Getting an agent is the first step, not the last step.

A frightening percentage of writers seem to think of an agent as the magic conduit that will sell their screenplay, make them a fortune, and negate the need to ever work again. Nothing could be further from the truth.   Getting an agent is the first step in a long journey, not the last one.

No one sells specs. Repeat, nobody sells specs. Only 20-60 get bought in a given year, and most of those are to industry insiders. Selling a spec as an unknown is like winning the lottery while being hit by lightning.

So why do we do it?  Open writing assignments (OWA’s). Producers always have some projects in development, and they need writers for these projects. Sometimes they even pay.

An agent is a professional friend. It’s his job to know producers and know what they need. When if Producer 1 needs a comedy writer to adapt a Vanity Fair article, the agent will send him a comedy sample.  If producer 2 needs a horror writer to adapt the obscure Italian comic he optioned, the agent sends a horror sample.  If Producer 3 needs a thriller writer for a 1940’s noir remake, Producer 3 gets a thriller sample.

If you want to be a writer, expect to be pigeonholed.
If you want to be a writer, expect to be pigeonholed.

This is why agents are always trying to put people into boxes. A comedy writer can be sold to a comedy producer. There are far fewer markets for a writer who’s written a “thinkpiece hybrid between ALPHAVILLE and CITY OF GOD.”  It’s really common for agents to read a really original script, sign the client based on an appreciation for their talent, and then demand that they write something more commercial, something that will allow them to package them as a “genre writer.”  There are more jobs for a competent genre writer than for a “brilliant” writer who can’t make his ideas work in familiar genres.

For every overnight success like Troy Duffy, there are hundreds more writers who started in the development trenches on workmanlike assignments. Charlie Kaufman started on GET A LIFE. M. Night Shyamalan ghostwrote SHE’S ALL THAT. Woody Allen wrote on the SID CEASAR SHOW. Ingmar Bergman wrote commercial romantic comedies.

Charlie Kaufman loves to hate on mainstream stuff, but he neglects to mention that mainstream work set him up for indie success.
Charlie Kaufman loves to hate on mainstream stuff, but he neglects to mention that mainstream work set him up for indie success.

Writing isn’t about selling specs, it’s about getting work, so you can build the resume that allows you to take more risks and do pictures that are more daring. So when you’re planning your next script, don’t just ask yourself what you want to write about, ask yourself if the project would be something an agent could easily pitch.

Write whenever you can (written in ten minutes)

“We often overestimate what we can accomplish in a day and underestimate what we can accomplish in ten minutes.” – Bill Gates (paraphrased)

I had to write a blog, but I didn’t want to. So I set a timer for 10 minutes and I started typing. This is what I got (I spent an extra two minutes proofreading).

We often treat writing like some big, sacred ritual. People say, “Oh, if I can’t sit down at a desk for 2 uninterrupted hours (or whatever), it’s just not worth doing.” This is just an advanced form of procrastination.

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” EB White.

No matter what excuse I use, you use, there are dozens of prolific authors who were poorer, busier, and who had more kids than we did. If they can do it, so can we.

So if you’re stuck, if you’re afraid, set a timer for ten minutes. Just ten. Save what you write in a database like Evernote, or even just a word document, you’ll be surprised what you use later (I made liberal use of my quotes file to finish this post). It’s better to be the writer who writes a little every day than the writer who writes tons and tons on very rare occasions.

40 beats – The bridge from one page synopsis to outline.

My basic advice: scripts start with an idea, then a logline, then a 200-word version to test if the story fits into the three act structure.   The next step between the test and the outline/treatment is a list of roughly 40 beats. That’s not a hard number, some scripts go 30 beats, some go 50, but 40 is a nice approximation.

A beat is major event in the story that makes fundamental changes to the world of the story. “Bob and Joe fight and end their partnership” is a beat.  “Bob gets off the plane” is not, unless Bob is Mr. Bean. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if your beat could plausibly take up 1/40th of a script (three pages). If it can’t, it’s not a beat.

2013-09-05 11.18.01
40 beats on a screenplay I wrote.

Your list can take any number of forms. An excel spreadsheet, cards on a corkboard, post-its on a bedroom mirror, pen and ink. It doesn’t matter, they’re all different ways expressing the same idea. For added cogency, try expressing the high concept of the beat in 7 words. John August prefers scene cards to a straight up list.

So you need 40 beats of seven words a piece. That’s 280 words, barely a page. Easy! Get them done, and rush to the outline. You’re a natural, you screenwriting prodigy, you!  No, seriously, this should be hard.  You need to force yourself.  Grind out a list of 40, then grind out another version of the list.  Do this often, at many different steps of the process.  Always be looking to improve what you’ve got.

Ways to do your beats:

* Index Cards on bulletin boards

* The Card View feature on Final Draft

* An excel spreadsheet (useful for comparing versions)

* Post-It notes on a whiteboard (see above)

* WorkFlowy.com/Evernote/Popplet

The possibilities are endless.  It doesn’t matter how you do them, so long as you do them.

* Note – this is a revised version of an earlier article.

3 Ways to Beat Writer’s Block

It happens to all of us.  We get stuck, and then we can’t move forward.  Here are some tricks you can use when you don’t want to write anything.

1.  Use a timer.

Using a timer focuses the mind.  It’s better to have ten minutes of solid focus than a hazy weekend where you occasionally glance at your notes.

Set your timer for the time available.  If you have fifteen minutes, shut off the internet and spend that fifteen minutes in a pure, focused burst where you work solely on the project at hand.  For super extra-credit, keep track of all the focused bursts you’ve done so far, so you can say, “I’ve spend an hour on my screenplay, 90 minutes on my spec pilot.”

2. Write support material.

When we get stuck, it’s usually because we’re missing a preparatory step.  The brain knows you’re sending over a cliff that hasn’t yet been bridged, and it would prefer to spare itself the indignity of the crash.

So ask yourself questions and write answers.  This connects you to the material and draws new ideas out of you.  Understanding is like a ladder.  You don’t need to know every step, but you need enough steps to be able to climb up to your goal.

Sample Questions (50 words per):
1.  What am I trying to say with this story?
2. How does this character relate to me?
3. What is the theme of this story?  How can I use this script to explore a problem I don’t know the answer to.
4. What are my three favorite movies?  How can I plant subtle allusions to them in the next scene?

Save your answers in a seperate file.  They might come in handy.

3. Rewrite your worst scene

Scenes stack on each other like jenga blocks.  If you have a crappy base, your structure won’t have any success.  To quote two poets, build a sure and steady base or else the centre cannot hold.

If you’re anything like me, there’s at least one scene in your draft that stinks, maybe you got stuck on it, maybe you rushed through it.  It’s often hard to identify the scene you hate the most, but find it (or pick a random one).  Polish it till it shines.  Once the problem scene is fixed, you’ll have more ideas for how to continue the good plotting and storytelling going forward.

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Note: This entry is a rewrite (and hopefully an improvement) from an older post.  Writing is rewriting and all that stuff.

A formulaic screenplay is an Easter Egg… no, not the pop culture kind

EDIT (3/25/15) – Wow, this article has been blowing up. If a commenter could mention where they came from, that’d be great! I’d like to thank whoever it was.

The average screenplay is like an Easter Egg.  The structure is almost inescapably the same, but the variations are endless.  Just as scripts that break formula aren’t necessarily bad, a formulaic script can be incredibly good.  Take CASABLANCA.  A single cliche makes us laugh, a thousand cliches move us.  Many of the exercises here (logline, this 3 act breakdown) will give you something that is very familiar.  This is not entirely bad.

800px-Easter_eggs-midiman

People both underthink and overthink the complexity of screenplay plotting.  In my last blog, I illustrated a simple mad lib to create loglines.  I hope you had some fun with it.  But don’t for a second think that the mad lib is all you need.  The trick isn’t to show that you can “get the structure,” a moron could get the structure.  COP AND A HALF will teach you more about the structure than 80 hours with Robert McKee.  The trick is to show that you can use the framework of the structure to create an original and striking tale that you actually give a shit about (someone ask me how to do this, and I’ll write a blog on it. Seriously).

This blog assumes that you know the three act paradigm, a beginning, a middle, an end; a journey studded with touchstones like the inciting incident, the first act break, midpoint, and the second act break.  The three act structure is a method, a lens that you can apply over the story.  It’s reductive, it’s flawed, but it allows us the ability to communicate story with the industry, especially agents and managers.  When people rail against the three act structure, I want to shake them.  We are incredibly lucky that execs have a commonly agreed-upon framework of story, without it, communicating at story meetings would be even harder than it is now. 

Obedience to the structure frees you to be creative in other ways.  It’s less about reinventing Easter eggs (you could dye, say, chunks of deer antlers for artistic effect, but would they be a crowd pleaser like Easter Eggs are?  I say no.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with an unusual, artsy screenplay, but for the beginning writer, a script that is recognizable is more likely to get on the desk of a decision maker than a script that isn’t.

The market likes 95-115 page stories with likable characters who change, cool visuals, and a theme to reassure people that they don’t live in a bleak and godless world.  The market likes other things too, but those will always have a market – I can’t see a world where people don’t want to be told that their work matters, that there is good, that life has a point.

Familiarity/structure is the egg.  Your creativity the dye.  Though the eggs will always be the same shape, the variations of surface details are endless and astounding.  If you can link your creativity to the material, really invest yourself in it, you can turn even the hackiest premise into redemptive art.

Ukranian Easter eggs, aka pysanky
Ukranian Easter eggs, aka pysanky
More pysanky... the variations are eternal and endless.
More pysanky… the variations are eternal and endless.
Eggshell carving.  If art can be found in something as simple as an egg, it can certainly be found in a 110 page screenplay, even if that screenplay is about a hooker with a heart of gold.
Eggshell carving. If art can be found in something as simple as an egg, it can certainly be found in a 110 page screenplay, even if that screenplay is about a hooker with a heart of gold.
KidRobot dunnies, for a hipper, more esoteric spin on the same concept - one blank template, thousands of variations.
KidRobot dunnies, for a hipper, more esoteric spin on the same concept – one blank template, thousands of variations.

How to write a mediocre logline

Fiverr

Nine months ago I wrote this post. It became one of my most popular blogs.

I’ve come to realize that the words “mediocre” and “logline” were poor choices, because it opened me up to a lot of repetitive arguments about what is or isn’t a logline. I clarified my thinking and renamed this:

The Premise Test.

I’m keeping this up for old time’s sake.


 

If you can’t read my handwriting:

An (ADJECTIVE) (CHARACTER TYPE – THINK PROFESSION OR ARCHETYPE) must (GOAL) or else (STAKES). He does this by (VISUAL MEANS THAT SUGGEST SOMETHING FUN FOR THE SECOND ACT) and learns (THEME).

‘This process won’t net you a great logline, but the one you end up with should be better, sharper, and as informative than this one.

 

The handle: A quick test to see if your script falls into the three act paradigm.

* Note: There are a million ways to write a script.  The three act structure isn’t the only way, but executives tend to talk in the three act paradigm, so it’s useful to writers, even if they don’t subscribe to it. If you use a different paradigm to understand story, I’d love to hear about it.

When I start work with a story coaching client, I like to start with a logline or premise test. Then I like to give this exercise.  I call it THE HANDLE, because it allows you to get a handle on your story.

EXERCISE: Write a 200 word version of your outline. Write in in four parts:

50 words on act one.

50 words on act two before the midpoint.

50 words on act two after the midpoint.

50 words on act three.

Example:  Groundhog Day (logline): A cynical weatherman gets trapped in a cycle where he must relive the same day over and over again. At first he exploits the situation, then he despairs of it, but he finally changes for the better and frees himself to live a real life.

The handle would go something like:

ACT ONE: Meet PHIL, a cynical jerk of a weather man. He goes to a small town for a story, has an irritating day, and antagonizes his patient producer RITA. He wakes up the next morning and realizes he’s living the same day over again.

ACT TWO A: Phil tests the limits of his powers. He uses his foreknowledge to get ladies, have fun, etc, until he realizes he’s in an existential trap. He decides to score with Rita.

ACT TWO B: Phil chases Rita. At first he gets close, but then he keeps failing – he’s too cynical to get with her. He despairs, tries to kill himself. He fails at that again and again. Finally he has a real conversation with Rita, which encourages him to make a real change.

ACT THREE: Phil decides to change. Using his powers of foreknowledge, he makes sure everyone in Punxsutawney has a perfect day. Rita sees the new caring, selfless Phil and falls in love. Because of this Phil escapes the cycle and can live a normal life as a better man.

* Note I’ve left out the subplot with the old homeless man for clarity. It a key moment in the story, and a huge deviation from the three act structure which is a teachable moment in and of itself.  Again, the three act structure is just a useful paradigm (or reductive model for understanding).   I’m already dreading clarifying this point to angry people with limited reading comprehension.

This exercise does two things. First, it tests if an idea can fit into the Hollywood three act paradigm, which is really good to know. Second, it’s a toehold for our understanding of the story – we can go back to it when we get lost.  Examples:

Problem: My love interest isn’t interesting

Solution: Go back to the handle, rewrite it around her, make sure she’s necessary to the story.

Problem: I’m lost on my theme.

Solution: Write 25 words on what you’re trying to say.  Go back to your act breaks and make sure that they communicate what you’re trying to say.

Problem: I’m trying to revise my script and I’m lost.

Solution: Go back to your three act handle.

The handle is a tiny model of your story, you can rewrite them in multiple different ways to test ideas out (save a new draft for each one, otherwise your little model will get as bloated and stressful as your script).  It’s hard to rewrite a 25,000 word script in a way that buttresses your theme of “power corrupts, but corruption is awesome” is communicated, it’s much easier to track the theme on the micro level and use that understanding to clarify your thoughts on where the story is lacking connections to the theme.

We often fail at scripts and outlines because they get big and daunting.  The 200-word version allows you to get your arms around the story, get a locus of control.  The handle also tests your understanding of your own story – if you have a good grip on it, you can write 200 words in 25 minutes.  If you’re having trouble, it’s indicative of large problems that will plague you in the days ahead.  I use this trick when I get stuck on a story, and I hope you find it useful as well.