Critical Screenwriting Lessons from Twenty Years in a Writers Lab

T. Jay O’Brien is an actor, produced screenwriter and playwright, educator, and moderator of Coronet Writers Lab. Follow T. Jay on Twitter: @coronetwriters

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Screenwriting Lessons from Twenty Years in a Writers Lab #scriptchat #screenwriting

Hi Guys.

My name is T. Jay O’Brien and I have been the Moderator of the Coronet Writers Lab since it started up back in April 1997. Since I had to tell you my name, the years have obviously not brought fame of any kind and that’s all right. They unfortunately have not brought wealth of any kind either, and that sort of stings. But I only have myself to blame for that. Early on I decided that I was going to be working with writers and actors, 99% of whom make a near poverty existence on a good year. I believed it was despicable, really a crime, to hose these folk, financially, or in any other way. I believed it then; I believe it now.

Writers and actors struggle for their art, for work, at the best of times. And many will consider being in a Lab a priority, putting much needed money aside for that purpose. I admire artists who invest in themselves. Basically that is an important concept and a theme you will see repeated throughout this piece.

As Moderator of the Coronet Writers Lab it has been my job and privilege to work with actors and writers and to assist writers get their scripts to be the absolute best they can be. That includes stage plays, screenplays and teleplays. We have seen the odd musical, web series and book come through as well. But as we are a dramatic Writers Lab, we focus on material meant to be performed. And that is why I am ever grateful to the extraordinary actors and actresses who make up an integral part of our membership.

Writers at all different levels in their careers have been members of the Lab. There is always an incredible level of talent that develops material in the Lab. Matt Sazama is an alum of the Lab, (Dracula Untold, Gods of Egypt, The Last Witch Hunter, Lost In Space), Mickey Fisher, (EXTANT, Mars, Reverie), Jeffrey Shakoor, (Bloodline, I’m Dying Up Here), we even have one Emmy-winner, so far, Moira Walley-Beckett, a phenomenal writer who won for penning the “Ozymandias” episode in the iconic series, Breaking Bad. A present member, Shawn Boxe, is on staff on Silicon Valley and Jeff and the Aliens. Lab members are contest winners, Fellowship winners and writers whose scripts have scored high on the Black List. They are writers who have gained representation with managers and agents; writers whose work has been optioned. Over thirty plays have received productions at Pasadena Playhouse, at the Tony-winning Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago, at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and in smaller theatres across the country. The story of the success of the Lab is the story of the success of its’ members. Gratefully there has been much to talk about over the years, both on a modest and on a higher-profile scale.

I have helped shepherd literally thousands and thousands of scripts across the finish line. Each one is a victory to be celebrated. Whether the script was a final polish that is going to a development exec at a studio, or it was the very first screenplay a writer took on, typing FADE OUT on both are reasons to celebrate.

Script EXTRA: Guide to a Writers Group

What I wish to do is share some of the insights I have gained by working with writers, and actors, for a couple decades in a Writing Lab environment. Perhaps some thoughts I put out may be of use to you in your writing career, at whatever stage in it you may be.

What I see many, many writers, early in their career exclusively focus on is getting an agent. “Have to have an agent, can’t get anywhere without one, no access to the big writing jobs if you don’t have one.” That is true. You likely won’t be considered for a studio assignment without having an agent.

So here you are, wanting, needing an agent. Well, it’s probably not going to be news, but an agent doesn’t need you. No, sorry, he/she really doesn’t. I understand you are unique and no one else has a voice quite like yours. Everyone says so, even your Mom. And you are a really nice person. That’s good, but it won’t get you in the door at an agency.

However what an agent does want, does need, is extraordinary writing talent to represent. They need a script that will turn this town on its’ head. (Like EXTANT did, by the then, “unknown, unsigned, Mickey Fisher”). You need to give them a script so powerful, so funny, so dramatic, so absolutely unique, that the agents will come running after YOU. How do you do that? Learn your craft.

Script EXTRA: Agents and Managers – How the Hell Do I Get One?

INVEST IN YOURSELF

I am talking about an all-encompassing investment here – financial, emotional, intellectual and aesthetic investment. Because YOU are a business, The (YOUR NAME HERE) Writing Company. And that company needs all the help it can get. There will be plenty of people happy to attend your Premier parties and tell you how good the movie you wrote and got produced is. But none of them will be there offering emotional support or fixes to your second act problem as you sit before your computer, writing into the depths of night. It will only be you. So you better learn to count on yourself. That means getting yourself prepared and learning about what is expected of you, and how you can come to deliver the goods.

It is not an exaggeration to say you get one shot at making a first impression. Same thing goes for your script. If you are in a rush to get it into the hands of a suit before it is ready, you have lost the interest of that contact and you can’t go back. Over and done. “But,” as you add later, “it’s better now after the rewrite – and I changed the title.” Too late. There is coverage that has your name and a logline and a synopsis in their files – if it even gets that far. The point is you don’t want it to get to that point where there is lousy coverage on your script because you were in a hurry and put pressure on yourself to rush your career along. It is tempting when you have a contact, or people who know people ask what you’re working on, to want to get it to them RIGHT AWAY. I truly understand that drive, that desire, that mindset. And I want you to succeed. I want the people who read your script to be so gobsmacked they can’t help but call you in and throw money at you. But it probably isn’t going to happen with your first, or second, etc., script.

Back in the late 70s, Orson Welles did commercials for Paul Masson wines and the tag line was, “We will sell no wine before its’ time.” Good way to think about your script.

You really have to make sure it is ready for others to read. And you need to be fairly ruthless with yourself about this. Ask a dozen people to read your script and give you feedback. Hopefully there are some writers in the mix. If a majority come back with issues, the script is not ready to send out. Because agents, managers and the people who do coverage on scripts for them read a hell of a lot more scripts than your friends do. They are more critical and looking for reasons to give your script a “pass.” Please do not make it easy for them. You must learn your craft and get some scripts under your belt before you can start to worry about getting a rep. YOU can call your script a piece of shit. You don’t want anyone else to.

BTW, if you do not know who Paul Masson is, not to worry. If you do not know who Orson Welles is, do some homework.

Script EXTRA: ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ Writer Robert Schenkkan on Taking Notes, Writing Routines & More!

FINANCIAL

Always good to have reference books at hand. Ones that make sense to YOU. There are many out there and more added to the screenwriting library all the time. Find ones that speak to you and inform your writing. The one book I like, use and always recommend is Syd Field’s, The Screenwriters Workbook. To me it simply presents a workable nuts and bolts approach to writing a screenplay, in direct, easy to understand language. I like everything by Syd. Read the books you like and keep them handy for when you get stuck or have questions.

Scripts. Read them, many as you can. There are websites where you can read them for free. You can buy scripts of movies you particularly like. Reading scripts will help in many ways. You will learn proper formatting, Final Draft aside. You will get to see how successful films are structured. You will see how dialogue looks on the page. You will see how a writer handled description, segues, narration, voice-over. More to the point, you will see how a writer handled the blank page and filled those hundred-some blank pages with a story that had an impact on YOU.

Writing contests. Tons out there and new ones cropping up on a regular basis. They can be a real mixed bag. I know folks who have had good experiences with them and others who simply felt ripped off. I would stick to the better-known contests, ones that have a history behind them. (Arguably, top one now is the Nicholl’s). Also if your submission gets any kind of feedback, that is a plus. Do top placers, (like Top 10) get to talk to or meet anyone? What is the best that can happen to me if my script gets any kind of attention here? Balance the upside potential with the cost of the entry fee.

Seminars, on-line courses, etc. There are numerous courses taught in-person and on-line that can be fairly selective when it comes to screenwriting. If you want help in a specific area, structure or dialogue or writing for a specific genre, you can find courses devoted solely to that specialty. For any course CHECK OUT THE TEACHER. What is his/her background? What have they written? What kind of reviews has the course received? Talk to people who have taken the course and hear what they have to say. Nothing like first-hand feedback to form an impression. The more informed you are the better positioned you are as a writer and person. It is also a means of meeting like-minded folks and networking.

The bottom-line here is you want to become as educated, learned and facile with the rules of writing a screenplay, (or sitcom or hour drama) as you can. Get to understand what the rules are and why they exist in the first place. Knowing the rules does not mean you always have to follow the rules. But you should know what they are. What are the rules that make a good story? And the cardinal rule of all – NEVER BE BORING!

Script EXTRA: Watch free panel of advice on how to succeed in a screenwriting contest!

EMOTIONAL, INTELLECTUAL, AESTHETIC

Writers Groups. I am a fan of and big believer in Writers Groups. I wrote a piece for Script Magazine online with the very snappy title, “Why You Should Be In A Writers Group Now!”. That article goes into some detail about the many benefits to be derived from being in a good writers group. Briefly, it will compel you to generate material; you will be forced to meet deadlines; you will learn to take criticism about your material; you will HEAR where things are breaking down in your script. Lots more, but I will simply say this now – joining a good writers group may be the single most beneficial and productive step you can take in getting to be a better writer. Classes, on-line or in person, seminars, conferences are all finite. Being in a group allows you to advance at your own pace and make demonstrable progress for as long as you want. I cannot overstate the benefits you will get from a good group. So find one or start one.

THICK SKIN

Develop one. As a writer your work, sometimes you, will be criticized, at times severely. Occasionally this feedback will be worse than your work, or you, deserve. Roll with it. You must come up with a coping mechanism to deal with unjustified criticism that will work for you. “But they don’t get it, they don’t understand my allegory” – maybe so but it won’t be good for you to tell the suits that in highly creative but unflattering, scatological terms. Because then YOU are seen as “difficult to work with”. That is a reputation you do not want. Work is hard enough to come by, and being known as troublesome is only going to make things that much harder for you.

I have been critiquing scripts and giving notes on material for over two decades. There is most definitely an art to giving criticism. Frankly it is rarer to find that ability than not in this town. I hope you will come out of a notes session feeling that someone gave your script a thorough read and found moments that were terrific, in addition to scenes and sequences that needed rewriting; perhaps offering suggestions that you can see would make for stronger, more dramatic or comic moments.

Take all the notes. Write everything down. One, you never can tell what will prove inspiring at some point. Something that you don’t agree with at the moment might just make a bit more sense after a period of time has passed and/or a good measure of bourbon has been drunk. Two, as you keep your head down to write everything it will prevent the suit from seeing the murder in your eyes when you realize the guy never read your script and is simply parroting sound bites from the coverage. Whatever the circumstances, avoid mayhem and always try to find a positive in any situation.

Bottom-line, getting criticism is going to be a life-long effect as long as your cause is writing. Some notes will be good, some will be terrible; hopefully all will be well-intentioned, but probably not. No matter what is thrown at you, you must learn to differentiate between the good and bad, take and use the good and write down but ignore the bad. Again, hopefully most criticism will be offered with the intent to help and is deserving of thanks. It’s up to you to decide what actually will help and then apply it. It is your work, your name is on it, you have the ultimate say.

Please, please for the love of all that is holy, READ YOUR SCRIPT BEFORE YOU GIVE IT TO ANYONE!!! Do not assume spell-check has caught every misspelling; do not assume your printer printed every page flawlessly, or that it printed every page to begin with. Print your script on three-hole punch paper, secure it with two brass brads. Then go through every page and read your script. Make sure no pages are missing and there are no duplicate or blank pages. Make sure there are no typos, misspellings, errors in grammar or syntax. If there are fix them. Yes, this is a long, tedious step but it is vitally important. Because you don’t want to come off as a complete, rank amateur. YOU CAN CONTROL THIS STEP ONE HUNDRED PERCENT. THERE IS NO EXCUSE, NONE, ZERO, FOR SENDING OUT A SCRIPT THAT HAS MISTAKES IN IT THAT YOU HAVE THE ABILITY TO FIX. A pro does not send out sloppy, shoddy work. And once again, your name is on the script. How do you want your work to represent you? I provide coverage for production companies. And when I get a script that has typos and misspellings and errors that tells me the writer really doesn’t give a shit about their work because if they DID they would care about how it LOOKS as well as how it reads.

I read every single word you write in a script. Let me focus on your story and characters. I really want to like your script. Don’t give me reasons not to, you can easily prevent.

Lab Poster 2 2017

WRITE

If you want to be a writer you need to write. Seems self-evident but is worth repeating. You constantly need to be generating material. Because as much as the books, seminars and lectures help, you will learn about writing by doing it. You will develop your voice by writing and hearing what your characters have to say. You will learn about yourself as you discover the genre that you are most inclined or disposed to write in. The more you write the better you will get at it. The idea of filling one hundred odd pages with words, daunting at first, will just be the story that needs to be told next, as you progress. Knocking out pages will not hold the fear, the trepidation for you it once did. You will be astonished by the change in your attitude towards work. It will become as necessary to sit at your computer and churn pages out as it is to breathe. And you will ALWAYS have something to tell when someone asks, “So what are you working on?” And you will instantly be able to hook them with your ever-ready, superbly-crafted loglines about your scripts.

Script EXTRA: Are You Really Too Busy to Write Every Day?

Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. It has been suggested it takes 10,000 hours of practice and work to become expert at something. Allow yourself the time to learn and make mistakes and be less than perfect. Because you have to keep at it, through blocks, story dead-ends, contradictory notes and characters that piss you off. Simply put, you need to write a lot. You also need to allow yourself to write shit and not get upset at yourself for doing it. There is nothing wrong with falling down as long as you get back up. You can write shit, but don’t allow that to define your work, get better and find ways to improve. Read. Stephen King said, if you want to be a writer, there are two things you need to do, read a lot and write a lot, no way around it, no shortcuts.

Get used to the fact that some people will HATE your scripts. Get used to the fact that some people will LOVE your scripts. Realize that many of the small joys and victories you achieve along the way are things you won’t be able to share with rational people – only with other writers.

For whatever reason you have chosen to pursue the life of a writer. Well, you dopey bastard, you are in for years of abuse and pain and misery.
And I, for one, embrace you for it.
I believe the world is a better place because you have chosen to tell stories.
Because we all need stories; good stories, well-told.
Maybe now more than ever.
And that is not going to change.
So keep at it! Don’t get discouraged!
Okay, at some point you will get discouraged, but don’t stay discouraged!
You will get better at it!
You are in for one hell of a ride.

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