Sunday, July 22, 2012

The #1 Mistake Writers Make When Entering Screenplay Competitions

The #1 Mistake Writers Make When Entering Screenplay Competitions

Most people think the #1 mistake writers make when entering screenplay competitions is poor writing. I think that is closer to #2. The #1 mistake is submitting a script that is not marketable which also means interesting. In the movie industry it’s CONCEPT, CONCEPT, CONCEPT. A great concept will beat out a better written low concept script in most cases. The thing is that all scripts are rewritten at some point so the concept has to be great before you even get to that point.

The main reason people enter contests is to get noticed. The production companies who request to read the contest winners are looking for marketable material first, good writing second. What attracts them to want to read your concept is an interesting title and logline of the concept. They won’t know if it’s written well until after they have requested to read it. If you don’t have a great title and great logline hence great concept, they probably will never find out how great a writer you are. In contests, if your writing is great but the concept is not marketable, you may final but you probably won’t win. Even to garner the attention of an agent you need a marketable concept. For the Nicholls Fellowship competition, you definitely need both. Many dramas do win but I guarantee these aren’t your average dramas, there’s something definitely special about them. Just look at the winners that have been made into movies over the years.

In order to create a win-win situation, write a very good marketable script that you are passionate about! Save the low concept passion projects for after you have an established career and have made a name for yourself. When you get to that point, you can basically write what you want.

These are just my opinions so take what you can use and disregard what you can't. This works for me and I must be doing something right if I've won a screenplay competition and had 3 other entries make it to the finals. The thing is don't beat yourself up if you don't think your idea is high concept or totally marketable. This comes with practice. Plus, the industry is very subjective! No one knows what they want until they see it.

For more information regarding how to make your concept great, check out my book, The #1 Secret to Sell Your Screenplay to Hollywood.

Write right and write on!

Monday, July 16, 2012

7 Steps to Create a Sellable TV Pilot

You know how when you're trying to find a particular file on your computer and but can't find it even when using the "search" feature but then instead of finding what you were looking for you find something even better that you don't even remember saving?  That's the story regarding this blog post. I don't know the source, probably was some notes from a class I took years ago so I can't give full credit but I hope it helps anyone out there stuck in developing a TV pilot or a screenplay.

Write right and write on!


7 Steps to Create a Sellable TV Pilot

Step 1: Watch and Read... A Lot

If you don't like to watch television, then hopefully you have the common sense not to write for TV. Because when you're a scriptwriter, it pays to watch a lot of television. Here are some tips on what to watch and what to look for when you're watching:

1. Don't just limit yourself to one genre or format. Watch a wide variety of shows.

Watch the ones at the top of the Nielsen ratings and the ones that aren't doing so hot.

Watch shows that have won writing Emmys.

Watch 30 minute shows and 60 minute shows.

Watch reality shows and see if a story line (yes there are story lines even in "reality" shows) that you can tweak into a funny sitcom.

2. Take notes on your reactions at first. Write down what you liked and disliked as a viewer: when were you bored, when did you laugh, when did you lose interest and start flipping through a magazine. What happened right before a commercial break, and were you itching to find out what happened next.

3. Once you've got a feel for what works for you as a viewer, try to get your hands on a couple of scripts. The ideal situation is to be able to read a script and then watch the episode, so try to find a series that's out on DVD. You can get free scripts online at the following websites:

Daily Script

Simply Scripts

Drews Scriptarama

4. Read the script, and then watch the episodes with the script at your side. Learn how what is written on the page translates to the screen.

Step 2: Pick a Genre

There are some rules that are true of any television show, but each genre also has its own conventions. Once you know what genre you want to write in, it's time to study that genre in depth.

1. Do your research. If your genre requires special knowledge, start studying. For example, if you really want to write police procedurals, it's a good idea to have a passing acquaintance with police regulations.

2. You need to know what's out there if you're going to stand out from the crowd. Start a list of shows that are in the same genre as yours. Try to watch as many of them as you can.

3. Figure out how your idea stands out from the crowd. How is it different from the shows already on the market? You need to be able to express this in a succinct sentence or two at the most, which is called a logline.

Your logline needs to differentiate you from all of the other shows on the market. It should be brief, to the point, and it should stress what's special about your show.

For example, if you want to write a show about crime scene investigators, you'll need to show agents and producers that it's different from the popular CSI franchise. This difference should be completely clear in your logline.

By developing your logline first, you have a chance to hone your idea and make it as unique and compelling as possible without going completely overboard. If you can't clearly state what makes your show special, how can you expect someone to buy it?

Step 3: Outline Your Plot

Telling a satisfying story in a single television episode is a lot more difficult than it looks. Not only are you limited by time, but you're also required to write scenes in acts that allow for commercials.

1. Get some ideas about the standard act structure for your genre. If everyone on air is using a four act structure and you want to use three, why? Rules can be broken, but you ought to have a good reason for doing it.

2. Some shows such as sitcoms don't follow a rigid act structure. So again, the key is to understand what is being done.

3. Once you've settled on a structure, outline your story.

Choose a format that works best for you: index cards, spiral bound notebooks, computer, crayon, whatever.

Write down the basic actions that will happen in each act.

Determine where the commercial breaks will lie and make sure that the action leading into the commercial is compelling enough to make viewers stay tuned.

Step 4: Develop Your Characters

A good character can really make or break a TV show, and some of the best shows have the most memorable characters. Tony Soprano. Raymond. Carrie Bradshaw. Make the most of your characters to add depth to your show.

1. You'll need lead characters, who will appear in almost every episode; supporting characters, who appear sporadically; and guest characters who reappear rarely if at all. Obviously, it makes the most sense to spend the bulk of your time developing the leads since they'll carry the show.

2. Take the time to develop a history. Leads should have some kind of history or backstory that helps to drive their actions and shapes who they are.

3. Keep a list of mannerisms, favorite phrases, and other details. Catchphrases can be very powerful tools when developing a character.

4. Although you might spend days or even weeks working on a character background, that doesn't mean that you need to cram all of that information into the script. The idea is to let small details leak out gradually. Think about it like getting to know a person in real life. If you learned everything about them in the first day, wouldn't you get a little bored?

Step 5: Write

A lot of people talk about wanting to be writers but never put their pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Don't let all of your hard work go to waste. Sit down and write.   I once met a girl at a networking event who said she was a screenwriter but when I asked how many scripts she had written, she was like, "Well, I haven't really written any scripts yet!"  Huh?  To make matters worst she had been "doing" it for almost 5 years!  That's not being a screenwriter.  Even if you haven't sold anything, you still should have written something to completion before you should say you're a screenwriter.  Duh!  But I've gone off topic...back to business.

1. Decide how often you want to write and then stick to your schedule. Whether your goal is to write every day or twice a week or to finish five pages no matter how long it takes, get it done.

2. There will be days that you don't want to write. The writers who make it in big this business are the ones who write anyway.

3. Writer's block is a reality you'll have to deal with. If a scene isn't working, put in a placeholder to remind you to go back and finish it later, and move on to another scene. The goal is to keep working; don't let a problem in page two keep you from moving on indefinitely.

Step 6: Use the Right Format

Script formatting software is available and makes the process as easy as possible, but of course there's a cost associated with most programs. You can also hand-format. Whatever you do, make sure that you follow the conventions. Otherwise, you reduce your chances of success.

1. If you really plan to pursue screenwriting as a career, formatting software is worth the investment. The most popular programs include:

Celtx free software

Final Draft

Movie Magic Screenwriter

There are many other programs that use word macros but still present a professional looking script.  When I first started writing scripts more than 10 years ago, I purchased one for just $30 and used that thing for years.  Even had my first option of a script I wrote using a $30 program.  Now I use final draft but aside from the bells and whistles, it's not all that much better than the $30 program I used to use. (I don't remember the name so please don't email me asking what it is.)

2. If you're determined to format by hand, you'll need a scriptwriting format book or website. You can find a lot of resources online these days. The rules are too long to list here, but here's a sample of what you'll need to do:

Scenes are numbered and start with what's called a slugline: the location and time of day.

Scenes start with FADE IN:

Character names are capitalized.

Dialogue is capitalized and double spaced.

I say this to say DO NOT DO IT!  Please don't try to format by hand.  Give up a month's worth of Starbucks and invest in a cheap program.  They have so many these days that you shouldn't have to torture yourself like that.  Drop the coffee and buy a software program!

Step 6: Revise Until Your Head Spins

By all means, celebrate when you finish the first draft of your script. You deserve it; you've made it a lot further than most people ever do. Unfortunately, this is also where the real work of revision begins.

1. First, you'll need to focus on the big stuff.

Does the plot make logical sense?

Does tension increase as the plot moves forward?

Is there a satisfying resolution?

Are the technical details accurate? Look them up; you need to know for sure.

Is it the right length?

Do your commercial breaks hit at the right place page wise?

2. Now it's time to fine tune.

Tighten your dialogue.

Make sure every word counts. Cut out the excess.

Proofread for typos and grammatical mistakes.

3. For help with revisions, why not join a critique group or writer's group. Other writers can help point out problems and potential solutions that you're just too close to your work to see clearly.   Be sure to choose a group with positive, supporting people.  I've been apart of a group that only wanted to tear people down one verb at a time. 

Good luck and never stop believing in the dream.

Write right and write on!