Finding an angle on material

When working with a client, I like to develop their sense of what is interesting about idea, what can be done with it. To do this, we go to the front page of /r/todayilearned, and I ask them which story jumps out to them.

Today client picked this one: TIL the Morton salt company raised the national IQ by 3.5 points when they iodinized salt in America. Iodine is critical for normal neurodevelopment particularly during gestation.

I didn’t think it was much of a story, because who wants to see a period piece about some executive working in a salt factory? Happily, the client liked something more abstract. He said, “I like the idea of someone who makes a product that accidentally does good and how that changes them.”

That’s what I call an angle on material. He wasn’t looking at the boring, mundane details of the tale. He was looking for thematic angle. That opens up the idea substantially. Rather than making it about a salt factory (basically boring) you can look for more imaginative visuals that give you more to play with.

For instance, a drug dealer accidentally develops a drug that makes the world a better place. He ends up on the run from people who want to seize his creation, and he must fight them using whatever crazy visual superpowers the drug gives them a la NEXT or LIMITLESS.

So the next time you’re looking through old news stories, don’t just look at the literal specifics. Ask yourself what a good angle on this idea might be, it may yield a better movie idea that’s more illustrative of what is special about your imagination.

Case study – fixing a script that’s all romance and nothing else.

Tomasino (not his real name) first hired me in 2014. He had me read three of his scripts, which all had what I call the “hopeless romantic problem.” It’s one of the seven types of beginner scripts I run into a lot.

Scripts like this tend to prioritize pathos and urgency of the romance over and beyond the story itself. They tend to read as “emo.”

There’s nothing wrong with romantic scripts, but scripts like this tend to prioritize internal love over a rewarding plot, strong setpieces, or anything visual. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, which you reference, is more about the impossibility of men and women being friends than it is about Harry needing love for the entirety of the story.

I have trouble coming up with a hard fast rubric for what does and doesn’t fall into this category, but if you read a lot of beginner scripts, boy do you know it when you see it.

Tomasino’s scripts were pleasant enough. They had clear characters he plainly gave a shit about, but something was missing. They all had these traits:

  • A lot of talking scenes between two male characters largely defined by their relationships/attitudes towards women.
  • Titles that pertained to stakes which involve getting a girl or not.
  • Drafts more interested in idealizing love than exploring it through any kind of cynicism.

This is a hard problem to fix, because romantics, by nature, are romantic about their take on romance.After writing versions of the same note, I ended up offering a discounted ½ hour of phone coaching to talk to him about it and he took me up on it.

He resurfaced a weeks ago during one of my screenwriting live shows on youtube.

He had upped his game. His characters had edge, his action was internal, and while his enthusiasm for relationships was still present, it augmented the story rather than overshadowed it. I’d love to take credit for his improvement, but really it was all thanks to his two years of focused work and honest self reflection. Still, I had to ask him some questions, and he graciously answered.

What did you get out of phone coaching?

I remember always getting told “Show more… say less… Show more… Say less” and I kept understanding that WRONG, to the point where you insisted a phone conversation take place. In that conversation over the phone, despite my shortcomings as a writer you were pulling so strongly for me, rooting for me and the tone of your voice suggested you wanted me so badly to understand what I was missing. It’s one thing (And a good thing at that) to have somebody read what you’ve written and provide good, honest help but when somebody like you comes along and makes it evident in your feedback that you’d love the writer to succeed.

Did it take you a while to recognize the “hopeless romance” problem?

It took me way too long to recognize the “lovelorn script” issue fully. I focused all my attention on building characters and not enough on plot originality.

How did you feel when you first got the note?

I could grasp it and understand it, but it was hard for me to apply it and I don’t know why. Perhaps it was because I was so surrounded in a particular way of writing, it made it all the more difficult to adapt changes. I wanted to though, and it was just a matter of working on it and re-fining certain things.

How did you overcome it?

What pushed me over the point of overcoming this issue was writing an action driven script. I learned to love descriptions as much if not more than dialogue and learned how fun it was to write conflict. From that point on there was an even split among character and plot progression and the more I applied that thought to my writing, the more I watched my story points (Character/conflict) battle each other for dominance over the other, which I loved.

The haters out there are going to say, “Where’s his success?” “What did he win?” “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” Writing is a process, and often times there are simple fundamental problems that need to be addressed so that people’s work can improved. Still, a switch from always telling to always showing is a quantum leap for a beginner, and what I’m trying to move all my clients to.

The details of this have been fudged to protect client confidentiality. Used with permission.

Glossary of some terms I use


  • Alt: An alternative joke or moment for a script. Example: TED: Great idea… not! (alt) That’s like the opposite of a good idea!
  • Bottom of the scene: Refers to stuff that happens near the beginning of a scene.
  • Call out: Moments where dialogue or action underlines unusual behavior. Could be a mention, or even a character making a dubious expression. (see also: justify)
  • Choreography: Needless description of things that don’t merit it. Example: He opens the box. He takes out a cracker. He lifts it to his lips. He eats the cracker VS He eats a cracker from the box.
  • Conceptual Specificity: Moments in the script that could only be achieved
  • Editorializing: Moments where the script betrays the author’s unvarnished point of view. Example: The two thugs attack Ted, acting real sneaky like all people from Boston are.
  • Externalizing: Taking an abstract idea like “he’s the kind of guy who’s a bully, but a suckup to superiors” and actually demonstrating that behavior in a scene.
  • Fluff: Unnecessary space filler.
  • Function: What the line is literally there to do. Usually a placeholder. Example: TED: I must express that I am the President. And also a caring dad.
  • Justify: A way of explaining unusual behavior. Example: TED: I know it seems unlikely that he’s never used a phone, but you gotta understand, he grew up Amish.
  • Slugline: Another name for scene heading. The things that start with INT. or EXT.
  • Top of the scene: Refers to stuff that happens near the beginning of a scene.  (see also bottom of the scene):
  • Unfilmables: Moments in a script that could on
  • World building: Moments where the script explains the rules and politics of the setting as opposed to advancing the story or characters.

The value of straight answers pt. 2

This is a common conversation for people who work in showbiz:

“Hey man, I heard you lost your job.”

“Yeah, between things right now. If you have any leads?”

“Do you have the UTA job list? I’ll send it to you.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Offering up the job list is literally the least you can do when you can’t actually help someone. The job list is like a metaphor for 90% of the screenwriting advice I see online.

The UTA job list is a list that the United Talent Agency sends out with open positions at entertainment companies. It gets passed around to everyone, and their brother. If you list a “assistant position” at a “boutique talent agency” you will get hundreds of responses.

The list is an illustration of help that represents the least possible effort on the part of the helper while still being marginally better than useless.

The jobless person is really hoping to hear something like, “Hey, you’re my friend. There’s an opening in the MP lit department at my uncle’s company. I’ll set you up with an interview.”

The “helper” is unable or unwilling to offer that kind of assistance, they want to change the subject as quickly as possible while still trying to maintain the appearance of being helpful in case they ever need a favor from the job seeker down the road.

It’s a neat illustration of human nature. No one likes to admit being powerless. It’s why dads struggle mightily to offer relevant showbiz advice, it’s why people say “I’ll see what I can do” instead of “I can’t help you,” it’s why people say that the only way to learn screenwriting is to read screenplays.

Beginners want basic answers, but they rarely get them. If someone asks a question about something like “how many acts should be in my screenplay?” or even “what is a act?” they’ll get 2-3 actual answers and 12 more about how they should think outside the box, not use paint by numbers strategies, how they should “just have fun,” “just write,” or something else in that vein.

The ability to give straight answers is a useful indicator of whether someone knows what they’re talking about. The ability to give answers in someone else’s paradigm is also a good indicator. A dumb atheist can’t answer any questions about the bible. A smart atheist can, and uses their knowledge of the text to buttress their credibility as a serious thinker.

Whether asking for advice or giving it, remember that the best advice is straightforward, direct and actionable. It’s easy to answer a question about screenwriting books by saying they’re all bad, it’s infinitely better to respect the question, cite specific screenwriting books, and then add your own two cents only if you absolutely can’t help it.

Saturday Screenwriting Class

The class would meet Saturdays, time TBD. There would be four 90 minute sessions, and participants would leave the class with a well-structured, forty beat outline.

The class costs $70 dollars. Ideally there’d be between 3-6 people.

I’ve done this once[1] before.

I learned a lot from my first class and am excited to offer it again.[2][3]

CLASS BREAKDOWN Class 1 The three act structure Transposing the same story into multiple settings Filling out a logline. HOMEWORK: Break your idea into a one page synopsis.

Class 2 Analyzing your one page synopsis. Fixing the act breaks. HOMEWORK: Flesh your story out into five pages.

Class 3 Honing the pages. HOMEWORK: Break your story into 40 beats.

Class 4 Preparing outline for your first draft.

Comment if you’re interested.

The map is not the territory – screenwriting rules are only guidelines.

When someone says something like a script should be between 100-120 pages, it will generally cause an argument. It’s useful to remember that these are simply guidelines, and that it’s often more useful to consider why the advice is correct (it forces a useful economy of words, and makes the script more readable to buyers) than to find exceptions to the rule.

Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself. (from wikipedia)

Ideally, we’d have a word in English that meant “something expressed as a rule, but that is in fact a relative guideline used to model reality.” Unfortunately, we don’t. Until then, remember that rules are merely helpful guidelines that are never universally applicable, but often more useful than nothing.

Notes from the test run of my screenwriting class.

So I’ve been teaching a screenwriting class via Google Hangout/video chat.  It’s a four person class, and it lasts for an hour.  It’s the first time I’ve done anything like this, and I’ve learned a lot about how to teach screenwriting and how people approach the writing.

CLASS ONE – Intro to Story
In the first class I assigned the following reading:

The class focused on the nature of story versus world building or genre.  We broke down the movie Avatar, and we focused on telling it in other settings: ex. Jake Sully is a cavalry soldier who must use his dead brother’s reputation to live among the Sioux, Jake Sully is a privateer who inherits his dead brother’s pirate ship, etc.  Students took turns pitching Avatar in different universes, and in doing so explored how the specifics of a story can be shifted from universe to universe.

The homework assignment was to write a logline of their project using a specific structure, writing a handle of their story, and then telling that 200-word version of their story as a western and as a fairy tale.

CLASS TWO – Setpieces and Second Acts

Students brought in their homework.  Overall, they did a very good job.  I noticed something interesting, though: when forced to tell their stories in 200 words, everyone in the class ended up mislabeling the first twelve pages (opening scene to “inciting incident”) with act one and then ended up calling the rest of act one act two, and then short changed their second act.  This prompted a lively discussion about the difference between inciting incident and plot point one (I have to type it up, but basically the inciting incident sets up the premise, the break into act two begins when the protagonist takes decisive action re: that premise).

As every act two was truncated, we then covered the difference between act two pre-midpoint and act two post-midpoint and how to use different thematic tones to differentiate those acts (example: If Act 2a is about trying and failing, act 2b might be about succeeding, but ironically failing anyway).

In reviewing loglines, I found that everyone had a tendency to skip over the visual means used to accomplish the story goals.  This contributed to why the second acts were a little undercooked, and is making me reconsider how I explain second acts in general.

I assigned the following homework to the class:

  • Rewrite three versions of your handle, and tell me which one you think is the best.
  • Rewrite logline and really stress the means part of it.
  • Use your “means” to generate 8 fun visual ideas or setpieces.
  • Create a grid to track things from act to act (more on this later)

All in all, it was a great class with some talented students, and I can’t wait to see what they bring in next week!