Barri Evins shares what she learned from working with writers: the most frequent screenwriting problems and her bottom-line on solutions to overcome these obstacles.
I've taught everywhere from renowned graduate schools to big studios to intimate living room seminars, but one thing remains a constant: Teaching is the best way to learn.
Thinking back on my work with clients over the last year, from crafting and honing loglines to months of customized mentorship, I’ve done a lot of teaching. Even though I’ve been a consultant for years, and worked with pro writers for decades before that as an executive and as a producer, finding solutions to screenwriting problems, I've learned that I'm still learning.
The most important lessons I discovered are ones you should know too.
Because they spring from helping many others facing the exact same screenwriting problems.
At some point in their career, most writers face with these issues.
Boxed in by a screenwriting problem?
Here’s the straight dope on recognizing the obstacle that's holding you back, plus pointers on finding solutions, ProTips, and the bottom line lesson takeaway.
1) Screenwriting Problems: Loglines Are Vexing
Writers of all stripes struggle with loglines. I doubt anyone one thinks, “Yippie! I’ll quickly jot down a single sentence that sums of my entire story and why it is so special, easy peasy.”
In reality, loglines tie writers up in knots.
Because loglines rank high on the list of screenwriting problems, I’ve devoted many of my ScriptMag columns as well my blogs to this topic. And that’s a mere drop in the bucket of a flood of free online resources on the subject. Yet writers still struggle long and hard, and often quite painfully, when it comes to this one sentence.
My Top Three Logline Pointers:
- Don’t obsess over word count. No working professional has ever counted the words. We don’t have the time. We’re frantically searching for a great story! I know some contests limit you. I’ve heard that argument many times from writers with skimpy loglines. I know the Internet is rife with logline rumors. Here's why they are more fiction than fact. Begin with a compelling logline that fully conveys your story and makes people want to read it because that is their true purpose.
- You don’t have endless words in a single sentence, therefore, make the most of them. Get very comfortable with the Thesaurus. Choose juicy adjectives that communicate exactly what you want to say about characters. Find dynamic, active verbs to convey the central conflict.
- Focus on what is essential: The hero, their flaw, the inciting incident that changes everything, their goal, the obstacles they face – that means conflict – and the stakes – what happens if they don’t achieve the goal.
The most helpful article I’ve written on loglines, IMHO, is I Want To Taste Your Logline 2 with formulas to guide you through getting started and nailing down the essentials. The best article I’ve read on loglines is The Kinetic Logline, by the late, lovely, and articulate Bill Boyle.
Writers often seek advice in online groups. Honestly, I don’t think you should post your precious, brilliant, one-of-a-kind idea in public. Second, frequently the feedback is from other writers, reworking it from the standpoint of knowing nothing about your story, and with their own creative instincts in mind. While this may be well-intentioned, it can be another source of screenwriting problems. The goal is to tell the best version of your story.
ProTip: Test drive your logline! Here’s how. If needed, start fresh from square one to solve this most pernicious of screenwriting problems.
Finally, based on my experience with hundreds of logline consultations, I implore you to write a logline first, rather than struggling to craft one after you’ve completed your script. It's ass-backward.
This forces you to find the focus and through-line of your story at the outset. It can speed and strengthen your work, as well as eliminate this most prevalent of screenwriting problems.
Don’t stress! It’s not written in stone. You can always revise as you move forward. You will benefit from the time you put in before you type, “Fade In” versus the struggle of trying to create a logline for the finished product. This feels like attempting to shove your foot into a shoe that’s several sizes too small.
Want help with this screenwriting problem? Check out my free logline feedback or a comprehensive three-part logline consult with the opportunity to rewrite and hone your logline through a series of constructive, interactive phone consultations.
The Bottom Line: Loglines Are Tough, But Help Far More Than They Hurt – Just Do It!
2) Screenwriting Problems: You’re Lost
How many times have we heard the well-worn joke about the guy who is too stubborn to pull over and ask for directions, preferring being lost over admitting they need help. (Yes, I’m presuming at least some of you remember a time before phone apps spared us the need to ever again be humiliated by asking for directions.)
There is no single path when it comes to how to write a screenplay. You may have structure templates, outlining programs or a corkboard full of file cards. But there are times when you are hit with screenwriting problems and simply need help to move forward.
I’m not trying to sell you on hiring a consultant. I’ve got a self-help program in mind. Inspired by the good old-fashioned road map.
Thanks to the Internet, you can learn at the feet of the great masters for free:
- Read a great screenplay.
- Watch the great movie.
- Read the script again.
I call this the Read Watch Repeat Method. It is a powerful tool for upping your writing game and for solving screenwriting problems.
Which movies should you choose for reading and watching?
Beloved Stories: The best films to learn from are ones that have resonated with audiences for a long time. Timeless stories are watched again and again because they speak to audiences. Search for that. Invariably, it will be a meaningful, universal theme. Focusing on theme keeps your script on track, enables you to make story decisions and solves many screenwriting problems.
Successful Stories: Look for scripts that were both a box office success and critically acclaimed. They obviously had something going for them. Think about what appealed to their audiences. If it’s an indie, think about what features of the story drew a wider audience. Infusing your story with elements that captivate and engage audiences is key to successful storytelling.
Prototype Films: Choose films in the genre you are working in. Prototype Films are widely considered to epitomize their genre. They are outstanding examples of their genres, defining or even redefining them. More on how to choose Prototype Films in Story Foundation – Write From Below The Ground Up. Think about what makes Prototypes tick – the beats that are essential to making the genre succeed – and incorporate them into your work, with your own, distinctive spin.
ProTip: When you find multiple drafts of a script, start with the earliest. Looking at a shooting draft can be informative, but the first draft gives you valuable insight on how the story evolved over the process of development, shooting and editing.
The Internet is rife with screenplays. But to save you the effort of Googling, What Culture gets you off to a flying start with 18 Scripts Wannabe Screenwriters Should Read Right Now, a list of top screenplays with links to read them plus, “what, exactly, it’s possible to learn about the craft from devouring the associated pages.” Several of the Prototype Films I use in my seminars can be found here.
The best new thing on the Internet just might be sources that show film footage while the script scrolls below.
Great resources for Reading While Watching:
Check out my Master’s Class Exercise on the Read Watch Repeat Method.
Find more on how to solve screenwriting problems and build your screenwriting strengths with the Read Watch Repeat Method and Reading While Watching.
The Bottom Line: Read Watch Repeat Is A Map For Moving Forward
3) Screenwriting Problems: You’re Stuck
You may be applying your tush to the seat for hours – conventional wisdom for how to complete a screenplay – but is your script truly becoming stronger and your story more compelling? You may be stuck in the screenwriting problem of rewriting without actually elevating your work.
Top reasons writers get stuck:
1) Your concept is not strong.
2) Your premise doesn’t play out.
3) You’re writing without an outline.
Do you recognize yourself and your script in any of these screenwriting problems?
1) Reconceive the concept. I like to call this “Rubik’s Cubing.”® Go back to your original idea and spin it around. Maybe it’s stronger in a different genre. Perhaps the concept doesn’t support the theme. Possibly the idea is too broad or too narrow. Try starting again with “What if?”
ProTip: Think back to the spark that first drew you to the concept. Have you lost sight of that? Beginning again from that point can solve this screenwriting problem.
2) Deliver on the promise of the premise. A solid premise comes with expectations. If you’ve fallen short of meeting those expectations, you’re setting up your story to disappoint us. Have you explored other ways your story might play out? When you are stuck trying to make your original path through the story work, you're closed off to other – possibly better – options.
ProTip: Seek out twists. Make your work stand out with a fresh spin that satisfies expectations, but in a way that’s unique to your story.
3) Outline, outline, outline. Tired of me harping on outlining? Too bad. If you haven’t figured out in advance how to get from “Fade In” to “Fade Out,” chances are you’re going to get mired in the middle – the most challenging part of a script. This is so common among screenwriting problems, it has earned the nickname “The Muddle of the Middle.”
I can’t say I’m sorry for beating you over the head with this one. If you refuse to outline, if you believe it is not the source of numerous screenwriting problems, I’ll just offer up a few of my strongest counter arguments:
ProTip: If you think of a script as a blueprint for a movie, consider your outline as the blueprint for your script.
There is no quick fix for getting out of any of these sticky situations. But doing the hard work to get unstuck is a great skill builder. It gives you new tools and strengths to solve future screenwriting problems.
The Bottom-Line: Work Your Way Out Of Getting Stuck To Make You And Your Story Stronger
What screenwriting problems have you faced?
What has helped you solve your screenwriting problems?
Please share in the comments to give us all an opportunity to learn and grow.
Next Month: Three more Screenwriting Problems and their Bottom-Line Solutions.
Get more tips from Barri Evins with her on-demand webinar: Loglines, Queries & Synopses: How to Take Your Script from Being Ignored to Getting Noticed!