Monday, October 21, 2013


In today's Screenwriter Carnival, I'm challenging my cohorts to think of one screenwriting myth they would love to correct.

My pick: Flashbacks.

New writers hear it all the time: Don't use your screenplay. It's the death knell. NEVER EVER DO IT OR YOU WILL BE DESTROYED.

Balderdash, I say.

As an action writer, I love to start things in medias res, which is a literary term for starting right in the middle of the action. I don't usually do that "Three weeks earlier" thing made popular by Alias, but I do like to skip the boring shit and start with guns ablazin. The downside of that is that at some point I'm going to have to fill in the story I skipped over in order to start here. Flashbacks are excellent in that capacity.

I didn't set out to use flashback in every screenplay, but it has happened. My last three specs have all used them because I had to.

And there's the trick, really. Use them if you have to. Use them if they give us something we can't get from the linear storyline. It takes skill and practice to use them right, and that's why new writers are told not to use them. If you don't know what you're doing, just don't do it.

So how do you use flashbacks correctly? Let's go to my favorite example, In Bruges.


The film starts off as a comedy. We don't know why Ray is in Bruges, but we know he did something stupid and now he's hiding out until the shit blows over. Ray is hilarious because he's an asshole, an asshole we can kind of relate to, but an asshole nonetheless.

Then, halfway through the film, we flash back to what Ray did. We learn that in the middle of completing a job he was paid to do, he also killed a little boy. And when we come out of that flashback, we're in a different film. Suddenly we realize that all this time, what we thought was funny asshole behavior was really Ray coping with what he did. And from this point on, the story is much more serious. We take his suicidal behavior not as a joke, but as a real possibility. We feel sad for him now, where before we felt humor.

That one flashback added information to our story. It told us something that completely changed our view of this world and our character. It changed the tone and the meaning of everything that had come before. Without that flashback, we'd be missing information.

So if you want to use flashbacks in your story, make them mean something. Make them more than just a cute little expositiony scene with information we could have gotten some other way. Make your flashback count for something. Make it necessary.

But don't go around your elbow to get to your thumb just because some guru somewhere said not to use flashbacks. Flashbacks can be awesome if you use them with care.

Participating blogs:
Red Right Hand

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Where can I send my screenplay? Part three: The Revenge

I wrote this post in 2009 as a response to the many people who kept finding me through this search topic: "Where can I send my screenplay?"

A bit full of myself, yes, but also not wrong. And every so often someone still finds that post and makes a new comment about how I'm an asshole just trying to stop my competition from putting out their brilliant first screenplays.

In 2010, because of all the people who reacted angrily to my advice, I posted a follow-up here. Very few people seem to have read it. I'm now posting my follow-up to the follow-up, and if things go according to pattern, I will be the only person who ever reads this, and for years to come people will still be finding my old post and telling me what an idiot I am.

Here's the thing. If you just wrote your very first screenplay, do whatever the fuck you want. Want to query every agent in town? Knock yourself out. Want to take out an ad in Daily Variety or post your shit on Ebay for a minimum bid of a million dollars? Rock on, man. You do you.

That's my new, updated advice. Do whatever the hell you want. Results may vary and be incredibly demoralizing.

It's quite possible that your very first script you ever wrote is every bit as good as the scripts of people who have been studying the craft for years. Maybe you're a genius. Maybe your idea is something nobody on Earth has ever thought of, and as soon as agents read your script they will drop everything and call you up and fly you out to Hollywood and hold parties in your honor. Could happen.

It probably won't, but it could.

So here's what you waste when you query everyone about your brand new script: Time, mostly yours. In my original post I lamented the fact that I wasted a perfectly good read from an interested agent by sending her a script that wasn't ready, but in hindsight, it didn't really matter that much. When I had a script that WAS ready, there were agents who would read it. I don't even remember that original agent's name, and I very much doubt she remembers mine. So despite my frustration then, in the long term, the only thing sending out my first screenplay cost me was time.

It is an awesome feeling to finish your first screenplay. It's a big decision to go through with one, and a great achievement to have completed it, but no matter how hard you worked, odds are that it is not ready. Odds are that it will never be ready. It's not impossible, but if you want to become a great writer sooner rather than later, one of the skills you need to develop is the ability to assess your own talent level. That only comes with time and exposure to lots and lots of screenplays, plus a certain level of maturity.

I think back on all the time I spent querying my screenplay and googling how to send it out and looking up email addresses of agents and agonizing over why I didn't hear anything back - and I'm annoyed that I didn't spend that time working on my next script. Think how much faster I could have learned to write a great script if I'd spent more time practicing and less time auditioning before I was ready.

Things are already different from the way they were when I wrote my first screenplay. If I were a new writer today, I'd put my script up on the Black List site and use it to gauge where I am as a writer. If the script truly is an outlier, the Black List will tell you.

But I wouldn't query my first script. I probably wouldn't query my second script.

Speaking of my second script, I blew a chance with that one, too. I met an assistant at a successful management boutique, and he asked me to send him my script. This was a terrible script. I still cringe when I think of some of the mistakes I made. The first mistake was in shoving action sequences into the story where I thought I should have an action sequence instead of letting the story dictate the action. But anyway, I sent my script to this guy thinking it was really great, because in the beginning it's tough to gauge your abilities, and of course it got me nowhere. The guy was nice enough to send it to three different readers and forward me the feedback, which was unbelievably helpful, since back then it was very difficult to find anyone to give you genuinely useful feedback.

So that experience wasn't a total waste for me; it taught me a lot about what I was doing wrong. Still, if I had waited and sent that assistant a truly great script...

But in the end, my opportunity came.

Before you send your first screenplay out into the world, sit down and seriously analyze where you are as a writer.Think about your favorite screenplay. (If you have not read any screenplays, I can pretty much guarantee that your script sucks.) But think about that one great script. Try to imagine you are a film executive who doesn't know this new writer and has to judge him or her only by what is on the page. Is your script as good as that one?

When I saw the film In Bruges, I nearly cried from rage. That movie was so goddamn good that what had seemed like a good screenplay about zombies mere hours before I saw In Bruges now seemed like a stack of crap. I knew I was not as good as Martin McDonagh. I went home and sat down and refused to get off the computer until I was.

I've been sitting here quite a long time now. I may have become one with the chair.

Anyway, I guess my advice for new writers is to really think before sending their work into the world. Are you okay with wasting a little time? If someone does request your screenplay, do you feel like you're really ready to become a professional screenwriter? Do you think you're as good as your hero?

Actually that's a stupid fucking question. You're never going to think you're as good as your hero even if you are.

If you want to send your screenplay out, be prepared for disappointment. Know that the odds of success are extremely low. They're low anyway for any script. They're even lower for a first-timer. They're so low they're like the size of amoebas on fleas on rats.* So if you can accept those odds and want to send your script out anyway...

Post it to the Black List website.
Join IMDB Pro to find emails of agents and producers.
Join an online community like Done Deal Pro and make friends with people who can give you information about agents and managers.
Enter your script in the top tier contests like The Nicholl, TrackingB, or Austin.

And as always, NEVER EVER EVER pay anyone to represent you. Any manager or agent who charges you a fee or a deposit or any kind of up front cost is scamming you.

No matter what you choose to do with your first script, once you've made that decision, go get to work on your second. Then your third. Then keep going until one day, one of them is good enough to get to the right person at the right time.

Good luck. Please don't yell at me.

*I stole this line from the classic film Grease.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


This week's Scribosphere Carnival post topic, brought to us by Red Right Hand:

How we each take criticism, or how we don't, who do we seek out to provide it, and what do we do with it once we have it, how we give it, or, you know...whatever.

When I get notes I have two possible responses. 

Response number 1: If there's a lot of notes and a whole lot of structural stuff to do, I'm like NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU! This is impossible! I quit! I can't do this anymore! I'm never gonna be a writer ever! The world is ending! I want to just lie in bed all day and watch Doctor Who and eat cookies! There is no meaning to anything anymooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooore!

Pitching this fit is all part of my process. Beefcake is really good at quietly listening to me bitch and moan about the ridiculousness of life, the universe and everything, then go just as quietly back to his video game when I stop mid-sentence and run out of the room because I've figured out how to fix the problem I was bemoaning.

About three hours later you'll find me manic at my computer going "OH MY GOD THIS IS AMAZING!"

I'll probably have a draft two days later. Sometimes I hold onto it for a few days so everybody thinks I took longer. For some reason, when you work quickly, people don't think you've taken your work seriously. But I digress.

Response number 2: I only get a handful of notes with no major structural changes and only a few little adjustments to make. In that case I go right to my computer as soon as I can, put on my rewrite music and go to town.

Most of these notes come from my rep, who is amazing with notes. I often also send a draft to one person I trust, one of a few other screenwriters who are about at the same place in their careers as I am. I don't like multiple reads because of the way I like to leap into action immediately. But I don't use very many readers, and I never give it to someone I don't know. I get asked a lot, and a lot of times really well meaning people will offer to give me a read, but I just keep it to my tight circle because there's really no reason to step outside of it. I work in a very specific way: I get the notes, I make the changes.

After I've screamed and thrown things.

Other Participating blogs:
Shouting into the Wind
Jonathan Hardesty