Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why most scripts are toss-aways

It may sound harsh, but most new scripts that are out there making the rounds will end up before long in the proverbial circular file.  As much as 90 percent or more is my estimate.


The reason?  Because most writers are are in much too big of a hurry to get into draft and let their accumulating pages dictate where their story goes.  And doing so makes them feel like they're making lovely progress when in fact in most cases they are blindly heading into the weeds.

What so often happens is that 30, 50, or 70 pages in it begins to be clear that something isn't right--the story needs another character to bolster a major element in the story, or a character who has taken up a lot of space in the story no longer has a structural reason for being in such a prominent position, or a new major exciting plot element suddenly surfaces that hasn't been even whispered about in the preceding pages.... It's inevitable that new discoveries like this will always be made as more and more pages materialize.

The problem--and I have run into this countless times as a script consultant and teacher--is that when gut instincts tell writers that major adjustments should be made usually involving reworking significant portions of a script-in-the making, they have so fallen in love with all those pages already in the stack that it becomes almost impossible to consider throwing them out.  They remember vividly the pain and struggle it took to produce them and in their judgement it's all very well written. So there's an attempt to "fix" around and in between those already written precious pages, with the rationalization that these patch ups are doing the trick.

Sadly, these fixes rarely work because what's really required is a major rewrite and finding the guts to throw out sometimes large portions of what's been already written and sometimes starting over from page one.  So the "finished" draft ends up a crippled patchwork of what could have been.  Those "darlings" are all still intact, but the story unfolds in fits and starts at best.

So what do I suggest?  Don't start your draft until you're ready.  Not until after you've done extensive character exploratory backstory work and worked out a detailed plot outline that has steady forward momentum and that has your central character landing where you want that character to land.  Many past posts on this blog deal with various aspects of this pre-draft work and a good portion of my book deals with this as well.

The message here is not to rush into draft before you're ready.  And always remember that you already are writing your script as you work through your pre-draft explorations.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A crucial test for your new story idea...

There a number of ways of initially evaluating the potential of a new story idea that's come into your head.  My last post dealt with determining who your story is about and the initial questions to ask about that central character.  Another early "test" is to simply ask to what degree that central character comes out a changed person by the end of the tale.

I know this sounds obvious and so basic that it doesn't even warrant mention, but so often writers ignore asking this up front and therefore miss giving that new potential idea an initial structural shape that can be built on in imaginative ways.  It's often the trigger that opens the storytelling floodgates, allowing for the creative development of a new idea.

Every story involves a journey by the central character from one place to another and the most powerful stories always have that character go through some sort of sea change.  In other words, he or she is a significantly changed person when they arrive at the story's destination.



Think of an arc, a trajectory that the character is moving through, starting with the early set up of the main dilemma, then the intensifying struggle to deal with that dilemma, and finally landing at a place of resolution.  And it's having an early handle on how the character is a changed person when reaching the tale's destination that allows for it to initially take root and grow in your mind.

Of course this landing place can change and often does as you develop an idea further.  However, this early focus on how the character is significantly changed (or might be changed) by the end of your story is one of your strongest launching tools as you enter the story development process.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

On testing your new story idea...

So here it is, the end of July.  Summer is hitting its peak and if you're like me, you're kicking back a bit on the writing routine--not walking away from it, but taking some time in the hammock to ponder potential new story ideas that you might tackle in earnest after Labor Day.

And the first question that has to be asked as you take a look at that germ of an idea that has floated into your head is who is this story about?  Who is the central character taking the primary journey and how is this character changed in the process?  What's the arc?  And what's driving it forward?

Identifying whose story you want to tell is absolutely critical as your first step in constructing your tale.  And once you've landed on this character, then you can begin to ponder two things about what's motoring that character forward through your story.  You can try several approaches to this, but essentially you need to ask:  What is the primary external want of this character and what is his or her deep-seated and usually hidden internal need?

The external want is the surface driving force that pushes your central character forward.  It's what gives your story momentum as the character runs into roadblocks and obstacles represented by other characters who are preventing the fulfillment of that want.   In almost all cases your central character is hell bent on achieving this want.  And what ignites the story and keeps it running at a solid clip is the series of increasingly potent dilemmas that not achieving that want present and that have to be dealt with.

The internal need is what the central character really has to come to terms with in his or her life.  In almost all stories, it's under the surface and hidden from the consciousness of the character.  However, it's the one thing that the character really needs to have happen in order to come to terms with him or herself and to find a lasting solution to the angst they are constantly living with.  It's the real destination of your story and from which rises your dramatic premise--what you're ultimately leaving in the hearts and minds of your audience.

These are the first things you need to ponder about that new idea that's bouncing around in your head. Try different characters on for size.  Play around with various approaches to want and need.  Just be aware that, in my opinion, this is where to begin your journey towards constructing a solid script with the critical underpinnings that will support your story from beginning to end.

                                        *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.



Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Another scriptwriters' retreat...

Last month, from June 22 until July 1, the MFA program I run out of the New Hampshire Institute of Art held it's bi-annual intensive residency in Peterborough, NH.

It was another jammed-packed creative gathering of student writers from around the country teaming up with our faculty of professional writers, SAG and Equity actors, and several other industry professionals.  A stimulating time for all of us, we ran classes every morning and table readings and rehearsed concert readings of students' full-length plays, screenplays, and tv pilots of new original series in the afternoons and evenings.  With meals together in between.


In all we gave voice to 11 scripts--a marathon of story telling being lifted off the page for the first time.  Writers had the opportunity to work with the actors before every reading, discussing how each of the major roles should be played.  And then extensive directed feedback from the entire collected group of professionals followed each reading, giving every student writer the opportunity to see how and where his or her script might be improved.


A lot of attention in classes was given to the writer's position in the industry--how to prepare for entering the field and once launched, how to sustain a career.  Gail Currey, the former Studio Head of Dreamworks Animation and one of our Visiting Artists, gave an inspiring talk about what it takes to maintain and build a career in our industry and how to maneuver the inner workings of the film industry and the script development process.


Workshops on grant writing for writers, synopsis writing, rewriting, dialogue writing, screenplay story development, and more kept our mornings buzzing.

Also, all our student writers pitched new story ideas that they'll be developing into working drafts during the fall semester (between now and the next residency in January 2018).  Professional writer/mentors were assigned to each writer and who will be working closely with our students as they go through the process of creating their new script to share at the next residency.

Breathless as all this may sound, our ten-day residency was pretty much a non-stop creative exploration from beginning to end.  Everyone departed charged and ready to get to work on their next project--hopefully wiser, with their skills and craft further sharpened.

                                         *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

On releasing your script for the first time...

I can't stress enough how important the first sharing of your work is.  You're about to cross a line in the life of the project that you can't ever cross back over.  Outside input will now enter your creative process for the first time.  And it's going to have an impact, positive or negative or both.  It's going to reshape how you think about your script and all the work you've done up until this point.


Pulitzer Prize-winner Lanford Wilson once described to me his take on the initial private creation of a work:

It's such a mysterious and delicate process...as all of this is filtered through some sort of machine that we call "the Muse" and down onto the paper.  And you don't know where half of that comes from.  And you don't know what's going to stop it or what's going to impede that flow.

And this delicate relationship you have with your project changes for good as soon as you begin sharing your script with others.

Because of this, the initial feedback you seek should be from carefully selected sources and needs to be tightly controlled.  Many of the writers I've worked with rely on one or two trusted people who have become invaluable as early readers of their work.  And in many cases, it took a long time to find them.

Once located, however, these folks are a wonderful asset and an important part of the on-going writing process--or, perhaps more accurately, of the birthing process.  These friends become like midwives at the birth of a child, helping to guide each script into the world.  And they often continue in this role as the child "grows."  You, the writer, have to go through the labor, give birth, and care for each child's development, but these trusted people often continue to play a crucial role.

So when you're ready for that initial release of a new script, look for people (one or two tops) who have four basic qualities:  a perceptive mind, a generous spirit, a good working knowledge of the medium you're working in, and no fear to honestly tell you what they really think.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from January 6-15, and our next gathering runs this month from June 22 - July 1.  We're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.



I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.







Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Which draft is this...?

There's an interesting shift that takes place when you think you're finally ready to share your script for the first time.

This may be your third, fourth, or fifth (or more) private draft that you've been slaving over for months, but now that you've determined that you're ready to take the plunge and release it for the first time, suddenly all those drafts become your "first draft."

In other words, all the rewriting work you've done up to this point has been just getting the script presentable for its initial exposure to the outside world.  No one should ever know how many earlier drafts you have slogged through to get it to this point--that's information only you should be privy to.

A corollary to this is to always identify the draft you first release to the world by date and not by number (as in "first draft," "second draft," and so on).  You'll always be working on a the latest draft of the script, regardless of which "number" it is, and dating each draft identifies it for you and any others who may need to know what version they're working with.  But it doesn't broadcast how many drafts you've been through--info that's really nobody else's business.  I'm always amazed when I see title pages with the draft number prominently displayed.  That's your secret to keep.

And, come to think of it, it's probably best if even you don't keep an actual count.

                                         *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from January 6-15, and (if you hurry) we can still consider applications for starting the program with our June 2017 residency running from June 22-July 1.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.




Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The writer's scanning machine...

Once you think you've made all the necessary revisions and your script seems to be really working from start to finish, I suggest you take this rewriting phase one step further before releasing it to the world for the first time.


Put your opus away for a few days.  Then, when you set eyes on it again, try to reprogram your mind to become an ultra-sensitive scanning machine that you're going to feed each page into.  Turn yourself into a hypercritical, word-sensitive, fine-tuning device that can pick up even the slightest static of doubt or nag of uncertainty.  With this machine, nothing gets through that isn't absolutely right.  When anything stops you, a word choice, the smallest whisper questioning something, have the beeper in your mind go off and stop and fix it.  Don't move on until you can scan back over the same material and sail right through.

The point here is to make your script as good as you can before you solicit responses from others for the first time.  That's the only way you're going to make genuine progress with it from here on out.  If you're not happy with what you're asking others to respond to, why waste their time?

Another way of putting this is that in the art of scriptwriting there's no room for sloppiness or laziness.  Anything less than your absolute best effort just doesn't cut it.  And in the end you never get away with it.  True professionalism means more than extraordinary talent.  It means patience and hard work and being honest with yourself as to how good your writing really is.

John Patrick Shanley (winner of an Oscar, Pulitzer, and Tony with his work) once related to me a struggle he was having with a script:  I kept writing, over and over, ten pages for six weeks, seven days a week.  I kept writing the same ten pages over and over again, and I just kept saying, "This isn't true enough, this isn't true enough."  And I kept on trying to write it more truly.  It was one of the most grueling things I've ever done.  A horribly painful thing to do.  

Every writer who has consistent success in the profession takes this as a matter of course.  Becoming your own scanning machine (or whatever you want to call it), therefore, is simply one of the essential requirements.

                                        *                    *                   *                   *

I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from January 6-15, and (if you hurry) we can still consider applications for starting the program with our June 2017 residency running from June 22-July 1.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.