Category Archives: Screenwriting

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)

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 😛