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Ten Screenwriting Tips!

I’m weighed down at work, so I’m continuing to turn over blogging duties to Adam Levenberg. Adam does provide a service, and I provide a link to his site. If one is in the market for a consultant, Adam should certainly be considered. He has good, practical advice and industry experience.

Not everyone will agree with everything he has to say here. (I don’t.) Not all advice is right for all people. Experiences are varied but Adam tells me , “I don't even write the posts; it’s all the unrepped writers I deal with who hand me the content.” Since we are already one month into the New Year, Adam has ten tips for success to think about over the next eleven months.

1) Goal #1 is to learn how to write a movie. Hollywood studios churn out movies for better or worse over 99% of the time. Unrepresented screenwriters achieve this far less than 1% of the time. Here’s the amazing news—If you learn how to write a movie and you have decent creative writing skills, the sky is the limit! My biggest fear when I opened my consulting beyond producers and actors to unrepresented writers is how to handle a client who already had the education of screenwriting down but just lacked a creative spark that made them worthy of passing along to agents. Would I give a refund? What would I say? Shockingly, this has never happened. I truly believe ALL competent creative writers have a spark, it’s the technical shortfalls that hold them back from delivering a competent screenplay.

2) Educate yourself properly and own SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder and 45 MASTER CHARACTERS by Victoria Schmidt. SAVE is a great read from cover to cover, 45 is more of a resource tool to keep on the shelf. These books prove character and structure are NOT opportunities to express your creativity. Save that for situations and dialogue. After being around 10 years in development, I learned from both of these sources and find the breakdown of information more user friendly than others which bury great info under hundreds of unnecessary pages. The problem with reading most books or attending a conference is that the education is 100% passive. Many writers treat this stuff like they’re perusing a People Magazine, like it’s food for thought—until they turn the page and forget everything they read. Whether you like Snyder’s beat sheet or some hybrid of various methods, You should know the beats of your favored structure by MEMORY. And don’t ever read another book on screenwriting without a pen to circle your favorite parts or things you don’t understand and need to research further. Also, don’t tie new learning directly to your old screenplays. I know many writers who read a book or attend lectures and think backwards, constantly evaluating “how can this new information benefit the script I’ve already written?” It’s a totally natural habit, but one you’ve got to break. Learn first, snap out of it when your mind starts to drift to old material.

3) Find an honest consultant and use them. For the record, I appreciate this is self-serving. I also agree with those who think most consultants are liars, frauds, and the rest are well meaning but entirely incompetent. But I’ve never heard anyone say that attending a conference or pitchfest is a waste of money and those are passive—you don’t learn anything about YOU. If you can afford it, work with someone NOW before you embark on a new script—hiring an expert is not about making a sale, it’s about learning what you need to find out so you don’t write another script with the same problems as the last. If money is an issue, save up and be ready to hire someone in six months when your next script is done. It’s not Hollywood’s job to give you free feedback and you don’t want to waste a year getting occasional comments from production companies when they pass on your script, or rely on friends, family, or other unrepresented writers. The needs of an unrepresented writer are specific and unique.

4) The Beat Sheet Comes First. A beat sheet is a treatment broken down into the specific structural moments you need to create a film narrative. If you need to start with a formless treatment as a brainstorming activity, go ahead. Do a beat sheet next. You should always know the major beats, the hero’s arc, and how the story ends before jumping in. You should also have several IDEAS OF VALUE in advance (although you’ll come up with more as you write the script).

5) Be willing to NOT move ahead to a screenplay after completing your beat sheet. Some writers need to write 3-5 full beat sheets to find the idea they are excited about and that work. Not all stories are movies. Most aren’t. Yet some writers finish a beat sheet and reflexively jump into a first draft. Don’t. You’re better off writing twenty beat sheet outlines over the next year and waiting until 2011 to pick the best one to take to the next level (a first draft screenplay).

6) Your ticking clock is 3 months for a first draft, six months TOTAL. If you can’t finish the first draft of a screenplay in three months, you don’t know where your movie is going. Dump it. You’re not going to “figure it out” by wasting more time. And if you need to spend another 90 days rewriting, go ahead. Then put it aside. The changes new writers make can take months (if not years) to change less than 10% of the script. That’s not rewriting—that’s TINKERING. Your time is valuable. A script you can’t close in six months is probably not valuable.

7) Page Count Counts. Unless you’re writing a contained thriller like PANIC ROOM, toss any scripts you have that are less than 100 pages. Your first draft can be overwritten because you’ll go back and cut, so don’t be afraid to hit 125, but just don’t send it out until you’ve knocked it down to 110-115. Comedies and horror scripts can be slightly shorter. If you think scripts should be 120 pages or are currently trying to market a 90-page script, I guarantee there are 20 more things about modern day screenwriting you really need to learn before you send out another query letter.

8) Present day reality and a single hero until you get major agency representation. Set it in the United States too. I realize this is an unpopular statement so this one is for my good friends only—if you want to take advantage of it or ignore the rule, go ahead. I don’t tell you not to write period pieces or alternative reality/futuristic scripts because they are not “commercial”. Fuck commerciality. I just know these scripts require expert level writing. Same goes for ensemble pieces. Until you NAIL a great hero and take them through an arc, doing that with several characters is out of your league. If you’re writing a rom-com, favor one character over the other. If you have a passion piece that violates these rules you absolutely “must” write, do it already! Write it in less than six months and move on.

9) Have a source movie to follow for your first draft. Have you ever watched POINT BREAK and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS back to back? How about TRAINING DAY and THE RECRUIT? When you’ve sold a few scripts, you can fly solo. And stop worrying about being “too close” to another movie. I hear that every day from unrepresented writers but never once heard an Oscar nominee or million-dollar superstar be worried their movie was too similar to something else structurally. And take notes when you watch your “buddy movie”, break it down scene by scene on paper to follow for your own outline. By your third draft, it will mutate into something that is barely derivative. Also, watching movies passively isn’t “research” anymore than doing drugs is “experimenting”—experiments and research require HARD DATA. Follow this rule and you’ll at least write something that qualifies as a movie.

10) Fill in the blank. Why do you think you haven’t sold anything before? Take the following reasons off the table—“I haven’t found a great agent” or “My scripts haven’t made it into the right hands.” This may be true, but you’re not going to move forward if you focus on those. Make your own rule for 2010. Don’t make it about success like “I’m going to be represented….” Instead, think about how you can improve yourself and your writing together. I’d bet there’s at least a dozen people reading this who might agree they’d be better off hitting the gym at night for a few weeks and cutting back on their writing time instead of being planted in front of a screen. Maybe reorganize your house, donate everything you don’t use anymore to charity, buy a new rug or lamp, toss out those throw pillows that have been on the couch for the past eight years and get new ones, deal with those piles of stuff stagnantly taking up space because your closets are full of things you never use…Or get in your car and drive to someplace interesting an hour away to reboot your brain. Change your perspective. It might do more for your writing than writing itself!

You can find Adam’s website HERE.

About the Author

Christopher Lockhart is a Hollywood executive, producer and teacher.   For the last 16 years, he has worked within some of the entertainment industry’s most esteemed talent agencies searching through piles of scripts, books, articles, old movies and pitches in search of projects for "A" list actors.   He started at ICM, where he worked with legendary talent agent Ed Limato, ran the Story Department, and facilitated the Agent Trainee Program.  Later he moved to the venerable William Morris Agency, which eventually merged with Endeavor to form WME, the world's largest diversified talent agency, where he currently serves as Story Editor.  He has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.  He has taught at Los Angeles Valley College, UCLA and is currently an adjunct professor in the MFA program at National University.    He is an award winning and Emmy nominated producer with credits that include THE COLLECTOR (2009) and its sequel THE COLLECTION (2012), as well as writing and producing the documentary MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS (2010) for Oprah Winfrey.   He is a member of the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.  He has read over 35,000 scripts throughout his career.  

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