Writing Scripts that Get Made

11/13/2017 12:49 am ET
The Loews Hotel in Santa Monica During the AFM
American Film Market (AFM)
The Loews Hotel in Santa Monica During the AFM

Over 7,000 people flocked to the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica hoping that at least one of the 1,476 buyers from 71 countries would buy their movie.

They were all there for the annual American Film Market (AFM). These buyers and sellers came from different backgrounds and were interested in different kinds of films.

Some wanted horror films, some action/adventure. Others needed a good raunchy comedy to fill out their slate. There were also high-minded dramas for those looking for prestige pictures. Sellers were offering series to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. Why make one movie when you can produce eight episodes or more?

This disparate group differed in many ways but the one common thread and the one thing they agreed on was that it all starts with a great script. A script is the coin of the realm. It’s what attracts actors, directors, financing and, with any luck, an audience.

Responding to the industry’s need for great material, the organizers of the AFM launched its first Writer’s Workshop. They reached out to several of the top scriptwriting teachers from the premier film schools, USC and UCLA, as well as writing consultants. These seasoned pros know the ins and outs of a making a good script great. Over 400 people flocked to the four sessions hoping to glean some wisdom that will help them bring their tales to the screen.

Pilar Alessandra was up first. Her expertise as a consultant focuses on how to help writers fine-tune their scripts so that the readers will be hooked “at page one,” she said.

Alessandra draws from what she learned as a story analyst at Dreamworks and several other studios and at production companies before branching out to share what she’d discovered in the trenches.

Her energy was infectious. Note to all: She mirrors the kind of attitude one needs when pitching your project.

Her persona dovetails nicely with her first precept, which is about – Pace.

She told the audience the fundamental formula is “emotion plus action equals story.”

She cautioned that less is more and that you shouldn’t “overwrite the descriptions” of the action and the emotions.

That holds true with the descriptions of your characters. Less is more, but make them count.

“A great character intro can create a sense of who they are,” she said.

One area where writers need help is in crafting dialogue. You need to convey what your “characters actually want from a scene,” she said. You also want to give them a unique voice. Are they a “surfer, soccer mom or a lawyer,” she said. Do they ramble or swear? Where are they from, “New Jersey, Georgia?”

But whatever you choose it’s always better to heed the “show don’t tell” rules of cinema. Movies are visual.

You don’t want your dialogue to be “on the nose.” This writing sin occurs when your characters are telling the audience about their emotions instead of showing how they feel.

Next up was Stephen Wolfson, a screenwriter and playwright who teaches at the UCLA Writers Program. Wolfson tore into his presentation with the energy of a man on a mission.

Like a teacher should, he started giving everyone an assignment, asking them to come up with a one to three sentence premise for the project they were working on.

While the audience pondered their premise he explained that the premise is “the exciting idea, the initial spark.” What you need to do with this is make sure there is “inherent conflict,” said Wolfson.

It’s that “conflict, that struggle, that is inherent in the story,” he said. It’s the core conflict of the story but not your story.

This leads to your story’s main character. As they say, the plot thickens, as you determine what the “turning points” are for this character’s journey.

The key to writing compelling characters is figuring out what they “want more than anything else,” said Wolfson.

“In every scene the characters want something,” he said. Of course, the character may have deeper wants that they don’t even know about. You need to be able to convey those.

These wants drive your story and the attempts to attain them, is conveyed in action.

Wolfson provided some homework and exercises writers could use to help them clarify their characters wants and get their stories moving.

Once you’ve written your script and put it away for a couple of weeks, while you get some distance from the brilliance you’ve typed on the page, you’re going to need to do a rewrite.

Ken LaZebnik, the Director of the Stephens College MFA in Screenwriting program at USC, came on board to walk the audience through the rewrite process.

The challenge for screenwriters is to create a “blueprint for production,” said LaZebnik, and to create something that is golden.

The “challenge is to serve these two goals,” he said.

He suggests first printing out your draft. “It’s easier to scratch things out,” he said.

Then comes the hard part. You have to step back and “get objective about your work.”

One way to help you through this sometimes-brutal task is to ask yourself what you want “the audience to feel when they leave the theater,” he said. Do you want them to have a sense of the social issues, heartbreak or the value of comedy?

Do you want the audience to love the main character? Then make them really good at their jobs. “Audiences like that,” said LaZebnik.

Once you think the audience will be in love with your character you need to “put them through hell,” he said.

As you review your script you want to see if your character changes in the story. Usually you want your character to change in “some large way,” he said.

While most of writers think about the main characters you can’t neglect the antagonist. You’re going to want to see if the “antagonist causes the main character to change,” said LaZebnik.

Once the journey for your protagonist, the main character, is sorted out and you’ve done the same for the antagonist, you’ll also need to work on the minor characters.

Each of these characters has to be interesting. They’re not just fillers.

Scene structure is also important. You need to write so each scene has a “beginning, middle and end,” he said. And each character “should be changed by that scene.”

As you work on the structure and your characters think about interesting places where the scenes can take place.

What many people take away from a movie is the impact one character has had on us. Billy Mernit, who teaches at UCLA and is a professional Story Analyst at Universal Pictures shared what he’s learned about writing compelling characters that have an impact.

Mernit reads a lot of scripts and writes the evaluations that the executives use to decide if they want to move forward with a submission. Needless to say, he’s seen what works and doesn’t work.

He goes through a script and checks off the boxes on his evaluation forms. He analyzes the premise, dialogue and characterization.

“Characterization is the secret weapon that makes things work,” said Mernit. “If you can come up with a really strong character, you will be ahead.”

He gave the attendees a checklist of questions they should ask about their protagonist. He said these questions should be answered in “the first person” as if the writer is the character. You need to know what the character is like physically. What their education has been. As well as their romances and “quirks” and all of “their contradictions and complexity.”

You’ll also need to do the same thing for your antagonist. The goal of this exercise is to reveal “details you haven’t thought of,” said Mernit.

As you build your characters you will think about how they will change and react to the obstacle you create for them to confront.

If you create compelling characters people will respond.

There were numerous other tips and ideas the presenters shared that you can think about when you’re writing and rewriting. LaZebnik went beyond the mechanics to share why he thought taking the time to create something good can be so important.

“We have a great responsibility as artists. We can move people and hopefully make the world a little bit better,” he said.

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