Sunday, January 3, 2016

Starting 2016 Off On the Write Foot

Happy New Year, writers! 

Almost all my friends are fellow creatives. Writers, filmmakers, graphic designers, painters -- you name the discipline, and I probably have one in my social circle. So it's no great surprise that at holiday gatherings last month (usually after the eggnog or champagne started flowing) there was much chatter about projects we did/did not complete this year and what we plan to write/film/draw/create in 2016. 

One of the most common questions I receive from my writing students is "How can I stay focused on one project when I have so many ideas?" Some writers will tell you to take one project at a time. That doesn't work for me. Between filmmaking and writing, I'm actively working on 10-20 projects at once, and most of them reach completion in a timely fashion.  To stay organized, I make a creative plan at the start of the year. It's nothing fancy -- just a simple Google Doc with a bulleted list of every project I want to complete this year. I also have a table of deadlines organized by month. Almost everything on that list has a pitch, contest, festival, fellowship or grant deadline attached. Those that don't have a personal deadline. I need to see the full year at once, so I can prioritize the projects that need my attention right now.  

This plan does not work for all writers. Some would break out into hives just thinking about it. It works for me, because I use it as a guide, not a gospel. I know full well that new opportunities will pop up and priorities will shift. In the beginning of 2015, I could not possibly predict that our webseries Magicland would come to fruition, which took up a huge chunk of my time. Nor could I predict that my film partner Charlie and I would write ten short plays, four of which have already been picked up for production at various theaters around the country. My plan needs to be flexible enough to account for new and better things. When I looked at my 2015 plan today, I saw what I actually accomplished, not what I wanted to accomplish back in January. And you know what? My 2015 was a far, FAR better creative year than it would have been if I had just stuck to my list. 

How about you?  What is on your writing plan for 2016?  If you need a few deadlines to get started, here are some coming up. 

NBC Sports 
If you have a completed 10-minutes sports documentary or feature, NBC Sports wants to see it.  Deadline for submission is January 12. The winner wins $10,000!

NBC Late Night Writer's Workshop
Do you think you have the chops to write for late night television?  NBC has been running this workshop for a few years now to give new writers opportunities to break into late night. The deadline is January 15.  Submission packet info from their website: 
  1. 1-2 pages of topical monologue jokes. If you think it helps us, please indicate which host’s voice you have in mind (can be but does not have to be NBC host). Topical news jokes and pop culture jokes should make up the bulk of your material.
  2. 1-2 pages of original ideas for refillable late night “desk bits”. These can be ideas for elements like Jimmy Fallon’s “Thank You Notes”, pre-taped correspondent bits like “Jaywalking” or multimedia bits. For this portion, please provide descriptions of the bits and not scripts.
  3. 2 SNL-style sketches (no more than 5 pages EACH).  One sketch should introduce an original character and one should be topical (something newsworthy or pop culture-based).
Sundance Episodic Story Lab
Sundance has had a writing program for feature film writers for several years, and they've recently added a new lab for television writers. The deadline is Feb 10 and you need to submit a completed pilot script and a 2-3 page series overview. 

Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship
The first studio fellowship deadline of the year!  Submissions are open from now to February 28.  You need a spec script for a 30-minute comedy show that's currently on the air (does not need to be a kid-friendly show).
I check this blog every day, because it has something for every type of writer. Calls for screenplays, novels, short stories and essays are posted regularly, and new opportunities post every day. Everything featured on this site is a paid gig.

A very active site for stageplay writers with new calls for submissions posted on a daily basis. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Hats TOFF to Magicland!

Hey kids! If you ever wanted to know what goes on behind the scenes of your favorite theme park, well -- I can't help you.  But I can tell you what goes on behind the scenes of Magicland, East Toledo's ninth-favorite theme park, because I'm filming a webseries about it.  And you can vote for the pilot episode in The Online Film Festival right now.  It takes two seconds -- less time that it takes to pluck a plastic duck out of the duck pond.

This week I'm working on a documentary about carousels, so I'm going to share one of my favorite Magicland episodes: Merry-go-Wrong. If you like what you see, drop  by Magicland's website for more episodes!   

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Magicland is in the Boston Comedy Festival!

I've been absent on here recently, because I've been working on a webseries called Magicland with my frequent comedy partner-in-crime Charlie Hatton. The series is set behind-the-scenes of a family-owned theme park. As it's my first webseries, I've learned a lot about filming and writing one, and I'll be writing an article about things I've learned right here at the Script Scribe.

We just found out that our sizzle reel for Magicland will be screening at the Boston Comedy Festival this Sunday at 2 p.m at Davis Square Theater.  It will also screen at the SCATV Rough Cuts Festival on November 19. Yay for magic! 

This is our latest episode in which three Magicland FUNployees get lost in their own corn maze. If you like what you see, check out the very magical Magicland website, give us a like on Facebook or a follow on Twitter.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sitcom Characters Widen, Drama Characters Lengthen

As I mentioned last week, I'm  drawing up some pitches for drama and comedy TV pilots, so I've been thinking a lot about character development. Specifically, I've been remembering something I heard Ty Burrell say during the Modern Family panel at Paleyfest this year. He was asked what makes up a good sitcom character, and he replied that they widen, not lengthen. 
In most successful sitcoms, characters don't grow very much. They "widen," because we learn new things about their interests, hobbies and passions, but they don't really learn from their mistakes or change their ways. Nor do we really want them to. We don't want Sheldon from Big Bang to lose his holier than thou attitude, the Seinfeld crew to develop emotional depth, or Lucy to stop weaseling her way into Ricky's act. We want their flaws to stay stubbornly resistant, so that they remain the same characters in Season 7 that we fell in love with in Season 1. 

The opposite is true for TV dramas, especially in recent years. Today's drama characters do not just widen -- they lengthen. They change, they grow, and sometimes they are completely different people by the end of the series than they were in Season 1. Walter White in Breaking Bad transformed from a high school science teacher into Scarface.  Don Draper from Mad Men started as an unhappy man who had it all, and ended as a man at peace, because he lost it all. And that is the point Ty made. In comedies, we want the character to stay the same, but in dramas we want to witness a personal metamorphosis. 

Need more character help?   I have a new 6-week ONLINE screenwriting workshop starting Sept 30!  

Friday, September 4, 2015

Writing Winning Loglines

I'm working on a bunch of pitches this month, so I thought I'd do a quick post about writing loglines.  

A logline is a one-sentence description of your movie that's used to pitch your idea to producers, agents or networks. A logline is different from a tagline, which is the sentence or phrase used on a movie poster. Loglines should be clear and descriptive, while taglines can be a bit more cryptic, as they are a marketing tool designed to pique your interest in the film.The tagline for Jaws is "Don't go in the water," but the logline on IMDB is:

When a gigantic great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity, a police chief, a marine scientist and grizzled fisherman set out to stop it.

So, how do you write a solid logline? A good place to start is by answering the following questions:

  1. In one or two words, who is/are your main character(s)?
  2. What makes your story unique?  (How is it different from other movies in this genre?)
  3. What is the main conflict? 
  4. What do the characters stand to lose? 
  5. How will the viewers relate to the characters and/or story? 
Let's answer these questions with the Jaws logline.  

In one or two words, who is/are your main character(s)? 
a police chief, a marine scientist and grizzled fisherman.  

Right off the bat, that is an interesting trifecta. Without knowing anything else, a producer can imagine some interesting group dynamics and conflicts among these three characters. 
What makes the story unique?
A disaster movie with a shark. 

A unique concept at the time of its release. Plus the book was a Number 1 best seller. Sold!   

What is the main conflict? 
A deadly shark terrorizes a small island community. 

Since fishermen are mentioned, we know that this town relies on  the ocean for economic survival, effectively eliminating the classic horror movie dilemma: "Why don't they just they just move out of the haunted house/leave the woods/not go in the water?"
What do the characters stand to lose?

Their lives, the town's economy 

For this type of movie, it's completely OK to imply the stakes, because they are pretty clear. (A giant shark is on the loose. There will be blood.)  If the stakes in your story are a bit more ambiguous, specifically state them.  

How will the viewers relate emotionally to this story?  
It's a story of ordinary citizens confronting a mutual threat/fear. 

To answer this question, determine the core emotional struggle at the heart of your script. Even if your audience has never been in a similar situation, what can they emotionally relate to?  (examples: fear of physical harm, loss of a loved one, etc.)  This is especially important when your story is set in fantasy worlds or has non-human characters. Your audience will not relate to the events of the story, so they need something on an emotional level to latch onto.

Stuck on your script?  I have a new 6-week ONLINE screenwriting workshop starting Sept 30!   

Sunday, August 30, 2015

New Six-Week Screenwriting Workshop Starting September 30!

Hey writers!  

If you're stuck, blocked or just need a kick in the butt to get that script written, I have a new online workshop that will help you do just that!  Check out the Kick Your Butt Into Gear Screenwriting Workshop, starting right here at The Script Scribe on September 30!  

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Outlining Your TV Comedy Pilot

Last week was an exciting week here at The Script Scribe, because my sitcom pilot Thicker Than Water made the top 50 in the Tracking Board Launch Pad contest, and Magicland (the comedy pilot I co-wrote with this guy) became a semi-finalist at Industry Insider's TV Writing Contest. To celebrate, I thought I'd share some tips and tricks that I use to outline a comedy pilot.

Before anything else, write a solid logline.
TV shows sell by concept. Before I flesh out anything else -- characters, setting, etc. -- I make sure I have that one sentence logline as my jumping off point. 

Download the Writer's Store TV Pilot Kit
This kit, which you can download for free right here, was developed for their Industry Insider contest, but they have it available to writers all year long. It comes with a pitch form and a character relationship map (along with sample completed forms from How I Met Your Mother.)

The pitch sheet is two pages, and it has spots for: 
  • Logline
  • Character descriptions
  • Breakdown of the A,B,C plots in the pilot episode
  • The arc within the first season
  • The arc within the whole series
  • Why will this series reach 100 episodes or more?
Once you fill that sheet out, you quickly realize where the "holes" in your concept are.  As a bonus, when you have your script written, you can use this information as the basis of your pitch. 

The second sheet is the character relationship map. There is a block for each character with questions asking "How does Character X feel about Character Y?"

From the Character Relationship Map -- part of the free TV Pilot kit download from the Industry Insider's TV Writing Competition. 

This relationship map helps me spot natural areas of conflict between characters, which is where a lot of the humor in the story comes from.

Write a pilot outline
After I fill out the pilot kit, I write my pilot outline. Comedy pilots typically have at least an A and a B story, and often an A, B, and C story.  The A story is the main story for the episode and the B and C stories are the subplots. Sitcoms also have 2-3 acts, so you also need to account for act breaks in your outline. 

There is no right way to outline your pilot script. Some writers extensively outline each scene of the script, so their outline is pretty long. Since I do the pilot sheet and character relationship map upfront, my outline is 1-2 pages top. I just write Act One, Two, and Three into my Word doc and fill them in with short sentences roughly describing the basic plot flow, sight gags and occasionally a line of dialogue or two. If it's something I'm struggling to work out, I'll use different colors of text for the A, B and C plots just to make sure they are covered.

My scripts almost always change from the outlines during the writing process, but doing the character breakdown and pitch sheet before I even think about writing the script really helps me to focus and prevents me from going too far astray. Since using this process, I have also cut down significantly on rewrites. It used to be the norm for me to do 5-6 (or more) rewrites before I thought a script was ready to submit. My Thicker than Water script is currently on draft 2.5 (I did a minor revision right before sending). 

So that's my process. Every writer has to find one that works for them, but it you're stuck, try some of my tips and see if they work for you. 

Happy writing, folks! I'll see you next week!

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