How I quadrupled my screenwriting output by hiring a stranger from Craigslist to slap me in the face.

“How could I leverage Craigslist to improve my efficiency? To me, the answer was obvious: I hired a girl on Craigslist to slap me in the face everytime I used Facebook.”

This story that made the rounds online a few years ago. A guy hired a girl to watch him work in a coffee shop. It made him really productive for these five reasons:

1) Someone else, besides me, knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish that day.

2 [She helped me ignore the impulse to snack or surf the web.]

3) I finally had someone to bounce ideas off of.

4) The Slap Challenge added a playful, silly element to working.

5) Having another pair of eyes to go over my content drastically improved the quality of my work.

I think it’s got more to do with the fact that we’re social creatures and we perform differently with others than when we’re alone. I also think that paying someone for time creates a scarcity of time. We don’t want to be suckers for wasting money, so we work harder than we would have if time was “free.” Honestly, read the whole article.

The high concept here, the reason why this went so viral, is the slapping bit, which has a tinge of the naughty, so it makes for a better story. But the productivity increase works without the slapping part. I know this, because I’ve tried it myself.

Some might say that this is hypocritical, because my job is to help other people write. I say it’s not, I’m embracing the idea of hiring someone to help me with a weak point in my game, and besides the cobbler’s children often go barefoot. I’m not sure why this works, but it really, really works. The biggest obstacle to conquer in screenwriting is discipline. I know a lot of tips, hacks and talents, but at the end of the day it’s me alone with a page, and that’s often hard to deal with.

Capsule review of this process: I absolutely love it! I work faster, harder and better, and created some of the best sequences I’ve ever written in the least amount of time. I would do this every day if money wasn’t an object. I never got slapped.

I’m posting this for a few reasons: one, to share a helpful hack. Two, to help establish the utility and value of my own coaching business. And three to point out that novel philosophies often have useful applications for those who are willing to explore them.

The last part is key. Many times, when I post this ad or tell this story, people react with a huffy surprise. They can’t see why this could be useful, they refuse to imagine how it could be useful, and they quickly build a big case for why it can’t be useful. Sadly, many people would rather demonize novel information rather than learn from it. It’s the biggest step in promoting a growth mindset .


You can try this yourself. Just post a version of the ad in the linked article and see what happens. I recommend posting a link to the article itself, as it makes you look less crazy.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area and would like to sit with me for four hours in exchange for story notes, drop me a line! No slapping required.

Without the jokes, sitcoms are 3-minute-long classes in Screenwriting 101

A sitcom without jokes is like a porn without sex scenes—pointless. But sitcom story lines, at the very least, are useful technical exercises for all the aspiring TV writers out there. (The same can’t be said of porn, except for maybe as object lessons in how not to write realistic female characters.) The Big Bang Theory, for example, follows a pretty standard three-act structure, a structure that is laid bare in the aptly named. (Via the Onion AV Club)

A script is a necklace. Set pieces are pearls, plot is like string. The string should be almost invisible, serving only to arrange and present the pearls in the best light.

This series of “sitcoms minus the jokes” says it better than I can.

Characters are patterns. Every line of dialogue should make that pattern more clear.

Some old screenwriting advice: give characters distinct voices. You should be able to read a line without dialogue attribution and know who said it.

Practical example: If I made a list of great George lines, Jerry lines, Elaine lines and Kramer lines, you could probably tell whose was whose. You could tell even if you hadn’t see the episode they were from.

The modern spin on this advice: use your screenwriting software’s character report to generate an entire list of all their dialogue, out of context (this is one of the only things that Final Draft does pretty well). You’ll probably see a couple great lines, but a bunch of disposable ones:

“I could really use use the money.” “Do you know the way out?” “Sharon, she’s my wife.” “Um…yes. I–”

Every character is going to have a few of these, but if most of your character’s dialogue is that bland, odds are you have a bland character. Theoretically, all characters have traits. These traits are best expressed through dialogue.

A THUG “Fuck you, pay me.” “If you know the way out, tell me now.” “Sharon. My fucking wife.” “Hell yeah. I dunno.”

A ROCK STAR “I’m not saying it’s about the money, but it’s about the money, mate.” “If you know the way out, I will totally hook you up.” “Sharon… you know, my current wife.” “Maaaaan….”

A CREEP “Pay me. My body yearns for it.” “If you know of an exit, well, I’d use it for my purposes.” “My wife Sharon. Can’t masturbate forever.” “Ooooh.”

Obviously, not every line needs to turn into a Whose Line bit, some lines are better plain. But if you never color your dialogue, your characters never get colorful. How many times have you read a script where TIM (22) is introduced as cocky and funny, and yet he talks exactly like SCOTT (23) nerdy, all business? Don’t do that.

TL/DR: Find what works about a character and find ways to do more of it. This is a form of patternizing (to make conform to, reduce to, or arrange in a pattern).

Premise test special – $10 for three rounds of notes!

I’m running a special on logline analysis this month, 3 for the price of one.

Screenwriting mistakes happen at a fundamental level. Nearly all movies can be expressed like this: An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. He does this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.

Further, it’s the “doing” part that makes the movie. The character who must earn a million dollars by surfing is different than the one who must do it by fighting zombies.

Often times people write multiple drafts but they never find a story. Then they start a new project, but they take their bad habits with them and the circle continues.

This $10 mini-class will help you learn the nature of premise via email, by sharpening the way your story is framed, you’ll have a much better shot of executing it.

For 10 dollars I will read and give notes on three drafts of your premise (up to 75 words) to help you make sure that you have an idea that will actually work in screenplay form. This often saves months of wasted energy and pages.

A good premise helps you measure twice, cut once. Many scripts fail because they spend all their time setting things up, and never get to what’s interesting, vital and meaningful about their concept.

EXAMPLE (All loglines will be kept confidential – this is a special example, used with permission)

Helped in every way when it came to fleshing out my ideas for my script. He asked just the right questions to pull more story out and scrape away the extra fat. Couldn’t be happier. If you are having trouble, I wholeheartedly recommend getting his notes and advice. ~Jeffrey Wells

Most stories are archetypically similar. The surprises are in the details.

There’s a certain sameness to stories. This is often mocked.

Beginners often despair, wondering how they can be original or unique. This often leads them to try something too clever, to mix genres, to overly world build. They often end up with something that’s too “original” to be enjoyable.

Familiarity is not in and of itself a bad thing. Consider the pop-punk progression. Most songs have the same chord progression:

That doesn’t discount any of these musical examples from being specifically interesting, moving and worthwhile. “Don’t Stop Believing” might have the same structure of “Let it Be,” but it’s not going to stop me from liking either song.

Most of storytelling is in the details. Most people can use three act structure to pump out something that basically resembles a story, it’s all about the color and texture you populate the frame work with.

Scripts exist to entertain. Character and plot are a means to that end, not the end itself.

Author’s note: the next six pages aren’t important. I needed filler to pad out the length so I could have a feature, because I couldn’t think of anything to write. Just skim to the next action sequence.

No script has ever included those words, yet they could appear in 99% of screenplays. Beginners get obsessed with the results. They have an idea, and they try to stretch it over 95 pages, so they can call it a feature, so they can submit it to an agent, so they can make millions of dollars and really stick it to all the kids who were mean to them in high school. This leaves them with a lot of filler.

Good scripts don’t have filler. They’re entertaining. They’re bursting with content, they shine with intent and unity. They have an overriding idea and work to illustrate that idea with genre moments: heartbreaking tragedy, gutbusting comedy, spine-tingling horror. Everything makes sense, every line has a purpose and intelligence, even if its only discernible after the fact.

Many scripts are all filler . They lack premise, character, and fun. It’s all table setting with no feast. The feast is what matters. It doesn’t matter if a meal came from a gourmet chef or McDonalds, so long as it satisfied.

Movies can be bad or good, smart or dumb, noble or base, so long as they’re entertaining. It doesn’t matter if a movie is SOPHIE’S CHOICE or DEEP THROAT, so long as it engaged with the audience on some level. A Transformers movie has thin characters and an arbitrary plot – they still make bank because people all over the globe find the spectacle of giant robots fighting engaging. A movie must entertaining, to entertain they must engage with the audience’s emotion. Plot and character are means to this end, not the end itself.

Some famous scenes: Kenobi and Vader’s duel. Mr. Blonde cuts off a police man’s ear. The chestburster emerges from the man’s body. Eddie Valiant watches Jessica Rabbit sing “Do Right.” Danny encounters two girls who want to “play with him” in the haunted hotel. Marion Crane is attacked in the shower of the Bates Motel. Alec Baldwin explains what it takes to be a salesman. You know these scenes. You have seen them referenced in pop culture. Millions of people watch these scenes These scenes exist without context, there’s something beyond character and plot that makes them worth watching on their own. They were sad, scary, funny, disturbing, sexy or thrilling.

You need moments like these in your script. You need a lot of of them. You need to be able to point to every page in your script and explain specifically why it’s entertaining. If you can’t, your theory on why three act structure is better than five act structure is meaningless, you’re doing it wrong.