Friday, September 7, 2012

Screenwriting Seminar - Sept. 29

Screenwriting Seminar
Saturday, September 29

9:00 am - 12:30 pm — Structure Your Screenplay like the Pros
1:30 pm - 5:00 pm — 101 Most Common Screenwriting Mistakes

Location: ActivSpace 18th St. at Treat Ave., San Francisco

Structure Your Screenplay like the Pros
After reading thousands of screenplays, there’s no doubt that the scripts that studios are willing to pay for and turn into movies are the ones that have the best story structure. People who say they “don’t want to be constrained by structure” are making a huge rookie mistake by ignoring what Hollywood is looking for. In this seminar, you’ll learn not only how to structure your screenplay like a professional, but also how to use that knowledge to break the rules creatively.

You will take home: Convenient structural guide, detailed handouts explaining all course principles, several examples of how structure has worked in successful movies.

101 Most Common Screenwriting Mistakes
As a professional script reader, I see the same screenwriting mistakes over and over. They range from minor distractions to problems that are big enough to make a reader throw away your script immediately. Every screenplay reader wants to love your script, but is also looking for any excuse to pass on it. Don’t give them that excuse! In this seminar, you’ll learn what mistakes to avoid, as well as how to write a script that any reader will love.

You will take home: A list of all 101 screenwriting mistakes, as well as a bonus list of additional mistakes you should avoid after your script is finished.

Cost – $69 apiece or just $119 for both seminars!

Anyone who attends one of these seminars will receive a $20 discount on any of my script analysis services; people who attend both seminars will receive a $50 discount!

To register for one or both of these seminars, please write to

Phil Dyer is a professional script reader who provides story analyses for San Andreas Films and the Academy of Art University screenwriting department, as well as being a reader for the respected Bluecat Screenplay Competition.  

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Screenwriting Mistake #59: "Sort of"

I’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands, of screenplay pitches and I can probably count on one hand the number of pitches that didn’t include the words “sort of, “kind of” or “basically.” For example, people frequently say things like:

“Tony sort of starts trying to develop a better relationship with his father.”
“Patricia kind of begins working on her dance routine.”
“Wesley basically works on his anger problems so he can get along better with people.”

There are two problems with this kind of language in a pitch:

1.     It’s too vague. You need to make specific statements, such as, “Tony takes his father bowling every Friday night,” or, “Patricia joins the best dance troupe in New York and works her butt off for ten hours every day with the Bolshoi’s former Prima Ballerina,” or, “Wesley’s boss suspends him and requires him to complete 40 hours of anger management classes in order to come back to his job.” Specific is always better than vague.

2.     It shows that you aren’t sure of exactly what function that part of your script will be performing. You should know exactly why you put every single element of your script in your story and should be able to justify why that is the best possible element to perform that function. For example, if your protagonist is a country boy who wants to become a professional baseball pitcher and his dad is a dairy farmer, then a great way for him to train could be for his dad to set up milk bottles on a crate for his son to knock over. It highly specific and very justifiable, which is exactly what you want.

When you practice your pitches, pay attention for phrases like “sort of,” “kind of” and “basically,” and replace them with something more specific. Your pitch and your screenplay will be better for it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Screenwriting Seminar May 19th

Please note that the date for this event has changed to MAY 19th!

I'm happy to announce my next Screenwriting Seminar on Saturday, May 19th. This will be a 9-5 class giving you everything you need to know about:

- Screenplay structure
- How to create a great protagonist and antagonist
- What roles of your supporting characters should play
- The kinds of plot lines that audiences love
- And much, much more!

For more information, please go to:

May 19th Seminar Details

People who have taken this seminar have gone on to win screenwriting contest and have scripts optioned that we worked on together. This seminar will give you all of the information you need to do the same!

Screenwriting Mistake #57: Bad first ten pages

Everyone who has studied even a little bit of screenwriting has probably heard many times that you need to grab the reader within the first ten pages of your script. While that is true, it’s about the most useless piece of advice anyone could ever give you. Of course your first ten pages have to grab the reader - every page of your screenplay has to grab the reader! But it’s certainly accurate that some readers will tune out if you haven’t accomplished a number of important goals in the setup of your story, so it is important to make this part –as well as every other part– of your script stand out as much as possible.

If you’ve read my Structure Guide, you know that a big catalyst should hit your protagonist at about the 10% point of your script, or roughly page 10-11 in a standard feature-length screenplay. This means that you have until that point to establish who your protagonist is and what kinds of problems are affecting his life in order for the audience to understand the significance of the catalyst when it arrives and shakes up his life. In order to do that, here’s what you need to accomplish in the first ten pages of your screenplay:

1.     Introduce the protagonist. Duh. Remember that you want a narcissistic A-list actor to love your script so much that he will threaten studio heads to force them to produce your script and to let him play the lead. This means that you really should introduce the protagonist on the first page, and do so in an exciting or at least compelling way.
2.     Demonstrate the protagonist’s internal problem. Your protagonist should have one huge internal issue that is preventing him from achieving true happiness. As early as possible in your script, you should visually demonstrate how that problem is limiting his life in a significant, even crippling way. Ideally, you should show your protagonist facing a number of challenges, none of which he is able to deal with effectively because of this big problem. Don’t pull any punches here – make your protagonist’s life suck.
3.     Show the safe environment that your protagonist has created for himself. Since your protagonist has such a debilitating internal problem, he will have chosen a home, job and group of friends that allow him to avoid confronting that problem. The big inciting incident that you will drop on your protagonist’s head at the 10% point will shake up this safe environment for the first time, so the audience will need to have a clear understanding of what that environment is in order to make the catalyst have the greatest effect possible.
4.     Introduce the main characters. It’s not absolutely required to introduce every single major character in your script within the first ten pages, but you should have a really good reason if you don’t. Note that I said “reason,” and not “excuse.” The audience will need to know what roles your supporting characters will be playing and what their lives are like at the beginning of the script too because you will need to demonstrate their character arcs by the end as well.
5.     State your screenplay’s theme. This is a different kind of element from the ones listed above, but it’s a good idea for one of your characters to state out loud what universal question you’ll be investigating throughout the course of your script. If possible, the person making this statement should be the protagonist. For example, in “When Harry Met Sally,” Harry states right away that men and women can’t be friends because the sex always gets in the way. The rest of the story investigates this theory from multiple viewpoints, coming to a satisfying resolution in the end. Your script does need to explore some universal question and it’s good to let the audience know what that is early, usually around page 2-5.

Blake Snyder described the first ten pages as the protagonist’s “before” picture, which is a great way to think about it. A diet ad wouldn’t be very effective if they only showed “after” pictures. You have to show both the “before” and the “after” pictures in order for the audience to appreciate how much the person has accomplished. If you use your first ten pages to create a vivid “before” picture, everyone who reads your script will see that you know how to start a story and will want to read all the way until you unveil the “after” picture.

BTW, if you were playing a drinking game while reading this post that used the words “protagonist,” “internal problem,” “before” or “after” as the cue to take a shot, then you’re probably completely wasted by now and will need to read it again later, without any alcoholic consumption requirements. Or maybe with more, depending on whether or not that's your own particular internal problem. Made you drink again.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Screenwriting Mistake #56: Not owning the rights

Here’s a simple tip for you: don’t adapt a screenplay from an existing story without first acquiring the legal right to do so. This could mean a book that someone has written or just a story that you saw on the news. If you don’t have a signed document giving you the exclusive rights to adapt another person’s story, then you shouldn’t write a single word of it. If you do write an unauthorized adaptation like this, no studio will touch it because you are only creating a legal nightmare for them. Then if you decide to produce the film on your own, either it will be popular and the original owner of the story will sue the crap out of you, or no one will see it and you probably won’t hear from anyone about it ever again. Neither of those is a good option.

See what I did there? I used the word “option” to segue into the topic of how to acquire the rights to a story, which is to get an “option” from the original copyright owner. I’ll go ahead and stop putting the word “option” in quotes now. Here is a good source for information on how options work and why you need one:

If you’re not sure what kinds of works need an option and what qualifies as fair use of an existing work, here’s an excellent site that should answer all of your questions:

So how can you acquire the rights to someone’s story? Even if you’re not an established screenwriter, your appreciation of and passion for another author’s work might convince him or her to give you a cheap or even free option for a relatively short amount of time to see what you can do with the story. It’s definitely worth a shot and the worst they can do is say no, which is definitely the kind of answer you want to receive before dedicating several months of your life to a project, rather than after.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Screenwriting Mistake #55: Disappearing characters

Sometimes when I'm reading a script I'll get to around page 70 and come across a sentence like, “Tom arrives at the shop and goes inside.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that sentence, unless the writer only introduced Tom briefly on page five and hasn’t said a word about him since. I’ll know from the fact that Tom’s name isn’t in all caps that he’s been in the script before, but there’s no way that I’ll remember who he is if the writer hasn’t mentioned him in 65 pages. If this happens and the script is in PDF format, then I'll search for the name “Tom,” and try to figure out what’s going on, but if it’s a paper script then I’m definitely not going to bother. 

Imagine if you met someone in kindergarten for a few minutes and then he just turned up at your door 65 years later and said, “Hey, what have you been up to?” Other than the many glaring differences between these two situations, they're exactly the same! If you ever do this kind of thing in one of your scripts, be sure to give the reader a hint about who that particular character is if you haven’t mentioned him in a long time, such as by saying, “Tom, the musician who shot Glen, arrives at the shop and goes inside.” Your reader will thank you.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Screenwriting Mistake #54: Preaching

There are few things worse to a reader than someone who has written a screenplay solely for the purpose of trying to relay some kind of urgent societal message. Writers like this usually try to beat people over the head with their moral agenda as if it were some kind of blunt instrument, which is very reflective of how readers feel after slogging through one of these screenplays. They’re a pain to read and invariably cause at least a little bit of resentment because no one likes being preached to (especially about ending sentences in prepositions).

The perfect example of this came from the 2003 Academy Awards show. When Michael Moore won Best Documentary for Bowling for Columbine, he turned his acceptance speech into a direct attack on President Bush for invading Iraq. The vast majority of the audience probably agreed with him, but they reacted with boos because he was being such a yammering prick about how he delivered the message. Contrast that with Adrien Brody’s speech later in the evening when he won the Best Actor award for The Pianist. He thanked people graciously and then shared his heartfelt wish that everyone stay safe during that time of war, especially a close friend of his who was just deployed to Kuwait. That speech got across a very similar message as Michael Moore’s, but everyone applauded Brody and felt genuine compassion for his friend, rather than feeling resentment for being subjected to a grandstanding sermon. It probably didn’t hurt that Brody had just kissed Halle Berry in front a billion people either.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a message in your script, because the opposite is actually true. Every script has to have some kind of message or should at least perform a thoughtful investigation of some universal question, but you should never deliver that message in a heavy-handed way. If you slip the message in under the radar, your reader won’t be able to resist it and will feel exactly how you want him to feel. If you barrage the reader with your message by having your characters talk about it directly and at length, the only message you’ll be delivering is that he should pass on your script. I probably could have said that more subtly.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Screenwriting Mistake #53: Meaningless words

When writing dialogue, it’s tempting to throw in a lot of stammers and hesitations to mimic how people talk in real life. You, um, really shouldn't, like, do that. Instead, just write the meaningful words that your characters must say in order to get their point across and advance the plot. This means that you should avoid using words such as “uh,” “um,” “well,” “so,” “er,” “like,” “anyway,” etc., in your dialogue because they just bog down your script with unnecessary filler. If your dialogue contains only the words that matter, the actors will fill them with life and emotion, including their own stammers and affectations. Imagine if someone were trying to write a conversation between Hugh Grant and Denholm Elliott in the way that they would actually deliver the lines. That one scene could fill the entire second act of your script. Just write the important words and leave that extra business to the actors.

Of course, the same exception applies to this rule as applies to every other rule in screenwriting: if it makes your story better, then put it in your script. If you need to use specific leading words in order to relay a character attribute that's important to your story, then you absolutely should do that. For example, if a character always pauses to think when someone asks him a question by saying, “Yes, I see,” before replying, then that’s not only a potentially interesting way to relay that information, but it’s also a fun character quirk for an actor to play around with. However, if you don’t have a specific reason like this for including meaningless words in your dialogue, then they don’t belong in your script.