Your script is complete. You’ve done rewrite after rewrite and you’ve finally gotten it to where you feel comfortable with shopping it around. Now you need to work on your pitch. You should have a couple different variations of your pitch ready to fire off at any given moment. You should have an “elevator pitch” and your standard pitch.
What’s an elevator pitch? It’s a quick synopsis of your script that you can rattle off to an executive in about 1.5 to 3 minutes. Example: while riding in the elevator. Executives and producers are busy. They don’t have time for your 10 minute break down. Hell, they eat their lunch in less time. Now I want you to keep in mind… I’m not telling you to jump in an elevator with Spielberg or Bruckheimer and vomit your pitch all over them. I’m saying if the opportunity arises where you’ve started a conversation with someone and you happen to mention that you’ve written a script and they ask, “What’s it about?”, you’d better have a short pitch ready to spit.
If you’ve gotten lucky enough to actually be invited to pitch your story in someone’s office, this is where the standard pitch comes in. Typically you’ll be scheduled 10 minutes. Some may schedule longer, but always be prepared for a 10-minute pitch. Very important: Do NOT have 10 minutes worth of pitch. Keep it to five minutes and give yourself time for them to ask you questions. “What kind of questions are they gonna ask, Tony?” Questions you will not be prepared to answer! In all seriousness they will ask you questions about your main character such as, “Why do we care about him/her?” They may ask you about your setting and why does it need to take place there. But they will always, without fail, ask you a question you will not be prepared to answer. Take it in stride, don’t take too much time to think about it, and let it fly. You will most definitely think of a better answer after you leave the office, but the important thing is not to let it rattle you.
Practice pitching your script in front of a camera. Watch the playback. Listen objectively. Rehearse it, but please try your best not to sound rehearsed. I’m an actor with a background in door-to-door sales (keep that under your hat) so I’ve got a bit of an edge with it comes to making my pitch not sound rehearsed. The trick is to make it sound as though you are describing it to your best friend. That’s where the camera comes it. If you play it back and you don’t believe the words falling out of your face, neither will the producer. Practice on your friends. Hell, practice on strangers. If you can get a perfect stranger interested while waiting in line at Starbucks, then you’re off to a great start.
Key points to have in your pitch, make sure you cover the character and story arc. Just touch on the highlights, you don’t need to cover every scene. Remember you’ve only got 10 minutes and in most cases less than 3. Don’t forget the hook. There’s gotta be a hook. Don’t give them the ending right from the start. Let them ask you. You want them to ask questions. It shows they’re interested. Try to be prepared. Inevitably you won’t be, but don’t let that deter you from making the effort. Flying by the seat of your pants won’t help you in this moment. Until next week, keep writing!
Practice safe screenwriting! Once you’ve finished your screenplay make sure you’re protected. “But Tony, how do I know for sure that I’m protected?” That’s an excellent question. In this article I will discuss the ways writers have attempted to protect their work, what has been successful, and what hasn’t. If you want to be certain that no one will steal your work, fear not. You’re more likely to win the lottery. Which I guess if your work is covered, it could be just like winning the lottery. So pay attention!
You may have heard of the “poor man’s copyright” where you send yourself a copy of your work via the United States Postal Service in order to prove ownership. While that may help keep the Post Office in business, it does very little to protect your work. It won’t hold up in a court of law. However, back in 1978 copyright legislation was passed that stated once a work is created and “fixed” in some recognizable way (saving it on your computer with a “created” date stamp) it automatically marks that work as officially yours! The bad news? That doesn’t mean squat in a court of law either when it comes to statutory damages. If you want someone to pay for using your work without permission, you need something more substantial.
“So then I should register my script with the WGA?” Unfortunately the WGA doesn’t do much to protect you either. It’s kind of like using a sandwich baggie and a twist tie instead of a condom. The WGA will provide an employee to vouch for you in court, but it still won’t help in collecting money from those who stole your work. The biggest reason people use the WGA is because it’s cheaper than buying a copyright, but not by that much.
“Then I should register a copyright on my script?” Absolutely! A copyright with the government protects your work here in the states as well as outside the U.S. A copyright means that you’ll get money if you can prove that someone stole your work. “What do you mean prove?” Well, I mean you’ll have to prove that the people or business that produced the work that you claim to be yours at some point had access to your work. If you can’t prove that, then you’ll have to prove that your story is identical to the one that got produced… without a shadow of a doubt. Read Jim Cirile’s story to get a better understanding.
To tie this all up in a neat little bow, once you’ve typed your script into your computer and saved it, you have proof that it’s yours. Registering with the WGA (East or West) affords you a tiny bit more protection (read “hardly any”). Registering a copyright gives you the most protection, but just like with sex, don’t go sliding it in anywhere. Know whom you’re giving it to and keep records. It’ll come in handy if you need to go to court. Until next week, keep writing!
As some of you already know, I fancy myself to be pretty talented with writing dialogue, hence the name of this blog. There are three well-known screenwriters whom I believe to excel in the area of dialogue: Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, and Joss Whedon. Writing great dialogue is an art form. It is often what is not said that says the most. These three have mastered that art form.
I’ve written a previous blog that talked about “on-the-nose” dialogue. This is when a character speaks exactly what is on his mind. There are times when this is appropriate. For instance in a comedy, but most times it makes for dull and lifeless scenes. Great writing consists of subtext and innuendo to create not only a more enjoyable read, but more enjoyable for a viewing audience. I’m going to pick scenes from each of these writers to give you an example of what I’m talking about.
Let’s start with Tarantino. This is the scene from Pulp Fiction where Mia and Vincent arrive back at Marcellus Wallace’s house after Mia has just received a shot of adrenaline after ODing on heroine. Vincent and Mia are making a deal not to let Marcellus know about the incident, then:
You still wanna hear my “FOX FORCE
Vincent turns around.
Sure, but I think I’m still a little
too petrified to laugh.
Uh-huh. You won’t laugh because it’s
not funny. But if you still wanna
hear it, I’ll tell it.
I can’t wait.
Three tomatoes are walking down the
street, a poppa tomato, a momma
tomato, and a little baby tomato.
The baby tomato is lagging behind
the poppa and momma tomato. The poppa
tomato gets mad, goes over to the
baby tomato and stamps on him –
(stamps on the ground)
– and says: catch up.
They both smile, but neither laugh.
See ya ’round, Vince.
Mia turns and walks inside her house.
CLOSEUP – VINCENT
After Mia walks inside. Vincent continues to look at where
she was. He brings his hands to his lips and blows her a
kiss. Then exits FRAME leaving it empty. WE HEAR his Malibu
START UP and DRIVE AWAY.
FADE TO BLACK
This interaction speaks volumes of their relationship. All Mia does is tell a stupid joke, but the subtext is, “I trust you. I’ve got your back, too.” But the dialogue that’s exchanged is much more entertaining than those two sentences.
Joss Whedon is more of television writer than film, although he’s got a couple good films under his belt. Here’s a scene from the TV show Serenity in which Mal, the lead, takes on a favor for Inara, a professional companion and a woman with which Mal has had past relations. He still pines for her, and she for him, but they attempt to keep things professional. Inara is speaking with her friend when Mal walks into her room:
Inara touches the screen. Nandi’s image FREEZES there. Inara sits there
quietly contemplative for a beat. Then:
I suppose you heard most of that?
Mal appears, peaking around the corner at the entrance.
Only because I was eavesdropping.
(then, no bullshit)
Your friend sounds like she’s in a
peck of trouble.
She is. And there’s no authority on that
moon she can go to. They’re
Some men might take advantage of that.
And she’s lookin’ for someone to come
along and explain things to him?
That’s essentially it, yes.
A whole house full of companions…
How they fixed for payment?
They’re not companions.
Thought you didn’t much care for that
It applies. They’re not registered with the Guild.
If you agree to do this, you’ll be
compensated. I’ll see to it. I’ve
put a little aside…
You can keep your money. Won’t be
needing no payment.
Mal. Thank you. I’ll contact Nandi
(he smiles; she turns
But you will be paid. I feel it’s
important that we keep ours strictly a
Her back’s to him now, so she doesn’t see the stung look.
I’ll speak with the crew.
She never looks back. Off Mal, waiting a beat before he goes —
Those last few exchanges say volumes, but not because of the words they speak, because of their actions and reactions. You know exactly what is going through Mal’s mind when she turns her back. And you know exactly what why Inara doesn’t turn back around to look at him. The tension is palpable.
Lastly, we get an example from Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is a master at witty banter. He said in an interview once, “I can write pages of witty banter very quickly, then I realize I got 10 pages with no plot.”
This next scene is from The American President. Sydney is at her sister’s apartment. She has just gotten off of the phone with her friend Richard and they were discussing how Sydney had made a fool of herself earlier at the White House while speaking to the President about global warming. Richard is giving her a hard time and she has just hung up on him.
The TELEPHONE RINGS…
That’s gonna be Leo Solomon. He said
he’d call at nine.
SYDNEY picks up the phone–
Uh, hi, is this Sydney?
SYDNEY doesn’t recognize the voice–
No, this is Andrew Shepherd.
SYDNEY looks at BETH and rolls her eyes, then explains to
(back in the phone)
You’re hilarious, Richard. You’re a
And we CROSS-CUT between SYDNEY and SHEPHERD.
Uhh…this isn’t Richard, it’s Andrew
Oh, really. Well, I’m so glad you
called, because I forgot to tell
you today what a nice ass you have.
I’m also impressed that you were able
to get my phone number, considering
I don’t have a phone. Good night,
SYDNEY hangs up the phone.
INT. SHEPHERD’S PRIVATE OFFICE/THE RESIDENCE – NIGHT
as SHEPHERD, undaunted, dials the number again.
(under his breath)
This used to be easier.
INT. BETH’S APARTMENT – NIGHT
as the PHONE RINGS.
I don’t believe this.
You want me to deal with him?
No way. I may choke in front of
Shepherd, but Richard Reynolds I
She picks up the phone.
And we begin CROSS-CUTTING again between the two.
Are you learning-impaired?!
Listen, do me a favor. Hang up the
Hang up the phone. Then dial 456-1414.
When you get the White House operator,
give her your name and tell her you
want to speak to the President.
SHEPHERD hangs up.
INT. BETH’S APARTMENT – NIGHT
SYDNEY’s still holding the phone and seems a little
confused…an emotion which is about to be replaced by horror
as the unbelievable into the reality.
This isn’t happening to me.
What’s going on?
It’s not possible I did this twice in
The OPERATOR answers.
Good evening, the White House.
My name’s Sydney Ellen Wade. I’d
The President’s expecting your call,
ma’am. I’ll put you right through.
INT. SHEPHERD’S PRIVATE OFFICE/THE RESIDENCE – NIGHT
He’s just opened a bottle of beer when the phone rings.
He picks up the phone–
Mr. President, I’m sure there’s an
appropriate thing to say at this
moment. Probably some formal apology
for the nice-ass remark would be in
order. I just don’t quite know how
to word it.
It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have
called you at home. Should I call
you at the office tomorrow?
No, sir, of course not. I mean —
yes, you can call me anytime you want
— this is fine. Right now is fine.
When I said “of course not,” I meat
that…You know what? The hell with it
— I’m moving to another country.
What did you mean when you said you
don’t have a phone.
I just moved to Washington over the
weekend, and my apartment isn’t ready
yet. This is my sister’s apartment.
Come to think of it, how did you get
How did I get the number. That’s a
reasonable question. I don’t know.
Probably the FBI.
(trying to pretend
it’s just another
guy on the phone)
The FBI. Sure. ‘Cause i-if you want
to find someone and you’re the
president, that’s who you would call.
You know who else is good at that?
Well, yeah, but I was thinking of the
Internal Revenue Service. They have
computer files that…Well…I should
stop stalling. As I’m sure you know,
the French have elected themselves a
new president, and we’re having a formal
state dinner at the White House, and I
was wondering — and you’re under no
obligation at all — but I thought it
might be fun… I was wondering if you
maybe wanted to go…with me, and uh…
there it is. That’s why I was calling.
There’s a long silence on the phone.
Sydney? Sydney, Congress doesn’t
take this long to–
The President has asked me to join
him in representing our country.
I’m honored. I’m equal to the task.
And I won’t let you down, sir.
Sydney, this is just a dinner. We’re
not gonna be doing espionage or
No. Of course. I’m a little…uh…what
do I do? I, I mean, where do I go?
Should I meet you? Will you…
I’m gonna have a very nice woman
named Marsha Bridgeport call you.
She’s the White House Social Director,
and she’ll help you with anything you
want. Now when she calls you and tells
you her name is Marsha Bridgeport,
it’ll help if you give her the
benefit of the doubt.
I’ll see you Thursday night.
Mr. President, thank you for asking
- Really. This is a first for me.
They hang up.
That’s a great exchange. Sydney is a bundle of nerves because she feels like she’s insulted the President yet again. Of course she doesn’t say, “Oh, I’m so nervous. I feel like I’m saying all the wrong words.” Instead she tries to appear that she has her shit together, which comes off exactly the opposite. Subtext tells more of her emotional disarray than her saying exactly how she is feeling.
So there you go, several lengthy examples of great dialogue with subtext. It’s dialogue that tells more than honesty. It’s witty banter that keeps the audience and the reader entertained and engaged. You won’t write this kind of dialogue in your first draft. It may flow off the fingers every now and then, but don’t try to make it this good from the start. It’ll only slow you down. That’s what rewrites are for. Until next week, keep writing!
I’m writing this blog because a lot of beginning screenwriters think that once they’ve finished writing their first draft that they can send it out to producers or agents or any number of famous people and get it sold. This can actually do you more damage than good. With all do respect to all of you newbs out there, your first draft is shit! Hell, your first script is shit! And if you go showing it to the powers that be, it could destroy your chances of getting a meeting with them in the future when you’ve actually learned a thing or two about screenwriting.
I would wager that no screenwriter has ever sold the very first script they’ve ever written. Oaky, maybe there’s one guy out there, but he wrote many other screenplays after his first. And he most likely sold other screenplays before rewriting his first script and making it worthy. I digress. Here are a few things that you should do before you try to sell your script:
Read your script from beginning to end from an objective point of view. I know it can be very difficult to look at your own work objectively, so here’s a little tip to help with that: set it aside for a few months. Forget about it. Don’t read it until you’ve forgotten how the story goes, then when you read it again, you can read with a reader’s eye and not a parent’s eye.
Once you’ve given it a once over with a fresh outlook it’ll be easier to determine which scenes can stay and which scenes should be axed. How do you know which scenes should be axed? Are you new here? It’s the scenes that don’t move the story forward. And the best way I’ve found to determine that is through a reverse outline.
Submit To Contests
Once you’ve done a rewrite or two… or ten, then it’s time to submit it to contests. There are tons of contests out there that you can submit to and find out how your little pearl stacks up against thousands of other writers. Don’t get too discouraged when your script doesn’t place though. It doesn’t mean your script is bad. It just means that there are others out there that are better than yours. And that’s okay, because you’re a newb. And the only way to improve is to keep practicing. That means you’ll need to do some rewrites and submit it to more contests.
Get Professional Notes
Now it’s time to seek professional help. No, not from a shrink, from a script consultant. That’s right, pay someone to tell you how shitty your screenplay is. Be sure you do your research. You don’t want to pay a lot to get advice from someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about. It’s best to get script notes from sites that offer them on a discount when you submit your script to their contest.
Keep in mind that not every note needs to be taken, but every note should be considered. Keep an open mind. Again, stay object. Maybe try out the note before you decide to discard it. Maybe even give your script to a couple of readers and compare notes. After you’ve done another rewrite utilizing the notes you’ve been given, send it out for more notes. Key point, you can send it to the same consultants, but it may be more helpful to get someone else’s opinion after the rewrite.
Submit To Agents
You still may not feel like it’s ready to shop. That’s a good sign. It’s always the ones that are overconfident that have the worst scripts. Send it out to a few agents to see if you get any bites. You may want to hold off on sending it to producers until you hear back, or don’t, from the agents. Sometimes you may find that you just need to scrap the script and finish one of those other ones you’ve been working on. What!? You haven’t been writing other scripts!? You know the drill! Until next week, KEEP WRITING!
Every wannabe writer hears it all the time: “You want to be a writer? You need to write everyday!” What does that really mean? There are so many other elements to becoming a writer, like research, rewrites, character development, etc., who has time to write everyday? Professional writers, that’s who.
People who get paid to write write everyday, and they also do all those other things that come along with it. Professional writers get paid to juggle many projects at once. They are researching one, while writing another, and rewriting yet another. I know, you thought being a writer would be all fun and no work. Well, you’re wrong. Just like anything you get paid to do, there are elements that will be considered work.
So now the question is, “How much time do I have to invest?” First of all, did you just say have to invest? You don’t have to invest any time at all. In fact, don’t do anything. Just keep punching your timecard at your old nine to five, doing what you hate. But if you really want to be a professional writer, then invest all of your free time. (Side note: don’t neglect your friends and family in the process. It may grant you success sooner, but that time saver could be morally expensive).
Okay, I get it. You want a breakdown so that you know how to live your life. I get it. Here we go: It all depends on your comfort level and your ability to be honest with yourself. For the writing portion, some writers work on crafting just one sentence everyday. That doesn’t mean just writing the first sentence that comes to mind and calling it a day. That means s/he works on making that one sentence the most perfect sentence it can be. Some writers use a specific time frame and hours of which to write: Early morning from 6 until lunchtime. For most of us with full-time jobs, this isn’t feasible. And still others concentrate on writing a certain number of pages, which can range from about 30 minutes to a couple of hours. The point is to write when and how much is comfortable for you… and be honest with yourself. The amount of effort you put in will directly reflect the amount of success you have.
How much time is needed for research? Again, be honest with yourself and put in the time and energy required. Research isn’t something that can be done quickly; it can’t be rushed. You’ve got to take your time and study the details. Give yourself at least a couple of hours everyday. And don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole takes you. You can always find interesting things that can help give your story depth.
What about rewrites? Well, that’s a little more subjective. Time invested in rewrites is usually diminishing. You’ll spend more time on your first rewrite than you will on your last. Initially, when you’re checking to make sure that all of your scenes fit, you can spend many hours reworking those scenes. You may even need to take a break from it and come back to it at a later time. You should always give yourself a breather from that story after each rewrite. Give yourself some time so you can revisit it with fresh eyes later. But you should always have a project for which you are working a rewrite.
So how much time should you devote to your craft? Treat it like any other career. If you’re working part-time, spend about 20 to 30 hours a week (at least 3 hours a day total) on all aspects. That includes reading scripts and watching film/TV, which falls under research. If you’re working full-time, invest 40 or more hours a week. “But Tony, I work a full-time job! I don’t have time for all of that!” Then stay at that full-time job and give up on being a writer. Otherwise, until next week, keep writing!
It’s that time of year again; time for television workshops and fellowships! The question is, “what TV show do I write a spec script for?” Before you can answer that question you need to determine your strengths. Are you better at drama or comedy? Is crime more your forte, or are you more of a family man? Do you like procedurals or character based stories? There’s a different style for every different kind of show and different rules apply depending on which TV show you choose.
Lets start with the obvious; dramas have more pages than comedies. You might think that would make writing a comedy a little easier. That depends on what you consider easy. Both usually have 3 separate storylines (or at least 2 storylines) so some might consider it more difficult to cram 3 storylines into a 22 – 30 minute show. Choose your show wisely because you don’t want to get stuck trying to fill an extra 5 – 10 pages if you’ve run out of story and still have pages left. Every scene needs to move your story forward.
Next, are you more logic-minded or do you enjoy quick-witted banter? Either can be present in a comedy or a drama. Aaron Sorkin is an excellent example of a writer that uses dialogue and character to move a story forward. But if you lean more toward the procedurals, then maybe you should try your hand at a hospital or crime drama. In a procedural the heroes follow a procedure to find the murderer, the criminal, or the disease.
Are you going to write a script for an episodic show or a serial? In a serial every episode is a smaller piece of the entire show/season. If the audience misses an episode they could be lost when they tune in next week. Writing a spec script for a serial can be tricky because it may become obsolete very quickly. Whereas writing for an episodic, each episode has is own contained story and doesn’t necessarily rely on previous episodes in order to follow the storyline.
At any rate, once you’ve decided on what show you want to write a spec script for in order to enter into the plethora of fellowships approaching, the next thing you need to do is watch every episode… again. And you’ll want to get your hands on as many of that show’s scripts as possible so that you know the layout and format. There are lots of things you’ll need to figure out before writing that spec. So figure it out, do your homework, and get writing! Until next week, keep writing!