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Is Your Screenplay Protected?

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!

How To Write Great Dialogue

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

FIVE” joke?


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



                                                             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 a television writer than film, although he’s got a couple good films under his belt. Here’s a scene from the TV show FireFly 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:


INARA (cont’d)

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

totally alone.



Some men might take advantage of that.



One man.



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.


They’re whores.



Thought you didn’t much care for that




It applies. They’re not registered with the Guild.

They’re —



— independent?





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

at once.

(he smiles; she turns


But you will be paid. I feel it’s

important that we keep ours strictly a

business arrangement.


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.





That’s gonna be Leo Solomon. He said

he’d call at nine.


SYDNEY picks up the phone–




into phone)




Uh, hi, is this Sydney?


SYDNEY doesn’t recognize the voice–



(into phone)



                                                PHONE VOICE

No, this is Andrew Shepherd.


SYDNEY looks at BETH and rolls her eyes, then explains to




Andrew Shepherd.

(back in the phone)

You’re hilarious, Richard. You’re a

regular riot.





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.





as SHEPHERD, undaunted, dials the number again.



(under his breath)

This used to be easier.








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

can handle.


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.


                                                             CUT TO:




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.



(to herself)

This isn’t happening to me.


She dials.



What’s going on?



(to herself)

It’s not possible I did this twice in

one day.


The OPERATOR answers.




Good evening, the White House.


SYDNEY swallows.



(continuing; filtered)





My name’s Sydney Ellen Wade. I’d

like to–


                                                OPERATOR (O.S.)


The President’s expecting your call,

ma’am. I’ll put you right through.


                                                           CUT TO:




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

this number?




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?



The C.I.A.?



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.



Of course.



I’ll see you Thursday night.



Mr. President, thank you for asking

  1. Really. This is a first for me.



Me too.


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!

Online Networking Etiquette

It seems like every year about this time I get flooded with requests to connect on all of the social networking sites of which I have a page. Inevitably the first thing I receive in my inbox after accepting a request is either a 5+ paragraph spew of vomit about this person’s current or upcoming projects, or I get an invite to join this “great work-from-home opportunity.” THIS IS A SURE FIRE WAY TO CHASE AWAY ANY PERSPECTIVE RELATIONSHIP! DON’T DO IT!

Building an online relationship isn’t any different than building one in real life. I can guarantee you if you walk up to a woman and start frothing at the mouth telling her about all of your conquests and how satisfied they all were, that she will turn on her heels and sprint to the nearest exit. That’s exactly what you do when you fire off those emails to someone you’ve just connected with. You wouldn’t pull down your pants and present your goods to someone you just met in real life so don’t do it on the networking sites either. Build up to that. Let them naturally gain interest in you. Let them ask to see your goods.

Once you’ve connected with someone that you think might be potentially helpful to your career, DO NOT send them anything to their inbox unless it’s a simple, “Thank you for connecting with me. I look forward to reading your post/tweets/blogs/etc. Then leave it at that. If you read something that they’ve posted that strikes a cord with you, feel free to respond, but keep it short and sweet. Don’t be a stalker! Try to keep it to 140 characters.

If you want to connect on a professional level, take your time, build a relationship. If you go spewing spam the moment you connect, you will ruin any chance of making a connection. If all you’re looking for are clients, then by all means… it’s a numbers game, fire away. But you’ll be alienating yourself for future connections by doing so. If your new connection didn’t ask about what you’re working on or didn’t ask for a link to your latest project, then don’t send it. They don’t want to see it. I don’t want to see it.

Another note, don’t make it all about you. Again, they don’t want to hear it unless they ask. Engage them in conversations about themselves. People love to talk about themselves, especially “important” people. Don’t bombard them with questions. Wait until they write something that catches your interest. Fire off a short and simple question that relates to them. If they keep the conversation going, good, but you don’t want to be the one hanging on. If they respond with one or two words, let it go. And don’t forget to be friendly. Until next week, keep writing!

When Is Your Script Ready To Shop?

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!

You Want To Be A Professional Writer?

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 Fellowship/Workshop Season

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!

What Did You Accomplish Last Year?

It’s a new year. Have you reached your goals? Are you where you’d thought you’d be from this time last year? Are you writing every day? Have you finished your script? Have you done rewrites? Have you submitted it to contests / agents / producers? Well what the hell are you waiting for? Get off your ass! There are tons of writing contests coming up. If you’re not prepared, you’d better get prepared. You’ve only got a few months left!

What are your goals this year? If you’re just starting out, if you’ve only got one or two scripts written without any rewrites, then your first goal should be to get started on the rewrites! I hear you, “What do you mean, rewrite? I’ve checked it for formatting issues and grammatical errors. It’s all good. I don’t need to rewrite anymore.” Wrong! Rewrites are about fixing your story, not just typos and formatting issues. You need to make sure that every scene moves your story forward. If it doesn’t, eliminate it. “How do I do that, Tony?” Haven’t you been reading my blog all year?! Check each scene by doing a reverse outline.

Okay, so you’re not a beginner. You’ve got a few scripts under your belt, but no one besides your friends and family have read them. How the hell do you expect to make a living at writing if you never let anyone see your work?! “But it’s not good enough yet.” Then why haven’t you fixed it? Why is it just setting in your “stories” folder collecting dust? (I know, dust doesn’t collect on computer folders. Suspension of disbelief here! Work with me!) Dust it off and submit it to some contests. And be sure that you spend a couple extra bucks to get some feedback! If it’s not ready for a contest, then send it to a script consultant and get some feedback! I just happen to know where you can find a good one for a reasonable price (shameless self-promotion).

What’s that? You’ve submitted to contests. You’ve gotten feedback. You just need some coaching? That’s an excellent idea. There are a few places I recommend. I think it’s more beneficial to take classes in person or at least online where you have a physical instructor of whom you can ask direct questions. The International Screenwriters Association has both classroom and online classes. Screenwriters University has some great online courses, too. I also know of an affordable Beginner’s Television Screenwriting Workshop (another shameless plug!).

So there you have it! No excuses! Get motivated and get on top your writing career. Stop waiting for things to happen and make them happen! No one is gonna come beat down your door if no one has read any of your work! Write! Rewrite! Submit! Learn! Repeat! Repeat until you’ve sold that script or landed that job! It’s your move, my friend! This is the year to reach your dreams! Until next week, keep writing!