Tough Reader, Good Advice

"Mike has a superb knowledge, love and understanding of film. He does his work with integrity and passion."

Kristin Overn
Executive Director
The PAGE International
Screenwriting Awards

"To be honest, the money I have spent on these reports ($50 for each one) has been some of the best money I have ever spent. "

Mina Zaher
Journey of a Screenwriter

"Michael Lee is the most knowledgable, thorough and professional screenplay analyst in the business!"

John Vincent
Executive Director
Hollywood Screenplay Contest

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Overwriting and Underwriting

There’s nothing worse than reading an overwritten script. Pages upon pages of descriptions. Speeches that take up an entire page or worse go one for multiple pages. These are the sure signs of a beginning writer or a writer who simply doesn’t get it. Underwritten scripts aren’t as common, at least I personally come across more overwritten scripts than underwritten ones. But they’re still bad. Dashing about in a sea of confusion. It’s hard to tell what’s happening, who these characters are or why I should give a damn. The strange thing is both kinds of writing, overwriting and underwriting, stem from the same mistakes. The underwriter and the overwriter both have the same storytelling weaknesses. A) They don’t understand telling details. And B) They don’t understand dramatic spine.

Start with point A, Telling Details. There’s an old saying that goes brevity is the soul of wit and that’s very true of screenwriting. With scripts or any type of storytelling for that matter, it’s the quality of the words that count not the quantity. An overwriter can spend a whole page describing a character whereas an experienced writer can create a clearer and more vivid picture with just a few lines. Meanwhile an underwriter will zip along and not bother to tell you anything about the character at all. He isn’t boring you to tears like the overwriter but he’s not engaging you as a reader either. Both writers are giving us information but not the right information, there’s no atmosphere, no character. Even worse there’s no sense of why this scene is taking place. What’s so important? Why do we HAVE to have this scene?

That leads us to point B, dramatic spine. I’ve talked about this in several other posts but writers need to understand spine; it’s what directors and actors are looking for. Every scene needs a chain of cause and effect that takes it from the beginning to the end. Well written scenes have a constant give and take, a back and forth. They fly by and are riveting. People who understand dramatic spine don’t waste time trying to direct through the screenplay, filling the page with all kinds of camera directions. Not do they try to act for the characters, describing every bit of blocking. The director and the actors will figure that part out themselves. As a writer it’s your job to give them the spine from which the director creates his shot list and the actors their blocking. You lose track of the dramatic core of your story then you’re spinning your wheels. You’re either filling in meaningless details or zipping by and leaving everyone confused, the director and actors included.

Overwriting and underwriting are very real traps for beginning screenwriters. Both point to a lack of understanding of the craft writing and what a screenwriter’s primary job entails. A screenplay is not a movie. It’s a screenplay. And unless it is a perfectly executed screenplay it has very little chance of becoming a movie.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Action Movies and the Third Act

The year is barely a month old and we’ve already had two very interesting action movies released, Haywire and The Grey. While on the surface they appear to have nothing in common they are very similar in terms of the their third acts. Massive spoilers are ahead so don’t look those who haven’t seen the movies.


Start out with Haywire. I must confess I like this one a lot. It’s a guilty pleasure. It exists for only one reason, to establish MMA fighter Gina Carano as a legit action star and in that it does not disappoint. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the action is shot in long takes at medium distance so Carano’s athleticism and fighting ability are well displayed. Under those conditions even a lot of male action stars would have a hard time looking believable. There’s no shaky cam or quick editing to hide the use of stunt doubles.

In other respects the movie needs a little more generosity from the viewer. Carano won’t be headlining Broadway any time soon. She does okay for an action film. She has humor and screen presence. Her acting ability is about on par with the rest of the action stars. There are rumors that her voice was digitally altered and seeing her interviews on Youtube I can believe that. She sounds a lot huskier in the film. But whether it’s true or not, it’s not a big issue for me. Voice alteration is a fact of life in the music industry. I’m shocked it took this long to catch on with the movies. The real problem is the story which is generic almost to the point of brilliance. Almost but not quite. And one of the main reasons is the third act. The movie doesn’t have an ending it more or less stops. And before it does it was running out of gas. It doesn’t look deliberate like in Ocean’s Eleven (I owe for that thing you did with that guy that one time) it looks like the writer just ran out of ideas.

The Grey’s ending is planned and it fits. But it might not make people happy.

The Grey was a huge surprise. It’s really an intense drama about mortality disguised as a survival drama. It’s shocking almost, you’d expect the bold experiment would be by Steven Soderbergh and the action vehicle to be from Joe Carnahan, not the other way around. But that’s how it worked out. Whether it was budget restraints, crummy CGI, or an artistic bent that would shock anyone who saw Smokin’ Aces, The Grey is about characters facing their demise. So when the film abruptly ends just before Liam Neeson charges the alpha wolf with knife and broken bottles taped to his hands (What can I say? – The trailer lied), it doesn’t feel like a cop out. No, this is a culmination of the character. Whether he lives or dies is no longer the issue. That he actually stood up for one last fight, that’s what’s important.

But here we have two action movies with no action endings. This is the exact opposite of a typical action movie. Many of them have no action except for the ending. In fact the rule for most ‘70s actioners is skip the first two acts, just tune in for the ending.

Is that a trend writers should follow? Depends. I think Haywire’s ending is a big letdown that nearly drags the rest of the film down. That’s because it had more modest goals. A traditional action packed ending would have been much more appropriate. The Grey however was a bold movie and the ending is a bold choice by the director and writer. It fits the story perfectly. And that’s what writers should be paying attention to. What does the story need in terms of an ending? A bang or a whimper?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Post Mortem of David E. Kelly’s Wonder Woman

How does an Emmy winning writer completely ruin one of the most iconic superheroes? Simply by being himself.

When it was first announced I wrote about my concerns for David E. Kelly bring Wonder Woman to the small screen. When the network yanked the plug after viewing the pilot episode I didn’t know what to make of it. Without seeing the episode I couldn’t tell if Kelly had knocked it out of the park and the network suits had simply turned their backs on the unfamiliar or if he’d stunk up the joint and the execs were showing a rare moment of competency. Well a short time ago I finally saw a large chunk of the pilot via the popular That Guy with the Glasses website.

Wow. Worse than I thought. Here’s the video below.

Granted this isn’t the whole pilot but I could barely get through this video. When you can’t even watch something when it’s getting the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment you know it’s bad.

One thing that stands out to me is the point I made originally; that David E. Kelly is the LAST person who should be put in charge of a comic book adaptation. I had a lot of people tell me that great writing is great writing and that genre doesn’t matter.

Oh but it does. It really does.

Especially when a writer has made a career in a genre that is incompatible with another. I know that sounds crazy in this age of constant mashups but there are some genres that don’t play nice with each other at all. Legal dramas are not necessarily more realistic, most of Kelly’s legal dramas contain more fantasy than Lord of the Rings. But legal dramas are based on the notion that the legal system is vitally important if not the final word on any given argument. Superhero comic books are based on the idea that the law is something you can set aside. Much like physics in Star Wars, the actually law gets in the way of enjoying a good comic book.

So what does Kelly do? He can’t stop being himself. Instead of high flying adventure the only thing he can see are all the civil liberties being violated. And he makes the crucial mistake of thinking that’s what comic fans really want to see. Comic book fans aren’t for civil liberties anymore than they are for guys killing themselves trying to swing from rooftop to rooftop like Spiderman. As a result he turns in a show that is openly hostile to the idea of civil liberties and in the process shows off his own contempt for the genre he’s writing in.

Now there are writers out there who can pull this off. Who can move from one ethos to a completely different one. But those individuals are truly rare. And David E. Kelly for all his accomplishments clearly isn’t one of them.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Face Off and Concept

A lot of writers have a grudge against reality shows since they are to blame for the decline in scripted shows. But there’s no arguing that they’re cheaper to produce and draw an audience so I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon. And they’re not all bad.

Can a writer learn anything from watching these shows? I like to think so. I like to think that these shows become popular because of the characters and because each season ends with a big finale. That’s something scripted genre should strive for. But one of my favorite reality shows is Face Off on the SyFy channel. And I think all would be writers should tune in especially science fiction and fantasy writers.


Because this is the show where concept plays such a huge role in who comes out on top. The make up artists don’t just come up with ideas randomly. Each challenge their creations have to reflect a concept. This is something screenwriters need to do as well. They need to work on their screenplay concepts and how to express those ideas. In fact I think the Face Off contestants could benefit from working with a screenwriter.

Take the opening episode of Season 2. The first challenge was to reinvent the characters from The Wizard of Oz. The two teams came up with some good concepts but watching this at home I was saying to myself “Space Opera. Space Opera. Space Opera.” Admittedly I’m sort of stealing from the Twilight Imperium game. But in the end I think I came up with a concept that produced very unique takes on the characters; a pod person Scarecrow, a cybernetic tin man, a cowardly lion/fat space merchant, and a wicked witch with telepathic powers.

It’s interesting because both writers and make up artists use their imaginations but they often take different avenues. It’ll be fun to watch this season and see if the other challenges are as writer-friendly as the first one.

Friday, January 13, 2012

An Open Letter to Team Green Arrow

The internet is buzzing with rumors that Green Arrow will be made into a pilot for the CW. Nobody asked but I’m going to offer my two cents. When it comes to comic book TV and movie projects you can’t assume anything. So if Team Green Arrow has already had this discussion then congratulations you’re off to a good start.

The series has two ways it can go; young Green Arrow or Older Green Arrow. Both versions offer strengths and weaknesses.

With Young Green Arrow you might be thinking this is easy, it would be a continuation of the Smallville series. Except that that Smallville was no longer Smallville by the time it ended. Hell it technically came to an end when Green Arrow appeared IN COSTUME. Remember the primary concept of Smallville originally is this was Clark Kent before he put on the mantel of Superman. The moment Green Arrow showed up Smallville essentially became its own sequel as it was about young heroes in costume; except for Clark who for some reason put off donning the Superman cape for another 5 years. So a continuation would actually be a continuation of Smallville 2.0, young heroes in love. This can work because of one character, Black Canary. The Green Arrow/Black Canary pairing is one of comicdom’s greatest. It’s been going on since the ‘70s. It’s provided loads of sex and is the main reason IO9 ranks it No. 1 on its list of comic book movies that should be R-Rated. But like all good couples there’s been plenty of friction and conflict over the years. They’ve broken up, found new love interests (always another costumed vigilante) only to come back together again. So this would be nothing like Smallville in tone or focus. Think Fraser vs. Cheers. Same character but the show completely changed once Fraser Crane became the focus.

Black Canary will be such a central figure in this show, unless you DON’T want the massive built in audience to tune in. This is a chance to correct a major TV injustice. A decade ago the then WB announced Birds of Prey based on Gail Simone’s hit comic book. The TV writers thought they knew better, didn’t consult Ms. Simone at all and proceeded to create one of that season’s biggest flops. Do yourselves a favor an have a much publicized sit down with Gail Simone to talk about the characters, particularly Black Canary. That alone will give you early points with the fan community. Believe me you’re going to need them because you’re going to rub some fans the wrong way no matter what you do.

And for the love of God please don’t do a Smallville prequel and show how Oliver Queen eventually took up the bow. Prequels suck. It didn’t work out for George Lucas. Do you think there’s a huge fanbase out there that wants to know what Oliver Queen was doing before he was Green Arrow?

Now some on the internet fret whether this show will be Gossip Girl with Weapons. That actually is a good description of the current Green Arrow “family.” You have the two sexy parental figures Green Arrow and Black Canary. Then you have younger characters like Roy Harper, Arrowette, Mia, Connor Hawke. This wouldn’t be a bad set up. The younger characters have diverse backgrounds. Mia was living on the streets and is HIV positive. Arrowette had a privileged upbringing but an overbearing mother. Then there’s Roy Harper and your chance to redress a huge outrage. Roy Harper was an amazing character; a recovering drug addict who was also a single father to an adorable little girl, Lian. But then DC decided to kill Lian off because they wanted to make Roy more “intense.” The result was enormous fan backlash and the new “intense” Roy Harper was something of a joke. For some reason comic books are the one industry where it’s okay to cause massive fan outrage. Don’t expect the same courtesy. Fans will keep shelling out hard earned money for comics but they’ll drop a show they can see for free if they don’t love every second of it. If you put Lian Harper into your show you’ll have a ton of goodwill from fans.

So good luck. I’m hoping this project gets picked up and that it does right by the characters. No matter what you choose to do, there are opportunities. But there are also pitfalls.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Screenwriting Contest Do’s and Don’ts for 2012

2012 means another year of screenwriting contests. Is yours ready to be submitted?

Contests remain a great way for screenwriters to hone their craft and get attention from agents, managers and producers. The biggest contests have incredible cash prizes. The PAGE Awards grand prize is up to $20,000. And the field isn’t as crowded as one might think. But is your script ready to be judged?

DO get your screenplay proofed before sending it in. My biggest pet peeve as a script judge is a script littered with typos followed closely by one that’s full of formatting errors. This is basic. Failure to do this waves a big flag that says “I don’t care.” If a writer doesn’t care about the appearance of his script, what are the chances he cared enough with the content? That may sound unfair but there are now there are dozens of services that will professionally proofread and check your script for formatting. Speaking of which…

DON’T go another day without some kind of formatting software. Final Draft is the industry standard. Don’t have the money? Pick up a used version on eBay or download one of the free software packages from the net. Stop trying to make a properly formatted script in Word. Either you have the word processing skills to do that, in which case you should be able to afford Final Draft, or you do not have the skills and your script is going to look like a hot mess. Again this is basic. Contest fees alone will run you more than a copy of Final Draft. It’s another way, fair or unfair, that we judge who is taking this seriously and who isn’t.

DO look for a contest with multiple genre categories. I’m happy to say more and more major contests are becoming like PAGE or the Hollywood Screenplay Contest. It’s no longer one category fits all. This is great for genre writers. And here’s a tip, if you can, ask somebody at the contest which genre needs more entries. I guarantee there will be at least a few categories that are low. I’ve judged contests where some categories had entries numbered in the single digits. Can you say, improved odds of winning?

DON’T get hung up on one screenplay. It’s a new year. You should have a new script. You should have a bunch of new scripts. You want to be a screenwriter, not some guy who wrote ONE screenplay. Writing more screenplays is the only way a writer can improve.

DO start your story off quickly. The first act isn’t a pass to be dull and boring. A story starts with page one, word one. To win you have to be great from start to finish. But you’ll never get past the first round if you don’t grab the reader’s attention on the first page. Also make sure your mid point and ending are pretty good too!

Monday, January 2, 2012

Marketing Packages Vs. Coverage

People often ask if they should include their coverage in a query letter. The answer for that is always no. Coverage, whether done for a production company or an individual writer, should always be marked FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY. In production companies it’s for deciding whether or not to pursue this project. To that end they employ their own readers; people they have a long standing relationship with and trust implicitly. For the individual writer coverage should be a tool to help one become a better writer. We may think we did everything perfectly but maybe there’s something we missed. Does your really script climax with an earth shattering bang or die out with a whimper? You think it’s great but are other people going to see what you see? If people who aren’t your friends and family are giving you high marks for your writing you can be pretty confident that you’re at least doing something write.

But what do you send to a production company or agent?

The Hollywood Screenplay Contest is offering Marketing Packages. These are materials specifically designed to help a writer sell his or her screenplay. There are plenty of other marketing services for writers. They offer a range of services from query letters all the way to PR services.

Are they worth it?

Depends on your own level of experience and ability.

Remember that good writing and good marketing are two related but separate pursuits. And writers often have a huge problem when it comes to things like self promotion and PR. You’ve heard it before; writing by nature is a solitary endeavor. Some of us have trouble getting out of our shells. Even those of us who are extroverted by nature could benefit from another set of eyes on the project. Just as an outsider can see the flaws that we are by nature incapable of noticing, they can also suggest avenues we never though of.

Coverage is a good idea though not everyone needs it. Some writers can put enough distance between themselves and their material when it comes re-writing. Or they know experienced and accomplished writers and editors who will take a look at their script for no charge.

Maybe you are a very experienced marketer. Maybe you already know several people at a production company/management company/major agency. Maybe you can sell ice to Eskimos. Maybe you don’t need coverage or a marketing package.

But then again, maybe you do.

Recommended Reading and Tools

Script Reading Services Available

Basic - 5 to 7 pages of detailed analysis going over a script's concept, structure, characters, dialogue, plot and marketability

Page Notes - 10 pages or more of in depth analysis from the first page to the end.


The StoryPros