In this series, we talk to screenwriters about their works in progress and what drew them to screenwriting. This time around, we got a chance to sit down with up-and-coming screenwriter Elizabeth Ditty.
Elizabeth grew up on Disney and Days of Our Lives, which led her to write stories about people facing the dissonance between what they thought life would be like vs. what their lives are actually becoming. Think adult coming-of-age stories across genres, almost always with an element of romance because she has no self-control when it comes to shipping characters in anything she watches, reads or writes. Elizabeth is also a proud alumna of the The Bitch List, which she has assured her mother is a good thing.
Additionally, her prose and poetry can be found in Memoir Mixtapes, L’Éphémère Review, Moonchild Magazine, Tiny Essays, Black Bough Poetry, Luna Luna Mag, and anthology No Spider Harmed in the Making of This Book.
What is your favorite genre to write?
Oh, this is tough! I tend to write stories that sit between genres, which by the way is not necessarily something I’d advise! So, it’s hard for me to pick just one genre that I love. I have a light-hearted family drama with romantic comedy elements, a gothic romance with horror elements, and a murder mystery with romantic comedy elements. If there’s a through line, it’s definitely romance. And as a viewer, I will watch just about anything, though I must admit I am pretty partial to things with happy or happy-adjacent endings.
Currently, I’m working on a half-hour series concept, which is a format I haven’t tackled before. It’s a comedy about a grieving family trying to balance carrying on a legacy with carving out their own path, all revolving around the world of peewee soccer. I’m mining deep in my own experiences for this one, so it’s a little scary but also cathartic in a way. And it’s been fun learning the ropes of the half-hour format. Plus, the romance storyline just revealed itself to me, so now I’m fully invested!
Tell us about the moment you realized that you wanted to be a writer.
Some of the first seeds were planted early on. In first grade, I “won” a Young Authors contest for an acrostic poem about a brontosaurus — which is ridiculous, but it was the first time I wrote something and had someone say, “Hey, this is good.” I don’t remember a ton of assignments from elementary school, but the ones I do remember are almost exclusively writing-related.
In college, I majored in journalism and learned a ton about crafting a story in a concise manner. This may sound ironic to people who’ve read my work, given I still tend to be a fairly prosey writer, but what I mean is it taught me to get the most important facts onto the page in a manner that still reads in an interesting way.
Due to a variety of reasons, I went down a different career path, but a couple of years after I graduated and entered the workforce, I discovered National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, and it really reignited my love of storytelling. And it was through their now-retired sister event, ScriptFrenzy, that I discovered and fell in love with screenwriting. I won’t date myself and say how long ago that was, but I’ve been at it ever since.
What story, film or novel that has left an indelible impact on you as a writer?
I think about the movie Ever After a lot. It’s got everything I love in a movie: a strong female lead — and in fact a full cast of strong female characters — humor, adventure, intrigue, romance, and a good-looking British male lead with great hair. I think I’m always trying to capture at least some of these elements in everything I write.
If you could give any tips to an upcoming writer on how you handle multiple story ideas, what would you tell them?
Due to my current circumstances juggling a day job, elementary-aged children, and writing, I do tend to focus on basically one idea at a time. If other ideas sneak in, I write them down and promise to come back later. Occasionally, I’ll sneak in some minor edits on one project or some work on a pitch or the like while doing a first draft on my primary project, but for better or for worse, right now, I try to stay as single-minded as possible so I can make sure I’m getting things done.
I think many of us are juggling multiple lives, so to speak, before writing becomes our primary career. If having multiple projects going at the same time works for you, great! If focusing on one at a time works, great! I think the most important part is to make sure you’re finishing projects and not just constantly adding half-finished scripts to your portfolio.
How do you decide which idea to start on first?
When an idea just won’t leave me alone, I know I need to “get to!” and start giving it targeted attention. Whenever I think of a story idea or concept, I try to jot it down, but it’s when a character latches on and starts showing me tidbits of scenes that I get excited.
Who is your go to person when you’re ready for fresh eyes on your script? Why are they your go to person?
I am extremely lucky to have benefitted from notes from a lot of people over the years, but four people jump to mind immediately.
First, there’s Janese Taylor because her play-by-play notes are both hilarious and extremely helpful for seeing the emotional impact from scene to scene.
Next, there’s Guy Crawford because he is both incredibly supportive and has an absolutely wonderful knack for giving notes that help take your story to the next level. He’s all about helping you tell YOUR story better.
Thirdly, there’s Jeremiah Lewis, who I can always count on for the honest truth and insightful thoughts on what’s working, what’s not, and how to hone the story and characters.
And last but not least, there’s Jeffrey Field, who has an incredible understanding of story and structure and always provides actionable, spot-on advice.
These four are all extraordinary writers, and I’m so lucky to be able to learn from them and so many others who have either read my work or shared their own with me.
Where do you hope to see yourself in this industry in the next 5 to 10 years?
I’d love to be making my living writing. To be able to focus my working hours’ energy on creating stories — that’s absolutely what I want to be doing.
As a stretch goal, I’m really interested in producing. I’m a manager at my day job, and helping people solve problems and facilitating an environment that is both positive and oriented toward achieving goals is probably the best part of my job. To get to apply that in a creative field would be really cool.
As a second stretch goal, I’ve directed a couple of zero-budget shorts myself, and I’d love to learn more about directing on a larger scale. I’m not sure if it’s something I’d want to tackle myself at this point, but there’s something to be said for watching other people in their element and witnessing their passion at work.
Besides writing what other skills would you think a screenwriter should have?
How to listen, and how to prioritize curiosity.
Listening is such a vital skill for a writer. It allows you to observe and to learn. I’m sure this is ethically gray but listening to conversations in coffee shops or in line at the grocery store or wherever you can have the potential to provide you with a treasure trove of dialog and even story inspiration. On top of that, learning how to truly listen when someone is speaking is a skill that will reap major rewards, whether you’re taking a class, receiving notes, or just listening to a friend relate to an experience.
Somewhat similarly, curiosity is the thing that leads you down those rabbit holes that reveal some of the best stories. Additionally, it encourages you to understand people rather than judging them. If you haven’t watched the darts scene from episode 8 of Ted Lasso, then I would highly encourage you to do so because Ted explains this concept perfectly. (Though I’d really recommend just watching the whole season, because it is brilliant, and I’m not just saying that because Jason Sudeikis and I are both from Kansas City).
I see your script HAG has been announced as an Official Selections for HorrOrigins Film Fest. Tell us about it?
HAG is a supernatural horror feature with rom-com elements. It’s about a group of friends whose weekend getaway in Missouri wine country gets derailed by a supernatural entity bent on slaughtering any woman breaking centuries-old taboos. It’s The Evid Dead meets Wine Country.
Tell us how you came up with the concept? Any real-life experience behind it?
HAG is set in a little German heritage town in Missouri called Hermann. I’d wanted to set a story there for ages because it’s such a unique place with a fascinating history. When I started researching German folklore, everything sort of clicked into place.
On my last trip there, we took the historical society’s tour, and it reinforced and added texture to everything that was already churning in my mind. And back to my point earlier about eavesdropping, I’ll admit that I saw an exchange between a bartender and a rather inebriated young woman that I absolutely lifted and transformed into one of the early scenes for the screenplay. Oh, and the witch’s stone? Definitely real!
As far as real-life experience, I’ve definitely drawn on what it’s like to be a woman in this day and age. If there’s one collective experience nearly all women have had, I’d bet it’s that we’ve all been told or felt that we’re doing it wrong, no matter what our life choices look like. How we address and deal with those feelings and opinions is a big theme in HAG.
Do you have any more horror stories/scripts in your arsenal you plan on working on?
I have a Dracula adaptation called Harker that I categorize as a gothic romance with horror elements. I read the novel for the first time a couple of years ago and found myself absolutely captivated by Bram Stoker’s depiction of Mina as the true hero of the novel, not to mention her pure, passionate relationship with Jonathan. On top of that, I was also really touched by the wonderful, non-toxic male friendships on display. I’d never seen these elements depicted in an adaptation, and I desperately wanted to see that version — so I wrote it! It was also a HorrOrigins Official Selection last year, and this year it was a semifinalist in Network ISA’s Drama/Genre-Bending Contest. It’s a passion project of mine, and I’d be over the moon to find a home for it someday.
Beyond that, I have a couple of horror shorts, one of which I’m exploring actually transforming into a short film. I’m not currently writing any other new horror features, but I have at least one more I’d like to get back to at some point in the future. Horror is a great genre though, so I can definitely see returning to it again if the right story finds me.
How does it feel when one of your scripts is being so well received?
It’s always such a wonderful feeling when a story connects with readers. I always write stories that I’d love to see on screen, and this was no exception. It’s super encouraging getting that initial feedback that suggests there’s an audience out there for a story you’re passionate about!