How to give Producers, Executives and Publishers what they say they want
If you haven’t already, check out Part One here!
In the first part of this article, Ian Kennedy wrote about how stories always show us an important aspect of life. Finding your voice as a writer involves recognizing the aspect you’re exploring and expressing it through the choices you make in your story…
This is a key tool in focusing your script – to ensure that everything that’s in it shows clear choices by the writer which each reveal different, important and often subtle features of that aspect of life which they’ve decided to explore. What choices you make, and how you present them (i.e. your style, another little-understood word that is often used by producers, execs and publishers), gives your writing its voice.
Here are some examples, they’re all just my own interpretations and summations of the stories mentioned but you’ll get the idea:
- “It’s about how life can be brutal and cruel.” This leads us to: “GAME OF THRONES explores a vivid fantasy world that is brutal and cruel, but where you can thrive if you’re tough enough, whether you’re a man or a woman.”
- “It’s about how life can be threatened by chaos and injustice.” This leads us to: “BATMAN battles a world where criminals and injustice threaten to turn our civilization to chaos.”
- “It’s about how life can be determined by what’s in your heart.” This leads us to: “STAR WARS is about how even the biggest cosmic battles come down to the goodness or darkness in people’s hearts.”
- “It’s about how life can be trapped in eternal childhood for some people.” This leads us to STEPBROTHERS, and other comedies.
- “It’s about how having the biggest brain doesn’t always make life easier.” THE BIG BANG THEORY.
- “It’s about how some people have special abilities or powers and have to decide how to use them right.” – Any superhero story. (Technically, Batman doesn’t have any superpowers, but hey, he’s rich and runs a huge tech-innovation company, so that’s the next best thing.)
For me, it’s both the choice of the aspect of life they want to explore, and the way that they then go on to explore it, which gives the writer their “voice”. Make a conscious choice about the aspect of life you want to explore, the many forms it takes and how you can dramatize those in a way that feels convincing (within the internal logic of your story world – even if that’s a silly or surreal one like MONTY PYTHON), and show how that aspect of life creates dilemmas and issues with important repercussions for your characters and their story world, which you can resolve in a way that shows your conclusions about these questions, and give us an answer we can go away with. As McKee explains, it could be a “This means that this”, a “This means that this, but also means this”, etc.
So for choosing your ending, this comes down to the ‘moral of the story’: your ending should reflect the message and new understanding you want us to take away from the story about life, particularly about ‘life in a world like the one we see in this story’. A message like, “in a world like this, hope always triumphs” or “in a world like this, hope is an illusion”. And you should focus your story on exploring all the features of the aspect of life you’re exploring, and bring us to a conclusion that’s both dramatically, emotionally, and intellectually satisfying conclusion which gives an answer to the big questions you’ve asked.
I believe that all great writing teaches us something about the world, that we didn’t already know or hadn’t understood in this way before. That’s why we want to live out alternative lives through characters and worlds that – if we’re honest – we’d run a mile away from ever having to live as. From their struggles and dilemmas, we take back lessons that enrich and inform our lives, for the better. Even grim stories, enrich our understanding of life for the better, and help resolve us not to let our world turn out that way.
In all of this, the writer’s voice is revealed, and proves itself to be unique. So. Focus your writing on what I’ve explained here, and as you’re applying it to every passage of your work, ask yourself whether your telling of this is fully convincing. Because that’s then the main obstacle to getting greenlit, once you’ve found your voice and proven yourself as a writer.
Develop your voice as a writer with even more in-depth advice from an industry expert: check out our Elite Mentoring and script development services!
How to give Producers, Executives and Publishers what they say they want
When they’re answering questions about what they’re looking for in a script or book, you’ll often hear producers, execs and publishers claiming that the vital quality they look for in writing is the unique voice of the writer. I’ve heard this one a lot, and even when asked what they mean, they’ve rarely given any kind of definition to help writers go away with confidence of what they need to do.
But I read hundreds of scripts a year, watch plenty of productions in lots of genres, and help other writers improve their work every day. So here, I think, is a useful definition of where a writer’s voice comes from in their writing, and how they can “own it” and come across as unique and commissionable.
Firstly, it’s vital to recognize that all stories show us an aspect of life – hopefully an important or stimulating/entertaining one. (Why does nature reward us with laughter for recognizing things that are counterintuitive, ie funny? Because it’s stimulating and therefore expands our understanding of the world – which better equips us to survive and thrive in it. Comedy is not frivolous, it’s vital.)
So, recognizing the aspect of life you’re exploring in your story, can be expressed in one simple sentence:
“It’s about how life can be (funny/perverse/brutal/arbitrary/beautiful/whatever!)”
You should be able to pick a word or phrase to finish that sentence, which encapsulates the theme, tone and underlying logic of what kinds of thing happen in your story and why they happen. This is a key tool in focusing your script – to ensure that everything that’s in it shows clear choices by the writer which each reveal different, important and often subtle features of that aspect of life which they’ve decided to explore.
What choices you make, and how you present them (i.e. your style, another little-understood word that is often used by producers, execs and publishers), gives your writing its voice.
Stay tuned for the second part of this article, in which Ian goes into ever greater depth about a writer’s voice, the moral of a story, and how to write a great ending…
In films such as AVATAR, THE PLANET OF THE APES, and even the recent BLADE RUNNER 2049, not to mention TV series like WESTWORLD, we are starting to see that more and more humans as bad guys. In cinema’s constant hunt for new villains, stories reflect how we’ve banished the monsters and hazards from our real world, only to find our worst demons in the mirror and deep inside ourselves.
But why are big Hollywood companies risking hundreds of millions on films where the main villain is, well, us? Why would they risk it all, on us paying to go and blame ourselves for what’s wrong in their fictional worlds? Cinemas are usually the place we go for escapism – to get away from what’s happening on the news. If people are causing so much bad news, why would we want to see that amplified on screen?
In AVATAR, we enter an idyllic eco-topia where all nature – however scary – turns out to be symbiotic, and the threat comes from the human invaders who are determined to ravage the planet for its resources. Our protagonist is human – but lives most of his life in the film as a Nav’i and joins with the planet’s forces against the humans.
In the most recent PLANET OF THE APES trilogy, the human-centric story of the 1968 original – which saw humans struggling to survive in an society ruled by apes – is not merely discarded but inverted. We now find ourselves primarily following the ape CAESAR, who fights to lead his people to safety in a world where they are hated and feared by human beings.
And in BLADE RUNNER 2049, Ryan Gosling’s character – like Harrison Ford’s before him, we finally confirm – is the latest in a long string of replicant assassins employed to kill his own kind, to protect humans from the repercussions of their own creations. The story’s sympathies are clearly with the replicants, not the humans, taking the established Blade Runner theme of ‘what it means to be human’ to a new level.
Volcanoes: less often the villain now than humans.
Just watch a news broadcast, and ask yourself ‘who are the villains here?’, and ‘what’s causing the problems here?’. Apart from earthquakes and volcanos, you’ll usually only get one answer: people. Even when the problem is ‘nature’, like fires and hurricanes, we’re slowly having to admit that actually yeah, we are making things worse, putting ourselves in the firing line when we could live in safer places, and even causing many problems in the first place. A constant flow of research articles and bad-news stories tells us that we humans have enormous influence over the world around us, even if we can’t control it or ourselves.
This is reflected – unsubtly – in AVATAR. Like the earthly colonialists of recent centuries, the humans in AVATAR arrive under the guise of exploitative “trade”, backed up by formidable military intent. Like Vikings and colonialists of our world in past centuries, they are determined to get their way – whether peacefully or by violence. They come to a thriving tropical word, and pillage it for their own needs – sound familiar? The devastation caused by the humans is felt equally by the native species, the animals and even the plants, and this causes some humans to change sides and help the victims, like how people today try to help ‘save the rhinos’. The rest of the movie is totally told from the side of the natives, who our protagonist joins and even becomes.
In the news, we’ve also seen the tribal biases of the past starting to give way to a more balanced view. News stories used to put us solidly on one side of the important divides of the time (humans good, nature dangerous; ‘Western countries’ good, ‘Eastern countries’ bad; ‘civilization’ good, ‘primitive’ cultures bad…). But decades of peace in most of the world have given us the time to take a better look at ourselves, instead of ganging up together against the ‘other’. In fact, these days the news agenda and emphasis is mostly on the victims of war, crimes and abuse (such as sexual harassment or other cruel things done by ‘bad people’ to ‘innocent people’), and we’re much more suspicious than supportive of our leaders and politicians.
In most countries, the news media now is much more likely than before to take the side of victims, and even to fight to tell their story, rather than helping governments and powerful people cover up their abuses and mistakes – even if it often takes famous cases to bring much more widespread everyday abuses into the public eye, such as the Hollywood sexual harassment revelations focusing on the “big name” perpetrators and victims. In the past, history was always written about ‘great men’ who dominated their times. But these days, we emphathize more with the victim than the powerful aggressor. Filmmakers are using this angle in their films to reflect this concern by giving center stage to the victim of a story as opposed to whoever is causing the damage.
Top filmmakers will take the element of escapism and use it to reflect what is going on in the real world. They’re just tapping into the underlying messages behind our modern world and the news we consume every day. These films work because they tap into what we’re preoccupied with, what we now recognize, or think we understand, about the real underlying logic of our world. Filmmakers and production companies have to respond to our modern fears, expectations, preoccupations and feelings in order to tap in to them, get ahead of the curve, and create a cinematic experience that will stick with us. People who aren’t interested in GAME OF THRONES mostly assume it’s ‘just a fantasy story’, when actually it takes the world of fantasy and spins it, to tell vivid stories about some very modern preoccupations – female empowerment, and the brutality of fate – that they’d probably be a lot more interested in.
Why, though, are we happy to go see a film that villainizes humans rather than the aliens or monsters of past films? Well, nowadays people are more open minded than we used to be – peace makes that possible. Where we used to see other cultures as dangerously different, we can now recognize them as the victims of our own culture and values.
THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy mostly works well as a piece of superhero escapism and a reflection of our fears of domestic chaos and terrorism. AVATAR succeeds with its outlandish sci-fi setting and the eco-allegory about rainforests and nature in a symbiotic but fragile harmony.
So, like us, many Hollywood and filmmakers have recognized that humans are the problem – that we are the only real bad guys in this world, now we’ve crushed the monsters and natural environments that created so many threats to us in the past. They are now using this to tell stories from the point of view of humans’ victims, to create compelling stories where we can empathize with the characters victimized by people like us, and recognize the demons and drives within ourselves that cause problems for others in the world.
Then again, maybe it’s just because humans have got so powerful in our own world that we don’t have many other places to turn when we’re looking for villains and excuses for blockbuster mega-stories. Either way, it works.
“Use the Force, Luke.” It’s one of the most iconic phrases in the history of film – and if you haven’t heard it before, you must have been living on a backwater desert planet for the last forty years.
It also contains a valuable lesson for writers. In our latest Writing Insights article, Edward Smith takes a look at how these four words unlock the secrets of the character arc.
And a quick warning if you’ve been living on that desert planet… This article contains spoilers for the original Star Wars trilogy.
We all want to write memorable characters with plenty of depth, and any writer who knows their craft knows that the key to this is the character arc: a process of change and growth that a character undergoes in the course of the story. A character who changes pops off the page and the screen because they are reacting to the world they inhabit, as real people do, whereas a static character is forever nothing more than a two-dimensional collection of traits.
Yet change just for the sake of change is not enough. The very best character arcs do something more: they equip the hero with the qualities they need to emerge victorious. If your thoughts just went to every training montage you’ve ever seen, you’re on the right lines, but to maximize this concept it needs to be taken further. Skills and knowledge are one thing, but gaining the wisdom to make use of what they know – that is what makes a character’s journey truly satisfying.
And this is where we come to our key phrase. “Use the Force, Luke.”
In the original Star Wars trilogy, the character arc is applied brilliantly – and differently – in each of the three films. Luke Skywalker undergoes three arcs, each one concluding in a different fashion, showing us how invaluable it is to fully understand this concept.
Luke starts out as a mere farmboy who could never triumph against the might of the Empire. In the course of his adventures, however, he grows into a hero who is entrusted, in the film’s climax, with the task of destroying the Death Star. Yet even then, even with all he has learned, he comes dangerously close to failure, and it takes a reminder from Obi-Wan Kenobi to make sure he doesn’t repeat the mistakes of those who came before him. “Use the Force, Luke.” Luke now has the wisdom to listen – and is rewarded with victory.
Here we find the character arc used to different effect – in fact, in entirely the opposite manner. After going to train with Jedi Master Yoda, Luke leaves before he is ready despite the warnings of his teacher – and, erm… It doesn’t end well for him. At all. This is fundamentally the tragic form, in which the hero fails to learn what they need to succeed – although unlike most tragic heroes, Luke is lucky enough to escape with his life.
Luke actually has little physical impact on the film’s conclusion. While the Rebellion faces off against the Empire (albeit aided by teddy-bears), Luke is locked in a personal battle with Darth Vader and the Emperor, emerging with a moral victory by having the wisdom to know when to stay his hand. While it doesn’t directly affect what happens elsewhere, his arc is nonetheless satisfying because it has a karmic effect; his moral victory is rewarded within the story by simultaneous success for his friends in the Rebellion.
So what can we learn from this? The original Star Wars trilogy demonstrates how a character arc is not merely about growth, but growth with purpose, giving a character not merely the skills they need but also the wisdom to use them. It also shows how an arc can be used in different ways: to give your protagonist success, disaster, or a moral victory.
So whichever kind of character arc you opt for in your script, you now have all the information you need – just make sure you have the wisdom to use it…
By a new guest author…
| Katie Porter is an aspiring writer, movie lover, and part of the team at Seatup.
|The screenwriter is the often overlooked creator of the world we experience when we take our seat in the movie theater; ready to be dragged into the adventure, intrigue, comedy, and tragedy. The anonymity of the screenwriter is part of the attraction for many – living in the spotlight, under the scrutiny of the swarming Twitterati and critics isn’t that appealing to everyone.
There are lots of incredibly famous screenwriters whose work goes beyond the typewriter to other, more glamorous and more famous roles – Quentin Tarantino, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, the Coen Bros, Francis Ford Coppola.
But there are just as many guys and gals who create the expansive world of our favorite movies – sending us to the extremities of the universe or the stories of friendships and achievements – who are just getting on with their normal lives: putting out their trash, cleaning their windows, and simply enjoying the luxury of being anonymous.
So buckle up, for this is quite an unexpected ride – our list of not-so-famous writers of movies that had big impacts at the box office.
Melissa Mathison wrote the screenplay for one of the all-time favorite family movies – E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), in which she also played Elliot’s school nurse. She also wrote the screenplays for The BFG, and The Twilight Zone: The Movie, but lived a relatively anonymous life, out of the spotlight – despite being married to Harrison Ford. Unfortunately, she died at the age of 65 in 2015, but her stories continue to spread joy across the homes of millions of families all around the world.
Ted Tally is responsible for the screenplay adaptation of one of the most notorious thrillers of the 1990s – The Silence of the Lambs (1991), rated number 23 in the IMDB Top 100. Based on the novel by the more widely known, Thomas Harris, Tally managed to extract every possible tension, bringing this classic monster movie to a climactic forte on the screen.
The real skill of the screenwriter is to give us enough to maintain our interest and hold off the climax until we can’t bear it – and The Silence of the Lambs is a perfect example of a man in control of the page. Ted Tally is also known for All The Pretty Horses (2000), Mission to Mars (2000), and Red Dragon (2002). After a sixteen year hiatus, he’s back with 12 Strong (2018).
Robert Rodat wrote the screenplay for Saving Private Ryan (1998) – currently rated number 28 in the IMDB Top 100. Very much the action writer, he’s also created the screenplays for Thor: The Dark World (2013) and The Patriot (2000). Away from the typewriter, Rodat has been the Executive Producer and writer responsible for the TV series, Falling Skies (2011-2015).
Michael Blake’s finest movie hour was Dances With Wolves (1990). The screenplay was based on his own novel, and the movie is currently ranked at the number 59 spot in the IMDB Top 100. However, his movie zenith fizzled out almost as quickly as it began – but when one movie wins 7 Oscars, including Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium), and 36 other recognized industry awards, I guess it’s fine to pull out at the top.
Calder Willingham was one of two writers responsible for the screenplay to the Hoffman / Bancroft classic, The Graduate (1967). His other screenwriting exploits didn’t really shake the world; unlike his writing partner for the movie, Buck Henry. Henry went on to pen the screenplays for Catch-22 (1970), Grumpy Old Men (1993), and Get Smart (2008).
Larry McMurtry is probably better known as a TV writer, having created many TV movies, and mini-series – none of which are particularly notable. However, he wrote the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and the novel, Terms Of Endearment – which was brought to the screen in 1983, starring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, and Jack Nicholson, and won 5 Oscars.
David Franzoni wrote the screenplay for Gladiator (2000). His writing credits since have been few and far between, with a single screenplay for the rather mediocre King Arthur (2004). However, his mantelpiece is adorned with an Oscar for Best Picture, and a nomination for Best Writing (Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen), so you could say that he quit while he was ahead. More recently Franzoni has been the Executive Producer for Black and White Stripes: The Juventus Story (2016) – a documentary series.
Nearly all of these writers have been crowned with the glories that all writers strive for, but are happy to remain in the background. And sometimes, that’s for the best, isn’t it?
Being a screenplay writer might not necessarily get you a table in a restaurant, or spotted in the street, but who needs that anyway? For some, the satisfaction of having their work brought to life on the screen is all the recognition they need – as they can drift back into their blissfully anonymous lives.
Katie Porter is an aspiring writer, movie lover, and part of the team at Seatup. In her free time, she enjoys exploring her home state Colorado and plays in women’s amateur rugby league.
The opening ten to twenty pages of your script are so important in really selling top execs and producers your script. If it doesn’t grab ’em, then you got no chance. The first page is the most important of those early pages. The first impression of your script really matters. Here are 5 writing tips from us on how your opening page can stand out and shine from the rest…
1. STRIKING VISUALS OR AUDIO
Find a striking image, sound, or quick sequence of events to start on. If you can immediately make the reader visualize or “hear” your script, it makes it so much easier for them to visualize the rest of the story.
2. NAIL THE GENRE
You need to immediately establish the genre. In some ways, you can combine this with Tip #1 (sci-fi is a great genre for this). But sometimes you need to immediately set the tone of a tense horror, or the light-heartedness of a rom-com with how you write, and how your characters act.
You got a sci-fi? Show us some cool advanced tech. Horror? Give us a murder scene. Rom-com? Give us a visual that we associate with romance (sunsets, weddings, restaurants) and throw some funnies in there.
3. AVOID THE EARLY ICK
You don’t wanna put off the reader with anything yucky. Whatever happens on page one sticks with the reader throughout the rest of the script. You don’t want something icky to stick with them, do you? You have to make us care before you hit us with anything vicious, sick or distasteful
Generally, keep things subtle and ambiguous. If you want to set up a murder, avoid showing and describing the actual act with too much detail.
4. PLEASE NO VOICE-OVERS
You wanna do some world-building, set up the story, tell us all about the characters. I get it. But please, please, please try and avoid voice-overs. they just ooze with laziness and lack of creativity. Ditto for title cards, by the way.
Same goes for info-dump title cards (at the beginning and end of the script – especially for biographical stories…) Your script should be providing all the necessary info the story needs to. These types of voice-overs and title cards should not be necessary for a good script.
5. TRY TO AVOID DIALOGUE
If you don’t start with a strong image, then you’re probably beginning with a dialogue-heavy exposition scene. Bad. If you can effectively open your script without dialogue then you’ll more likely hook whoever’s reading your script.
These all fit in with each other, too. If you’re avoiding dialogue, then you’re avoiding voice-overs. Your striking image can also visually announce the genre of your script and set the tone; a horror film can start with a gruesome murder, for example. Don’t overdo it on the visuals, though. Don’t give us something too visceral and gratuitous – that’ll either put us off with the ick, or give too much of the game away. It’s a delicate balance to manage, but such good practice to get into.
Pretty straight-forward writing tips, right? Seems so obvious now that you see these written down, but you will not believe how many writers fall into the trap of lazy voice-overs and give us no idea of what the genre is.
Just remember to KISS – keep it simple, stupid.
See what we would say about the opening page of your script (and all the other pages!) with our Script Mentoring services…