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Advice

Getting the Most Out of Screenplay Coverage: Expectations

By Advice, Screenwriting 101

Once a screenwriter sends their work out for feedback, their mind will undoubtedly start churning. The anticipation that comes with waiting for feedback can be anxiety-inducing.

A screenplay is never really finished until the film is wrapped, and even then the story evolves in during production. So it’s vital that writers learn to receive and apply notes with humility and grace, recognizing that it’s a collaborative effort with many creative minds. When receiving notes, a screenwriter needs to leave their ego at the door and accept feedback with an open mind. Sure, not every note will need to be (or should be) applied — all notes should all be considered with a proverbial grain of salt.

Take the notes as simply one reader’s reaction to your material. Just as every film has people who love it and people who dislike it, so will your script. Don’t take any praise or criticism personally.

Most scripts undergo dozens of rounds of notes and rewrites before going into production. It’s true that writing is re-writing.

To help manage your expectations, here is an example of the general format most script analysts follow when reviewing your screenplay:


Basic screenplay coverage usually touches upon the top portion of the graphic, providing you with the title, format, budget, genre, setting, logline, summary, and comments.

For more in-depth coverage, the script analyst will break down the strengths and weaknesses of each story trait found in the bottom of the graphic. These analyses can range from 5-10 pages. Traits evaluated could include Concept, Story, Characters, Structure, Pacing and Originality.

Here is a great example of coverage from our partner WeScreenplay.

As you break into the industry, one of the first lessons you’ll learn is that film is collaboration. There are many reasons an idea might work on the page but cannot practically be produced.

A producer may provide notes that ask you to cut back on an action sequence because the budget just won’t allow two car chases. Or the director may not believe a character’s goal is clear enough. It’s the writer’s job to fix these issues, and a writer will fix them. If your partners trust in your adaptability, hopefully you’ll be the one making the changes.

Over the course of your career, you’ll learn that a film is made through collaboration and that combining excitable minds will only make the final product that much better. Practice embracing notes now with peer-to-peer script exchanges and coverage services to help improve your work.

Here’s what you should NOT expect from your coverage.

  • All the Answers: A script analyst might provide some general suggestions, but they will not give you answers to the issues they highlight. That’s your job.
  • Ultimate Praise: Although a reader will hopefully lend some encouragement, don’t expect them to laud your work as the next great masterpiece. It’s their job to pick it apart.
  • Ridicule: Even if you really miss the mark, you should never be subjected to ridicule or demeaning language from your script analyst. If the abuse is coming from an organization, be sure to report it. If it is coming from a fellow writer or friend — you deserve to be surrounded by people who exude positive energy.
  • Subpar Coverage: You’ve invested plenty of time into writing the script, and you’re investing hard earned cash to get constructive feedback. So it’s only right to expect analysis that shows the reader actually read your work. Most reputable services will provide thorough and insightful critiques of your script. If you feel a coverage falls woefully short, politely reach out to the organization and they’ll most likely work with you to rectify the issue.

And another main reason that writers get feedback on their scripts is to increase their Coverfly Score. As a project improves with re-writes, each subsequent evaluation can count toward the aggregate weighted average of your Coverfly Score which in turns can help your project attract attention of industry professionals.

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

A Guide to Agents and Managers for Screenwriters

By Advice, Screenwriting 101

One of the most common questions we get at Coverfly is “how do I sign with an agent or manager?” There is no clear answer or path, and it is one of the aspects of the business of screenwriting with the most mystery and uncertainty swirling around it.  With the help of several industry professionals, we decided to demystify this for you.

And to be clear: just because you may have representation does not mean the rest of the screenwriting journey is smooth sailing. In fact, many writers have multiple reps over the course of their careers. Like any human relationship, the writer/rep relationship can be fraught with difficulties. Issues with personality, work ethic and expectations for your career can derail what should be a positive and symbiotic relationship.

Fortunately, the panelists in the Coverfly Career Lab’s second panel shared a lot about great ways to ensure that you have the right representation for you.

KNOW WHAT YOU WANT

As an up and coming writer, jumping at any agent or manager interested in repping you can set you up for trouble. You as the writer should know your wants and needs, and it is important to know these at the start of the representation pursuit. “It’s like a relationship,” says Matt Dy, a lit manager at Lit Entertainment Group, and he’s completely right. The best relationships develop naturally and are the ones where wants and needs are aligned.

Parker Davis, a lit agent at Verve Talent Agency, offers the helpful tidbit that “new writers should seek new managers.” Writers will often go through more than one manager or agent during the course of their career. Starting with a rep who is closer to your career level can help you team up with someone who is hungry, driven, and eager to get your work out there.

RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH

Another way you can know who the best reps are for you is to do your homework! “Do your due diligence” says Parker. By doing your research, you demonstrate that you’re proactive and understand the industry., Managers and agents are always eager to work with writers who aren’t afraid of doing the work.

It can also help to lean on other writers to get this homework done. Matt suggests writers groups as a great way to figure out the right reps for you (as well as commiserate with people going through the same journey as you). Not only that, but according to Ava Jamshidi, lit manager at Industry Entertainment, “building your network is how you build your opportunities.” Always remember that writers can help other writers! 

Another effective way to connect with managers and agents is via reputable screenwriting competitions which showcase their winners and finalists to their industry partners and judges. Hundreds of writers have signed with their first reps via industry writing competitions. Coverfly has a list of reputable screenwriting talent-discovery programs with upcoming deadlines. Click to submit your script here.

FIGURE OUT YOUR WORK PROCESS

Difference in work schedules and processes can also create a divide between writers and their new reps. You may be a seven outline kind of writer, but you could find yourself with a manager who wants to read a full draft first. Or you could have a micromanaging manager when you work much better independently.

So how can you avoid this pitfall? Write a lot of material (especially at the beginning of your career). “Make an effort to give us stuff to do stuff on your behalf” says Ava. It is important to remember that high output is vital. Telling reps how much you write is really important. Also, Matt Dy offers a good piece of advice; “operate like a working writer”. That means treating your writing like your job and showing up every day to write pages and make progress on your scripts.

DON’T LOSE YOUR VOICE

You’ll probably see this running motif through these blogs, but having a unique voice is one of your most important assets as a writer. Finding and keeping your voice establishes your brand as a writer. Your unique voice helps showcase your passion as a writer, and “passion stands out” says Parker. Matt also encourages writers to use their “voice to stand out in a crowded field.”

So how does that translate into getting reps? It is important to use your voice to keep the work you are presenting consistent. This helps a rep know how to market you to the industry so you can get hired for writing assignments, sell your projects and get staffed on television shows. Also, it is crucial to learn how to keep your voice present in writing script after script. “Don’t dilute your voice writing in ten different things” says Ava, which is important to establish for a successful career.

And be sure to write a great professional bio for your Coverfly profile. Agents and managers are perusing Coverfly’s database every day looking for emerging writers who are ready to sign with professional representation. Having a great Coverfly profile can help you stand out.

Curious about the difference between agents and managers? Check out this blog post from our partners at ScreenCraft: 8 Differences Between Agents and Managers

dialogue coverfly

Improving Your Screenplay’s Dialogue 

By Advice, Screenwriting 101

Great dialogue has provided some of the most memorable moments in film history and can make or break the viability of your screenplay.

Dialogue is the expression of your character’s point of view and the relationships between characters. It serves as a vital tool for developing your characters, establishing back story and tone, as well as advancing your plot. But a word to the wise, dialogue when written poorly can be a clunky vehicle for exposition. As screenwriter Josh Friedman said, “Bad exposition is like bad lighting. It exposes more than it illuminates.” 

Your dialogue should feel natural and real while being carefully crafted to serve the narrative.

Dialogue also serves to build a bond with your audience by inviting them to understand what the characters say “between the lines.” The subtext of what a character says is often more important than what they say literally. And a character’s action or silence in a scene can signify much more than what they say with words. As Billy Wilder famously said of Lubitsch: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” This is true with plot as well as with dialogue. Let the audience have an “aha!” moment when reading (or watching) your characters’ dialogue.

Here are some ways to improve your screenplay’s dialogue.

1. Every Character Needs Their Own Voice

Seldom should two characters have the same cadence and word choice. Their dialogue needs to be suited to their personalities. 

It’s best to leave things like dialects up to the actors because it can become distracting to readers. Remember, you want your screenplay to read as flawlessly as possible. Instead, try and squeeze in some regional words used by the locals of your setting. 

2. Make Each Line Matter

The main way that dialogue in screenwriting differs from how we speak in real life is that there is no time for filler statements or superfluous monologues. 

Every element of your script needs to be moving toward the climax as a cohesive unit. Dialogue included. Remain on topic, and always ask yourself whether a particular line of dialogue needs to be said.

Your dialogue should reflect the theme and tone of your screenplay while advancing the plot. Don’t waste time explaining things that your characters can show through action. Go through early drafts of your script and cut out any filler.

3. Action Speaks Louder Than Words

Your characters don’t always need to announce what they intend to do or how they feel. You’re likely to lose momentum that way. Don’t stop the narrative so that a character can plan out the rest of the movie. If they’re sad, show them listening to love ballads and crying. 

If a line of dialogue can be shown through action instead of being stated, the writing becomes more engrossing to a reader. 

4. Don’t Say Anything at All

Silence can be louder than words. Sometimes what is left unsaid rings out louder than a shout and creates a deeper sense of understanding between the audience and your characters.

Misunderstanding based on miscommunication can create a lot of conflict in your script.

A great example of this is the Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You. 

The main character replays his memories, picking up on subtle hints that lead him to believe his wife is having an affair. Through minor mannerisms and silent gestures, he’s able to piece together the truth behind his paranoia. 

5. Subtlety and Elusiveness

Keeping certain information from either the reader or characters helps keep the action intriguing. It also shifts the power dynamics of the relationship. Don’t show all of your cards right away. Up the stakes by raising the bet and keep your hand close to your chest.

You can utilize the hidden information based on the genre you’re writing for. For instance, when an audience knows a killer is lurking somewhere in the shadows but the character is unaware, you can create a real sense of dread and fear.

If there is a big reveal at the end of your script, include some instances of foreshadowing in the dialogue throughout the screenplay that point toward the reveal without giving anything away.

6. Build Up Suspense

Expository dialogue can lose the reader/viewer’s attention if it doesn’t lead them to some sort of payoff. 

A great example of this is the basement scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

When American troops posing as German soldiers are cornered into a small room with only one way out by actual German soldiers, there is an impending doom that cannot be ignored — regardless of how long the conversation becomes. 

Readers and viewers know something is going to happen — so suspending that explosive moment for as long as possible while increasing the tension can have a dramatic effect.

As a jovial drinking game is played, little bits of information are revealed through the dialogue, until a seemingly mundane hand gesture increases the tension to a simmering point and leaves the audience on the edge of their seat waiting for the ball to drop.

7. Interruptions and Ellipses 

A great way to capture the emotion of your character is to interrupt their speech with a double dash (–) at the point of interruption, or an ellipses (…) if the dialogue is interrupted by action. Be careful of overusing the ellipses. This is a common mistake made by aspiring writers.

Another way you can use an interruption to your advantage is to interrupt long stretches of action with a reactionary line of dialogue. This helps create a little white space. If your character shoots a basketball and misses, will they be silent with their reaction? 

8. Dual Dialogue

Dual dialogue is another way to make your dialogue more realistic. If two characters are in a heated argument, they’re not going to wait for the other to finish their sentence. 

Characters shouldn’t just wait for the other to finish their line — they’re engaging in a conversation. They should listen, ignore, interrupt, talk over, and react to what is being said to them.

Writer and director Greta Gerwig managed to flawlessly pull off dual dialogue in Little Women by making uses of slashes (/) to signify the interruption point. 

For example:

Dual Dialogue Little Women

Gerwig has stated that her dialogue forms a rhythm, so having specific points where the characters interrupt each other allows the story to remain on beat.  

You can create dual dialogue in Final Draft by highlighting two characters’ dialogue and pressing command + D.

9. Avoid Clichés

If it’s been said before, say it differently or don’t say it at all.

It is often said that dialogue is the element of your screenplay that can really make the difference between a great script and one that isn’t quite there yet. With a little refinement and rewriting, your dialogue could help your screenplay catch the eyes and minds of the right people.

If you’d like to do more research on ways to improve your dialogue, seek out and read your favorite screenplays in the genre you wish to make your brand. Take notes. 

How are the lines delivered? What are the commonalities and differences between scripts? How does each line of dialogue capture each character’s personality?

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

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.

One popular story structure technique is explained by writer Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. Harmon (creator of Community and Rick & Morty) distilled Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, itself an elucidation of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, as follows:

  1. A character is in their comfort zone,
  2. But they need something.
  3. They enter into an unfamiliar situation,
  4. They adapt to it,
  5. They get what they wanted,
  6. They pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then they return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

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

10 Screenplay Structures that Screenwriters Can Use

Unconventional Story Structures for Screenwriters

The 12 Stages of the Screenwriter’s Journey

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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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.

__

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


For all the latest from Coverfly, be sure to follow us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram

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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