Thursday, June 4, 2015

Book Review: Notes to Screenwriters

Angela Bourassa recently reviewed our book, Notes to Screenwriters on her site, LA Screenwriter.

Here's an excerpt:

"Writers, producers, and consultants Vicki Peterson and Barbara Nicolosi have a new addition for your shelf of screenwriting books. The book is called Notes to Screenwriters, and we think that it deserves a spot next to Save the Cat and Story.
With so many books on screenwriting, it must be a daunting task for writers to come up with something new to add to the writer’s curriculum. What Vicki and Barbara have done with this book is not try to replace or out-do the classics of screenwriting instruction. Instead, they’ve gathered together handy advice and wisdom from their years on both sides of the table.
Vicki and Barbara build each chapter around sets of related notes that screenwriters commonly receive on scripts – notes like “Not enough conflict” or “The characters weren’t active.” They then provide writers with practical advice for improving their writing and their approach to screenwriting as a business."

Thanks, Angela! Check out the rest of the article here:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Why Story Matters

For the last several years, there’s been much talk in Hollywood about the extinction of feature screenwriting. The spec market is dead. Digital platforms are on the rise. It’s widely known that most writing jobs are in television, not features. Even the ABC/Disney Fellowship Program, designed to discover new talent, has put their feature fellowship on hold because they can’t figure out how to yield the same kind of immediate career results that happen in their TV fellowship. Furthermore, nice, character-driven, middle of the road movies just don’t get made anymore. The market has become polarized, from the gigantic, spectacle-driven, sure-bet tent poles, to the teeny, one location, no risk, micro-budgets. In production offices, Directors of Development (if their job still exists) have shifted from shaping and crafting writers and their stories to locating a script that can be shot, as-is, with  certain tax incentives in mind. Hollywood seems to care less about a good story well told, and much more about what can be monetized RIGHT NOW.  

This kind of news can make a feature writer despair, and cause some to think that investing years into a craft that might never pay off just isn’t worth it. For most, it’s not.


No matter what current trend is selling in Hollywood, there will always be longing in the souls of men and women for great stories well told.  The craft of storytelling is immortal, and feature-length stories have been the medium for thousands of years.  There’s harmony found in a story whose length is designed to be long enough to explore a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, and short enough to take in at one sitting, without interruption.

Anyone who attempts to tell a story in any length, for any size screen, must learn feature screenwriting as a foundation to the craft. Even if they never go into the feature market, screenwriters need to study Aristotle’s Poetics and watch classic movies and understand three act structure in the same way that medical students need to study Latin.  Feature narratives are the root language of all screen storytelling. Without an understanding of features, screen stories in other formats will fall, uh, short.

Because of the rise of digital platforms, everyone seems to be watching this recent “change” in format closely and trying to figure out ways to be successful in delivering story content (i.e. reach more eyeballs) in a new way.  The flaw in this kind of thinking is that it presumes that stories change. Story does not change.
Instead of chasing current trends, we students of screenwriting need more of the classics. Everything that is great about a one minute short gone viral can be evidenced in any one of Aesop’s fables.

We need masters of feature writing to continue to teach the craft in the same way that we need masters of sculpture and poetry and charcoal drawings to teach theirs. Feature screenwriting is high art.  Creating delightful characters who make strong choices that further a complex, yet clear plot is high art. Building fantastic arenas which are integral to the story and delivering stunning visual imagery is high art. Doing this in a narrative format with a complex and satisfying beginning, middle and end is high art. Accomplishing this in a two-hour narrative format for the screen is the foundation of accomplishing this in any other medium. 

The business of Hollywood will always be about making money off of stuff people watch. The business of storytellers will always be about communicating truths that speak to souls. There will always be a tension between the two, but it is important to remember that Hollywood needs storytellers more than storytellers need Hollywood. Still, it is better to work together. Trends will shift.  Formats will change. Story will remain constant. 

If you agree that story matters, check out our book, Notes to Screenwriters.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Screenwriter's Prequel: Do You Have What It Takes?

The Screenwriter's Prequel deadline is coming up on June 1st, and applications are rolling in. You can learn more about the program here.

Are you trying to determine if the Prequel is the right fit for you? Want to know more about what it takes to be a professional screenwriter? Here are some questions to consider:

Do you feel compelled to write? Notice I didn't ask, Do you love to write? Many writers I know don't love it on a daily basis, including me. As soon as I get settled into my writing time on some days, I'd rather play another round of Candy Crush, right after a good nap. Well, most days. Okay fine, every day. However, there is a small, sometimes not so quiet, voice that urges me to get to it. Writing is on my to-do list every day, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I check it off the list. If you're already writing, great. You get a sticker. If you love writing all the time, great. You get two stickers and a sideways glance from me wondering if you're a Stepford robot. If you've "always wanted to write" but never been able to get yourself together to actually do it, sorry. We can't help you. We don't carry any magical pixie dust that will automatically force you to sit down at your computer. If you're somewhere in between and just need a boost, a reason, or even just permission to do make writing a greater priority in your life, we can come alongside and offer plenty of motivation.

Do you love having written? So do I. That's why I force myself to do it when I'd rather nap. The reward of having written is what keeps me going when the writing itself feels more like punishment. If you can relate, you are a writer.

Are you willing to learn something new? I went to a holistic doctor recently and she mentioned that one of the most important questions she asks her patients is, "Are you willing to be well?" She says there are many people who are sick simply because some part of them is not willing to participate in the healing process. I think it is the same with screenwriters and coaches. Writers who are open to learning will break through the mental blocks that keep them from growing and achieving success. If you believe you can never be a master of this craft, only a student, then you will go far.

Do you have something to say? Writers are prophetic voices for the masses. An emerging writer may not be able to articulate exactly what it is she wants to say, but she recognizes that it is important, and it has the potential to help others. The bulk of our work mentoring writers is to help them identify and strengthen their voice. However, we can't help you if you think stories shouldn't have something to say.

Do you want to write professionally for the screen? Notice we haven't mentioned any cliches that people typically associate with a Hollywood-based screenwriting program, including how old you need to be, what genres are selling, or how hungry you are to win, win, win. We'd rather you not focus on those things because they tend to become distractions from doing the greater work. That said, the Screenwriter's Prequel faculty are chock-full of wisdom about the need to write content that also succeeds in the marketplace. If you want to make grandiose art that pleases no audience but yourself, knock yourself out- by yourself. If you want to create something of quality intended for a specific audience that has the real possibility of being seen, we can guide you through those steps, and help you lay out a specific plan to get it in front of the right people.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Notes On Adapting a Book Into a Screenplay

The practical and ethical problems of adaptation:

a)     How does form (including genre and convention) influence content and vice versa in the adaptation process?  That is, in changing a story to another storytelling form, what information needs to be lost as no longer deliverable?  What kind of new information can be added because of new possibilities in the adopted form?

b)    How much fidelity does the adapter owe the original text?  More than just meeting the expectations of a project's fan base,  how much adherence does the adapter owe to the original writer's values and intentions?  As the creator of a character, does the original author have any claim on the choices that character can be made to make in future adaptations?  Can the adaptor just do anything with the characters and story?

Any writer setting out to adapt a book to the screen or stage needs to  spend a bit of time brooding over the limits and possibilities of each respective art form as narrative mechanisms.  What conventions are appropriate to a novel but completely impossible on the stage?  How does a screen narrative bring more control of the viewer's focus than is possible on stage?  What does sound and image add to the experience of a story impossible in a book?

Main differences between books and movies:

1)     In a movie, all action is present tense (even flashbacks have to be placed in a present context)
2)    Movie characters' inner lives must mainly be shown through actions.  There is no other convincing access to their thoughts (including their dialogue).
3)    Visual storytelling has budget constraints which is not true of prose narrative – anything is possible in a book.
4)  Books can pleasantly meander.  Movies need to come in under two hours.
5)  Book story structure is very much free form.  Movies generally need to be structured in three acts.
6)  Movie storytelling involves utilizing sound, intercutting and composition.

An adaptation can take...
A)    A good book and turn it into a lousy film   (Wise Blood, Lovely Bones, Scarlet Letter, Brothers Karamazov, Simon Birch, Brideshead Revisited)
B)    A lousy book and turn it into a great film  (Dr. Zhivago, Giant, The Godfather, Jaws)
C)    A good book and turn it into a good film  (GWTW, Color Purple, Precious, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Diary of a Country Priest)

What makes the difference is the commitment of the adaptor to the cinematic project.  The needs of the project AS A MOVIE must be paramount in the adaptor's conscioussness.

Optioning Source Material

Don't start working on any adaptation until you have completely secured the rights to the material. The first task is to figure out who is the holder of the screen rights (generally the publisher or original author).  If the material is seventy-five years or older, chances are it is in the public domain.  But you should still check.  

The next step is obtaining what is called "an option." An option gives you the exclusive right to adapt and seek to produce a screen story based on the previously published work.  Options can be for any length of time, but we recommend at least a year. Basically, with an option you can get your script written, and look for production partners or financing, or try and sell the screenplay, without having to worry about someone else taking it out from underneath you or simply working on it alongside of your efforts.  The option also prevents you from being sued for copyright violations.  There are lots of things to consider before entering into an option agreement.  Check out this book for more specifics.

Stages of Adapting a Book to the Screen

1)    Get the rights.
2)    Master the book.  Make a list of the most memorable A) Moments; B)  Lines of Dialogue; C)  Arenas; D) Other distinctive details
3)     Identify the sweep of the story and why it works – or why it doesn’t
4)     Be able to articulate the book’s several themes
5)     Choose a structure and point of view which may or may not be the same as the ones used in the source material.

Random thoughts about adaptation....

-  If you are adapting a novel or memoir that is reliant on a first person point of view, the  internal monologue of the narrator's voice is the first thing to go. Movies are not as intimate or introspective as books. You can try to preserve the first person perspective through a limited voice over, but it is going to recede to be mainly for subtext.  The story needs to play out visually in a movie.

- A great adaptation should fix problems in the original source material.  The writer needs to be reconciled to that.

- One technique is to read the book, set it for a bit, and then write an outline of the main beats that have left a residual impression.  Your task is to recreate the most memorable parts of the novel, and what you remember best could be a good indicator of those key aspects.  Generally, everything off the main through−line or not essential to the major sub−plot has to go.

- The biggest difference between a movie and the book on which it is based comes down to sheer quantity.  A movie can be thought of as nine to twelve, ten minute sequences.  A book can have scores of scenes and sequences.  The screenwriter has to choose the most cinematic scenes and the key beats.  The experience of a movie is never going to feel satisfying to a diehard fan of the book.  It is probably easier if the screenwriter ISN'T a diehard fan of the book because the necessary omissions will be easier.

You can't say the same thing with a moving picture as you can with a 
book, any more than you can express with paint what you can with 
plaster. - William Faulkner

“The great mystery of adaptation is that true fidelity can only be achieved through lavish promiscuity”—David Hare

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"Notes to Screenwriters" in the News

Here's a new interview with Barbara and Vicki about our book and the current crisis in storytelling. Thanks to the Azusa Pacific University magazine for spreading the word!

Here's a snip...

What are the biggest challenges the movie industry faces in terms of storytelling?
Nicolosi: The system of movie creation is broken, which makes good storytelling difficult or impossible. Today, movies are not stories, but a product. So many people at the table try to change the story and these alterations have everything to do with selling it as a product—marketing the product, making the product more global – and nothing about whether it works as a story. Generally, we moderns lack detailed, focused, rigorous labor in all of the arts. Storytelling is suffering from this too. Our book says the way to move forward is to look backward. Look at what Aristotle said about story and what Aesop did and try to bring those principles into the modern era.