I'm on mailing lists for both of the major screenwriting software programs, and yesterday one of them, Write Bros., (who make MovieMagic Screenwriter) sent out a newsletter that included a long article from a former literary representative with advice on making your script more salable.
The advice used the fellow's W.I.S.E. System, which stands for Writing, Idea, Sales, and Ethic. In fairness, a lot of the advice was smart, though some was contradictory. For instance, under the Writing section, he said not to make narrative description too long. (That's reasonable advice.) However, he also said not to have too much dialogue, so as not to be so talky. (Again, not bad advice.) Of course, without much narrative description and dialogue, you're left with a pretty short screenplay...
In the Sales section, he noted that when you submit your script to a company, you should let them know if others are reading it, too, and any attachments the project has had (actors and directors) and to make it seem hot and desirable and a Must-Read, because no one wants to pass on something that others like. People get fired for things like that. At the same time, though, he noted that readers can see through hype, so don't promote yourself too much.
Again, none of this is bad advice. It's just that the way of presenting it could have more about the needs and balances a writer has to face, rather than rules that sometimes cancel each other out.
It was a long article, which I admit I skimmed, but the short version of what he said was basically this --
Come up with an an amazingly great idea that companies can't help but want to do. Write it with wonderful dialogue that leaps off the page and gripping, involving narrative. Make sure the reader knows how much other people are also deeply anxious to read your screenplay. And work incredibly, incredibly, amazingly hard.
To be clear (though I simplified things drastically), advice like this does often need saying and repeating, because a lot of screenplays -- especially from wannabes -- don't come close to these standards. But it was written from the perspective of a manager, not a writer, and so without the nuance and understanding of the writing process that was needed. And thoughtful though it was, in the end it reminded me a conversation that I once had with a friend:
She was developing a film project with a company, and went in one afternoon to get notes from the producer. He liked her draft, but brought up another movie that he thought she could get good direction from. It was the film, Oh, God!. Throughout the meeting, he'd draw allusions to that film, and point out how well it had been done in s particular section. Then later, he'd note again how Oh, God! had handled the issue at hand. And again, and more, and so on and on. Oh, God! had done this so wonderfully, try to emulate it. Oh, God! had done that so great, keep it in mind.
And all through the meeting, she had her notepad out and appeared to be aggressively taking notes from his words of wisdom. Nodding all the while, and furiously scribbling.
In truth, however, once she realized what the producer was saying, she had only written one, single, solitary sentence on her notepad. The rest was fake-writing in the air. And all she had written down was --
"Write like Larry Gelbart."
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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