Thursday, May 19, 2011

So You Want to Be a Screenwriter...

Yesterday I did a very informative interview with Adam Coplan of

Coplan is an independent producer who has a lot of experience as both a script reader and as an executive.

In short, Coplan was the gatekeeper you had to get past in order for your script to move up the rankings into the higher echelons of production.

Coplan gave me some checkpoints to keep in mind for aspiring screenwriters.

Those First Five Pages

It wasn’t the title that Coplan said grabbed the attention most, but the first five to ten pages.

If you can’t capture the reader’s attention in the first five pages, you’re in trouble.

How do you do this? My two cents worth: Action, action, action. I would also say to properly illustrate the main character’s flaw. I am consulting on a script right now that has a great second-act journey (or the potential for one), which is usually the hard part.

But I am not getting a clear picture as to what the main character’s motivation is.

The writer hasn’t spent enough time illustrating what the main character’s flaw is, and therefore I don’t see why the main character is trying to get out of doing what he needs to do (the journey he needs to take) – and also what he has to gain on his journey, in terms of his internal emotional needs.

Keep It High-Concept

Back to Coplan. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, Coplan's advice is not to write that big drama where you’re emulating all of your icons a la Scorsese and Woody Allen.

Coplan says: high concept, high concept, high concept.

Here’s how Alexis Niki defines high concept:

A "high concept" script is one whose premise:

- is universal;

- has a fresh twist;

- involves an empathetic hero who is dealing with a BIG problem; and

- can be summed up in a 25-word logline that gives a good picture of the entire movie.

Coplan also links high concept to originality. One thing I learned while at Writers Boot Camp was about the conceit of the script.

The conceit is that one thing that makes your movie different. Of course, we are never doing anything original when we speak in terms of story. There are really only seven basic stories.

If you already know you are going to be remaking one of these stories, then you need to throw in a fresh twist.

The conceit of the film is that thing we’ve never seen before. It can also be a new, different kind of character. Gregory House (of House) is perfect example: a misanthropic medical genuis. We’ve seen doctors save people before but not this doctor.

Keep It Short

Your script should also be short, according to Coplan. Whereas I have heard that scripts aren’t even 120 pages anymore, they’re 110, Coplan informed that your script should actually be more like 95 pages.

Make It a Comedy

And stick with comedy, people. Leave that slow period drama for when you’re already established.

Of course there are the options of independently producing and directing your own movie. But if you want to sell your script to another production company, comedy is the best way to break in.

A comedy with a high-concept, broad appeal, that is. Save those dark comedies for your own time (and dime). Or just write prose (which I am doing; I just can't shake my dark comedy habit).

Be the Writer and Just the Writer

Sure, we all should by now know that screenwriting is a visual medium. Tell the story through images not through words (dialogue). In other words, show don’t tell!

But what about not slipping in music references, such as: X song rolls over credits.

In Coplan’s opinion, not only do you add seven figures to the budget every time you add a song to your script, but you are also doing the job of the music supervisor. Your job is as the writer, nothing more.

Same goes for camera angles and excessive scene direction. That’s the director’s job, not yours.

Even if you are independently producing the film, someone is going to be reading your script (read: investors); so why not keep the script in line with the guidelines you would use to sell it to a major production company?


  1. Interesting (and good) advice. Thank you for sharing the interview. I tend to spend a lot of time on character development - who my heroine is. I like complicated characters. Anyway, nice blog!

  2. Thank you, Saylor. I think character development is very important too. Adam Coplan, in this interview, was definitely referring to movies that follow a very typical Hollywood model, with little character development and more emphasis on gags. It's the way to break-in to Hollywood, but it also has to be the type of movie you want to write.