Screenwriting – some insider tips

Linda Seger is a well known Hollywood script doctor and author of Making a Good Script Great. A few years back I had the privilege of meeting Linda when she was passing through London and was able to ask her a few questions about screenwriting.

She said the problem on many of the scripts she is called in to look at is that the producer has hired the wrong writer. She gave a specific example of a novel full of powerful dream-like images and a producer who hired a writer known for that kind of writing. What the film really needed, she said, was a writer who understood story, because the visual imagery was already there from the book.

A lot of writers she has worked with got their break by finding and buying the rights to a story or novel for not too much money (around a thousand bucks) and she recommended the adaptation route as a good one to go. She said the lady who wrote Gorillas in the Mist (Anna Hamilton Phelan) got her start in Hollywood this way, by buying up a book cheap before it became successful.

She also gave an example of a piece of clever buying of rights in the case of a notorious murder involving a minister of religion. Hollywood had snapped up the rights to the family’s story and even the murderer’s story, but Linda’s client had been smart enough to buy the Police Chief’s story and no-one could write the film without him.

In connection with adaptations, she said that a lot of novels will not adapt well because they are too episodic when you analyse them and lack a clear story. Most short stories would be unsuitable because they lack any subplots. She recommended novellas as being a good form to adapt. She also pointed out that there are plenty of classic stories that can be reworked and gave the example of Emma being reworked as Clueless.

Of the process of adapting, she said you have to be ruthless “You may end up with only 20 pages out of 200. You may have to put the first 100 pages under the credits.”

She says the questions you have to ask yourself when considering a book for adaptation are:-

1. Is there a story? (Even if the end is in the middle of the book).

She commented that an amazing number of novels that seem to have a story, don’t when you come to analyse them carefully. They are merely dramatic episodes hung together with some theme.

2. Are there some sequences of scenes that are all on the same idea, and that could be put together?

3. Are there dramatic characters, in conflict with each other, who can carry the story?

As an example of a story which fails in all these departments she mentioned Cold Mountain, which said is too episodic and where the author hasn’t proven his theme of transformation.

Some other observations:-

How do you evaluate ideas? She was keen on “TV Guide” type loglines and said they could tell you in a single line if the story idea has the things that matter — Conflict, development, movement. She observed that in her experience, studio execs will quite often buy an idea on the strength of a one-liner – it’s not just a Hollywood urban myth.

She recommends writers to have prepared:-

* a one-liner
* Two paragraphs
* a 5 minute pitch
* a 10 minute pitch
* a 20 minute pitch

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