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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Awful Truth

Do you ever do that thing - you're at a party or otherwise loud location and someone you don't really know very well is earnestly telling you something and you're listening - or really trying to, in order to be polite and possibly catch something interesting or useful in the conversation...but you can't quite hear the person and aren't quite following what they are saying? So you nod politely at what seem like appropriate moments and when the conversation is over, pray that you are never put on the spot about what that conversation was just about?

You know that feeling? And while you're listening to this person you are desperately looking for a way OUT of the conversation but also making bullet points in your head about what they are saying: trip...daughter (oh damn, was that son?)...some law firm...some type of law...

We all do it. We learn to half-listen because we'd rather be somewhere else. And we learn to fake our way through those obligatory conversations in case there's a pop quiz.

But - does it ever happen to YOU? Are you ever the person earnestly speaking that someone else is trying to extricate themselves from? What a horrible thought!! No, that could never happen to me - I'm fascinating! This is something that happens to other saps! Even in the briefly described scenario above, you pictured yourself as the clever person trying to both synopsize and escape - NOT the poor slob going on and on about a soccer team fishing trip with her son. Right? Of course you did.

But what if that not only was you - what if that was your script. As you. But a script. A script with arms and legs and a funny hat.

I have read several projects this week that even alone, in my favorite cozy reading spot, got me very confused. Jimmy, Kenny, Debby, Suzy - huh? I have to flip back a few pages. Which one is Jimmy? OH RIGHT, the one who just got out of prison. And - why are we in this cafe in this scene? Flip back. Um....what's going on here? Flip back. Flip forward. I'm confused. The character's voices are blurring together and the action is not clear. What is happening here? Like the person at the party, I am leaning into it, trying to listen carefully - I'm not going to walk away, I HAVE to give this script my best. But I'm having a hard time following along.

Guys, if this is your script, you have a massive problem. Because an executive does not have to listen or follow along. They get to just chuck your script and move on. Think of me as your pre-executive vetting pal. Do NOT wear that dress, it makes you look fat. Stop going on and on about your kids. Look alive, make gestures, spice up this conversation a little bit. Because there's a lot of other people at this party and you're not holding my attention.

Hollywood is brutal. If you can't hold someone's attention almost immediately, they move on without apology. So how do you know if your script is a jumbled mess with confusing pages? What seems like pure genius to you might be a rambling mess to someone else.

Short of getting notes and feedback from someone like me, which is honestly your best option, here's a fun little exercise. We all try so hard not to be rude, right? Give your script to a friend (ideally one who has read at least one other script) and give them carte blanche to be rude. Not tear into you or the script - I don't mean that. I mean tell them, at exactly the point at which you got confused or bored - STOP right there and tell me so. Don't embellish, don't apologize, don't be nice, just tell me. On page 14, I lost the plot. That's the exact scene in which I gave up trying to understand.Reassure your friend, spouse, writing group - that you can handle this feedback. Don't you want total honesty? For real? Someone being nice to you won't in any way be an equivalent to how your script will be handled in Hollywood.

When I was coaching writers on their pitches at the Fade in Pitch Fest, I was politely rude. With a purpose. When a writer lost me, I stopped them right there and said you know what, I stopped listening to you about a minute ago. I started thinking about what I'm going to have for lunch. Let's rewind the tape and find that faulty spot in your pitch and see what we can do to amp it up.

Diagnose your script and problem solve. Are your characters not distinct enough to stand out as individuals? Do more character work. Are your scenes not moving the story forward and establishing stakes? Revisit your scene work and your character work. What is your character's overarching goal? What is at stake? Does this scene jump in late and get out early? Are your scene locations generic? Look at your action lines.

I know that more and more lately, whenever I allude to problematic scripts, the latest clients I have had who read the Rouge Wave say - omg! Were you talking about MY script? You were, weren't you! To which I say of course I was. And of course I was not. I always compress scripts into one example, hybrid script to discuss.

Because guess what - if you got notes back recently that said your structure isn't working or that there isn't any tension in your narrative, you are probably one of ten scripts this week that got that note. Because those problems are sadly not unique at all. So relax, take a deep breath and know that no specific script would ever, ever get discussed on the Rouge Wave. It's weird to think that although you thought your script and your premise was totally unique - it isn't. And the issues in your script are also not unique. So if I mention a coming-of-age script that I read this week - it could be one of three that either I or one of my readers read. Weird, huh? For everyone of you that is writing a coming-of-age script, there are umpteen others writing them as well. Not just read by my company, god knows, but being read all over town. And that's your competition - did someone else write a coming-of-age script set in a more interesting era? With a more unique main character? With a killer hook? Then, in this great Candy Land Game of Life - they will win.

Put your script into context. You are definitely not the only writer with a western, sci-fi, quarrantine-related love story. You just aren't. I know - I never would have believed it either until I started reading scripts day in and day out. On the one hand, personally, it puts me in the cat bird seat - I have seen it all. I have industry connections, I have tons of up-and-coming writer friends and a couple of established, very successful writer friends. I know what's out there. On the other hand, when it come to my own writing, it's a bit paralyzing.

That's the trick, isn't it? To stay motivated but also to have that reality check. Look at your logline and just know that there are ten other scripts being read right now, with a similar logline. Bank on it. So - how will your script be competitive?

Do a reality check on whether your script is really attention-grabbing. Ask a friend you trust to be absolutely honest with you about where it became a problem on your pages. It is far, far better to know the truth about your script now and to do the work necessary to bring it up to par, than it is to know that your script just got tossed in the circular file because of it. What may be fascinating, moving and entertaining to YOU may not have that effect on someone else. Check in with your script. And be ready to hear the truth. You'd rather hear the truth from me or from a friend than the thud of your script hitting the recycling bin, believe me. Because once it hits that bin, you just got ejected from the game.

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Anonymous said...

Julie, Julie, Julie!!!!

The people or friends or readers etc. reading my script, how do I know they are correct.

It's only their opinion.

They are not Stanley Kubrik!
They are not Tarantino!
They are not Francis Ford Coppola!
They are not Alfert Hitchcock!
They are not Guy Ritchie!
They are not James Cameron!

Why do I have care about their opinion?

I just finished reading a bio on Tarantino....

Why did all the studios and readers pass on Pulp Fiction?

Why should I listen to anyone in this business...

I feel like I don't belong in this community and people are trying to push me out?

What should I do?

Kirkland said...


I'll answer this question, because 1. I'm bored a shit, and 2. I'm in a good mood.


Here's why you listen to people, friends, and readers: Because they're not you. They might like (and since I don't know you--as far as I know anyway--it's pure speculation on my part that you're liked...I digress) you and they might not be objective in the purest sense, but they're not you and can offer an opinion, with their fresh eyes, that you might not have.

And opinions and ideas other than our own--if we choose to use them positively--can help us grow and improve. And this is important, because as writers we lead lives that are fairly isolated and that alone limits are own objectivity to our work.

So, while those people you listed may not be Hollywood insiders, they are still valuable resources. And that's why you listen.

Julie Gray said...

Anonymous, anonymous, anonymous!!!!

That's just not as fun. :)

You don't know if opinions you get are correct. But you do have to trust that an experienced reader, who reads scripts all day every day is able to recognize and point out weaknesses in your premise and the various story elements.

You have to care because readers are gatekeepers. You have to care because if your genius script can't make it past the gatekeepers, you can dream of Tarantino, Coppola and Hitchcock all you want but you'll never get across the moat.

And when it comes to a friend or relative doing the Rudeness Test, you have to remember this is ultimately an audience member. They may not have the erudition or experience when it comes to breaking down story and finding solutions but they know damn well what's boring and what's not.

You feel like you don't belong in this community and that everyone is trying to push you out because you are allowing yourself to go into victim-complex-thinking when what you want is Stockholm syndrome. Kidding.

It's tough. And I do find that most writers who get in the mode of, well, screw that, I can't trust the opinions of anybody and I refuse to embrace this system designed to keep me out - are usually not the best writers.

The system is what it is. Trust your gut but be open to feedback. If you think you're a genius - you probably aren't. Have humility, be determined and stay motivated.

That is all. Now get back to work.

meg said...

As always I appreciate the reality check.

I have yet to read anything about how Hollywood works that surprises me. It's the same in any business. (Maybe more extreme in some cases in Hollywood.)

Anthony Peterson said...

The LA "system" is not perfect, but its the best one we have.

Here in Australia, there are people who have made an entire career out of films that no one watches.

At least in LA, there's some sense of commercial reality. Somewhere down the line the person reading your script said "yes" to something that made money.

And yes, Ive read some other interesting things about Tarantino (he made some very basic mistakes as a first time director).

You cant let that hold you back.

Laura Reyna said...

Be open to suggestions & open to learning new things. Listen to those who are intelligent, & professionals in the industry with more experience than yourself-- esp if you are new at this.

But be careful & selective about who you listen to as far as changing your script. Not every opinion is gold. Some are rubbish and should be treated as such.

The more experience & confidence you acquire, the less you have to rely on other people's opinions.

You really need to develop an objective eye re: your own work. You need to eventually learn not to rely on others to tell you what is wrong with your work, & how to fix it.

The best gauge of whether your work is up to snuff is THE MARKETPLACE.

The buyers in the industry will tell you if your stuff in good enough. Not your mom or your best friend or that famous contest or that paid consultant.

At a certain point you have to test the market to see how good you really are. If you're getting rejected consistently that means there is something wrong & you have to fix it.

The most likely problem is that your IDEAS/ CONCEPTS aren't commercial enough.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

FOR Kirland --

Why should someone grow and improve when they're doing just fine with their unique and respectful but strange personality. Maybe now is time to think out of the box!

FOR Julie -- -- --

I don't think I'm a genius. I received mixed notes/coverage for my screenplays. Some have described my style/writing as "brilliant" while others used the words "laughable, silly and unrealistic" etc.

FOR Meg -- -- --

Yes, I do live in reality. I work 9hours a day in a dead end job in an stuffy office. It's a full-time job and I pay my bills on time and file my income tax on time too.

In the evening and weekends I will not live in reality. It's getting me closer to an option deal. I live the life of a true stubborn but respectful screenwriter.

FOR Anthony -- -- -- -- --

What were some of the mistakes Tarantino made?
Do you have a link to the article or book etc.?

FOR Laura -- -- -- -- -- -- --

This line of yours "...the more experience & confidence you acquire, the less you have to rely on other people's opinions" is worth more than the price of gold.


Anonymous said...


Wasn't it you that wrote,that you don't listen to studio execs opinions?

meg said...


Get a grip. My comment wasn't directed at you. It was a general observation.

Good for you that you have something on the weekends/evenings that makes your deadend job bearable. We all need that. I have friends who use the Chicago Bears and Cubs as their antidote. I do it with writing.

I do wonder what living the "life of a true stubborn but respectful screenwriter " means though.

I also liked Laura's observation but I would suggest that experience and confidence has to be EARNED in any business. Otherwise, it's just arrogance.

Kirkland said...

@anonymous (the "!" one)

Yes. I'm that guy. I've also been around Hollywood and working as a screenwriter, director, and actor (only a few times) for 30 some-odd years. I meant what I said about meetings with execs, because in a week, if it takes that long, they've forgotten exactly what it was they wanted to change about the script.

It's obvious that the first "anonymous" knows everything, and my advice to that person is simple: you don't know shit, so you better listen to somebody. Anybody. Because it's obvious whatever you're doing now ain't working. so maybe it's time to go in another direction and start listening, even to those people toward which "anonymous" holds obvious contempt.

Once "anonymous" makes the big leagues, then it's time to ignore people.

Anonymous said...


My post !!! is a perfect example of conflicting advice /notes that everybody is trying to figure out.

When in doubt. I refer to the golden rule. There are no rules in Hollywood. That's all.