Prep for Success

If you’re a relative beginner, like me, it is time to accept  that screenwriting comes with a long and difficult learning curve.

In addition to the daily requirement of  hours at the keyboard, one of the ways you can set yourself up to succeed is through ongoing involvement with screenwriting classes. Mine is with Writers Boot Camp. They have a great set of tools and a serious commitment to creating professional writers. They also have networking opportunities and events, and many other opportunities to stay involved.  If you are starting out, I couldn’t recommend it more. I started back in June of 2009 with Basic Training, the six-week class. I’d been trying to teach myself the craft from books for over a year, and could barely get my script out of Act One. I took the six week class and had a real first draft of the feature I was writing, complete with beginning, middle and end.

Because I loved the class and really wanted to do this, I enrolled that September in Project Group. The first six months was done online with one-on-one sessions by telephone with my instructor. The tools they teach are very difficult to grasp at first, and it was frustrating to me that I had to work so hard at them. Instead of an A+ and a pat on the back I’d get notes on how to make them stronger. The philosophy at WBC is that the focus is not on whether your work is good or bad, but on the goal of making a draft industry-worthy. I could see myself improving and the value of the system, but at the same time I had never worked so hard for so little positive reinforcement.

After the online portion of the course, I attended a class in New York City every two weeks, with weekly phone sessions with my instructor. I was lucky to live where I could take the course live, and even more lucky to have a very dedicated teacher who was willing to go over and above the call of duty. Since I knew TV was where I wanted to be, he suggested I do extra work to break down and study some of my favorite shows. With his help, I learned what made them work and how to bring some of those elements into my own writing.  By the time I finished the two year program, the tools clicked into place and were of great benefit to my writing process. My understanding of them continues to grow and so does their usefulness to me.

Being hard-working and committed to my writing, after the 2-year program I was invited to join Bivouac. It’s an alumni group designed to bridge the gap between Project Group and Professional Writer. In addition to a monthly meeting, I finally got my chance to evaluate scripts, which is nearly as valuable to my education as the tools of WBC. I was carefully trained to assess student scripts according to a strong set of guidelines and focused notes. The process is so effective that it allows me to help every single writer to advance to the next-stepping stone and make their script better. It has been incredibly rewarding and has a profound effect on my own writing.

If you want to be a screenwriter, it can help to surround yourself with people who have similar goals. Find a great teacher  and develop a writing process that works. If you are willing to use the available resources and work hard to master the craft, then it the question of “if,” becomes a question of “when.”

These are some of the ways I have set myself up to succeed, and I’d love to hear about yours. Keep writing…

THE HUNGER GAMES Movie Review – SPOILER ALERT!!!

I don’t normally like to review movies, because the act of tearing the work apart is about a million times easier than writing a great script, let alone developing it into a film.  On the other hand, as a student of the screenwriting craft, it is very helpful to examine what works and what doesn’t.  In that spirit, I offer my humble opinions, in the full knowledge that I am in no way qualified to pass judgment.

THE HUNGER GAMES left me a little sad and unsatisfied. I was never bored, or even aware of the passage of time, and for the most part enjoyed the overall experience.  Having read the book by Suzanne Collins and loved it, I think that feeling a little let down by the movie is par for the course.  Would I recommend it? I think so.

Although her performance was fine, I didn’t like the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. The way she was written in the novel, she was much thinner, more vulnerable, and therefore appeared to be an underdog. The half-starved, underprivileged girl in the book made a better contrast to the overfed world of the shiny Capitol. Jennifer Lawrence looks like a champion. She’s tall and athletic, strong and well-fed. Saoirse Ronan, on the other hand, would have been fabulous in the role.

Other than that, I liked the casting. Peeta was played by Josh Hutcherson, and although he’s a little small to be believable as a baker’s son and the wielder of great physical strength, he did a great job of convincing me that he was utterly in love with Katniss. I loved Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the drunken mentor, and would have liked to see more of him. The same holds true for Elizabeth Banks, who was wonderful as the flighty Effie. It took me a few minutes to realize it was her, which was fun.

One thing that worked well for the movie was taking the POV away from Katniss and showing us behind the scenes of the production. It was also interesting to see the Districts. The book was written in first person narrative.  When I was reading, I wondered how I would handle the exposition in those scenes where the explanations happened inside the character’s head. There is so much time that Katniss spends alone that I predicted voiceover narration, which would have been difficult to carry off gracefully. Instead, on TV, the host, Claudius Templesmith, announces in hushed tones that the “Tracker Jackers” are genetically-altered killer wasps. I thought the exposition was brilliantly executed.  I personally would have handled it by giving Katniss more time with her allies. I would have put Rue in the tree with her to explain the wasps. I think the movie’s technique was better.

Another thing they did in the movie that worked was to give Katniss a tangible enemy in the form of President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland and his agent, Seneca Crane, whose job was to keep the games entertaining for their TV audience.  With little or no personal interaction, they managed to throw many obstacles at Katniss and made a very worthy team of opponents. As my friend Shawn pointed out, the scene where Snow is trimming his roses of thorns and telling Seneca of his distaste for “underdogs” like Katniss, is a clear example of the rich and careless extravagance of the Capitol, in contrast to the impoverished persecution and cruelty in the districts.

Something that didn’t work so well for me was that Katniss seemed to get off too easily. When she killed someone, it was self-defense or in defense of a friend, or out of mercy. We never got to see her struggle with a decision of whether to shoot an arrow, or feel remorse for the deaths that she caused.  In the movie, things necessarily moved quickly, but the audience didn’t get to experience her struggle enough to suffer along with her. The PG-13 rating makes perfect sense considering the YA novel it was adapted from, but necessitated a lot less blood and gore than was depicted in the book. It felt like the writers were backing off when the going got tough, rather than letting their characters suffer. As a result, the stakes are lowered, making the victories less triumphant.

Another thing they could have done better was the Main Character Arc. Since the story is about exposing the brutality of making 24 kids fight to the death every year, Katniss’ character arc would have been more effective if she had mirrored that journey in some way. I’ve been told that in an Action Movie, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to grow and change, but I disagree.

In my own fantasy script, Katniss resigns to play by the Capitol’s rules as she embarks on the journey by train.  She squelches her own rebellion to gain sponsors and support to win. Once in the games, she faces the dilemma; whether to kill or be killed. She chooses to survive, but experiences the pain of the deaths she causes, and knows that even if she wins the tournament, the faces of the children will haunt her. She curses the Capitol, and gradually, she fights back. The opponent, Seneca, undermines her, refusing to let her win. Haymitch, in his own arc, pulls himself together and fights for the gifts and help she needs. The low point for Katniss is when Peeta is dying, and she blames herself and surrenders the fight. And Peeta, out of love and respect for Katniss, reminds her of all the people in the districts who are depending on her, and helps her get back on track for the final battle at the Cornucopia. But it’s not over. Seneca changes the rules, in a last-ditch attempt to force her to kill Peeta. Outraged, Katniss, on live TV, says goodbye to her mom and sister, and condemns the Capitol. She urges the districts to fight back.  She and Peeta exchange tearful, moving goodbyes and raise the poison berries to their lips. At the last instant, President Snow comes over the loudspeaker and stops them. Seneca has been fired and for the first time ever, they have two winners. The districts cheer as Seneca is dragged off, struggling against the guards. Katniss is victorious.

Great article by David Mamet

In my opinion, what David suggests in this article is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard on screenwriting. I couldn’t wait to share the link: http://www.slashfilm.com/a-letter-from-david-mamet-to-the-writers-of-the-unit/ Ican’t wait to read some more of this blog by David Chen. It looks amazing.

TV Specs and How To Break a Series Down

When discussing TV specs, we are always told how important it is to break the show down, but in my experience, there’s not a lot of guidance about what that means. For the most part, I’ve developed my own procedures, which I am happy to share with you today.

I spend a lot of time breaking down a series before I begin to write the spec. When I was doing the Vampire Diaries last summer, I only gave myself three weeks to break down the show and write the first draft. That basically meant two weeks of breakdown and one week of outlining and drafting. As soon as I finished the first draft, I went back to the breakdown, which continued throughout the writing. I had no way of acquiring Vampire Diaries scripts, except for the pilot. Not having them was a handicap, but I’m so glad I went through the process of writing it anyway. It was the first script I finished, and I learned a lot.

For one thing, VD is serialized, and the episode I wrote picked up where Season Two ended. It was meant to be the beginning of Season Three. In my study of the series, I discovered that each show has three to four story lines. I wrote four.  It’s a bit long for an episode, and I am sure the formatting doesn’t perfectly match the show. That’s where not having scripts was a problem. The other problem was that I put the finishing touches on it at the end of August, and the Season Three premiere was a week or two later. That made it outdated almost immediately.

As an episode, it encompasses much more story than a normal episode would, but it also set up the next few episodes for the season. It was exciting to watch the real episode on TV! I was gratified to find out that several of the things I had written in my script came to pass. Other things were different, of course, but in subsequent episodes my scenes kept popping up. I take that as a sign that I did a good job of getting into the workings of the show. To me, that says I’m hirable as a staff writer.  That’s very good news, since staffed on a TV drama is exactly where I want to be. On the other hand, taking on so much story in one episode would not work in real life. There is several episodes worth of storytelling in that one spec.

Having learned what I learned, I chose an episodic show for my next spec: White Collar. I also made sure I was able to acquire scripts. Ellen Sandler, writer of many TV comedies, suggests you have three. I was able to get my hands on five. I won’t give away my source, but I will say it was a product of a networking opportunity. Using Sandler’s book, the TV Writer’s Workbook, I made a spreadsheet of everything I could think of to count.  That told me a lot about how the show was structured and how the story lines intersect.  Of course I am also studying every show in the series.

After I practically memorize every episode and dissect the scripts I have, I start outlining. If done correctly, this takes quite a bit longer than actually writing the first draft. This is where I get into the protagonist’s goals and relationships, and the other major components. By the time I’ve worked that all out for all the story lines, I have a pretty extensive outline. I also have a list of things that need to be part of the episode, such as traits that show up, or tics a certain character uses, how many jokes are there (even in drama), and what story points are integral to most, if not all, episodes. I have a range of formatting options, as well as non-changing structure, such as number of acts, if there’s a teaser, etc.

Laid out this way, it sounds exhausting, but it’s really fun. It’s doing all things I love! I’m watching TV, reading scripts, writing and defining characters. By the time I start the first draft, it practically writes itself. Then I take a rest while I send it off to a trusted advisor. That’s a lie. I usually start on something else so my good habits aren’t interrupted. It comes from terror that if I let them go I’ll never get them back.

If this article helps anyone, I’d really love to hear about it in a comment below. As a new writer, who has worked very hard to acquire what skills I have, it’s important for me to share what I can and help others. I have gotten a lot of help already and I will continue to need it to get this career off the ground. In a way, I’m paying it forward. Conversely, if you know of any steps for breakdown that I haven’t touched on, I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, happy writing!

Why I’d rather write for TV

The topic in the forefront of my mind lately has been the TV vs. Movie-writing debate. At a Christmas party last month, I met several new people, one of whom instantly called me a sellout when I mentioned I want to work in TV.
It wasn’t the first time that had happened, either. In the Big Apple, screenwriters are all about their indie features and much too sophisticated to ever sit down in front of the small screen (unless it’s to watch “Mad Men,” which is politically acceptable). It might be different in LA, but New Yorkers seem to still consider the world of TV beneath them.
Since my blog is called karenlovestv, you won’t be surprised that I don’t feel that way. In fact, I think that it’s very difficult to find an indie feature (or any movie in the theater, for that matter) as enjoyable and well-written as a good TV drama. My current favorites are “American Horror Story” and “Sons of Anarchy.” I’m also a huge fan of “Shameless,” “Game of Thrones,” and am getting into “How to Make it in America.”
Since the casts of those shows include big-name movie stars, I have to assume that much of the world agrees with me that TV is the best entertainment available today. As a writer, I can’t imagine that anyone would prefer to write movies!
I can hear the screams from here. But hear me out…
1. Screenwriting is about saying a lot in a few words, and there is no way that can be done more effectively than in a 45 minute episode. Generally there are three or four story lines, each thematically linked (if it’s good) and emotionally satisfying on its own, telling each of those stories in an entertaining way with a beginning, middle and an end. In and out, quick and dirty. Amazing.
2. All of those individual episodes combine over a season or several seasons to tell your story in its fullest and most satisfying and indulgent way. The writer is the first to fall in love with the characters, and then week by week, gets to see millions of people fall in love with them, too.
3. Writing in a team ensures that the vision of the series is respected, the quality stays good, and no one person is responsible for the brilliance of any particular episode. That means that if you have a good team, the end result is better than any one person could come up with. It’s simultaneously humbling and a great relief. You can roll up your sleeves and check your ego at the door.
4. The better the writing is, the more the director, actors and everyone else involved have to work with. That means, they can see things happening and bring new layers to the story that the writers didn’t even know were there. By doing their jobs, they make you look good. I can’t imagine anything more exciting than hearing dialogue I wrote come out of a gifted actor’s mouth, conveying something better than I intended. To have that happen on a weekly basis?… priceless.
5. To write for a living with a steady paycheck, benefits and great money is something most filmmakers don’t get to experience often. For me, it will be a dream come true. And it will be fun to work with other people who feel the same.
6. What a great example it would be for my kids to have a mom who went after her dreams and used her talents and hard work to achieve them. I believe that just going after them has a huge impact on their lives, not to mention the sense of fulfillment I get from using my talents every day. Way better than Prozac.
So the next time someone accuses me of selling out, I can smile to myself. I know the truth. TV is where I’d rather be.