Friday, October 12, 2018

Lots of Log Lines

My co-writer on The Hollywood Pitching Bible, Ken Aguado, and I co-wrote an article to provide examples of effective log lines. Ken posted it on his Medium account, and I'm posting it here. Enjoy!

Lots of Log Lines  

A Bevy of Sample Log Lines from Recent Films

 By Ken Aguado and Doug Eboch

In our travels as the “pitch guys,” we are often called upon to talk about log lines. It’s not hard to see why. Of all the kinds of pitches, the most common kind in the film and TV business is the humble log line. Usually two or three sentences, running 50 words or less, it’s the briefest answer to the question, “So, what’s it about?”

But for all their brevity, crafting a good log line can be surprisingly difficult. In our book, The Hollywood Pitching Bible: 3rd Edition, we spend something like 15 pages on the topic, but for the purposes of this article, we will summarize the kinds of elements that a good log line should convey:

  • Assuming the log line is presented without any other context, it should contain the title, genre, and (sometimes) the anticipated MPAA rating (if it’s a movie idea).
  • It needs to convey the world or setting of the story, if it’s unfamiliar. This includes when the story takes place (if it’s a period piece or an unfamiliar timeline), where the story takes place (if the location is important to the story), and any fantastical elements.
  • It should describe the main character or group of characters in a way that explains why they are the most interesting person/people for this story.
  • A good log line sets up the story in a way that conveys the character(s) goal and the major obstacle to that goal – and does so in a way that is active, visual, and can fill 90+ minutes of screen time.
  • The stakes for the character(s) must also must be clear.
We are often asked for examples of good log lines that do these things, so below are numerous log lines examples of recent existing movies. We’re doing existing movies because our examples will only be helpful if you know the story and thereby can understand the choices we’ve made. But before you read these samples, we need to give you a few caveats, so hang in there. This is important.

  • The following are what we call “stand along” log lines - the most complete version of a log line. These log lines assume they must “stand alone” as the entire pitch. If all you are pitching is a log line, these are the Cadillacs of log lines. If you know the films, sure, there might be simpler log lines, but try to imagine if the film didn’t exist. What would the listener need to know? This is the tricky part about pitching, because it’s sometimes hard to imagine what the buyer/listener doesn’t know.
  • Even when the movie is based on underlying material, we assumed that the listener was unfamiliar with that material.
  • Lastly, these log lines are less about poetry and more about maximum clarity. Please leave us comments below, and let us know what you think!

“American Hustle” is an R-rated crime drama based on the 1970’s Abscam scandal. An arrogant, small-time con artist and his seductive lover are forced by the FBI into a dangerous sting operation involving political corruption and the Mafia. (38 words)

“Big Hero 6” is a PG animated superhero film set in the near future. After the death of his older brother, a young robotics genius befriends a child-like medical robot. Together they team up with a group of robotics students to defeat the evil scientist who may have killed the older brother. (51 words)

Based on a true story, "Captain Phillips" is a PG-13 thriller. In 2009, Captain Phillips, his crew, and cargo ship are hijacked and taken hostage by desperate Somali pirates. But when negotiations don’t go as planned, the resourceful captain struggles to keep himself and his crew alive. (47 words)

“The Conjuring” is an R-rated supernatural horror film. When a family experiences disturbing events at their remote farmhouse, they hire a married couple of paranormal investigators. But as the terror escalates, the couple must risk a dangerous exorcism to rid the house of its evil spirit. (46 words)

“Edge of Tomorrow” is a PG-13 sci-fi/action film set in the near future. When Earth is attacked by monstrous aliens, a cowardly public relations officer becomes the key to defeating the invaders when he finds himself re-living the same battle over and over again. (44 words)

“Frozen” is a PG animated family adventure. When a magical princess accidentally curses her kingdom with eternal winter, her spunky younger sister must team with a rugged mountain man to save the princess and the kingdom. (36 words)

“Gone Girl” is an R-rated psychological thriller, based on a bestselling novel. An unfaithful husband is suspected of murder when his seemingly-perfect wife disappears. But as the husband tries to prove his innocence, he uncovers disturbing things about the woman he married. (42 words)

Based on the bestseller, “The Hunger Games” is a PG-13 sci-fi adventure film set in a dystopian future. A resourceful but unassuming teenage girl must learn to be a warrior when she is forced to compete in a televised fight to the death against twenty-three other teenage competitors. (48 words)

“Identity Thief” is an R-rated comedy. A mild-manner accountant’s life is ruined when his identity is stolen by a kooky female thief. To clear his name, the accountant must find the thief and bring her to justice while being chased by an assortment of unsavory characters. (46 words)

“Interstellar” is a PG-13 sci-fi adventure. With the Earth dying, a reluctant astronaut who is also a single father embarks on a journey to explore a mysterious wormhole and find a new home for humanity while fighting to keep his promise to his daughter that he will return. (48 words)

“Kingsmen: The Secret Service” is an R-rated action comedy. A tough British street kid is recruited into an elite aristocratic spy organization called the Kingsmen. But when the Kingsmen are betrayed, the street kid must save the world from a genocidal tech genius. (43 words)

Based on real events, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is a PG-13 historical drama about an African-American man who served as White House butler for eight US Presidents. Over the course of 30 years, the Butler and his family must survive the sweeping social changes confronting America. (46 words)

“The Lego Movie” is a PG animated comedy/adventure set inside a fantastic world of Lego toys. A cheerful but ordinary construction worker is mistaken for the “chosen one” and embarks on a quest to save the Lego universe from an evil tyrant bent on stifling creativity and mobility. (48 words)

“Lucy” is an R-rated sci-fi action film. An American woman living abroad accidently ingests an experimental drug when forced to be a drug mule. But when the drug gives her superhuman abilities she tries to understand what’s happening to her, while evading capture by the dangerous gang that gave her the drug. (52 words)

“Maleficent” is a PG-13 dark fantasy, based on the story of Sleeping Beauty from the evil queen’s point of view. When she is jilted in love, young Maleficent casts an evil spell on the daughter of her lover. But she begins to reconsiders her evil ways when the young lady falls under her care. (54 words)

“The Maze Runner” is a PG-13 sci-fi thriller set in the future. A teen boy is trapped in a community surrounded by a colossal maze structure, built by unknown captors. The teen must prove his ability as a “runner” when he joins an elite group of teens who search for a way out of the ever-changing, deadly maze. (58 words)

“Pacific Rim” is a sci-fi action film set in the near future. When giant monsters from the ocean overrun the world, mankind builds giant piloted robots to battle the beasts. A top robo-pilot mourning the loss of his co-pilot must train an inexperienced young woman as his new co-pilot to save the world. (51 words)

“The Ride Along” is PG-13 buddy comedy. A fast-talking, high school security guard gets in over his head when he accompanies his girlfriend’s street-cop brother investigating a dangerous international smuggler. (30)

“This is the End” is an R-rated supernatural comedy set in Hollywood. The good times come to the end for a group of shallow Hollywood actors who must fight to survive when the world is gripped by a global apocalypse – the Rapture. (42 words)

Based on the inspirational true story, “Unbroken” is a PG-13 World War II drama about survival and courage. When US Olympian Louie Zamperini’s bomber is shot down during a mission, he must summon unprecedented determination to survive shark infested waters and then prolonged brutal capture in a Japanese POW camp. (50 words)

Based on a true story, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is an R-Rated black comedy about the rise of an ambitious young stockbroker in the late 80s. But the broker’s lavish lifestyle and criminal excess soon attracts the attention of the FBI and he must fight for everything he’s built. (50 words)

“World War Z” is a PG-13 Sci-Fi adventure film. A UN Employee must leave his family to help stop a Zombie apocalypse. Racing against time, he travels the world to find the origins of the deadly pandemic that threatens to destroy humanity. (42 words)


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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Four Tips for a Great Elevator Pitch

(Spoilers: Get Out)

An elevator pitch is named after the idea that if you happen to find yourself in an elevator with a Hollywood big shot, you will have a captive audience for about thirty to sixty seconds, allowing you to give them a quick pitch of your idea. Now, I would not actually advocate pitching someone you’ve never met in an elevator. Their defenses will go up and your chances of a sale are bad – but the chance they will remember you in a negative light is good.

However, there are many situations where a very brief pitch is useful. Any networking event or social situation where you could meet industry people is likely to lead to the question, “What are you working on?” A great quick pitch could be the start of a productive relationship. Or in a general meeting you may discover the producer or executive is looking for something that’s just like a spec script you already have. Give them a great elevator pitch, and they will probably ask to read it.

So, how do you craft a great elevator pitch? Here are four tips. I’ll use Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) as an example of each one, culminating in a possible elevator pitch of that film.

1. Start with the title, genre, tone, and rating. When you have a limited amount of time, you need to give as much information as possible in as few words as possible. Don’t make the listener guess what kind of story you are telling. Identifying a genre is a quick way to provide a ton of information. And don’t make them guess whether it’s a comedy or drama, or what the likely rating might be. These labels are how the industry classifies films. Let them know how to classify yours.

Example from Get Out: If you don’t tell us that this is a horror movie, your description of a Black man meeting his white girlfriend’s parents might sound like a relationship drama or even a romantic comedy.

2. Be sure you’re conveying the appeal of the concept. Think hard about why someone would want to see this movie. What is the joy of this story? That is the single most important thing to bring out in your elevator pitch. You’d be amazed how often writers fail to convey the most interesting aspect of their idea when they have to condense the story.

Example from Get Out: What makes Get Out special? I’d say it’s the satire of racial attitudes among liberal white people. So you would want to make sure this aspect is clear in the elevator pitch.

3. Describe your character in a way that makes it clear why it’s interesting to see them in this story. In an elevator pitch, you will only have a few words to set up the character. You should describe the aspect of the character that is most relevant to the story you are going to tell. Most of the time, their name is not what’s important, nor is it their gender. So don’t describe the character as “Chris” or as “a guy.” These things don’t tell us anything about him that will make your pitch more interesting. Find a more specific description.

Example from Get Out: What makes Chris the most interesting character to get caught up in a nefarious body-swapping plot? It’s not just because he’s Black (though that is critically important to the concept). It’s because he’s non-confrontational, trying to go along and not make waves. To survive, he’s going to have to overcome this reticence.

4. Eliminate details that don’t add to the thirty-second version of your story. It’s obvious that you won’t be able to describe all the great aspects of your story in thirty seconds. But it can be hard to let go of elements that are important in the full-length script. Once you’ve crafted your elevator pitch, examine every phrase. Is the information adding to the appeal of the story in this brief summary? Will a listener who has no idea what is in the screenplay understand the significance of the information?

Example from Get Out: The sunken place is a crucial detail in the movie. So is the weird auction. And so are characters like the maid, groundskeeper, and the girlfriend’s hyper-aggressive brother. But there is probably not room to include these things in an elevator pitch, at least not in a manner that makes it clear why they are so cool in the movie.

So here is an example of an effective elevator pitch for Get Out that you could probably say in less than a minute:

My story is called Get Out. It's an R-rated horror movie about a reserved Black photographer who goes to meet his girlfriend’s parents at their remote estate. Creepy things start to happen, which the photographer at first attributes to the well-meaning cluelessness of his liberal hosts. But after he’s hypnotized by his girlfriend’s mother, he realizes he’s trapped in a nefarious plot and will have to overcome his fears to escape.


The third edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible is out! If you are in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be doing a book signing at Book Soup at 7 pm on September 26th. We’d love to see you there! You can RSVP here which will help us ensure we have enough books on hand.

Are you Crazy? Don't wait.  Buy this book now! Ken Aguado and Doug Eboch are guys who walk the walk, and here they talk the talk. They know as well as anyone how to navigate the trickiest waters on the continent: Hollywood's pitching process. Demystifying the secrets of what works and what doesn't for the not-so-brave new world of corporate Movie Biz. It's on my top shelf of books I can't be without.
-John Badham (Director, Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Stakeout)

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Care and Feeding of Your Professional Network

In my last post, I discussed some ways to meet people in the business. This is crucial, as most screenwriters get their breaks through referrals. But meeting someone is only the start of the networking process. Today, I’ll discuss some things to keep in mind when you do meet someone, and tips to keep the relationship alive afterwards.

1. Be aware of the environment. There are many ways you might meet industry contacts. When you do meet someone, make sure your actions are appropriate for the environment. Someone at a party does not want to listen to your lengthy film pitch. In social situations, keep the interaction mostly social. I once met an actor at a film festival party, and the moment they found out I was a screenwriter, they handed me their headshot. I guess they expected me to carry the headshot around for the rest of the party. I didn’t – I conveniently forgot it on a table. On the other hand, in a more professional situation (such as a pitch fest) stay professional.

2. Build relationships first. Too often people think of networking as meeting someone and getting them to read a script. But when you first meet someone, they have very little incentive to help you, and may even be afraid to hear your idea – for all they know, you could be a crazy person who will sue them for some imagined copyright infringement. Real networking is about creating a network of people who can help you along in your career over the long term. And you never know where an opportunity might come from. Sometimes a chance meeting leads to a big break years later in a way you never could have anticipated.

3. Start by asking questions. A good way to start a relationship with someone more established than you is to ask for advice. Most people love to give advice! Don’t overwhelm them – ask a question or two. And don’t ask just to ask, actually listen to the advice – you may learn something of value. If you reach a point of familiarity where you don’t think it’s presumptuous, you may ask to have coffee with your contact to get more detailed advice. If so, come prepared with a list of questions. And pay for their coffee!

4. Have a Good Elevator Pitch – But Don’t Use It in an Elevator! Although I don’t suggest initiating a pitch to someone you just met in a casual environment, often they may ask about your project. If you meet a producer at a party, for example, and say you’re a screenwriter, the producer might ask what you’re working on. This is the perfect time to wow them with your great thirty-second pitch. They probably don’t want to hear more than that right then, but if they like the idea, they may ask to read it when it’s done. In any case, you want to sound like you’re writing cool stuff. Elevator pitches are named based on the idea that if you happen to be in an elevator with a VIP you will have a captive audience for about thirty seconds. But I wouldn’t advocate a pitch in that scenario. You are more likely to end up with a restraining order than a movie deal.

5. Networking is a Two-Way Street. You may not think you have anything to offer an industry professional, but you probably do. Even simple things, like retweeting them or sending a complimentary email about their latest project can get them to think of you in a positive light. If you hear of an event or see an article they might like, send it to them. But be judicious… don’t bombard them with the equivalent of junk mail. Maybe there's someone among your other industry contacts they would like to meet – one of the best ways to network is to help other people network. You also may be able to help them out in some way outside of the business – a discount on something, for example. The point is, don’t just think about what they can do for you, think about what you can do for them.

6. Social media can be your friend. It’s much easier to maintain contacts these days than when I was starting out. After you meet someone at a party or networking event, you can friend/follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. This also makes it easy to shoot them quick messages. Don’t abuse this ability. But if you’re a good follower and supporter, social media can keep a relationship alive and help people remember you months after you met them.

7. Do stuff that shows your talent. It’s also never been easier to show people what you can do. Depending on where your talents lie, you can make short films and post them online, write short stories for web magazines, write sketches for a local sketch comedy troupe, create a web comic... there are tons of options. And then you can let your network know about these accomplishments. It gives you an excuse to contact people, to remind them you’re there, and show them you are an active creator. Even just posting funny tweets or cool Instagram images can keep you on people’s radar.

8. It’s not a contact if you’re afraid to use it. I’ve heard people talk about a big Hollywood VIP they know, but then say they don’t want to ask this VIP to read a script because they don’t want to spoil the relationship. Caution is a good instinct. But if you’re a writer, the ultimate purpose of any business relationship is to get read. If you can’t ask someone to read something, then they aren’t really a contact. So put aside your fear and make the ask. That said…

9. When you ask for a read, do it professionally. Make sure you’ve built up the relationship enough that it’s reasonable to ask for a favor. Ask before you send the material. Make sure you give them a script that is your best work. Don’t ask someone to read something new too often. Once you’ve sent a script, don’t badger them about whether they’ve read it – a follow-up three or four weeks later is fine, but they are busy people and you are asking for their time. And if they don’t respond to the material, or they give you harsh critical feedback, be gracious. Telling you what’s wrong with your script is also a favor.

10. Say thank you! Finally, when someone does something to help you out, even if it’s just giving you advice, say thank you. A handwritten card is especially appreciated. Gifts are usually not necessary, but if you do want to give them something, the thoughtfulness of the gift is much more important than how much you spent.

Most of this can be summed up as: be nice. Self-involvement is not attractive. Neither is desperation. Just treat people well, show them what you have to offer, and the networking will take care of itself.


The third edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible is out! If you are in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be doing a book signing at Book Soup at 7 pm on September 26th. We’d love to see you there! You can RSVP here which will help us ensure we have enough books on hand.

"Luck, they say, is when preparation meets opportunity.  Consider yourself lucky that Douglas Eboch & Ken Aguado have written a book that tells you not only how to achieve a screenwriting career, but also sustain it over time."
-Lem Dobbs, screenwriter ( Dark City, The Limey, The Score, The Company You Keep, Haywire)

Thursday, September 6, 2018

I Don’t Know Anyone in Hollywood – 5 Ways to Network as an Outsider

They say success in Hollywood is about “who you know.” That’s only partly true.

In fact, you need to do two things to break in as a screenwriter, and the first is far more important and difficult: you need to write at least one excellent, spectacular spec script. (Two is better. Three is even better.) It has to be excellent, not just good. You’re competing against the 12,000 or so members of the Writers Guild who have already broken in, and the hundreds of thousands of other writers out there trying to break in. With only two or three hundred theatrical releases of studio and major independent films per year, and only about 600 scripted television series airing per year (even in this peak TV era), there is a lot of competition for every writing job. And your spec has to be spectacular to stand out from the deluge of excellent material pouring across the desk of every agent, manager, producer, and executive.

But once you have this excellent, spectacular spec script, who you know does matter. Most new writers get their breaks through referrals. This means someone you know recommends your script to a producer, development executive, agent, or manager. So if you don’t know anyone in Hollywood, how do you find someone who can make such a referral? Here are five ways:

1. Become strategically active in professional organizations. To meet people in the film industry, you have to go where those people are. There are many established professional organizations that anyone can join for a small membership fee. In addition to the other services they offer, Film Independent, IFP, Women in Film, Scriptwriters Network, and similar organizations have member events teeming with industry professionals. And the more you get involved in the organization, the more relationships you can develop.

2. Go to Film Festivals. Like professional organizations, major film festivals (Sundance, SXSW, Telluride, Toronto, etc.) or almost any film festival in Los Angeles or New York are gathering places for industry pros. You wait in a lot of lines and there are a lot of festival parties. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with strangers – just ask if they’ve seen any films they like at the festival. Your chances of meeting someone connected to the industry are high. And volunteering with the festival increases those odds. (There may be other festival-like events where you can meet certain types of industry people based on your areas of interest. For example, San Diego Comic-Con is teeming with animation professionals and people who work on science fiction movies and television.)

3. Network laterally. Newcomers usually obsess about meeting top Hollywood players, but the reality is the big dogs are the ones least in need of new talent (not to mention the hardest to reach). So think about building a network of people on your level. This starts with other writers. Many writers get their first agent or manager through a referral from a client, so knowing someone who could become one of those clients is useful. But beyond that, get to know PA’s and assistants and others in the entry-level jobs in the business. Agents’ assistants want to become agents and they do that by finding new talent. Producers’ assistants want to become producers, and that means finding material. Usually your opportunities will come through people at your level or just a little above.

4. Put your social media to work. One great thing about the advent of Twitter, Instagram, and the like is that you can actually communicate with people in the business. But that doesn’t mean you can just direct message Jordan Peele and ask him to read your script. Follow people you feel an affinity for. “Like” and “retweet” their posts. Make insightful comments. Ask questions. You can build a relationship online. But keep point three above in mind – if you aim for the most famous people, you’ll get lost in the shuffle. Find those lower level screen and TV writers you really admire and follow them. Also, be sure your social media feeds are filled with clever posts. More than one aspiring comedy writer has parlayed funny tweets into a job.

5. Come to Los Angeles. You can use your social media from anywhere. You can probably have some involvement with film organizations from anywhere. But networking still mostly happens face-to-face. That means if you live outside of the big filmmaking communities of Los Angeles and New York, you are at a significant disadvantage. That doesn’t mean you have to drop everything and move to Los Angeles. It’s expensive to live here and it will take time to break in. But even if you can’t move out right away, consider a strategically timed visit, perhaps building a trip around a film festival and a couple of events through filmmaking organizations. Make those initial contacts, and you can nurture them via email and social media when you’re back home.

Whatever methods you use, keep in mind that good networking is about building relationships, NOT accosting people and asking for their help. In my next post I’ll talk about how to make the most of your networking opportunities.

There are also a few ways to get attention without a referral. You do not need a referral to enter the television fellowships, and if you win the small handful of meaningful screenwriting contests, people will ask to read your script. But to build and sustain any kind of long-term career, you are going to have to network.


The third edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible is out! If you are in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be doing a book signing at Book Soup at 7 pm on September 26th. We’d love to see you there! You can RSVP here which will help us ensure we have enough books on hand.

Are you Crazy? Don't wait.  Buy this book now! Ken Aguado and Doug Eboch are guys who walk the walk, and here they talk the talk. They know as well as anyone how to navigate the trickiest waters on the continent: Hollywood's pitching process. Demystifying the secrets of what works and what doesn't for the not-so-brave new world of corporate Movie Biz. It's on my top shelf of books I can't be without.
-John Badham (Director, Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Stakeout)

Friday, August 24, 2018

5 Ways to Give Your Character a Memorable Entrance

(Spoilers: Well, I mention a lot of films in this post, but since I’m describing character entrances, I wouldn’t call these spoilers.)

There are a lot of reasons to give your significant characters a memorable introduction into the story. It helps the audience know who they should be paying attention to. It can help attract movie stars to the part. And the best introductions establish a core aspect of the character’s nature. First impressions matter, after all. Here are five techniques you can use to make your character’s first appearance on screen fantastic:

1. Advertise the Character. Build anticipation for the character by having other characters talk about them before their appearance. In Casablanca (screenplay by Howard Koch and Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein), we hear about Rick and Rick’s bar from several people. Renault tells Strasser that “Everybody comes to Rick’s.” In the bar, a patron asks to drink with Rick and is told Rick doesn’t drink with the customers. By the time we see a hand sign “Rick” to a bar tab and pan up to reveal Humphrey Bogart, we are very interested in who this Rick person is.

2. Give the Character a Grand Entrance. The way the character literally enters the scene can draw attention to them. Sometimes this can be as easy as simple as something like Satine lowering down from the ceiling to perform in Moulin Rouge (written by Baz Luhrmann & Craig Pearce). Other times you might have to be more clever. Consider Jack Sparrow’s entrance in Pirates of the Carribean (screen story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, screenplay by Elliott & Rossio). We see him standing gloriously on the mast of his ship… only to realize the ship is slowly sinking. Jack steps off the mast onto the dock just as the ship goes under. This entrance perfectly encapsulates everything important about Jack’s character – his unreasonable confidence, how he constantly skates on the edge of disaster, and his ability to escape by the skin of his teeth.

3. Create a Defining Scene. If we first meet the character in a challenging situation, you can use that scene to show what kind of person they are and why we want to pay attention to them. For example, In Inglorious Basterds (written by Quentin Tarantino), the villain, Landa, is introduced interrogating a farmer as to the whereabouts of a hidden Jewish family. Landa is upbeat and friendly, but very clever, finally tricking the farmer into revealing the family’s location. And once he gets what he wants, he proves to be incredibly brutal. We know exactly what kind of villain Landa is by the end of this scene. Similarly, Indiana Jones’ introduction in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan), recovering the idol from the booby trapped cave despite betrayal by his “helpers,” shows us how resourceful the character is.

4. Show Us the Character’s Environment. Introducing the character in their typical environment can reveal a lot about them as well. In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt), the dowdy, sparsely populated classroom where Richard is giving his presentation belies his claim to know the secrets of success. In Get Out (written by Jordan Peele), we meet Chris in his stylish city apartment, decorated with photographs he’s taken. This establishes him as hip, urban, and urbane. And when we meet Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone (written by Diane Thomas), she’s in her apartment putting the finishing touches on a book she’s writing. She celebrates by having a drink… alone with her cat. Her environment tells us what kind of woman she is, in contrast to the sexy, adventurous characters in her books.

5. Use Other Characters’ Reactions. How other characters react to a character can tell us a lot about them. For example, when we meet Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (written by William Goldman), he’s being accused of cheating at a game of Blackjack by Macon. Butch enters and tries to get Sundance to leave. But when Butch finally mentions Sundance’s name, Macon becomes terrified. We can guess from Macon's reaction what a proficient killer Sundance must be.

The introduction of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) demonstrates ALL of these techniques. First, we have Clarice being escorted to Lecter’s cell by the warden. Along the way, the warden tells her how dangerous Hannibal is, and the rules for engaging with him (advertising). We them go deeper and deeper into the facility, through barred gates, to an almost dungeon-like level (advertising, environment). Clarice walks by herself to the last cell which finally reveals Lecter standing ramrod straight in anticipation (grand entrance). The cell is the only one protected by a solid wall of Lucite, and it’s decorated with excellent charcoal drawings (environment). In the scene that follows, Lecter is polite, but uses his wily intellect to manipulate, intimidate, and psychologically torment Clarice (defining scene). Throughout the scene, Clarice is clearly nervous, and when she gets outside, she breaks down crying as she realizes how accurate Lecter’s analysis of her was (character reaction).

It’s no accident Hannibal Lechter is remembered as one of the greatest screen characters of all time.


The third edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible is out! If you are in Los Angeles, Ken Aguado and I will be doing a book signing at Book Soup at 7 pm on September 26th. We’d love to see you there! You can RSVP here which will help us ensure we have enough books on hand.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Five Ways to Defeat Writer's Block

The subject of writer’s block comes up fairly frequently at writing panels and conferences, which suggests it’s a pretty big concern for a lot of writers. There is some debate about exactly what it is, or even if it actually exists. My position is that if you think you can’t write because of some kind of mental block, then by definition you have writer’s block.

I think writer’s block can come in many forms and have many sources. I’ve certainly experienced that feeling of being stuck, that I don’t know what to do next on a particular story or script. But I’ve also developed a writing process and techniques to get past that. I can’t remember the last time writer’s block held me up for a significant amount of time. Here are the five most common techniques I use to keep the words flowing:

1. Outline

This is potentially controversial, so let me explain. Fiction writers often divide writing processes into two approaches: pantsers and plotters. Pantsers – as in “seat of the pants” just start writing and see where the story takes them. Plotters outline first. I’m a plotter. When I talk to pantsers, most readily admit they end up throwing away 70-80 percent of the first draft, or that they often go off in the wrong direction for dozens of pages and have to backtrack. This leads me to believe that both pantsers and plotters are doing the same thing in those early stages – figuring out the story. It’s just that pantsers are doing it in draft format while plotters are doing it in outline format. (Not that plotters’ first drafts are perfect, but we typically need to do a lot less revision.)

Personally, I’d rather not spend time working out dialogue and details for scenes that have a high likelihood of getting cut later. And once I have an outline, I always know what comes next. That eliminates most instances of writer’s block. And I’m not married to the outline – if for some reason the story takes me in a new direction, I’ll often pause to re-outline the remainder of the screenplay.

But there are plenty of successful writers who are pantsers, and I feel that writing process is a very individual thing, so if pantsing it works for you, go right ahead. However, if you’re a pantser who often gets writer’s block, maybe you’re not really a pantser. Maybe you just fell in love with the romantic idea of “letting the story guide you.” Maybe try outlining and see if it makes your life easier.

2. Try It Both Ways

Sometimes I get stuck because I can’t decide which way to go with a character or story. For example, do I want the love interest to be an ex-girlfriend coming back into the hero’s life, or someone the character is meeting for the first time? One of the advantages of outlining is I can try the story both ways. I’ll do a quick-and-dirty outline one way, and a quick-and-dirty outline the other way. These outlines may only be a page or two, just to follow through on the reverberations of each choice. Then I can decide which way I like better. Usually I know the answer before I even finish the two outlines. One just feels right. Even if you’re a pantser, you can try this technique when you get stuck – it won’t kill you to think ahead a little bit!

3. Let It Be Bad

Sometimes I get intimidated by the scene to come and kind of freeze up. I think this is common for writers. We’re imagining this great scene, but we’re afraid we won’t be able to pull it off. Or we know the plot point we have to deliver, but don’t have a good idea of how to realize it. My way to solve this is to just let myself write a bad version of the scene. Then I’ll have something to rewrite later, and I’ll be able to keep moving forward. I tell myself that I'll make this scene great in the next draft. This helps me get over the intimidation, and often the resulting scene turns out to be pretty good. And if it doesn’t… well, that’s what rewrites are for!

4. Let Yourself Be Bad

This is for the times you just don’t feel like writing. You’re tired, you don’t feel creative. But I’m a big believer in writing every day. Making it a habit makes it easier to sit down and get something done. So I tell myself to just write for an hour, even if it’s bad, even if I only get a few usable lines of dialogue out. The goal is to establish the habit. And once again, often these “bad” writing sessions end up being quite productive. (I prefer setting a goal of writing for a certain amount of time per day rather than producing a certain number of pages. It takes the pressure off.)

5. Take a Walk

If I’m wrestling with a particularly thorny scene or character issue, I find it helps to take a walk. (Other writers I know go for a drive or take a shower, but a walk seems more environmentally friendly!) There is something about a little minor physical exertion without the need to concentrate that seems to free up creativity. In fact, there’s actual scientific research that backs up the idea. So if you find yourself stuck, a walk around the block might just be the solution.

What techniques do you have for overcoming writer’s block? Let us know in the comments!


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

Friday, February 9, 2018

What Is a Screenwriter’s Voice and How Do You Find Yours?

(SPOILERS: Get Out, The Big Sick)

If you ask producers and development executives what they’re looking for in new writers, among the top answers will be, “Someone with a distinctive voice.” But what do they really mean by the term “voice”?

A writer’s voice is a combination of style, thematic content, and point of view. It is part of a writer’s brand, which also includes things like the genre and format they are known for. For some writers, the style part of their voice is readily apparent. You can tell the difference between scripts by Quentin Tarantino, Nancy Myers, Shane Black, Aaron Sorkin, Woody Allen, and Judd Apatow by such stylistic elements as the way they use dialogue, humor, and visual spectacle.

But not all screenwriters have such distinctive styles. Writers like Stephen Gagan, J.J. Abrams, Cameron Crowe, Jordan Peele, Lawrence Kasdan, and Aline Brosh McKenna have a more craft-oriented style, but their films are still distinctive based on the kinds of subjects they write about. Their voice is defined by the thematic and story elements that recur in their work.

The one thing that makes all of these people in-demand writers in Hollywood is that they have something to say. They have a voice that is unlike any other writer.

This is what the industry is looking for in new writers. They have plenty of accomplished craftspeople they can hire – people with experience, people they can trust to do a good job. If they are going to hire an untested newcomer, that person needs to be able to bring a perspective nobody else can. And that’s why your work needs to have a voice.

So how do you find and develop your voice as a writer?

The first thing is to ask, what kind of stories do you really want to tell? The things you are passionate about come from who you are. This can be as deep as Aaron Sorkin’s repeated exploration of the ethics (or lack thereof) in powerful, hyper-intelligent men; or as surface as Quentin Tarantino’s obvious passion for pulp, pop culture, and poetic dialogue. It’s not even necessary that you are conscious of these passions, as long as you are telling a story that you love. When you write from the heart, you can’t help but reveal your perspective on the world.

Sometimes following your passion can be tough, though, because new writers are constantly told to be “commercial.” And that’s good advice. But if you simply mimic the latest hits, how will your voice come through?

Screenwriter Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) has a Venn diagram he uses to select material. The three circles of the diagram are:

What do you love?

What are you good at?

What can you sell?

Paul’s ultimate point is that you should only write things that fall in the intersection of those three circles. The first two circles will be a big part of what makes up your voice. The goal is to find the part of your voice that is also commercial.

The good news is that with a gazillion cable channels and streaming services, you can find a buyer for almost anything these days. However, you can’t make a big budget feature film out of almost anything. If you find that your voice is leading you to more niche material, you will have to figure out what outlet might program to that niche and be aware of the budget realities of servicing that niche.

The second thing to do in order to develop your voice is to examine what is unique about your life experience. What do you know about that most writers don’t? Do you come from a cultural background seldom represented on screen? Have you held a job in an interesting industry? What was your family life like? Have you had unusual relationships? What is the most exciting thing that’s happened to you? The scariest? The saddest? Bring these experiences to your work.

The Big Sick was one of the most successful and well-reviewed movies of the year. It is in many ways a fairly commercial, high-concept romantic comedy: a commitment-phobic man realizes he’s in love with the woman he’s dating when an illness puts her in a coma. But it is based on screenwriters Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani’s actual relationship. Beyond just getting a story idea from real life, Nanjiani’s experiences as an Indian-American from a traditional family adds a subplot that doesn’t feel like it could come from any other writer.

Your work doesn’t have to be autobiographical to reflect your life experience. I don’t imagine Jordan Peele was ever kidnapped and hypnotized as part of a plot to have his brain replaced like in his movie Get Out. But you can feel his experiences as a Black man living in white society informing every scene.

You can also see reflections of George Lucas’ life growing up as a drag racer in Modesto dreaming of a bigger life in the character of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. This indicates one of the best ways to let your voice come through: put your feelings and experiences into your characters.

Of course it’s easier to incorporate your life experience into your work when you actually have some life experience. When it comes to art, you have to have something to say before you can have a voice.


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

Friday, January 19, 2018

What I Learned About Writing Romantic Subplots from “I, Tonya” and “Downsizing”

(Spoilers: I, Tonya; Downsizing; Pretty Woman; Wedding Crashers)

Last week I watched I, Tonya (written by Steven Rogers) and Downsizing (written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor) back to back. Seeing the two movies that way illuminated something for me about writing romantic subplots.

I have long advocated that, in order to create successful love stories on film, the writer should identify the way each character makes the other better. For example, in Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton), Vivian teaches Edward the value of emotional commitment, while Edward shows Vivian that she deserves more than she is accepting. This is so that the audience has reason to root for the two characters to be together.

But at first glance, I, Tonya and Downsizing appear to demonstrate the opposite. In I, Tonya, Tonya and Jeff are not good for each other at all. Yet I never once doubted their attraction or why they were in a relationship. On the other hand, I can easily see how Ngoc and Paul make each other better in Downsizing, yet, for me, the biggest weakness in a promising movie was that I was completely unconvinced that these two characters were in love. Since their love was critical to the last half of the movie, the movie failed.

Thinking more about this, however, I don’t think these movies contradict my initial technique at all. Rather, they demonstrate that simply showing how the characters improve each other isn’t enough on its own.

In I, Tonya, in fact, we are not rooting for Tonya and Jeff to be together. We actually desperately wish they would realize how mutually destructive the relationship is. This is not normally the goal of a movie romance. It’s really my technique turned on its head. Since the writer wants us rooting against the romance, he shows how the characters make each other worse.

But we also see how physically attractive they are to each other, and how Jeff offers a teenage Tonya the kind of appreciation she isn’t getting anywhere else in her life, and how Tonya offers Jeff a brush with the kind of greatness he can’t find anywhere else. We know why the characters want to be together, even if we can see that the relationship is bad.

The flaw in Downsizing is that the characters show no romantic or erotic chemistry. Sure, they improve each other as people, and improve each other’s lives, but what creates the romantic attraction? Their relationship is based too much on mutual improvement. It needs some joy, some sexy interplay, some emotional connection. It needs a little of what Tonya feels when Jeff tells her she’s pretty while working on his car. The first hint of this kind of sexual tension doesn’t come in Downsizing until Paul is rubbing lotion into Ngoc’s knee – right before they have sex. It’s too sudden, and it’s not big enough to convince us of their attraction.

So, yes, if you want us to root for two characters to be together, we need to see why they are better together than apart. But we also need to see that they are attracted to each other in a romantic and sexual way. Crucially, both things need to be dramatized. You need to create incidents that show us how the characters are better together and show us that they are attracted to each other.

And if you don’t want us to root for a relationship, show us why the characters are bad for each other. But we still need to believe they are attracted to each other or we won’t understand why they are in the relationship in the first place. When characters are in obviously destructive relationships, they can seem stupid, which reduces are sympathy for them. For example, in Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Faber & Bob Fisher), Sack is such a jerk that the wonderful Claire seems less sympathetic for being with him.

In I, Tonya, neither Tonya nor Jeff are portrayed as geniuses, to be sure. But they are both set up as sympathetic – Tonya is continually berated by an overbearing mother, and Jeff’s plans were derailed by family responsibility. We see how each satisfies a longing in the other. Though we can see the relationship is destructive, we sympathize with the characters’ reasons for being in it.


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

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Ten Best-Written Movies of 2017

It’s time for my list of the ten best-written movies of last year! Keep in mind, this is a list of the best written movies, not necessarily the best movies or my favorite movies. The best example of this distinction this year is The Shape of Water – it has a lot that I liked in performance, production design, and tone, but the screenplay was the weakest component, so it doesn't make the list.

My usual disclaimers apply: I see a lot of movies, but I haven’t seen everything. This year I haven’t yet seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Call Me by Your Name; Molly’s Game; or Coco – all of which look to have the potential to bump something off this list.

Also, some movies age better than others, and because most of these are awards season movies, I’ve seen many of them pretty recently. My opinions could cool over time – though looking back at last year’s list, everything holds up pretty well. And though I’m happy to hear your opinions in the comments, this is my list. If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to make your own!

Looking at 2017 as a whole is encouraging. There are a lot of really great movies on the list. I could shuffle the order of the top four at random and be perfectly happy with the results. I’m also encouraged at how many of these are original stories, and how many have performed well at the box office. So without further ado, here is my list of the best-written movies of 2017:

1. Get Out (written by Jordan Peele) – If you want to deliver a message, wrap it in entertainment. Get Out is billed as a horror movie (though it’s more accurately a suspense thriller) and it delivers the genre goods. But it also delivers thought-provoking perspective on modern race relations that goes a lot deeper than the typical, “racism is bad,” message. On top of that, it has a clockwork plot and provides a master class in using planting and payoff to build twists and tension.

2. I, Tonya (written by Steven Rogers) – Some of the press materials suggested this movie was an attempt to correct the historical record. It’s not really. It’s about class and celebrity, and what happens when the American dream runs into the American mythmaking machine. But more than that, it’s wildly entertaining, salacious and funnier than I expected, populated with crazy, complex, flawed characters that you both love and hate – sometimes within the same scene.

3. The Big Sick (written by Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani) – Like Get Out, The Big Sick used a traditional genre structure (this time romantic comedy) to explore deeper themes. It delivered in both regards: the characters are warm and funny, the romance tugs at the heart, and the culture clashes are thought provoking. Particularly noteworthy are the excellent minor characters – Emily’s parents, Kamail’s family, and the poor women with whom Kamail’s mother tries to arrange a marriage. Each is dimensional and real with legitimate personal reasons for their point of view.

4. Lady Bird (written by Greta Gerwig) – This was a hilarious crowd-pleaser of a coming-of-age story. While it doesn’t exactly break new ground, the specificity and complexity of the characters really illuminated the challenges of mother-daughter relationships. (And what a great character was Lady Bird’s mother!) It feels entirely real and entirely entertaining at the same time.

EDITED TO ADD: I totally forgot about The Post! Definitely a top-10 screenplay, so I'm adding it here at 4.5. I won't cut anything out... so this is now the 11 best movies of 2017.

4.5 The Post (written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer) - Combines an important story about the press's role in democracy with an important story about a woman finding her voice in a man's world. Tense and thrilling, Ben Bagdikian's subplot carries the audience through some of the slower parts of the main plot.

5. Logan (story by James Mangold, screenplay by Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green) – This is an excellent character-driven action script with deep (and dark) themes for a superhero movie. You really feel for these characters, the set pieces are fresh and compelling, and the structure is tight as a drum.

6. The Disaster Artist (screenplay by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber) – Some of the humor may be a little “inside baseball,” but this is a wonderful, nutty, hilarious screenplay with a lot of heart – based on a wonderful, nutty, hilarious true story.

7. Battle of the Sexes (written by Simon Beaufoy) – By digging deep into the complicated characters and relating their personal struggles to the social context of the time, Beaufoy achieves a powerful, complex, emotionally moving story with what could have been a simplistic, straightforward morality fable.

8. Wonder Woman (screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder & Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs) – As the last few years have amply demonstrated, it is not so easy to craft a fun, adventurous superhero movie. Despite an overly long ending and some muddy thematic elements, Wonder Woman delivers a good time with humor and heart – and strikes a blow for the viability of female-lead action movies.

9. Blade Runner 2049 (story by Hampton Fancher, screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) – Though it wasn’t commercially successful, this is a worthy sequel to the original that captures much of the same thematic and emotional complexity and elaborates on it in new and interesting ways.

10. Good Time (written by Ronald Bronstein & Josh Safdie) – This script is tragic and thrilling and funny, and manages to be both over-the-top and grounded in gritty reality. We buy every bad choice the characters make even while cringing at their foolishness.

Close on the heels of these ten are Detroit, Baby Driver, and Dunkirk, all very good screenplays that might have made the list in other years.

In the past, I’ve picked a “worst written” movie of the year. Though there were lots of candidates for that slot this year, I’m giving up the tradition. I’d rather celebrate the successes, and the failures have mostly had enough scorn piled on them.


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


 The Hollywood Pitching Bible

“ ‘Bible’ is the right word. This is the Truth about pitching. Just do what it says.”
- Gary Goldman (Writer/Producer, "Total Recall," "Minority Report," "Big Trouble in Little China")