Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Politics of Notes Sessions

(Part One of Two on Notes Sessions)

One of the things we sometimes lose sight of when discussing screenwriting is that the screenplay is not actually the final product. It may be our final product, but the ultimate goal is to have a movie made. Filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor even if screenwriting is usually a solitary one. If you want to be a happy screenwriter, it behooves you to embrace this collaboration – and that means recognizing that the story is going to change as it progresses from page to screen.

One aspect of the collaborative process is that some of your filmmaking partners will give you notes on the screenplay. Really, a notes session with a producer or development exec or director is not so different from getting feedback from a writers’ group or your manager – except the producer or exec or director may have the power to fire you and hire someone else to rewrite you.

If you don’t want to get fired, it helps to have an understanding of the politics behind note sessions. Ostensibly these sessions are simply an opportunity for experienced storytellers to give you feedback that will help you improve the screenplay. In reality there is typically a lot more going on.

First, the people giving you notes probably have agendas other than simply making the screenplay better. They may need to get the movie down to a certain budget level or rating. They may be hoping to build a part to attract a particular movie star. They may be trying to impress their boss or justify their job by “saving” a project – even if it doesn’t need saving. They may actually be trying to save a project that they know is in danger of being cancelled. There may be politics and rivalries in the executive suite that you know nothing about that affect the nature of the notes you are given.

True story (no names to protect the guilty): A writer was hired by a studio to work with a director to rewrite a project. The studio asked the writer to help convince the director that the story needed major changes. Meanwhile the director asked the writer to help him convince the studio that the story was fine the way it was.

It is not uncommon to be given notes by two people with differing visions of the project. The studio executive may want the story to go one way while the producer wants it another way. The writer is stuck in the middle to negotiate the compromise, while never being able to acknowledge the disagreement even exists. Sometimes you’ll get conflicting notes from two different people in the same meeting. Nobody ever points out the impossibility of doing both things.

True story (no names to protect the guilty): A writer was given contradictory notes by two executives during a meeting. Each executive called him after the meeting to tell him that their notes were the ones the writer had to pay attention to, and that he could ignore the other executive’s notes.

Ideally the people who give you notes are extremely qualified and good at story development. And often this is the case. But just as often you will get notes from someone who really knows nothing about writing or how to talk to writers. It seems more and more people are empowered to give notes these days. When a twenty-two year-old with a business degree starts lecturing you on how to make the characters more compelling, you might start to wonder about the wisdom of the Hollywood system.

Even worse, sometimes the person giving the notes hasn’t actually read the material, or hasn’t read it all the way through. Sometimes they read it quickly, perhaps while on the treadmill or being constantly interrupted with phone calls. Yet you are expected to take the notes seriously.

Obviously, if you are getting notes from multiple people, the people won’t all be equally powerful. It helps to know who really holds your fate in their hands. But even there things get complex. You may be working with a producer and a studio executive. You get notes from the executive and do a rewrite. The producer wants to see the rewrite before you turn it in to the studio. The producer then asks you to make some changes – changes that go against the studio exec’s notes. What do you do?

If you figure it out, tell me. Some of these situations are like the Kobayashi Maru test in Star Trek – no win scenarios.

This doesn’t mean notes are bad by definition. In fact, the majority will probably be at least mildly helpful, and some will dramatically improve the story. First drafts are rarely ready to shoot. Several drafts in, everyone loses perspective, especially the writer. Plus, like I said earlier, this is a collaborative process. You ought to be collaborative. Nobody is trying to make a bad movie.

At the end of the day, though, it’s your name on the script. If it fails, you will get blamed no matter who gave you what notes. If I’m going down anyway, I’d rather go down with a screenplay I’m proud of than one I hate.

Despite the politics involved, there are some techniques to navigating the minefield of notes sessions, and techniques to get the most value out of a notes session. After all, the goal is to make the next draft better. I’ll discuss some of these techniques in next week’s post.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Six Techniques to Build Suspense in a Scene

(SPOILERS: Little Miss Sunshine, Notorious, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Abyss, The Silence of the Lambs)

Suspense is a powerful screenwriting tool. It gets the audience emotionally and viscerally involved in the story. When we think of suspense we usually think of thrillers, but suspense is common in all genres. Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) contains several suspense scenes. Getting grandpa’s body out of the hospital, for example, or the scene where the cop pulls the family over.

Here are six techniques to building a powerful suspense scene:

1. Make Us Care – In order for us to feel suspense we have to care about the outcome of the scene, and that means we have to care about the character. Make sure you’ve given us someone we can root for (or perhaps against). And make the stakes clear for the character. This means letting the audience know what the possible outcomes of the scene are and how they could affect the character.

2. Take Your Time – It is difficult to create tension and anxiety in the audience in a few seconds. Usually we are focused on keeping the pace fast in a screenplay, but suspense requires anticipation. You have to give tension time to build. This doesn’t mean adding mundane, boring stuff to the beginning of your scene. The idea is to introduce the danger early but delay the outcome, so the audience is stuck in that period of anticipation.

3. Build the Obstacles – Obstacles are an important part of any good scene, of course. In a suspense scene, you want the obstacles to steadily increase in difficulty. It also helps to throw in new, unexpected obstacles, especially when you have a ticking clock. Which brings me to…

4. Add a Ticking Clock – A ticking clock is a screenwriting term for a deadline. You’ve put the character in a tough situation, now give them limited time to come up with a solution. This is the idea of a timer on a bomb, counting down as the hero tries to defuse it. The clock doesn’t have to be a literal clock, though. In Notorious (written by Ben Hecht) there is a scene where our heroes are trying to investigate a wine cellar during a party. Suspense is built by the addition of a ticking clock in the form of a dwindling supply of champagne at the party. When the bottles run out, someone will come to the wine cellar for more and catch our heroes where they shouldn’t be. Also, having something "speed up" the clock can be a potential obstacle.

5. Raise the Stakes – Raising the stakes mid-scene can be an effective way to ratchet up the tension. In the scene in Little Miss Sunshine where the family is pulled over by the police officer, the stakes at the beginning of the scene are that they are almost out of time to get to the pageant. But then the officer wants to see what’s in the back of the car – and what’s back there is grandpa’s body. The scene suddenly got a lot more tense.

6. Gradually Increase the Characters’ Anxiety – Sometimes you want an unflappable hero, but this can make it difficult to create tension. If the character isn’t concerned, why should we be? Remember the scene in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (written by George Lucas) when the two Jedi Knights and Jar Jar are in a submarine being attacked by monster fish? The Jedi seem completely unconcerned – and as a result the audience is unconcerned. Compare that to the scene in the Abyss (written by James Cameron) where the heroes are trapped in a submarine filling with water. At first they are unconcerned – they’re engineers, they’ll fix it. But obstacles keep appearing and the water keeps rising. Slowly the characters become more and more anxious – and the audience does too. The key is to have the anxiety rise gradually. If you start with your characters in full-blown panic, you have nowhere to go.

Let’s see how these techniques are used a tense scene in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally). Clarice has been barred from seeing Hannibal Lecter, but she knows he’s lied about the identity of the killer on the loose. She plans to sneak in to try to get the real information out of Lecter.

We care about the outcome because Clarice is a likeable hero who has put herself at risk to save an innocent. We know that this is her last chance – if she fails here then most likely the killer’s hostage will die.

The scene takes its time. We see Clarice enter the building, mislead the men guarding Lecter, and ride up in the elevator with a young cop. We know she shouldn’t be there so we’re anxious to see what will happen. Because of this, all the pleasantries she exchanges with the guards and Lecter are filled with tension.

The obstacles gradually increase. At first it’s the relatively simple task of getting into the room she’s not supposed to be in. But then Lecter isn’t as cooperative as she hopes. She is going to have to convince him to help. Then when he agrees to help, he won’t just give her the answer; he wants her to figure it out on her own. Finally the conversation is cut short when Clarice’s rival shows up and has her kicked out.

There are a couple of ticking clocks working in the scene. First is the bigger clock in the form of the limited time they have to identify the killer and save the hostage. Second, Clarice knows she only has a certain amount of time before she is discovered.

Lecter raises the stakes in the middle of the scene. Before he will help Clarice, he wants her to tell him about an incident in her past, an incident that Clarice does not want to talk about. The stakes go from saving someone else to personal, emotional stakes for Clarice.

Throughout the scene, Clarice’s anxiety increases as time passes. At first she’s nervous about her deception but not particularly anxious. When Lecter pushes her to reveal her deepest secrets, though, her anxiety increases. And when he forces her to work through the problem herself we see her struggle to stave off rising panic.

All of which adds up to a tense, emotionally powerful scene.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hollywood Etiquette for Screenwriters

The film business is a little culture unto itself, and like any culture there are rules of etiquette. If you’re new to the business, those rules may not be readily apparent. Here’s a small primer for the screenwriter:

Phone Calls

If you leave a message for someone you have a relationship with (your agent, the producer of a project you’re working on, etc.), the rule of thumb is they should return the call within twenty-four hours. The reverse is true as well, though I would recommend returning the call the same day if you can. If you’re trying to reach someone you don’t have a relationship with, give them at least a week, maybe up to two before calling again. If they don’t return the call after the third message, maybe you should take the hint.

If you’ve given someone a screenplay to read, you should generally allow them two to four weeks before following up with them. And four weeks is better than two. The exception is your representation, who should read the screenplay the weekend after you gave it to them, if not before. Remember, though, that people are busy and be patient.

When you do get someone on the phone, respect their time. Have a reason for the call. You should not be calling your agent to “check in” very often. (They may call you for this reason sometimes, though.) A little chitchat can be nice, but get to the point quickly. They have things they need to be doing. Most calls ought to be shorter than five minutes. This does not apply to phone meetings that are scheduled, such as when you’re going to get notes on a script or pitch an idea.


The first rule of meetings is to be on time! The producer or exec will probably make you wait, but you should never keep them waiting. It’s a business meeting, so be reasonably well groomed. Writers dress casually in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean you can look like you just came from the beach or the gym. Also, bring a pen and notepad or some other way of taking notes. There is a whole art to meetings, some of which I’ve discussed in this post.


Occasionally you will have a lunch meeting. You may even have breakfast or dinner meetings from time to time. Again, be punctual. These days most people frown upon ordering alcohol during the day. Wine or possibly a cocktail with dinner is usually acceptable, but I’d follow the lead of the person you’re meeting with.

There are no real rules about what food you should order, but I’d suggest avoiding messy, hard-to-eat food that might be distracting, like spaghetti or ribs. Even hamburgers can be piled high with messy, drippy toppings. If you order something like this you’re asking for an embarrassing incident. Sandwiches and salads are safe choices. Most people skip dessert at lunch, and you probably don’t want to order the biggest, most expensive thing on the menu if everyone else is ordering salad. You don’t want to look like a pig. Again, it’s best to follow the lead of the people you’re meeting with.

There’s a hierarchy to who pays at a Hollywood business meal. The good news is the writer is at the bottom of the list. If someone asks for a lunch meeting, you’ll eat for free. If they ask you to split the check, it either says something about their lack of clout or about how little regard they have for you. The exception, of course, is if you offer to take someone to lunch in return for a favor or to get advice on the business. Also, movie stars almost never pay for meals, but you’re not likely to be dining alone with a movie star – the producer will probably be there and pick up the check.


There are many types of industry parties – premieres, holiday parties, networking parties and parties for producers and agents to show off. The rules of etiquette are the same as any party, except I recommend not overindulging on alcohol. You want to do business with these people – don’t make a fool of yourself. Also, don't be too focused on business. It's a party, nobody wants to be cornered and forced to listen to you pitch your latest project.

Holiday and Other Gifts

Gift giving is a competitive sport in Hollywood. At the holidays, agencies, producers and studios send expensive gifts to the people they do business with and the people they want to do business with. If your career gets some heat around the holidays, you will probably receive some nice gifts.

As near as I can tell, there isn’t a consistent expectation of gift giving on the part of writers. This is good news – half of the writers I’ve asked about this have never given gifts to business contacts at the holidays (we’re talking end of year holidays here – Christmas, Hanukah, New Years – though you generally don’t specify religion with business contacts). So if you do nothing, you will probably be okay. If you are going to give gifts, the most likely candidates would be your representation – agent, manager, attorney. If you are currently working on a project, you might consider giving something to the producer or even the studio executives.

The thing to remember is, unless you are independently very wealthy, you will not be able to impress anyone by how much you spend. Keep in mind, your representatives know how much you make. And unless you’re they’re top client, they probably make more than you. A lot more. And they represent much wealthier people who will be giving them gifts, not to mention the very wealthy producers who will be giving them gifts. That $250 bottle of wine you saved up for – they might appreciate it, but it will be on the low end of what they receive in terms of value.

Far better than taking out a loan to buy expensive gifts is to give something personal. It really is the thought that counts – show them you thought about them when picking the gift. This works both ways. The best holiday gift I got was from a previous manager who gave me a humorous holiday book she thought I’d like. It cost less than $10, but it said something about her taste and about her sense of what my taste was. A favorite book would make a good gift from a writer to their agent or manager. So would something related to a shared hobby or interest. Don't get too personal, though – this is a business contact.

Any other etiquette situations you can think of? Leave a comment and I’ll try to address them.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Raise the Stakes

(SPOILERS: The Proposal, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Almost Famous)

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? Today I want to dig into how we use stakes in screenwriting.

“Raise the stakes” is one of the most common notes a writer will be given. I think this is partly because it’s never a bad note (at worst it’s unnecessary) so if someone doesn’t have anything productive to add, they can throw out, “Raise the stakes” and not sound like an idiot.

However people often misunderstand the nature of stakes. They suggest a writer raise the stakes by increasing the size of what’s at stake. Rather than trying to get one million dollars, the character should be trying to get ten million dollars. But that’s often the wrong approach.

A con man might be trying to scam someone out of one million dollars so he can retire. That’s what’s at stake – he wants to quit his life of crime and live a life of luxury. You could make the scam for ten million dollars, but does that really raise the stakes? The outcome in question is still the same: can the con man retire?

But what if the con man owed a million dollars to some very bad mobsters? If he doesn’t come up with the money, they’ll kill him. We just raised the stakes without changing the amount of money. Now what’s at stake isn’t retirement, it’s life and death.

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.

Making the stakes of the story life and death may not be the best solution, though. It depends on the thematic content of the story. If you were writing a romantic comedy like The Proposal (written by Pete Chiarelli), the theme is love. So the stakes should be true love, not life and death. You want the highest stakes for the type of story you’re writing.

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. In The Proposal, if Margaret fails she will be deported and lose her job. And if she succeeds she will find love and happiness.

The Proposal starts by establishing the negative stakes. This is the catalyst for the story: Margaret must get married so she can stay in the country and keep her job. Later, she falls for Andrew and the positive stakes appear. Ultimately the positive stakes become more important than the negative.

The positive stakes in The Proposal start to coalesce in the middle of the movie. Often we raise the stakes around the midpoint. In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Matison), Elliot’s brother notices that E.T. is looking ill just after the midpoint. The stakes are raised – before they were just trying to protect E.T. Now they have to save his life.

In Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) the hero, William, wants to be a rock and roll journalist. As a high school student he gets a fantastic opportunity to write a piece for Rolling Stone – the biggest rock magazine there is. And those stakes are raised in the middle of the movie when he’s told they’re considering the story for the cover.

Great, those are high positive stakes: if William can get the story he will achieve his dream. But what if he doesn’t get the story? If he simply feels bad for a few hours and then starts right in on the next big magazine assignment, then the movie wouldn’t feel urgent or important.

So in Almost Famous we’re led to believe that failure to get the story means William will never become a rock journalist. The world of rock journalism is pretty small, after all, and this is portrayed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One way or another this story will give him a reputation. Moreover, his mother does not really support his dream. She’s giving him this chance, but when it’s over she expects him to go off to college and pursue a normal career.

In short, this is a test. Does William have what it takes to be a real journalist? The answer will determine the direction of his life. Each option, success and failure, is spelled out. William will either launch his dream career with a bang, or he will give up his dream and go to law school.

In order for stakes to be effective, you need to trap your character in the story. If the character can just walk away when things get tough, or try again later if he fails, then the stakes aren’t really at stake. In Almost Famous William is going on tour with a band and is expected to deliver a feature article to Rolling Stone by a certain deadline. If he quits you can bet there won’t be any more offers to write for Rolling Stone.

Sometimes people refer to the end of Act I as the “point of no return.” That act break is when the character commits fully to the story. And often this also means accepting the consequences of failure. In The Proposal, once Margaret and Andrew claim to an immigration official that they are engaged, the consequences of failure become real.

Finally, make sure the audience understands the stakes. Paint the picture – if this doesn’t work out for the character what will their life be like? It should be a pretty bleak future. And what will life be like if they succeed? It should satisfy the character’s greatest dreams.

Big stakes mean big drama.

Friday, May 3, 2013

What’s Your Brand?

To be a professional screenwriter is to run a small business. And like any business, you will be more successful if you establish a strong brand. For screenwriters, your brand is what kind of script the buyers know you can execute well.

Most commonly this is the genre you write in. Most writers, myself included, do not like the idea of being pigeonholed. But it happens and it’s much better if you decide which pigeonhole to be in rather than leaving it to someone else. Plus, there are many good reasons to become known for a specific genre.

First, studios maintain actual lists of writers that they know can deliver in certain genres. If you’re on the sci-fi list, when they need someone to rewrite a sci-fi script or adapt a sci-fi novel, you might get the call. People in the business admire writers who can do a lot of different things, but being a generalist means you’re not a specialist. They won’t think of you when they need the specialist.

You may be thinking, “Well, I just want to write and sell original scripts, so I don’t need to be on those lists.” But given the state of the business where studios are obsessed with underlying IP (intellectual property), it’s hard to make a living writing only original material. Wouldn’t you rather make your rent money adapting a book than working at Starbucks? And it’s a lot easier to get original stuff produced if you’re regularly working on assignments. So you do want to be on those studio lists.

Another reason to have a strong brand is that it is much easier to sell a pitch in a genre you are known to do well. If you’re pitching a broad comedy hoping to get someone to pay you to write the script, you’ll have much better luck if you’re known for writing hilarious broad comedies. If all your previous work is in the horror genre, producers will question whether you can deliver the funny.

A third reason is that buyers and agents tend to specialize as well. I’ve told the story of getting my first agent here before. I had sent around the romantic comedy that I wrote as my Masters thesis at USC (the screenplay that became Sweet Home Alabama). One particular producer liked it a lot, but didn’t buy it. So I sent her my next script – a big action adventure. She told me that her company came very close to buying this second script, but decided they just didn’t have the relationships with the directors and stars that do action adventure. They made comedies. The good news was she offered to help me get an agent.

But that story illustrates how you have to match material to the appropriate buyer. As your career develops, you’ll make contacts and fans in the business. As in my case, the fans you make with your first script will be the people who make movies in that genre. If the next script you write is something radically different, most of those contacts will be useless to you. Yes, in my case I got an agent… but because I switched genres I didn’t get a sale.

Your brand isn’t solely limited to genre. Some writers are known for writing great dialogue, or writing jokes, or writing female characters or writing action, etc. If a comedy project needs a punch up, the studios call the joke guy. If they want to attract a famous actress to a part, they get the writer known for writing great roles for women to do a pass on the screenplay. Being particularly good at something means you can get work.

To some extent this is out of your control. Sure, you can intentionally hone a certain skill, but chances are you’re already good at some things and weaker at others. Most likely, your strengths lie in the genre and type of material you’re most passionate about. So play to your strength and passion!

Savvy writers think about their brand and plan their spec work accordingly. As illustrated above, I didn’t do such a good job of that when I was starting out. Imagine what kind of work you most want to be doing ten years from now. You should be writing and pitching material that will lead you in that direction. An old coworker of mine had a little sign above her computer that said, “Is what you’re doing today getting you where you want to be tomorrow?” You are building your brand with every spec script you write and every pitch you do. Choose your subject matter wisely.

This applies not just to specs. It can be difficult to turn down a work in this business, but remember: if you take a job that’s off-brand you will dilute your brand. Obviously you also need to seize on opportunity, and opportunities aren’t always perfect. But sometimes making a smart short-term decision can actually hurt your chances of long-term success. Sometimes writers will do off-brand jobs under a pseudonym for this reason.

Once you’re an established screenwriter, it is possible to broaden your brand and what you do. Once you’re known for broad comedy, adding action comedy to your repertoire is simply a matter of writing the right spec – but ONLY do this after you’ve firmly established your broad comedy brand. And if you manage to become an “A-list” screenwriter, your brand is “A-list.” But that doesn’t happen after one or two movies. You have to build your career to that level. That will be a lot easier if you consciously pursue a brand.