It depends on where you are at in your process.  Are you a beginner, have you written one or two scripts?  Have you sold anything?

Good screenwriting comes from assimilation of every thing  that you have read and seen.  And that list should include reading as many good screenplays that you can get your hands on.  I learned from the bad ones, too, but not at first.  At first you must read good screenplays that have already been produced to get the rhythm, the tone, the pace and the structure of a saleable script.  Saleable being the operative phrase.  In reading good screenplays you learn to be economical and smart and bust your own clichÈs’.

As far as books on writing screenplays, I have read a lot.  I take some of the points that make sense and put them in the hopper of my writer’s mind and leave most if they confuse me..  It helps to be working on a project when you read a book on screenwriting to apply the tips you read to your own project.  This personalizes the experience for you and you are more likely to remember it..  Since you don’t know what will stick as a beginner screenwriter, read as much as you can and then let it all go.  Trust that the cream will rise to the top.

Personally, I love Syd Field and applied his formula to my beginning scripts. But it really isn’t just Syd’s formula anymore – it is mine and Syd’s. The way I write is my style shaped by reading Screenplay and everything else that I have read, then letting it go. If you write often enough, eventually your instincts and intuitions and life experience will start forming itself into “screenplay speak”.  You will start to see and hear in terms of screenplay.

I did take Robert McKee’s class but can’t remember a thing except seeing Casablanca and I think he sang on the last day?!  I love the memoir-type books on writing from the masters: Neil Simon’s Rewrites comes to mind, William Goldman’s Adventure In The Screen Trade, Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. It’s always fun to learn a successful film makers process from the inside out.

If you’re just starting out or well on your way, see as many good movies as you can on a regular basis.  When I first started out, I saw a movie a day! But it was my passion and the best experience I can remember. Train your mind to think like a selling screenwriter and you’ll become one!

From the trenches by Linda Bergman
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From the trenches by Linda Bergman

You’ve found  the story you want to tell, you’ve researched the subject, come up with brilliant characters, purchased Final Draft and put in long hours at the keyboard.  You swelled with pride as you wrote “Fade Out.” and then told everyone at the office you were just minutes away from making it big in show biz.  There was, in fact, a friend of your sister-in-law’s brother who worked at a studio and said he’d read it for you, get you inside, slip it to the Execs,  right?

But, shoot!  He didn’t like it, said he couldn’t pass it along to anyone.  Your heart sank.  You felt like you did in the sixth grade when you were the last kid to get picked on a team. And then you got mad.

“The guy’s a tool!  What does he know about MY story!”

Sadly, many of us have felt this way. But don’t despair.  You can fix it.  Here’s what I know about why scripts are passed on:

  1. Your story is probably not as original as you think. If it rings of anything familiar, it will get passed on. Also, if it is too contrived, it will get a big fat “No.” If the story is not a good one and executed perfectly, it will get  a pass.  If it is a terrific story and executed poorly, it might have a chance at getting optioned and new writers assigned. Don’t do a rehash of something you saw.  Make  your idea (which has probably already been done somewhere by someone) different enough to be called original. Find a way to make it fresh and compelling. You do that by having something NEW to say about the idea or a different point of view.
  2. Your characters are weak, flat, unimaginative.  Murky characters don’t have a goal.  They aren’t driven to overcome any obstacles. They don’t come to life on the page and we don’t care about them.  I always ask my students if they have written a ten page bio for each of their characters.  You don’t have to put everything in the script that they did their whole life, but a good bio will inform your writing of the character.  You are the only person that can bring him/her to life for the reader. And the reader is the first step in the process of selling.
  3. Your descriptions are too long, too wordy.  Just pick the best words to economically describe a scene then let the reader’s imagination take over.
  4. Your dialogue is clunky, over-written, unnatural, too on-the-nose, or you are using dialogue as exposition.  Don’t tell the reader what is going on through dialogue, show the reader what is going on with action. Also, make sure your characters don’t all sound the same. Good dialogue has rhythm and meter. Each character should have their own.
  5. You don’t have a conventional three act structure and your tone is not obvious up front. Write like a pro and you’ll have a better chance of selling  like a pro. No exec will read past page thirty ( some will only read to page ten) if you don’t have a structure in place.
  6. Your script doesn’t make the reader FEEL. If a reader laughs or cries or gets scared, this is a good thing. Even if a script is well written, it can still be boring. Ask yourself if you are moved by your material, if you didn’t laugh or cry, no one else will.
  7. Your script cannot be marketed. There are a lot of well-executed scripts with material that cannot be sold. Maybe it’s too similar to one the studio or production company already has in development.  Or maybe your rom com is just too cookie cutter, or your thriller is not that  particular execs cup of tea. These are things you cannot control and please try not to take them personally.
  8. You did not let enough people who know what they are doing read the script before you submitted it.  A script must be in the best possible shape before you send it to a buyer.  Find an editor or professional that can help you and ask all the tough questions of your piece before it goes out.

Most importantly.  Don’t stop writing!

From the trenches by Linda Bergman
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A report from the trenches

Many years ago, I wrote and produced a series pilot for ABC based on a box of dusty papers a hotelier named John Egan had stuffed under his bed. It was the book he’d never shown anyone about his life as a blue-eyed boy from Cincinnati who fought reverse discrimination in a sea of brown. He pitched me the idea over lunch at his family’s fabulous hotel, Rancho Encantado, in New Mexico. There were a number of producers on that junket from Hollywood and we were being treated to an all-expense paid weekend by the State’s new Film Commission. The late Governor, Bruce King, hoped to bring some revenue into his state and what better way to do it then lure a Hollywood movie or a television series?

Those dusty papers became a two-hour movie pilot based on the adventures of John’s family as they turned a run-down church retreat into a five-star hotel in the wilds of a strange land.  It aired successfully as a movie but never made it on to the weekly schedule.  As designed, it brought more than a million dollars into New Mexico and John and I became life-long friends.

What happened next blew my mind.  My entire premise, painstakingly crafted from that box of papers, was used again by a rival network, who we had originally pitched it to and who had passed on the idea! They turned it into a comedy, changed the names to protect the innocent, but  there was no disguising it. It was John’s story set in New Mexico! And even though I made a big stink, there was really no way I could prove it was our material and not a “coincidence”.

My agent at CAA was sympathetic saying,  “Linda, if you get mad over every upset this business offers, you might as well throw yourself out a window now.”  So much for my touchy-feely agent.

There have been many similar cases over the years.  Art Buchwald’s “Coming To America” suit being the most memorable, but they all underscore one of the most prevalent myths about show biz: Hollywood steals your ideas.

Ian Gurvitz,  contributing author to the Huffington Post and author of  “Hello, Lied the Agent, And Other Bullshit You Hear as a Hollywood TV Writer”, writes this is nonsense.

“ Hollywood does not steal,” Gurvitz says, “ Hollywood copies, imitates, panders, plagiarizes, rips off and robs, but Hollywood does not steal ideas — because ideas are worthless.”

He and I agree. It’s how that idea is executed that makes it work or not: how it is written, cast, directed, edited, where it is placed on the schedule – or not,  and how much money the network or studio pays to market it.  You could write the best thing ever and if no one sees it,  it goes straight to DVD.

Every year there are millions of  ideas bandied about in Hollywood and as Gurvitz points out, “… there is bound to be some concept overlap…” in the ethers at all times.  It’s as if an idea comes out of one mind and sinks into the Zeitgeist and then creatives everywhere pick it up.  Each programmer feeling as if it is original and their very own.

This year there were thousands of projects developed among hundreds of  television outlets: comedies, dramas, cop shows, lawyer shows,  medical shows, serial killer shows, event shows, cooking shows, vampire shows, shows about America’s no-talent, shows about America’s big talent, shows made from British hits, shows made from Canadian hits. It’s exhausting.

It is my contention that most executives don’t steal on purpose. It’s that they hear and read so many ideas, that when pressed to the wall by their bosses for something fresh, they grab what comes to mind and totally forget where that idea came from.  They assign a hot writer and producer and, voila! Rip off city.

On the up side.  And there is an up side. You may be assigned to work on an idea that an executive gives you and under your aegis, it works like magic!  Without the written word, no one else gets hired. Your take on that idea can bring millions of dollars to a community and many thousands to your own bank account.  You will feel emotion like no other as actors you admire become your characters and put your words on their feet. You get to hang out with amazingly creative people and feel pride as you gather family and friends to see the finished product  and your name on TV or the big screen.

So it you feel your idea has been ripped off, don’t throw yourself out a window. Get to work and come up with something else!  Don’t waste too much time on the heartache, just move on.  As Gurvitz points out:

“Hollywood cannot steal your ideas.  It can only steal your soul.”

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