Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Hey, Stormies!


That's this year's number. Wow! Pretty insane, huh? Now that includes some of you who submitted double entries and also anyone who entered the contest through Coverage, Ink. But our total this year is big, bad and mighty!

And now the bad news: we have to bump the announcement of the quarterfinalists to 9/15. Yeah, I know, I know, y'all are grousing and grumbling right now. And I have to apologize. Fact is, that extra week we tacked on for Without a Box kind of messed us up--not to mention one of our key team members suddenly became unavailable, and thus we had to borrow readers from Coverage Ink (Writers on the Storm and CI are actually two separate deals.) And then collating all that info and trying our best to make sure that is really is the top 10%, that's pretty tricky. Last year was bad enough with 900-something. Oddly, 400 additional entries kind of complicates things!

But have no fear, because we are on it, and we're reading and whittling and in some cases rereading (there are several on-the-fence entries,) and on 9/15 we are gonna drop that big list of (around) 131 quarterfinalists on y'all. We'll e-mail the list to everyone in a newsletter and also post it on the websites.

As always, I'm impressed by the amazing amount of talent out there. The amount of scripts in the pretty good category is huge, way outnumbering the not-so-greats. That said, naturally when you read a ton of scripts, certain patterns start to emerge. So I hope you guys do not mind if I present...


Okay, these are little nitpicks that drive me crazy when I read scripts. If y'all do any of these things, then take a moment to think about addressing this stuff in your writing. Granted these are my personal peccadilloes, but for sure others share some of these concerns.

1) Using hard returns & line breaks between paragraphs in dialogue. Some of y'all skip a space between paragraphs in your dialogue, and that's just not how it works. If you need to pause for dramatic effect, just use (beat), or else write a smidge of description or action to break it up. But if you hit that hard return and skip a space, it looks weird.

2) Putting action in parens. Parentheses are not for action, so don't put it there. If your hero is going to put down his bottle of Dr. Pepper, put that in an action line, not in that tiny little parenthetical space under the character name.

3) Guessing at spellings. C'mon, guys, don't be lazy. You don't even need to grab your dictionary anymore since there are online dictionaries like dictionary.com and m-w.com. Words like anchorman and grandparents are compound (single) words. It's not anchor man and grand parents. Look 'em up! And if anyone else steps on the BREAKS in their car, I'm gonna cry!

4) Dumping commentary into description, e.g., "Bob realizes that he should have taken Jane's advice." I can't SEE that! Film is a visual medium, so that sort of thing needs to be depicted in either dialogue or visually somehow.

5) Using camera/shots in description. Get that stuff out of there! I don't need CAMERA FOLLOWS MARGIE as she enters the salon. Just write "Margie enters the salon."

That out of the way, It is, as always, my pleasure to announce the Writers on the Storm quarterfinalists to date! Now please everyone read this next sentence, because I’ve gotten a lot of e-mail about this. ***These quarterfinalists represent people who’ve entered Writers on the Storm via submitting their script to Coverage, Ink for coverage. *** They are the ONLY ones who find out before everyone else if they’ve made the quarterfinals or not, because the CI readers rate the scripts and forward the results to us. These represent everyone whose scripts got a ‘consider with reservations’ or better for script, or roughly the top 10%. The rest of y'all will not find out if you’ve made the quarterfinals until 9/15.

Okay! Without further ado, here are our Writers on the Storm 2008 Quarterfinalists **so far**:

Heather Upton, Belfast Boys
CA Bennett, Death Valley Dig
Kelly Murry, La Matadora
A.C. Yacobian, Rasta Pasta
Aaron Marshall, The Last Adventure of Martin Finch
Alan Sproles, Lizanne Southgate, Eden Lost
Rich Sheehy, Sliding into Home
Paul Sargia, The Man Who Could Stop Time
Steven Zawacki, Orcadia
Suzanne Darling, Brush With Fame
Dennis Bailey, Pound for Pound
Chris Jopling, Blacklights
Andrew Zeoli & Christian Wagner, Blueballers
Attila Nagy, Gilbert Inboden, Garen Inboden, Enlighten Up
Russ Meyer, Organic Svengali
Vito LaBruno, Last American Guido
Adam Nur, Jetpack
Nisso Cohen, The Source
Mark Eaten & Stacy Dymalski, Center of Fortitude
Art Blum, Back from the Dead
Patrick Nicholas, Edgewater
Michael Coleman Jr., Clone
Dan Williams, Forest Fire!
Lisa Cordova, Remote Stryker
Alexander Valhouli, Louis
CV Herst, The Bardo Realm
Marnie Collins, Silver River
Jerry White, Link
Sam Neil Kesler, Fatal Ambition
Jason Kent, Colossus
Jarran Davis, Newton’s Cradle
Krista Zumbrink, Virgin Marie
James Schannep, A Poem for Silvertown
Odin Shafer, Bury Me in Fire
David Larson, Laced Up
Gary Eichelberger, Catch 21
Susan and Wayne Boyer, Poser
Mark Nui, Shanghai Blood
Alasdair McMullan, The Blues Detective
Jim Corona, DEAD Line
Cynthia Troyer, Between

Back to y'all shortly with the BIG LIST!

Portia Jefferson
Writers on the Storm Contest Coordinator

QUERIES? AYE! for the Straight Guy (or Whomever)

Show of hands--how many of us agonize over query letters? We get clients asking us to help them write theirs all the time. So here’s a quick & easy formula you should use. You’re welcome!

The main thing to remember is that query letters MUST BE BRIEF. Three paragraphs. That’s it. If it cannot fit on a single page fax, you have blown it. Three and only three paragraphs. Here’s what those paragraphs should contain:

A) WHO ARE YOU? WHO-OO? OO-OO? Paragraph 1, briefly describe yourself in the most fascinating way possible. What have you done in your life that’s cool, different, interesting? No one cares if you have took classes in screenwriting or has some B-list celeb say he’s interested in your story. Talk about YOU. Maybe you took a walking tour of Bangla Desh and met the Dalai Lama. Maybe you shoveled horseshit at Yonkers Raceway for 4 years and still can’t get the stink out of your coveralls. Maybe you volunteer at a shelter and won a Parcheesi championship. The idea is to paint a picture of yourself that stands out and makes you seem like someone worth contacting. Sure, you can mention some quarterfinalist contest showings or whatever, but the main thing here is to sell YOU as a cool person. If you can be self-effacing, even better. One client recently wrote, “I’m an NYPD cop who bought rental property in Connecticut 5 years ago thinking I’d make a fortune. I’ve been getting my ass kicked ever since.” I love that!

B) LOGLINE. In no more than 3 sentences, pitch your script. (See article HERE: http://coverageink.blogspot.com/2006_03_01_archive.html) Feel free to ice your logline with a movie comparison, such as: “It’s DIE-HARD meets HOME ALONE”-- but with paramecium.”

C) THANKS AND OUT. Simplest part. For extra credit, CALLBACK to your opening paragraph here.
Seriously, that’s all there is to it.



Reynaldo Flemm
Flemm Films


Hi, Reynaldo,

My name’s Writey Writerson. I am an ER nurse at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles--yeah, it’s nuts. I once climbed halfway up Mt. Kilimanjaro but had to turn back when my rented mule fell to his death. Seriously.

I have a screenplay I was thinking might be right up your alley: BURPIN’ SLURPIN’ ROBOT GHERKINS. Logline: Due to a tragically poor intelligence, an alien invasion squad transforms themselves into cybernetic pickles in order to blend into Earth society. But 7-year-old DANA VASSILY, heir to the Vassily pickle fortune, discovers the four and captures them in a jar. Will the Gherkins be able to escape and finally lay waste to our pathetic planet? BSRG is “Shakespeare in Love” meets “Taxi Driver”, but with crunchy dills.

If you’d like a look, please let me know. Happy to send along either hard copy or PDF--(knock on door) Who the hell is that? Oh, Christ! It’s the damn sherpa! How did he track me down? Crap, guess I’m gonna have to pay for that damn mule!


Writey Writerson


Our pal Diane Wright, an excellent analyst in her own, er, right, has a cool website chock full of useful articles, and she’s graciously allowed us to ruthlessly steal one! Check out her site HERE. And feel free to subscribe while you’re there.


Most troubles in an ailing story can be traced back to a little something called the throughline. Throughline is the motor in your story’s boat. It’s the single, pervasive concept that not only guides every event and action but also the one thing to which everything must relate.

A tall order? You betcha.

So what is it? Throughline is the answer to the question, "What does my protagonist want?" or if the hero is not conscious of their desires, "What does my protagonist need?" The answer may not be apparent on a first pass if you're the writer (nor is it expected to be) but, at some point, writers and their story consultants need to hunker down and tease it out.

Why? Without the focus of the throughline, audiences sniff a wandering tale. We can innately sense when some bit of action or dialogue doesn't ring true--doesn't fit with that hero's quest or with their core selves. Our story bullsh*t detectors run overtime looking for any little thread to grab on to that will pull us out of our waking dream. Our jobs as story creators is not to feed that beast.

To do that, we can look for a couple of key signs and help ourselves--once we've identified it--by writing out the story's throughline and keeping it visible as we craft the narrative.

1. What is the protagonist's overarching want for this story?
Does she want to visit her homeland to find out who she really is? Does he want to save his family from the invading alien creatures? Must she recover the diamond?

2. What does the protagonist need?
Does he need to be loved and accepted for who his is? Does she need to break out of her rigid shell and live a little? Does he need to forgive and move on?

These questions will reveal the protagonist's EXTERNAL and INTERNAL motivations--their driving forces--upon which everything else in the story is based. They are two facets of a single idea: the hero's drive to reach their goal. In practice, this means that no line of dialogue, no thought, no action, and none of the characters they meet will fall outside of this idea. When they do, those nasty little story monsters reach out from under the bed, tickle your audience, and cause them to become impatient with your story.

Middle portions--or 2nd acts in a 3-act structure--notoriously suffer the sucking sandpit of boredom. That's often due to a weak and/or under-developed story motor. Check it for yourself. Find a novel or film that doesn't hold your interest, dig about for its throughline, and see if it's strong enough to hold the action all the way through without major diversionary tactics along the way.

Now find your own story's throughline and map out how everything else interacts with it. That Aunt Elsie character who wanders in on page 70? Sure she's amusing but if she has nothing to do with your hero's driving need, pack her bag and put her back on the train.

As always, these are not rules but guidelines and observations made over a lifetime of studying story. Feel free to disagree and discuss. In fact, please do.


Got an interesting e-mail from John Zussman, cowriter of two exceptional Writers on the Storm top ten scripts (TRIO and ORIGIN.) He was responding to an excerpt from the CI Format & Style Guide in the last newsletter, the gist of which was: turn off your automatic CONTINUEDS and MORES in Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter. In other words, when BILL speaks, then something else happens in description, and then Bill speaks again, we don’t need to put (CONT’D) since it’s pretty clear Bill is continuing to speak. We recommend only using mores and continueds when dialogue continues over a page break.

John discussed this with his long-time consultant Michael Hauge, writer of many excellent books on screenwriting, and Hauge disputed this advice. Hauge feels that readers get into a certain rhythm or comfort zone when reading a script, and it disrupts their rhythm if they don’t see (CONT’D) after a character’s name every time that character speaks after a pause. Hmm. So I thought about that. I forget where I originally saw that bit about turning off the mores and continueds--I think it was the CAA Spec Style Guide--but after much rumination and with all due respect to Mr. Hague, who is a world-class analyst, I say, COME ON. If we see BILL’s name, do we really need (CONT’D) to know that Bill is continuing to speak? It’s just unnecessary clutter on the page.

But you know what? At the end of the day, it truly doesn’t matter. Format, schmormat. If you’re holding the reader rapt with your storytelling, they won’t give a vole’s tushie whether you leave the mores and continueds on or not. We can nitpick format to death--and I mean heck, I write the damn CI Style Guide, so I am guilty of this--but at the end of the day, there are some people who love ellipses, some who hate them… some who skip two lines between scenes and some who skip one… none of that truly maters. Tell a great story. End of story. Er, so to speak.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Writers on the Storm mini-almost-kind-of update

Hey, all of you patiently waiting to see some results! Actually, so am I. Here's the scoop: we are going to be late. Not sure how late exactly, but right now it appears like we're not going to be able to announce the quarterfinalists until around Sept. 15. We'll firm that up this week and then announce it in our newsletter and also here and on the websites.

Two big reasons for this--number one, we didn't anticipate exactly the volume of entries we would receive (still waiting on an exact count) and thus our team is taking longer than anticipated to read them all. Portia pilfered a couple of readers from Coverage, Ink, to, to speed the process along (ordinarily, Writers on the Storm and Coverage Ink are two separate operations.) And number two, the Without a Box extension week threw us for a loop, since we had not built that into our estimate -- and hard copy submissions were still trickling in (postmarked by the due date but still, thanks to the vicissitudes of US Mail, as recently as yesterday.)

So sit tight, everyone, and we'll announce some numbers and the new quarterfinalists announcement date shortly. Back at you ASAP!

Jim Cirile
Coverage, Ink
Writers on the Storm

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Deathmatch: "Atonement" v. "The Game Plan"

By Jim Cirile

In one corner: weighing in at 111 pounds, multi-Oscar-nominated, universally loved romantic period drama masterpiece “Atonement.” And in the other corner: at 277 pounds and rippling with lean beef, Disney’s fluffy and formulaic programmer about a self-centered pro football star who discovers he has a 7-year-old daughter -- “The Game Plan.” Let’s get it on!

Okay, okay, you’re thinking I’ve totally lost it, right? What the hell am I doing even mentioning kiddie piffle like “The Game Plan” in the same sentence as a Film like “Atonement”? And you’re right to think that -- hence this article, to explain it to all of youse. Because, you see, these two disparate films could learn a thing or two from one another. Astonishingly, I cried during “The Game Plan.” Yet I didn’t shed a single tear during “Atonement.”

Adapted from Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel by Christopher Hampton and directed by Joe Wright, “Atonement” tells the story of 13-year-old writer Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) who irrevocably changes the course of several lives when she accuses her older sister's (Keira Knightley) lover (James McAvoy) of a crime he did not commit. After being hauled off to jail, McAvoy is sent to fight in WW II, his love for Knightley the only thing sustaining him. As years pass, the lovers vie desperately to reunite while Briony unravels from guilt as she finally comes to understand the magnitude of what she did. “Atonement” is a big, beautiful, masterfully written, shot and acted movie that has “Oscar” written all over it. There’s a shot about halfway into the movie that is one of the most spectacular things you will ever see – a 5 and a half minute-long Steadicam shot showing the Dunkirk retreat. The performances are wrenching, and were she not a huge star already, this movie would certainly vault Keira Knightley to stardom.

The interesting thing about “Atonement” from the writer’s perspective is that the structure is unconventional. It doesn’t become clear until about midway into the movie whom the protagonist actually is. We are led to believe it’s Keira Knightley and James MacAvoy’s story -- but it’s not. Further, script tends to jump back and forth in time throughout, a device which we should all be careful of using ourselves, but which works here and allows the story to be told from multiple perspectives, each time enlightening us as to an angle we’d missed previously. It’s quite ingenious, and it’s the exact opposite of formula.

Now “The Game Plan.” Egotistical party-hearty quarterback Joe Kingman’s (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) team is on their way to the championships, and Joe's got all the money and fame that a man could want. A perpetual bachelor whose one brief marriage ended many moons ago, Kingman is stunned to learn that a long-forgotten fling has permanent consequences when adorable 7-year-old daughter Peyton (Madison Pettis) arrives at his doorstep. Can a swollen-headed football star adjust to a life of ballet classes, Barbie dolls, and afternoon play dates?

With a script credited to Nichole Millard & Kathryn Pryce (Audrey Wells also shares story credit) and directed by Andy Fickman, “The Game Plan” is formula, top to bottom. There is never a moment when you do not know what’s going to happen. It’s as if the writers simply lifted the template from the Disney, er, playbook, sketched in some characters and voila – instant kids’ movie. And while “The Game Plan” is cute and charming, and features an unexpectedly great performance from the Rock, who proves himself a more than capable actor -- it never really achieves comedic orbit, which is usually the thing that can propel formulaic family comedies to big numbers. The film was a surprise big hit for Disney ($90 million US box office, $22 million budget.)

So getting back to the crying thing. For all its wonderful characterizations, wrenching true human drama and heartbreak of “Atonement,” the film never really hit that chord, the one that really resonates and pulls our heartstrings. For a romantic drama like this, I’d expect to emerge a blubbering mess. And yet… nothing. Sure, I appreciated its craft and performances and thought it was a fine, fine film, but emotionally something was missing. “The Game Plan”? I had to leave my seat to run to the theater’s bathroom to blow my nose and wipe tears three times in the movie’s last act! Can you imagine? There I was, fully conscious of being manipulated every step of the way, knowing full well exactly what beats were going to happen and when -- and yet despite that, I was a frickin’ wreck! “The Game Plan” DID hit those emotional beats that “Atonement” did not. We came to care about The Rock’s Kingman and feisty and super-cute Peyton -- like boo-hoo, water-your-eyes-out care.

So what’s up with that? Here’s my theory, and you can feel free to quote (or deride) me: There’s a reason it’s called FORMULA. It WORKS. Even if you know it, understand it and teach it, guess what? It still freaking works. Executed properly, it hits all of us on an emotional level. It’s downright Pavlovian. And I believe “Atonement,” largely due to its unconventional structure and utter lack of formula -- well, I won’t say it doesn’t work, because it does, but *something* is missing. Because we are not allowed to really lock onto a single protagonist, I believe this affects our ability to really bond with the characters and thus really feel for them. Had Mr. Hampton tweaked the narrative to make McAvoy the clear protagonist, and kept him front and center throughout the entire story, the tragic ending would like have hit us all much harder, like “The Notebook” hard. Of course, that would have changed the entire thrust of the story and in fact invalidated its very title, since the atonement we’re talking about here is in fact Briony’s.

Please don’t misunderstand. I would never be such a jackass as to try to impose formula on a literary work such as “Atonement,” and the film’s Oscar contender status clearly shows the film is effective. In fact, I applaud Hampton’s screenplay because, much like Tarantino did, he proves that you CAN deviate from formula and still make a great movie (if you’ve got the chops.) But at the end of the day, a cheesy Disney kids’ movie touched me more deeply than “Atonement” did. Hmm... maybe “The Game Plan” should have been nominated along with "Atonement" and the lamest Best Picture Winner Ever, "No Country For Old men." But that's a whole nother story...