Monthly Archives: October 2015

Formula. Food for babies so they get all the nutrients they need. A blending of chemicals to make a drug. A specific path to follow to make beer or wine. A way of rating race cars. In Mathematics, a rule or principle, frequently expressed in algebraic symbols. A formal statement of religious doctrine.

A way to write a successful spec script? Not so much.

I know this may rub some writers or some script gurus the wrong way, but in my opinion a spec script written to a formula is never going to be anything special. How do you write a creative story that lets your own unique writing voice sing out if you have to write it according to some formula? If the story reads like everyone else who’s used the same formula, it most likely can’t.

I’m not talking about format. You need to follow that.

The reason for this Blog is a couple of emails I got and an advertisement I read online all touting to have the secret of getting your script sold and made. All by people who’d never had a screenplay produced, or if they did it was in 1986. They were pushing their formulas. Not unlike Save the Cat, which personally I also think stifles creativity and good storytelling.

Now. There are people who will tell you certain genres have Formulas you have to follow. Where did these formulas come from? From writers who went out of the box to begin with to find success. And when it worked, others followed. Thus becoming formula. Does that mean other new things in that genre won’t or don’t work? Hell no. This is about going out of the box or being a follower with your own spec scripts.

When you get to the point of doing some writing for hire for producers, or studios, or networks, some will have you follow their formulas, their rules for what they want in a script. Some cable networks actually have them written down. Most every TV show has them in stone.

The problem with actually getting these jobs is that you have to get noticed for your own spec work to get them. And believe me, the people who would rep you or hire you are NOT looking for formula from new writers. They’re looking for exciting great stories they haven’t read before told with a unique voice. Your voice. Not a Tarantino clone. Not a Shane Black or Tony Gilroy clone. The one you’ve developed by writing and writing and writing and letting go of preconceived ideas and releasing your own creative voice. One of the best compliments I ever got about a spec script I wrote was from a producer who said she knew I’d written it about five pages in by the voice and style. She also optioned it.

Then there’s my spec script that’s responsible for EVERY job I’ve ever gotten, EVERY room I’ve ever been in, got me my Rep, and is in some way responsible for everything else good that has happened to me in this business. What about it? Readers have trouble deciding who exactly the Protagonist is. When they finally decide it’s one person, that person dies. The main character, who may or may not be the Protagonist or may be the Antagonist, has NO ARC. He doesn’t change or grow or learn a damn thing. In fact, in his last line of dialogue he tells the audience that in so many words. Did I write it that way on purpose?

No, not really. I’m also not sad it turned out that way. I just wanted to write a great story that would be great on screen. Something I’d never seen before. And I came up with something I believed in, something if it worked that would make people pay attention to me as a writer. Does it follow any formula at all? Well, I guess it has three acts. Inciting incident? Page 37. Oh… it has specific music cues in it. An opening scene where the first characters introduced never say a single word for their entire time on screen in the film. Are they important characters? Yes.

And guess what? No one has cared. No one. It’s been optioned 8 times over the last 16 years by 8 different producers or production companies, including a studio. In the past, I’ve had producers in line waiting for an option with another producer to lapse so they could option it. I got a call a month ago asking if it was available. (it's not) And it’s never been made. No one made it because... well... the story itself is a wee bit controversial too.

Something else I did on purpose. I really never meant for it to get made. I meant for it to get me noticed. It did. The fact that it’s getting made next year, by the 8th production company, is a bonus.

A spec script these days has a very slim chance of getting made. Just the way it is right now and for the foreseeable future. Yes, there are some that get produced. Hell, I’ve had some produced. But selling specs is a very very tough road to go down. What you want from a spec is to show people, people who could hire you for writing jobs, that you have skill, imagination, a unique voice, and the strength to go out of that formula box, even though they may put you back into it to work for them. I know, it’s weird. But true. Ask any writer who’s broken out lately if they didn’t throw some formula to the wind to make the spec that got them noticed something different and special.

Formula has a place. You will be asked to use it for writing jobs. So you should know it before you ignore all or parts of it for your spec. It’s there to make familiar things happen that audiences are used to in certain kinds of films. Things everyone has seen before. It’s there because some people think it has to be there for your story to work cinematically. I personally don’t believe that.

But if you stick to it in your specs, trying to mold your story around it, Producers and Reps probably have nothing special to notice.

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Again, I’ve been ignoring my blog not because I don’t have anything to say but because I have a film going into production early next year and the director wanted one more rewrite for casting that takes place this month. That one more rewrite ended up becoming a five week “let’s vet every single word” rewrite.

Is the script better? Yes. Did he let me do ALL the writing and listen to me? YES. Did I win some arguments? Yes. Did I lose some? Yes. Did he let me take those notes and put my spin on them so I could maintain the integrity of the story and characters? Yes again. Have I been the only writer on this from when it was originally my spec until now? Yes. Am I spoiled on this one? You bet your ass.

He did have last say, but then he’s the director. I’m not. I get it. He’s also smart and knows what he’s doing and I completely trust him. I did get frustrated and I am sure that I frustrated the hell out of him at times. I thought it would never end and feared it wouldn’t at the same time. This is a big one for me. A spec I wrote 16 years ago that has been responsible in some way for every writing job I have ever gotten and every room I’ve ever gotten into. So it’s very meaningful. And to have this kind of experience, I’m certain, is a fortune I will never have again in this business. So I am thankful and grateful.

I have written reams in my blogs about script notes. How you will get them. How there's a 100% certainty your script will change. How you can cooperate or be tossed away like yesterday’s garbage from the project.

But I’ve never written about how much you can LEARN from the experience if you open your mind to other experienced people with a different point of view and understand why they want to do the things they want to do with your work. This director was very clear he loved my spec and understood my themes, my story, and the characters, but also clear when he said, “This film will be my interpretation of your script.” There was no waffling or beating around the bush.

But in giving me the notes he had and the notes he got from our new producer, who has only produced some of my favorite films, he talked about density and specificity, and then proceeded to show me what he meant.

We took characters and scenes that worked and proceeded to layer them with meaning I never thought about. To give conversations I thought were great much more depth and subtext. To give the multiple subplots more dimension and meaning as they reflect on the main storyline. And every time we did these things, I learned something new that will make me, I think, a better writer in the future. It was like a doctoral degree writing lesson. For hours and hours every day. My brain hurt every night because all I could think about was this story and these characters and how they related to each other as the story progressed, even after we stopped for the day. In my dreams, even after I was asleep.

The funny thing was, as we wrapped up the rewrite last night and the director sends it out today to the producers and the casting company, I knew this wasn’t the end. I knew we’d be back at it as soon as we got more notes from producers and actors that were cast. And that’s fine with me. Bring it on.

As a screenwriter, no matter where you are on the pecking order, it’s incumbent on you to always be learning. To suck knowledge from those who know more. And believe me, there are ALWAYS people who know more. They’re also easy to mistakenly dismiss if you are so wedded to your work that you can’t open your mind to them. And that can be harmful to you as a writer in the long run.

In the middle of all of this, I also had the joy of being a judge in a short film writing contest put on by a national screenwriting group made up of and for teens (with one 11 year old) who want nothing more than to do this for a living and are WORKING hard at it to learn, grow, and get better. (There needs to be an applause button here) They, like me, decided early in life that this is what they want to do. Only they, unlike me, are starting now rather than just dreaming about it for the first 35 years before doing anything about it like I did.

So they sent me the finalists in their contest. 7 short scripts that averaged about 8 pages each. The 11 year old’s was 20 pages, but we’ll get into that in a minute.

First, second, and third place winners got some nice prizes and Final Draft (good for you) was awarding the winners free software, which is pretty cool since all the scripts were all obviously written in Word.

I decided to read all the scripts in one sitting to be fair. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much, but then whenever I read a script by any new writer I’m not expecting much.

Four of the scripts were what I expected from teen writers. Stories about high schoolers that went nowhere and didn’t have any theme or purpose. They were still well written with a basic knowledge of what dialogue should and can be. Not as bad as some adult written dialogue I’ve read for sure. Those were easy to put in the “Honorable Mention” category. But I also don't want to ignore the fact these writers had obviously learned a lot and were on the right track.

The 11 year old took third with the only script NOT about school age kids. Amazingly enough, he wrote a 20 page script about two adult men having a “My Dinner with Andre” philosophical discussion while each sat in their respective cars stuck in a traffic jam before going their own ways. It was too long and repetitive, but wow, I loved the thought process that brought this about. He/she was already out of their comfort zone trying this at 11. Impressive. I’d help this kid anytime they asked.

Second place went to a 17 year old who wrote a five page piece about how two different high school kids specifically see each other from each kid’s point of view and how even though they both think they’re so different, they aren’t. Clear theme. Fairly good dialogue. Super thought process. Thought this one might be the winner.

Until I read the first place script. Also by a 17 year old. It started out for the first few pages like a boring selfish high schoolers day and ended up with this high school girl discovering that her preconceived notions about people and situations were not what she thought at all and learning and growing from it. In 6 pages. A whole character arc well thought out. Easy winner. Again, impressive. You could tell this writer had studied and learned and retained and was putting the education into practice.

No way any of these 7 finalists just threw these together. They were serious about this. They want to learn. They want to grow as writers.

You, as a writer, can learn from them. There is always an education in writing to be had out there if you want it and see it and are open to it. Sometimes it might hurt, but it’s always worth it.

Follow me on Twitter. @BobSnz