Stories that Sell

An email exchange brought something into focus that I want to stress to all screenwriters and novelists hoping to pitch a film, series, or novel. A story needs to be unusual, yet obvious. The audience should anticipate some, but not all, of the conflicts and the outline of the story from the basic elements you intend to bring together.

Here is one possible equation explaining my ideal story:

naturally “different” characters + unusual challenge + good setting = a pitch that writes itself.

1) If you have characters that are, by their natures, going to be in conflict at times, that’s interesting to watch. Don’t think about “good v evil” or “pro/ant” yet. Ask yourself, if I put these people in a room, on an island, side-by-side at work, et cetera, would there be a natural conflict? Think “The Odd Couple” sure, but also think about it in more depth.

The new show “Limitless” is doing a good job with this “fish out of water” conflict. “Chuck” was based on this, as are most sitcoms.

Consider the shows and films you enjoy. How far apart are some of the characters? You should find some opposites in good scripts. They don’t sound alike, act alike, or share the same values.

I had a showrunner tell me that for every three characters, at least one has to be the “fish out of water.” Two against one is apparently interesting. Pairings can also work (think “Will and Grace” sidekicks or “Cheers” with Cliff and Norm playing off Sam… or Diane… or everyone else). In film, differences have to be obvious from the character introductions. You don’t have episodes to reveal how far apart people are.

2) Unusual challenges are as unique and shocking as possible. The challenge has to be a situation that increases the likelihood of conflict. How does the challenge bring out the differences among characters even more? How does it place two characters in opposition? Again, avoid “good v. evil” because interesting “evil” is often sure it is “good” and merely has another perspective of what is best. (Not that pure evil is boring, either, but try to imagine the perspectives involved.)

If your logline is a basic challenge, one we’ve all read and seen, it won’t rise above the static. Catch the real killer? Blah. Defeat the evil dictator? Yawn. Expose the greedy, inhuman corporate executive? Double yawn.

Wait. Don’t those films and shows with “predictable” challenges get produced? Sure, but by established writers and directors. To break into the market, you need to be submitting something that stands above the muck that’s being made.

3) Give us a setting that is interesting, in place and time. TV takes the lazy way out and imagines big cities are inherently interesting to everyone. I love “M*A*S*H” for its use of setting on TV. Setting is probably the toughest of these to develop and make stand apart from what exists. (Bonus if you pull off the setting. Few do.)

Setting can drive the action. If the setting is the Titanic, we know what some part of the story will be. Put people in a closed, confined space, and you have an obvious conflict. That’s why space stations, undersea labs, and other isolated settings work so well for stories. Don’t select a “boring” or familiar setting unless there’s no other choice.

New York is not compelling by itself. Neither is a generic small town. The setting becomes interesting when you place people and events in the setting that doesn’t suit them. Trap a spy in a small village, where she falls in love. Put the country farmer in the big city, searching for something that is lost.

Now put these together and test how compelling your concept is.

Writing Coaches are “Mean” People

Recently, I met with screenwriting coach Jim Mercurio ( to discuss some ideas and screenplays I was trying to pitch.

Jim is a wonderful, highly ranked writing coach and former columnist for Creative Screenwriting. He knows writing and he knows Hollywood. He told me right up front, this is going to be challenging. It was weird, because he said to me every warning I offer my own clients.

Being a writing coach means telling people what they need to fix. Most writers don’t want to hear what isn’t working in a manuscript or screenplay. Having spent months or years on a work, the writer has invested serious emotional energy in the work.

And this horrible, mean coach, is about to tell the client that the work isn’t finished. It isn’t as good as it must be. It’s just okay, if that, and needs to be refined. You hire a writing coach like you hire a personal trainer: expecting to be pushed harder and being told you can be a lot better than you are at this moment.

When a writing coach pushes you, and certainly Jim pushes his clients, it’s because you really do have to be 10x, 100x, maybe 1000x better than what’s already in Hollywood. Your script has to be better, from formatting to the structure. You don’t get to bend or break any rules. Your query letter, pitch, treatment, and logline(s) have to be better. Way better than what you might imagine.

During my last meeting with Jim, he destroyed every logline, every concept, every treatment I offered, shooting them down like he was playing the old Atari 2600 Shooting Gallery. And if I tried to defend my idea, the answer was quick: you aren’t big enough to rely on being okay or good or even slightly better than most.

There’s a reason I don’t charge and seldom work with new writers. They aren’t used to how the system works and how much is expected of a spec script. They don’t have a clue how hard the film, stage, and publishing markets are in this economy (media markets have never been easy to enter) and many writers don’t want to hear anything but how great their ideas are or how easy it will be to tweak the ideas.

It’s not easy for a spec writer. Statistically, it’s nearly impossible. You have to be writing, and writing, and writing. You get rejected, you revise. You get rejected again, you revise.

If you pay for coverage, sometimes they’ll tell you how close you are, or even how great you are. That’s usually not the truth. Sorry, but the truth is your work likely isn’t that close to perfection. These analysts and contests want your money. Have you seen the lists of scripts making “quarter finals” or “finals” in these contests? Pages of scripts, 98 percent of which won’t be optioned, and 70 or more percent of those optioned will collect dust.

Pay someone like Jim or David Trottier (“Dr. Format”) if you want unvarnished, brutal truth. If you don’t want to pay, and are okay with strong opinions based on my experience, that’s fine — but listen and take the advice seriously. Jim, Dave, and even I WANT you to succeed. We WANT you to sell a script or manuscript. But we also know how awesome the package has to be. It’s not personal when we point to weaknesses in a story or in some other aspect of a client’s work. It’s not trying to show that we are mean or picky. It’s to help you sell the thing you’ve created to someone, to some publisher or producer.

I am not a famous script consultant. I’m not a major name. I have taught at universities and I’ve worked with a handful of clients. So, if you don’t want to listen to me, that’s understandable. Yet, my students seem to have done okay and my clients have had some small success.

None of us, from the big name consultants to the (currently inactive) university professors like myself, want you to fail. We want to help other writers be the best they can be. That’s why we point out formatting errors, grammar errors, and problems with story structure. We’re not being picky to demonstrate our expertise: we are teaching you what not to do, so your story will be read and treated with respect by a studio, producer, publisher, or editor.

And if you don’t believe that, fine. Whatever. But I want every student I’ve had, every client studio, every friend I’ve tried to help to SELL something each writer can feel was a great effort and represent the best possible product handed off to a studio, publisher, or media house.

Yes, I take this very, very personally. You want help, I’ll ask questions and hope you listen to what I’m asking. If you want guidance, that’s what I can offer. It might not be perfect and it might not be what you want to hear. If you don’t want my experience, research, or plain opinion, don’t ask for guidance or tips or ideas to help polish and sell your writing.

Look into a mirror, and tell yourself how magical you are and how stupid Hollywood is. You’ll feel much better than I’ve ever made anyone feel about their works.

If you want to self-produce, do it. That’s the best way to get movies made. It’s like theater today: self-produce, and you’ll have a show. Self-publish, you can sell a few copies of a book. If your work is so great, then you go make it happen if nobody else wants it. It has worked for a few dozen filmmakers and playwrights, and even a few authors have sold millions of self-published books.

You want affirmation? Find another career, because screenwriting is about getting fired and replaced by the second or third writing team. You SELL the script, you let go, or you get hired to replace someone you know and like. Writers end up replacing each other, and trying to laugh it off over coffee or drinks.

Professionals all know that writing is hard work, especially writing for hire in the media. There are a lot of writers, all trying for the few jobs and trying to sell one of the few works that a media company will buy and produce or publish. It’s not an easy career choice, and a good coach or teacher reminds you that it is difficult.

Writers and Silly Media Biases: Stories are Flexible

“This story is a movie. That other story needs to be a novel.”

One of my pet peeves is the common assumption among writers that particular types of stories are best suited to a single medium. This assumption belies either a lack of skill or a lack of understanding and appreciation for various media.

Cinderella can be a picture book, a novel, a short story, an animated short, a full-length feature, a musical, a play…. The possibilities for telling any story are limited only by the writer’s knowledge of a particular form and audience expectations. It is possible to tell the story of Cinderella without words. In fact, silent films, animations, and ballets exist without dialogue and yet audiences understand the story being told.

The basic story of Cinderella is well known in our culture. A young woman is raised by her selfish stepmother alongside two equally narcissistic sisters. A grand ball is announced, during which the Prince is expected to find a suitable wife from the nobility. The magic of a fairy godmother transforms Cinderella from a household servant into a beautiful lady, complete with fine glass slippers. For the rest of the story, I encourage you to read, watch, and listen to as many variations as possible.

A short story of Cinderella might not explain how the stepmother came to mary Cinderella’s father. A full-length novel or motion picture might explore the complex back story. A ballet would rely on the music and motion to convey thoughts, emotions, and the general plot. The original fairytale features some startlingly grotesque imagery, which contemporary children’s books and animated features have removed.

My point is that a well-known fairytale such as Cinderella can be adapted to any media by a talented writer. However, not every writer is a master of all forms and genres. I certainly could not score an opera or ballet based on Cinderella. Nor could I illustrate a word free picture book of the story. My limitations as a writer are not the limitations of the story.

Most early movies were adaptations of famous plays. Yet, I frequently hear screenwriters claim that a story is a “good play, bad movie.” Instead, a screenwriter should be considering how to tell the story maximizing the strengths of cinema.

A colleague posted the following to Facebook:
If your protagonist is a THINKER you have a BOOK.
If your protagonist is a TALKER you have a PLAY.
If your protagonist is a DOER you have a MOVIE.

The problem with the preceding simple checklist is that a main character can be adapted to doing, talking, or thinking based on the medium destination for the story. Sometimes, you must add a character or other device to allow thoughts to become dialogue. Sometimes, voiceover works well in a film and can reveal thoughts. Great directors can reveal thoughts with quick cuts and suggestive images. Never limit yourself by asserting any character is only one aspect of the above list.

We are all thinkers, talkers, and doers. Choosing which to emphasize is a choice made based on the form and genre selected by or for the storyteller.

As an aside, I also dislike the emphasis on the protagonist in the above list. Main characters may or may not be “protagonists” in the traditional sense of good versus evil. Equally important, opposing characters (antagonist, opposition, impact, muse, et al) can be adapted to any form and genre. Evil thoughts can be expressed in dialogue, or suggested through action, limited only by the skill of the writer.

When someone states that a movie was not as good as the book this can reflect either a bad movie or unusual expectations. The audiences for full-length novels might not be the same as the audiences for two-hour movies. However, it seems more likely that the adaptation is to blame for audience dissatisfaction. Nobody would try to compare the short story of Cinderella to a full-length feature film. Each medium must stand apart even when telling the same story.

Lose your media biases. Stories themselves are flexible, ready to be told in any medium by a talented storyteller, someone aware of that medium’s strengths and weaknesses. If you cannot see a story in a particular medium, maybe you aren’t the right choice for writing that adaptation. That is not an insult or a criticism. As I mention above, I’m not the best choice for any number of forms and genres. Know your strengths and tell the stories you want to tell in the medium or media you prefer.

Just don’t tell another writer that his or her story must be told in a particular medium, according to your biases.

WE SEE… Why Screenwriters Started Using WE

As a playwright, I am accustomed to “directing” the action. One of the attractions of writing for stage is the primacy of the script, as submitted by the writer to a director. Changes require the approval of the playwright, and well-known playwrights have challenged directors who felt the need to “improve” plays (and the writers win these challenges).

By comparison, the director is in charge of screen productions. Always. The writer produces a work-for-hire owned by the production company, with creative control falling to the director, except in the rarest of cases. Short of being a writer-director, the screenwriter’s “vision” of the work is nothing more than a suggestion.

In the early years, directors of films were like theater directors. They adhered to the script because a lot of movies were made quickly. Changes happened, but the early industry was focused on releasing works to meet a high demand.

Over time, directors started to exert greater control.

Up through the 1970s, spec scripts (speculative, meaning written with the hope of selling the work) and initial drafts included some camera direction, and a good deal of narrative direction. The director might change these directions, but they were included by the screenwriter to suggest a vision.

Though there had been powerful directors since the start of film and television, things changed dramatically during the 1970s. Theatrical feature directors told writers to stop directing in the spec script or initial draft. Television directors started to adopt the same policy. (It should be noted that in series television, many producers are writers, so the tensions are little different.)

Told not to direct on the page, writers have continued to bend this commandment from the film gods by writing narrative and action that attempts to direct. You often spot these non-directing directions with WE SEE and WE HEAR in contemporary scripts. You also spot the direction with objects, sounds, and other elements types in ALL CAPS, as if screaming to the director that “This must be so!”

Consider Lynne Pembroke’s reaction to these non-directing tricks of screenwriters:

COVERSCRIPT TIPS – A Heated Disagreement
July 21, 2015, Lynne Pembroke

A heated disagreement. In this case, about two teeny, tiny, itsy bitsy phrases. And a personal much-detested pet peeve. Contained wrath is the immediate reaction when I run across them….

Using these two phrases is a writing cop-out. Because it’s easy; without them a screen writer is forced to Show not Tell.

Besides, “we” are in the theater seats watching, or in our office chairs reading, not in the &%#$@% story!

I don’t disagree in principle, but directors set the standards no matter what anyone else argues. I swapped to WE SEE, but only for very specific camera changes.

TOURISTS mill about a fountain. (No need for WE SEE.)

WE SEE the feet of tourists, splashing in water. (Very specific visual wanted.)

Could WE SEE be omitted?

BARE FEET splash in the fountain.

It would then be up to a director if this is a close up or not. The old days, when spec writers included more shots, before directors told writers not to direct:


Feet splash in the fountain.

Personally, I would rather have “CLOSE UP:” in the spec script, instead of “WE SEE” or or “BARE FEET” capitalized. I suppose there’s no perfect approach to trying to direct, without being the director, short of getting rewrite and shooting script duties in your script deal. If you are hired for the shooting script, the SFX and shot slugs can replace WE SEE and WE HEAR.

As a playwright, I am the all-mighty last and final word on the direction. As a screenwriter, I have to accept my position and do my best to cajole a director to accept my ideas. Some directors will recoil at any suggest shot, WE SEE stunts, or other direction. Other directors recognize that the writer had a vision or there wouldn’t be a screenplay.

My suggestion: avoid WE SEE and WE HEAR and all the capitalization stunts unless you lack a better way to convey an absolutely essential visual or sound in the script.

Your Script is a Snitch, Part Two

Part One of “Your Script is a Snitch” explained how your script is snitching on you before the reader opens or scrolls to page one. Now, let’s examine what your script says to readers as they skim the pages of your screen gem. The message might not be the one you hoped the script would convey.

A reader doesn’t have to read much to make some educated assumptions. With dozens, or even hundreds, of scripts to read, any hint from your script that its writer wasn’t serious and professional can doom the script to the trash can, real or virtual.


“Read me, trust me, I’m from a professional.” That’s what you want your script to say.

Did you use the appropriate template?

Page One (1.) screams loudly about your ability to follow the rules for screenwriting. Assuming you properly bound the script and the fly sheet stuck to the basics, the first page is going to tell the reader if you understand how to format a script.

“Hello. I’m a well-formatted, properly written script,” the page should tell readers.

The easiest way to ensure a script is formatted properly is to use Final Draft or Screenwriter and the appropriate template for the screenplay. Both writing programs include basic templates for theatrical spec scripts, specific studios, cable networks, and broadcast series. The formatting is not the same for all screenplays! TV scripts, in particular, should be based on the right template for the desired production company or network.

If your script doesn’t look like other scripts for the same type of film or series, it tells the reader you didn’t bother to read samples or look at the available templates. And if you thought you had a “better way” to format the script, the script just revealed what a fool you are. There are sample scripts galore online. Search for them. Download the samples for Final Draft and Screenwriter. Study the standards and replicate them.

If you don’t have Final Draft of Screenwriter, you can still search for and follow example scripts. You might have to work a bit harder to match the formatting, but you don’t want your script to tell readers you didn’t know about Google.

Again, this blog post isn’t a detailed formatting guide. But, I can look at the running header of a script and often determine the writer didn’t use the correct template. TV show scripts for most production companies include the show name and episode in the header, with variations in formatting. TV shows also have teaser and act headings, indicating when commercial breaks occur in the script.

Page One is often as far as a reader gets, especially if the script says, “My writer was too lazy to do some basic research on formatting.”

Did you submit a spec script or a production script?

A spec script with scene numbers and camera angels? That script is saying, “My writer has no idea what a spec script is.” Look up the difference in The Screenwriter’s Bible or any other formatting guide. A spec script is “clean” without any numbering. The numbering is used to plan filming, and that’s a long way from the first reader’s desk.

Spec scripts also haven’t had “(CONTINUED)” on each page for some time.

Did you write a story or try to direct?

A script with camera angles, cuts, and other choices a director should make tells the reader, “My writer really dreams of directing.” That’s nice, but a script that reveals you’re more interested in directing isn’t going to be greeted warmly. If you want to direct, get behind a camera for a while. Don’t use your script to prove you have a vision.

Avoid the “WE SEE…” and “WE HEAR…” not-so-subtle attempts at directing. Sometimes this might work. One example I’ve read that made sense was, “WE SEE feet splashing in a fountain.” That narrative worked because of what came next. It really did set up a surprise, which was effectively written. But don’t write something like, “WE HEAR a PHONE RING.” No, just write, “A PHONE RINGS.”

Generally, the only camera directions are “FADE IN” and “FADE OUT” in a spec script. Respect the director and let him or her interpret the script. If a story is well written, it comes close to directing itself with shots a director knows have to be in the film.

Does the script have “curves” or is it poles, Ts, blocks, and other regular (potentially boring) shapes?

Pages of dialogue or pages of narrative tell a reader, “My writer doesn’t understand pacing.” You might believe you have a great three-page conversation, with no action. The script is saying, “This writer isn’t thinking about the visuals.” This is a screenplay, not an audio drama. Something should be happening.

A script can also have too much action without any dialogue. That’s a rare problem (very rare), because most writers do like dialogue. Why should you have dialogue during a chase scene or a tense standoff? Think about great films. They often have those memorable lines spoken in isolation, with no response from another character.

Readers look for scripts with variations in the blocks of text. There’s a mix of dialogue and action, with neither filling page after page. A script has a “shape” that’s interesting. It isn’t a “pole” (dialogue ending with narrative) or a “T” (narrative followed by dialogue). Look at your pages from a distance. Is variation obvious? You don’t need to read to see a script has a good balance.

What font did you use?

Believe it or not, this is a problem. I’ve seen scripts set in Helvetica, Arial, Times New Roman, and various monospaced typefaces such as DIN and Andale Mono. Those typefaces are wrong. Always. A script is in 12-point Courier. Not a “close enough” font that looks something like a typewriter. Come to think of it, American Typewriter was the worst face I’ve seen used for a script. You might as well use Dymo (named for the plastic impression lettering tape).

Don’t play with 11-point, 11.5-point, 12.5-point or any other point size. A script is 12-point Courier. You don’t get to cheat to reach a page count. A reader can tell something isn’t quite right with a smaller or a larger font.

Okay, I’ll pretend that every aspiring screenwriter knows to use Courier, but did you know which Courier matters to some people with good eyes for detail? Final Draft and Screenwriter include their own customized versions of Courier that are not Courier New. If you can use Courier or one of the custom Courier faces that isn’t Courier New, do so. Why? Because, and I’m not kidding, the other Courier typefaces scan and copy better.

Yes, there are differences. The screenwriting applications ship with Courier fonts that are remarkably close to the typewriter face Courier from the IBM Selectric type ball. The spacing is perfect at 12 points.

Nobody is going to reject a Courier New screenplay. But, your script should say, “I’m easy to copy, easy to share!” because if someone likes your script, copies will be made. Simply printing more from the laser printer isn’t an option because reader, directors, agents, actors, and executives make notes and comments on scripts, which they then photocopy. I’ve even had someone write on a script, scan the pages, and email those to me. Sure, that reveals a lack of tech know-how, but I’m not going to tell someone she should learn how to make comments in Adobe Acrobat. Maybe the notes were made over dinner. Whatever. Just use a nice, dark, Courier typeface.

Did you get the margins and tabs right?

As silly as using the wrong font, setting the wrong margins and tabs screams, “My writer is entirely clueless!” Once again, allow me to suggest screenwriting software. Buy Screenwriter or Final Draft. If you’re cashflow negative, at least download a template for Word, Pages, or your favorite word processor. You can type a script in almost any good word processor, but you have to get the settings correct.

No screenwriter should be without The Screenwriter’s Bible. Not consulting a good guide to formatting is the surest way to submit a script that tells every reader, “This screenplay is by a careless amateur.”

Once your script snitches on you, it’s hard to win over any reader.