Last week, I flew to L.A. to spend four days locked in Doug Richardson’s writing cave. It may seem extreme to fly cross-country to sit in a room full of cigar smoke with another writer, but he isn’t just any writer. He has 30 years of screenwriting experience, wrote box-office hits like Die Hard 2, just published his fourth novel, Blood Money, and has tucked me under his wing to help us turn our already great script into a masterpiece. Who wouldn’t sign up for the 13 hours of travel for that kind of support?
Let me begin with some background: Slavery by Another Name (SBAN) is a narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas A. Blackmon, my writing partner. Together, Doug and I have been working on this script for four years. We’ve had amazing meetings, been to pitchfests, and in 2011, we were finalist in Creative Screenwriting’s Expo Contest… that was at least five rewrites ago.
Despite the script receiving wonderful accolades, something obviously wasn’t working. Enter Doug Richardson, who I affectionately refer to as “Die Hard Doug.” Now that we have two Doug’s in the mix, I’ll be referring to him as that and my other Doug as “Pulitzer Doug.” Roll with it, it’s truly what I call them. I won’t tell you what they call me.
Die Hard Doug loved the story and sent it on to his friend, Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society). Tom read SBAN and gave us one glorious note… to turn one of our white U.S. marshals into a black U.S. marshal from the North.
Wow. Simply changing the race of that specific character (especially in a 1903 time period) elevated the conflict to an entirely different level. Every single scene he was in was affected. Brilliant. After that change, the script’s linear story was nailed.
Done? Not so much.
Die Hard Doug presented us with one more note: switch up the structure. Instead of telling the tale linearly and introducing the re-enslavement of blacks forty years after The Civil War, leading to the first trial of a white man being accused of peonage, he suggested we start in the courtroom and take the audience back and forth from past to present during the testimonies.
A beast of a restructure job, but he had confidence we could do it.
Pulitzer Doug and I took a rough stab at it – just enough to play with the structure to see if was worth pursuing. Die Hard Doug’s appetite was whet, his gut-feelings confirmed, and the trip to L.A. was in the books.
Background done. Onto the lessons I learned Behind the Lines with DR:
1. Take the risk: If you ever get the opportunity to learn from someone with more experience than you, do not hesitate. Do whatever it takes to make it happen, even traveling the globe. I promise you, it is better than any screenwriting course you’ll take. Yes, despite having taken many classes, and even taught some, there is always something to learn from another writer. No one knows it all, so keep your mind open.
2. Leave your ego at the door. I’m not known for having a big ego, but it’s easy to get overprotective when it comes to a script you’ve worked your fingers to the bone on for four years. I literally broke the binding of Pulitzer Doug’s book while writing the first draft. But every story has endless possibilities, even ones born out of nonfiction. While Pulitzer Doug and I know this story inside out and backwards, Die Hard Doug knows what Hollywood wants. And the last thing Hollywood needs is one more sets of egos. Plus, brainstorming is never effective when one person is defensive and guarding their opinions. Open your mind, hear another viewpoint, and weigh out what you think works for your story best.
3. Start with your character, not your story. In restructuring, sometimes you need to start your outline with character development, not plot points. When we did the first rough pass of the restructure, we only played around with plot points, but since we were going back and forth from past to present, the prior character development got lost. This time, Die Hard Doug had me map out the character development first, and then find the plot points that hit those targets as well as made sense for the overall story structure.
4. Index cards and a corkboard are essential to a writer’s toolbox. I’ve used index cards spread out on my dining room table before, but I had not set them up on a corkboard to just stare at. It makes a difference. It’s a visual exercise. We put the two timelines (courtroom and flashback) in two different colors. It helped us to visually see how the stories were balanced.
5. Pretend you’re at Pixar. After we had the index cards done, Die Hard Doug had me present the story as if I was acting it out in a pitch to Pixar. To the right is a not-so-pretty shot of my Sicilian, animated self. It works. Once you can tell the story, you know you can write it. Give it a try.
6. You are writing a reading script, not a shooting script. There’s a difference between making your script a good read and the scripts we are downloading and reading to learn how to write. Those are typically shooting scripts. What you need to write is a script that is a great read! Let go of the format-OCD behavior and just write something that is moving and compelling. That matters a hell of a lot more than slugline perfection.
7. Set the table. Brainstorm the perfect way to start your story. What will grab the audience’s attention? What will make them HAVE to turn the page or sit in their seat? What questions can you set up in the beginning the reader needs to stick around to find out the answers to?
8. To attract an A-list actor, introduce your character like a movie star. Most often, the A-list actor you want to read your script is never going to read it. It needs to get past their agent first. That agent is going to head right to the descriptor that introduces their client’s character. Is it interesting enough? Does it convey a personality and a role that screams multi-layered? Is this the kind of role they can sell their client on? Yep, all of that is decided pretty much by that one descriptor. You’re a writer. Write a good one.
9. Use flashbacks wisely. For our script, that meant creating questions in the courtroom that required flashbacks to either answer or leave more questions. There needed to be a real, driving purpose for them or else it’s just lazy storytelling.
10. Some scenes need to be milked to add tension. We’re taught to start a scene late and leave early… but it’s what you do while you’re there that really matters. Don’t be in a rush to get out of a scene. Ask yourself if you’ve used it to its potential. Did you rev up the conflict enough? Is there more you can do while you’re in that moment? But you need to find the balance between milking it and just filling up pages with unnecessary dialogue.
11. Avoid “and then.” If you just stack scenes, it’s an “and then this happened.” But if you set up the adversarial situation at the end of each scene and use the next scene to answer it, it’s an “AH HA,” not an “and then…”
12. Know when to tease and when to tell all. You don’t want to give away too much too soon. Build the tension slowly over the course of your story so the reveal comes at just the right time… when the audience is drooling and begging for it. In a courtroom drama, it’s the decision of when to put that pivotal person on the stand. Hold out for just the right moment. That will also be the A-list actor’s Oscar moment. Their agent will be looking for that too.
13. Keep the reader’s eye in the middle of the page. When writing dialogue, try to avoid breaking up the conversation with descriptor lines that pull the reader’s eye to the left. Use parentheticals, but use them sparingly. For example, instead of writing “(snarky),” use words that show the bite in the character’s voice. Those simple changes make for a faster read.
- Dogs are amazing to calm a writer’s nerves.
- Girls who like cigar smoke probably had a father who smoked either cigars or a pipe.
- Die Hard Doug knows bizarre, little random things.
- It was really cool to sit my ass on the same couch Bruce Willis sits on. Just sayin’.
- One Direction has replaced the Jonas Brothers. *scratches head* This goes down as a fact I never needed to know.
- In-N-Out burgers taste better while watching planes land at LAX... thanks for that lesson, Henry.
I’m sure some of you are asking why the hell did Die Hard Doug invite me into his home and clear his schedule for four days to help a little screenwriter from Upstate NY who he met on Twitter. Well, he has a personal interest in our script. After reading it, seeing how well Pulitzer Doug and I take notes, understanding our writing process, and believing in us and our story, he and Tom Schulman have plucked us from the land of misfit scripts into the their hands… as the producers of Slavery by Another Name.
I can’t imagine two more amazing writers for us to work with. Douglas A. Blackmon and I are humbled and honored to have finally found champions after four long years. We are definitely an example of the little engine that could.
I first started writing about this journey on Balls of Steel three years ago in Pursuit of the Project. I’ve longed for the day I could share news like this with all of you. While that day is finally here, this journey is far from being over, and many bumps will still be hit along the way. But for today, we have great men in our corner. I’ll take it. One step at a time. Most importantly, I’m enjoying the ride and learning from every speedbump we hit.
Before you say, “Well, she has all these people at her disposal,” remember, five years ago, I didn’t know any of them. None were in my circle of friends. No Pulitzer Prize winners. No box-office hit writers. No Oscar-winning screenwriters. Not one. I wasn’t even the Editor of Script Magazine, and I didn’t have a single published clip. I was just a country girl, writing in isolation, pursuing a project I was passionate about. All I had was The Wall Street Journal article with Douglas A. Blackmon’s book in it. His exceptional work, the visual story he told within those pages, and his humility is what attracted me to him. Then our relentless journey of writing the adaptation attracted Doug Richardson to us. And finally, our script itself is what attracted Tom Schulman and Doug Richardson to want to jump on the SBAN train.
Build it, believe in it, work hard, and someone will finally champion your work. Your job is to write a script that is so outstanding, no one can say no to it.
Above all, Douglas A. Blackmon knows the difficulties of writing a great piece of work. His Pulitzer Prize-winning book took close to eight years to write. It was worth the wait. If you haven't heard of the book Slavery by Another Name, it is now required reading in many universities across the country and has forever changed how our nation's history is being taught. Douglas A. Blackmon is one of my personal heros. His belief in me four years ago changed my life. I've learned amazing lessons from him, and I look forward to those Doug Richardson and Tom Schulman will offer.
What are some of the things you’ve learned from other writers in your network?
- Jacob Krueger: 5 Steps to Pitching Success
- Richard Botto: Staying in the Game
- Statin Rabin: Top 10 Lame-O Excuses for Why You Can’t Sell Your Screenplay
- Jeanne Veillette Bowerman: Balls of Steel – Checklist for Pitchfests & Conferences
- Charles Kipps: The Five Ws
- Meet Susan Kouguell: How to Succeed in Screenwriting Without Even Trying
- Meet Loren-Paul Caplin: The Hero’s Journey Meets the Screenwriter’s Journey
- Meet John T. Trigonis: (Multi-)Genre Storytelling in the Social Media Age