Improving Your Screenplay’s Theme

By Advice, Screenwriting 101

Theme is defined as the central and unifying idea developed throughout a work of art. It could be your central dramatic question, or the meaning your protagonist finds through their journey. Your theme holds the narrative elements of your story together. It is the core of your story summed up in one or two words. Theme is referred to as the one big idea.

If you’re having trouble pinpointing your theme, try to focus on the main conflict and the main force that drives the story forward. Start by generalizing the main conflict between the protagonist and antagonist.

Is your character falling in love with an opposing personality? Is your character coming to terms with the struggles of adolescence?

One exercise that might be helpful: try to simplify the heart of your story into a single word that flows throughout the entire body of work.

Here are 30 themes commonly found in stories. Can you find the general theme of your story?

And there are so many more to explore and choose from.

The theme of your story is revealed through all of your screenplay’s traits and elements — character, dialogue, description, setting, tone, genre, tropes, etc.

Here are some tips on improving your screenplay’s theme.

Character

Theme is intrinsically connected to your protagonist and their goals. Think of the theme as the stakes behind their actions. Oftentimes, the theme is the catalyst behind your screenplay’s conflict.

A catalyst is considered a substance that causes a reaction between two forces without itself being affected. It’s rooted in the underlying systemic issues already present in your characters’ world before the inciting incident occurs. Your protagonist may be unaware that these problems even exist.

The inciting incident then thrusts them out of their comfort zone and forces them to confront their flaws (or the flaws of their world) by overcoming some great obstacle.

What is your characters’ emotional connection to the conflict? What do they need to save or protect? What are the stakes? Why tell their story? Theme lies in the answers to all of these questions. Yet, that’s only one aspect.

Setting

Setting is an important thematic element simply because it’s the time and place where the conflict unfolds. If your story is a quest, surely the terrain along their journey cannot be friendly. The setting informs the motivation behind your character’s decisions and the obstacles in their path.

Your characters’ upbringing and worldview impacts their decision making, as well as their immediate setting. During our partner ScreenCraft’s 2020 Virtual Screenwriting Summit, filmmaker Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Series, Armageddon) discussed that it’s important for a character’s behavior to be real and responsive to his or her environment by knowing and utilizing the physical space the character inhabits.

The setting should also thematically reflect the tone, genre, characterization, dialogue, and other traits of your screenplay. The tone of a dark noir would be better set in the underbelly of a major city while an ensemble comedy would work better in an office building.

Dialogue

Dialogue is a great way to make the theme of your screenplay known. After all, everyone knows that with great power comes great responsibility. Taglines can encapsulate the entire driving force of your story.

It’s important to not come across as too preachy or hit the reader over the head. Avoid being hyperbolic or melodramatic. Thematic statements made by characters should feel natural.

You can establish your theme before The Lock-In at the end of Act I with a single line of dialogue that really drives home the point.

Thematic Patterning

One way that you can improve your theme with subtlety is through the use of recurring motifs or symbols. These details help reinforce and highlight your theme.

A motif is an image, narrative device, sound, detail, object, action, or line of dialogue that has symbolic significance in developing the theme.

In Psycho (1960), Norman Bates sits underneath birds of prey poised for attack while speaking to his next victim. In The Godfather, oranges represent death or danger. It’s no mistake that Harriet Tubman takes her first steps as a free woman at sunrise in Harriet (2020). The setting acts as a motif that’s symbolic of her transition from being enslaved to a free woman and the elements work together to keep the theme of freedom alive.

When all of the traits and elements of your screenplay work together to inform upon the theme, your screenplay becomes more cohesive. Work through each of your screenplay’s traits and make sure they all work toward the same goal: a screenplay unified by theme.

Kevin Nelson is a writer and director based in New York City, baby. He has written and produced critically acclaimed short films and music videos with incredibly talented artists, worked with anti-human trafficking organizations in Nepal, and would rather be in nature right now. Check out his Coverfly profile, see more madness on Instagram or follow his work on https://www.kevinpatricknelson.com

4 Tips for Improving Your Brand as a Screenwriter

By Advice, Events, Screenwriting 101

So you have a few really strong scripts under your belt that you’ve been rewriting constantly, and now you’re ready to use them to start your writing career. But before you simply send those scripts out, you need to figure out your brand.

At the end of the day, reps look at your writing and your brand. This not only includes what you love to write but also your background, your personal connection to your projects, and your unique voice as a writer and a person.

Here to help are the panelists from the Coverfly Career Lab’s first panel, who had a lot of helpful advice on how to improve your brand.

Be Open to Pivot

Even if you think you know what your brand is at the start, it is important to be prepared to make a change as you start taking meetings and getting your work seen by professionals. You may think of yourself as the romantic comedy expert, but a producer could see potential for horror or thriller based off of a meeting with you. A good example of this comes from panelist Monica Macer, the showrunner for Netflix’s Gentefied, who remembers how an early pivot from action to character driven work helped her establish her brand and that becoming “a better character writer has made [her] a better action writer.” 

Another writer who shared a similar experience is playwright and television writer David Rambo, known for his work on Empire and CSI, who found himself having to pivot in order to focus on story instead of character. “I was always known as the character guy,” says David, “it took me a long time to learn story.” Being open to these changes can change what you believe your brand is, but could show you aspects of your writing you may not have considered as your strongest assets.

Maintain Your Voice

No matter how much you pivot, it is crucial to maintain your distinct voice and keep it consistent regardless of what you are writing or demonstrating as the strongest part of your brand. You are a distinct person with a unique perspective to bring to the table, and it is important to see this in your writing as part of your brand. This is something that can really help your brand stand out, and when you’re taking meetings, according to Monica, it’s a great way “to be memorable in a day of ten meetings”. 

Maintaining a clear voice is something that Eric Fineman, the senior Vice President of Pascal Pictures, really values when it comes to finding new writers to work with. “Find a personal connection to each project…you want to feel a real passion and urgency to write the script, which hopefully will translate to the urgency for the audience to want to watch it.”

Be Open to Opportunities

Both David and Monica emphasized the importance of being open to opportunity, both for brand as well as for career. “No job is too small. Put in the work…opportunities need to be capitalized upon” says Monica. It also helps to take these opportunities to test the waters and see new genres and stories that could really help your brand. These opportunities also help create a bigger backstory for you as a writer, providing pieces you can use to help contribute to your brand.

Bios and Loglines

So after a lot of deliberating, opportunity taking and pivoting, you’ve finally figured out your brand that combines your voice and the work you excel in. The last step comes with putting this into a package that is easy for managers, agents, and execs to read and understand who you are. This comes both with a bio for you as a writer as well as loglines for the scripts in your repertoire.

Eric’s big piece of advice? “Consider bios and loglines from an analyst perspective” and ask yourself “how does the information correspond with what you’re seeing in the industry?” For more information on writing a strong bio, check out Coverfly’s blog Writing a Great Writer Bio for Your Coverfly Profile.


Jeff is a Los Angeles based writer and a Senior Story Analyst at Coverfly. He has served as a reader for various production companies including Blumhouse and Valhalla and is a lover of genre and creepy stories.

Tips for Screenwriters from a Professional Story Analyst

By Advice, Screenwriting 101

In my role as Sr. Story Analyst for Coverfly, screenwriters are always asking me how they can make a great impression on readers whose job it is to sift through piles and piles of scripts. So, let’s take an in-depth look on simple ways writers can separate themselves from the pack. 

First, what is a story analyst? A story analyst’s primary role is to read screenplays and provide evaluation and insight into the elements of the story. I may conduct this service for a producer, production company, studio, agency, management firm, screenplay competition, or script coverage service. 

My expertise is in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses in screenplays.  

There are three ways story analysts like myself can approach their analysis.

  • Recommend, Consider, or Pass — Comes with short and succinct coverage meant to gauge an industry insider’s interest. Highlights strengths, weaknesses, budget scale, and potential.
  • Grading Scale – Utilized by screenplay competitions. Story traits such as characters, format, structure, dialogue, pacing, plot, tone, etc., are graded and tallied.
  • Coverage – General coverages are short and touch upon 3-4 major improvements that need to be addressed. More in-depth coverages can span up to seven pages and dive deep into all of the story traits judged by readers.  

Now that we have a better understanding of what a story analyst does, here are some tips I’ve accrued from my time reading a wide-range of screenplays and pilots:

1. Be professional

When reading your script, I will immediately take note of the formatting and writing style. 

    • Formatting – There is an industry standard in formatting that writers shouldn’t deviate from. Make sure to use screenwriting software to get the margins and alignments right. Resist the urge to delve into prose and alway write action in the present tense. I’ve found that reading produced screenplays available online can be a big help when it comes to formatting. 
    • Writing Style – Story analysts like myself are drawn to a screenplay if the writer’s voice matches the genre. If you’re writing a horror film, your tone and delivery should be scary and foreboding. If you’re writing a comedy, you gotta make ‘em laugh. Use an active voice instead of a passive one. Also, avoid using too many -ing verbs (gerunds). 

For example: Don’t write: He is running

Write: He runs.

Don’t drown the reader with details they don’t need. Details should function either as plot devices or to create a sense of tone or mood. The adage, “Don’t describe a tea cup unless it has poison in it,” applies here.

 

2. Establish Cause & Effect

It’s important to hit certain milestones in the story, particularly when it comes to introducing the inciting incident within the first fifteen pages. I’ve found that after a while it’s hard to become invested in a screenplay if the plot feels like a series of random events. Early on in the story I need to know who the main character is, what they want, and what the stakes are. 

Try to create a sense of, “This happens because this happens,” instead of, “new things just keep happening.”

Further, don’t make life easy on your protagonist! The other common mistake (particularly with pilots) that writers tend to make is to avoid throwing conflict and obstacles the protagonist’s way. The pilot is the writer’s one opportunity to show what makes the series great, so don’t wait for episode two to put your hero in a difficult position. The main character needs to struggle early and often.  

Speaking of the protagonist, it’s important that they be proactive throughout their journey. The protagonist must have a sense of agency and make bold decisions from beginning to end. The best way to reveal character is through their actions (both good and bad), so make sure they are the one driving the action, as opposed to just getting pulled along for the ride. 

Also, establish the premise early on. Don’t wait until the last few pages. This is something that beginner writers often do in their TV pilots that I always caution against. If the premise of your pilot is centered on a fire house, don’t end the pilot with your protagonist entering the fire house for the first time and meeting a whole bunch of supporting characters that we no longer have enough time to explore. Lead with it so the reader can get a better picture of what the series might look like over multiple episodes.

 

3. Be Original

Find your voice. It takes time to develop but ultimately it comes down to a writer’s delivery and the unique perspective they bring to the story. How does your own personal life experience permeate through your writing? Your voice is the soul of the screenplay.

A screenplay stands out when the writer has the ability to visualize a unique worldview and bring that world to life. The writer’s passion and perspective should be on full display. 

 

4. Subvert Expectations

“Readers in general are drawn to things that are new and different. So they might read a script where they think, ‘You know what? This is a really tough sell but at the same time it really stands out to me.’ I think managers and agents appreciate that too.”

So make it fresh. Avoid repeating the same boring tropes, clichés, and genre conventions unless you plan on subverting them. Be aware of what came before, but don’t be afraid to step outside the confines of genre to create a memorable experience. For example, I’ve read dozens of pilots that begin with the protagonist getting dumped by their significant other and then fired from their job. Instead, consider showing the protagonist’s life falling apart in a new and compelling way. 

 

5. Show, Don’t Tell

Okay, we’ve all heard this before. It’s the most elementary writing lesson taught to writers. That’s because it cannot be emphasized enough. We all fall into the trap of taking the easy way out from time to time.

Showing a character lose their temper or “making a mountain out of a molehill” will always be stronger than telling me they have a temper in the description. Express their anxieties, strengths, and flaws with mannerisms and actions that speak for themselves. You’re writing for a visual medium, so every scene should be imagined visually

As a story analyst, I’m always encouraging writers to push their work more towards what’s unique and different, as opposed to what they think will sell. These days, it’s not enough to simply write a screenplay that feels commercially viable; it needs to stand out and be different from all the rest. By heeding the advice of experienced story analysts, your words can linger in their minds long after they read FADE TO BLACK. 

Make it memorable!

Micah Goldman got his start as a production assistant for multiple seasons on the NBC show The Office. Later on, he wrote and executive produced a pilot presentation for Fox Television Studios that was released on Hulu.com. Currently, he provides detailed screenplay and pilot notes for both established and up-and-coming writers. 

Screenwriting Plot and Story Structure

By Advice, Screenwriting 101

The plot of your screenplay is the sequence of events that acts as the backbone of your story, and is driven forward by your protagonist’s motivations and actions. In this article we’ll examine the traditional three act structure and five plot points. This is by no means the only approach to plot and story structure, however it is the foundation of nearly all great stories in film and TV, and all beginning screenwriters would do well to master these concepts. 

A simple way to approach your screenplay is: CHARACTERS + PLOT = STORY 

To better understand how to improve the plot of your screenplay, it’s important to look at the elements that form the foundation of basic story structure.

Basic Three Act Structure

Every story has a definitive beginning (Act I), middle (Act II), and end (Act III), and each act serves a specific purpose. 

Let’s take a closer look at the primary elements of the three act structure. 

The Set Up introduces your setting and characters while establishing the rules of their world, the tone of the story going forward, and the protagonist’s weaknesses and strengths. It hooks both the reader and the characters into the action. 

Act II is a series of rising tensions and obstacles that accumulate at the climax of your plot. It’s perhaps the most difficult section of your script. Act II is filled with minor successes and major failures that force a character to evolve in order to conquer their main flaw and face their conflict head on. It’s the heart of your story, so take care of it.

A good exercise in your first or second rewrite is to go back and make sure all the story threads and subplots introduced in Act I connect with the obstacles of Act II. 

Act III moves fast and is with precision. The main conflict and subplot collide with a twist or resurgence of a threat, and the character has to use everything they learned in Act II to conquer the final obstacle. The solution is often in contrast with the character’s main flaw. Once the conflict is resolved, there is a new status quo.

The Five Plot Points

From the foundation of the three act structure, let’s look closer at the five plot points of a basic story arc. 

  1. Inciting Incident – The introduction of the main conflict that threatens normalcy.
  2. The Lock In – The protagonist becomes locked in to face the main conflict.
  3. First Culmination – The midpoint where the character finds a solution that might work.
  4. Main Culmination – The climax of the screenplay where the peril and magnitude of the conflict seems to overpower the protagonist. 
  5. Twist – The final culmination and change in direction where the plot and subplot collide.

The Eight Sequences of the Three Act Structure

Within the framework of the five plot points, a screenplay typically contains eight sequences that hit on similar beats.

ACT ONE 

Sequence 1 – Introduce Main Character/Status Quo

Plot Point #1: Inciting Incident/Point of Attack

Sequence 2 – Set Predicament/Establish Main Tension

Plot Point #2: The Lock In 

ACT TWO

Sequence 3 – First Obstacle/Raise the Stakes 

Sequence 4 – Higher Obstacle

Plot Point #3: First Culmination

Sequence 5 – Subplot/Rising Action

Sequence 6 – Highest obstacle

Plot Point #4: Main Culmination

ACT THREE

Sequence 7 – New Tension

Plot Point #5: Twist

Sequence 8 – Resolution

Advanced Structuring

Once you have the fundamentals down, you can begin to look at more advanced modes of structure for inspiration. You can rearrange or reverse the order of events, use other structuring principles, and even discover your own techniques.

Some great resources for advanced structuring can be found on our partner ScreenCraft’s Blog:

10 Screenplay Structures that Screenwriters Can Use

Unconventional Story Structures for Screenwriters

The structure of your screenplay is essential to holding your audience’s attention. Each scene serves a function of the plot, which is an extension of the leader character(s) goals and arc. Understanding these concepts can help you choose to eliminate unnecessary scenes that might slow your story down and make for a more engaging read. 

 


Kevin Nelson is a writer and director based in New York City, baby. He has written and produced critically acclaimed short films and music videos with incredibly talented artists, worked with anti-human trafficking organizations in Nepal, and would rather be in nature right now. Check out his Coverfly profile, see more madness on Instagram or follow his work on https://www.kevinpatricknelson.com


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Coverfly Career Lab Schedule and Speakers

By About Coverfly, Announcements, Events

On Saturday, June 20th 2020, Coverfly is excited to present our first Coverfly Career Lab, a day-long intensive focusing on key professional skills for emerging screenwriters. Over a full day of panel sessions with A-list industry leaders – studio execs, managers, showrunners, Oscar-nominees and more – you will learn key skills and strategies to advance your career: general meetings, working with representation, standing out from the crowd and getting (and staying) hired.

Live-streamed online, the event is a pay-what-you-can benefit for The Actors Fund and the Motion Picture Television Fund (MPTF), two organizations that serve the entertainment industry community in need.

Coverfly exists to make sure that talented emerging writers have the skills and support they need to get discovered and hired in Hollywood. The Career Lab is our way to share that knowledge outside of the typical centers of the entertainment industry. If you have a few polished scripts, have a good understanding of the industry, and are looking to get signed by an agent or a manager, this virtual lab is for you!

This event is not meant for beginner writers, but is open to anyone, anywhere and is donation-based. Bring your questions and your game-day focus, because this is where you learn strategies and tools to catapult your career to the next level. Below you’ll find more details on the format of the event, and bios for the speakers. We hope you can join us!

PROGRAMMING SCHEDULE:

11:00am – 11:15am: Preparing for Success, with the Coverfly Development Team

Our team starts-off the day with tips and recommendations on how to make the most of the program.

11:15am – 12:15pm PANEL 1: “Perfecting your Brand” 

How do you best present yourself to the industry? How do you know what they’re looking for? This panel covers best practices on everything from branding to bios and loglines, with special focus on personal experience of what works and what to avoid.

Speakers:
Monica Macer
Monica Macer is a screenwriter, Exec. Producer, and Showrunner of Korean and African American descent. She has written for some of the most acclaimed television series over the last 15 years, including LOST and QUEEN SUGAR. Most recently, Macer served as showrunner and executive producer of Netflix’s Latinx dramedy, GENTEFIED. Additional writing and producing credits ranging from PRISON BREAK (FOX) to TEEN WOLF (MTV), NASHVILLE (ABC) to DECEPTION (NBC), and THE BREAKS (VH1). As showrunner of Queen Sugar’s second season, Macer was tapped as one of Variety’s 10 Writers to Watch. She currently serves on the Motion Picture Television Fund’s (MPTF) NextGen board and is a co-founder of the newly minted organization, Korean American Leaders in Hollywood. Additionally, Macer is a 2020 Coalition of Asian Pacific (CAPE) Writing Fellows Mentor.

Eric Fineman, Senior Vice President, Pascal Pictures
Eric Fineman is a Senior Vice President at Pascal Pictures where he has worked since 2018. Before that, he was a Vice President of Production at Columbia Pictures working on such films as: VENOM, SPIDER-MAN:HOMECOMING, MIRACLES FROM HEAVEN, GOOSEBUMPS, INFERNO, along with many others.

David Rambo, TV Writer and Playwright
David Rambo has written some of the most popular television of the last twenty years, including CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION, V, NYC-22, REVOLUTION, the record-smashing premiere season of EMPIRE, the TNT series WILL, CLAWS, and the upcoming Netflix drama TINY PRETTY THINGS. He is the author of the plays THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS (off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre starring Judith Ivey; Lortel nomination), GOD’S MAN IN TEXAS, THE ICE-BREAKER, BABBITT, an all-new book for Lerner and Loewe’s PAINT YOUR WAGON, and THE TUG OF WAR. His work has been widely produced at theatres throughout the country, including The Old Globe, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Geffen Playhouse, Denver Center Theatre, Alliance Theatre and Pasadena Playhouse. In addition, he adapted several classic screenplays for live performance, including ALL ABOUT EVE, CASABLANCA, ADAM’S RIB and SUNSET BOULEVARD, produced at the Hollywood Bowl with John Mauceri conducting Franz Waxman’s Oscar-winning score. He holds an Honorary Doctorate from the University of N. Carolina School of the Arts.

12:30pm – 1:30pm PANEL 2: “The Writer’s Team”

Description: Who are the team members – Managers and Agents – that are key to a writer’s success? How does a new writer find representation, and what are the hallmarks of an ideal writer-rep relationship? Learn from top representatives as they share what works and what doesn’t, from referrals and first meetings to building a career-long partnership.

Speakers:
Ava Jamshidi, Literary Manager, Industry Entertainment
Bio: Industry Entertainment is the management and production company behind such Hollywood talent as Ted Danson, Chan-wook Park, Kal Penn, Jeff Goldblum, Alexis Bledel and many more.

Matt Dy, Literary Manager, Lit Entertainment Group
Bio: Matt Dy is a Literary Manager at Lit Entertainment Group. Formerly Matt ran the Austin Film Festival’s Screenwriting Competition. Lit Entertainment was founded by manager-producer Adam Kolbrenner who produced the Oscar-nominated film, Prisoners, for Warner Bros/Alcon Entertainment, written by Lit client Aaron Guzikowski. Lit Entertainment’s next film is Fox’s Free Guy, along with Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter. The film, starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Shawn Levy, is an original spec from Lit client Matt Lieberman.

Parker Davis, Literary Agent, Verve
Parker Davis is a motion picture agent at Verve, a premiere talent and literary agency based in Los Angeles, representing clients in film, television and new media. Davis has focused on cultivating voices with unique points of view and nurturing their careers. He was the #1 agent on the Black List and Hit List last year.  His clients include Davis include the writers of UNCLE DREW, Amazon Studios’ THE LORD OF THE RINGS series, STAR TREK 4, JURASSIC WORLD 3, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and BOYS DON’T CRY.

2:00pm – 3:00pm PANEL 3: “Good in a Room”

Meetings, pitches and generals are keys to success for all writers, from breaking-in to long-term careers. Learn from writers, Showrunners and Execs about what it’s like to be on both sides of a great meeting, how to prepare, how to present yourself and red flags to avoid.

Speakers:
Sera Gamble, Showrunner, TV Writer
Bio: Sera Gamble is the creator, with Greg Berlanti, of YOU (Netflix), based on Caroline Kepnes’s acclaimed novel. Upon its worldwide debut in December 2018, YOU was seen by an estimated 40 million viewers. Gamble is also the writer and executive producer of THE MAGICIANS (Syfy). The number one scripted show on Syfy, The Magicians ended its five year run in March 2020. Previously, Gamble wrote and produced the cult CW series SUPERNATURAL for its first seven seasons, also running the show in seasons six and seven. Gamble is a first-generation American, for which she credits her work ethic. Gamble’s family are Holocaust survivors; members of her family fled to Russia and Siberia during the Nazi occupation. At age seven she was given her first book of fairy tales, which made her promptly decide she wanted Hans Christian Andersen’s job. Her Hollywood career began when she was a finalist on the second season of “Project Greenlight” in 2003.

Jelani Johnson, Exec Vice-President, Content Strategy and Senior Partner, MACRO
Bio: Jelani Johnson serves as MACRO’s EVP of Content Strategy and Senior Partner of MACRO. Most recently, Johnson spent 4+ years as a Motion Picture Agent at the Creative Artists Agency (CAA). While at CAA his clients included: Melina Matsoukas, A$AP Rocky, Cheo Coker, Jesse Williams, Lenny Kravitz, Storm Reid, Angel Soto, Solvan “Slick” Naim, Gina Rodriguez, Virgil Williams, Mara Brock Akil and André Holland amongst others. Johnson began his career in entertainment as an intern at CAA and transitioned into talent management at the Santa Monica-based management company Generate. He subsequently co-founded The Mission Entertainment, a management and production company focused on multicultural content creators, before returning back to CAA. Johnson received a bachelor’s degree in History and Anthropology from Columbia University.

Cate Adams, Vice President, Production, Warner Bros. Pictures
Cate Adams is a Vice President in the Warner Bros. Pictures creative group, which is responsible for developing and producing the feature films that WB distributes worldwide. Cate was part of the creative team behind the 2019 films TOMB RAIDER and THE MEG. In her early years as a creative executive, Cate worked on Jeff Nichols’ MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, Shane Black’s THE NICE GUYS, and Guy Ritchie’s KING ARTHUR.  Cate is currently overseeing the development and production of a diverse film slate, including a re-imagining of Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES, a live-action animation hybrid version of TOM & JERRY, and a SESAME STREET film.  Cate serves as a NextGen Board Member for the Motion Picture Television Fund and sits on the Committee for the Science and Entertainment Exchange.

3:30pm – 4:30pm PANEL 4: “Getting (and Staying) Hired”

You’ve learned about branding, working with your team, taking the critical meetings, now how do you close the deal and get the job? More importantly, how do you keep it? This panel focuses on what working writers do to stay constantly working, from rewrites and collaboration to pitches and industry trends.

Speakers:
Vanessa Taylor, Oscar-nominated Screenwriter
Bio: Vanessa Taylor has worked in both television (most recently GAME OF THRONES) and film. Her feature work includes HOPE SPRINGS, DIVERGENT, THE SHAPE OF WATER, for which she was nominated, along with co-writer and director Guillermo del Toro, for an Oscar, and the upcoming HILLBILLY ELEGY, directed by Ron Howard.

Alexandra Cunningham, Television Showrunner and Executive Producer
Alexandra Cunningham is the creator, showrunner and Exec. Producer of DIRTY JOHN based on the hit LA Times podcast of the same name, which premieres on USA Network June 2, 2020, and stars Amanda Peet and Christian Slater.  Cunningham began her television career on NYPD BLUE. She has since written and produced such shows as ROME, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, BATES MOTEL, AQUARIUS, and CHANCE starring Hugh Laurie on Hulu. Cunningham graduated from Johns Hopkins and Columbia, and was a playwriting fellow at the Juilliard School.

Lang Fisher, TV Creator, Writer and Executive Producer
Lang Fisher is a writer, producer, and director based out of Los Angeles, California. She recently co-created and executive produced the acclaimed Netflix series NEVER HAVE I EVER with Mindy Kaling. Prior to this, Lang has been a writer and producer on three seasons of BROOKLYN 99, five seasons of THE MINDY PROJECT, and was a staff writer on the Emmy-nominated final season of 30 ROCK. The 30 ROCK episode that she cowrote, “A Goon’s Deed in a Weary World” was named one of Variety’s “25 Best TV Episodes of the Decade.” Before venturing into the world of sitcoms, Lang spent six years writing for the satirical news outlet The Onion for which she won a Peabody as a member of the writing staff for The Onion News Network. She is a graduate of Columbia University and lives with her baby and her cat.

4:45pm – 5:00pm Let’s Move Forward, with the Coverfly Development Team

Time to pull it all together and dive into a few mid-and-long term strategies for writers to improve their craft and get noticed. Bring your questions, as we take some time to share lessons from the day, as well as insights we’ve garnered from our wider industry network.

Join Us!

Coverfly Career Lab Rescheduled to June 20th

By Announcements

The Coverfly Career Lab, scheduled for this weekend, has been postponed to Saturday, June 20th

As the events in our nation prompt a long-overdue conversation about injustice and systemic racism, Coverfly wants to keep the focus on this critical national movement. We believe it is right to keep the floor open for those voices right now. 

All panelists and moderators are confirmed and excited for the event on June 20th, with bonus speakers just announced, including:

  • Monica Macer (Executive Producer, Showrunner, GENTEFIED, QUEEN SUGAR, TV Writer LOST, NASHVILLE, etc)
  • Alexandra Cunningham (Creator/Showrunner/Exec. Producer DIRTY JOHN, TV Writer ROME, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, BATES MOTEL, NYPD BLUE, etc)  
  • Parker Davis (Literary Agent at Verve Talent Agency
  • Cate Adams (Vice President of Production, Warner Bros. Pictures). 

Coverfly exists to serve writers, and the Coverfly Career Lab will return very soon, to give advice, tools and strategies to emerging artists to advance their screenwriting careers. 

We hope you will return with us in a short while for this educational event to benefit the Actors Fund and the Motion Picture Television Fund, two organizations that serve writers and our community in times of need. 

If you’ve already signed up, the private link you’ve already received will still work on June 20th for the event and you’ll have access to the recorded sessions after. There’s no action needed.

Until then, let’s all listen, learn, make art and raise our voices. 

“If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?” – Alice Walker

Thank you, 

Scot, Mitch, Maggie, Tom, Julianna, Mark, Jen, Jeff, Micah and the Coverfly Team

Improving Your Screenplay’s Characterization

By Advice, Screenwriting 101

Characterization is important. Script readers consider strong characterization as one of the single most important traits of a good screenplay. Your characters are typically judged based on their authenticity, uniqueness, and story arc. A common mistake that beginner screenwriters make is to focus on the plot of their script; however if you focus on creating great characters first, then your story’s conflict and plot will flow naturally from your characters authentic needs and desires. 

How can you improve the characterization in your screenplay?

 

1. Make Their Introductions Matter

Always show, never tell. Don’t tell the reader that a character is shy. Show their shyness through an interaction with another character. 

Let’s look at the protagonist’s introduction in Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: 

The platform across the tracks is empty. As an almost empty train pulls up to that platform, one of the suited men breaks out of the crowd, lurches up the stairs two at a time, hurries across the overpass and down the stairs to the other side, just as the empty train stops. The doors open and the man gets on that train.

As the empty train pulls from the station, the man watches the crowd of commuters through the train’s dirty window. We see his face for the first time. This is Joel Barish.      

Joel’s actions tell you everything you need to know about him before his physical characteristics are even described in the next paragraph. He breaks away from the mundane workday in desperation.

An added bonus is that his actions are a visual representation of the overall plot and directly reflect the premise of removing a strand of memories from one’s busy brain. 

Here’s a great blog post from our partners at ScreenCraft: 

100 Examples of How to Introduce Characters in Your Screenplay

 

2. Develop Their Backstory

A character’s story begins long before we meet them on the page, so it’s good to develop their backstories during the brainstorming process to create well rounded characters. Think of their backstory as the iceberg below the surface, even if the only hints of their backstory on the page are just the tip of the iceberg. 

When tackling your screenplay, try not to slow the reader down with a block of exposition describing past events that are not directly pertinent to the story. 

When Johnny Cash is introduced in Walk the Line, screenwriters Gill Dennis and James Mangold use a single detail that foreshadows Johnny’s past.  

A MAN IN BLACK (37) OUT OF BREATH, LEANS ON A TABLE SAW. 

His face etched with hard living. His brow wet. His eyes dark, staring at— A FEROCIOUS SAW BLADE. Jagged teeth gleam.

Being a biopic, Johnny Cash’s past is later revealed, but this brief description epitomizes his character’s backstory with a single image. The saw blade foreshadows the inciting incident that ultimately drives young Johnny off his farm and into stardom.

Practice character development with this great exercise from our partners at The Script Lab

 

3. Find Their Defining Feature

What makes your character relatable? 

Why should a reader care about their story?

A great tool for finding your character’s defining feature is the Enneagram of Personality. 

The Enneagram Institute, created by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson in 1997, helped establish these nine basic personality types.

  1. The Reformer – Rational, Idealistic, Self-Controlled, Purposeful
  2. The Helper – Caring, Generous, Possessive
  3. The Achiever – Driven, Excelling, Image Forward
  4. The Individualist – Sensitive, Withdrawn, Temperamental
  5. The Investigator – Intense, Cerebral, Perceptive, Isolated
  6. The Loyalist – Committed, Responsible, Suspicious
  7. The Enthusiast – Fun-loving, Spontaneous, Scattered
  8. The Challenger – Dominating, Decisive, Confrontational
  9. The Peacemaker – Easygoing, Reassuring, Agreeable

This tool is especially helpful when developing supporting characters. 

How do your supporting characters compliment your main character? 

Each supporting character serves a function for the protagonist — that’s why they’re called supporting characters. Whether it’s the bully that threatens to meet our hero at the playground after school, or the quirky friend who provides comic relief and advice. 

They are an integral part of your protagonist’s story. What is their purpose?

 

5. Make Their Character Flaw Count

How does your character’s flaw prevent them from conquering their conflict? 

How does it steer them away from their main goal? 

Often, the character’s main flaw is the obstacle they need to overcome in order to defeat their antagonist or accomplish their goal. Their major flaw should tie into the plot and be relevant to the character’s journey.

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry has a hard time committing to a relationship. As soon as things get serious, he bails. After making love to Sally, he returns to his flaw as a defense mechanism and jeopardizes their relationship. He has to overcome this flaw or lose the love of his life. 

 

6. Make Their Motivation & Goal Clear

Why is your character doing what they are doing? 

What are the stakes?

In the film Apocalypto, Jaguar Paw saves his family from Mayan raiders by lowering them into a pit. They’re temporarily safe, but if he doesn’t return they won’t survive. He’s taken captive and must escape certain death in the city, survive his pursuers, and beat a ticking clock scenario in order to save his family. 

His pregnant wife and young child are his motivators. They inspire him to rise when he hits his low point. Every character should have a clearly defined goal.

 

7. Map Out Their Character Arc

Characters can’t remain stagnant. They need to overcome their flaws to reach their full potential. 

Whether your character achieves their goal or falls short, they will change in some way. Even if they revert back to their main flaw, they would have learned something about themselves. 

A character shouldn’t be the same at the end of the story as they were in the beginning.

Download the ScreenCraft’s newest eBook for free! 

Exploring the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey

 

8. Find Inspiration in Real People

The goal for every character is to make them feel real. With this in mind, sometimes reality is where you can find the best traits to use for your characters. 

Think of the people in your life who stand out in your memories — whether for good or bad. You don’t have to use their names but you should definitely use their mannerisms.

What makes them stand out? 

Why do you remember them? 

Some of the best characters are the characters you already know in real life.

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Over the course of the rewriting process, your characters will continue to evolve. You’ll get to know them better and have more of an understanding behind their motivations.

The more you learn about your characters, the more depth they gain. The goal is to create memorable characters that readers will never forget.

You’re well on your way.

If you want to find more ways to improve characterization in your screenplays, search this Coverfly blog, as well as our partner websites for related screenwriting articles:  The Script Lab or  ScreenCraft.


Kevin Nelson is a writer and director based in New York City, baby. He has written and produced critically acclaimed short films and music videos with incredibly talented artists, worked with anti-human trafficking organizations in Nepal, and would rather be in nature right now. Check out his Coverfly profile, see more madness on Instagram or follow his work on https://www.kevinpatricknelson.com


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Writing a Riveting Logline for Your Screenplay

By Advice

A lot depends on your logline.

A logline is a brief (usually one sentence) summary that states your story’s central conflict, conveys the genre, and often reveals dramatic irony.

A logline is the first impression a reader will have of your story, so it should be considered an extension of your screenplay, not a separate entity. The goal of a good logline is to hook a reader with a single sentence so that they need to crack open your script. It’s the cover art for your project, a movie poster strategically composed of words that draws an audience closer to your script. 

How does a writer even approach condensing 90-120 pages into just one or two sentences? 

It’s not an easy feat, but it is an essential skill that all writers need to develop.

The logline is a one or two sentence paragraph composed of 25-50 words that clearly defines the characters, concept, conflict, plot, theme, and genre of your story. It’s common for all of these elements to get jumbled up in a writer’s head after working on them for so long.

Luckily, there is a general consensus on the four main elements that make up a strong logline. These elements are interchangeable and can be reordered in order to elicit stronger reactions depending on their content. We’ll explore more on that later. 

For now, let’s check out the general format of a great logline.

PROTAGONIST +  PROTAGONIST GOAL/ACTION + CENTRAL CONFLICT/IRONY

Let’s look a little closer at this formula with the logline for Jaws:

“A police chief with a phobia of open water battles a killer shark with an appetite for swimmers and boat captains, in spite of a greedy town council who demands that the beach stay open.”

1. Protagonist

The main character is the driver of your story, thus your logline. 

Unless the character is based on a historical/public figure, it’s best to leave out the name of your protagonist and find creative adjectives to bring the character to life. 

The description of the police chief’s phobia reveals the flaw that the protagonist must overcome in order to conquer the central conflict/antagonist. This adds layers to the character before the reader ever starts on page one.

2. Protagonist Goal/Action

The protagonist’s goal is the driving force or engine behind every story. What action must the main character take in order to achieve that goal?

In the case of Jaws, the police chief must hunt down the shark before more people are killed due to bureaucratic negligence. 

3. Central Conflict/Irony 

What is your character up against? 

The central conflict and antagonist should be well defined by both the inciting incident and the protagonist’s goal. The antagonist is the foundation of the character’s plight and the reason behind the inciting incident. And if there’s dramatic irony in your logline, all the better! 

Both the shark and the greedy town council are the obstacles our protagonist must overcome in order to return the beach community to any semblance of normalcy. The dramatic irony, of course, is that the protagonist has a phobia of open water, and to achieve his goal, must battle a shark out on the open ocean. 

Ways to Improve Your Logline

1. Careful Use of Syntax and Diction

Syntax

The order in which you place the elements of your logline can lead to different effects on the reader. A writer should try to introduce the character with a strong lead, followed by the engrossing conflict of the story, then leave an impactful final statement. 

The logline for The Surveillance of Ordinary Things by Susan Brunig is a great example of how a writer can lead the reader through different emotions to arrive at a satisfying finish. 

“A middle-aged, suburban housewife in the midst of a dark, existential crisis decides to run away and end it all. But when she stumbles upon an unplugged community of creative misfits, she rediscovers the artist she once was.”

Brunig introduces the character and conflict right off the back with great adjectives to build up her protagonist’s backstory. The serious subject matter leaves the reader low at the midway point, only to lift their spirits again with the positivity found in her renewal.

Diction

The words you use matter. The less words you use, the more weight each one carries. By using an active voice, a writer can engage with the audience rather than merely explaining to the audience. Active adjectives and verbs can increase the stakes and pull a reader in.

The logline for Brian Kazmarck’s Emergent is succinct and provides the reader with everything they need to know before heading into the story by using sharp words that jump right into the action.

“A brilliant programmer gets embroiled in a bizarre and dangerous love triangle between a co-worker who saved her life and an artificial intelligence that nearly killed her.”

2. Throw in Some Stakes

Drive home the severity of the central conflict by ramping up the tension. You can build on the inciting incident by introducing a character or situation that makes it harder for the protagonist to carry out their goal. We saw it with the greedy town council in the Jaws logline.

We also see it done well with Gil Seltzer’s The Delivery:

“A Jordanian history professor turned radicalized terrorist is tasked with delivering a car bomb from Dallas to New York City. His cover – an unwitting 12-year old boy who joins him for the tenuous drive through the American heartland.”

The introduction of the 12-year old boy into the equation ups the stakes of the professor’s journey and will ultimately lead to some tough internal conflict.

3. Elicit Questions With a Statement

It’s important to lead the reader by creating questions in their mind that can only be answered by reading the screenplay. Consider it a little inception tactic used by writers. By planting certain pieces of information regarding the protagonist’s journey into the logline, a writer can use it as leverage in making the reader want more.  

Ernestina Juarez’s Labyrinth of Destiny shows how strong wording can lure a reader into the story by forcing them to ask multiple questions through the use of a statement.

“Ulysses Grant’s experience of love and death as a young officer in the Mexican-American War influences an important decision he makes as the commanding general of the Union Army during the Civil War.”

What were the experiences? How did they influence him? What important decision did he make? Instilling these questions into a reader’s mind will make them want to know more, and there’s only one way to find out.

4. Sprinkle in a Little Irony 

Dramatic irony is irresistible. The simplest definition of dramatic irony is when the audience understands something that the characters do not. It can come about when two opposing and/or conflicting forces meet and depend on each other. In The Silence of the Lambs, a detective seeks out the help of a serial killer. A diametric concept provokes interest.

We can look at the logline for Robert Axelrod’s Tucked as a great use of irony:

“After being excommunicated from the Hasidic community, a mother works to regain custody of her children and adapt to secular life while working at a wig shop run by a black Muslim drag queen.”

This logline juxtaposes characters from two very different walks of life, and places them in a compromising situation. The contradictory elements influence the protagonist’s main goal and thwart a reader’s expectations — creating an element of intrigue that can’t be ignored. 

5. Add a Twist

It’s important to end your logline with a solid finishing statement. It’s the cliffhanger or the button that impels a reader to seek more. 

Aaron McCann’s Big Red waits until the right moment to reveal the true nature of the story.

“A desperate mission to colonize Mars goes horribly wrong after a freak accident involving freakish mutants leaves only two sole survivors: a pair of moronic reality show contestants who are going through the world’s worst break-up.”

The logline begins with a horror/sci-fi lean, only to flip the script with the reveal of the characters. The twist sets up the genre much in the same way as the punchline of a joke. We go into the script expecting hilarity and surprises. 

Things to Be Cautious Of

  1. Contest Wins — Writers might feel the need to tout their accomplishments in the logline. While you should advertise your successes, we’d recommend that you save that sort of info for your writer bio. Let your Coverfly Score speak for itself.
  2. One Long Paragraph — If you haven’t been able to break 100 pages down to one or two sentences, yet still find yourself with a short synopsis made up of several lines — keep chipping away. You’re getting close. Keep it as short as possible.

Loglines are every writer’s secret weapon and a difficult craft to master. They open doors, create opportunities, and are a vital component to every writer’s skill set.

How will you craft your screenplay’s calling card?

 


Kevin Nelson is a writer and director based in New York City, baby. He has written and produced critically acclaimed short films and music videos with incredibly talented artists, worked with anti-human trafficking organizations in Nepal, and would rather be in nature right now. Check out his Coverfly profile, see more madness on Instagram or follow his work on https://www.kevinpatricknelson.com


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Managing Expectations: Lessons From a Former Screenplay Competition Director

By Contests, Success Stories

Once upon a time before becoming a literary manager, I was the Director of Script Competitions at Austin Film Festival and I was fortunate to interact with countless wonderful writers – reading their scripts, sharing in their excitement if they advanced, connecting them to industry professionals, and perhaps seeing them get one step closer to making their dreams come true. Seeing all the hope that screenplay competitions can provide led me to pursue management as a way to further help writers thrive in the real COMPETITION presented in Hollywood. And, as in the nature of that word, many will enter and few will win. As a former screenplay competition director turned literary manager, I am here to share some key lessons I’ve observed from being on both sides that could be helpful to writers looking to competitions as a way to launch a writing career.

LESSON #1: KNOW WHERE TO SUBMIT

Before shelling out money on entry fees, do your due diligence and review the program’s track record and see if what they’re offering is worthwhile for you. The Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting is widely considered the gold standard – they receive more feature script submissions than any other program so keep that in mind before submitting but a win there provides invaluable widespread industry attention. Similarly regarded is Austin Film Festival (yes, I’m biased but also a true believer) which is, along with the Nicholl, one of the longest running OG screenplay competitions around and has the added incentive of providing advancing writers special opportunities at their Writers Conference. And I would undoubtedly vouch for ScreenCraft‘s programs, which has an a la carte menu of genre-specific writing competitions to enter throughout the year and has a great track record with writers. To help with your research, check out Coverfly.com (you’re here!) and Moviebytes.com as it has perhaps the most comprehensive listing of screenplay competitions out there with reviews and ratings.

LESSON #2: WINNING/PLACING DOESN’T GUARANTEE ANYTHING

Well, aside from the guaranteed prize amount which you also might be guaranteed to pay tax for, there is no guarantee that winning a competition will land you your dream manager or sell your script. Competitions are invested in the success of their top writers, so take full advantage of the opportunities they provide but that can only go so far. Ultimately, you’re steering the ship and it’s really about the work YOU do with leveraging your win/placement. What that recognition represents at the very least is that you’ve been vetted and have people who can vouch for you. If you’re inbox isn’t blowing up with requests to read your script, it’s up to you to put yourself out there and strike while the iron is hot. Send query e-mails to promote your recognition if you need to but be smart about whom you send them to and how you write them. Even winning is still the result of the subjective opinion from a set group of individuals so not everyone may end up vibing with your winning script so it’s important to be prepared for the inevitable question of “what else you got???” which brings us to…

LESSON #3: YOU ARE ONLY AS GOOD AS YOUR NEXT SCRIPT

You may have received recognition from a major competition but, if that script is the only thing of note you can share, it’s likely going to be a red flag for a rep. Talent, consistency, and longevity are traits of successful professional writers. Winning a competition gives you a great platform but it’s not the main stage just yet – it’s more of a dress rehearsal to see if you have the mettle to be a working writer and consistently generate material. Even if you’re in the middle of writing your follow-up script and not ready to share it just yet, at least be ready to talk about it as well as your slate of ideas for new projects.

LESSON #4: BE SMART AND KNOW YOUR WORTH

I have seen many writers sign with the first and only manager that reached out to them after a top placement without even doing their due diligence. Not all managers are created equal so ask questions and make sure the person is a perfect match for you creatively. You need to find the right creative partner who understands your voice and will always have your best interests in mind. If you only received interest from one manager and that person isn’t a right fit, don’t settle. It’s like dating so would you really want to get married after the first date? As one of my colleagues always says, “Be hungry, not thirsty.” Just be smart about it.

It’s also important to know your worth, who you are as a writer, and what you bring to the table. It really is essential to recognize what your unique super power is among many other talented writers because, at the end of the day, that is what reps are also going to be asking themselves about you. The better you know yourself as a storyteller, the easier it will be for you to know who the right rep is for you.

There are endless lessons to be learned and as William Goldman once said, “Nobody knows anything.” As frustrating as that may sound, it’s also incredibly freeing to know you can set your own path. What may or may not have worked for another writer may not even apply to you. Ultimately, it’s always going to be about trying, not giving up, and learning as much as you can along the way. Because after all, you can’t win if you don’t submit.

 

Matt Dy is a Literary Manager at Lit Entertainment Group. Formerly Matt ran the Austin Film Festival’s Screenwriting Competition. Lit Entertainment was founded by manager-producer Adam Kolbrenner who produced the Oscar-nominated film, Prisoners, for Warner Bros/Alcon Entertainment, written by Lit client Aaron Guzikowski. Lit Entertainment’s next film is Fox’s Free Guy, along with Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter. The film, starring Ryan Reynolds and directed by Shawn Levy, is an original spec from Lit client Matt Lieberman.

Announcing our Second Virtual Live Read!

By Announcements

We are excited to announce our next performance of the Coverfly Virtual Table Read Series in partnership with The Storytellers Conservatory! Join us this Friday April 10th at 4pm PST (7pm EST) on the Coverfly Facebook page here: facebook.com/coverfly

At 4pm PST on Friday you’ll see our Facebook Live video of the virtual table read with professional SAG/AFTRA actors of a very funny comedy feature screenplay selected from hundreds of free applications. Learn more about our free Extras here.

We have selected DIRTY WATER DOGS by Terrie Viani, a comedy feature screenplay that follows a down-on-her-luck street vendor in New York who tries to rig a lottery for a hot new spot in the Central Park Zoo.

For any questions, please email support@coverfly.com. See you there!

We’re excited to announce that our last virtual live read resulted in the writer signing with a literary manager:

Congrats to screenwriter Jacob Wehrman!

“Coverfly proved to be a powerful resource. Opportunities like Coverfly’s Pitch Week and the Live Read series can get your work in front of actors, directors, and producers– for free. I feel that Coverfly has my back by vetting every contest, and they add serious value by offering those no-cost extra opportunities.” – Jacob Wehrman

Jacob Wehrman signed with a literary manager after his script was performed by a cast of actors for Coverfly’s Virtual Live Read!

Read more about Jacob’s story here.