Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog
Complications Ensue:
The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog



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Thursday, March 31, 2011

I like to put one blank line before a slugline. In general, I feel there should never be more than one blank line in a row in a screenplay. Waste of space, y'know.

However, Screenwriter comes with the default set to two blank lines before a slugline. So which is the industry standard.

If you have an opinion, please vote. If you have a strenuous opinion, please vote and comment. Thanks!




Free Online Surveys

UPDATE: So far, the pros overwhelmingly (eight to one) use a single blank line. Everyone else is split almost evenly, with slightly more using single spaces.

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A Friend of the Blog hired me to do story notes on his script, and I did. Then he asked:
Q. But I have one important question: is this script worth working on? With your experience, would you say that this script could be sold one day if I would follow your notes?
Well, yes. I'm not one of those cheerleader script editors who says nice things to be nice. If I say "this could be good if you do this," it's because I think it could be good if you do that.

But the script I have in my head -- the script I think your script wants to be when it grows up -- is not your script now. Can you get it there? Or get it close enough that someone will buy it and hire someone else to get it all the way there?

How should I know?

What I tell everyone is: pitch your story out loud, to lots of people. Don't read it off the page, but tell people your movie story, out loud, without notes. Do this over and over, to anyone who'll listen. Ideally to the kind of people that you think are its natural audience, but also to any kid between 10 and 14. Kids are more open-minded than adults, and if a story is too subtle or too complicated for them, it's probably too complicated and subtle for a movie.

(Note: a kid might not like AWAY FROM HER, or LES INVASIONS BARBARES, but the story is simple enough to explain.)

If you pitch your story out loud, several things will happen.

You will immediately get a sense of whether people are interested in your story. If you give someone a script, they will say, "Hey, that was fun!" But if they have to sit through it, you'll know if they really like it.

You will improve your story. Parts of it will seem lame. You'll come up with better stuff as you pitch, or after you pitch.

Parts will seem boring. You'll cut them, or come up with better stuff.

Parts will seem confusing. You'll forget what comes next. That's where you need to fix your story logic.

Your listener will ask questions. That will help you track where the audience is. They will often spot your plotholes, too.

Your listener will make suggestions. Some of them will be better than you've got.

Pitching your story is scary and hard to do. But the more you do it, the better it will be.

Don't ask me if the script could work. Pitch it to your friends and neighbors, and you'll get a visceral sense of whether you believe it will work. And it's hella cheaper than hiring a story editor.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

The TV Writer Podcast has an interview with my friend Matt MacLennan. Check it out.
Once Matt set his eyes on the goal, nothing would stop him from achieving it. He read books, worked as a script reader, sent out hundreds of unsolicited emails, worked as personal assistant and production assistant, and met with anyone who could give him advice on the industry.

When one door would close, Matt would open another. When he did get a job, he would milk it for all it was worth, volunteering his time for duties outside his job description, so he could learn as many aspects as possible of what it takes to put a show together.

Learn the amazing story of how he proposed an innovative solution to a modestly budgeted teen show, to use indie local bands for fresh but inexpensive music. Matt ended up helping to promote many bands that would use the TV show to springboard to greater success, and at the same time he was credited not only for his writing, but for his music supervision as well!

To top it all off, Matt graciously offers his email address to any writers who would like to seek his advice or help. if you’ve learned anything from Matt, take him up on the offer!

Matt’s latest show, HBO Canada’s “Call Me Fitz,” starring Jason Priestley, begins airing in the US in April. Watch for it on DirecTV!

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Q. I'm developing a webseries for a screenwriting contest. I dove into creating interesting and relatable characters, but then it struck me that the premise seems really hard to explain, and hence to pitch. I don't have much trouble envisioning the finished product as something worth watching, but maybe that's because it's a work comedy and I've had jobs in the same field the series would be set (political communication consulting, which I guess is rather esoteric for the general public). So, does this mean the premise is unworkable, or is it just that the idea is still too raw and needs more development?
The premise may need reworking. You have to figure out how to pitch it so people get it quickly. You might need to restructure the show to include a point of entry for the public. For example, SPIN CITY and THE WEST WING are two takes on "political communication consultants," if you will. We get what they're doing, because one of them is a guy advising a mayor, and the other is some guys advising the President. We didn't know what the Deputy Communications Director did for the President before watching THE WEST WING, probably, but we know what the President is and does, so he's our way in.

If your premise is hard to pitch, it's not a great premise. A good premise is easy to pitch. We immediately get what your main characters are trying to do, whether it's run a restaurant, save a marriage, look cool or save American from terrorists.

However you can find a great premise in all sorts of unlikely territories, certainly including political communication consulting. You just have to work it a bit more than you have.

One mark of a good writer is the willingness to throw out good stuff in order to arrive at better stuff. You may, in reshaping your premise, have to chuck out wonderful characters. Maybe you'll be able to work them back in, maybe not. But "carnage" is a part of the creative process. Don't be afraid of it.
Q. Alternatively, do all series ideas just seem great at first and horrible a week later?
No. Great series ideas seem good at first and then get better as you develop the pitch and find your groove. My best premises ring the bell when we think of them at home, and then ring the bell over and over again when I pitch them.

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Friday, March 25, 2011

At the risk of splintering understanding & energy, or something, here's a fun new blog about language.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

The WGC wants Canadian co-productions (which count under certain Cancon rules) to include more majority co-productions (PDF). They would like more fundamentally Canadian shows, which hire Canadian writers, and fewer minority co-pros like THE TUDORS where there is no real Canadian cultural content, just some money spent in Canada. (A few Canadian actors, say, maybe some post-production services.)
Researching the coproduction landscape in Canada, the Writers Guild of Canada (WGC) found proof of what it has long suspected – that there is a severe imbalance between majority and minority co-productions of TV drama. In its submission today to the Government of Canada’s Consultation on the Implementation of Canada’s Policy on Audiovisual Treaty Co-production, the WGC called on the Canadian government to strengthen the domestic film and TV production industry by enforcing the goal of balancebetween productions in which Canada is a majority partner and those in which we play a minority role. The current imbalance has far-reaching negative effects on the job opportunities in film and TV, the Canadian content available to Canadians, and the domestic talent pool.

The WGC noted that for TV drama, in each of the last two years, there have been just one or two majority co-productions to four or five minority co-productions. And current tracking tell us the situation is only worsening. Such high-cost minority co-productions divert scarce financial resources etc. etc. etc.
I agree with the sentiment; minority co-productions shouldn't become a back door for producers to get the taxpayer to pay for service productions.

But I want more than 'more majority co-pros.' I would like to write on these goddamn shows. I would like to write on THE TUDORS. I would love to write on MERLIN or CAMELOT or whatever.

In fact I would like to propose an expansion of the Canadian cultural content rules. There is a rule that shows should be set in Canada and/or feature Canadian characters, but there's an exception for science fiction. You can set a show in the future and call it Canadian, so long as it is set offworld (Caprica, say) and not in some known country that is not Canada (future San Francisco).

Why not make an exception for history? Canada's history is not the same as the history of the North American continent. Canada's history includes British and French history. Our history includes the English Civil War, and Henry VIII, and Magna Carta, and 1066. Our history includes Madame de Pompadour and Joan of Arc. Go further back, and our history includes Caesar and Pericles and the March Up Country. Our legends include King Arthur and the Chanson de Rolond and Exodus.

Why, oh why, don't these count as Canadian cultural content? These are the people we came from, and the stories they told.

And why be Eurocentric? Canadians come from China and Africa and India. Why isn't The Pillow Book "Canadian content"? Or The Tale of Genji? Or the Mahabarata?

The alternative is what we have. You can't make a medieval movie in Canada, not and call it Canadian, because Canada had no Middle Ages. (Otherwise we'd be shooting my medieval zombie pic here.) You couldn't make a movie out of my novel about Morgan le Fay, THE CIRCLE CAST, because King Arthur never came to Montreal. You can't make a sword-and-sandals Canadian TV show because Canada was never part of the Roman Empire.

Which, due to the nature of Canadian film and TV funding, means we can't get a sword-and-sandals show made at all.

Which means I don't get to write one.

If Britain had similar rules, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL would have qualified for full Britcon, but MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN would have been insufficiently British.

As a history fan, this drives me up a tree. (Yggdrasil, in fact.) Cancon rules cede all historical features to other countries.

And yet historical movies travel well. You can air ROME or A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM or BEN HUR in Italy, France, Romania, Morocco and South Africa and the audience will know something about Rome, and want to see more. All these countries have Rome in their history.

Some Cancon rules are necessary. Without cultural Cancon rules, the Canadian taxpayer would be funding nothing but faux-American cop shows set in Generica. But the rules also limit Canadian film and TV to the present and the future. They cut us off from our past.

I think there should be a historical exemption. Go back further than a certain historical time -- let's say 1497 -- and you're off the hook. You still have to shoot here with Canadian crew and actors, but you don't have to set your story within the geographic borders of Canada.

Discuss.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

If you're in Montreal on the 4th, swing on by Réservoir for another Soirée Schmooze; we'll be upstairs.

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Today, I'm interviewed on YA Fresh. I talk about the mystery at the heart of the King Arthur legend, my writing routine, my first sale and other fun stuff. And I'm giving away a signed copy of the book. Check it out!

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

So I'm reading The Audacity of Hope, and I see that eleven years ago, Barack Obama had just got his butt whooped in a congressional election, and was considering getting out of politics. About the same time, I was considering getting out of showbiz. I guess it worked out for both of us after all.

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Wednesday, March 09, 2011



Denise Jaden, author of the highly acclaimed YA novel LOSING FAITH and the forthcoming APPETITE FOR BEAUTY, interviewed me on her blog! She asks me about my characters, my day job (which is screenwriting), my path to publication, my number one bit of writing advice, and what I wrote when I was a teen. Check it out!

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Thursday, March 03, 2011

On a certain script, I've been getting some feedback that amounts to two characters not being perceived as likable or worthy people. I've had various proposals on how to make these characters seem more likable or more worthy people.

While that note can be valid, often it is misleading. We don't have to like your main character and we definitely don't have to like your secondary characters. You have to make your characters people we find compelling. We have to root for them to succeed or fail, but rooting for them to fail is just as strong as rooting for them to succeed.

For example, we have a lot of sympathy for the Frankenstein creature, but we don't want him to survive -- he murdered a little girl! In Oliver Stone's NIXON, we don't want Tricky Dick to get away with it. But we find him a compelling, fascinating character -- a sort of monster himself.

Lisa and I were just watching Charlie Kaufman's BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. (And if ever the possessory credit should belong to the writer and not the director, this would be it.) John Cusack's character is not likable. He's a whiny loser of a puppeteer. Then he goes on to do things that make us hate him. Yet he carries the film. We care what happens to him ... and his punishment is very satisfactory, thank you.

In this particular screenplay, I couldn't give the main character more likability because of what he does. He has a profession we all despise and fear. And in the movie he does a very bad thing, and then covers it up. That's nothing I could change -- it's in the bones of the screenplay. Having him be nicer to his daughter or to "save the cat" would just piss the audience off -- they'd feel I was trying to weasel out of the character's essential badness.

I think I've cracked how to fix this particular screenplay. If I'm right, the answer isn't to make the main character more likable nor his girlfriend more worthy. Instead I'm making the girlfriend much more clearly crazy -- clarifying just where her insanity lies -- and showing more clearly how the main character is failing to understand her craziness. The solution is in making their flaws clearer and stronger, rather than giving them virtues they do not deserve.

When someone says your character isn't likable enough, the answer may not be in making the character more likable. There is something missing, but it may not be something you can solve by having the character take care of his aged grandmother. The solution is in making them more interesting. Make them more compelling, stranger, more distinct, more flawed, more human. Make them more someone we can't take our eyes off.

When someone asks you to make a character more likable, make them more interesting.

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We just got word that YOU ARE SO UNDEAD has been invited to screen at BleedFest in LA. Yay! We'll let you know the date.

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Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The WGC National Forum is coming up April 10th and 11th. If you're a member of the WGC in Québec, or if you hope to become one, and if you have any concerns you'd like aired, please talk to Anne-Marie Perrotta or me before then. Thanks!

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