Category Archives: Screenwriting

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 Girls is the most authentic show on TV: Season 1 Review

I finally caught up on the full season 1 of Girls this week. Like most of the world, I started off hating it; a lot darker and less relatable than I expected. I gave it a shot, however, seeing that Lena Dunham achieved my life dream before I ever will.

The fact that it is a half hour dark comedy speaks to time pressed Gen Y; even the format of the show is innovative and tuned to its demographic.

If you are a Girls virgin, here is what you need to know: Aspiring writer Hannah gets financially cut off from her parents, who had previously funded her life in Brooklyn, New York. Left to her own devices, she and her friends navigate their twenties, “one mistake at a time”.  Based loosely on Sex and the City, with a focus on careers, friendships and growing up, we meet Shoshanna (a naive virgin), Marnie (Miss Perfect) and Jessa (rebellious bohemian nomad). SPOILER ALERT AHEAD!

15 Plot Points that make Girls the most Authentic Show on TV (at least for Gen Y)

  1. The normal looking main character: for once we see an average woman on TV. Not only is she chunky, but her face is pretty basic too (unlike Plus Size model types). She seems to purposely avoid makeup and wear unflattering clothing (or no clothing) to hit you in the face with this statement. For the record, I do find Lena attractive, especially her real world appearances.
  2. The portrayal of an only child: I have never seen this character trait displayed so prominently in the plot before. Being an only child really does colour a personality (I would know). PS the main character in my screenplay is also an only child.
  3. Money discussions: People don’t seem to discuss financial difficulties much in real life or on TV. Hannah’s financial strife really drove a major story arc.
  4. A sense of entitlement: I admit that Gen Y is a bit more coddled than generations past. We believe in dreams and doing what we love and we want it now.  Girls puts this belief system center stage.
  5. Being late for your own abortion: a really unique and unexpected ending to the episode where Jessa discovers she is pregnant and fails to show up at the clinic. PS unexpected pregnancy is a Top 5 fear of mine.
  6. Gross Sex: Hannah’s parents and Hannah herself get involved in some eye brow raising sex scenes. I felt like a fly on the wall (do people really do that?) and we rarely see old people f*cking.
  7. Marnie’s character: not only because she is me (ha) but because she is Charlotte amplified: risk averse, tightly wound, beautiful, responsible and unhappy.
  8. Marnie masturbation at work: a brave and unexpected portrayal of something that happens.
  9. The end of Marnie’s relationship: The 4 or 5 year mark in a relationship is critical, especially when you start dating young. Marnie and Charlie were going through the motions, but she wasn’t committed to ending things. In real life, relationships can just run out of steam – they aren’t always broken by cheating, distance, family drama, drug abuse etc. I could relate to this portrayal.
  10. The Break Up After Math: We get to see Marnie vulnerable: she looks gross, pities herself and stalks Charlie on facebook (for once social media is mentioned/shown on TV). She is shocked to learn that he has moved on after 2 short weeks. She shares this ludicrous finding with anyone who will listen.
  11. Texting: how often do you see characters checking their cell phones for texts? What’s that you say, never? Such a simple way to portray the realities of 20 something life.
  12. Impromptu dance party: when Marnie and Hannah dance together at the end of an episode, my heart sang. Us Girls really do randomly dance around a room sometimes (light and fun).
  13. Real Girl Shit: Female friendships can be marred by resentment and jealousy that build up over time, slowly poisoning the bond. Marnie talked shit behind Hannah’s back until she exploded, which led to hurtful insults and assessments.  We’ve all lost a friend the hard way and this break up felt worse than Marnie and Charlie.
  14. Comparison / Passive Aggressive Dialogue: I loved the opening scene of Episode 9, where Hannah and her former classmate (turned famous author) exchange passive aggressive dialogue. It is so difficult watching someone else live your dream, especially when they seem less deserving. In the age of facebook, it is easier than ever to feel like shit about yourself.
  15. Adam and Hannah: I love and hate their dynamic.  His personality is pretty bizarre and complex but I suppose it is possible for someone like him to exist. I hated seeing Hannah settle for less than she deserved and acting the fool. That being said, I liked watching them evolve throughout the whole season; normally TV dating lasts a handful of episodes and doesn’t seem so real.
The cast of HBO series Girls

As Enrqiue says: “let me be your (writer)”.

Now onto the…

8 Plot Points that Hampered Girls Season 1 Ability to Deliver a Fully Honest Story

  1. Jessa: seems too wooden and unreal with her too cool for school personality and back story. A spark of realness shone through in Episode 8, when she bonded with Marnie for the first time.
  2. Shoshanna: why is she treated like an accessory? She is so good! Why is her only goal to have sex? What about her other ambitions? Why are Hannah and Marnie friends with her, beyond her relation to Jessa? She seems too one dimensional.
  3. Hannah’s job interview: she made a rapist joke about her interviewer in the interview. I know the show is about making mistakes but sometimes it seems too heavy handed.
  4. The crack party: it seemed extreme and out of character for Shoshanna to randomly smoke someone else’s crack at the warehouse party. On a side note, the whole subject of trying crack was treated very lightly.
  5. Jessa’s Wedding: I know she is impulsive and all but a wedding after two weeks? Yay for Chris O’Dowd.
  6. Marnie’s final kiss: I didn’t buy Marnie’s attraction to the wedding officiant. Not just because of how he looked…maybe she had too much champagne, felt weird seeing Charlie and lonely, but still…
  7. Does everyone in this series have to be white and Jewish? Just wondering…it is New York after all.

I am looking forward to Season 2 – each episode is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you are going to get. And every episode is painted with a pulsing energy that makes it impossible to turn away.

So tell me, what did you think about Girls? Will you watch Season 2?

8 Secrets revealed about your favourite TV SHOWS

On Malcolm in the Middle, Cybill, Grace Under Fire, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Flash Point, Full House and Murphy Brown. The final post of what I learned at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference!

Turn your pain into comedy

  • Malcolm in the Middle, created by Linwood Boomer, was born from his unhappy childhood characterized by dismissive parents and loneliness
    • While Linwood thought it could be a boring drama, coworkers felt comedy was there
    • The device of the child speaking direct to the camera was critical since it allowed him to no longer be alone (made it light and purposeful)
    • Shot in a warm visual style to contrast the frosty family dynamics; if the TV was on mute it should look like a fuzzy family sitcom, Full House styles

 

Choose your lead actors wisely so they don’t self destruct with your show

  • Cybil Shephard grew jealous of her co-star Christine Baranski, who earned attention and acclaim, and ordered the writers to stop writing strong material for Christine.
  • Brett Butler (Grace) had paranoia issues which paralyzed Grace Under Fire.

 

The Sliding doors of Hollywood

  • The Big Bang Theory was shot with two different pilots featuring two different “Penny’s”
    • Kaylee Cuoco provided a softer character and therefore a foil to the harsh Sheldon
    • The only difference between Leonard and Sheldon’s characters at the pilot stage was that unlike Sheldon, Leonard would be interested in girls
    • The actors and their strengths were used to build the show’s characters (Kaylee made Penny smarter, Sheldon was great at memorizing and delivering many lines)
  • When Charlie Sheen left Two and a Half Men, Hugh Grant was originally in talks to replace him. He didn’t want to take the risk of maintaining the show’s success.
    • Ashton Kutcher stepped in and the character was based on his real life personality (tech and social media savvy)

Could you picture a different Penny?

The many secrets of Flashpoint

  • The concept was inspired by a news story about a hostage in Toronto’s Union Station, the premise being “what is the human cost of heroism?”
  • The creators initially pitched their drama as a movie of the week and were asked to turn it into a pilot in 10 short days
  • They created a new procedural drama format by opening with the key action scene, moving backwards to the lead up and then bringing the story forward at the end
    • A procedural is a term to characterize a law, medical or police/fbi drama with a similar beginning/middle and end, but a unique stand alone key story each week

 

A wholesome show can have a filthy writing room

  • Apparently the writing room for Full House was very competitive (instead of collaborative) and crude about the show characters

Sexual Tension unfulfilled is a great writing device

  • The idea is to drag the tension out as long as humanly possible because it fuels better story lines. Once the relationship is satiated, as was the case with Murphy Brown, you get some courtship, some conflict, a marriage and a baby and it can be challenging to continue

What are your favourite TV shows – past or present?

How to Pitch Your Show to Network Execs & Producers

This post is from the Toronto Screenwriting Conference: Part Deux (long overdue), all about how to give a successful pitch to a production company – before, during and after the pitch.

The tips are courtesy of Robin Gurney at Imagine Television and first hand experiences from Jana Sinyor (Being Erica), Greg Spottiswood (King), Martin Gero (LA Complex), Mark Ellis and Stephanie Morgenstern (Flashpoint).

While I am far from this stage, it was motivating to see what lies ahead and feel prepared for it. I believe the core of these tips can be applied if you are pitching a new business concept to investors or potential partners. Or if you are pitching yourself to take on a specific gig or specific client. Add your pitch and sales tips in the comments below!

Before the Pitch

  • Some production companies will only see you if you are represented by an agent
  • For your pitch, prepare a paragraph or single scene, rather than a full script; a verbal pitch has more potential
  • Don’t overdevelop the concept: If a show is too far along in development, it becomes difficult for a production exec to influence core elements, which hinders their attachment to the project and ultimately their ability to sell it to networks

Reese knew a thing or two about pitching herself

At the Pitch

  • Be prepared to speak for 17 – 20 minutes (it is a conversation)
  • Explain why your story is relevant, different and authentic
  • Don’t be afraid to use visual aids i.e. a character board or props
  • For a character driven series, have all character arcs for Season 1 mapped out
  • During a pitch, resist leaving a one pager behind because you miss the opportunity of tailoring the one pager to the conversation with the producer

 

After the Pitch when there is interest

  • Is the production company a match? What type of shows do they make?  What network relationships do they have? Story style? Production value?
  • If you are a novice writer, co-appoint someone with complementary skills and more experience to run your show so you don’t get removed from the production process or get matched with someone who does not share your vision
  • When a deal is on the table, consult a lawyer and lay out very specific terms to ensure you get what you want. Know when to walk away.

 

On Taking Network Notes

  • Network exec will consider how your show will be programmed (channel, genre, length)
  • A sticking point with a network exec may seem like a minute detail (inconsequential)
    • If you are going to throw a fit, make sure the right people are in the room
  • No notes are typically a bad sign; indicates the network exec didn’t feel rewrites would be worth the effort
  • Look for the subtext within notes, as opposed to the solution provided by the exec – they are usually onto something. If you feel defensive, they really are onto something.

Writing Update:  After reading The Moral Premise, I’ve decided to spend more time re-working the inner motivations of my characters, changing some back story details, which will change existing scenes (some will be removed, others altered). While this will delay screenplay completion, I have to slog through the tough questions and decisions to pick a strong direction whereby all roads lead to Rome (everything connects).

19 Expert tips on writing great stories for Film & TV

The below is a compilation of screenwriting advice from all the sessions I attended at the 2012 Toronto Screenwriting Conference. Since my screenwriting education thus far consists of Syd Field’s Screenplay and Save the Cat I found a lot of tidbits useful – I hope you learn at least 1 new thing about the art of storytelling.

On Story Creation

1. What question are you answering? For example, Flashpoint answers “what is the human cost of heroism?”

  • Man vs. Man B) Man vs. Himself C) Man vs. Animal D) Man vs. Nature E) Man vs. Tech F) Man vs. Society

2.  Ground your story in reality, to make it universal and therefore able to connect with viewers on an emotional level

3.  It’s all about the passion. You have to feel it, as does your producer and everyone else involved in the process

On Structure

4.  Every Scene is a microcosm of the overall story; never repeat yourself scene to scene (Patricia Rozema, Screenplay Adaptation for Grey Gardens)

5.  Narration is a crutch to be used only with caution (Graham Yost, Creator of Justified)

On Character Development

6.  Your character’s introduction scene should tell you everything you need to know about them (Graham Yost)

7.  Get to know your character, specifically who and how do they love? (Patricia Rozema)

Graham Yost at Justified Premiere on FX

After a stint in kids TV, Graham Yost shot to fame with "Speed"

On pilot writing

8.   You should know which character is delivering a line, even when the name is blanked out. The personalities should be that different, which is key for conflict and drama (Brian Roberts, sitcom director)

9.  You shouldn’t vilify your main characters or introduce too many flaws too quickly, since your audience needs to empathize and root for them in order to tune in week to week (Stephanie Morgenstern and Mark Ellis, creators of Flashpoint)

On Series writing

10.  Your first 13 episodes should be written as a pilot. Assume new viewers will tune in each week who need to be blown away, while still understanding what is going on

11.  You need to be consistent week to week in order to make it easy for viewers to choose your show based on their mood (i.e. if your show is funny, viewers who want to laugh will watch). If your show is a mixed bag (sometimes dark, deep, scary, sometimes light and fun), it may not get chosen because the payoff to the viewer is uncertain.

12.  Don’t break the pact you’ve made with your audience by discarding key characters or show elements that made your series a hit to begin with (Jana Sinyor, Creator of Being Erica – on all of the above)

On Comedy writing

13.  Be mindful of your ideal set design and ensure it allows for multiple entries, exits and flow from room to room. What are your characters doing in a long scene with many players, some of which are not talking for quite some time?

14.  Try to “bury the pipe” in a pilot, which means to deliver character and back story in a way that gets laughs and isn’t just obvious exposition and fact sharing.

15.  In multi-camera comedies the rule is 3 jokes per page. Get to the punch line quick.

16.  Avoid reference jokes (i.e. pop culture, political jokes) because if the audience isn’t aware of who/what you are referring to, they won’t get the joke (Brian Roberts, Sitcom Director – all of the above)

On getting noticed

17. Write a great pilot; it will circulate and get read plus your agent can call producers with a potentially sellable product (Robyn Gurney, producer at Imagine Television)

18.  You’ll rarely get hired for the show that you write a spec script for (Linwood Boomer, Creator Malcolm in the Middle)

19.  As a new writer in an established writing room, have the confidence to listen and keep quiet so you get a feel for the existing dynamics, needs and etiquette of the room (Lee Aronsohn, co-creator Two and a Half Men)

Please share your storytelling tips in the comments!

Page Count: 52 pages (working on a borrowed MAC)