Monday, April 16, 2007


I've been away for a long time. I've been busy. Heydon Park, if you still exist, this one's for you.

Heydon Park writes... "What do you think of flashbacks? Some readers say they hate them and dump a script soon as they see one, others say they are acceptable depending on the story. Same for Voice Overs. I'm not taking a poll or anything but reading your posts, you seem to have some genuine insight that's not been twisted out of shape by cynicism and bitterness. And that seems to make you a rare reader indeed. thx, heydon park"

Years ago I was sitting next to a playwright named Lanford Wilson taking a playwriting class at a theater that has since gone bankrupt. When one of the students asked Lanford what he thought of using imagery in a stage play the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright said rather disgruntledly, "Imagery? Fuck imagery. It doesn't get you anywhere..." Then he added, a bit more glowingly, "...Unless you're going somewhere."

I think much the same can be said for both flashbacks and voice overs. They have to be taking you somewhere. They need to follow their own specific trajectory and have not only a solid beginning, middle and end, but also be intricately connected and provide insight into the growth of your main character as well as illuminate theme. The rule I heard years ago, and have found to be true, is when considering the voice over or flashbacks in a script you must ask yourself not only if the story can still stand on its own if they were pulled out, but what emotional, structural or thematic layers would be lost by their removal.

Two Kevin Spacey movies pop into mind. American Beauty and The Usual Suspects. Both heavily employ the use of flashbacks and voice over to tell their narrative. In both movies both techniques work incredibly well. Why is that? Because both the techniques in those movies tie directly into the major dramatic question of each movie. And they directly relate to the objectives and thematic state of each of the main characters. In Suspects, the flashback is a fable constructed by the main character in order to get away from the police. But what makes it thoroughly integrated is that the fable is created from elements in the cop's office in the present day storyline. And the flashback itself, like the persona of the main character, turned out to be an elaborate fantasy, leading us to a thoroughly enjoyable ending reveal of both objective and theme. In American Beauty, much like in Sunset Boulevard, voice over is used as a bookend to establish a flashback that tells us the story of how our main character has wound up dead. In the telling, we not only find out about how he died, but we're shown through the main characters interactions with other characters how he neglected to connect with others emotionally and live a full life. So the voice over and flashback in this story tie not only into the major dramatic question, but also the thematic through line of the piece.

Look, readers hate voice over and flashbacks because novice writers tend to rely on their use as a gimmick, or a slight of hand that does its best to distract the reader from the fact that the story itself is barely there. Readers are jaded from being duped so much by promising but ultimately poorly integrated flashback and voice over techniques. (See my first blog entry about starting with a dream. For the reader, it's pretty much the same key into the level of writing you're about to encounter.) Because you are going to be up against such jaded readers, you have the responsibility to not let them down. You, as a writer, have to honestly ask yourself if the techniques you are using are both furthering the story and adding an emotionally satisfying layer.

Be honest with yourself... When your voice over starts reading like the internal monologue of a character from a novel, it's crap screenwriting... If you're using voice over to comment on your main character's emotional state, and avoiding having your main character reveal character through his actions, choices, and interactions with others while pursuing his objective then it's crap screenwriting... If you're flashing back to a section of the main character's past that doesn't have anything to do with furthering his objective, then it's crap screenwriting... If you have to ask whether or not to keep your voice over and flashbacks, you probably already know the answer. Ask yourself honestly if you can remove the techniques from your story and still have your script pack the same emotional and structural heft... Remember, a reader really wants nothing more than to be able to fully invest in your script. If you knowingly use either of these techniques without doing them to the best of your ability, then you're just going to alienate the reader.

Whether it's voice over, flashbacks, or any of the other myriad of techniques you're debating using, just remember... it's not that you can't use them. It's just that you can't use them badly. Don't let anybody tell you differently.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Anonymous writes… “I'm curious about coverage reports. Say someone foolishly submits a romantic comedy to Wes Craven's prodco. Obviously not a good match, but if the writing and structure are good will it still get recommended?”

I can’t speak for Wes Craven’s company, because I’ve never worked there, but I’ve worked at small production companies before headed by famous actors or directors who usually aren’t involved with the lower level script submissions. Here’s how those companies usually work…

Major and minor agencies and production companies send scripts to the production office. In general, the office has their interns or in-house readers filter through the submissions no matter who they came from. If the reader likes a submission, it moves up to their development guy. If he likes it, it keeps moving up until it hits the president of the company. If he likes it, it moves to the celebrity actor or director for final consideration. If the celebrity likes it, he takes it to the main studio he’s affiliated with and the studio then goes through their own process of deciding whether it’s a worthy project to put into production.

If a company is specifically looking for horror scripts, and a rom com comes in, they’ll still have their intern or reader read it; usually because they have a relationship with the agent or manager who submitted it and they trust their taste in screenplays, or because they’re beginning a relationship with an agency or management company and want to see if they’ll trust their taste in screenplays in the future. Readers, in addition to many other opinions, are usually asked to give their opinion on both the idea of the script in terms of the goal of the company and the writer’s execution of the idea of the script. If it’s brilliantly written, even though it’s in the wrong genre, the reader will say so and it will most likely continue to move up through the ladder of naysayers. But odds are it will never make it to the president of the production company because it’s not a genre that the company is interested in investing in, nor is it a genre that the studio has said they’re interested in funding and distributing, and they don’t want to waste the president’s time having him read something he won't be moving forward. From my experience, what happens then is that the writer’s name will be placed in a file of writers to consider for future projects. If the company ever decides to do a project in that writer’s genre, and yes that writer will be forever categorized as a writer in whatever genre of script that they submitted until they prove themselves otherwise, the writer will be called in to meet with the president or development execs to discuss their take on whatever project the office is working on in their proven genre.

The answer to your question is yes, and no... YES, you, as a writer, can be recommended. And that’s a good thing. Although it probably won’t pay off immediately, it may pay off in the future. You never know who that reader or that development exec will become in the next few years or even months. They may move to another company that is actually interested in rom coms and they might even bring up your name in a meeting where people are throwing out names of writers to call in to be considered for their new rom com book adaptation. Or they may even recommend that the new company read your script and consider it for production… And NO. If a company is looking for a horror script, and they are under the umbrella of a studio who is funding their existence based on the expectation that they’ll be bringing horror projects to the table, then it doesn’t matter at all that your “writing and structure” are good because your product is not what they're currently interested in marketing. You’d be better off targeting companies that are specifically looking for rom coms to develop. Your agent or manager should already be on top of that. If you don’t have an agent or manager, then you should be on top of that yourself.

Is it possible that some horror directors have enough pull with whatever studio they’re connected with to be able to bring a rom com to the table? Of course it’s possible. Anything’s possible. But in practical business terms, it’s not that likely. If anyone out there works for a horror director who has developed a rom com I’d love to hear how that project went. Please feel free to join the discussion.

Monday, August 14, 2006

My comment cherry was broken by a guy calling himself “alwaysright123”. Here’s his comment. And here’s my response. (Oh, and in the future, if anyone has a real question I’d be happy to answer it in a much more nurturing way. I’m here for you. Pick my brain.)

“Wow, that is a very instructive and insightful post. I have a question. Let's say my script opens with 75 consecutive blocks of narrative, my protagonist dies on page 40, and Atreu from Neverending Story makes a cameo on page 109. What are the chances I'll be a working screenwriter? – alwaysright123.”

Fantastic question, alwaysright123. Sounds like a great script. The only problem would be getting Noah Hathaway to commit. For those of you who don’t know, Noah Hathaway played Atreu in the Neverending Story. In later life, he studied and fought Muay Thai boxing, did a few more industry projects, was a Super Sport motorcycle racer, was an LA bartender, got married, got black belts in Tang Su Do and Shotokan, studied American Kenpo, and taught “a close-quarter combat-training course for flight attendants and pilots for the airlines." He now runs a motorcycle chop shop called 5150 Choppers in Miami. With all of that incredible martial arts training and life experience behind him, I’m guessing that considering your imaginary screenplay would not be high on his list of things to do to continue to better himself as a human being.

What are the chances that you’ll be a working screenwriter? Actually, on second thought, why don’t you send your script to Noah and see what he thinks. I’m sure he loves guys like you; smartass wannabes who sit across from him at the bar and make sarcastic Atreu remarks, thinking to themselves that the ability to make early 80’s references is a sign of creative intelligence. (Note to self… Do a blog on why pop culture references and self deprecating humor are the lowest forms of comedy.) Check out Noah’s listing on IMDB. I’m guessing he has more credits than you’ll ever have. Why would I think that? Because by writing a mock comment on this site you’re showing that you’ve obviously not yet chosen to take your craft seriously. You’re still poking at the establishment, mocking the competence of those who have more experience and who are more motivated than you. That sounds like the same sort of behavior that comes out in development meetings when overwhelmed baby writers with potential scoff at the notes of their agents and managers. Not because the notes will hurt the story; on the contrary, actually. Scoffing writers, in my experience, are writers who have a small bit of talent, and a genuine set of brains, but have never taken the time to fully study their craft and push themselves to reach their potential. They soon die a miserable, prolonged death in development hell. And, true to form, they blame everyone else for their project’s failure to move forward.

What are the chances that you’ll be a working screenwriter? Good question. Perhaps instead of tooling around the blogosphere and leaving sophomoric comments on people’s blogs, your time might be better served by pushing yourself to write some solid scripts. You’ll be surprised to see that the harder you push yourself, the less often you’ll think you’re the smartest guy in the room. Delve deeper, alwaysright123. Challenge yourself instead of just challenging others. Until you do, you will never, ever be a working screenwriter.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

There’s nothing more disappointing for a reader than reading a script that starts off with an incredible action sequence, with a strong protagonist in the face of incredible opposition, that winds up to have only been a dream sequence by page three. Readers, development execs, directors and actors are incredibly hungry for passionate writing, and will be pulled into a script immediately if the writing is strong with the expectation that the rest of the script will only build in craft and intensity. It’s almost a given that when that dream sequence reveal pops up on the page, and we find the protagonist is really lying in bed, that the rest of the script is going to suck; and it becomes very hard for the reader not to hurl that script across the room and give it the finger for giving the reader false hope.

When a script starts with an engaging dream, 99 times out of 100 the rest of the script never reaches the same level of intensity and conflict that that dream sequence had. If you’ve started your script off with an action packed, riveting dream sequence, you have to ask yourself why you’re not writing a full feature script based on the idea in the dream sequence. If you have the ability to make those first few pages blow a reader out of the water, you damn well better make the rest of the script move just as well.

Worse, still, are the scripts that start out with a boring dream sequence then shift into the boring waking life of the protagonist, showing him getting out of bed, showering, driving to work, sitting at his desk, and waiting, like the reader, for the movie to start. If you’ve written a script like that you should burn it. Never show it to anyone. If you do show it to someone, and they say they like it, never trust that person’s opinion again. They're probably scared of you. Or they want to have sex with you and are just telling you whatever you want to hear. Or they're just trying to end the conversation with you as quickly as possible because they're looking into the eyes of a tool.