Tawnya is basically one of my favorite people in the world. She’s sweet, smart, cool and has a staggeringly high screenwriting IQ. So when she told me she was starting up Script Anatomy, which would teach both TV and feature writing (in Los Angeles), the first thing I said was, “Well we have to get you some students.” Not for Tawnya’s sake, but for the students’ sake! I knew that anybody I could get into her class was going to become a hell of a lot better screenwriter.
To give you some background on Tawnya, she taught at the Writers Boot Camp for 4 years. She now writes on USA’s “Fairly Legal” with her writing partner, Ali Laventhol. The pair are in development on two original pilots, and have optioned a few features, one being packaged by CAA. They are repped at CAA and RABINER/DAMATO Entertainment. Feel free to jump over to her site right now or sign up for spots while they’re still open (I don’t know how long they’ll be available after this post). Or get to know her and her philosophy on screenwriting first in our interview. Enjoy!
SS: So why did you get into screenwriting? Are you a masochist?
TB: I started out as an actress. I had gone to an Acting Conservatory. Worked in the theater in Seattle, Chicago, Vienna and Prague and then moved to LA. After struggling, not getting enough auditions and doing a slew of crappy B films (if we’re letter grading they’d be D minus at best), I’d had enough. The writing was awful. The directing was awful. I was awful. And it was painful. This was years ago, and my boyfriend at the time was in the business and doing pretty well as a writer/director. I think I was the only actress in town for whom the casting couch failed — he never gave me any work. Bastard!
I started writing because I wanted to write a short for myself but I ended up catching the bug. I knew inside that I was really a writer. I quit acting and started writing. Two screenplays in and one thing was clear: I had no idea what the hell I was doing. So I set out to change that. I read books. I read scripts. I took every class and workshop under the sun: Robert McKee, William Martell, Jen Grisanti, Blake Snyder, Michael Hague, John Truby… I went to Writers Boot Camp for 22 months, where I then ended up teaching for four years. Am I a masochist? Isn’t every writer?
SS: You and I have chatted about the craft before. What do you think is the hardest thing about writing a screenplay?
TB: Writing the screenplay.
Seriously, I think what’s difficult about writing a screenplay is going to vary depending on the individual and where they are with their craft and process. I feel like dialogue and scene work were always strong suits for me. Early on, getting the structure right did my head in. Later, it was theme and arcing the character throughout their journey. I worked hard on those and now specialize in them as an instructor. Not many instructors out there teach theme and how to apply it, which blows my mind because it’s so important.
Anyway… focusing solely on my last two scripts, I’d have to say the most difficult part was getting the opening right. There are so many ways in, but maybe only a few ways that will get your story off on the right foot. On the most recent one, we (the producer, my writing partner, and I) had a two hander and there was some disagreement as to whose story it really was. We went back and forth. We ended up making the right choice – but it wasn’t without trying it many different ways. On another project, I was hired by a director to write his idea. Looking back, I shouldn’t have taken the job. I wasn’t excited about the material, which made it a long and hard row to hoe. If you don’t love what you’re writing — if your heart isn’t in it — you constantly have to pull out the defibrillators. Even when you love what you are writing, rewriting over and over again without losing enthusiasm for a project can be challenging. Writing is rewriting. It’s how you turn something good into something great — yet if you lose your passion it shows on the page.
SS: You’ve also taught a lot of screenwriters. In your experience, what was their biggest misconception about the craft that you needed to correct?
TB: I think the biggest misconception is that structure kills creativity. That if you’re writing a smaller independent film, structure doesn’t matter. Of course, that would launch me in to breaking down the structure of Another Earth, Lars and the Real Girl, Happy Accidents, The Swimming Pool or In the Bedroom and what have you. All storytelling adheres to structure — it’s just whether it’s weak, ineffective structure or strong, effective structure.
SS: What were some of their common mistakes? And don’t hold back!
TB: I think the usual suspects are:
- Weak concept or no concept at all
- Poor structure or no structure at all
- Passive writing
- Inactive characters
- Too many characters
- Characters who don’t have distinct voices
- No conflict or stakes
- Dense action lines
- Dialogue heavy/action light
- On the nose dialogue
- Taking too long to get into the story
- Unmemorable characters that lack a flaw and therefore possibility for growth and change.
- Characters who are two-dimensional archetypes instead of three-dimensional humans. If they don’t come alive we can’t possibly care about them and their story.
- No theme
- Too much directing on the page. Pet peeve: CUT TO. When you write a new slug line that is a cut.
- Incorrect formatting
- Scripts that are too long
- Lack of surprise
- Getting into a scene too early / getting out too late
- Lack of craft in transitions
- No story. Yes, that’s right. No story! Just a lot of words and bumbling about that doesn’t lead anywhere.
SS: Wow, you really didn’t hold back. Okay, so, let’s move on to something more positive. I always have a lot of writers asking me how to write great dialogue. I find it one of the harder questions to answer. What’s your approach to teaching dialogue?
TB: I like Elmore Leonard’s list, especially, “Leave out all the boring parts” and “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
After going over a long list of dialogue no-no’s, I teach dialogue techniques and give writers examples of those techniques from existing TV or feature scripts. Sometimes I show clips as well. In class, students rewrite one or two of their scenes implementing the techniques they’ve learned. A partial list is: tangents, parallel construction, reversals, unexpected response, comeback zingers, exposition, subtext, character interruptions, echoing, similes, character on own track, response implying answer, set ups and pay offs, comic contrasts… etc.
Here are a couple of examples…
EXAMPLE 1 – From the MAD MEN Pilot written by Matthew Weiner, illustrates a few techniques: SET UP AND PAY OFF, an UNEXPECTED RESPONSE and a COMEBACK LINE.
We should get married.
You think I’d make a good ex-wife?
Don sits up and grabs a cigarette off the end table.
I’m serious. You have your own business and you don’t care when I come over. What size Cadillac do you take?
EXAMPLE 2 – From UP IN THE AIR, screenplay by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Walter Kirn, uses ECHOING and PROGRESSIVE DIALOGUE.
Today I took my first crap in two weeks. Hallelujah.
That’s me, applauding.
That’s me, passing blood.
That’s me, hanging up on you.
SS: What’s your general screenwriting teaching philosophy? What do you focus on most?
TB: Character, character, character. And structure and theme. My TV and feature classes begin with concept and continue through full development of a writer’s first draft. However, because of the depth of in class exercises and tools I teach, usually the resulting first draft will look more like a second or third. I really believe in investing the time up front – developing ideas and characters, brainstorming infinite options and outlining vigilantly before writing pages.
SS: You seem to be hitting on theme a lot. It’s definitely one of those things screenwriters struggle to grasp. Can you give me a basic breakdown of what theme is in your opinion and how you apply it?
TB: Theme is the foundation on which your screenplay is built. Theme is the spine, the core, the heart and soul of your story and what makes it relatable and universal and meaningful. Because it’s the lesson or moral of the story and expresses your unique point of view about the world and the state of humanity, theme is your voice.
And how do you express theme? Through symbolism and cinematic imagery, dialogue… many ways… but most importantly, through character and transformational arc. I do a workshop on theme and I hate to simplify because it’s actually more complex than this but I’ll distill it here for “page” length purposes.
Theme is the opposite of the main character’s flaw. (Carson note: I like this! I’ve never heard it expressed this way before)
Your Main Character or Hero is flawed. They have a goal they are not getting because of this flaw. To achieve the goal the MC will have to change and grow, overcoming the flaw throughout the second act journey – hence learning the lesson. (In some cases, the character doesn’t grow or learn but the theme is still articulated). This process is the transformational arc. We see this evolution occur as the MC confronts his flaw via conflict and obstacles, a strong opponent and a catalyst character(s)… we see them “become the theme” in a sense.
Like I said, there’s much more to it – in class I focus on it in more depth as writers develop their projects.
In TV, theme works a little differently. You’re obviously not arcing your characters in one episode to the point of alleviating their flaw. If Nurse Jackie cures her drug addiction do they still have a show? Her med addiction is so connected to the concept, character and arena, they have to draw out her transformational arc – but – she has other flaws to play with that stem from the addiction: lying, cheating, stealing… Which brings me to branches of theme. Theme is like a tree. There might be one primary theme that is the trunk, but other secondary facets of theme, like branches, stem from the trunk.
A show will likely have a series theme and possibly another theme per season, and individual themes per episode – which all may or may not be related.
SS: You work in both TV and features. What would you say is the big “writing” difference between the two mediums?
TB: Writing-wise it’s obviously much more manageable to tell a 24 to 60 page story than it is 110. There’s a lot more to track in a feature. And much more room for mistakes.
Work/Career-wise, the TV and feature world couldn’t be more different. Writing features can be a lonely business. It’s collaborative in that you might get notes from the studio or a director, but you’ll go off and write by yourself. Working in television you’re surrounded by other writers and it’s a collaborative process. Movies are difficult to get made and it can take years whereas everything about TV is fast. You can start working on a TV show and within months you can have a produced credit. I think most writers would think that’s golden.
SS: I’m curious. Which one do you think is easier?
TB: Oh boy. I don’t think it’s ever easy to write well, but… but TV. As I mentioned, it’s an extremely collaborative medium. The room usually breaks story as a group. If you’re lucky, like we are on our show, you have an amazing showrunner with a strong vision and voice. Writing an episode is much more manageable than a feature just by way of page count but also because some of the work has been done for you: the template, characters, tone, the world, relationships and conflicts are pre-existing. Writing an original pilot is as difficult as writing a feature, it just takes less time. The real challenge of writing for television is the pace. It’s incredibly fast. Recently we (my writing partner and I) had two days to outline our episode and two weeks to write it.
SS: Which one do you think it’s easier to break into?
TB: I’d say TV. There are more jobs in television. There are also specific ways a new writer can break in such as becoming a writers’ assistant and then getting bumped up. Acceptance into one of the prestigious Studio Writing Programs (I did FOX’s Diversity Initiative and NBC Writers On The Verge) can be a great launching point for a writer. Neither is easy to break into, but it can be done.
SS: In your experience, is an agent necessary to become a successful screenwriter?
TB: I’ll most likely contradict myself, so here goes: yes and no.
No. Writing careers are like snowflakes. There are no two alike. And everyone’s way in is different. I really believe that great writing will rise to the top and get noticed eventually if you are putting yourself out there. That may be through friends and contacts or a reputable screenwriting contest or fellowship. Hell, it might be because your script got caught in a tornado and five pages landed on Spielberg’s desk. If those pages knock his socks off he’ll come find you even if you’re not repped. Maybe I’m exaggerating, maybe not, but I’ve always done my best to believe that anything’s possible in a career that sometimes feels like the lottery.
Yes. An effective agent or manager can help build your career. They have relationships in the business that you don’t — especially starting out. They can guide you, connect you with the right people and help sell you to those people. A big agency might package a project. And then of course, it doesn’t hurt to be validated by someone respected in the business. People feel more confident about you if you’ve been vetted. That said, I have friends who have agents who are ineffective yet they stay because they’re afraid of not having one.
In our experience, our agents and managers were crucial in getting a job on Fairly Legal. We’re really happy with our reps and their involvement in our career.
SS: You’re repped at CAA. How did you find your way over there and what can Joe and Jane Writer do to get there too?
TB: I can’t make an exact trail map for Joe and Jane, but I can tell you how we got there… (sorry we should have left bread crumbs!)
My writing partner and I have a feature with a producer attached. This producer had given our script to a talent agent at CAA who happened to like it for his star client. A few weeks later my partner and I went to The Austin Film Festival. At one of those panel discussions we noticed a CAA TV agent who stood out as being incredibly savvy and smart. After the panel, we introduced ourselves and asked her a question. During the conversation we managed to slip in that were currently in NBC’s Writers On the Verge program. A few weeks later our feature producer put in a call to the agent. The rest was history. Just kidding. Nothing happened after the call. The agent, more senior in the company, had mostly established writers on her list and wasn’t exactly looking for new writers. After NBC WOTV was over, the head of the program made a call, but it wasn’t until our mentor, who at the time (he’s since been promoted) was the Sr. Vice President of Drama Development at NBC, made a call that we got a meeting. Now we have 4 people on our team there — two TV and two feature agents aside from our two managers.
SS: I know you’re pushing me to stop by your classes. But you know I’m a busy guy! If I came by, what should I expect? What would an average class be like?
TB: You are a busy guy! And I’m so proud of you, by the way, for all you have created with ScriptShadow and all of the exciting things coming up. Still… you should stop by one of my classes! So, um… what to expect… well, nothing average. Haha. You should expect to learn a lot about screen or TV writing (depending on the class) and to become a better writer through not only lecture and theory but more importantly through exercises and tool work. You should expect to gain an applicable process (or improve the process you already have) that will serve you throughout your screenwriting career. My next TV Workshop is already in progress but my next Feature Class is ten weeks long and starts up February 25th.
SS: Before we finish up, do you want to do a shameless plug for the show you’re writing on?
TB: It’s an “all new” FAIRLY LEGAL Season 2 which will air on USA March 16th on Friday nights at 9pm. “All new” because the entire writing team from the showrunner down is brand new. Expect some very exciting changes. My episode, which I wrote with my writing partner, Ali Laventhol, is “Gimme Shelter”. Hope you enjoy it.
I’m already on the Tivo. Does Tivo allow you to tape shows two months in advance? Anyway, thanks Tawnya for dropping by and sharing your wonderful insight. I think I need to take your class for dialogue alone. I’ve never even heard of some of those terms before but I like them. So, if you guys want to learn a little more about Tawnya and her site, check out Script Anatomy. Or if you want to grab a spot while they’re still available, here’s the site where you can sign up for her classes. Good news for Scriptshadow readers. If you sign up before this Sunday at midnight (Pacific Time), it’s 10% off. When it asks for the promotional code, just enter “Scriptshadow_22.” If you have any question about the classes, feel free to e-mail Tawnya at email@example.com. What are you waiting for! Go become a better screenwriter. And who knows? You might even see me there. :)