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.

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