Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

Is your straight man too straight?

A common problem is comedies is a boring protagonist. Often we see a show full of quirky, absurd characters through the lens of "normal" person or "straight man" who communicates the audience's point of view - but that person is just boring compared to the fun weirdos.

One thing I love about 30 ROCK is that Liz Lemon is kinda sorta supposed to be the straight one...except that in this world, the straight one is off-kilter and weird too. Thus, I give you Sh*t Liz Lemon Says:


30 ROCK airs Thursdays @ 8/7c on NBC.

Friday, January 20, 2012

5 Questions with Xander Bennett

Xander Bennett, writer of Screenwriting Tips, You Hack, was kind enough to answer 5 questions for us:


1. How did your book come about?

Writing a book was never on my agenda... until one day when Will Akers, the author of my favorite screenwriting book of all time (Your Screenplay Sucks), emailed me. Will said words to the effect of, "Dude, I love your blog. You totally have a book here."

I was incredulous at first. A book? That sounded like hard work. But Will was convincing. He told me to write up a proposal and some sample chapters, which he would then help send out to his publishing contacts.

The first place we tried was Focal Press. Will told me: "They're the Cadillac of academic film book publishers. But it's worth a shot!"

They bought it instantly. Suddenly I had an editor, an advance and a deadline. Just like that, I was writing a book. Perhaps it was destiny?

2. What is the number one most common mistake you see in the screenplays you read?

I think I give a different answer to this question every time someone asks me. :) Today, I'm going to go with...

Your protagonist is the least interesting character in the script.

You'd be amazed how common this is for beginner writers. You see these scripts where the villain is fascinating, the love interest is sexy and mysterious... and the protagonist just sits there like a lump of coal. It's as though the writer had all these ideas for interesting scenes, plot points and side characters, and the main character's job is to go meet and experience all of them. Instead of being the force driving the action, the protagonist becomes a passenger on a rollercoaster ride.

This is incredibly prevalent in comedies, especially buddy comedies, bromances, raunchy dude comedies, etc. Often, the protagonist is a straight-arrow Everyman, and his best buddy is a hard-drinking, loudmouthed womanizer with a complicated past. It quickly becomes apparent that the screenwriter prefers writing the buddy, because that character gets all the best lines, initiates all the conflict and sometimes has the biggest arc. At that point, guess what? You've got the wrong protagonist, and now your entire structure is screwed.

Wait, can I pick two answers? The other most common mistake is a bit of a sad one: Your premise isn't commercial enough. There's nothing you can really do about this one except write it, get it out of your system and start again with a better idea.

3. What is the best piece of writing advice you've ever gotten?

That would be my Tip Number Zero, the piece of advice with which I opened both my blog and my book:

Don't be boring.

I stole that from Matt Fraction. Apparently, it's written on a post-it note which he keeps permanently stuck to his laptop.

I think there's a lot of wisdom in those three words. It really gets to the core of storytelling and why we're actually doing this. It's the ultimate reminder that the audience is listening, and they want to hear you say something interesting. You can be a lot of things as a writer -- long-winded, unfunny, chaotic, angry, incoherent, offensive -- but so long as you're not boring, there's hope for you.

4. What is your favorite movie from 2011, and what writing lessons do you think we can learn from it?

My top movie for 2011 was DRIVE. It's a beautiful film, at once complicated and uncomplicated. There's so much going on under the surface, and it subverts your expectations in a hundred different ways. Also, the soundtrack is pure joy in audio form.

What I learned from DRIVE was: trust the moment. If you've created a genuinely powerful emotional moment, don't ruin it with dialogue. Don't fear silence -- silence is your friend. Trust the actors to play it out, and trust the moment to carry the emotion through.

5. What is going on with your own writing (if you have any info you can share)?

I'm keeping busy. I have a few projects in development with a few different producers, and my managers and I are hard at work on a new feature spec. I may or may not have a super-secret comic book project in the works. Plus, my one-hour cable pilot from last year is still floating around out there, making friends and influencing people.


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

More screenwriting books

Since my last post about screenwriting books, I've had a chance to read a few more:

Getting Past Me: A Writer's Guide to Production Company Readers by Mindi White
As a reader myself, I was excited to read Mindi's tales from the trenches. She offers a lot of good general advice in addition to elaborating upon what readers actually do. Her prose is accessible, if bland - and I think what's missing from this lean, 74-page guide are specific anecdotes/scripts/movies that illustrate her points. I understand that she probably can't divulge secrets about what she's read - but I wish she could have. One section rang particularly true for me:
Sometimes sexism comes through in very subtle forms, such as portraying all the women in a script as very passive while all the men are active... Another possibility is that the women need to be rescued. 
Sexism is noticed by readers, men and women alike, and none of us think it is okay. 
There is discrimination against men... I have read two of these, and I pointed out that they were sexist. The vast majority of sexual discrimination, though, is against women, and that is, as a rule, far more violent.
For better or worse, the book is not a guide for how to write a screenplay; it's more of a What-to-Avoid guide.

Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett
A much more comprehensive book written by a reader, Screenwriting Tips, You Hack elaborates upon close to 200 tips from the popular micro-blog that's now under the umbrella of The Black List. These great tips are compiled into helpful chapters on outlining, characters, ideas, rewriting, etc., which makes the book great for referencing when you've hit a particular roadblock in your writing. It also features a ton of helpful real-life examples, from Top Gun and Forrest Gump to Groundhog Day and Breaking Bad. Bennett's experience as a reader definitely informs his effective prose, but the book is filled with suggestions as opposed to complaints.

Here's just one helpful snippet:
But what if you're writing a "hybrid" genre? A horror-comedy, "dramedy," sci-fi western, or something along those lines? ... Hybrid genre films tend not to do as well as straight-up, pure genre flicks - not because audiences are stupid, but because marketing is hard.  
A hybrid is harder. In the case of, say, a horror-comedy, marketing teams will sometimes create multiple trailers: one emphasizing the comedy, the other emphasizing the scares. This approach can result in audience confusion regarding what kind of movie they're actually going to see. 
But that confusion can really be traced all the way back to the film's initial writer. It's simply harder to maintain a coherent tone when your script is a mashup of multiple genres.
Screenwriting Tips, You Hack is definitely a book that can help you think about your script in a new way - or help you get started on your first script!

The Starter Screenplay by Adam Levenberg
Adam, an executive-turned-consultant, has written an informative book that focuses on a very specific topic: writing that first screenplay that will get an agent or producer interested. What are you missing? I often tell new writers to keep it simple (zero in on a single protagonist and avoid intersecting-lives scripts, for example) - and Adam has provided a number of other tips for establishing attainable goals in your early screenplays. He offers up plenty of examples to think about when you brainstorm a high-concept idea, craft an extroverted hero and write a memorable opening. Adam also discusses topics I know a lot of you worry about: consultants, agents, contests, pitchfests, scams, etc.

Beyond Screenwriting: Insider Tips and Career Advice From a Successful Hollywood TV and Film Writer by Sterling Anderson
The cover page is suspect, but the author is legit; Anderson has written for The Unit and Medium, in addition to selling several feature screenplays and teaching at USC. He covers structure, outlines, characters, loglines, pitches and more. Something you won't find in other books is his Missing Writer's Manual, a guide to working in a writer's room in a TV show. "No books, articles, or mentors prepared me for my first experience in a writer's room on a successful one-hour drama," he writes. "Following are some questions and answers that would have helped me."

Writing the Comedy Blockbuster: The Inappropriate Goal by Keith Giglio
I found this book particularly interesting since I write comedy features. Giglio, who has sold over 20 screenplays,  focuses specifically on mainstream, commercial, high-concept comedies (which any of us who want to make money want to write). He posits that protagonists in comedies undertake "inappropriate goals" in movies, like crashing weddings to sleep with girls...sound familiar? Beyond this concept, the book discusses characters, conflict, dialogue, stakes, and the hardest thing of all: comedy. Breaking down where comedy comes from isn't always the easiest thing to do...and this book offers a ton of examples to help you start analyzing instead of just laughing. You'll be armed with advice and a huge list of comedies to add to your queue.

Tuesday links!

Q+LA: Julian Fellowes of Downtown Abbey [LA Times Magazine]

Killing the Messenger: Veena Sud's investigative team dramatizes a new style of murder [Written By]

How Directors Choose Films (video roundtable) [LA Times - 24 Frames]

John Landgraf (President of FX) Talks POWERS, ANGER MANAGEMENT, AMERICAN HORROR STORY Season 2 and Beyond, and More [Collider]

And because I adore COUGAR TOWN: "Cougar Town" replaces Axed "Work It" [The Wrap]

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nerdist Writers Panel this Sunday!

Nerdist Writers Panel
Sunday, January 15th @ 5 pm

Meltdown Comics
7522 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046

Learn the ins and outs of TV writing with your host, Ben Blacker, and a panel of writers:
Dana Gould (The Simpsons)
Liz Tigelaar (Revenge, Life Unexpected)
Robert Hewitt Wolfe (Alphas)

Cost: $15
Click for tickets

Monday, January 9, 2012

Gavin Polone in New York Magazine

If you aren't already reading Gavin Polone's column in New York Magazine, you're missing out. The producer of Zombieland and the new ABC Family series Jane By Design (among other things) has covered topics from bloated movie budgets to our inexplicable attraction to the Kardashians.

Monday, January 2, 2012

How to find a writing partner

David writes: I've just started writing screenplays for the first time and am hoping for insight/suggestions on how to look for a writing partner. I'm new at this, though am reading a ton to educate myself.

 Most writing teams I've met paired up organically. Friends from college, friends of friends, old coworkers, writing group members, etc. But if you're new to LA (or NY), I don't think it'd be impossible to seek one out. In addition to all your reading, you might take up a writing class at a place like UCLA extension (which could also be a place to meet a writing partner). For comedy writers, UCB offers classes in both LA and NY. In Chicago, check out Second City. You might also meet like-minded aspiring writers at events like writing panels held at The Paley Center, Arclight, WGAw, WGAe, etc. (See "events" at right.) Getting a job in the industry is another way to meet fellow aspiring writers. And there's always Craigslist...

 Remember that you'll have to share all your script sales with your writing partner - and teams don't make double the money that solo writers make. Also, you won't be able to use a team sample to get an individual writing gig, or vice versa - so be sure about your partner (or be willing to retire your team samples and write your own solo samples later).

 Don't expect a more experienced writer to pair up with a novice; good teams usually have equal experience, work ethic, etc...though I've heard of good writing partner relationships in which one writer is the structure expert, for example, while the other excels at dialogue.

 Readers who have partners: how did you meet?