Category Archives: Purpose Quest

7 Short Film Screenwriting Tips & Other Life Lessons

I just finished taking a six week short film writing course at the magical Hart House and it was the highlight of my week.

For starters, the instructor was legit, with an LA Agent and TV writing credits. Homeboy knew a lot. Not only that, but he was outgoing and personable (can be rare with writers), passionate and eccentric.

The class size was small (6 – 8 people) so it was an intimate environment, with the ability for personal attention. That being said, most of the coaching came from the instructor’s willingness to review work outside of class time.

While I’ve read my share of screenwriting books, the in person format was far more effective likely because we saw real shorts and identified their critical moments and themes.

I can’t believe I waited this long to take a formal writing course – it just goes to show that I wasn’t willing to invest in myself or my dream before. I didn’t believe it. Friends, do me a favour and believe in your dreams. Invest in yourself.

Anyone want to take themselves seriously? Anyone?

7 Ways to Make your Short Film Script even Better

  1. 1. Focus less on the dialogue and more on the visuals. Try to convey world, character and conflict with as little dialogue as possible (this one is tough for me).
  2. Use as many symbols as possible to relate to your theme and key conflict, including but not limited to: the weather, a colour and its meaning, a name, an object and much more.
  3. The inciting incident that propels the action forward should happen on page 1
  4. The action should happen quickly with one scene per page. Each scene can be in the same location with the same characters, but a mini conflict happens to shift the balance/power and move forward.
  5. Weave positive and negative moments through the script. The moments can be a visual image and are not restricted to dialogue from the actors.
  6. 2-3 distinct crisis points precede the climax. Did you know that? Because I sure didn’t. In fact, a whole series of mini conflicts build up to it; everything adds tension.
  7. The climax does not have to be a larger than life, overwrought, dramatic moment. It can be understated and still have meaning.

I got stuck on my feature (still am) but now have 3 short film scripts in development (still challenging to get them just right). Writing shorts was so personally freeing for me – anything goes (not that mine are too outlandish), but you get to create worlds and characters around any one moment in time.

Maybe I’ll hate them a week from now but they gave me the confidence to integrate writing into my life more than once a week and to simply try and fail and experiment and write.

If you’ve bitten off more than you can chew, try setting a smaller more attainable goal first to build your confidence and skills.

What single action did you take in 2012 to get your mojo going?


PS here’s another helpful article on how to write great short film scripts from Raindance Canada.

PPS here is the next screenwriting course offered at Hart House in February

Why choosing to be a screenwriter is crazy, plus helpful resources to get you through

At the beginning of April I attended the Toronto Screenwriting Conference (in its 3rd year) thanks to a post I saw the week before on Sandy Braz’s lovely blog . It was a great event with speakers including Graham Yost (Speed, Justified), Jana Sinyor (Being Erica), Lee Aronsohn (Two and a Half Men, Big Bang), Linwood Boomer (Malcolm in the Middle) and so many more.

Every molecule of my body was engaged during the sessions, as I furiously took notes, had light bulb moments and felt energized (despite being exhausted from the work week). Contrast that to when I was in Business School and felt lethargic, bored or anxious/sick during many lectures and tests. I think I’m on the right track now, although I’m sure those business skills will come in handy here.

I think I’m drawn to the industry because of my desire to make sense of humanity and my own experience (the curious kid who asks Why). This motivation was echoed by several speakers, although it was ironic to hear so many of them curse the craft of writing – as in they hate their jobs (even though they admit it is one of the best gigs in the world). Who hates their passion? I don’t want to do what I love and then end up hating it. PS Penelope Trunk recently gave her view on “passionate” careers and what you need to be happy in the workplace.

One of my favourite sessions involved the critique of a real sitcom pilot script from the perspective of a production company exec, a network exec, a director and an actor. It was eye opening because there are so many different motivations your script needs to satisfy and entice. The pilot script needed quite a bit of rewriting and I was comforted by the fact that it was written by a really experienced LA screenwriter. Not everything you write will be gold. In fact many successful people have more misses (pilots that don’t get made, shows they get cancelled or no one hears about) than hits – but they keep on going.

Others began their careers acting or performing stand up/improv, which makes sense since they read tons of scripts and learn through observation (directing, producing, casting, writing). For years as I kid I swore up and down that I wanted to act and I wonder, had I seriously pursued it (agent, auditions, roles), would I have eventually ended up yearning for a role behind the scenes? Would I be in this same position, although better connected and experienced? There are many paths to get to the same end result.  Also makes me wonder if I should hit the stage again.

Carrie Bradshaw typing on her MAC_Sex and the City_A writer's life

Carrie made writing seem easy & fashionable. I couldn’t help but wonder…is this crazy!?

I have 3 pending posts with tips culled from this event, but before posting those I want to tell you why:

7 reasons why screenwriting is totally batsh*t crazy

  1. First of all you have to have some real talent – you can study but you can’t hide behind that forever. Was I born with this gift? Jury is still out…
  2. The competitive pool of aspiring writers is huge and there aren’t that many jobs. It takes 1000’s of people to make a corporation run but most shows only have 1-2 creators, and 3 – 10 writers. That means you have to be ahead of the game, connected, constantly honing your craft. The odds are not in your favour. Do I have the energy, drive and self belief to compete in survival of the fittest?
  3. You have to inject yourself into your work – it is personal. You have to have something to say, always. Do I want to expose my life and the inner workings of my mind/values?
  4. You have to face the rejection of your personal creation. And not give up if you believe it is a worthwhile project. HUSTLE! Once it is made, there will always be people who did not like it.
  5. You don’t make good money for a long time (if ever). The work is inconsistent, with downtime between projects and lots of unpredictability. Relocation is likely and the hours are so very long! Can I handle the uncertainty and stop comparing myself to others who have more?
  6. Work life balance seems like a fairy tale concept. With a tendency to be un-balanced, will I end up single, childless, friendless and unhealthy because of my career?
  7. The industry is more political than the original corporation I worked for. It seems like an old boy’s club still. Can I live according to my own values (be yourself, don’t be fake, play fair and square) and still succeed?

I don’t have those answers yet and I won’t know unless I experience it.  Am I a masochist then?  They say the things in life that are worth it don’t come easy.

PS: if you are an aspiring Toronto area film maker, the Innoversity Creative Summit is in May. I’ll be there, will you? It isn’t as expensive as the TSC and seems interesting. Also Raindance Canada (which has international branches) is a good organization to be a part of. Plus Ink Drinks.

Page Count: 45 pages…my laptop finally crashed this weekend hence no pages this week 🙁 although its been dying for the past 3 months. Prob going to switch to MAC so when people see me they assume I’m creative 😛

Stare your dream in the face and answer these 3 Questions

Just like with a hot guy at a bar, it is tempting to break eye contact if you feel unworthy of the gaze.

Since I was younger I’ve wanted to impact the world in a profound way. I thought acting was the ticket but over the last 7 years the “How” became very blurry.

There are so many ways to impact the world, whether it is through Thought Leadership and Innovation in the business world, scientific discoveries, not for profit endeavours, arts and entertainment, you name it.

Q1. So how do you know are chasing the right impact?

Since my screenwriting revelation in February, I’ve been less focused on managing my professional career at lightning speed and aware of the risk in doing so, essentially balancing two different balls in the air.

Meanwhile, my peers are launching start-ups, getting promoted to managerial roles, relocating for kick ass jobs and pursuing professional designations. Given my business background and experience, screenwriting isn’t the easiest road to strut down (meow).

I sometimes feel a pang (damn that masochistic comparison tendency). I wonder what it would be like to do <that>. I feel like I am lagging behind.

I think it all comes down to that little whisper in your head.

It’s hard not to get swept away by everyone else’s whispering voices. Sometimes yours won’t come with a 10 point justification list. Just like the reason behind that “in-love” feeling you get with that one person – it speaks to your soul (yes I just said that). Once you recognize the whisper you have a greater chance of being the Steve Jobs of your domain.

Q2. What about your dream gets you REVVED UP (Austin says ya baby)?

The therapy of writing down thoughts, trying to understand the world and humanity, finding depth and light in all of it, creating art, and providing emotional impact in 1 minute, 30 minutes, 60 or 120 minutes TURNS ME ON like Donkey Kong Ryan Gosling.

Take a “time out” to really think about this.

3. If you only recently heard the whisper, does that mean your dream is just a passing whim?

I worry that writing is my fall back for acting, the second in line for the throne, the easiest gal in the bar.

But really there are multiple entry ways into the same goal. It just wasn’t on my radar before or within my realm of possibility. The same can be said for producing, which fits my resume and may be an easier, trap door to use.

Kristin Wiig as Annie in her crap car in Bridesmaids

Embrace your mode of transport - just make sure you can see clearly ahead

Your tunnel vision may have been focusing on the most literal, most visible execution, even if it didn’t play to your strengths or experience.

Once you lift the blindfold and gaze at this new open road, you may be tempted to give yourself a flat tire with 1,000,001reasons why you are not capable of the drive. Exhibit A:

My life has been so uneventful and boring, what could I write about that others would find interesting? I never went to film school. I don’t want to expose my soul through writing and be judged. I’m scared to go inside myself. I don’t want to be a starving artist. I don’t know where to begin.

You may feel unqualified/terrified behind the wheel. As long as you aren't a virgin, you're better off than Cher. Just kidding!

Call Roadside Assistance and Rear End your inner meanie

Look, you can talk yourself out of anything.

You probably won’t be great in the beginning but practice and persistence pay off. And even if you pursue a totally different direction in the end (like Michelle at When I Grow Up Coach), you’ll be richer in experience and perspective, which will serve you well if you let it.

Sometimes you need to let yourself veer off course if it feels right and see what is there.

4 lessons TIFF taught me about storytelling

The Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best

This year I changed my strategy with respect to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Instead of paying more for a blockbuster movie with big stars and no Q&A, I decided to seek out first features with a similar premise to the one I want to write (there’s nothing like a coming of age story).

I ended up seeing two (next year I’m splurging on the 10 movie pass) and really enjoyed the Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best by Ryan O’Nan who wrote, directed and acted in his first feature. Essentially it is about Alex, a 20 something guy who is down on his luck and ready to give up on his music dreams. He agrees to go on a road trip with a virtual stranger, with nothing left to lose and discovers himself.

The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best Poster Art

Footie Pj's! Primary colours! This poster makes me want to learn the story

1. Use kids in the present instead of flashbacks

I am sort of obsessed with the concept of who I am today relative to who I was as a child and who I thought I would be at 25 (as a child). I was thinking of using flashbacks but they can break the flow of a movie. Plus where do you insert them? Is it too literal a device to use i.e. spoon-feeding the audience pivotal info from the past, without letting them imagine the scenario for themselves?

Ryan actually used kids within the present storyline and had them interact with Alex to showcase the juxtaposition between childhood fearlessness and innocence relative to adult hopelessness and baggage. Alex was still a grown child in many ways who hadn’t hit his stride in adulthood. Near the end, Alex speaks the same language as his nephew (a mini me) and they ultimately help each other.

2.  Use music to give your movie soul

Ryan is also a real life punk musician and was inspired by a small group who used children’s musical instruments (rainbow xylophone) in partnership with broody, solo folk guitar (Alex and his side kick did just that).  What emerged was a balanced and unique sound that enhanced the dreamy and quirky feel and kept the energy and pacing up.

While music was more central to this storyline than my own, it made me wonder how to use music to enhance the feel, without necessarily relying on mainstream artists/songs to do it. Music = Soul.

3. Add intrigue to the set up and make the stakes high

The opening scene had Alex crying in a bathroom stall, while holding a letter, which he carried with him throughout the film. Who is it from and what does it say?

Eventually you find out it is from an ex-girl friend, whom we never see, the exact words never revealed.  My inclination is to expose all the pivotal characters and details, which isn’t necessary to keep the story moving.

So Alex was dumped by his girl friend and original music partner, played gigs for crowds of two, got fired from his day job and was banned from the school board (don’t ask). I almost couldn’t take the overkill drama, which I also felt for Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids. Enough already, we get it! Your life sucks!

But actually it really does make you care about the “hero” or “underdog” – you want to see them bounce back and the audience has a plethora of plights to relate to. I’m now rethinking my main character, who is dissatisfied with what looks to be a pretty good life. I might add more drama and tension to raise the stakes.

A cast photo for the Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best at the Toronto International Film Festival

Congratulated Ryan (in gray) outside the theatre. I want to do that!

4. Help the audience overlook story flaws with passion and a soulful performance

There were some farfetched or overly quirky moments in the movie that made me want to roll my eyes or had me questioning the realism of it all. All was forgotten though, mainly because Alex and team were so committed to the journey.

During the Q&A, every member of the cast and crew commented on Ryan’s passion for the project and how it
enticed them to get onboard and become emotionally involved.

This is true for any entrepreneurial venture. Don’t get involved unless you are bursting to get out of bed and work on your baby. I’m not sure my current story outline does that for me – maybe that’s why I’m stalling so much.

In your opinion, what adds to a great movie going experience?

You decided to Quit. Now what? Why 9 to 5 may still work for you

You frequently have the urge to stab your eyes out while sitting at your desk. It is an effort to pretend to feel alert and engaged (especially during boring meetings). Something is gnawing at the pit of your stomach each day when you walk into work (Darth Vader’s theme song plays). A voice whispers in your ear (on repeat): “You were made for greater things. This is not your destiny.”

The good news is, you are self aware enough and brave enough to know you need to make a change. But how drastic should it be? Do you even know what that “something greater” is?

If not, figure it out above all else and put your notions to the test because chances are, you’ve buried your dream under the pyramids in Egypt, and even Indiana Jones is scratching his head.

I thought I knew what I wanted to do next when I realized I had to dig deeper and delete limiting beliefs. Determining your dream before you quit is ideal but it wasn’t the case for me. I needed a clear head and plenty of time on my own to determine my calling. And if that is the case for you, EMBRACE IT.

Let’s assume you found your dream before quitting. Should you immediately start working towards it full-time or should you take another day job and work towards your dream on the side?

It isn’t an easy choice and you may feel that Option B means you are a cop-out, a sell out, or a pussy (at least that is how I felt).  Well I’m here to tell you that it is OKAY TO TAKE A SMALLER LEAP as long as it will take you closer to your ultimate dream.

Life is not black and white – there are many factors at play and many ways to move from point A to B. ULTIMATELY, YOU NEED TO FEEL READY to take the PLUNGE. You can increase your chance of escaping the cubicle forever by doing these things before you quit:

1.       Plan to NOT look for a new 9 to 5 job: Sounds like a no brainer but if you haven’t mulled over and committed to working on your own (whatever sacrifices that entails) or giving yourself 6 months of free time, you will get sucked into the “OMG. I HAVE TO FIND A NEW JOB” panic and spend a lot of energy on a new search. This is easier to do when you know your dream. Mentally prepare yourself and others with respect to your next move. Don’t just think “I need to get out”. Think about where you will go next and WHY. Then plan.

2.       Develop a personal source of income before quitting: Identify skills you can monetize (i.e. freelance writing, marketing) and begin to solicit your services for free or minor pay, while you are working, in order to build a portfolio. The income stream doesn’t have to be related to your BIG DREAM but it can give you more time freedom to pursue your dream.

Jet Blue Flight Attendant set a new record for dramatic exits. Try not to let it get to this point before you quit.


1.       How do you feel about spending most of your time at home and with limited social interaction with the outside world? The extent of this will vary based on your own situation.

2.       How much money are you comfortable making? Can you handle a drop in savings? Are you willing to sacrifice your current lifestyle? What future costs will you be faced with when you achieve your dream and do you think you have enough to weather them?

3.       Do you prefer to test out your dream on the side before committing 100%? Admittedly, this desire may be due to a lack of confidence or conviction in your dream (perhaps you haven’t proven your skills or talent to yourself yet).

4.       How important is a strong sense of purpose to you in the short term and what would give you more: Being an employed person, in a job you can tolerate, while working on your dream OR working on your dream full-time?

5.       How quickly do you want to achieve your dream and will having 100% disposable time make you achieve you dream faster? Ironically, I tend to be more disciplined and produce more quality work when I am under the gun with limited time. If I have lots of extra time, I’ll use all that time to complete the task i.e. I’ll waste time.

My answers to the above made me feel that working in a new job was the right next step for me. I am currently managing relationships with broadcasters for a Canadian service, similar but different to Hulu.

EVALUATE EACH NEW JOB LIKE A POTENTIAL MATE: will it fulfill your needs?

So you’ve decided to apply for new jobs. Be picky and put some criteria around your search.

  • Will the new job help you learn “the business” of your dream? If yes, apply! Can you find a job that will help you learn the commercial side of your dream? Even creative professions like movies and TV need to make money to flourish. If yes, apply!
  • Will the new job help you prove your passion for the industry? If yes, apply! If you are planning to apply to a program like me, gaining relevant work experience can show your commitment and determination. Look at your past experience and education and see what position you could take on that will bring you one step closer to your dream.  It could even be a volunteer position or side project.
  • Does the new office environment match your personal preferences? If yes, seriously consider it! I grilled the interviewers about the culture and values (team and company). I assessed whether I could see myself liking, trusting and getting along with my coworkers.  If the day to day is unbearable and you aren’t having fun, you may feel less motivated and energized which could impact progress on your dream.
  • When you received the offer, did the timing and your gut make you feel like you should take the deal? If something in you says take the deal (not your fear talking), then take it!

o   Was there a pattern in the opportunities you got call backs for? After applying for many jobs, I was first offered a free internship in TV and then a paid gig in TV. TV was the pattern and the fact that I also wanted to work in TV made me feel like the universe was speaking to me.

o   Imagine doing something during the hiring process to jeopardize your progress.  How would that make you feel? In my case, I thought I had truly sabotaged my chances during my interview by referencing my blog when the top post was inappropriate for a recruiter. I instantly regretted opening my mouth and thought all was lost. This made me feel more “happy” surprised when I received the offer and more likely to accept it!

o   Run the opportunity by someone who is living your dream job. Do they think it would be a good next move for you? I connected with a local HBO writer who encouraged me to take the job.

o   Are other signs at work? I ran into an old colleague of mine from a 2007 internship at an art event after I had applied to this company. He told me he worked there but I never followed up. A month later during my second interview, I saw him in the office on my very team (30 person team versus thousands of company employees). I thought that was interesting.


Remember that sometimes we take something/someone on with a specific intention or expectation and we end up getting something quite different out of it (a lesson learned or a different but still positive outcome).

You quit before and you can quit again. You want to give this new job a fair chance, do well and you don’t want to burn any bridges. Ultimately though, it is up to you to know when to pull the plug again. Have a little faith.

AND THEN GO STREAKING (metaphorically speaking).