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Creative Screenwriting

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In this third annual Special Agency/Consultant issue, Hollywood Scriptwriter magazine talks with agents, managers, and script consultants about how you can break in. Story Sense founder Michael Ray Brown discusses recent changes in the movie industry and what a writer should look for in a script doctor.

This excerpt from the August of 2006 issue is reprinted here with the permission of Angela M. Cranon, Editor-in-Chief, Hollywood Scriptwriter magazine.

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What is new about the industry that scriptwriters need to know?

The gulf between large-scale, “tent-pole” movies made by the studios and intimate, personal films made by independent producers is growing wider. Screenwriters need to know the market, and write to that market, if they ever hope to sell their work. Even smaller films need to have strong roles that will attract bankable stars, because getting a star usually determines whether a film will be made.

In today’s market is it more or less necessary to have a consultant?

The competition is fiercer now than ever before. Movies cost more to make. Producers are taking fewer risks. They’re looking for any excuse to say, “No.”  If your script isn’t the best thing they’ve read in the past six months, then it won’t stand a chance. If the premise isn’t original, if the plot isn’t bullet-proof, if your characters don’t leap off the page, then your script is doomed. And so could be your chances of a writing career. Having a consultant may not be essential, but it can be an enormous help. A consultant can help you progress faster. A consultant can help you avoid mistakes. Mistakes that can cost you a sale. Mistakes that can torpedo your career.

What makes a quality script worth reading?

Many factors go into making a quality script. It is, after all, a craft as well as an art. You can usually tell within the first few pages if a script is well-written, as it practically glows with a life of its own. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s all in the telling. Everyone’s looking for passion and an original voice, but most of all an ability to tell a story. We want the material to grab us and never let go.

What should a screenwriter do before going to a consultant?

The writer should first get the script as close to perfection as he or she can make it. Don’t go to a consultant with a script that’s half-baked. Don’t expect the consultant to do the work.

When it comes to choosing a consultant, talk with them about how they approach their analyses. Ask to see samples. Visit their Web site. Anybody can call themselves a consultant. There are a lot of inept consultants with poor credentials who will promise you the moon and be glad to take your money.

The writer should also consider what he or she expects from the consultation, and make those desires known. A good consultant will focus on what he or she believes the script needs most, but the writer should also prepare a list of questions.

What are the three top reasons a screenwriter is turned away?

A producer can reject a script for any number of reasons. Chief among these is the lack of a compelling storyline. This usually means the stakes aren’t clear, and there’s inadequate jeopardy for the protagonist. Producers also look for a strong, unified point-of-view that draws the reader into the story. If we can’t identify with any of the characters, it’ll be hard to care about what happens to them. Conflict is also crucial, but a simple pairing of opposites does not a story make. If the writer hasn’t focused that conflict around an objective, then the narrative energy dissipates, the reader loses interest, and the script gets rejected.

I’ve never turned a client away. No matter how ill-formed, misdirected, or amateurishly executed a script may be, I’m always able to find in it the germ of an idea that’s worth developing. Something inspired the writer to commit the time to write it (hopefully something besides a potential paycheck). Sometimes it takes a conversation with the writer before I can arrive at what he or she is trying to say. Then I work with the writer to bring that out in the script.

Name three qualities a consultant should have?

  1. Experience. The consultant should have real-world experience as a professional story analyst or development executive.
  2. Integrity. The consultant should be frank and honest with the writer, even at the risk of offending him or her.
  3. Creativity. The consultant should brainstorm with the writer, contributing ideas to bring out the script’s full potential.

What are the signs a screenwriter has hired the wrong consultant?

Some consultants sound like professors. They’re so pedantic in their approach that their notes leave the writer more confused than enlightened. If their sample analysis reads like a lecture from Screenwriting 101, then it’s clear they haven’t tried to understand the material on its own terms. Most writers need practical suggestions, the more specific the better. A consultant who merely plugs boilerplate statements about screenwriting into their notes won’t provide the individual insight and guidance a writer needs to solve the script’s problems.

Is it getting more or less difficult to make it as a screenwriter?

It seems to be getting harder and harder each year for talent to get recognized. There are more script contests than ever before, but only a handful of them really mean anything to the industry. Just getting a script read by a producer is a major feat, and it’s even more difficult to get an agent to read it. And yet, the market is bigger than ever, particularly in television. A writer who lands a single script assignment on a series may not be able to survive on that income alone, but it’s still an accomplishment. And in many circles, that would constitute “making it.”

We see so many successful movies that are much alike. Is it better to write a script that is similar what has been made, but with a twist, or create something totally different?

Studio executives may claim they’re looking for something entirely different, but what they really want is new wine in old bottles. A completely new concept may stymie the marketing department. With nothing to compare it to, they might have difficulty selling it. Studios want something familiar, but different. Romantic comedies are a case in point. It’s getting harder to write romantic comedies because relationships these days encounter so few external obstacles. A smart writer will put a new spin on a time-tested formula with a role reversal, casting the female lead in the traditional male role of the hunter, and the male in the role of the hunted.

How important is it for a screenplay to be properly formatted?

Formatting is more important than most writers realize. Again, readers are always looking for any reason to say, “No.” If any element of a script departs from the accepted format, the writer runs the risk of being dismissed as amateurish. A truly conscientious reader will overlook such superficial matters and focus on content. However, if your work looks unprofessional, it may not be taken seriously.

That’s why, when I do an in-depth analysis, I flag any formatting errors right on the page. My notes also include a section on formatting, detailing how to bring the script into compliance with standard screenplay format. It’s tailored specifically to that screenplay, and covers only those points where it departs from industry standards. My Web site also features a complete guide to screenplay formatting.

Screenplays follow strict rules. Computers have made a writer’s life easier, but even the smartest scriptwriting software is still quite dumb when it comes to certain formatting rules. These rules evolved during the days when scripts were written by typewriter, and they haven’t changed. Ignore them at your peril.

You’ve run a story department and served as a script reader for seven major studios. How does that affect your work as a consultant?

It’s made me savvier than I might otherwise be. Having worked in the trenches at most of the major studios, I know what producers and studio executives look for in a script. When I consult with writers, I’m able to inform them what it will take for their script to survive coverage.

What separates a great script consultant from a poor one?

Some consultants try to shoehorn every story into a one-size-fits-all movie paradigm. When you read their analysis, it’s as if they’ve gone through the script with a checklist, and reported whether it fits a certain formula. This doesn’t require much thought or understanding on the part of the consultant, and it can lead to a cookie-cutter screenplay devoid of freshness.

My approach is more flexible. My guiding rule is that the script must hold my interest. Every story has its own unique dynamics. What I try to do is identify the theme, analyze how well every story element serves that theme, and then show the writer how to express it more dramatically. I consider myself a mentor and a collaborator. My clients usually come away from a consultation excited by the possibilities. And when they succeed, I feel I’ve succeeded.

Script Consultants Issue #3

Michael Ray Brown, Story Sense