Monday, May 29, 2006


I keep hearing different things about what types of spec scripts are more likely to sell these days, especially if the writer is a novice screenwriter.

On one hand, I hear that the only type of screenplay that a novice screenwriter can hope to sell is "high-concept" - which appears to mean an action movie or some type of fantasy movie. A family drama, like "Ordinary People," would not sell today without some type of fantasy twist (e.g, like "Freaky Friday").

What type of spec should a novice screenwriter try writing?

In general, the spec business is “concept” based. However, low concept specs have sold too.

Part of sustaining a career in this business is having that uncanny sense of what buyers want. It’s a natural (or supernatural) ability to have an affinity toward concepts and ideas that happen to sell. If you’re cut out for this business, you’ll write what you want and sell it.

Luckily, you’ll only have to do that once or twice. After that, you can make a living off assignments.

A high concept comedy is a good place to start.

Do some research and read the concepts of scripts that have recently sold on spec – especially from new writers.

Here are the loglines for three spec scripts sold in the recent past written by new writers:

JUNO (dramedy): After having sex for the first time, a savvy high school sophomore becomes pregnant and rearranges her life in preparation to put the baby up for adoption.

KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW (Thriller/Fantasy): In a noirish city where humans and fairies cohabitate, a detective is accused in a series of murders targeting the mythical creatures and he sets out to catch the killer.

THE ART OF COOL (comedy): As the homecoming dance approaches, the biggest loser in high school gets help from the cool transfer student in a battle for domination over the hip kids.

The needs of buyers vary and shift with the wind. It may be easier to tell a writer what not to write – rather than tell him what to write. (But I’d only be comfortable doing that on a project to project basis – after hearing the pitch.)

However, I like your idea of ORDINARY PEOPLE meets FREAKY FRIDAY. Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore switching places leaves room for all sorts of comic high jinks.

I asked a script reader here in the UK if male and female writers tend to write different kinds of scripts?

His response was a) on the basis of the scripts he receives there are many more males than females trying to break into scriptwriting, and b) when he does read a script by a female writer it's far more likely to be a romcom or a relationship drama than say a thriller or an action piece.

If that's true in Hollywood as well, is it because those are the sorts of stories that women want to tell, or is there an industry frame of mind that automatically pushes them into those genres?

There is some truth to the concept that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” Many married couples would attest to that.

I think most writers create work that fits in with their sensibilities.

I don’t believe that Hollywood stereotypes writers based on their gender. I think writers brand themselves based on the genres they write and write well.

Susannah Grant has proven proficiency in writing stories about women. A studio is not likely to approach her about writing an action movie. However, the same could be said for Mark Andrus – who tends to slant toward character based work. Writer/director Kathryn Bigelow, on the other hand, has shown interest in writing (and directing) genres other than chick flicks.

I think Hollywood finds comfort in hiring a writer with genre precedence. If a woman has written successful action movies, a studio would hire her.

There may be something more inherently “masculine” about writing for the screen. My experience has also been that more solicitations come from males than females. (Maybe female execs get more solicitations from female scribes). Maybe more women are writing novels. After all, if young men drive the box-office, perhaps women, on a whole, aren’t connecting with that demographic.

But let’s not forget that women helped build this business: Francis Marion, Anita Loos, Gene Gauntier, Mabel Normand and Mary Pickford, to name a few. And there is a wonderful organization called WOMEN IN FILM that was founded almost 70 years ago. Its mission is “empowering, mentoring and promoting women in the entertainment and media industries.”

What is the difference between a manager and an agent? What do they each do for me? I'm an aspiring writer, so at this point it doesn't really matter, but I assume in the future I'll have to know.

...With lots of hard work and luck.

In a perfect world, an agent gets you work and a manager manages your career.

However, there are no strict guidelines on managers (like there are for agents), so the lines are blurred.

Many writers only have an agent. And many writers only have managers, who must use lawyers to broker the deal. Remember, managers cannot negotiate deals, but agents can.

Bigger agencies have the ability to package your screenplay – giving it a better chance in the market. (“Packaging” means putting together talent and funds to make it a more attractive package to potential buyers.)

For new writers, a manager is a good choice. He’ll help launch your career. He’ll help you choose the right projects to spec, he’ll critique and help develop your work, and set you up with meetings. He’ll even help you land the best agent when the time is right.

Some managers attach as producers (agents cannot). This often gives them additional interest in your script, because it could mean a greater source of revenue if your script is set-up/produced. (Managers will return the 10% commission in lieu of a producer’s fee).

Since many management companies work like production companies, it can be easier to get your work to them.

Some respected companies like BenderSpink (HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) allow writers to pitch their ideas online. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any respectable agency doing that. So, access to managers might be easier.

In your blog 'Screenwriting 101,' you say that goals should be active rather than reactive. If a protagonist's goal arises from the inciting incident, which is a result of the antagonists action, then is this not reactive? Or are you talking about actively pursuing the goal once the inciting incident takes place?

Yes. I am referring (for the most part) to pursing the goal once the inciting incident takes place.

In an archetypal structure, the goal isn’t established until the end of the first act. The inciting incident (which the protagonist often does not initiate) can occur twenty-pages earlier.

Once the goal is established, the character actively pursues that goal. There is a cause and effect relationship in drama, so one action will cause a reaction that will spur another action and so on. But the protagonist must keep his eye on the prize and actively push for it.

The protagonist’s active pursuit of his goal moves the story forward toward its climax.

Harrison Ford is reactive in THE FUGITIVE, running from Tommy Lee Jones. However, the script also gives him a goal to clear his name – which keeps him active.

Keep in mind, the very definition of the word "goal" implies an end toward which effort is directed. And "effort" could be defined as conscientious activity.

The very idea of "goal" is active.

I am an aspiring screenwriter and had a chance to view "Bright Star" after reading your May 11 comment. For me, the film showed a good possible outcome if the story of Jesus Christ occurred today and it worked for me. The hard luck of Joseph and Mary was especially indicated (particularly the arrest for solicitation). I thought the film tied everything together at the end (moving to Cairo Illinois). I agree that the setting could have easily been another urban environment, but I liked how the film subtly set up the Chicago atmosphere with the Chicago Theater billboard, etc. Mary's character seemed to be almost smirking when she whispered the circumstances in the Doctors ear. I may have opted for a slightly different vibe there, but overall, I thought the movie was a nice Christmas short.

I’m glad you enjoyed it – as I’m sure the writer/director is as well. (Are you related?) However, his original question to me asked how to get a paid directing job from a short film.

In my opinion, a “nice Christmas short” isn’t going to kick open Hollywood’s doors.


Let’s not forget those writers who passed away this last month. Their contributions to our industry and our lives are greatly appreciated.


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Saturday, May 20, 2006


I’m a novelist that’s written a few screenplays. Some of my friends think my scripts are too dense with words and that I should break up my passages with “white space.” That kind of criticism feels superficial and useless to me. Is this just Hollywood afraid of having to read and what's all this “white space” business anyway?

Screenwriters can be over-zealous in their writing style, going overboard in descriptions and using verbose passages that result in hindering a read rather than helping it. Conversely, some writers can utilize a sparse style that leaves the script without any texture or soul. A screenwriter wants to find the middle ground.

Overall, I think word economy and "white space" are tools of the screenwriting craft.

Writing a script is different than writing a novel, which is why many novelists fail in making the switch.

In Samuel Marx's book, "A Gaudy Spree," he talks about his experiences of running the MGM Story Department in its heyday and how novelists (like Fitzgerald) came out to Hollywood to write screenplays but struggled with the inappropriate set of tools they had brought along - and then withered under the collborative system. (The book tells the story of Faulkner's attempts to write a wrestling script for Wallace Beery, a tale which was later reinvented for the Coen Brothers' movie BARTON FINK.)

If you’re writing a spec script, keep in mind you’re writing it for a reader (that’s anyone who reads the script). And you want the “read” to be as friendly as possible. Long, flowery sentences rivaling Faulker are not the tools of a screenwriter.

More than likely, they won’t be read. After about ten pages, the reader gets a sense of the writer’s style and knows if he uses too many superfluous words and sentences.

I’ve noticed that the important part of the paragraph is usually in the first and last sentence. So, I’ll skip over the creamy center to simply get to the gist of the matter - if a writer is too verbose. (When I have forty other scripts to read over the weekend, I simply don’t have time for an indulgent, masturbatory writing style in a script that most likely won’t be that good anyway.)

Any writer can describe a sunset in a hundred words. As a screenwriter, the talent is to describe the same sunset and communicate the same vision and mood in only five words.

Here is an example from Scott Silver’s PLAYBOY, which I think is descriptive to a fault.



STILL VIDEO. Saturated color, smooth moves. Summer, 1968. An angelic 18-year-old girl-next-door, BARBARA KLEIN, long dark hair, bangs, big bright eyes, button nose, white macro-mini, swaying her head, hips to the song, lyrics, “IF IT’S PEACE YOU FIND IN DYIN’/AND IF DYIN’ TIME IS NEAR/BUNDLE UP MY COFFIN/’CAUSE IT’S COLD WAY DOWN THERE/I HEAR THAT IT’S COLD WAY DOWN THERE/YEAH COLD WAY DOWN THERE”

…Barbara turns and dances face-to-face with two other pretty girls, a skinny black hippie joins in…Party in a crowded smoke-filled bachelor’s apartment, beautiful people, long hair, hot pants, minishirts, go-go boots, turtlenecks, Nehru jackets, modern furniture, burnt-orange carpet, electronic entertainment wall, leather couches. Follow the four of them lauging & moving with choreographed joy to the music…”AND WHEN I DIE/WHEN I’M GONE/THERE’LL BE ONE MORE CHILD BORN/IN THE WORLD TO CARRY ON/TO CARRY ON/HELP ME NOW”… A couple dances in front of Barbara Klein, blocking the view…


He’s 42, shorter hair, velour shirt, black mohair slacks, smoking a pipe. She’s 28, his secretary, Jewish, slightly overweight, large expressive eyes, dark circles, cigarette, Levis, halter-top. Both watching Barbara Klein. Hef smiles wistfully, leans in & whispers in Bobbie’s ear…”GIVE ME MY FREEDOM FOR AS LONG AS I BE/ALL I ASK OF LIVIN’ IS TO HAVE NO CHAINS ON ME/ALL I ASK OF LIVIN’ IS TO HAVE NO CHAINS ON ME” … Bobbie looks into Hef’s eyes, returns his smile…


…Bobbie turns to the guy next to her, DAVID SONTAG, 30’s, white turtleneck, pulls him aside…Hef keeps watching Barbara Klein, still dancing in the background… “AND ALL I ASK OF DYIN’ IS TO GO NATURALLY/ONLY WANT TO GO NATURALLY/WELL, HERE I GO!” … Trumpet, sax, drums, keyboards, guitar, bass, jamming…Everybody moving as one, faster, harder, sexier…

Suddenly a man wearing a head-set – the FLOOR DIRECTOR – steps in front of the dancers.

This, in my opinion, is an example of an indulgent writing style. The scribe floods his description with too many details (mostly reserved for the art director and costumer).

This may seem innocuous - but when every page is filled with this sort of writing – it eventually becomes disorienting. Hard to track. Hard to comprehend. The story line becomes a blur – getting lost between the drama and the description.

You never want your story to do battle with your writing style. They must work together.

PLAYBOY is an example where they do not work hand in hand.

Here, each page takes 10 minutes to read, because one cannot cut through the superfluous details to get the gist of the characters and narrative; it forces one to re-read and re-read, disrupting the flow and enjoyment of the experience. In the end, it's hard to say what the script is even about. The story is the most important thing, but if you cannot communicate that story – you’ve failed. Ironically, all this descriptive writing in the screenplay does not enable the reader to see the movie.

Producers and agents are looking for a MOVIE, not a literary experience.

Screenwriters are craftsmen first - writers second. Those who understand this truism are more likely to succeed in this business.

Knowing how to write descriptively for a screenplay is part of the learning curve.

A script must NOT read like a novel.

The reading experience of a screenplay should feel like the MOVIE you’re hoping to create.

Movies MOVE. And so should your script. Your job as a screenwriter is not to find poetry to describe your scenes – but find the most efficient words and sentences imaginable to create the imagery without eating up your pages.

An antithetical example to PLAYBOY might be the use of "vertical writing" (as it has come to be known).

VERTICAL WRITING is most appropriate for action screenplays. It may be less appropriate for something like ORDINARY PEOPLE - though a writer can use it wherever he chooses.

Vertical writing can create a certain sort of movement and flow that’s just right for action sequences. Vertical writing can allow one to read the sequence – exactly the way he would see it on the screen – almost in real time. There's nothing new about it nor is it a fad. Only the term itself may be new. Walter Hill has been writing "vertically" since the 70s.

Here is an example from his screenplay THE WARRIORS:


Huge, warehouse-sized …
One hundred Riffs in attendance.
Dirge-like rock number coming through the stereo speakers.
Suddenly, the main door is thrown open.
All eyes are on the three Riffs who enter.
A small youth walking slightly before the others.
He is … The New Cyrus.
Music stopping with a thunk.
Long silence.

Here, Hill paints it on the page the way he wants us to see it on the screen. He avoids flowery details – and simply provides us with the cold, hard facts.

Obviously, this allows one’s eyes to move down the page – which is how the term "vertical" was coined.

Silver and Hill are on separate ends of the spectrum.

Here is an example from Thompson & Camp's STEINBECK'S POINT OF VIEW, which falls somewhere in the middle.

These writers have sold several seven-figure specs (including this).

In this scene, cancer-patient TOM smokes a joint.


Decided, he rips open the pack --immediately met with a ghastly aroma. Tears free a bud, grinds it in his fingers. Lays the herb inside rolling paper.



The joint of all joints. Tom lights her up. Self-conscious, acutely aware of the absurdity. But what the hell, takes a deep drag.

Hacks like a kid's first Marlboro.


...Tom's boom box. CD spins, speakers fill with Bob Marley's "Jamming"...

...His eyes but red slits, his head a ten thousand pound bowling ball on his shoulders...

...Rolls another doobie, air drumming to the steel drum beat...

...On the roof with Flash Gordon, tokin' to the moonlight, ear to ear grin...

...Loads another old pro...

...Munchies -- bags of Doritos and Hostess treats ravaged before him...

...Onward and upward to a water bong....

This may indulge also, but the writers aren't beating us over the head with too many words and images. It's much easier to digest.

Note the use of "white space" here.

White space can help to break up action.

Make action seem less cluttered and confusing to the reader.

It can break up beats within sequences.

White space can help to organize and choreograph the sequence, and orient the reader.

White space creates a topography to the page lay-out that can make it easier to navigate.

It’s an important writing tool. Do not discount the lay-out of a screenplay. There are psychologists who devote their careers to the way presentation affects people. Advertising and periodicals run their empires by it. Using white space enables a writer to communicate his story more effectively to the reader.

No one is suggesting NOT to write visually. However, the use of “white space” helps one to avoid verbosity, compelling the scribe to tell his story in the most concise and effective way.

Here is an example from Frank Darabont's FAHRENHEIT 451:

She turns, facing them. A long look passes between them as her thumbnail tightens on the match head…

…and her thumbnail scrapes the sulfur tip, FLARING it to life. Montag’s eyes widen in horror –

and the match flare leaps into the air, a heartbeat of white-hot ignition, the air rippling as it catches fire. For a moment the old woman is surrounded by an aura of flame swirling about her, lifting her hair and catching it afire, making her eyes glow like coals –

--and BOOOOM! The entryway EXPLODES, shattering window, a HUGE FIST OF FLAME punching through the front door and blowing Beatty and Montag right off their feet, hurling them over the railings and onto the lawn in a storm of debris. Some other firemen are caught on the run, also blown off their feet….

This is very effective. Darabont describes in greater detail than Hill or Thompson & Camp – but still only tells us what we need to know in order to understand the scene.

His word choice is thorough and exact. Note his use of white space to help organize the action. Darabont actually interrupts sentences with white space.

Here is an example from Tarantino's FROM DUSK TILL DAWN - which illustrates a fairly common style:


If the Titty Twister looked like the asshole of the world from the outside, in the immortal words of Al Jolson, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” This is the kind of place where they sweep up the teeth and hose down the cum, the blood and the beer at closing.

In the back, TOPLESS DANCERS do lap dances with the customers, while a SLEAZY SEXY STRIPPER STRIPS to RAUNCHY MUSIC, played at eardrum-bursting level. TWO MEN are in a savage BARE KNUCKLE FIGHT, surrounded by screaming customers of bikers and truckers.

One of the dancers is a man with a saddle on his back, his name is DANNY THE WONDER PONY. The woman on his back, in the saddle, feet in the stirrups, hands on the reins, is ATHENA, his rider. They dance around to the cheers of the crowd.

Bikers and truckers play pool in the back. Fights break out here about every ten minutes. The customers may start ‘em, but the bouncer, BIG EMILIO, ends ‘em.

Seth, Richard, Jacob, Scott and Kate walk through the door. They each individually take in the sights and the smells. Seth is the first to say something.

You’ll note that none of the paragraphs go beyond a few lines before breaking off and creating a new paragraph – leaving “white space” on the page. (The format of this blog makes the paragraphs appear thicker than they do in the actual screenplay.)

Here’s an example that goes AGAINST the grain of "white space:" Shane Black’s introduction of MARTIN RIGGS in LETHAL WEAPON.


Morning is not a good time for Inspector Martin Riggs. We are in the bathroom, and it is a pit. Dark. Depressing. Newspapers. Crushed cigarettes. Whiskey bottles. Dust. Riggs is asleep in the bathtub. Cigarette butts float in the water. He looks dead. Your basic burnout. The CLOCK RADIO suddenly BLARES to life: “Silver Belllls… It’s Christmas-tiiiime in the city…” Riggs snaps awake instantly. Alert. Tense. Face bathed in sweat. Sits up, sloshing water. Rubs his eyes. Stands, kicking aside a bottle of whiskey. Leans over the toilet – And beings to vomit his guts out. The Christmas MUSIC PLAYS ON.

Although this is a block of text, you’ll note the writer's use of incomplete sentences and single words to paint a reader-friendly picture without getting overly complicated. This is anything but novelistic and reads almost as easily as the example from THE WARRIORS.

Perhaps Shane Black chose to use only one block of text in order to focus the reader on Riggs – this is Riggs’ claustrophobic world, and Black paints that picture with both the words and sentence structure and the topography - the actual way he lays it out on the page.

Knowing when to use white space and not to use it helps to guide the reader, manipulate the reader and even set a mood for the reader.

And concise word choice matters too. Black could have used a whole sentence to describe the “whiskey bottles” but he opts out. Why bother? This isn’t about the whiskey bottles – it’s about Riggs. He doesn’t even tell us the brand of whiskey. (This draft of LETHAL WEAPON weighs in at 106 pages. If Black had used more white space, it would have come in around 120.)

The problem is that verbosity (the density you refer to you in your question) serves no purpose. It doesn’t enhance the drama of your story – and could very well hinder it by cluttering the script and creating a confusing read. And "white space" can help you create a friendlier, more organized reading experience. It may seem like Hollywood nit-picking or counterproductive to your goal as a writer, but it's not the white devil; it's just a tool. Anyway, as a screenwriter, your primary tool (as odd or maddening as this may sound) shouldn't be words.

Your primary tool as a dramatist is conflict.

Lots of writers dive into "Final Draft" knowing how to write beautiful prose, but they lack an understanding of the tools needed (and how to use them) to write a screenplay that connects with and moves the reader.

This partially explains why most scripts don't sell and most screenwriters aren't earning a living.

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Saturday, May 13, 2006


THE MIDNIGHT MAN is a project developed from a pitch by PGL winners Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan.

A while back, I invited the writers to my L.A. Valley College class along with some others - including Mike Gozzard, fomer V.P. at Fortress Entertainment. (Mike co-authored the screenplay P.D.R. starring Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac, a Fortress film currently in production.)

I knew the writers of FEAST would be a perfect match for Fortress and insisted they share some ideas. They pitched their untitled concept - sort of a slasher pic set against the backdrop of a heist. Mike loved it and brought the duo in to meet the other duo, Fortress founders Brett Forbes and Patrick Rizzotti.

I arranged a lunch for Marcus and Patrick to pitch their idea to Julie Richardson (who produced COLLATERAL). I've been working with Julie on several projects. Horror isn't quite up her alley, but she could see the worthiness of the project (popular genre, easier to finance, etcetera) and Julie also signed on as a producer. Development on the script began last year.

Trained under the tutelage of Project Greenlight, Patrick and Marcus write fast. True to the genre and the sort of horror movies film geek Marcus adores, the end result was a draft that made us all happy. But Marcus had been expressing interest in directing the project. Horror movies have been a great avenue for new directors to cut their teeth. Marcus has directed some short films and watched the quirky and talented John Gulager apply his trade during the filming of PGL's FEAST - an education that the entire country shared. (Project Greenlight was nominated for an Emmy Award - mostly due to Gulager's irresistable demeanor.) It wouldn't be an easy sell to convince financers that Marcus was worthy of directing a feature film, and he knew it. But he was willing to do whatever it took to prove he was the only man for the job.

Marcus is a loyal, endearing and passionate character who has won the support of many in his endeavor to direct THE MIDNIGHT MAN - including the principals at NEO ART & LOGIC, INC. Julie even arranged for Marcus to spend a day observing Frank Darabont shoot a TV pilot.
This weekend, Marcus has set out to shoot a trailer for the yet-to-be-produced movie (with a modest budget and devoted crew) at a house in the middle of Santa Clarita (down the end of the longest, bumpiest and scariest dirt road ever) and some creepy Hollywood locales.

FEAST collaborator and friend director John Gulager offered to work with Marcus as the director of photography (armed with an HD camera).
So, the journey begins for Marcus as he struggles to prove his mettle and win the task to direct his screenplay. Luckily, his career (from video store clerk to filmmaker) was born on a "win." However, winning PGL - despite the rare experience - has also been a source of frustration, considering the constant postponing of a release date for FEAST. (Word on the street is October for a possible release.)
This blog entry is a break from the usual Q&A forum, but I wanted to share a small story that demonstrates one way a project comes together, and the arduous process it takes to launch a career and prove your worth in such a competitive industry.

Marcus Dunstan, Chris Lockhart and producer Julie Richardson after midnight on the set of THE MIDNIGHT MAN.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006


I was approached by a "director" on one of the screenwriting websites and asked to write a short script for him, based upon some work of mine (a couple of writing exercises) that he had seen on the website. I know that short films are kind of a calling card for aspiring directors, but short of a writer directing their own script, I can't seem to find an upside for the screenwriter. Having said that, I did write the short for him and he's filmed it. I believe he'll be entering it into some festivals. As a writer without representation, how would I be able to use that (would I be able to use it) as a calling card for me?

Your best calling card is a full-length screenplay that an agent or producer can read to get a sense of how you tell a story (for 120-pages) and handle the craft. Through your pages, he will hear your voice.

It is certainly rewarding to see your short script evolve into a film, and there may even be possibilities to win short screenplay awards at various festivals. Plus other unforeseen opportunities could arise (which is the beauty and excitement of this business).

However, in my line of work, I haven’t seen a short film benefit the screenwriter as much as it could benefit the director (or writer-director). Oddly, a director can show off his sense of style and vision in a fifteen or twenty minute film. It’s harder for a screenwriter to show he has the ability to structure and shape a full-length script from just twenty pages.

When you market your next script, let interested parties know you have also authored a short film and see if they would like to see it along with reading your screenplay.

What is the best way to get a directing gig for hire, off your short films?

First, you need to make a short film that’s fucking amazing.

And you haven’t come close to accomplishing that here.

It certainly isn’t incompetent (though the voice-over is pretty bad), but it won’t inspire agents or producers to rally behind your talent. There isn’t anything about the film that elicits real excitement. It isn’t a project that compels me to sit my busy co-workers down to watch it. It doesn’t evoke much atmosphere (this could have been New York just as easily as Chicago), the humor falls short (the wise men are wasted), and the storytelling/writing is clearly limited. The concept is amusing, but we’ve seen modern versions of “Mary and Joseph” done before – often on sit-coms. The best scene (though very brief) is Mary telling the doctor who conceived her child. But then we cut to that shot of her strapped down to the bed – which I thought was more frightening than funny.

For a director to be discovered off a short film and given a feature length directing gig, her movie must “wow.” Not “bow-wow.”

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Sunday, May 07, 2006


Does Hollywood look for a certain sort of storytelling? Is there a specific kind of structure that Hollywood expects?

If you're referring to studio movies, there is a certain story structure prescription. That doesn't mean a writer should not deviate from it. However, this basic dramatic structure is the language Hollywood uses. If you want to work in Hollywood, it only makes sense to understand this common knowledge. Of course, having a solid understanding of how this works allows a writer to break through the barriers and explore more atypical ways to tell stories.

I'll break this down into THREE SECTIONS.

1) A look at how the MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION helps to unify the parts of the story.

2) A definition of the important parts of the story.

3) An example of 1&2 in action.

Screenwriters choose to tell a story dramatically. In order to tell a story dramatically, the writer must use conflict. Conflict is when two or more forces come into opposition. Conflict is drama. Your story must be told using conflict as the delivery method.

How can you ensure that conflict drives your story and characters forward?


A screenplay is full of goals. At every moment, characters are constantly struggling to fulfill goals. It’s when the character – in pursuit of this goal – clashes with an antagonistic force – that conflict is created.

There are two types of goals:


A physical goal is active, visual, and easier to film. Because of their external nature, physical goals are often referred to as external goals.

An example of a physical goal: a father must save his son from kidnappers.

A psychological goal is not visual by nature, and more difficult to film. Because of their internal nature, psychological goals are often referred to as internal goals.

An example of a psychological goal: a widower must cope with his wife’s sudden death.

Some goals play a major role in the story, and others play minor roles.

In THE WIZARD OF OZ, minor goals would be:

the scarecrow wanting a brain
the tin man wanting a heart
the lion wanting courage
Dorothy and friends wanting apples from the talking trees
the witch wanting the ruby slippers, Dorothy needing the witch’s broomstick.

The major goal in the wizard of oz is Dorothy’s desire to return to Kansas. It is this major goal that establishes the story.

Without Dorothy’s goal to return to Kansas, there is no dramatic story in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Her “tornadic” ride to Oz is not the dramatic story – merely the set-up. The dramatic story doesn’t truly get underway until Dorothy sets out to find the Wizard in her pursuit to return to Kansas.

In JAWS, the shark that kills tourists is not the dramatic story. It isn’t until Sheriff Brody’s goal is established – to kill the shark – that the dramatic story begins.

Erin Brockovich’s new job at the law firm is not the dramatic story. It isn’t until she sets out to prove wrongdoing from PG&E that the dramatic story begins.

There should be one major goal. (If you are telling several stories – like Magnolia – then each story has a major goal.)

The major goal always belongs to your protagonist.

The goal must be active – not reactive.

The major goal should be very specific – not vague. (Vague goals plague many screenplays.)

The coach wants a winning season is vague.
The coach wants to win the state championship is specific.

The major goal should be introduced by the end of the first act of your screenplay. No later. (If the dramatic story doesn’t begin by the end of the first act, your script could be tossed aside.) No earlier. (Your story could run out of steam too early.)

The major goal is never achieved until your climax – which occurs at the end of the third act. The movie ends when your character achieves his goal.

The stakes for achieving this goal must be life and death (literal or figurative.)

As a writer, this major goal is important because it enables you to shape your story. Every scene should be a cause and effect of the protagonist’s pursuit of this goal. Once the goal is established, the story revolves around fulfilling that goal.

This major goal must be utilized when crafting a log line or pitching your story idea.

A lonely farm girl finds herself in the mysterious land of Oz is not a pitch. It is not a log line. There is no drama suggested here.

However, when the goal is included, the concept takes on conflict and scope:

When a lonely Kansas farm girl finds herself in the mysterious land of Oz, she sets out on a dangerous journey to find a wizard who can help her return home.

A pitch or log line without this major goal will not suggest a dramatic story. It’s an immediate red flag. In order to convince someone to keep reading your screenplay, you want to create suspense/intrigue/tension.

Questions create intrigue.

Raising questions throughout your script will create a desire within the reader to continue to turn the pages to learn the answers to these questions.

In crafting your dramatic story, think of your goals – major and minor – as questions. Shape your story around these questions.

Dorothy’s goal to get back to Kansas would be converted to a question:

Will Dorothy get back to Kansas?

Questions create tension.

Instead of Sheriff Brody setting out to kill the shark, convert it to:

Will Sheriff Brody kill the shark?

Instead of calling it a major goal, we’ll call it a MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION.

Minor goals – for the purpose of crafting your story – should also be thought of in terms of questions. We’ll call these MINOR DRAMATIC QUESTIONS.

If your major dramatic question is based on a physical goal, like Dorothy’s and Sheriff Brody’s, you have most likely devised a hero-based story. All action movies are hero-based. For the most part, these are the stories Hollywood is more likely to gravitate toward.

If your major dramatic question is based on a psychological goal, like Timothy Hutton’s in ORDINARY PEOPLE or Kevin Kline’s in LIFE AS A HOUSE, you have most likely devised – what I call – a slice-of-life story.

A slice-of-life story is character driven. Slice-of-life stories are often referred to as “character pieces.” They usually involve resolving some sort of dysfunctional relationship – like mother and daughter, for instance.

Ensemble pieces can be “slice-of life” like THE BIG CHILL or hero based like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

Your protagonist is not limited to either a physical goal or a psychological goal only. Screenplays should employ both: Dorothy’s physical (external) goal is to get back to Kansas. Dorothy’s psychological (internal) goal is to find her place in the world. Or:

Will Dorothy get back to Kansas?
Will Dorothy find her place in the world?

Although her psychological goal is very important, the story’s major dramatic question is physical because it is the true engine that drives the dramatic narrative. Her desire to get back to Kansas sets the story in motion.

In SIGNS, Mel’s physical goal is to protect his family from aliens. His psychological goal is to find spiritual peace.

Will Mel Gibson save his family from aliens?
Will he find spiritual peace?

Although his battle with aliens is basically a metaphor, it is the engine that drives the story. Hence, the major dramatic question here involves Mel’s saving his family from aliens.

In INSOMNIA, Al Pacino’s physical goal is to conceal the accidental shooting death of his partner. His psychological goal is to absolve his guilt.

Will Al cover-up the death of his partner?
Will Al absolve his guilt?

In MINORITY REPORT, Tom Cruise’s physical goal is to prove his innocence for a crime he has not yet committed. His psychological goal is to find closure regarding his son’s disappearance.

Will Tom Cruise prove his innocence?
Will Tom Cruise find closure?

However, it is his pursuit of innocence that is the major dramatic question, because it is the engine that drives the story.

Slice-of-life example:

In LIFE AS A HOUSE, a dying Kevin Kline wants to resolve the strained relationship he has with his son. That is a psychological goal. His physical goal is to build the house before he dies.

Will Kevin Kline resolve the strained relationship with his son before he dies?
Will Kevin Kline finish building the house before he dies?

Since this is a slice-of-life story, it is the psychological pursuit to resolve the strained father/son relationship that drives the story. Hence, the major dramatic question is psychological and not physical.

The use of a character’s physical goal and psychological is at its height when the two clash.

In MINORITY REPORT, Cruise’s physical pursuit of his innocence is constantly hampered by his psychological pursuit for closure involving his missing son. Cruise’s life revolves around his pre-crime police work; it brings him a vicarious sense of closure (because it spares potential crime victims the pain he has experienced), yet in order to prove his innocence, he must dismantle pre-crime.

The script reaches the zenith of drama when the character’s physical goal and psychological goal come into conflict with each other.

Remember, since psychological goals are not visual in nature, it is the screenwriter’s job to manifest this internal goal through drama and/or visual icons/motifs.

Mark Andrus, who wrote LIFE AS A HOUSE, uses the building of a house as a visual metaphor.

Once the goal (major dramatic question) has been established, a launching pad for the drama has been created. This goal will serve as the THROUGHLINE for your screenplay.

With this established, you structure your story using PLOT POINTS.

A PLOT POINT is a MAJOR EVENT in the script that spins the story around, gives it new life and new energy. (They are also referred to as TURNING POINTS.) These are STRATEGICALLY placed within the story for maximum impact.

There are TWO MAJOR PLOT POINTS: end of act one AND end of act two.

The INCITING INCIDENT, MIDPOINT and CLIMAX can also be considered plot points.

In a 120-page screenplay, we understand the first act to be 30-pages, the second act 60-pages and the third act to be 30-pages.


A scene or a sequence which give us insight into what the character is all about. (In SEA OF LOVE, we witness cop Al Pacino cut a crook some slack because the bad guy is accompanied by his son. This telling beat gives us a glimpse into Pacino's characterization, and it creates a likeability factor for the character too.)


An event that introduces the protagonist to the potential problem. This plot point is in act one.


The moment in the script when the protagonist commits to solve the problem by actively pursuing a goal. It is here that the MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION is introduced.


An event occurs wherein the character cannot give up his pursuit. It is a “no turning back point.” The bridge has been burned behind him (figuratively speaking), and he can only move forward. Often, this is manifested as a TICKING CLOCK. In classically structure romantic comedies, this is the point where the man and woman sleep together.


An event that depicts a massive loss for the protagonist. It appears as if the hero will not achieve his goal. This is the ALL IS LOST MOMENT. This is often referred to as the crisis because the protagonist is at the farthest possible distance from his goal.


The moment in the story when the hero has either succeeded or failed in achieving his goal. It is the HIGHEST EMOTIONAL POINT in the story. It is the moment of CATHARSIS. It is the moment the audience learns the answer to the MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION.

Here is an example of structure-in-use from David Mamet’s THE VERDICT. This is from the FINAL DRAFT dated 11/23/1981 (123pp). Close facsimiles of this draft can be read online for free.

LOG LINE: A drunken, washed-up attorney struggles against a goliath law firm to win a medical malpractice suit.



Galvin is introduced as an attorney lower than an ambulance chaser – he chases Hearses. He is a washed-up attorney- glory days long behind him. He is a drunk – who only seems to show signs of life when he is in a bar.


For physical/external storyline: MICKEY jolts GALVIN into consciousness, reminding him that he has five-days to prepare for the ONLY case on his docket. This is a definite money-maker that will ensure GALVIN some much needed income (page 6-7).

For psychological/internal storyline: GALVIN visits his comatose client in the nursing home. He comes to understand the severity and enormity of the case before him (page 8).


GALVIN decides to try the case, “I have to try this case. I have to do it, Mick. I’ve got to stand up for that girl” (page 31). NOTE: This is the point in the story where the goal is establinshed. GALVIN's goal is to win the case. A MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION is proposed: WILL GALVIN WIN THE CASE? The MDQ is the linchpin of the dramatic narrative – the purpose for which the story is being told.

We also understand his psychological goal: to find self-respect. His lack of self-respect was brought about in a jury tampering scandal that almost resulted in his being disbarred. (This is his backstory.) With his current medical malpractice case, he can do something good and meaningful. This internal dilemma can be proposed in the form of a minor dramatic question: WILL GALVIN WIN BACK SELF-RESPECT?



1) We meet CONCANNON (nemesis) and the massive law firm and resources that GALVIN must face (p.32).

2) JUDGE clearly a defendant’s judge. But GALVIN won’t back down. They are going to court(pp.40-44).

3) GALVIN terribly nervous during voir dire. Will he be able to perform during trial? (p. 44)?

4) CONCANNON launches media campaign to deify his clients and the hospital (p.46).

5) Plaintiff’s brother-in-law (DONEGHY) assaults GALVIN after learning a settlement check was offered but rejected by GALVIN (to pursue the injustice) without his knowledge. He will have GALVIN disbarred (pp. 47-49).

6) GALVIN’s star witness (DR. GRUBER) vanishes – bought off by CONCANNON (p. 52). GALVIN has no case.

7) The JUDGE refuses to give GALVIN an extension (p. 55).


GALVIN calls the insurance company with the intentions of taking the offer. His request is denied (p. 57)

This is a NO TURNING BACK POINT. GALVIN has no choice but to take this case in front of a jury.

He has been stripped of his star witness.
He is up against a law firm that can buy off people.
He must deal with a JUDGE who is against him.
He must face his distraught clients.
He must cope with a motion to have him disbarred.
He must also grapple with the idealistic notion that got him into this mess.

GALVIN has the wind knocked out of him. He even says, “I can’t breathe in here….” (p. 58).

Dramaturgically, this is a classic reversal. GALVIN even tells LAURA, “…We just had a small reversal in the case” (p. 59).

This mid-point increases the tension exponentially and gives the narrative a new energy and more momentum to sweep us to the plot point at the end of act two.



1) Find new “expert”: Second rate, “black” DR. THOMPSON (p. 64-66).

2) GALVIN must get MARY ROONEY to testify. He fails (p. 67-70).

3) DR. THOMPSON proves to be sincere but “lame.” (p. 71-73).

4) GALVIN says, “They’re going to kill me tomorrow” (p. 73). “I’m so frightened” (p.74).

5) GALVIN begins the trial without a prayer (p. 76). NOTE: The trial beings at a strategic place - halfway between MID-POINT and END OF THE SECOND ACT. This provides new energy and tension to act two – which often proves the most difficult act to sustain.

6) We learn that CONCANNON has a “good” source of intelligence feeding him vital, inside info (p. 78). NOTE: DRAMATIC IRONY or SUPERIOR POSITION is when the audience knows something the character doesn’t. This is a method of creating tension.

7) DR. THOMPSON and GALVIN get creamed in court (pp. 78-83).

8) GALVIN and the JUDGE have it out in chambers (pp 83-85).

9) GALVIN fails miserably with DR. TOWLER – learning that his client was anemic. It devastates his case (p. 88).


GALVIN’s best friend, confidant, and mentor (MICKEY) tells him, “It’s over” (p. 90). This is the “all is lost” point in the screenplay.

LAURA is the “mole,” providing intelligence to CONCANNON (p. 91). NOTE: This throughline, introduced on page 78, remains DRAMATIC IRONY – as the audience knows something that GALVIN does not.



GALVIN refuses to go down. “There are no other cases,” he pledges (p. 90). He follows a new lead: KATHY COSTELLO (p.93).


The FOREMAN declares, “Your honor, we have agreed to hold for the Plaintiff…” (p. 121). NOTE: The climax is the highest point in the story. It is the moment the answer to the MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION is revealed.


The MDQ is the THROUGHLINE. It carries us from the END OF THE FIRST ACT through to the CLIMAX. The dramatic narrative builds to the climax – which is the dramatic and emotional pinnacle of the story. It is the moment of cathartic release.

RESOLUTION/FUTURE PROJECTION (a hint at what the future has in store for our hero)

The jury wants to award MORE than requested by plaintiff (p. 122).

GALVIN has won his case against all odds – re-igniting his career. He turns his back on LAURA (pp. 121-122). We also understand that he has won back self-respect. This answers the minor dramatic question proposed in the first act: WILL GALVIN WIN BACK SELF-RESPECT? His defying LAURA and his big win suggest the answer to this question is YES. He also finds the meaning of TRUTH. His faith in truth is restored - a major theme of the script. The journey has "changed" GALVIN. He is a different man at the end than he was at the beginning. This is his "character arc."

Drama transforms characters. In Hollywood, hopefully for the better.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006


I have the good fortune of having a friend who knows two readers who worked for an agency in New York. Through my friend I was able to get two of my scripts read. Because of my connection these readers sent me script critiques on both my screenplays. I was told this is normally not done, but they were making an exception for me. The good news is they both liked my scripts and said they were passing them on A.I.S, which I was told stood for "As It Stands." I was also told I was "Red lettered." Which I was also informed was a very good thing.

My question is, is it acceptable to mention this in a query or on a site like Both readers have gone on to other areas of the industry and have said it's okay with them if I mention it, but I don't want to break some industry taboo. On the other hand being a struggling screenwriter with no representation I need all the help I can get. Could you offer any advice?

There is no industry taboo and you may do whatever you feel will best serve the script.

I’m not familiar with the term “A.I.S.” - except from the low budget car insurance commercials - nor have I heard of a script being “red lettered.” But congratulations anyway, because they are impressive sounding terms and could very well fool the unsuspecting into reading your script.

I prefer to make up my own mind (or at least have people I trust read a script), so coverage from other sources does not interest or sway me. Also, when a writer boasts, “They loved my script over there,” it forces one to ask, “Then why are you pushing it here?”

However, many of the producers who search the files of INKTIP may not have the luxury of readers or a support staff. So, coverage from a reliable source could work to your benefit.

Understand that advertising good coverage may not necessarily have the effects you expect. Know your audience and use that information at your discretion.

I’m new in town and trying to network. Right away I met a lot of “fringe players” (guys who are not in the biz, but know or work for people who are--and they all “have this great idea for a movie and if I’d just write the script for them”--you know the type). My question is, how do I get to meet the “center players” (guys who are In the biz). Is it a good idea to write for fringe players in order to meet center players? Am I attending the wrong parties? Any tip on networking would be greatly appreciated.

It is definitely not a good idea to write for fringe players – unless they are going to pay you. For the record, “guys who…work for people who are (in the biz)” describes almost everyone, since 99% of us are employed by someone. Regardless, consider those “in the biz” as people who work for companies that can be verified. Even then, employees often play themselves off to be more important than they are and mislead you for their own selfish reasons. Always use common sense and don’t be so easily swayed by big talk from little people. (My rule of thumb: The bigger the talk, the bigger the bullshit.)

If your writing is “ready,” you should seek management. A good manager will enable you to hook up with the “center players.” Soon, you’re on mailing lists and going to parties and making the kind of relationships that could one day pay off.

In lounge lizard style, you could frequent the hang-outs where executives and young agents go to forget their quotidian miseries. (Of course, your presence might be an unpleasant reminder.) This needs to be approached with some panache, but buying someone a drink might buy you enough time to make some sort of connection.

If there is a particular young executive or manager (for instance) you have read about or admire, don’t be afraid to contact that person and say, “I’m a new writer in town. I admire your work. I’d like to pick your brain – no strings attached. And I’d like to take you out for lunch or drinks.” Most will say “no,” but some might say “yes.” If you’re living in town, you have opportunities that other writers (out of town) do not have, and you must exploit them to give you an edge.

Otherwise, there’s no sense in being here.

What can an Entertainment Lawyer do for the screenwriter with no representation? Can they refer a writer to agencies, managers, or Production Company or do they only write contracts someone else has arranged?

Aside from contract work, entertainment lawyers can submit material to agencies and production companies for the writer.

However, getting a good entertainment lawyer can be just as difficult as finding a good agent. Some will charge the writer by the hour (or per submission) and others will charge a percentage of earnings. (To strike a deal for the latter, the lawyer will need to have real trust in the writer’s talents.)

Like any good agent or manager, an attorney needs to have relationships; otherwise, he may be able to get your script into the agency, but it could sour at the bottom of a pile. With the amount of screenplays that enter an agency/production company, it takes a lot more than a simple admission ticket to get noticed.

There are plenty of useless entertainment attorneys who will take your money and do little in return. Choose wisely and carefully. Ultimately, for a new writer – the best bet for a rep is a manager who will develop talent and strategize to help the scribe break through.

A script of mine won a contest last year. When the winners were announced in the Reporter and Variety, I received requests from about 40 prodco's, agencies, and managers (ICM among them, actually--maybe you even read it). The responses were generally positive--story, characters, craft, dialogue--and included many invitations to submit future work. But no actual takers. (The political subject matter was often cited as a tough sell.) I realize that a sale or even an option was probably a long shot. But I feel the exposure is at least the next rung on the ladder: a few doors opened, a few official pats on the back.

So, here's my question: while I still believe in this script, should I devote the time and energy in further developing it? Additional drafts, contest submissions? I know at least one new draft will address some legitimate, specific concerns, but the core story won't change. Or should I just shelve this script as a writing sample, and move on to new projects? When is a script ever officially "dead"?

Have you noticed that despite the death of Tupac Shukar ten years ago, he continues to put out product? I read a script of his last week.The estates of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley continue to earn profits. And the Hollywood Forever Cemetery has a map to the stars’ graves.

Nothing dies in Hollywood.

There are scripts circulating this town from over ten years ago. Maybe this isn’t the right time for your prize winner. But one day, somewhere down Hollywood Blvd., you might meet someone looking for a script just like yours. However, I wouldn’t continue to tinker with it.

Move on. The script served its purpose. It won you a contest, earned you some recognition and opened some doors. You need to exploit those opportunities with a new script.

To stay competitive while breaking through, try to write three new scripts a year.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t submit it to contests or continue to use it as a writing sample but obsessively rewriting it can become a fatal attraction.

Scripts never die, they’re merely put away. When the opportunity arises, a fresh copy on clean paper and a disingenuous adjustment of the draft date will make it appear as if you've just finished writing it for the very first time.

I have been writing for about 6 years, and have optioned a couple scripts, and done well in some contests. I recently placed in the top ten of the Indieproducer's Screenplay Contest (for a script about the life of Walt Whitman), and will be coming out to Los Angeles for their awards gala on May 12.

Although I'm from Ohio, I've done fairly well in terms of making contacts and getting my stuff read. My question is, given the placement of the script in the contest, and my upcoming trip to LA, would it be worth the effort to call up some agencies or managers and tell them who I am, what my script is about, that I'll be in LA from Ohio for a few days, and would they consider meeting with me?

Or would they generally not be impressed enough to give me the time of day?

Whether they’ll be impressed or not, isn’t your concern. The squeaky wheel gets the grease in Hollywood. And while I doubt that many in town are itching to make a movie about Walt Whitman, you should definitely call your contacts and anyone else you might be able to meet during your brief stay.

Use the contest as a resource. For instance, if they had a panel of industry judges, see if you can meet with them (away from the gala, so you can have them all to yourself). See if the contest organizers will make introductions for you as well. Try to focus your energies on representation – since that’s a must for someone who lives out of town.

There are so many contests that it’s impossible for executives to keep up with them all. But that could work in your favor. When you make calls, create buzz for the contest – as if you’ve just won the fucking Oscar. Score as many appointments as you can, but be prepared for the meetings to be cancelled too.

Two writers made an unproduced documentary about their cross country car trip to meet with manager Brooklyn Weaver. Unfortunately, his busy calendar resulted in constant rescheduling and missed appointments. Despite the writers’ 3000 mile car ride (six thousand round trip) for the sole purpose to meet with the manager, it never happened.

I have someone very much behind a script of mine (small, quirky, multi-characters who don't tie together; i.e. a very difficult sell; described by Peter Newman, who produced "The Squid and the Whale" and didn't much care for my script, as "Altman light."). My guy who's behind it is out of the Hollywood loop but used to be very much in the loop, so he knows people and has sent it out to some. He is willing to send it to Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, whom he knows personally. I'm sort of thinking that the script isn't as fabulous as I'd hoped (it's too disjointed, quirky for the sake of quirkiness).

I'm working on another that I think will be far better (though quirky and also a difficult sale). The gist of this long-winded question is, do you think I'm better off to wait and give Tim and Susan the better script or should I go ahead and second the notion of sending this one to them? I'm afraid that this might be my one shot at them and don't want to blow it... Your advice would be greatly appreciated.

I’m glad to hear that someone “didn’t care much” for your script. I don’t mean that in a cruel way, but it’s actually rather refreshing. All I ever hear is, “He really loves my script, but….”

Anyway, is your “guy” sending out the “Altman light” script as a favor to you? Or is he sending it out because he believes it’s a good script that represents the kind of quality work you do? Does he believe the script is a good match for Mr. Robbins and Ms. Sarandon? Or is he merely sending it to everyone in his phonebook? Is he sending it to them with a specific purpose – like for Ms. Sarandon to star? Or with no real purpose in mind?

If he believes in this script and feels it’s a perfect fit for Tim and Susan, then it wouldn’t be good form to say, “Let’s trash the ‘Altman light” and send them this other script instead.” (Is all your work written with T&S in mind?) If you’re just throwing out scripts to anyone your guy knows, with little strategy, then make the suggestion if you feel this second script is better. You certainly do not want to send a weak script. (By the way, are you positive this new script is really better? Send it to that Peter Newman first – he could be the most honest guy in Hollywood.)

However, waiting until the second script is finished could cause complications. During the wait period, your guy could lose interest, have a change of heart, move on, drop dead or lose his phonebook.

I think you should decide what the motives are for sending the script to T&S and then choose the one that is most suitable. If you decide the second script is the better way to go, then roll the dice and hope your guy doesn’t get impatient and renege his offer.

I suspect the time delay won’t cause any conflicts with Tim and Susan, since they’re probably not in any hurry to read your script.

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Let’s not forget those writers who passed away this last month. Their contributions to our industry and our lives are greatly appreciated.


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