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Issue 20                                                                                                                                              July 26, 2011

Dear Writer,

Welcome to the 20th issue of Craft & Career.  

Sorry, we missed you last month.  There are probably not too many times in my life when I will be working on a feature film, a book, an educational DVD set aiming to be my teaching legacy, a secret soon-to-be-announced project, a contest and... well, you get the picture, right?

Good news. The film is done. (More on that soon.)  And I had so much help from my Champion Sponsors this month, I get to work on my next craft column for a few more weeks.  Next issue will also be the very first glimpse at footage from my DVD and first chance to order.  Also, you can participate in the Q&A on the DVD by clicking  here.

John Truby, who is giving away twenty DVDs to the Champion feature semifinalists, shares his insight with Genres: Secret to your Success. And Elisa Wolfe, who is giving proofreading and logline help to the semifinalists, wrote a cool little article on montage format. 

We also have quick Q&As with Ellen Sandler who is our TV judge this year as well as with Virtual Pitchfest's David Kohner Zuckerman.

The important Champion Deadline is only a few days away. Last chance to get coverage and to save $5.  If you want updates on the contest without this free newsletter, you can change your profile at the bottom of the email.

Thanks for reading.  And keep writing!



Jim Mercurio 


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Ch Logo against Torq   

Winning is just the beginning!


Four Days Left

Deadline is July 31

Last Chance for Coverage


$10,000 Grand Prize




New This Year: TV, Scenes, Pitches

and Low Budget Prize.




The Champion Deadline is only a few days away.  July 31 is the last chance to get coverage or development notes . And if you entered this week and want to use either service, e-mail me and we can add it to your script, retroactively.  This will allow you to resubmit a draft later.


Here are a few other little unknown surprises and bargains in the contest.


As of now, each of these categories have literally only a handful of contenders:

  • Short Short (three pages or less) - This is a $500 prize and last year out of 200 shorts, there were only five quarterfinalists that qualified.
  • Scenes and Pitches - These are new categories and are only available through the Champion Site .  Currently, there are less than 70 entries combined.  It's easy to enter and the pitches are completely freeform.
  • Low Budget Prize - I estimate about four-five features will vie for this $500 prize.  And since I am in the indie world, I was able to get a low budget feature from a previous contest sold and produced, so you never know what could happen.

Multiple Entries - We will also pick a random entrant who entered more than three features and offer them a seat in the Champion Lab.  Last year, there were less than twenty contenders.


Enter Today


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Montage Format


Reader Ready's

Elisa Wolfe



You're cruising along in your screenplay, and you suddenly come to a sequence that doesn't feel right with traditional headers. All you really want are some snippets - probably set to music - to set a tone or provide a few snapshots of a key moment in your character's life. But the shots are almost too small to require their own headers, and they're really too small to need dialogue. Sounds like it may be the right moment for a montage, if the shots are all related to each other somehow.


Many writers avoid montages, and with good reason. I've read a lot of scripts where the montage is used in place of some solid, creative writing. Montages, like flashbacks, should be used sparingly and only when they're really the correct technique for your story. If you're just trying to advance time, you generally don't need a montage.


So how do you write a montage? There are actually several techniques. The one below is the simplest, and the one I prefer.




John greets her at her door with flowers, and Danielle blushes.


He opens her car door for her. She's pleasantly surprised.


He parks in front of a swanky restaurant. She's thrilled.


He opens her car door for her to exit, grabs her hand and, instead of heading for the fancy restaurant, leads her toward a cheap taco place next door.




John and Danielle wait in line to place their order.


That's it. You've written a montage.


If you want, you could put two short dashes (--) in front of each line in the montage. You could also write out the location in each line, such as:


-- Danielle's foyer -- John greets her at the door with flowers, and Danielle blushes.


- or -


-- INT. DANIELLE'S FOYER -- John greets her at the door with flowers, and Danielle blushes.


Also, there's no reason to use END MONTAGE before the new header, but it's certainly acceptable. As with any screenwriting device, the key with montages is to make sure you use them only when necessary and that your intent is clear to the reader.


Jim's Script Analysis Services

Sign up for Coaching and receive a Bonus.

Check out my blog for more details. 



Genres: The Secret to Your Success


  John Truby

(Champion Screenwriting Competition Sponsor)


  Inception Poster  


Here's a fact that should catch your attention: 99% of screenwriters fail at the premise line. You may come up with a terrific one-line idea for a movie, but if you don't develop it the right way, the best scene writing in the world won't make a difference. 


The single most important decision you make when developing your premise is: what genre should I use? Genre is a particular type of story, like detective, comedy, thriller or action. The reason genre is so important is that the entire entertainment business is based on it.


That sounds like a pretty extreme statement until you look at how Hollywood has set itself apart from the rest of the world. The rest of the world has always emphasized the original artistic vision in their filmmaking. Which is great for art, but bad for commerce, because for each film, the audience has to re-invent the wheel. They have to guess whether they want to enter the theater. And they have to work hard to figure out the unique story patterns that make that film work.


Hollywood realized a long time ago that it is not in the business of selling original artistic vision (though it sometimes happens anyway). It is in the business of buying and selling story forms. Genres tell the audience up front what to expect from the product they are buying. If they like a particular kind of story, chances are they will like this particular film, especially if the writer and director give the expectations a little twist.


For years, Hollywood films were only one genre apiece; say western, detective or family comedy. Then someone had the brilliant idea: hey, let's give them two for the price of one. That's why virtually every film made now is a combination of two, three or even four genres.


The implications for you as a writer in Hollywood are huge. First, you have to figure out what genres are best for your idea. Second, you have to know those genres better than everyone else writing in those forms. Third, you have to know how to transcend the forms so you can give the audience a sense of originality and surprise.


The problem with genre is that each one is a complex system of story, with its own unique hero, opponent, story beats, structures and themes. Fortunately, this information, though complex, is knowable. You just have to put in the time and effort to learn it.


When I first start developing a story, I look at a number of elements to help me choose which genres would get the most out of the idea. The first element is the hero's role in the story. When you look at your premise, you can usually imagine a basic action that the hero would take throughout the story. For example, is the hero essentially a fighter (Action), a lover (Love), an enforcer or criminal (Crime), an endangered investigator (Thriller) or a victim (Horror)?


A second element to look at is your hero's desire line. The desire, one of the seven basic story structure steps, is your hero's particular goal. It provides the spine of the story, so every hero should have one. It just so happens that each of the major genres is associated with a desire line. One way to get a sense of the best genre for your idea is to match the probable desire line of your hero to the key desire line of each genre. For example, the goal in a fantasy is to explore an imaginary world. In myth, it's to go on a journey, ultimately leading to one's self. In sitcoms, the hero wants to escape from an impossible predicament. In thrillers, the hero's desire is to escape attack.


An opponent who fights the hero and tries to prevent him or her from reaching the goal is another important element that helps determine your genre. The relationship between hero and opponent is the most important relationship in your story. A good opponent must be a unique individual but also fulfill a crucial story function. For example, in television drama, the main opponents are usually other family members. In comedy, the opponents tend to be various expressions of society at large. In the masterpiece, the opponent is some kind of system in which the hero is trapped. In love stories, the main opponent is the lover.


Another way that the various genres set themselves apart from one another is that they each ask a different central question or force the hero to make a crucial decision. The key question in thrillers: Is your suspicion justified? In comedy: do you lie or show your true self? In action: do you choose freedom or life? In fantasy: how do you live with style and freedom?


Part of exploring your premise line has to do with discovering the deepest thematic question your hero must confront in playing out the drama. How your hero answers this deep question is the real stakes of the story; it's what makes the audience want to watch this character all the way to the end. One of the benefits of genre is that a framework for these deep questions has already been worked out. You provide the details and the variations.


Keep in mind that when you explore your premise, you are at the very beginning of the writing process. So you may not know the key question your story will ask. The important thing is to make a guess now. It will help you extend and focus your idea, as well as lead you to the best genre for carrying the story.


Genres aren't just systems for expressing certain themes. They are also strategies for storytelling. Action stories set up a kind of heavyweight fight with an intense punch/counter-punch between hero and opponent. Science fiction sends the hero to a unique technological future that highlights strengths and weaknesses in the present world. Thriller places a weakened hero in a tight box and shows him or her struggling to escape. Crime pits a criminal who thinks he is above society against a defender of society's rules and values.


The above elements, though helpful, only tell you which genres are probably best for your idea. They don't tell you how to write them. That's where the story beats come in. Each genre has anywhere from 8-15 unique beats, which are key events that must be in your story or you are not doing the form. For example, if you write a love story without a first kiss the audience will want to have you shot.


One of the great advantages of genres is that they help you with plot. Plot is the most underestimated of all the major writing skills, with a lot of specific techniques you must learn to work as a pro. Most writers know the value of a strong main character and tight, witty dialogue. But they think they'll just figure out the plot as they go. Which never happens, and it's a big mistake. The ability to pack more plot in your script is the single most distinguishing feature in a script and film that hits big.


Once you know the key genre beats of your story, you have a detailed map of the plot. But that only puts you in the ballpark of a winning script. The final key is to learn these beats so well you not only hit them but also twist them. Twisting the beats is what makes your genre story original and separates it from all the other scripts in your form. Last year, a number of films that received Oscar attention are transcendent genre films, such as Toy Story 3, Inception, The Social Network, Kick Ass, and A Prophet.


How you transcend your genre is quite varied and depends on the genre. But certain elements always apply. First, you have to make your archetypal main character - such as fighter, lover, enforcer, searcher - real and unique. In short, you must turn a type into an individual.


Transcending your genre also involves changing the hero from what I call a "traveling angel" - a perfect person who goes around solving other people's problems - and placing him or her at the center of the drama. That means giving your hero a strong weakness and need that he or she must overcome by the end of the story.


This is one of the main techniques Hollywood's best screenwriters use to transcend their form. For example, Tony Gilroy used this technique in transcending the thriller with Michael Clayton and in transcending the action story with the Bourne films. Said Gilroy, "I had been running around for years trying to get somebody to get interested in scaling down action. To make it more intimate. My contention was that if you brought action down to the ground level, it could mean a lot more with a lot less." Translated into screenwriting techniques, that meant turning Jason Bourne into a real person haunted by guilt and the need for revenge.


Another technique for transcending your genre is to combine the basic genre beats with elements of the family drama. One of the best comedies of the last few years was Little Miss Sunshine, a combination of myth and comedy, which is a hybrid form as old as Don Quixote. In a myth the hero goes on a long journey. Myth is a very popular genre, but it can become episodic as the hero meets and defeats a succession of opponents who are strangers to the hero and the audience.


The writers of Little Miss Sunshine solved this inherent problem of the myth form by bringing the family along for the ride. This way the hero had ongoing opponents the audience knows - mainly the dad - as well as episodic opponents. Instead of a succession of unconnected events, the story has a steadily building conflict. The jokes are funnier and it lets the writers build to the funniest gag of all when the family gets to the beauty pageant at the end of the journey.


One final point you need to know to have the best chance to succeed as a professional screenwriter has to do with mixing genres. Hollywood's key story strategy today is that every film they make must combine at least two genres, and often three or four. It's the old marketing technique of give the audience two or three for the price of one. For example, Inception combines science fiction and caper. Avatar is action + love. The Bourne films are action + thriller. The Other Guys is a buddy picture, which is really comedy + action + love. Little Miss Sunshine is comedy + myth. And The Social Network is true story + thriller.


Mixing genres is a great strategy, and you must use it. But it's more difficult than it looks. Most writers end up with a mess, with too many heroes, desire lines, opponents, and themes. The first technique for mixing genres is to make one genre the primary one. This will give you your hero, a single desire, and a single story line. Then put in other genre beats where they fit, so they amplify the primary form.


Don't let the complexity of transcending a multiple genre story scare you. It's actually great news. The techniques are there for you, and everyone reading this article can master them if you commit yourself to study and practice. That's what the craft of writing is all about.


But the complexity also means you have to focus. I know a lot of talented writers, but I know no one who has mastered more than two or three genres. If you concentrate on the two or three forms that express your life philosophy and highlight your strengths as a writer, you'll go a long way toward being the screenwriter that Hollywood calls when that next assignment comes along. 




Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!  The video has a funky 

"Ridley Scott" shutter-speed effect.    





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Tell me a little bit about your background in the industry.  Are you working on any projects now?     


I have a background in writing, development, and producing.  Now I mostly produce.  I just wrapped a feature starring Harry Hamlin called The Fourth Noble Truth, and my film before that, Strictly Sexual, has become the number-one-watched movie on www.hulu.com, which is the web's most popular site for viewing films. I have several other credits including Hallmark Channel's All I Want for Christmas and Lifetime's Caught in the Act. I am currently developing many projects, among them Instinct, a TV series based on the bestselling books by Robert Walker, and Afterlife, a supernatural thriller.   

How did the idea for VirtualPitchFest come to you?   


The initial idea for VPF came from a colleague of mine named Katie Coyle about five years ago.  We both agreed that writers were having to pay tons of money to participate in live pitch fests, and we wanted to come up with a way to make things less costly. Live events are expensive because not only are there pitch fees (averaging around $25 per five-minute pitch), but there are travel and lodging expenses, as well as writing conference fees.  And with live pitch fests, you aren't assured of a response, which is what we absolutely guarantee.  Our fees are $10 or less per pitch.  


How did you get the industry pros to sign on?  Were they reluctant at first?  What do they get out of it?  What kind of feedback have they given you since the launch of the site?    


We get our pros for three main reasons: they are always looking for the next great script and/or writer, we pay them a small gratuity which helps them with their coffee money, and we have a terrific Pro coordinator named Nevada Grey who's always there to help them with anything they need.  We have received excellent feedback from our participating pros.  I think they love VPF in part because it's easy and fun to use, and because writers can pitch them directly via the site.  


What have members said about their experience? What is your most exciting success story?   


I believe most of our writers are repeat clients, and we've received amazing feedback from them.  Many of our clients have made script deals and/or received representation through the site, which is very telling and rewarding for all of us at VPF. We have had two major success stories that we're very excited about: the feature film

Raspberry Magic was financed and produced via writer/director Leena Pendharker pitching it through VPF, and client Joany Kane recently sold her script Angel Duty to Chesler/Perlmutter as a result of querying through VPF.


What advice do you have for screenwriter ready to Pitch?


The best advice I have for screenwriters is to make sure you have a sound script before pitching it.  We feel the number one mistake writers make is pitching and/or sending their scripts out before they're ready. Once you're pretty sure you have a script that's good, then I say go for it.  If you can, get it out there...and while you're waiting, begin writing another script.  I believe in the old saying "Do your best and then leave the results to God."


Are you planning any changes/improvements to the site? How many more pros do you expect to add this year?  


We are planning on upgrading the site by year's end...and we think it's going to be great! We are very excited. So far we've added about 30 Pros this year, including Mandate Pictures, Overbrook Entertainment, Boss Media, Paradigm,  and Bernero Productions.

If you were to pitch VirtualPitchFest , who would you target be and what would be your logline?   


Our target is all writers who need access to Hollywood's producers, managers and agents.  Our mini-pitch is that VPF enables screenwriters to pitch online to Hollywood pros with the assurance of a response.  Pitches are sent via query letters through personal accounts and responded back to within five business days.  We now have over 300 participating companies, including major studios, prodcos and agencies. Some of our Big Players include MGM, Warner Bros., CBS Films, Alcon Entertainment, The Mark Gordon Company, Benderspink, Davis Entertainment, Paradigm, Energy Entertainment, Anonymous Content, The Donners' Company, New Regency, Mandate Pictures and APA. It also has attracted the attention of many "star-led" companies, including those belonging to Owen Wilson ("Wedding Crashers"), Will Smith ("I Am Legend") and David Duchovny ("Californication"). So far, hundreds of screenwriters have received script requests through VPF, many of which have resulted in representation or script deals! 

Thanks for your time, David.

 You are very welcome. I enjoy this. Thank you. 










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Ellen is our television co-judge, Emmy-nominated writer and host of a two- or three-day workshop for our top ten TV writers.


Why is TV hot right now?


Ellen: There are more channels than ever and they all need content.  According to a FilmLA Inc. report, "Thanks to a cable TV production boom, the most recent pilot season was the most productive on record -- 169 pilots produced!"  Many of those pilots will turn into shows and every show needs a staff of writers -- that means jobs.





Ellen's Book
Top Ten Writers Win Autographed Copy of Ellen's Book



Is it easier to break into TV than it is to break into film as a writer?


Ellen:  It's not easy to break in anywhere as a writer, but you can do it -- producers, directors and actors everywhere are constantly looking for material and writers to provide it.  But, and this is a very big "but" -- they don't want to train you.  They want to find you early in your career so you're fresh (and cheap) but not unformed.  You have to get to know yourself and what kind of material you gravitate to.  What are your interests, what do you like to watch, read and write?  You will need to do a lot of writing on your own (translation: for free) before anyone pays you for your work.  You need to establish your identity as a writer. I don't mean you have to be famous, but you do need to create some credentials -- sketch comedy shows, off-off-Broadway theatre, guest blog, Huffington Post articles, a short video project, film school projects you can work on without being a student or paying hefty tuition. There are lots of student directors who want to collaborate with writers with good ideas.  Of course, even "paying your dues" kind of work like this takes effort to find and time to do, but this is the way "in."  If you make yourself seen you will be found. 

Why are pilot scripts important and what do you recommend writing?      


Ellen: Pilots are the current spec script of choice. As my own agent/manager Bruce Brown says, "I am ONLY interested in reading original material -- feature scripts are okay but, since time is a factor in any agent's life, it is better to have a spec pilot." Agents and readers take home huge piles of scripts for weekend reading -- if they're reading to see what kind of writer you are, they'd much prefer a 30 page pilot to a 100 page feature. And since there are more jobs for writers in TV (two-thirds of all Writer's Guild Contracts are for television scripts) agents/managers are going to be very interested in your potential as a TV writer.


Thanks for being part of the 2011 Champion Contest and offering a class to our writers.     


Ellen: It's my pleasure. Thank you.



  Champion Screenwriting Competition's more than $40,000 in prizes is made possible because of the generous support of its sponsors: Virtual Pitch Fest, Truby's Writers Studio, Rhona Berens, Ph.D. and Its on the Grid, A-List Screenwriting and iScript.   




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In This Issue
Secrets of the Champion Contest
Reader Ready: Montage Format
Genres: Secret to Your Success by John Truby
Craft: More Than Structure
Champion Corner I: Virtual Pitchfest
Champion Corner II: Q&A with Ellen Sandler
Killer Endings: Last Chance Before Price Hike




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Unless otherwise noted, all content is copyrighted by A-List Screenwriting, LLC or James P. Mercurio.