advice for people just starting out about how to approach pitching?

Simkins: Ken and Doug said it all better than I ever could. One thing I might stress (and it’s something they cover) is to be relaxed. Don’t fake it, earn it by knowing your material backwards and forwards. Keep it conversational, and find the humor where you can.

Ojha: You have a great voice. Did you ever consider pursuing something along those lines?

Simkins: When I was a teenager I was part of a locally produced television comedy sketch show. My voice had just changed (and I was listening to The Firesign Theater’s comedy albums in almost every waking moment) so I ended up as the announcer, using many different voices, in a lot of the bits. Only recently did begin to consider the possibility of doing voice work professionally.

Ojha: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

Simkins: I recently did the narration for a documentary about the revitalization of Old Pasadena in California. I’m also working on season 2 of POWERS (based on a series of graphic novels) for Sony’s Playstation Network.


Thanks guys!

If you'd like to hear a sample of the audiobook, here it is:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

7 Questions for Better Scenes

You’ve got your outline all worked out and you’re writing your first draft. You sit down and prepare to write the next scene. What should you be thinking about? Is there any special preparation or planning? Or do you just dive in and start imagining stuff?

I don’t believe in over-planning scenes. That risks creating wooden dialogue or characters acting to fulfill plot points. I like to keep a little spontaneity in the process. But diving right in tends to result in underdeveloped scenes that move too linearly to the story goal. So I spend a little time developing ideas freehand on a piece of paper (I like freehand because the tactile nature of pen and paper seems to spur creativity, and I like to be able to circle things, draw arrows, etc.)

When I’m developing the scene I ask myself several questions:

1. What is the purpose of this scene in the screenplay? Is it a major plot point? The introduction of a character? A story revelation? A character revelation? A scene of preparation? A scene of aftermath? Exposition? Of course it may be more than one of these – should be more than one, most often. If I can’t identify the purpose of the scene, it probably means it doesn't belong in the script.

2. How does the scene change things? In other words, how has the story progressed at the end of the scene? This is closely related to question 1. The obvious reason to identify these things is to make sure you accomplish the goal of the scene. But there’s another reason: if I know how the scene has to end, I’ll often start the scene so that it appears to be heading in another direction. This will give me the opportunity to include a twist and keep the scene from feeling predictable or perfunctory.

3. What do the characters want? The main character of the scene (not necessarily the main character of the movie) should have an urgent want to give the scene drama. But the others characters should also have their own goals for the scene. If you can put some of these goals in opposition to each other, all the better.

4. What is the character doing to get what they want? The character needs to be taking action to achieve their goal. This action could be in the form of dialogue, of course. The character could be seducing or deceiving or threatening the other characters – that’s still active. But the thing the character is doing to achieve their goal is what will drive the scene forward. (They may ultimately try multiple things to get what they want - see question 6.)

5. What stands in the way of the character achieving their goal? Often this is another character’s want (and the other character’s action to achieve that want). But if not, I will make sure there are obstacles in the environment or situation or even internally within the character.

If you know what the characters want, what they are trying to do to achieve those goals, and what stands in their way, then your characters will practically write the scene for you. But there are a couple other things I like to ask myself to get the most out of the scene:

6. When does the character change their approach? Often in good scenes the character will realize their initial approach – the thing they are doing to achieve their goal – is not working, and they will change that approach. They try harder, dig deeper, take bigger risks.

7. What could happen? Finally I just brainstorm a bunch of ideas of things that can happen in the scene. I won’t necessarily use them all. But often I’ll come up with some great idea that I wouldn’t necessarily have had if I simply wrote the scene as it came to me. (See last week's post on brainstorming.)

A note here on what I mean when I say scene: In film, a technical scene is a discrete unit of action in a single location in continuous time. If the location changes – even if the character walks from one room of a house to another – or if there’s a break in time, that’s a different technical scene. It requires a new slug line.

But from a storytelling standpoint it’s useful to think of scenes as a single unit of dramatic action – what I call a “dramatic scene." A dramatic scene may, of course, take place in a single technical scene. But sometimes in film we spread a dramatic scene over several technical scenes (or more rarely set more than one dramatic scene in a single technical scene). That means every technical scene does not have to contain an entire dramatic scene that changes the story and has a twist and so on, as long as it’s part of a dramatic scene that does.

Not every scene is a big dramatic scene, either. Sometimes we just need to drop in a short scene to establish a bit of exposition or plant something for a bigger dramatic scene. But if you go more than ten pages without a good, well-developed dramatic scene, you will lose reader/audience engagement.

So take some planning time to get the most drama from your big scenes.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Art of Brainstorming

There’s a technique some stand-up comedians and comedy writers use to develop their joke writing skills. Every day they open the newspaper (or whatever news website they prefer) and find a current event. They then write ten jokes about that current event. They repeat this with ten other current events, resulting in one hundred jokes. Some then choose ten of those jokes to submit to one of the late night talk shows that buy jokes, while stand-ups might choose one joke out of the hundred to work into their act. Others do the exercise simply for practice.

The theory here is that trying to craft a single perfect joke will cause you to freeze up. Our writer brains work in two modes: creative and critic. In order to free the creative mode, you need to turn off the critic. So the joke writer focuses on quantity rather than quality. (That inner critic isn’t bad – you’ve got to turn it back on when you evaluate the results of the brainstorm process.)

Many comedians find the first three jokes that they come up with will be the same ones everyone else would come up with. But the professional comedian can’t just tell the same jokes everyone else does. Jokes four, five and six will be original – but awful. Around joke seven or eight is where they’ll get a really original, really good joke. Things often start to go downhill from there, but sometimes joke ten ends up being a winner. The goal is to push the comedian beyond the first thing that pops into their mind to get to something insightful and personal.

Screenwriters need to find similar ways to apply brainstorming techniques to their process.

I attended Wonder-Con this year, and one of the panels I went to was “Inside the Writers’ Room,” a panel of television writers. There, panelist Steve Holland from The Big Bang Theory mentioned that they had a bunch of white boards in the writers’ room, one of which was labeled “Shit That Could Happen.” Whenever they had an idea for a story, they would go to the board and start thinking of shit that could happen. If they filled up the board, it meant the idea was probably good enough to be an episode.

The same technique can be useful in the early stages of feature film development. You’ve got an idea – a character, a dilemma, and a situation. What could happen? Start coming up with ideas. If you can fill up several pages of possible incident and event, then the premise is probably large enough for a feature film. If you have difficulty even filling a page, it’s probably an indication that you will run out of steam in the middle of act two. The idea just may not be big enough. (There are other considerations for choosing an idea as well, of course.)

You won’t necessarily use all of the ideas you come up with. In fact, one of the tenets of brainstorming is that you should only select the very best ideas. This is what turns off your inner critic: you allow yourself to write down bad ideas. Go for quantity. Then select the quality that bubbles out.

Another thing to ask when developing your idea: “Given this premise, what do I want to see in this movie?” Imagine you are a viewer watching the trailer for your movie. You’re intrigued so you head off to the theater. What are you expecting to see? What would disappoint you if it weren’t in the movie? Make sure you deliver these things. It can also be helpful to pitch your log line to friends and ask them what they would want to see in such a movie.

Brainstorming is also a useful technique to employ before writing the first draft of a scene. Before diving in, ask yourself, “What could happen?” List every possible idea for fun events or twists or lines of dialogue you can think of. Remember, the goal is not to use them all; it’s to push yourself beyond the first thing that comes to mind.

Like professional comedians, the professional screenwriter can’t just write the same scene anyone else would. You have to find that cool thing that nobody else would have thought of. That’s your “voice” as a writer, and it’s the only thing of value that you really have in this business.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Report from the WGA Lake Arrowhead Craft Conference

A couple weeks ago I attended the WGA Lake Arrowhead Craft Conference. This is a weekend long retreat at Lake Arrowhead for WGA members (meaning all the attendees have to have sold something or worked for a signatory studio or television company).

The event is built around five speakers giving “master class” workshops over the course of three days. This year the speakers were Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Jill Soloway (Transparent, Afternoon Delight), Chip Johannessen (Homeland, 24), David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue) and Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy, Grandma). There are also breakout sessions – and, full disclosure, I ran a breakout session on “Crafting the Perfect Pitch.”

I thought today I’d report back on some of the larger insights I took from the master classes.

The first session was Michelle Ashford talking about writing historical pieces. She discussed the importance of honoring the truth of history, but also the necessity to forget the history and get inside the characters and the motivations for their actions. Ms. Ashford does extensive research. I mean she reads everything she can about the subject. This gives her the confidence to make decisions where the historical record is contradictory or missing, because she feels she understands the people and what would be true to them. Though she feels bound to honor the truth in Masters of Sex, she also discussed a major subplot line that was entirely invented. She felt justified in that case because the events could have happened and they stayed true to what she knew about the actual person.

Jill Soloway ran the second session. Much of the focus was on providing opportunities both behind and in front of the camera for diverse types of people – certainly an important issue (and more on that in a moment). But there was also a lot of craft advice in her talk.

Ms. Soloway said that most writers know how important it is to identify what the character wants in a scene, but it’s equally important to identify what they’re doing to get what they want. That’s the action of the scene. She also talked about the moment in the scene where the character realizes what they’re doing isn’t working and they then change tactics and try harder. She advocated choosing character actions that carry emotion. So rather than thinking a character is “walking out of the room,” think that they are “escaping.”

Both Jill Soloway and David Milch talked about doing work that was authentic and personal. As I said, Ms. Soloway made a passionate plea for diverse voices. She said that she used to try to find ways to put bits of herself into other things; but now she works to reveal herself through her writing. Mr. Milch’s master class was focused on letting the truth of the character drive the plot of the story. My favorite quote from his talk was, “In the fullness of time, you’ll outlast your own inauthenticity.”

As somewhat of a contrast, my big takeaway from Chip Johannessen’s master class was his term, WOOS, which means “Writer Out Of the Script.” He talked about the varying levels of realism of the shows he’s worked on, letting character drive story (echoes of Milch), and how for Homeland he polices the scripts for any line of dialogue that sounds “written.” He showed an intensely dramatic clip from Homeland and pointed out how the dialogue was fairly cliché and mundane – but that’s how real people talk. What made the scene work was the subtext – the drama that was set up by the situation and the desires of the characters. Interestingly, that scene also provided and excellent illustration of Soloway’s “they try harder” moment.

On Sunday morning, Paul Weitz spoke. He showed a long scene from his upcoming movie Grandma and went through how the drama was generated by authentic character desire, subtext and changing beats – in many ways bringing together all of the themes of the weekend. He made the point that story is really about why characters are doing things.

Mr. Weitz also talked about the importance of taking the pressure off of the process. My favorite quote: “When I go to work, I’m not sitting down to write well, I’m just sitting down to write.”

There were two bits of directing advice I jotted down as well:

From Jill Soloway: In staging the scene, you must privilege the emotional moment.

From Paul Weitz: Directing is about making decisions, right or wrong. The worst decision is standing around not making a decision.

Overall, the conference was an inspiring experience and has prompted me to look back at some great scenes in movies I love for how they build drama.


In other news: The Hollywood Pitching Bible is now available as an audiobook! It is read by the talented David Simkins (Grimm, Adventures in Babysitting)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Development Hell 3 - The Players

Development Hell is a series of occasional posts where I discuss the process by which an idea or spec screenplay becomes a movie either in Hollywood or in the independent world. Development is the bread and butter of the professional screenwriter’s life. This is the third post in the series.

Last week I talked about various events and stages of development. Today I want to discuss the people who are involved in the process, and their agendas within the process. You have to know the game and you have to know the players!


The writer is the one component absolutely necessary to development. They are the person revising the screenplay based on the notes from whatever other players are involved. Obviously, they have to be skilled at writing. They also have to be skilled at taking notes and delivering solutions even better than those suggested to them. But perhaps most unexpectedly, they have to be master politicians.

The development process is filtered through the writer onto the page. The writer distills input from all of the other players, and these other players rarely agree on everything. Also, as you’ll see below, often the various players are concerned about specific issues relating to their job, which will influence the direction they give to the writer. So the poor writer is left to navigate and balance these sometimes-competing agendas and interests. And that requires monumental diplomacy. Meanwhile, the writer’s agenda is (or at least should be) to deliver the best possible version of the story given all these forces.

All of this applies to the first writer, the last writer, and all writers in between (see “The Writer is Replaced” in last week’s post.)


The producer is the person shepherding the individual project. They typically work most closely with the writer, sometimes even giving feedback on drafts before they are officially turned in. Producer is a hard job to define as it can involve so many different things and few producers do all of those things. But typically the producer has two agendas: first, to get the best version of the story (just like the writer), and second, to get the movie made – meaning they deal with issues of castability, budget and marketability. Often the first agenda gets compromised for the second, though a good producer will try to find a balance between the two. A good producer can be a real ally to a writer, helping the writer navigate all the politics of development – assuming the producer and writer share a vision of the project and work well together.

Underlying Material Creator 

As you have no doubt noticed, most movies these days are based on pre-existing material of some kind. There is a wide range of this material – from comic books to plays, from novels to toys, from video games to board games to television shows to older movies.

Sometimes the creator of the underlying material has little input into the development of the movie, sometimes they have a great deal of control. Unknown playwrights and novelists seldom get any say in how the screenplay evolves. More famous novelists like J.K. Rowling or E.L. James can have a great deal of say. Even if a famous author doesn’t have contractual control over the material (e.g. script approval), often the producers will defer to them for fear they’ll badmouth the film to their fans.

Screenwriters working on movies based on TV shows or old movies typically don’t have to worry about the input of their original creators. However, screenwriters of movies based on toys or games may have to deal with a company concerned about protecting their brand. Lego was very hesitant to allow a movie to be made using their product, and it was only with considerable reassurance from the writer/directors that they agreed to license the brand.

In the case of comic books, independent creators usually get little say, while the big companies are intimately involved with the development of movies based on their characters.

Creative Executives and Other Executives

Various executives at the studio and/or production company will be involved in the development of any project they plan to make. This includes, of course, executives in the development department, but can also include marketing executives, production executives and senior executives. This is where the bulk of notes generally comes from in the development process. The executives will be concerned about creating a good story, but they will often be more concerned about creating a marketable movie. They will also be very concerned about budget. Their job isn’t dependent on the movie being good; it’s dependent on the movie making a profit. And, if the movie is part of a franchise, they will be concerned about protecting the brand.

The Director

When a director comes on board, they will typically take charge of development. Producers and executives generally defer creatively to the director (while still keeping a rein on the budget.) This can be advantageous for a writer – assuming the director’s vision of the story doesn’t clash too much with the writer’s vision – because the writer now only has to worry about pleasing one person. Directors' concerns will often be related to making the story more visual. They are concerned with how they are going to shoot things. Sometimes ego also comes into play when a director insists on “putting their stamp” on the screenplay, even when that stamp isn’t really needed.

Movie Stars

Many movie stars get involved in the development process, assuming they are famous enough to have that clout. They are mostly concerned with making sure their particular character is interesting and consistent (Sandra Bullock is said to have come up with the backstory for her character in Gravity, for example). They might also be concerned with their image. They are a brand, after all, and they have to protect the value of that brand.

Some movie stars have “pet writers” that they demand rewrite every screenplay the star commits to. Usually this is the writer who penned the star’s biggest hit or Oscar-winning movie. So sometimes when a star comes on board, a writer gets fired.


Television has its own slightly different development player list. In general, all of the television development players want the same thing – a quality show with mass appeal (though budget and brand identity are important to the companies as well). If all the players agree on what constitutes the best, most appealing version of the concept, then they all work together to realize that vision. Unfortunately, it often happens that the various players have differing visions and the development process goes badly awry. Here are the players in television:

The Creator

The show’s creator is the person who came up with the idea and sold it as a pitch or, more rarely, as a spec pilot.

The Show Runner

The show runner is the person who will be running the show as it is being produced – supervising both the writers’ room and production. Often this is the creator, but not always. If the creator is inexperienced in television, they may be paired with an experienced show runner (and sometimes the creator is replaced on their own show).

The Production Company

The production company is the entity that is financing and actually making the show. They typically don’t make enough on licensing fees to pay for the show, which means they lose money on every episode in the initial broadcast run. They only make money if the show is successful enough to produce ancillary revenue – reruns, DVD box sets, and licensing for streaming. This can sometimes lead to conflicts when a production company is trying to hold down costs while a network wants a more spectacular show.

The Network (Broadcast, Cable or Online)

This is the entity that licenses the show from the production company. It is the distribution channel. These days, most networks own their own production companies so they can own the product that they air (this is mostly due to the impending over-the-top/cord-cutting revolution that will remake the business – a topic worthy of its own blog post). But, even if the network owns the production company, it doesn’t necessarily mean they both have the same vision of the show. They are separate entities with separate creative staffs that can have different opinions.

Non-writing Producers

Non-writing producers can also be involved in television (in television, writers typically double as producers). Non-writing producers facilitate putting the various parties together. They can have creative input on a show, but generally the primary creative forces in television are the production company, the network, and the show runner. Very rarely directors also serve as non-writing producers helping to develop a show. But in television, directors usually come in late in the game and work for the show runner, having little input into the scripting.

As you can likely see by now, there are many forces at play in the shaping of a screenplay or teleplay. It is part of the writer’s job to navigate those forces while protecting the core integrity of the story.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Development Hell 2 - The Stages of Development

Development Hell is a series of occasional posts where I discuss the process by which an idea or spec screenplay becomes a movie either in Hollywood or in the independent world. Development is the bread and butter of the professional screenwriter’s life. This is the second post in the series.

When a screenwriter is writing a script on their own, on spec, they are not in development. Development starts when someone else gets involved in the screenplay. Today I want to look at the various stages and events that can be part of the development process.

Development almost never proceeds in a smooth, straightforward fashion. So though I’m presenting these stages/events in a roughly chronological order, often a project will move backwards on this list, skip steps, jump around, etc.

Free Development
Some might not consider this technically development, but it is often the first step in the process. Free development typically occurs when a producer (or sometimes a director or actor) finds a script (or sometimes a pitch or underlying material – see below) that he or she likes, but is not willing or able to pay to acquire it and doesn’t feel it is ready to take to a studio yet. The producer may offer to work with the writer, giving them notes to hone the material. Of course the writer may turn down this offer, and in many cases probably should – such as when the producer has no track record or credibility. But if the producer is established and has a good vision for the project, this can be a big opportunity for the writer. (All of the foregoing also applies to a director or actor who might want to work with the writer on some spec material – also see attachments below.)

This is the point at which someone acquires spec material or a pitch from a writer. An option is a temporary acquisition – the buyer has the exclusive right for a limited time to purchase the material (for more on what an option is, read this post). With a purchase, the buyer now owns the copyright. At this point it is the buyer’s project to do with as they like.

Underlying Material
If you look at the films currently in the theaters, you will discover that most movies these days are not made based on screenwriters’ original ideas. Instead, the producer or studio acquires some type of “intellectual property” – a comic book, novel, video game, play, etc. A writer is then hired to adapt that underlying material into a screenplay. This is also development and plays out very similarly to what happens to a spec script.

Development Drafts
Once a spec screenplay or underlying material is acquired, it is rare that the buyer immediately proceeds to production. Instead, they first commission new drafts from the writer to shape the material to the buyer’s needs and vision. Under WGA rules, the writer is to be paid for these drafts, but often they are pressured to do extra free drafts. This is a complex and nuanced issue beyond the scope of today’s post – perhaps I’ll cover it in the future.

Notes Sessions 
Before each new draft, the writer gets notes on the previous draft. These notes will come from the producer and development executives involved in the project, and may also come from a director or star(s) attached to the project. They may even come from a marketing executive. Notes may be delivered in person in a meeting, over the phone, or in writing. The writer is expected to address these notes in the next draft. (I’ll definitely go into more detail on this process in a future post.)

The Writer is Replaced
In Hollywood, it is exceedingly common for writers to be replaced by new writers on a project. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps the current writer is not capable of fixing certain problems in the current draft. Perhaps the producer can’t figure out why the screenplay isn’t working and wants new creative input. Perhaps the writer and producer have different visions of what the film should be. Perhaps the writer is not a good team player. Perhaps the producer is not a good team player. In any event, the writer is fired and a new writer is brought on to do the next draft. Rinse, repeat, sometimes with more than a dozen writers. It may not be the best system, but it helps many writers pay their mortgages!

The Option Lapses 
As I mentioned above, often a producer or studio will option the right to buy a script for a particular period of time. If that time expires and they don’t acquire it (by “exercising their option”), the rights of the original script return to the writer. The rights to any drafts done while the script is under option do NOT necessarily go to the writer… that’s a more complicated legal question that depends on the wording of the contract and whether the writer was paid for those drafts. If the writer reacquires his script, he is free to start the development process all over again with a new buyer.

Turnaround is when a studio has actually purchased a screenplay but decides they no longer want to make the movie. Turnaround is actually a specific legal situation having to do with tax write-offs, though the term is sometimes used in a broader sense. When a project is put in turnaround, it can be acquired by another studio, but that studio would have to reimburse the initial studio for all development costs (this can be negotiated, of course, but usually it’s the full cost). Those costs can run to tens of millions of dollars if many drafts have been commissioned.

When a script is in development, other creative talent – typically directors and movie stars – may become attached. “Attached” often has a fuzzy definition. Sometimes it means a mere expression of interest; sometimes there is a contractual element with hefty financial penalties. But when a director or star becomes attached, they often become another participant in the development of the screenplay. In fact, it is not unusual for a major attachment to initiate a new creative direction for the project.

Green Light/Flashing Green Light
When a movie is given a green light, it officially leaves development. A green light means the studio has decided to make the movie and the project proceeds to pre-production. This is supposed to be a hard line, but sometimes projects get what is referred to as a “flashing green light,” meaning the studio is starting pre-production but might still back out of the project. Also, some producers claim something has a green light before it really meets that criterion. Even when a movie enters pre-production, however, development often continues with more rewrites. Sometimes the script is being rewritten even as the movie is being produced – usually not an ideal situation.

Going through these stages and events should give you a good idea of how the development process functions – and perhaps how it sometimes malfunctions. Next week I’ll dig more deeply into the players involved in the process, what they do, and what their concerns are. After all, if you want to be a professional screenwriter, you need to know how the game is played and who the players are!

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Development Hell 1 – The Purpose of a Screenplay

Today I present the first in an occasional series of posts about screenplay development. The series is titled “Development Hell,” which is the industry term for when a project gets stuck in development – an endless series of rewrites are commissioned from one screenwriter after another, and yet no movie is forthcoming. It can, indeed, feel like you’re being punished for your sins.

If you haven’t experienced development then chances are you haven’t worked in Hollywood. If you are just starting out, there may be a temptation to bury your head in the sand and ignore this aspect of the business. And no wonder – it’s so much nicer to think of the pure creative process of imagining your dream movie on the page. But that also suggests why you shouldn’t ignore the realities of development. And that brings me to today’s topic.

There’s an obvious truism about screenplays that most screenwriters seem to forget at one time or another:

A screenplay is not a finished product.

No, a movie is a finished product. A screenplay is simply a step in the process of creating a movie. A screenplay that does not get turned into a movie is a failure by definition. Sure, the writer may learn something by writing the screenplay. They may get an agent and/or meetings using it as a sample. They may even earn money optioning or selling it. But the ultimate goal of any screenplay is to be turned into a movie… or at least that really ought to be the goal.

As writers, it’s easy to forget that the screenplay is not the finished product. After all, it’s usually the final thing we produce. We must remember that we are creating a plan for the making of a movie. This has certain consequences for our writing, some obvious, some not. For example:
  • We must write in proper format. Much of the weirdness of screenplay format is designed to aid production. For example, the production manager uses the slug lines to schedule the shoot. They need to have each scene identified by slug line so that they know how many pages are to be shot in each location. They need to know whether it’s an interior or exterior scene, and whether it requires a night shoot or day shoot (which is why you should not use things like “afternoon” or “3 p.m.” in your slug lines).
  • We can only write what can be seen and heard. Prose can tell us what’s going on in a character’s head or what they smell or what something feels like, but a movie can’t. We should only write what can be communicated on film.
  • More subtly, some things work better on the page than on screen and vice versa. For example, every scene looks the same in a screenplay – black words on a white page. But in the theater, we usually want visually interesting settings. Good screenwriters think about how the scene will look, not just how it reads.
  • Similarly, your dialogue must actually be spoken by actors. Something may read well but be very difficult to say.
  • Your decisions carry production implications. Every 100 words cost the writer the same as every other 100 words. But for the producer, the content of those words has serious budgetary impact. “He makes a sandwich” is not equivalent to “He blows up a bridge.” And producers have to worry about legally clearing things like hit songs or brand logos that screenwriters blithely write into the screenplay.
A screenplay is often compared to a blueprint, and that is really an excellent analogy. Just like an architect’s job is to provide the plan for the construction of a building, the screenwriter’s job is to provide the plan for the construction of a movie.

This does not mean you tell everyone else how to do their jobs, though! The architect doesn’t tell the electrician what kind of wire to use or the decorator what color the drapes should be. Those professionals bring their own expertise to the project. Similarly, the screenwriter should not be telling the director how to stage the scene or the cinematographer what kind of shot to use. This is why actors hate parentheticals like:

I hate parentheticals.

They want to decide how to play the line!

Instead, the screenplay should capture the vision of the final film to allow the other creative artists to make good decisions. You don’t describe each character’s wardrobe in detail, you provide a clear vision of the character and environment so the talented costume designer can create a better wardrobe for that character than you could imagine.

Many screenwriters get annoyed when their script changes throughout the production and post-production process. But this is actually what’s supposed to happen! You want all the other artists to bring their valuable contributions to the final product. Film is a collaborative medium after all. In the best cases, the rest of the creative team makes your work better. All too often, however, the opposite happens. But the solution is not slavish devotion to the screenplay.

So to review, I’ve discussed two major purposes for a screenplay:

One, through proper formatting, provide the basic technical information for the planning of the production.

And two, carry the vision of the story so that the rest of the creative team can make good decisions.

There is one final important purpose of a screenplay: Give the studio, producers and financiers a clear idea of what the film can be so they can decide whether they want to make it or not (and movie stars can decide if they want to play a part, and directors can decide if they want to direct it, etc.)

This is really what we talk about when we talk about development. Development is the process by which the movie is repeatedly made and remade on paper (or pdf) until everyone agrees it should be made on film – or until they agree it should remain forever on the page, never to be seen by an audience!

If you think of it that way, development is a good thing. Even though it often feels like hell.