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.