Friday, February 27, 2009

So, What's The Story?

By Michele Wallerstein
Screenplay, Novel & Career Consultant

Every agent is waiting for you to bring them the next big saleable screenplay that will knock the business off its axis. They want you to show them that piece that will have producers and studios panting at their doors with huge offers of money and multiple deals of future movies. Agents want the best for you, because it means the best for them. I happen to believe that this relationship is a great one. It is an honest quid pro quo - if you are successful…I am successful. How bad is that?

OK, so how do you make that happen? How do you deliver the perfectly written project that will make the town sit up and take notice? It’s not as difficult as it sounds. The first thing you have to do is STOP thinking that you have to write the most unusual script of all time. This kind of thinking will destroy your chances of not only selling the script, but of keeping your agent. I’ve found that new writers often have the tendency to try to impress people by “thinking outside the box”. Well folks, the “box” is there for a reason, it works. Throughout movie history, audiences have loved certain types of films. They go to see them over and over again. When you are working to get in to the business, go with the flow. Perhaps, after you’ve established yourself as a player, you might be able to expand your horizons, but it’s not the way to get into your chosen field.

Insofar as your early spec scripts are concerned, here are some rules to live by:

No Togas. By this I mean to say period pieces. Keep your early scripts contemporary. Period pieces are extremely difficult to sell. They go in and out of favor with the studios by the minute. You never know whether you are too early or too late with your piece. They are not good as writing samples since they are too specifically time/era dependent. This means manners, customs, morals, societal relationships, styles of speech, etc… . Oh, and by the way, try to stay on this planet.

Keep it simple. Stay away from twins. Don’t make a script too complicated to produce. As soon as a development executive or producer sees this they will toss it into the “circular file”. It is too much of a pain in the neck. Try not to write a script that is so complicated that it would make the casting a horror. Another example, besides twins, is a multi-generational story of the entire cast. This means a nightmare of casting as well as costume and set changes that are a financial pain. Don’t go there. Besides, no one really wants to watch Brad Pitt or Ashton Kutcher age before their eyes.

Keep ‘em young. If you really want to kick start your writing career, try to have your early scripts feature a fairly young cast. In my mind the term “young” means any age up to 29 years old. Not one minute older. The youth market is what is the most viable today. Actually if you can write a script for 9 year old boys, you are really in good shape. The research shows that those boys will return to see the same film over and over again with different friends and family members. Recidivism is the word. Let’s not forget our little friend, Harry Potter.

Location, location, location. This is not simply a rule in real estate. This is a real consideration in movie making. A studio never has a problem putting their money in a viable movie star who can “open” a movie. That means that any movie starring a particularly huge actor is guaranteed a certain bottom line of huge dollars at the box office in its opening weekend. Foreign or multiple locations do not promise this type of money for the film and they are very expensive. It is not a hard and fast rule to keep everything set in one location but simply something to keep in mind. You always want to be realistic in your writing. Think bottom line.

The Star. Here are the rules for your main character and they are hard and fast. These points apply to all genres. Do not try to change them for any reason.

a. The Star’s character is on every page.

b. The Star’s character resolves the problem

c. The Star’s character has the most lines

d. The Star’s character gets the girl (or the guy)

e. The Star’s character is the smartest person in the cast

f. The Star’s character has the last word in the film

g. The Star’s character must grow as a person

h. The Star’s character must learn something about him/herself

Coincidences. They only complicate the plot. Coincidences never, ever resolve the problems. When you have a coincidence resolve a plot point the audience feels cheated.

Depressing/Dramas? There is a fine line between being depressing and being dramatic. You need to understand the difference in your early writing career of dramatic film writing. I love a good dramatic relationship film. I hate depressing movies that have no other saving grace but to be sad. “HUD” was a great drama starring the late Paul Newman, another great drama was the 1957 film titled “A FACE IN THE CROWD” starring Patricia Neal and Andy Griffith. These are films that must be seen by serious film writers. As an agent, some years ago a client brought in a brand new script that he had never discussed with me. He proudly handed over a large box of them, with leatherette covers with gold embossed titles. This sent a clear message that I was not to give him any notes and that he wanted them to be sent out just the way they were. The story in those scripts was about the murders of elderly, helpless people in an old age home. It was so depressing that I could barely read it. Not only couldn’t I submit this well-written script, but I had to let the client go.

Choices. Write a contemporary drama, comedy, suspense, thriller, murder/mystery, teen-comedy, romance, etc… . Keep your characters interesting and believable- make us care what happens to them. Try to write “up” to the audiences’ intellect and emotions. We want to leave the movie theater feeling like we were entertained and that we learned just a little bit about the human condition. The movie studios like this too.

Michele Wallerstein is a former Literary Agent who now works as a Screenplay and Novel Consultant. She can be reached at:



Reposted with permission by the author, this article first appeared in the Great American Pitchfest Feb Newsletter (

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