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Issue 21                                                                                                                                          August 31, 2011

Dear Writer,

Welcome to the 21st issue of Craft & Career.  

The Champion Screenwriting Late Deadline is tonight. However, the planned one-week extension allows you to enter until September 6 at the same price. The WAB-Exclusive Deadline (additional fees) will end on the 16th.

My Craft Column is back and I spend some time untangling a movie that is a bit lighter than my usual taste/focus....Tangled.  I look at some of its craft elements.

I will show you footage from my new massive Screenwriting Instructional DVD Set next month.  Please be part of it by clicking over there on the right and contributing question(s) you have about screenwriting.  

Below you will find interviews with Champion Sponsors Elisa and Lori from Reader Ready and iScript, respectively and a follow-up interview with a 2009 entrant whose script was purchased and produced as a low-budget indie.

Don't be shy about asking questions.  You don't need to fill out the entire form.  Just click on the link to the right and ask away.

Thanks for reading.  And keep writing!


Jim Mercurio 


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With coaching and mentoring clients, sometimes I break down a script or movie that has similar elements to the story we are working on.  The emphasis is on the sequences, the big picture pacing, but the exercise allows some of the craft elements to reveal themselves, too.  In general, watching a good movie several times is an invaluable learning tool and you can tell your significant other I said so when you beg him or her to watch your favorite guilty pleasure for the umpteenth time.  


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Recently, a client held me at mouse-point and made me watch a movie I may have otherwise passed over and probably wouldn't have studied.  But in life as in good storytelling, another surprise is always just around the corner.  The movie I watched was Tangled, a modern animated version of Rapunzel, written by Dan Fogelman, who is probably the hottest screenwriter on the planet right now. 


Tangled is a sweet story with a textbook romance and it's really well done.  Since I am finishing up my DVD set and scene writing book that focuses on craft elements, I thought I would highlight some clever and sometimes sophisticated craft moments in the movie.  I use some terms and principles from my upcoming DVD set (which you can preorder next month) and book.


To read more


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The Champion Late Deadline is tonight.  But don't fret.  We will be extending a week with no price adjustment.  Also, if you are having problems with our cart, you can always email us and we can send an invoice by email that will ensure you make the deadline.  Here are a few updates and bargains in the contest:

  • 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 new categories are only available through the Champion Site.  There are about 120 entries combined and we lowered the price within $1 of the last deadline. Pitches are completely freeform: even a logline will work.
  • Low Budget Prize - There are still less than ten features vying for this $500 prize.  Just enter the feature category. Our readers determine  script's eligibility.  See below for an interview with one of the Low Budget semifinalists from a couple years ago.
  • We will kick in a bit of a travel stipend to a top 20 feature writer who entered before tonight.  Randomly picked.

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.


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I have two more Coaching spots left for this year.

Check out my blog for more details. 





In voiceover, Flynn Rider tells about the drop of sun from the sky that created a magic flower and a gives us a brief introduction to the old woman, Gothel.  Years later, the queen is sick and the magic flower saves her.  Its power is transferred to her daughter Rapunzel.  After this intro, we get really concise visual introduction to the daughter and the rest of the setup.


We see the newborn Rapunzel and her golden hair bathing in golden light.  Above her crib hovers the golden image of a star-shaped sun, which is the beginning of a prevalent motif and a way for the story to externalize Rapunzel's inner thoughts and longing.


Gothel needs the child's magic to stay young, so she sneaks into the castle.  The baby Rapunzel's hair does the trick, and Gothel regains her youth, but when she cuts it off, it turns brown, loses its magic, and we see the stakes: Gothel's youth withers.  So she steals the baby.

Before the four-minute mark, we see her brushing the hair of a young Rapunzel as she succinctly reveals her philosophy and the fear she has used to scare Rapunzel into not wanting to escape the tower: the outside world is a selfish and horrible place.  A nice little thematic touch is her nickname for Rapunzel: flower.




Minutes four through eight are a continuation of the opening but now incorporate the introduction to the protagonist. 


It is the eve of Rapunzel's 18th birthday and her introduction allows us to understand her essence very quickly.  The window flies open and we watch her playing hide-and-seek with her chameleon pet.  Despite her (at least partially) voluntary quarantine and her internalized fear of the outside world, she is also full of life. A song/montage shows us that her life is full of reading, baking, chores, chess, exercise, painting & sketching (image of the lights and sun which represent her hope, her destiny, and her desire to see the outside world), and even ventriloquism.  However, the title of the song (When Will my Life Begin?) makes her longing very clear: she wants to see the "lights" (that coincide with her birthday) in person this year. 




In the opening sequence, we had to spend some time alone with Rapunzel to see her true nature.  Her chameleon acts as a reflection or mirror character to help externalize some of Rapunzel's fears and thoughts but the absence of Gothel is a useful choice with strong consequences.  Had Gothel been present during Rapunzel's introduction, Rapunzel would have been constrained or inhibited simply by her role as a daughter.  We would not have been able to see her true vibrant self and her uncensored longing.  


When introducing characters, be very mindful of how a character's role can confuse us as to their defining characteristics.  For example, if your character is a cop, and in his introduction he does something helpful or heroic, the fact that it's part of his job lessens the impact.  Use role playing or the lack thereof to show different facets of your character.




In the next sequence, Gothel returns and becomes impatient waiting for Rapunzel to lower her hair.  Her remark that is meant to chide Rapunzel to hurry up is a great example of what I call a Theme Line.  It's a line that is loaded with meaning, usually a double entendre of sorts that plays on more than one level.


An example of a Theme Line is where Neil in Dead Poets Society says, "You know me, always taking on too much," which seems like, "I fill my schedule with too many activities," but also resonates on a deeper level: "I am extremely sensitive and things weigh more on me than on other people."  It is a quick defense toward an overbearing father but it is also foreshadowing of how that flaw will destroy him.


Before I reveal the line from Tangled, let's look at our priorities.  We want to make sure we never force a Theme Line just for the sake of the idea.  Any line has to work dramatically (capture the right subtext) and emotionally (be motivated and character-consistent) before anything else.  Then and only then can you consider reframing or tweaking the line to load it with additional meaning.  


Gothel is mean and impatient, so it's consistent for her to be sarcastic and to try to hurry/pressure Rapunzel.  A line like "hurry up" or "I don't have all  day" would capture the beat, but notice the line the story stumbles upon is more specific and works on an additional layer.  Gothel responds, "I am not getting any younger down here."  It's fun to enjoy the "double-entendre" meaning (that Rapunzel is literally her defense against her worst fear: aging) but if you forsake the most basic levels (emotion/voice of character/subtext) in service of what might seem like higher level concerns (theme/idea/complexity), the line will stick out like a sore thumb and stop the story in its tracks.  Here, the line fits very organically.




Rapunzel works up the nerve to ask Gothel if she can see the lights in person.  We set up earlier that Rapunzel has learned that the world is a scary place but we didn't have time to create "an argument" but here as conflict in service of Gothel fighting to stop her from leaving the tower, we do.  We can go deeper.  In the song, Mother Knows Best, Gothel is able to reinforce all of the reasons Rapunzel should stay inside.  Here is the language she uses to describe Rapunzel and the outside world: Fragile as a flower, just a sprout, leave the nest soon but not yet, calls her "pet", something will go wrong in the world, the world is full of ruffians and thugs and men with sharp teeth, you will not survive; and then finally she describes her as gullible, na�ve, vague and even chubby. Thanks, Mom!


It reads like a laundry list but it works in the song. The film also cleverly uses the fact that an animated musical fairy tale doesn't have to mimic reality.  As Gothel sings her song, the lighting and imagery change and allow the chameleon and Gothel to "act out" the song and bring the fears to life in an a way that harkens back to German Expressionism or Gothic Horror.  The song does its job.  It scares Rapunzel literally back into her surrogate mother's arms.




Flynn agrees to take Rapunzel to see the lights but he doesn't want to because it is dangerous for him to return to the castle.  His effort to stop her from going is wonderfully in sync with her fears and the way they were set up by Gothel in the song Mother Knows Best.  He uses the words "ruffians" and "thugs" to clarify what he is supposedly protecting her from.  So when he takes her to The Snuggly Duckling (great name), of course, it is full of ruffians and thugs and just to make the payoff super clear, the first one that smiles even has sharp teeth.


The rowdy bar might be an obstacle for any young girl who is entering a strange world for the first time.  But the specific call-back to "ruffians" and "thugs" allows Flynn's actions to resonate more.  He is challenging her with physical obstacles that have importance to her, that are linked to her internal fears.




Flynn is on the run from Maximus the horse who is after him and the satchel. They fall an indeterminate distance and via an ellipsis of sorts fall into a new location.  Flynn hides behind a rock as Maximus passes him and his hand accidentally slips into a green brush and discovers a hidden cave that leads to Rapunzel's tower.


This idea of stumbling - literally and figuratively -- is similar to wandering in fairy tales. It shows a character's subconscious at work.  Used cleverly, coincidence or surprise combined with a bit of disorientation can be a way of showing that a character's path is not being dictated by clear-cut logic and his or her conscious mind.  Flynn is unconsciously being drawn toward Rapunzel who will be the only one who will appreciate him for who he is at his core .


One of my favorite literal stumbles in a movie is when the hobbits are leaving the Shire in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.  They literally fall down a hill onto the road.  It's like in a dream...their subconscious has led them to where they they need to go.  Seconds later, the Nazgul arrive on horseback, pick up their scent, and scare the bejesus out of them.  We can cut the hobbits some slack for not being able to enter this new world with 100% conscious effort.


In Tangled, there is a figurative stumble that resolves a scene and saves Flynn and Rapunzel's life.  After escaping the rushing water of the broken dam, they are trapped in a sealed-off cave as the water rises.  They can't see any chance of escape, so she breaks down and wallows in blame and self-pity. Although earlier Flynn refused to open up ("I don't do backstory"), here there is a reason for him to do it.  He shares his real name Eugene Fitzherbert, a source of embarrassment to him, as a way to soothe and comfort her.


She appreciates the unguarded honesty and responds by blurting out an equally embarrassing fact about herself: that she has magic hair and when she sings, it glows.  Aha!  This leads to them using the hair as a source of light to find a way out.  These two lines weren't consciously directed at escaping the physical danger. They surprised us and the characters, and helped to solve the problem.  But the action of opening up to each other was something that worked for them on more than one level.  Their subconscious minds led to a solution.


On a practical level, look at it this way:  The beat of sharing and connecting becomes a turning point in both the romance/relationship story and the adventure story.  One action changes both situations: they become closer, and they are able to escape.  




The chase scene through the "water park" was pretty clever in exploiting the location and allowing Rapunzel to be active with her hair.  But what I really liked about it was the use of the frying pan.  First, Flynn uses it to battle with the guards and their swords.  It was over quickly to allow for what came next, which deserved more screen time.  He uses the frying pan to duel with Maximus, who is armed, or should I say "mouthed," with a sword.  Now, that is definitely something I haven't seen before.




I pointed out a few places where characters stumbled upon their intended direction or solution by accident.  However, in general I think the writer was smart to set up clear, crisp, short-term goals to keep the story focused. For instance, we see Rapunzel look at the chair (that kept Flynn trapped in the armoire) and then at her paintings of the floating lanterns before she sends Gothel away to get her birthday gift.  The shots try to show us what she is thinking.  Now that Gothel is away, Rapunzel creates a simple, effective deal with Flynn to achieve her goal: the crown in exchange for an escorted trip to the floating lanterns.  We know exactly what the next sequence or two will be about.


Later, Rapunzel cleverly convinces Maximus to agree to a 24-hour truce with Flynn, which gives them a reason to stick together despite their conflict.  You might think that story devices like this are gimmicky, but as long as the character "earns" it, it can be a great way to help keep a potentially episodic section (it's a road movie at this point) on track.  And then within the established boundary, you can let the characters relationship breathe and conflict with each other.


Gothel cleverly preys on the Stabbington Brothers' desire for revenge to get them to agree to a clear plan that will get rid of Flynn.  You never want a plan to go exactly as its explanation but the set up allows for the brothers' actions to be clearly motivated.  Then near the end of the plan, she surprises and deceives them to make sure Rapunzel is returned to her.




In Killer Endings, I talk about how love stories are hard.  What the heck do you put up against love to create a dilemma? What else has almost enough power to compete?  Well, Flynn faces a huge dilemma. He has to choose between dying or freeing Rapunzel.  I am not going to give the ending away but it's a great choice and results in a real Killer Ending.


Here is what you can take away from this fairy tale that will work with whatever you are writing.  Be as precise as you can in setting up the characters' weaknesses.  Then follow through with the setup to make sure that the external landscape and physical obstacles are resonating with the characters' inner flaws and conflicts.  Tighten your story and make sure your setup and payoffs are working for you, so you never have to stop or explain something.


Tangled definitely has some clever craft going for it.  I see some similarities with this and Fogelman's $2.5 million spec Crazy, Stupid Love.  (Modest budget, semi-high-concept, castable, genre...I am just saying.)  In fact, I stumbled upon a really sophisticated craft technique he used several times in Tangled.  I don't want to bog down this article nor do I want the August issue to come out in September, so follow A-List on Facebook and next week I will let you know where to find the follow up blog, article or post. 



Solomon was a 2009 entrant whose low budget script was produced because of the Champion Competition.  The film recently completed production, so we followed up with him. 





Well, for the time being the producer wants me to avoid saying too much about the script.  He's considering some unconventional marketing approaches for the finished film, so until he sorts everything out he wants to keep the script "under wraps." 


I can say pretty generally that the script is in the low budget horror genre. 




I did a little graduate work in English Literature, then switched over to Law, so I guess my background is in Law.  I'm a pretty new writer -- I've written a few other short scripts, but this is my first feature-length script.  



I use a pen name because it's easier -- cleaner -- to keep my writing life separate from my work life, and just avoid any unpleasant complications at work.  You can probably guess the kinds of complications I'm talking about. Will people at work find out that I'm writing?  What will they think about it?  Will my bosses resent me for it, or take it as a sign of laziness -- "if you have a life outside of work, then clearly you don't have enough work to do"?

Using a pen name also has benefits that I didn't anticipate.  For one thing, it makes rejection a little easier.  When I get a rejection letter ("Dear Solomon Grundy, your screenplay sucks, love, Film Festival"), I tend to shake off the disappointment a little more quickly because it's not directed at me personally; it's directed to that other guy.  That Solomon Grundy guy.  Yeah, it's a silly psychological trick -- but whatever, a benefit's a benefit.



I picked "Solomon Grundy" because I've always liked the nursery rhyme ("Solomon Grundy, Born on a Monday, etc.").  I always thought it was kind of cool and creepy.  


I entered the Champion Screenplay Competition because I was intrigued by the special prize for micro budget horror.  My script is a low budget horror script, so I thought there might be a good match there. 

I did enter some other horror contests too, and did pretty well in a couple of them.  But doing well in a horror contest does not compare with the experience of actually selling your script and joining a team of smart, creative people who are trying to turn that script into a great movie.



The Champion Screenplay Competition has provided me with tons of amazing feedback on the script.

I have to say that Jim Mercurio has been incredibly generous with his time, and has made himself 100% accessible to discuss the script at any time and in any format -- email, telephone, whatever.  Last week, he spent hours on the telephone with me discussing the script, everything from larger structural issues and "what if" scenarios right down to the tiniest details.    


The Champion Screenplay Competition was instrumental in getting my script optioned.  Instrumental.

Jim contacted me initially to let me know that there was a producer, who happened to be a contest judge, interested in the script.  Then he helped to initiate the negotiating process and was with me every step of the way, guiding me through the process from beginning to end.

So, without the festival and without Jim's help, there is no way that my script would have been optioned.  


I'm a lawyer, so of course I know how the negotiating process works generally -- but I'm not an entertainment lawyer and I've never negotiated an option agreement for a script before, so really I had no idea what to expect.  The producer was very reasonable and, as I've said, Jim made himself available to me every step of the way.  The whole negotiation process was very friendly, very civil and was wrapped up quickly, in a couple of weeks.      




It can be a difficult process.  What I mean by that is, your first draft really is the easy draft, the fun draft, because all you are trying to do is make yourself happy.  But if the script is lucky enough to attract a producer or a director, well, your next draft is not going to be a "fun draft" because it is no longer just about making yourself happy.  It is about making other people happy.


And that is difficult -- more like work.  But in a lot of ways, it is more rewarding.



I think it is safe to say that I had very different ideas about the script than either the producer or the director.  There were a number of clashes, over big story points, small story points, and all points in between.


But as a writer, ultimately you have to make peace with your job description: if you sold your script to a producer, then your job is to help the producer make his or her movie -- not yours.  Realize that is your job, embrace it, and try to do your job as well as you possibly can.  




My day job prevented me from being physically present on set, which was a real bummer -- but I have to say that both the producer and director were amazing about making me feel included and soliciting my opinion at pretty much every stage of the production.


Be budget conscious when you write. 

If you want to get your script produced, then there are obvious practical advantages to writing something that anybody can pick up, read and then think, "You know what?  I could make this movie."  I mean, you can go ahead and write a script with lots of amazing stunts and huge explosions and eye-popping special effects, but just remember that there are only a handful of people out there with the power and resources to actually produce that kind of script.




I have only seen a very rough cut -- but the final cut was just mailed to me, so I should be receiving it any day now.  Needless to say, I am really looking forward to seeing it.




Our Low Budget Prize this year is for a script in ANY genre.  We can't guarantee it will be produced, but you never know.









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We've all heard that producers and reps have a huge weekend read pile and that they're looking for a reason to pass on our scripts. Unfortunately, it's easier - and sometimes safer - for them to pass on a script than to give it a recommend.


There are two ways to engage a reader. First, there's your story. But your story can only sell itself if your script is well-written and looks and feels like a script. That's where formatting, spelling, word choice, sentence structure, paragraph structure and basic grammar come into play. Your story and writing style have to merge to make your script readable.


I started Reader Ready because I realized that, while there were story-related services available to screenwriters, there seemed to be a shortage of people concentrating on how a script was written and formatted. As a writer, I often traded scripts with other writers for peer reviews, and I was sometimes startled by the number of typos and other mistakes I found in scripts. The mistakes generally distracted me and pulled me out of the story, which is the last thing any of us wants to do when we send our screenplay out to a rep or prodco.




I majored in screenwriting in college but, through one of my professors, I stumbled into the world of advertising and worked as a copywriter and commercial producer for over ten years. My advertising/marketing background is invaluable for the work I do as Reader Ready.

First, writing commercials teaches you the value of word selection. In a radio spot, you may only have 15 or 30 seconds to tell a story, so you learn to cut the "fat" quickly. Print ads and mailers have to be flawless because reprints are so expensive, and I quickly became known as the agency's proofreader, checking the works of all the writers before they went to final print.

As a screenwriter, I've been optioned, and I've had representation. I'm still chasing that elusive first sale with many of my clients, so I understand the world of marketing and I'm familiar with many of the services out there available to writers. In addition to proofing and editing, I offer marketing services, from loglines to synopses to query letters.




Writers new to the format tend to overwrite. Their paragraphs are generally dense, with too much description. I call the writing style "novelesque," and I show them how "less is more" in the world of screenwriting.

Newer writers also tend to use outdated professional scripts to learn the format, and, unfortunately, many of the "rules" have changed over the years. So I'll see a lot of the word "we," a lot of camera descriptions and a lot of transitions that we don't use anymore in specs.

With established writers, I mostly find typos, or misuse of words such as they're, their and there. Sometimes, the formatting can also be simplified, or I'll find "lazy" uses of montages and flashbacks, and I can recommend ways to write around them that help advance the story and engage the reader.




They can always call me at 954-603-6271, but the easiest thing to do is go to my web site at www.readerready.com. All of my services are listed there, so they can get an idea of what I offer, and then they can contact me to schedule a specific date for their work.









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Having spent the last week in casting and hearing scenes read aloud over and over (and over) again, I was reminded how powerful a tool this can be for writers to improve their dialogue.  We workshop scenes with actors in the Champion Lab, but iScript gives you this experience on your own computer or iPod.  iScript is giving away a professional recording of the Grand Prize winner's script and 15-minute recording of ALL of the top 20 writers.  Here is a cut-and-dried FAQ for iScript.  Check 'em out.


What is an iScript?

An iScript is a professionally recorded audio version of a script or screenplay (or book, short story, thesis, annual report, etc.) read by professional readers, similar to an audiobook. iScripts can be listened to on MP3 players like iPods, Blackberries and iPhones or on an audio CD.


How much does an iScript cost?

General text starts at $100 and is based on $10 per one thousand words for an MP3 which you cannot resell, or $20 per one thousand words including Master Resale Rights.  An average-length script with one reader will cost you less than $300. See our pricing page for more information.  


Why should I get an iScript?

Now that audio is a red-hot trend and more and more people are addicted to their iPods, having an iScript of your work could increase the chance that people will read or listen to it.

Listening to professional readers reading your work also helps you to evaluate it. When is it interesting? When does it lag? Are your characters coming across how you thought they would? iScripts help you get your writing in shape to sell.


How long does it take to make an iScript?

Short answer: 2 days or less for anything under 20,000 words (or an average length screenplay), 5 days for up to 100,000 words. Longer answer: Standard turnaround time is two to five business days when you order your iScript Monday through Friday before noon Pacific Time. If you choose a "Requested Reader" then we cannot guarantee a turnaround, since it depends on their availability.  



  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
Craft:Untangling Tangled
Secrets of the Champion Contest
Interview with Solomon Grundy
Champion Corner I: Reader Ready
Champion Corner II: iScript
Killer Endings and T-Word Theme
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