What I’ve Learned This Year

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On the second of September, it will be one year since I’ve had employment. This was planned to be the year that I wrote six to ten screenplays before setting off to work and save up for a move to Los Angeles.

There was a change in plans shortly after my job came to an end. My parents, who I’ve been living with, informed my brother and sister that they had decided to move to North Carolina, and we were all invited to come with.

This news came as quite a shock, and naturally, I was pissed. This changed everything. How would I live? Where would I work? Why the fuck bother? I hated the notion, and hoped to move straight to the west coast. Following some examination of living costs out there, I recanted. My brother asking aloud, “Did you come to your senses, then?” He’s kind of a shit at times, but he’s family, so what can you do?

Following a couple months of wallowing in self pity, and being quite direction-less, I finally managed to get my act together and get some ideas down.

First was the month-long research period for “Soldiers of Fortune.” I spent days on the internet trying to learn all I could about the weight and size and classes of 16th century ships. Around Thanksgiving, my library facilitated me with a book on Columbus’ ships that proved most helpful.

One of the critical parts of planning this story was figuring out the time frame of it all. As it was an Action/Adventure film, there was naturally globetrotting. What I had trouble with was finding out the travel times between destinations, the time difference and how long each of the events in each location would last. It was necessary to create an actual time line for the project, and it came in quite handy.

Before I wrote, I outlined, with a simple rubric I plan to touch on at a later date. Any problems with a scene about to be written were further outlined on my trusty 4×6 notecards. When completed, there were at least 100 cards related to this particular project. Each of them handwritten.

The writing was rather fast, two weeks, I believe. I had it at 100 pages. And I saw that it was good.

A month later, I wrote my second script. “While This Offer Lasts.” A rewrite of a script I had done the year before. This project is what I refer to as the “Manic Draft.” Named that for when I told my doctor at a checkup and he said, “Good God, are you manic?” He was taken aback by the particulars of the project: 113 pages written in eight days.

The project itself took all of ten days total. The first day was the beat sheet. The second was outlining. On the third, I started. I used notecards in the same capacity as the previous project. And like it, I used over 100 cards.

Shortly after finishing the second script, I sent in the first to Scriptshadow’s Amateur Offerings. Around that time, I started really delving into the articles on the site. It was there that I found the article discussing cheating the margins. Putting the script into Final Draft, I realized I had been doing things wrong.

Once I took care of the formatting, I read more of the articles. It soon became apparent to me that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. On one hand, it was terrible. There went the last two months of work I’ve done, all the while thinking it was good. On the other, it was exciting. There, on the web was an example of something similar to what I’d written, what was wrong with it, WHY it was wrong, and a suggestion or two about how to correct it.

In the past year, I have bookmarked hundreds of articles on one site alone. (A great thing about the bookmarking feature in my browser is that I can re-name each bookmark, and say why I bookmarked it, instead of going to the page and having to re-read it.

Another helpful aspect was the reading of two books: “Scriptshadow Secrets,” which, as I’ve stated, is the best screenwriting book I’d read to date. That remains true. The second one I haven’t finished yet. It’s called “Crafty Screenwriting” by Alex Epstein. This book, I would venture to say, would be tied for the title of the best screenwriting book you can buy. I’m dead serious. This book was written by a former studio suit who knows what the hell he’s talking about. For instance, in the first chapter, he says that you have to hook the reader by the third sentence in a query letter. I’ve NEVER heard that. Not in all of the books that Writer’s Digest peddles, or anywhere else.

I’ve also joined a screenwriting forum. It was probably the best decision I’d made all year. On there, I think I’ve really found a place I belong. And if this site is any indication of what networking with other screenwriters is like, I can’t wait! I’ve met a ton of really great people on there who I just love chatting and exchanging ideas with.

An example of this is how for a long time, I was having trouble with loglines. Through this site, as well as a book or two (see above), I’ve managed to help a couple writers better fine-tune their stories. It was all from the realization that if the information in your logline does not directly have an effect on the story, lose it. IE, if your story takes place in the early 19th century, but it’s about a construction worker being blackmailed, the time really doesn’t play into the pitch, since it’s all about the construction worker.

But by far the two biggest things that I’ve pounded into my head are building a concise character description, and understanding the economy of the page. A side note for the latter being more diverse with descriptive verbage. These two subjects became the biggest focuses over the later part of the year.

I will admit, however, I feel a little guilty, not having written a single page since January. This was really when I discovered I was doing it wrong. The good news is that I’m still technically writing everyday. I always have my phone, a notebook, or notecards handy to jot down an idea when I get it.

Another reason for my sloth-like behavior was the fact that my family is moving to North Carolina, and we sold our house back in April. It was fast. I mean, REALLY fast. We put it on the market on a Wednesday, and we closed the sale the following Wednesday. Yes, ONE WEEK.

So it was really hard to do much writing with all of my noted being packed in moving boxes. Then, we moved to an apartment in Madison until we were set to move South in the fall. Currently, we have a month left here, so my notes are going BACK into storage for the next move. Where, I’m told, we’re going to be at another apartment for an initial three months before possibly looking for a new place to rent. It’s kind of harrowing.

Once I get settled in, I plan on seeking full time employment. After I get into the swing of things, that’s when I’ll get into writing again.

In the meantime, I plan on creating a sort of handbook for screenwriting that breaks down the aspects of screenwriting. (Excerpts from articles all having to do with writing a concise character description would all appear under the same category, for example.) This may take some time to put together, but I feel it will be well worth it in the long run.

I’m also really hoping that the public library system down there holds a candle to mine here in Wisconsin. The resources have just been phenomenal.

All in all, this has been a pretty well-utilized year. I’m still far from where I’d wanted to be a year ago, but with all that I’ve learned, I’m okay with that. I’d rather try writing one great script after a year of learning how to improve, rather than having six projects that I would have to agonize over rewriting. I’m just as sure now more than ever, that this is the only career path that I want, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!


Updated Logline: “Soldiers of Fortune”

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As I said before, all of my notes on my various projects were in storage for the move. I just so happened to start this blog during this move. One of the first things I put on here were loglines for my projects, all annotated that they were subject to change. (Read: write them from memory and replace them with the real versions once I got them unpacked.)

New Logline:

The government’s go-to bounty hunter has just three days to retrieve the Senator who’s been taken captive by treasure hunters.

Old Logline:

The State of the Union Address is in three days and that’s all the time a bounty hunter has to retrieve a missing Senator, who has been taken captive by treasure hunters.

So how exactly is this new logline better than the old one? For starters, the use of State of the Union Address isn’t necessary because we still have the same time limit (three days). We also are being more specific about the main character: not just a bounty hunter, but the government’s go-to bounty hunter. Why would the government go to this guy? What makes him so special? Questions like that are what helps a script sell… sort of. Lastly, notice that just by tweaking a couple phrases, the new logline is a bit leaner than the old one. Leaner = always better.

Here are a couple older loglines I came up with, descending from most recent:

  • The government’s go to bounty hunter gets roped into a treasure hunt while trying to bring home a kidnapped senator.
  • After a ship falls from the sky, a Senator goes missing while investigating it; giving a government-utilized bounty hunter three days to retrieve him before the State of the Union Address.
  • A bounty hunter has three days to retrieve a missing Senator, who was taken captive by treasure hunters.
  • The State of the Union Address is in three days, and that’s all the time a bounty hunter has to retrieve a missing Senator, who has been taken captive by treasure hunters.

Can you spot what might’ve caused me to change it from a previous version?

There are three components to a good logline: 1) Main character, 2) the goal, 3) the central source of conflict. You can read more about how to craft loglines in the links below. So are all three points shown in my latest logline? Let’s take a look.

1)Main character? Yep, the government’s go-to bounty hunter. 2) The goal? Yep, three days to retrieve the missing Senator. 3) The main source of conflict? Sure thing! The Senator’s been taken captive by treasure hunters AND there are only THREE DAYS to find him. (Double Whammy there)

It may not scream “BUY THIS NOW!!” yet, but that’s the point of this blog: to show improvement in a craft where there is always something new to learn.

Until next time, Movie Buffs!

Links: (All open in new tabs)

Screenwriting Book – Scriptshadow Secrets

Scriptshadow BookScriptshadow Secrets (500 Screenwriting Secrets Hidden Inside 50 Great Movies) by Carson Reeves

This is the book that really changed the way I watched movies. When I came across Carson’s site, I thought I knew all there was to know about movies. Boy, was I wrong. From character flaws, to inner goals to the use of GSU (Goals, Stakes and Urgency), Carson’s site is a resource no screenwriter should be without.

On his site, you’ll find several free examples of writing tips from a bunch of great films. (“The Godfather,” “GoodFellas,” “Trainspotting” and “The Big Lebowski” among them.) The examples gained from each movie go to prove that Carson knows his stuff. All the practices and techniques he’s described in the past come into play in EVERY script.

At the time of this writing, the Kindle edition of this book is available for $5. That is a mere fraction of what this opus should cost. This is a link to an excerpt from his book that he published on his site: Link.

Here is a list of all the movies he covers in his book:
Aliens, Stand By Me, Up, The Bourne Identity, District 9, The Proposal, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Good Will Hunting, Big, Avatar, Die Hard, Taken, American Beauty, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Star Wars, Lethal Weapon, Back to the Future, Fargo, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Fugitive, The Hangover, Crash, Notting Hill, Inception, The Empire Strikes Back, Bridesmaids, Training Day, Jerry McGuire, The Social Network, Rocky, Pulp Fiction, The Goonies, Pretty Woman, Juno, Super 8, The Shawshank Redemption, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, When Harry Met Sally, Office Space, The Princess Bride, Psycho, The Ring, Titanic, The Matrix, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Star Trek, Taxi Driver and Terminator 2.

I can assure you that this is the most worthwhile screenwriting book worth having.

Available here: Link.