Sunday, May 22, 2016

Do You Have to Live in Los Angeles?

If you are an aspiring screenwriter who lives somewhere besides Los Angeles, you will inevitably ponder whether it is necessary to live in Los Angeles to succeed as a Hollywood screen or TV writer.

The simple answer is: Yes.

But the answer is really not so simple. Is it possible to maintain a screenwriting career outside of Los Angeles? Sure, a small but notable minority of working screenwriters live outside of Los Angeles. Is it possible to break into the business from outside of Los Angeles? Possible, maybe, but incredibly more difficult. Most working screenwriters who live outside Los Angeles lived here when they broke in and then moved.

The Advantages of Moving to Los Angeles

Living in Los Angeles has several advantages for the aspiring and working screenwriter. Chief among them is networking. It is almost impossible to get anyone to read your script via a query or other long distance contact. In Los Angeles, you can meet someone who can help you in your career anywhere – at a party, at Starbucks, watching a sporting event. Los Angeles is where almost all of the producers, agents, managers, directors and other screenwriters live. It’s hard to be here long without meeting some of them, even if you don’t try. And if you intentionally set out to network, there are plenty of opportunities every week in Los Angeles to put yourself in proximity to industry professionals. That’s not all there is to networking, but it’s the first step.

You also have many more opportunities to become better at your craft in Los Angeles. There are dozens of seminars, classes, speakers, etc. pretty much every day in Los Angeles. You will also make friends with other serious screenwriters who can give you feedback on your scripts.

Once you crack open the door to the industry, you will need to take meetings in Los Angeles because that’s where the producers and development execs are. You can fly in for a week to do a series of meetings, but that requires everyone else to arrange their schedule around you – something they may not be willing to do if you are just starting out. It also takes you out of contention for emergency gigs – if someone needs a writer to rewrite something ASAP, I can be at a meeting in hours. A writer living in Denver can’t.

Finally, if you want to work in television, almost all writers’ rooms are in Los Angeles. They may shoot the show in Vancouver or Georgia or Hawaii, but the writers are in Los Angeles.

The Disadvantages of Moving to Los Angeles

There are, however, some downsides for an aspiring screenwriter moving to Los Angeles. For one thing, the cost of living is high here. It can take a while to break in, and supporting yourself during that time will probably be more difficult in Los Angeles than elsewhere.

Also, since almost every screenwriter lives in Los Angeles, we are exposed to a lot of the same influences and inspirations. With several million people in the city looking for movie ideas, many are bound to come up with the same ones. Which is why you so often see movies with the same premise being developed at different studios.

For these reasons, it can be wise to time your move carefully. If you live outside Los Angeles, consider building up a body of work – a portfolio of really great spec scripts – before coming out here. Maybe you can even win some contests and make some initial contacts before moving out. That way you hit the ground running, armed with a reason people should want to read your work.

But What About New York?

The one other place that you may be able to break into the screen or television business is New York. There are a significant number of producers and agents in New York – not nearly as many as Los Angeles, but enough. Unfortunately, New York is even less affordable than L.A. But there are some cultural advantages L.A. doesn’t have (and L.A. has some cultural advantages New York doesn’t have.)

There are a few business reasons (as opposed to personal reasons) that you might choose New York over Los Angeles to try to break into screenwriting:

First, if you plan to work in independent film, there are a lot of indie film producers and distributors based in New York. There are also a lot in Los Angeles, but New York is really the bigger independent film scene. It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer of independent films, but many of those writers parlay their success in that world into studio rewrite gigs to support them while they work on their independent projects.

Second, New York is the premiere city for stand-up comedy. If you are a comedic writer who also does stand-up, New York is probably a better place to get discovered on stage. You can then parlay that attention to the film/television business.

Third, New York is the place to be if you are a playwright. Succeeding as a playwright is a good way to get Hollywood’s attention. But now we’re really talking about breaking into a different industry and trying to leverage that into a movie or television career.

New York is also still the center for book publishing, so if you are both a novelist and screenwriter, that might suggest New York is a better destination. But the book business seems less dependent on being in the same city with the publishers. Many authors live outside of New York… not many screenwriters live outside of Los Angeles.

Moving is Scary
It can be a big decision to uproot your life and move to a new city without a guarantee of employment. But guess what? That’s what it means to be a screenwriter. This is not something you can do as a hobby, it has to be your career. And the career of screenwriter is an entrepreneurial one. No matter how big you get, you never really have job security. You will always be hustling to get your next gig.

If you are trying to break in, you are competing against tens of thousands of people who are willing to take the risk, move to Los Angeles, and dedicate their life to becoming a screenwriter. If you aren’t willing to do the same, you will be at a significant disadvantage.


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Awesome Stakes with Bill and Ted

(Spoilers: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)

One of the most critical things you must do in a story is establish what’s at stake for the character. What happens if the main character succeeds or fails? The more the character has at stake, the more dramatic and exciting the story. Conversely, if the outcome of the story isn’t going to affect the character, then why does the audience care?

But raising the stakes isn’t just about increasing the size of what’s at stake.

The key to raising the stakes dramatically is to increase how much the character cares about the outcome of the situation. We care about the story only as much as the character does. The more important it is to the character, the more important it will be to us. So to raise the stakes, make them more personal to the character.

Stakes come in both positive and negative flavors. Many of the best stories have both. The character gets something good if they succeed and they suffer something bad if they fail. This gives the audience something to hope for and something to fear.

I recently watched the classic eighties comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon). It provides a great demonstrates of the nuances of using stakes. In the story, Bill and Ted are in danger of failing history class if they don’t ace their final presentation. If Ted fails, his father will send him off to military school.

The biggest stakes in terms of objective importance come from Rufus, the time traveler from the future. He is sent back to 1991 to ensure that Bill and Ted form the band that will ultimately bring peace and awesomeness to the world. These are pretty big stakes! But it’s not really the reason we care whether Bill and Ted pass their class.

No, the bigger stakes come from the threat to Bill and Ted’s friendship. We like these guys and we want them to stay together. More importantly, they want to stay together. Their biggest dream is to form a great rock band. That dream will be destroyed if Ted gets sent to military school, which means they have to pass their final project.

The audience hopes Bill and Ted succeed in their quest because that will make them happy. The audience’s way into the story is the characters. We care about their happiness. Sure, Bill and Ted think it’s cool they can create a future utopia, but that’s not what’s motivating them on their quest. And it’s not what we really care about either.

The bit about the future utopia is really only there to provide the mechanism for Bill and Ted’s time travel. It’s why Rufus brings them a time machine, not why we care about whether they pass their presentation final. Really, they could find another way to travel through time and the story wouldn’t change much.

The film does a good job spelling out both the character's excellent potential future: a life as rock stars who save the world – and their bogus potential future: military school and the end of Bill and Ted’s friendship. This gets the audience invested in the outcome of the adventure. And note that the dramatic question of the film – “Will Bill and Ted pass history?” – is relatively mundane and minor. It’s what the resolution of this question means to the characters that makes it significant.

Good stories connect the main character's internal journey to the external journey (the plot). In the case of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, this comes in the form of the characters' self-discipline. They want to create a great rock band, but they don't know how to play their instruments. They are as lazy as musicians as they are as students. But over the course of the movie, Ted comes to the realization that if they want to be great, they have to learn how to actually play. Thus the stakes in the external journey - passing history so Ted can avoid military school - dovetail with the stakes in the internal journey. If Ted doesn't have this realization, the band will never achieve greatness.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure may be just a dumb comedy, but it still has stakes that are the most important thing in the world to the characters. That’s why we engage with the story. Make sure the stakes of your story are equally important to your characters.


Get The Three Stages of Screenwriting

"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Using Minor Characters to Explore Theme

(SPOILERS: The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, Up in the Air, American Beauty)

We don’t talk about theme in Hollywood much, but every movie has some kind of philosophical subject, even if it’s just good vs. evil. You can deepen your story and provide a more meaningful experience for your viewers without sacrificing entertainment value if you explore a complex theme in a way that is not didactic. One of the best ways to do this is by giving different supporting characters different points of view on the thematic topic of your story. This will not only add intellectual and emotional depth to your story, it will help you develop interesting supporting characters and insert conflict into your scenes as points of view conflict.

This approach is one of the reasons why the screenplay for The 40 Year Old Virgin (written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carrell) was nominated for an award from the WGA. The thematic subject of The 40 Year Old Virgin is, obviously, sex. Notice how each of Andy’s friends holds a different take on the topic: David is still hung up on an old girlfriend and has an over romanticized view of sex, Jay is in a relationship but cheats because he is afraid of monogamy, and Cal just likes any kind of freaky, no-strings-attached sex. These views interact with Andy's anxieties about sexuality in a way that makes the movie more complex than a simple "losing his virginity" story.

The theme of Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) is success and failure. Richard believes the world is made up of winners and losers, and commitment is how you become a winner. Sheryll, on the other hand, believes everyone just needs to be practical and take care of their responsibilities. Grandpa doesn’t care about success, he advises everyone to just enjoy life. Olive loves the process of preparing for competition. Dwayne represents someone who does everything in their power to achieve a goal, only to be foiled by something out of their control. And Frank has given up on life altogether. Each character takes a different approach to the question of success and failure, allowing the film to explore the theme from different perspectives.

The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine are ensemble movies, but the same technique can be used in movies with a strong central character who is going on an emotional journey. The theme of Up in the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) is relationship. The main character, Ryan Bingham, believes that relationships weigh you down. He goes through life avoiding any kind of attachment. But over the course of the movie this point of view is challenged by Ryan's experiences and the characters around him.

Natalie, the young woman Ryan is forced to train, longs to be married but has unrealistically high expectations. Alex, a woman Ryan is sleeping with, seems to share Ryan’s point of view but we later learn she’s leading a double life – trying to have it both ways. We get additional perspectives from Ryan’s siblings when he goes back home for his sister’s marriage. The bride and groom are perfect for each other, and though there lives aren’t fantastic (there’s intimations of considerable financial difficulty), they are happy. Meanwhile we get an even different perspective from Ryan’s other sister who has just separated from her husband.

Each of these characters allows us (and Ryan) to view the question of whether relationships are good or bad from a different perspective without implicit discussion (though that sometimes occurs). And the movie doesn't shy away from things that reinforce Ryan's original position.

Dealing with theme is tricky. You don’t want your story to come off preachy. Characters should have good, justifiable reasons for their point of view. And it’s much better if they demonstrate their point of view through their actions, rather than through debate and argument. Watching characters debate philosophy is not a recipe for engaging storytelling!

In the beginning of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball), the main character, Lester, is doing what a middle aged family man is supposed to do in the suburbs. He works at his job, provides for his family...and is thoroughly miserable. Over the course of the movie we see Lester abandon his concern for what others think of him and be true to his own desires. This manifests itself in both positive and negative ways. He quits his stultifying job but there is some question if he can sustain his new lifestyle financially. He gets in shape and starts to enjoy himself by buying a car he wants and smoking pot. But he also pursues an immoral and inappropriate attraction to an underage girl. Ultimately Lester finds balance between honoring who he is and being responsible.

The minor characters illuminate this theme of individuality and conformity. For example, Caroline is the embodiment of the suburban image. Maintaining that image has become her entire purpose as shown by her carefully coordinated dinners and attention to landscaping. And being accepted and “normal” makes her happy. Meanwhile Ricky has abandoned any need for acceptance or normalcy. He is an outsider and proud of it. This attitude grows out of the dysfunction and inauthenticity we see from his family life.

Angela is one of the most interesting supporting characters from a thematic point of view. She constantly talks about her various conquests and sexual experiences. Of course we learn at the end that she's been making it all up. She's a virgin. We also learn that Angela's biggest fear is being ordinary. It's when Ricky insists she is just ordinary that Angela works up the nerve to actually sleep with Lester. It's an attempt to be special. Angela doesn't want to be just another suburban girl, but the pressure to conform has forced her to seek distinction by pretending to fulfill a stereotype - the sex object.

The most important thing to keep in mind when assigning thematic points of view to your characters is to make sure they are human beings, not bumper stickers. Give them fully fleshed out lives, human desires and foibles, so that we get caught up emotionally in their story.


Did you know The Hollywood Pitching Bible is available as an audio book on Audible? If you don't have Audible, try it now and Get Two Free Audiobooks

Monday, May 2, 2016

How to Succeed at a Pitch Fest

Before I dive into this week’s topic, I wanted to highlight a couple of places I will be appearing in the near future:

This Saturday, May 7th, I will be conducting a workshop on pitching at The Writers Store in Burbank

On June 3rd I will be appearing on a panel at the Phoenix Comic-Con called “How Do I Pitch my Property?


Pitch fests like the upcoming Great American Pitchfest can offer an opportunity to crack open the door to Hollywood for those who find themselves stuck on the fringes. They give you an opportunity to have brief meetings with producers, executives, agents, and managers to pitch your project. Sometimes you will be pitching to an assistant or even an intern – that’s okay, those people are often the best connections for unknown writers as they are looking to move up by discovering new talent. But there will also be legitimate high-level buyers at many pitch fests. I spoke at the Great American Pitchfest last year and discovered that a producer who had recently hired me to rewrite a script was there personally hearing pitches from total newbies.

However, it is not as simple as paying your admission and showing up. You will be competing against hundreds of other writers just at the pitch fest. And most of the buyers will not end up buying anything pitched to them that day – remember, they hear pitches every day at their jobs and probably only buy a handful a year at most. If you come into a pitch fest unprepared, it can be a big waste of time and money. So here are some tips for increasing your odds of success.

Know your goal. Who are you trying to meet and what do you want them to do? If you are an unknown writer, the chance of selling an original idea on the spot is about the same as the chance you’ll stumble across a ten-pound diamond in the parking lot. But it is entirely possible that you can convince people to read a spec script. So you should be pitching something that is already written and that you are ready to send off as soon as the pitch fest is over.

Are you looking for representation? If you are pitching to agents or managers, you will still be pitching your idea, but agents and managers represent writers, not projects. They will want to know you have other scripts in the same genre, so have a couple of extra log lines prepared, and be prepared to spend a little more time talking about yourself and your qualifications than your script.

At least in the beginning of your career, you will probably be working mostly in one genre and one medium (TV, features, etc.). So you should pick people who work in that genre/medium and pitch them an appropriate project. However, you may find that you still have time after you’ve pitched to all the TV comedy people (for example), so you should also prepare a related back-up pitch, such as a comedy feature. You’re already there – don’t waste the opportunity.

Do your homework. Once you know whom you will pitch to, do some quick homework on them. Find out what they’ve produced, or in the case of agents and managers, who they represent. This will help you seem informed when you meet them. You might not know exactly who you will be talking to until you actually arrive on site, so be ready to check IMDBPro or similar databases.

Construct a great two-minute pitch. You generally get about five minutes with each table of buyers at most pitch fests. Prepare a tight two-minute pitch to give yourself plenty of time for introductions and questions. Two minutes is plenty to get someone interested in reading a spec if you do it properly. A good two-minute pitch should contain:

1. A brief personal connection explaining why you are interested in writing this story – implying why you are the best writer for the story and why others will be interested in seeing it.

2. The title, genre, and rating (for features) or format (for television). Don’t make them guess whether it’s comedy or drama, science fiction or horror, animated or live action. Tell them up front.

3. A great log line that contains the hook of your idea.

4. A sentence or two about the main character(s) implying why we will care about them.

5. The set up for the plot. You do not need to tell the ending (unless they ask). That’s what the script is for. Instead, give them the set up and end with a statement of where the story is going that can sustain a movie or TV show. For example: “So the soldier will have to make his way through enemy territory to find his true love and get her to safety.”

(For more information on constructing a two-minute pitch, see my book The Hollywood Pitching Bible – or attend one of the events above.)

Present yourself like a pro. Don’t over or under dress. The entertainment business is casual, so wearing an expensive suit to a meeting feels awkward. However, it never hurts to look sharp. You don’t want to look like you came from your job at the car wash... or from the nightclub. Dress nice-casual and business appropriate.

Also remember that you are selling yourself as well as your idea, particularly if you are looking for representation or to work in television. Be friendly and polite. Prep your introductory comments - do you have some experience relevant to your story? Did you go to a film school or win an award? Try to bring that kind of thing up (in a modest way) when you introduce yourself.

Avoid gimmicks. Your job as a writer is to just tell a good story. Artwork, mock trailers, costumes, Power Point presentations, or "clever" gifts will not impress anyone and may make you look amateurish. If bringing a photo or map or something like that helps you more easily explain your idea, that’s fine – but otherwise just focus on telling a story. You should bring business cards, possibly printed with your log line, but it’s usually better to get the business cards from the buyers and be the one in charge of making contact afterwards.

Network with other attendees. The obvious purpose of a pitch fest is to make contact with potential buyers or reps, but you may actually get more value out of meeting your fellow attendees. People tend to break into the business by making a network of friends at the lower levels of the industry who work their way up together, helping each other out. So don’t ignore opportunities to socialize with other attendees.

Following up. If you do the above things well, you will hopefully get several people to request your spec script. Follow up promptly, reminding them of your log line and your interesting background and qualifications in your cover letter or email. Then don’t bug them. A polite inquiry four weeks or so after sending material is fine, but it can take a while for people to read material. It has also, unfortunately, become commonplace for people to reject material by simply not replying at all. So following up once or twice after sending your spec is fine, but after that, take the hint.

It is very likely that everyone will pass on your script, but if anyone responds with encouraging words or compliments when they pass, be sure to follow up with a query when you have your next spec script done (hopefully not more than six months later). If they genuinely like your last script, they’ll remember you. Hollywood success is a marathon, not a sprint. Building fans is the path to a career. Overnight success is a myth.

Most of all, stay calm and try to have fun.

Monday, April 25, 2016

8 Things to Know Before Signing a Writing Contract

Before I get to this week’s topic, I want to point out a wonderful review of my screenwriting book from LA Screenwriter. Here’s an excerpt:

Douglas J. Eboch, scribe of Sweet Home Alabama, has written a book called The Three Stages of Screenwriting, and it deserves a spot on your shelf right between Robert McKee’s Story and Syd Field’s Screenplay

I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

What Doug does so beautifully is break down the entire process of developing an idea, outlining it, writing it, and rewriting it into digestible chunks.

The book is structured the same way your writing process should be, and it covers every topic you could possibly want covered under the umbrella of the writing process.

You can read the whole review here:


When you are starting out as a screenwriter, it is likely at some point that a producer will offer you a contract to acquire your spec scripts or to work on their ideas. Sometimes these producers have thin resumes and usually they will be offering very little or no money up front. These types of jobs can present opportunities for the new writer, but they can also be dangerous. Here are some things you should consider before agreeing to anything.

(Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is an informational post and not legal advice. Every situation is different. Please see point #8.)

1. The WGA offers some protection – but only if you work under a WGA contract. The Writers Guild of America is the union that represents professional screenwriters when they work for signatory companies (companies that have agreed to abide by the union’s Minimum Basic Agreement). But many producers are not signatory, and many companies have non-union subsidiaries so they can hire non-union writers outside of the WGA’s rules. The WGA cannot protect you in those situations. And even if you are covered under a WGA contract, there are probably many additional aspects you will want to negotiate.

2. The WGA determines credit on WGA films. This is one of the main reasons the WGA was formed. If you are working under a WGA contract, the producers cannot guarantee you credit. If you are not working under a WGA contract, you will have to negotiate how credit will be determined. Be aware that if you sign a deal with a non-union production company who then sells the script to a signatory, you may not even be eligible for credit unless your contract is worded properly.

3. Understand how an option agreement works. Technically an option-purchase agreement, this is the typical contract used to acquire screenplays in Hollywood. Essentially, the producer is buying the exclusive right to purchase the screenplay for a period of time. There are three key components to any option agreement: the upfront payment for the option, the length of the option period, and the purchase price should the producer choose to acquire the screenplay (known as “picking up the option”). There can be any number of other terms in the contract, but all must have those three things. Note that if the option period expires without the producer picking up the option, rights to the original script revert to the writer – but not necessarily the rights to any revisions made while the script was under option.

4. How many drafts will you do? If you are hired to write or rewrite a screenplay – whether yours or the producers – make sure you are clear on how many drafts they can ask for. You do not want to be doing rewrites five years from now. Also consider what will happen if you disagree with their notes.

5. How long do you have to write a draft? How long do they have to read it? Make sure you understand how long you have to deliver your drafts. And there should be limits on how long they can take to read your drafts and give you notes before you start your next draft. You don't want someone appearing out of the woodwork ten years from now demanding that draft you promised them way back when.

6. Understand who owns or will own the copyright. Copyright law can be complex in collaborative mediums like film. If you write a spec screenplay based on your own idea, you will own the copyright. If someone wishes to acquire that screenplay, you would typically transfer the copyright to them (when they purchase your screenplay, not when they option it). It gets fuzzier when you sell a pitch, or when you write a script based on someone else’s story, or when you rewrite someone else’s existing script, or when you are hired to rewrite your own script as a “work for hire.” Know that the person who owns the copyright decides what happens to the script. Make sure you understand who will own the copyright of any and all drafts at the end of the contract - different drafts may end up being owned by different people, which can get problematic. (And hopefully you know that you cannot write scripts based on other people’s material if you don’t get permission from them.)

7. Oral contracts are worth the paper they’re printed on. Technically oral agreements are legally binding with a few exceptions (including work for hire situations) but you should not rely on oral agreements. It is easy for people to have different understandings as to what was actually agreed upon in an oral agreement, and if it goes to court, it will be your word against theirs. Always make your agreements in writing. This can take the form of a deal memo or even an email spelling out your understanding of what was agreed to, but before any copyright is transferred and before you do any work you should have a written contract.

8. If you can’t afford a lawyer, you can’t afford the deal. As you can hopefully see from the previous seven points, literary contracts for movies are legally complex. You should have a lawyer look over any contract that you are going to sign. And you want an experienced entertainment lawyer because of the complexity of film contracts – a real estate lawyer is not going to know the nuances of streaming royalties or sequel rights. It is not uncommon, though, for a lawyer to cost more than the amount you are being offered when you are starting out. There are a couple of things you can do:

First, many entertainment lawyers will help out new writers if they think the writer has a shot at a long career. If you know producers or have representation who can recommend you to an entertainment attorney, that attorney may agree to look over the deal for you for free. Second, there’s an organization called California Lawyers for the Arts that can help you find a lawyer willing to help struggling artists for little or no money.

Bonus tip: It is always better if you are not negotiating for yourself.
Very likely you will not have a very good idea of what is reasonable to ask for in a given situation. Avoid agreeing to any deal terms until you can line up representation, whether that’s a manager, agent, or attorney. If you already have representation, always refer any buyer to them.


Learn how to sell your ideas! I’m conducting a pitching workshop at the Writers Store on May 7th.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Icebox Questions

(SPOILERS: Sweet Home Alabama, The Matrix)

When I was doing rewrites on Sweet Home Alabama, I got into an argument with the producers about a point of story logic. In the story, Melanie goes back to Alabama to secure a divorce from her estranged husband Jake. In my original spec script, Jake signs the divorce papers at the end of Act Two. The producers wanted to move that to the midpoint for valid reasons of character arc.

The only problem was, once Melanie has the divorce papers she has no reason to stay in Alabama. Her fiancé, friends, and business associates in New York are already pressuring her to get back home. Yet in the producers’ version, she would hang out in Alabama for the next couple of days for no apparent reason. The producers argued that the audience won’t notice or care. I wasn’t so sure.

The producers won the battle on the script, as they usually seem to do. And it turns out they were right about the audience: I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the movie over the years, but nobody has questioned why Melanie doesn’t hop the first plane home after getting the divorce papers. (We did try to sell the idea that she sticks around because she feels she needs to apologize to all of her friends for her bad behavior before she leaves. If you have to make a change, you ought to do it the best way you can!)

I still think this is a bit of a logic problem in the movie, but I now realize it’s what Alfred Hitchcock called an “icebox question.” An icebox question is a logic flaw that the audience doesn’t think about until they’ve gone home and are getting a snack from the icebox (refrigerator for us Americans). Hitchcock’s theory was that by then the audience has already firmly decided whether they liked the movie or not, and belated recognition of logic holes wouldn’t change their mind.

I think this is also related to the saying that “The only rule in screenwriting is don’t be boring.” (Not sure who coined that one.) Audiences want to be entertained, and as long as they’re entertained, they won’t start picking too hard at the story. Stories have an emotional logic that trumps plot logic. The audience doesn’t question Melanie sticking around Alabama for a couple more days because they want her to stick around Alabama for a couple more days.

The Matrix (written by Lilly & Lana Wachowski) also demonstrates this theory in action. Toward the end, Neo is shot inside the Matrix and therefore dying in the real world, according to the well-established rules of the story. But then Trinity tells him he can’t die because the Oracle prophesied that the person she loved would be The One and she loves Neo. She kisses him and he comes back to life.

There is no narrative logic as to why Trinity’s kiss has the power to resurrect. It’s a logic hole. But it is absolutely right in terms of emotional logic. It’s the culmination of Trinity’s emotional journey, the culmination of Neo’s internal journey, it plays off classic fairy tale mythology, and most of all, it’s what we want to happen. I think it also matters that it occurs late in the movie when the audience is deeply invested in the story. Once we have bought into the story, it takes bigger logic bumps to knock us out.

So as a writer, it’s important not to let plot logic trump emotional logic. The trouble is, how do you tell the difference between a serious logic hole that will take the audience out of the story and an icebox question? Because serious logic holes can absolutely ruin your movie.

In my experience, audiences don’t generally get too hung up on timeline issues like the one in Sweet Home Alabama. They don’t calculate how long it would really take to get from point A to point B or to write a computer program or for wet clothes to dry, as long as it's not blatantly unrealistic. They also don’t get overly concerned about things like how long a character’s been awake or whether they had a chance to go to the bathroom or if they’ve eaten recently (unless you explicitly make those things part of the story). They usually don’t track the ammunition in guns or the amount of gas in a car’s tank. In real life these kinds of limits are annoying and we're happy to look the other way if the movie ignores those annoyances for the sake of fun.

But probably the most important thing is to test your screenplay with a selection of friendly readers who will give you brutal and honest feedback. If those readers don’t notice a logic hole, then you might be safe ignoring it. If someone does point it out, though, you better figure out a way to fix it. It isn’t an icebox question if it occurs to the reader during the read.


Check out my book, The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

“In the crowded field of scriptwriting how-to books, Doug Eboch’s Three Stages of Screenwriting is a standout and a must-read. Why? Three solid reasons: He really, truly knows what he’s talking about. It will help everyone, from novice to pro, become a better writer. And, most impressive of all, it is entertaining as hell - as engaging and fun to read as one of Doug’s scripts.”
-Ross LaManna (Rush Hour)

Monday, April 11, 2016

Six Tips for Better Log Lines

The ability to write a good log line is crucial to success as a professional screenwriter. Log lines are used to convince people to read your script. They are used on tracking boards and services like The Blacklist and Ink Tip to describe your script. They are a crucial part of a good pitch, as producer Ken Aguado and I describe in our book The Hollywood Pitching Bible. A well-prepared log line give you a quick, pithy answer to the question, “What’s your script about?” at parties and networking events. Log lines are even required on film festival submission forms, ultimately finding their way into the festival catalogue and influencing how many people see the film.

As important as they are for selling your script, creating a good log line can also help you creatively. It forces you to zero in on the core concept of your story, allowing you to focus your plotting. Conversely, the inability to create a good log line can point out narrative problems in your story.

Here are some tips for crafting better log lines:

1. Align the character with the plot. The way you describe your character in the log line should resonate with the story elements that follow. So if your story is about a “woman who finds love,” it is better to describe her as a “lonely thirty-something” than as an "aspiring journalist." But if the story were about a woman who “uncovers government corruption,” the journalist angle would be better. You want your log line to answer the question: Why is this the best character for this plot? (And never describe your character simply as a guy, girl, man, or woman – see tip #6.)

2. Include the character’s goal and the reason that goal is hard to achieve. This may sound obvious, but many log lines fail to explicitly contain these core story elements. Consider our above concept of “An aspiring journalist who uncover government corruption.” That’s fine, but is it her goal to uncover the corruption or does she just stumble upon it? If it’s her goal, why is it hard? If she just stumbles upon it, what does she do next? Write an article? Why is that hard for her?

Try to determine what the core obstacle is to the character achieving their goal. Often this is an antagonist. Maybe a cutthroat district attorney is trying to silence our journalist, for example. If your story is about the lonely thirty-something woman finding love, does she just meet someone and fall in love? What’s interesting about that? Maybe there’s a rival suitor or maybe some situational obstacle blocking the relationship. Maybe the primary obstacle is internal – but think about how it will be dramatized.

3. Keep the main character front and center and make them active. It's almost always best to introduce your character before you describe the conflict of the story. Then, describe the action with a verb that makes the character active rather than passive. In our investigative reporter story, “investigates” would be a better verb than “uncovers” because it implies action and intention. Consider these two approaches:

A city is thrown into turmoil when an aspiring reporter uncovers government corruption and a cutthroat district attorney sets out to silence her.

An aspiring reporter investigates a corrupt city government, putting her in the crosshairs of a cutthroat district attorney.

See how the main character is much more central and active in the second version? In the first, it’s not even clear who the main character is – it sounds like it could be the district attorney!

4. Avoid transitory actions. The log line needs to suggest an entire film, so make sure the action is something that will take an hour or more of screen time. So “investigates” is better than “discovers” because discovery might only take a few seconds. Other transitory actions that pop up frequently in log lines are realizes, decides, learns, and finds out.

5. Don’t clutter your log line with secondary elements that don’t add to the concept. You have limited words in a log line so you will not be able to capture the entire scope of the story. You should focus on conveying the central concept and what is unique and compelling about it. Your goal is to get the listener or reader to want to know more. However, it is easy to include unneeded elements subconsciously because you know how they work in the story. The person reading/hearing the log line won’t have that context.

So, for every word you include, ask why does this matter in the log line? Let’s say your log line begins, “An aspiring reporter who’s estranged from her husband uncovers corruption in the land use office of a city government…” Does it really matter that the reporter is estranged from her husband? It certainly might in the script, but if that detail doesn’t pay off in some way in the log line, cut it. Similarly, it is probably not important that the corruption is in the land use office unless the log line is going to deal with land use later. Though it would be more evocative to keep “land use office” and cut “city government.” That’s because…

6. Specific is better than vague. You want the listener/reader to visualize your story. The more specific your word choice, the stronger the image will be in the listener/reader’s mind. This is why simply describing the character as a “woman” is not as good as saying she’s an “aspiring reporter.”

Your log line needs to stand on its own to intrigue a reader or listener. Give the version of your story that works best in one or two sentences. The script will naturally include a lot more – in fact, it better!


Check out my new book on screenwriting: The Three Stages of Screenwriting.