Summer’s just about wrapped up, and boy what a disaster it has been! Unless your name is Ellen, you came out of this box office bloodbath in search of your limbs, many of which were chopped off before the Saturday matinee receipts were counted.

But as bad as Hollywood has been in predicting what the public wanted in 2016, I was surprised to count twelve – that’s right, an ENTIRE DOZEN – original ideas in the top 50 films of the year so far. That’s, like, 20%! Now, if you’re wondering about pure spec scripts, that’s where things get a little depressing. There were only seven pure spec scripts.

But that’s okay. Oscar season will add a few more to that list (legendary spec script, “Passengers,” is sure to lap the competition). And today isn’t about depressing statistics. It’s about understanding what original material gets picked up by the studios so you know what to focus on.

Most writers get this bullshit touchy-feely advice of, “Just write whatever you want. As long as it’s good, people will buy it.” That’s not true. If you write about the first group of Navajo Indians to join the American school system, your script will not have to be “good” to get noticed. It will have to be SPEC-FUCKING-TACULAR.

This is a CONCEPT and GENRE driven business. So, let’s check out which original scripts made the top 50, and, therefore, what Hollywood will be seeking from you moving forward.

Title: Central Intelligence. (TRUE SPEC)
Genre: Buddy Comedy
Box office rank: 13
Box office take: 127 million
Thoughts: The buddy comedy is a tried and true formula that Hollywood will always come back to. Most writers think of it as bottom of the barrel dreck, but I think there’s a lot of ways to reinvent this genre that writers aren’t taking advantage of. Write a good buddy comedy with a fresh take and I guarantee you someone will buy it.

Title: Bad Moms (TRUE SPEC)
Genre: Comedy
Box office rank: 18
Box office take: 87 million
Thoughts: Bad Moms has thrown a wrench into Hollywood’s female-driven comedy agenda. With Ghostbusters and The Boss bombing, it looked like this trend was over. But then Bad Moms surprises everyone with a strong showing and now they’re like, “Should we? Shouldn’t we?” I’d say that if you’re working on a female driven comedy spec, you’re still in business. But the next one of these that bombs, it could put the kibosh on the trend.

Title: 10 Cloverfield Lane (TRUE SPEC)
Genre: Horror/Sci-fi
Box office rank: 24
Box office take: 72 million
Thoughts: I know, I know. This is a franchise! But technically, it wasn’t when it was bought. It was a normal spec about people trapped in an underground bunker that was later turned into a Cloverfield film. This is great news for spec writers – that you can write something that may be used in an existing franchise. The contained horror spec will always be a smart choice as young and hungry production companies are all fighting for these cheap-to-produce films.

Title: Sausage Party
Genre: Comedy/Animation
Box office rank: 25
Box office take: 69 (and rising)
Thoughts: Sausage Party is as big of an outlier as there is. There are no comps for this film. I’m actually shocked that a studio funded this. Before you say, “They do anything Seth Rogen wants.” That’s not exactly true. They just cancelled “The Something,” the Seth Rogen project I reviewed awhile back about a group of guys in space who meet a ship full of women. It’s not like studios just greenlight whatever the hell these guys want. Still, I’m not sure if there are any lessons to learn from Sausage Party outside of, “If it’s funny, someone will buy it.”

Title: Lights Out
Genre: Horror
Box office rank: 28
Box office take: 64 million
Thoughts: A little shout-out to my buddies at Grey Matter here. They took this film, which cost nothing (like barely any money), and made a ton of dough off of it. This was based on a short film that the director made, which kind of makes it an adaptation, but not really. This is actually a great way for a spec screenwriter to promote his stuff – make a short movie and go viral with it!

Title: The Boss
Genre: Comedy
Box office rank: 29
Box office take: 63 million
Thoughts: I’ll try to say this nicely. This feels like an idea that a husband and wife would come up with – the kind of thing an agent would tell a newbie screenwriter, “Ehh, it doesn’t quite work.” But nobody can say no to Melissa McCarthy these days, so her and her director husband get to make The Boss. Despite this being in the top 10 for original ideas, it was deemed a huge disappointment, grossing half of what they had hoped. Maybe this means no more Melissa and hubby team-ups (hopefully).

Title: The Shallows (TRUE SPEC)
Genre: Thriller
Box office rank: 36
Box office take: 54 million
Thoughts: Easily the sharpest concept of the bunch. I’ve had my issues with Jaswinski’s writing, but he tuned into the public conscious here. This is 1-character show that starred one of the more boring actresses in Hollywood and it still killed at the box office. If there’s a spec success story that promotes the power of a good concept is, this is it.

Title: How to be Single (EDIT – SORRY, THIS IS BASED ON A BOOK)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Box office rank: 42
Box office take: 46 million
Thoughts: I tried to watch this and it was simply the WORST first ten minutes of a movie I saw all year. I have no idea how anyone read this and thought it was worth making. I guess we can chalk it up to the female-driven comedy phase.

Title: Money Monster (TRUE SPEC)
Genre: Thriller
Box office rank: 45
Box office take: 41 million
Thoughts: This feels like an idea that a bunch of old people would come up with, so it’s not surprising it was directed by and starred a bunch of old people. My issue is that they thought it was a clever idea and it was so not a clever idea. It was, quite frankly, a bad idea. So how did it get made? A good role. George Clooney got to do a bunch of things he’d normally not be able to do. This is why it’s always a good idea to have a really big character somewhere in your script. It’s the insurance policy that just might get your script turned into a movie, even if your script sucks.

Title: The Nice Guys
Genre: Buddy Comedy
Box office rank: 48
Box office tank: 36
Thoughts: I honestly don’t know if this was a hit or not. If it cost 15 million, then it did pretty well. Although you’d think with Ryan Gosling, it would’ve done better. Here’s my take on it. Audiences don’t like the 70s. The over-the-top outfits and big mustaches and weird hair – it feels like a different world to them. What movie set in the 70s that’s not about war has done well? Like over 50 million? Anything? I would be willing to bet (and this is partly because there’s no way to test it), that if they had made a buddy cop movie with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling set in the present? That it would’ve made triple what this made. That’s how big of a hit the period setting was on this.

Title: The Boy (TRUE SPEC)
Genre: Horror
Box office rank: 49
Box office take: 35 million
Thoughts: Another low budget contained horror film. I really liked both the script and the film for The Boy. Spooky dolls sell!

Title: Dirty Grandpa (TRUE SPEC)
Genre: Comedy
Box office rank: 50
Box office take: 35 million
Thoughts: One of the saddest moments of my cinema-loving life was watching Robert DeNiro jack off for a cheap laugh. It hurt my soul. With that said, I find that these movies get made because they give older star actors an opportunity to be in a film that’s going to be on 4000 screens. That opportunity doesn’t come around as often when you’re in your 70s.

Not that I have to put a spotlight on it because it’s pretty obvious, but in case you weren’t paying attention, here are the genres of the top 12 original ideas of 2016 as of August 24th…


Any questions on which genres you should be writing to get Hollywood to notice you?

The Big Stone Grid may be the closest thing we’ll ever get to the next Seven.

Genre: Crime Thriller
Premise: A New York cop investigates a series of torture-centric murders that lead to a strange underground blackmail scheme that’s growing bigger by the day.
About: This one comes from the writer of one of my TOP FIVE favorite scripts, S. Craig Zahler, who wrote The Brigands of Rattleborge (why hasn’t this been made yet???). Making the Black List in 2011, The Big Stone Grid has been a victim of development hell. It got Michael Mann attached after its appearance on the Black List. But he left the project to make Blackhat instead (definitely made the right call there #sarcasm) and now Pierre Morel is making the film, who’s best known for directing Taken.
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Details: 137 pages – First Draft


Fassbender for Winter?

Once you become a big screenwriting hotshot and all the studios are throwing money at you, you’ll realize that you have a new problem – a problem that is infinitely tougher than the one you faced trying to break in. You are now attempting to find the magic formula to GET YOUR MOVIE MADE.

There are many theories on the best way to do this, but it usually comes down to getting a director attached who’s seriously committed to your movie. If you can get a director attached (and by “director,” I don’t mean your friend Bob down the street who made that killer 3 minute short about zombie cats), a studio or film fund will eventually pony up the dough because established directors are the primary ingredient to getting films made.

With that in mind, here’s the thing you have to remember: EVERYONE IN HOLLYWOOD IS STUPID.

And I include myself AND you guys on that list. We are all only capable of seeing people for what they’ve last done. For example, you don’t take a Western to M. Night. You don’t take a musical to Michael Bay. You don’t take Paul Blart 3 to Paul Thomas Anderson.

And this extends to actors as well. When you have to cast the Joker, you don’t call Zak Efron. When you have to cast a bullied loser, you don’t cast Channing Tatum. We only see these actors, directors, writers, as capable of whatever we’ve last seen them do.

Everybody is afraid to take the pigeon out of the pigeon hole. BUT. If you’re smart? That could be your ticket to getting your movie made.

If you want to make The Big Stone Grid, sure, you can go to guys like Michael Mann and David Fincher. Here’s the problem though. These guys have already done this movie, or some version of it. Artists want to challenge themselves. They want to prove they can do something different. So the better option – IF you want your movie made as quickly as possible – would be to find a marketable director who hasn’t done something like this.

Big Stone Grid is slow, thick, heavy, and grimy. Who would love to direct that movie? The guy who’s been pigeonholed as the fast brainless thriller director, that’s who. This is the kind of director that would FLIP over this script. Now of course, it’s a gamble. You don’t know if he can pull it off because he hasn’t shown that yet. But would you rather play director roulette for the next dozen years or get your movie made?

Something to think about for the future.

Okay, onto The Big Stone Grid.

In classic Zahler style, we start off with a torture scene. No one does torture like this man. And while the scene isn’t as memorable as say, the famous “split-in-half” scene in Bone Tomahawk or the hamster scene in Rattleborge (a personal fave), it’s DIFFERENT. And this is why Zahler has sold so many scripts. He writes scenes that are DIFFERENT from the way other writers would write them.

Cut to Garret Winter, a Manhattan detective who’s in a bad mood, seeing as his wife just left him for some loser. Winter and his partner, Benjamin Williams, are checking out a routine suicide where an older man put a bullet in his head, but there’s something off about the crime scene.

Winter looks into it and finds that the man used to be happy until his 14 year-old niece was murdered a few years ago. He never saw life the same after that. When Winter looks deeper, he finds that a lot of mysterious murders and suicides have been happening around town, and that they all may be connected.

Meanwhile, we’re cutting to some psychopath with a burned face come to people’s houses and demand their “payment,” and when that payment can’t be paid, their friends and families are summarily butchered, usually in really horrifying ways.

But things really get fucked when Winter notices a few cops from another precinct at one of his crime scenes. There’s no reason for them to be here, and all it takes is a quick follow-up to find that lots of cops are involved in this – whatever “this” is.

(spoiler) Winter eventually learns that a complex and wide-ranging blackmail scheme is going on around the city, one that utilizes hundreds of people and all sorts of strange checks and balances so that nobody knows who else is involved. It doesn’t take the bad guys long to figure out Winter is onto them. And that his own family is now in a lot of trouble.

I always learn something new when I read Zahler, and I learned something new right away here. Winter’s introductory scene is in a stripper bar. One of the strippers comes over, butters him up, tries to give him a dance. Through their conversation, we learn that Winter is married. In fact, he takes off his wedding ring and hands it to the dancer, tells her to do what she wants with it, and leaves.

Right away, we’re not sure about this guy. He’s giving his wedding ring away to a stripper?? Not exactly winning the husband of the year award with that move. But then, a few scenes later, Winter tells his partner that his wife is leaving him for another man. Now we understand the stripper scene better.

The lesson here is that you don’t have to start with the obvious. Don’t start with the scene where the hero says, “My wife just left me.” You can start with the opposite, where it looks like HE’S the dick. And then switch it. It’s a more playful and therefore entertaining way to get to the same information.

As the script goes on, I had mixed feelings about the execution. Zahler’s scripts are more like “scrovels.” They’re a script-novel hybrid. This guy is not afraid to drop a dozen-liner on you every few pages.

And that got me thinking about this contradiction screenwriters are forced to navigate. The less you write, the easier your script is to read. However, the more information you offer, the more immersed in your world we become.

So which path do you choose?

I think there are a couple of factors to keep in mind. First, you have to be a good writer. If clarity and description comes really easy to you (not just in your mind – but people consistently tell you you’re good at it), then more detailed paragraphs are okay.

But also, you need to be legitimately interested in the details of the world you’re writing about. If you’re describing something to be descriptive, that doesn’t work. If you’re describing something because it fascinates you and you want to share that with the reader – not to mention, it adds context to the story – then that, combined with good writing, will result in readers who will be okay reading through dozen-line paragraphs.

And that’s why Zahler can get away with his verbose style. He’s good at these two things. If you’re not good at these two things, I would adopt a sparse and less ambitious style.

Anyway, back to the story. The developments in The Big Stone Grid were always cool. And I liked that it was reminiscent of Seven without being Seven. Cause that’s what a lot of writers will do when they love a movie. They’ll take a movie like Seven, move the setting to Los Angeles, change one of the detectives to a woman, then write the same movie.

Big Stone Grid was a serial killer movie without the serial killer. It was more about this mysterious blackmailing plot and trying to figure that out. That slight shift helped Big Stone Grid stand on its own.

My only issue with the script, besides it being 10% too slow, was that the ending didn’t come together in that clever “Holy shit” way you were hoping for. The mystery was unique. But when you have a unique mystery you have to come up with a unique conclusion. And that was the one choice that didn’t stand out for me.

Still, Zahler is a fun writer to study because he does a lot of things differently. You never read a Zahler script and go, “Man, that was just like the last 30 scripts I read.”

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Be inspired IN TONE and IN FEEL with your favorite films when you write your versions of them. Don’t be inspired by plot or character or you’ll write something too reminiscent of them, and I GUARANTEE YOU readers will pick up on it. They’ll know the exact movie you’re copying and they’ll call you on it. So focus on what those films made you feel and the specific tone they used, then write something that allows you to explore those same elements.

Genre: Crime-Thriller
Premise: A former rodeo star turned motel owner helps his town heal after a triple-homicide, having no idea that the killer is one of his customers.
About: This script finished on the 2012 Black List and is just now coming together with one of my favorite actors, Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead). The script was written by Paul China, who hails from the faraway land of Australia. Paul wrote and directed 2011’s crime thriller, Crawl, about a seedy bar owner who hires a mysterious Croatian to commit murder, which likely caught Hollywood’s attention, leading to Sweet Virginia making the Black List. It is rumored that a kangaroo did a dialogue pass on Sweet Virginia.
Writer: Paul China (story by Paul & Benjamin China)
Details: 117 pages – 2011 draft


The other day we were talking about indie ideas and how to turn them into something bigger. Why turn them into something bigger? Well, put yourself in my shoes, or an agent’s shoes, or a producer’s shoes. If a script came across your desk about rodeos and small town trouble, would you race to read it?

Probably not.

So let me take this opportunity to remind you that if you have written a small-scale indie screenplay, it is ESSENTIAL you make it sound as EXCITING AS FUCKING POSSIBLE. Here’s the logline that was given to the Black List for Sweet Virginia: “A former rodeo star unknowingly starts a rapport with a young man who is responsible for all of the violence that has suddenly gripped his small town.”

Holy shit. Are you TRYING to make your script sound boring? Your movie starts with a triple murder and that’s your logline? Talk about burying the lead. Don’t let this happen to you. Get a logline consultation.

E-mail me at with the subject line: “LOGLINE CONSULTATION.” They’re cheap and they’re worth it. This script is really fucking good. And 75% of Hollywood ignored it because that logline sounded like a snore-fest.

Anyway, onto today’s script!

Tom, Mitchell, and Lou, three locals living in a small town in Virginia, have gotten together for a weekly poker game at Lou’s bar. When a mysterious customer shows up and Lou tells him they’re closed, the customer shoots them all up.

Cut to Sam, the owner of the town’s lone motel. Sam used to be a rodeo star until a ride gone bad, and now finds himself drifting through the days, his lone focus taking care of his customers. Like everyone in town, he’s shocked by the massacre, and tries to comfort those affected.

Meanwhile, we get a little more backstory on that murder. It turns out that Lila, Mitchell’s wife, paid to have him killed. And ONLY him. However, our killer was supposed to wait until Mitchell left the joint, and when Mitchell didn’t leave when he was told Mitchell would leave, our killer impatiently took matters into his own hands.

That killer is a stone cold sociopath named Elwood, and Elwood wants his payout, which Lila is supposed to receive in her will. However, as you might have guessed, it turns out Mitchell wasn’t the best with finances, and had been lying to Lila about how well off they were.

Lila must now figure out a way to pay an increasingly impatient Elwood, who, at this point, has befriended a clueless Sam back at the motel. Sam’s also got some secrets he’s hiding, and those secrets will collide with Lila’s and Elwood’s in one powerful finale.

Sweet Virginia is a really GOOD script, and like a lot of impressives on this site, it gets there by breaking some rules. As much as I love simple solid storytelling, the truth is that in order to write something great, it has to be so unlike everything out there that you have no choice but to break some rules.

What’s the broken rule here? There’s no goal. Well, that’s not entirely true, but it’s a little harder to find the goal since it isn’t coming from our protagonist, Sam. This is advanced stuff here so pay attention.

The engine driving this screenplay is coming from the villain, Elwood. Elwood wants his money. We know that the story can’t end until he either gets his money or eliminates the person who didn’t give him his money, so that’s the main reason we keep reading. We want to see how that story thread ends.

But that’s not powerful enough to drive a story all by itself, particularly because Elwood isn’t actively pursuing his money. Most of the time, he’s waiting. I always tell you guys, waiting is boring! Your main characters shouldn’t be waiting! So how does Sweet Virginia survive this issue?

Dramatic irony. We know Elwood is the killer, but nobody else does. So when he gets into interactions with others, particularly Sam, whom he befriends, it’s exciting, since there’s so much subtext in every scene. We’re sitting there going, “He’s the killer! He’s the killer! Don’t you realize it!” You may know of another hotel-centric film that utilized this approach.

China also peppers the story with a few subplots. For example (spoiler), Tom is sleeping with the wife of one of the men killed in the massacre, and has been for a long time. She loves him. He cares for her. We want to know if they’re going to end up together, which keeps us reading.

Subplots act as insurance in stories like this that don’t have huge story engines. They give the reader one more reason to keep reading. The more subplots, the more insurance (as long as the subplots are actually, you know, GOOD!).

But the truth is, I knew China knew what he was doing long before we got to the second act. I knew he knew what he was doing from the very first scene because he did something that bad writers don’t do.

That first scene is a really long one – 10 pages – and consists of a group of men sitting around talking. Characters sitting around talking, especially for a long time, is boring as shit.


Unless you create suspense in the scene. And that’s what China did. He mentions a mysterious car parked in the back of the driveway early on in the scene. Remember that all suspense is is implying something bad is going to happen and then drawing it out. We knew that car was bad news, so even though we’re listening to these boring men ramble on, we’re wondering, “Who’s in that car?”

Also cool was how China LAYERED the suspense. So at first, he goes with the fairly innocuous car in the parking lot. Then he brings Elwood into the bar and has him sit down and order. A lesser writer would’ve had Elwood come in and kill everyone right away. No, this is the perfect opportunity to build more suspense!

After the conversation ends, then, and only then, does Elwood kill them. This way, China got the most bang for his buck out of the scene. No pun intended.

Lots of good writing beyond this as well. The character development was top notch. Everybody here felt real. There were none of those tacked on Screenwriting 101 character traits (the character used to be a juggler) as a fake way to add depth. Read this script and tell me you don’t feel Sam’s pain after being a rodeo superstar and now a battered down nobody motel owner. I dare ya.

I would say I’m surprised this movie took so long to get made. But if that’s the logline they went with, I’m actually not. Thank god the script was great!

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: You know how after a movie is shot, a marketing team comes in and decides what the best way to promote the film is? The same thing goes on after you finish your screenplay. Except you’re the marketing team. You have to come up with the best way to promote your screenplay. A snazzy logline is the billboard that’s going to be on the side of every highway in America. Make sure it’s one hell of a billboard cause if you don’t, ain’t no one showing up to (reading) your flick.

Genre: Biopic/Drama
Premise: The unbelievable fallout after Larry Hillblom, a self-made billionaire, died in a plane crash, and it was revealed he’d used numerous Third World Asian countries as his own personal pedophilia playground.
About: This script finished on the low end of last year’s Black List. You could say this is Matt Portenoy’s breakthrough screenplay, although he did pen a segment on the much maligned Farrelly Brothers movie, Movie 43.
Writer: Matt Portenoy
Details: 125 pages


As you guys know, I don’t beep for biopics. I find the majority of them tedious, predictable, and lame. I think they’re the genre that requires the LEAST amount of skill to pull off, since you don’t even need to structure them. The outline’s already typed up for you on Wikipedia. All you have to do is add dialogue. This accounts for 90% of the biopics I read.

There are a few exceptions. The first is when the writer tries something different. Instead of using internet sites to plot their story, they take a unique point of view, or do something interesting with the timeline, or play around with convention – anything so that the result is unpredictable. Steve Jobs, The Fighter, The Social Network. Even a movie like Julia and Julia. All of these qualify.

The next exception is if the writer is actually a good writer and not hacking their way through a glorified obituary. Again, you don’t need to be a great screenwriter to write a biopic because structure doesn’t matter as much. You can literally write a bunch of “greatest hits” scenes and if someone really wants to make a movie about that person, they might buy your script.

But when a good writer comes in and approaches the biopic in the same way that one approaches a spec script – by trying to tell an amazing story – you end up with some good material. The King’s Speech, The Imitation Game, Braveheart are all examples of this.

Our final category is the truly fucked up people who have had really bizarre lives. These are hard to screw up because the curiosity-factor is so high. If you want to know what these movies are, check Leonardo DiCaprio’s IMDB page. They’re exclusively what he seeks out. Catch Me if You Can, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Aviator. But it also includes movies like Man on The Moon, A Beautiful Mind, and the eternally in development hell but sure to arrive at some point, Freddy Mercury story.

Larry Hillblom lands squarely in that final category. If you want to learn about someone who lived a weird life, google this dude. And that leads us to a very important screenwriting lesson for biopic writers – find the weird lives that nobody knows about. The competition is too fierce for the super famous names. People have heard of Howard Hughes. People have heard of Andy Kaufman. But until I picked up today’s script, I’d never heard of Larry Hillblom.

Our story starts with Larry, CEO and creator of one of the largest shipping companies in the world, DHL, opening up a refrigerator that is filled top to bottom with ONLY GRAPEFRUITS. Newsflash. Larry is a fucking weirdo.

Like a lot of weird things this man does, he’s been on a month long “only eat grapefruits” diet. If Larry’s doing this for his health, he probably shouldn’t have pulled his best Buddy Holly impression and hopped on a plane that, 30 minutes later, would crash and kill him. I hear death is unhealthy for your heart.

Cut to Nick Waechter and Pete Donnici, the now acting presidents of DHL. While Donnici is more of a suit, Waechter was Larry’s best friend. So even though he just got a big promotion, he’s hurting.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world in a small Asian country called Saipan where Larry spent the bulk of his time, lawyer David Lujan gets a visit from a local prostitute who claims that her son was fathered by Larry. She wants some of that sweet billion dollar pie.

And thus begins one of the strangest estate battles in history. Waechter and Donnici fly to Saipan, where they learn that Larry essentially owned the entire island (including a theme park that Larry built). And he used that power, along with his millions, to seek out 14-15 year old local virgins to have sex with.

Attempting to protect a billion dollar business from both losing its capital AND having its name tarnished, Waechter and Donnici do everything in their power to eradicate this potential heir from taking their fortune. This includes destroying all DNA from Larry and even bribing the country’s president to change the laws so that ridiculous quotas must be met to prove someone’s your child.

The problem is, more and more of Larry’s secretly fathered children keep showing up, meaning more and more bugs need to be squashed. At a certain point, not even DHL’s millions can save them, resulting in one hell of a settlement for a group of women who were, up until that point, living on a few dollars a day.

I always tell you guys to find a new angle. Give us something the average person wouldn’t have thought of. You’re a writer. That’s your job.

So if I told you to write a biopic about Larry Hillblom, what would you do? What Portenoy did was he said, “Fuck the biopic. What if we focused on what happened AFTER the “bio” part instead?”

Once he had that angle, he didn’t need to do anything fancy. He picked a well-known story template – underdog takes on the establishment – added a slice of Erin Brokovich to it, where we have this tiny island lawyer going up against a big corporation (Scriptshadow Tip: Everyone loves underdogs!), and then he just told his story.

And like any good story, it has twists and turns, high stakes (if this case gets out, DHL is forever linked to pedophilia), an evil villain who will do anything to prevent getting beaten. It really delivers (heh heh).

And it’s basic stuff guys. At the heart of any good story is someone who wants something badly, and somebody else (or something else) who’s trying to prevent them from getting it. If both of those characters are compelling, and your plot keeps evolving in unpredictable ways, you’ll write a strong script.

There were a couple of weaknesses though. By not spending any time with Larry, we didn’t get to see what was, supposedly, a batshit crazy dude. This guy owned a Delorean. He was a hypochondriac (supposedly why he only had sex with virgins). He was in a previous plane crash which led to extensive reconstructive surgery. He hated taxes and spent millions to make sure he’d only give the government the bare minimum. He was an adrenaline junky. He was the only billionaire in the world who cut coupons.

I don’t know if you do it through flashbacks but it seems like the script is missing out by not seeing more of this guy. When you’ve got a talking turtle, you don’t hide him in the back room.

Another thing I want to discuss is the “half-commit.” This is when writers don’t commit to something all the way.

Here, Portenoy gives our hero, David, a temper. The problem is, it reeks of “I’m doing this to make the character more interesting, even though it has nothing to do with the rest of the story.”

Character traits only work if they play into the story somehow. For example, if David punches the lead counsel and it ends up costing them a key witness, then the temper flaw ends up mattering. But if it’s just something that randomly comes up once in awhile, you’ve probably only added it because screenwriting books told you to do so.

If you’re not going to commit to something all the way, it’s better to get rid of it completely.

Beyond these problems, I really Liked Unt. Larry Hillblom. It’s a good story about a weird guy that gets you thinking about all sorts of stuff these big corporations are hiding. Check it out if you’ve got the time.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: ORGANIC EXPOSITION – This is the only type of exposition you should be writing. It refers to hiding exposition inside moments where it’s organic that the information would be revealed. For example, when exposition about DHL needs to be given, Portenoy doesn’t place Donnici and Waechter in a room and have the two give an impromptu breakdown of the company. “They can’t mess with us. We started this company in 1980 and built it to 20,000 employees.” “Not to mention we were around before Fed Ex.” “Last year alone we brought in a half a billion in revenue.” That’s inorganic. Instead, Portenoy hides this information inside a eulogy, where it would make sense that someone would talk about the company that Larry started: “By founding DHL, before Fed-Ex, before AOL, before “Hands Across America” or “We Are The World,” Larry Hillblom shrunk the earth…” Waechter would go on to tell us key information about Larry in the eulogy as well. This is what organic exposition looks like.


Okay, a big reminder that your Scriptshadow Tournament scripts are due in 15 days. And that got me thinking. Is there anything you can do to massively improve a script in 15 days?

At first I thought, no. But then I was reading a consult script the other day and the writer, while having a good concept, was not a good scene-writer. Had he known how to add drama to scenes, his script would’ve been 100 times better. And since scenes don’t take long to write, this is the answer to our question. Go through all your scenes and ask if there’s a version of the scene you can write that’s more entertaining.

How do you write a “more entertaining” scene? Make sure the basics are in place. A good scene is like a mini-story. So add GSU (goal, stakes, urgency). Once you have the basics, add CONFLICT or SUSPENSE or MYSTERY or A REVERSAL. Essentially, come up with a SITUATION. The last thing you want is characters sitting around pushing the plot along or conveying character backstory. “Hey, didn’t you used to live down on Drury Lane?” “I did, but then I moved to Rosewood.” “Ah yes, I remember. You were a great basketball player back then.” “I gave that up.” “Oh?” “Broke my foot in college.” MY GOD, KILL ME NOW!!!!

You want to create SCENES. Scenes are LITTLE STORIES. They are not package containers so you can bore us to death with two characters droning on about their lives. So let’s take the above scene. And honestly, if you thought writing that scene was a good idea, you’re probably screwed anyway. But for a challenge, let’s say you wanted to make that scene more entertaining.

A simple option is to add conflict. Make it so these two characters don’t like each other. They’re at the same party, in a room with friends, the friends leave, and these two are awkwardly left alone. They have a similar conversation, but it’s now LACED WITH TENSION.

“You still live down on Drury Lane?” “Moved to Rosewood.” (long awkward pause) “Ballin?” “Nah man. Better things to do.” “Heard it was cuz you didn’t make the team.” (dagger stares are traded) “What about you? You still livin with your mom?” Not a lot better, but a little more entertaining, right? All we had to do was add conflict.

Improving scenes is fast and easy. Just go through each one and ask, “Is there a way for me to make this scene more entertaining?”

Feel free to share your scenes for feedback in the comments. Upvote your favorite scene. Whoever gets the most votes will very likely make the tournament. Enjoy!

Note: There will be NO REVIEW next Friday as I will be out of town. So use that time to work on your screenplay!