WHAT I’VE LEARNED… from the Writers Guild Foundation Veteran Writing Project

The WGF VWP has been a font of information that I didn’t get elsewhere. I’ve read the major books, like SAVE THE CAT, but these never really helped me get a grasp on HOW I should be writing. They simply outline the author’s methods. Granted, books like SAVE THE CAT are invaluable, but as a general rule they only give you a blueprint for writing a script, not writing a good one, an original one, a sellable one. They tell us what the author’s experienced. But that’s only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. So, I’m going to cover four pieces of advice you may have not heard yet in your career. These come from active writers in the industry, writers currently working on features, dramas and sitcoms.

 

First: CAN A READER UNDERSTAND WHAT IS GOING ON IN YOUR STORY REGARDLESS OF WHAT PAGE THEY RANDOMLY START ON?

You’ve probably heard this before. But it’s one that’s easy to forget as we write. We understand the story but will our initial readers. By initial readers, I mean the producers, directors and executives who will read your script to assess whether or not they want to invest time and money into it.

You’ll have to make sure that something done or said on each page is so relevant to the story that a read will think, “Ah. Gotcha. I’m tracking.” In a manner of speaking, it’s like having every page be your first page, yet somehow a new page advancing the plot.

 

Second: BE A HOG. THAT IS, MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A HERO with an OBSTACLE and a CLEAR GOAL (H.O.G.)

This concept came up when we were discussing the overarching concepts of plot, story and theme. It’s the foundation of a story. You must have a hero or, if you’re like me, an anti-hero. I tend toward anti-heroes, those characters who have some significant flaw that almost makes them detestable, but who also has several saving graces. Think Archie Bunker. He was a racist, misogynistic bigot. But we love(d) him because he is 100%, unequivocally dedicated to his family. That’s the one area that if others try to mess with he will do pretty much anything to protect them. So we tolerate his bigotry because we know how profoundly he loves his wife and daughter.

The hero/anti-hero needs and obstacle over which they can come. This is often in the form of a quest or journey of some type. It could be physical, mental/psychological or emotional, or perhaps it’s time travel or a quest across the world or galaxy/universe. Regardless of what the hero does, there must be an obstacle. What must the hero/anti-hero overcome on their way to…

 

A goal? What is the hero/anti-hero working toward? What do they want? Is it peace of mind? Revenge? To be rich? To have a “normal” family? Perhaps it’s just to win a race? Get home? Maybe acceptance? Whatever it is, it must be crystal clear. If the hero/anti-hero is simply wandering, it simply won’t work. They could spend 40 years in a desert, but they still need to have a goal.

 

Third, EVERYTHING MUST MEAN SOMETHING AND HAVE A PAY OFF AT SOME POINT.

Yes, this seems like common sense, but often writers will add in items or ideas or actions that seem to mean something but are never explained. For example, mentioning a loaf of bread sits rotting on a table but never explaining why it was important it was rotting.

We’re not doing a Sigmund Freud impression when we write. Never is a cigar JUST a cigar. If someone it smoking one, it has meaning. Is it a sign of wealth and leisure? Is it a celebratory cigar? It has meaning and must mean something. A character carrying high heels rather than wearing them has a reason for doing so. Make it pay off in some way at someplace in the script.

Everything is relevant. Everything.

That’s the bottom line. Everything must mean something.

 

Fourth, THINK LIKE A PRODUCER, THEN LIKE AN EXECUTIVE.

Most baby writers just write. They think they are considering their audience, but they fail to consider their initial audience and the most important audience. We write to sell our script or to get in a room. We don’t write for the millions we hope will watch our show or feature. Nope. This is the part most baby writers don’t realize: That audience, our target audience for the story, will never see the script. We aren’t writing for the millions of viewers.

Nope.

The first audiences we write to are producers, directors and executives. They are the ones we are trying to convince to hire us or buy our work. So, we have to write FOR THEM.

How do you write for them? This is a mantra I have on a sticky note now after one of the WGF Vets mentors told me to remember. You wrote for them by thinking like them. You write with the producer in mind. The producer, as we all know, is the backbone of the production. They organize the sets, deal with the money, and all that fun stuff.

How will a producer view your story? Will it be easy to film? What’s the bottom line for them? Multicam sitcoms get picked up more often than single cam ones because all they have to do is build a set to use over and over. If the characters are going outside, then the backlot cityscape can be altered to reflect the story. Features with only a few locations—the arctic, Prague, NYC, LA, a mental health institute, a school, etc.—are easier to film and significantly cheaper than multi-location features.

This is the question I keep thinking about as I write: If I were a producer, would this scene be easy to create and film, and will it cost a lot of money?

Since producers are tasked with keeping costs down, creating sets, etc., they are looking at the bottom-line. Executives are too, but if you don’t have everything as simplified as possible, you’ll most likely lose them too… even the biggest names get turned down. But thinking like a producer AND a writer will open more doors… according to our mentors.

INCORPORATING LGBTQ+ AND TRANS/GENDER NON-CONFORMING CHARACTERS INTO YOUR SCRIPTS, PART II

In PART I, I offered you a shopping list of ways you could better understand and incorporate gender diverse characters into your scripts. In this post, I’ll give you some specific examples of how you might do that without adding a main character of which you have no understanding but think it’s socially expedient to have.

As an example of what I recommend earlier, allow me to elaborate script as an example. A cis-hetero white man I know made a comment at a trans/gender nonconforming training seminar not long ago that he will, or should, add a T/GNC (Trans/Gender Non-Conforming) character.

While I applaud his initiative, it smacks of political and social expedience, not genuine interest. I feel this way because he refuses to ask me questions about my gender diversity. He appears to have no desire to understand gender divergent people or, perhaps, he is afraid to say something wrong. Nobody should fear asking questions to better understand something. But many do.

This isn’t to say he shouldn’t add in a discussion about us, but what he needs to do is talk with someone like me about what we face, just as I reach out to Indigenous persons for the sitcom I’m currently working on, and will speak with a psychiatric nurse, psychologist and psychiatrist about my medical/mental health sitcom.

As for what this writer can do? First, let’s go with a sitcom set in an airport about TSA agents who are lax on smuggling. Our protagonist, however, is not. He’s catching all sorts of items that his co-workers are letting through.

As you all know, we go through scanners now. Scanners offer a unique problem for Trans/GNC people. It’s often referred to by TSA agents as “an anomaly.” Also known as a penis on someone presenting non-male.

Instead of adding a TGNC (Trans/Gender Non-Conforming) character as a main or ensemble cast member, it would be better if the episode addressed the intolerance of TSA personnel, and what they see and say about various people, particularly Trans/GNC people who are AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth).

By this I mean, address “the anomaly” topic itself. This is when a gender divergent person presenting as their authentic self goes through the body scanner and is pulled over for an “anomaly.” As mentioned, that anomaly is their penis.

I know from personal contact with some Trans/GNC people that several AMAB T/GNC people have been pulled aside, frisked and harassed by TSA. Address topics like this. It is a matter of “see something, say something.” Defending our right to exist is the Number 1 thing an ally can do to help us fight discrimination and, often, avoid being murdered. A basic Google search will lead you to some eye-opening revelations. For example, did you know that Indigenous communities recognized multiple gender identities, even holding some up as examples of perfection of the soul (male and female existing in harmony in one person), but missionaries saw only the binary and literally fed TGNC/Two Spirit person to their dogs. That’s not a typo. Christians fed gender diverse people to dogs. Literally.

That is another topic a writer can address: black trans women are especially victimized and murdered. Several states still have the “trans defense” which justifies the murdering of a TGNC person. The protagonist in this example can easily address the inequity of the situation. Introducing a TGNC person in order to illustrate the turmoil and discrimination we face shows you are an ally and sensitive to our existence.

In this or any other story, the protagonist could also address sex workers. Perhaps a sex worker—for example, a BDSM Master/Dom or Mistress/Domme—has a carry-on full of sex toys or whips and cuffs and other tools of their trade through check-in and the other TSA agents make fun of it. The TSA agent protagonist might choose to defend their right to do be a sex worker. If you don’t have BDSM experience, this is also a topic you should research thoroughly. BDSM is more about consent than sex; people, like the author of 50 Shades, misrepresent the lifestyle.

Too often my gender divergent family is misrepresented and misunderstood, relegated to props and characters to ridicule and use as the comedic prop (a man dressed as a woman prancing around, for example). Yet, interestingly, some of people’s favorite characters and people are TGNC.

One final reminder: Don’t confuse gender identity with sexuality.

Sexuality is to whom you are attracted and with whom you have coitus. Gender is your sense of self, who you are and how you display that sense of self. Trans men and women are male and female respectively. Simply because a trans person has the genitalia they were born with doesn’t mean they are gay or bisexual. Many are straight.

Often, gender and sexuality are conflated in real life and in Hollywood. Don’t make that mistake. Don’t’ think a character you write who is T/GNC MUST be gay. Some are. Some aren’t. That’s a decision you need to make. Once you do, you need to ensure you have shown the difference between their gender identity and their sexuality. After all, we can’t assume all cis white men are heterosexual, right? Why assume a T/GNC person is gay?

As you can see on my Script Reader Services page, I am open to script readings. See the list for pricing. I’m happy to assist you in adding LGBTQ characters to your scripts. You can and also DM me on Twitter with questions.