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Craft & Career

Issue 16                                                                                             December 23, 2010

Dear Writer,

Welcome to our 16th issue.

Even if you can't read this issue, make sure you scroll down to find a stocking stuffer from me and several generations of my family to you and yours. 

I wanted to send out a quick issue to wish everyone Happy Holidays, officially announce the winners of the Champion Screenwriting Competition, and do a quick little craft lesson derived from some of the stuff we covered in the three Champion Labs this month.

A manager has already signed one of this year's Champion winners, and a movie made from one of last year's scripts will be hitting festivals soon.  Stay tuned for more details.  Next year's contest will feature more cash prizes, travel stipends and a few other surprises.

The New Year is shaping up with some great opportunities.   First, I will be hosting a weekend lecture in Richmond, VA the week before the Super Bowl.  Later in the year, we'll be putting on what I believe will be the best screenwriting class on Earth: a 7-10 day screenwriting retreat in Taos, New Mexico

In 2011, this newsletter's name will change to Champion Screenwriting's Craft & Career.  I want to give you the skills to make it to the A-List but "Champion" sums up more of what I am about, which is supporting and encouraging writers.

Thanks for being part of the A-List and Champion community.

Happy Holidays to all! 

Jim Mercurio 

Enjoy my father's E-cookbook which includes the best pizza recipe in the world.

Papa Joe's Cook Book



Jim Mercurio

 Sean Kanan and Jim Mercurio

The picture above shows me and my lifelong friend Sean Kanan on the set of a feature I film directed.  Sean came out to two of the three Labs and read scenes with us.  Almost half of the top 20 writers were able to make it out for one of the three sessions that were held literally in the shadow of the DGA Building on Sunset Boulevard. 

On the first day of the lab, I warn people that the class is a risk.  I could skate through a class with the middle-of-the pack entrants but I want to gamble with the top 20 writers to see if we can find a way to wrestle -- yes, sometimes wrestling is involved (right, Jeff?) -- through some ideas and help good writers become great or great scripts become marketable.

C Lab Four
SURVIVORS...Not a coincidence that someone is sitting between me and Jeff.  Kidding. Alicia, David and Jeff from Round 1

In fact, this might be a segue into my first topic.  Characters should do something the way they do it.  Sounds easy, right?  Well, it's harder than it seems.  I like to gamble, so that should be apparent in the way I walk across the street.  I see the stoplight turn yellow, I figure the car 80 yards away will stop in time, so I step off the curb.  I am willing to risk the .001% chance of having to jump out of the way to save five seconds.  As a teacher,  I am going to teach that way, the way I am.

If the first time we see the protagonist, he or she is taking a bite of cheesecake or talking on the phone or cleaning the sink, they had better be doing it in a way that is specific or unique to their character.  Otherwise, why intro the character there?  Wait until they do something unique to their personality.


We are going to take a breezy episodic stroll through some craft topics we covered and discovered in our ten days of clases this month.  So let's start out with how characters do things their way...

To read more, scroll down one inch

For all back issues of Craft & Career, visit Jim's Story Analysis Blog.  Remember all Quarterfinalists receive a 20% discount if they act before the end of the month.



One of my favorite examples of how a character subtly does things his way is from Three Days of the Condor.  Robert Redford plays a guy who is so smart and able to think creatively that his job is to read books and newspapers and sniff out possible terrorist plots/plans/ communications.  He discovers some suspicious information and forwards it to his boss, but doesn't get a response.  Like any brilliant, free-thinking protagonist, Redford disregards the hierarchy and sends his theory to someone else, which turns out to be a big mistake. 

Upon receiving Redford's information, the other boss, our antagonist, sends assassins to kill him and his coworkers in the story's inciting incident.  However, our protagonist manages to survive the encounter by literally being out to lunch.  He returns to find his office, a sort of conspiracy thriller version of the Jeopardy writer's room, the scene of a complete massacre.  All of his fellow researchers have been murdered.  The character just happened to leave the building a few minutes prior to the attack.  Conveniently, the awesome assassin was probably scoping out the front of the building while the protagonist went out the back.  Too contrived?  Let's think about this for a minute.

Is going out the back door indicative of a character?  Is there some deep meaning that reveals his essence?  Not without more information.  He goes to lunch at a place he frequents.  But because it's raining, he takes a more efficient route to avoid getting wet.  He stays true to form - a character who is smart and practical, and effortlessly applies strategy to the simplest tasks.  It may seem overly subtle, but this is how THIS character goes to lunch, and it works.  Sometimes it's easier to see how the big actions are character-specific.  Near the end, for example, Redford interrogates one of the villains to figure out what's going on, and in the process of articulating the clues, figures it out himself.  His character stays true to, well, his  character in the big moments and the small ones.

Sean and David
Sean Kanan and David Stanbra act out a scene from Grand Prize winning script. Their adlibs helped us discover some cool ideas.

In class, we saw A-list actors like Julia Roberts, Sean Penn and Al Pacino make phone calls, say "I'm sorry," and order lunch, respectively, in ways that only their character could.  We imagined a dialogue from Sean Penn to the imaginary writers of the imaginary clichéd version of the scene he was in: "I won't say that, that's not special, cut that, give that boring line to her, I am going to ignore this line." The scene he was in from The Interpreter was really simple yet it systematically destroyed possible cliches by sticking to the character.  It might be chicken-egg whether this sort of material is what attracts A-list actors or whether their involvement pushes the material to be better, but either way, how can generic and meaningless ever be better choices than unique and character-specific?  They can't.


When we look at how actors break down scene we discuss one of the Guideposts from Michael Shurtleff's Audition, a great book for writers who want to learn how to think like actors, called role playing.  The idea is that characters will act differently in the same situation depending on the circumstances or the rules of the implicit role they are playing at the moment. 

A silly but easy example of this idea is the guy who had a hot date and is explaining it to his best friend on the phone.  Then his mother rings in and he clicks over and starts explaining it to her.  Of course, after a few clicks, he accidentally thinks he is explaining it to his friend, but he's actually giving the lurid details to his mother.  If you need more specifics to see how the principle applies, here, well, don't write comedy. 

Don't forget that you have to be careful when introducing characters.  For example, if you introduce a character walking an old lady across the street, that might not be an indication that he is nice if he happens to be a uniformed police officer.  Along the same lines, you have to be careful when introducing a character to more than one character at a time.  The audience will have a hard time seeing the essence of a relationship if it's affected by a third party.  Before Julianne meets Kimmy in My Best Friend's Wedding, she has to have a moment with Michael alone for the audience to understand her, otherwise she would be limited by the implicit etiquette of the situation.

Another kind of role playing that we noticed in several  movies occurs when blocking changes so that Character A is no longer able to see the facial expressions of Character B.  Usually this happens when one character turns away from the other.  In this moment, Character B has an opportunity to reveal a hidden expression or emotion.  In True Romance, when Christopher Walken turns around to prepare to kill Dennis Hopper after the "eggplant" rant, Hopper drops the false bravado facade.  And in class, we watched several scenes where actors were able to let their guard down and express a new emotion while embraced in a hug since they were not being watched.

When you have to try to capture simultaneous opposite emotions and expressions in a scene, instead of relying on a cheat like "Underneath her courageous front, she is actually a scared child," you could instead choose a moment where the character's facial expression could be unguarded and SHOW both of them.  Honestly, Tarantino missed some opportunities in Inglorious Basterds to put some of what was in his head as a writer actually onto the page or into the movie.  Consider this cheat from the scene where Landa interrogates Shosanna:

The Key to Col Landa's power, and or charm, depending on the side ones on, lies in his ability to convince you he's privy to your secrets.

All it would have taken is one moment where one of them looks away and we could have gotten a surprising glimpse into what Shosanna was really feeling.  If Tarantino expected the milk products to be props with which the characters, specifically Shosanna, could interact, and not just motifs, he failed on a craft level because he was only able to show us the facade, not the emotion/thought that she was covering in this situation. 


When I did an interview with ScriptShadow back in the day (Okay, a few months ago), I made up a term called story density.  It was a playful scientific measurement of a script's ratio of GOOD STUFF to PAGE COUNT.  If your scenes are bloated, your action long-winded, and your dialogue full of monologues, you are going to have low story density.  You probably have 85 worthy pages of story stretched out to look like 108 pages.

We found a way to apply the concept of density to action description (BEATS/WORD COUNT and JOKES/WORD COUNT).  We wrestled with action description passages and challenged ourselves to say the same thing with fewer words.  For instance, we played around with a paragraph from an early draft of My Best Friend's Wedding.  We found better words, tightened language, improved some cheats and even played around with style.

Here is the action description from the original script, from the scene where Julianne is preparing to call Michael but is reluctant because she thinks he might be proposing to her because of the pact they made to get married on their 28th birthday.

She turns to continue pacing, and walks straight INTO a dresser. Stuns her, momentarily.  Enough, already! She punches up the number, primping absently in the mirror.  When it connects...

Original - 29 words

We couldn't use "sees stars" or "birdies fly around her head" because it confuses the reader as to what he or she is actually seeing, but we came up with a slightly shorter and, we thought, better cheat for "Stuns her momentarily," which has a better visual component.  And we trimmed a few words.

She turns and SLAMS into her dresser.  Shakes it off.  Enough already!  Punches the numbers, primps absently in the mirror.  RIIIIIIINNNNNG!

21 words

If we were in a hipper movie like Juno or Scott Pilgrim, maybe we change the tone of the "enough, already" cheat and add a bit of style.  This also uses sound to create a bit of surprise and maybe a moment of curiosity around the pretty boring act of dialing a phone.

She SLAMS into dresser.  Shakes it off.  Fuck it!  BEEP BOOP BOOP.  Primps absentmindedly in mirror.  RIIIIINNGGG! 

17 words

The OS "Hello" on the other line would pay off and clarify the action.  Or, if you like the style but need some clarification, that's fine.  But since you have added words, be lean and mean:

She SLAMS into dresser.  Shakes it off.  Fuck it!  BEEP BOOP BOOP.  Pounds digits.  Primps absentmindedly in mirror.  RIIIIINNGGG! 

19 words

Someone in the class hated "pounds" and if you do, go back to "punches."   And then we pondered one last version where we turned the "enough already" or "fuck it" cheat into something we can see and hear.

She turns and SLAMS into dresser.  Shakes it off.  Looks (determinedly?) down to phone.  BEEP BOOP BOOP.  Primps absentmindedly.   RIIIIINNGGG! 

19 words

Someone asked, which way is correct.  And another asked about how far can we go with style.  You should know me by now.  I am not a rules guy.  These are the wrong questions.  Here are the right ones:

  1. Is the read clear for the reader?
  2. Does the viewer see and understand all that the reader understands? 
  3. Are you wasting words and telling the story inefficiently?
  4. Are you repeating in standard prose what your stylish passage already achieves or vice versa?

Keep working at it until you can answer yes, yes, no, no.  You can have a lot of leeway in your action description and style as long as you are constantly striving to tell the story in a clear and lean way.  Whether or not you love our rewrites here, I want you to see that there are viable ways to turn these 30ish words into 20ish.  Put your words through the same wringer.

If Density = Mass/Volume, you see we can increase Story Density by decreasing volume, i.e., cutting words.  But we can also add mass.  That is, we can put more cool stuff in the same amount of space.  A top 20 writer in the lab had a 34-word passage of action description that had, by our mutual agreement, one funny beat/moment/surprise.  Well, we reconjiggered the sentences and with exactly the same amount of words, came up with 5-6 funny beats/moments/surprises.  

Chopping 33% of the words was impressive in the first part of the exercise, but not nearly as much fun as making a section five times more powerful, funny and efficient by adding/replacing words.  I will ask the writer if we can show our little exercise on the blog, but since it is related to her concept, I imagine it will have to be a mystery...one that hopefully entices you to come to next year's Champion Lab.  But damn, it was fun to experiment and to show EVERYONE how they have to raise their expectations for every sentence, every word in their script. 

Make this your New Year's Resolution.  In 2011, vow to be DENSE.  With story.


I am preparing to jump into my scene writing book next month, so I have been labeling and categorizing techniques.  A powerful way to avoid writing on-the-nose dialogue is to set up a metaphor or analogy in which the characters will speak.  In the last issue, the scene from Once Upon a Time in the West used the number of horses as a way to unify the conversation.  Instead of bluntly saying, "I outclass you and am going to kill you," Charles Bronson remarks about the three horses for Snaky and his men, "You brought two too many."

 In My Best Friend's Wedding, Julianne, a food critic, rationalizes to Kimmy why she is the right person for Michael.  She begins with a food metaphor - blonde Kimmy is like Crème Brûlée, and Michael needs something less sickeningly sweet.  Kimmy asks her what Michael needs and Julianne stumbles upon a description of herself as....Jello.  Yeah, Jello.  But the craft is sticking with the silliness.  And they do.  Later, when Kimmy says, "I can be Jello," Julianne snaps, "You can never be Jello," which causes one more desperate and awesome culmination in Kimmy's line, "But I have to be Jello." 

 In a romantic comedy I am all for the beat, "I am willing to do anything in the world - even change --  so that I can be attractive to the person I love."  But, notice that the genre name contains that pesky word "comedy."  If you have to choose how to imply that beat, I hope you see how the literal subtext, "I am willing to do anything in the world - even change --  so that I can be attractive to the person I love," loses out quite handily to, "I have to be Jello."

In my book, I'll show how this is an advanced technique that can be used in the most serious of dramas too.  This is part of the craft that makes the "Pinot Noir" wine speech in Sideways work.  In comedies, find the metaphor and, as silly as it may be, stick with it as long as you can.  And then a bit longer.


There is something magical about the simplicity of the menu at Chipotle.  And I had a screenwriting-related epiphany about it when the first (or was it second) Champion Lab participants walked to the Sunset and Stanley Chipotle for lunch.  The menu is a handful of square and rectangular signs ordered linearly.  You simply make a choice from one sign, then go on to the next, and so forth until your order is done.  (Even backwards.)  Once you make the choice for a given sign, you can't go back.  There is a cool principle in effect here that applies to screenwriting as well when looking at your story in terms of sequences.  The idea is that once you are done with one menu sign, you never have to revisit it.  

Actors in Champion Lab
Teaching in the Round? No, that's not a fat joke.  Lunch for six at Chipotle is the same price as parking at the DGA.

Too often, writers make soft and squishy turning points instead of clear reversals/changes.  The Chipotle Menu Sequence Method reminds us that there is no going back.  When a sequence is done, it's done.  In Liar, Liar, the setup shows us how the character is incapable of telling small white lies at work for comedic effect (Yes, I farted, You are actually fat, You have great breasts, etc.). But guess what?  When that's over, it's over.   You can't revisit those jokes again in a substantial way.  Things have to escalate and progress into new permutations of the "I can't tell a lie" conceit.

In a more sophisticated way, this is why The Hurt Locker failed to be a masterpiece.  It had the same job of making sure that each sequence expanded upon the ideas and themes and didn't retread familiar ground.  Near the end, when the film should have arrived in new territory, it repeated an idea that had come before.  I see writers violate these principles in high concept comedies all the time.  It's challenging, but the premise has to advance in every segment and constantly move the story forward in a surprising and effective way.

In your next script, remember that after you chose your salsa, you can't switch from a fajita to a burrito.  Know what I mean?  Heads up: Chipotle Gift Cards are always accepted as barter toward story analysis services, and I don't judge regifting.



Champion is proud to announce the winners of the 2010 Champion Screenwriting Competition.  The Grand Prize Winners already have an offer of representation from a manager.  More details soon.


Civil War by Geoffrey Elsner and Carson Griffis


Bank Robbing for Dummies by Robert Keith Watson


Death in Venice Beach by Nicholas Horwood


The Device and the Operator by Cassandra Holroyd


A Simple Plea by Dean Watts

BEST SHORT SHORT (Less than three pages) - $ 500

Aurora by Kristi L. Simkins

(Writing deal for low budget script or $500 cash)

Controlled by Craig Cambria
Dead Last by Kevin Lee Miller
Death in Venice Beach by Nicholas Horwood
Little Eden by Timothy Jay Smith
 Congratulations to the winners and thanks to everyone who entered and who helped the contest this year.





Exclusively for Champion Entrants

Several entrants in our coverage category asked if we would make our readers available for additional feedback.  So we did.  Now, Champion offers its entrants detailed notes on their scripts from one of our awesome readers.

If you entered the Coverage Category, you can receive additional notes from your original reader for a discounted price of $200.

Entrants who did not use the coverage service or who did and would like feedback from a different reader pay $250.

Simply send a PDF of your screenplay and Paypal payment to coverage@championscreenwriting.com.



Email Jim or the contest with any questions or problems.


In This Issue
Chipotle Sequence Method: Champion Lab Recap
WWTBD? Intro to Intros



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What Would the Boss Do?

I know this is a stretch but let me discuss or rather point out and marvel at the openings of two songs that Bruce has covered. 

In my craft article, I talked about allowing a character to reveal themselves the second we see them.  I forgot to point this song out to the classes this month, so I might as well do it here.

I have mentioned that the Prince song Little Red Corvette exploited its concept really well. But notice how, within the concept, it announces itself.  It knows what it's about and it it knows the character to whom the narrator sings:

I guess I should have known by the way you parked your car sideways it wouldn't last.

Except for maybe the second image of Midnight Cowboy where the soap drops in the shower, this may be the most concise introduction in the...in the ...  on my mind this week.

The beauty of this is that I don't even have to explain it.  If you don't get it, then make it your new year's resolution to sit with that line until its awesomeness becomes apparent.

Openings of movies usually have at least one more obligatory "introduction" besides character.  And one of them is a peek at the movie's theme. 

In the Champion Lab, I was literally in a tizzy of excitement over the openings of Se7en, Harold and Maude ("Harold, please try to be a bit more vivacious.") and Midnight Cowboy while showing the class how these writers KNEW THEIR STORY from PAGE ONE, IMAGE ONE.   

Bruce covered a song while touring for the Seeger Sessions album that I hadn't paid attention to since I was a kid ... the classic When the Saints Go Marching In

But when I heard the opening line of the song I had one of those AHA/DAAA-AAA-MMN moments where you see perfection.  And  Iam not talking about the content itself. Just the song's understanding of what its about. Here it is.  And out of respect for its simple clarity, I will attempt to make a good ending from its perfect beginning:

We are all trav'lng in the footsteps of those who've gone before

And we'll all be reunited on a new and sunlit shore 

Killer Endings
Killer Endings
 and The T-Word: Theme 



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