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The 'Baby Writer's' Cheat Sheet: Tips from Screenwriting Instructor Hilliard Guess

Shadow and Act By Jasmin Tiggett | Shadow and Act January 27, 2014 at 5:18PM

Award-winning screenwriter, independent producer, and Organization of Black Screenwriters instructor Hilliard Guess shared his thoughts on a few of the things that young film and TV writers can do, in their scripts and in the business, to set themselves on the right track.
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Hilliard Guess

The phrase baby writers gets tossed around often in entertainment – that is, those who are trained in screenwriting, but are relatively new to the business and struggling to get their feet wet. They may have never sold a script, never had their work produced, never won a contest or been staffed on a TV show. Perhaps they’ve sent out countless query letters, hoping to catch the attention of an agent or manager, to no avail. If that’s you, help is on the way.

Consider this a companion piece to Tambay’s 5 Tips on Writing No-Budget/Low-Budget Feature Screenplays.

Here are award-winning screenwriter, independent producer, and Organization of Black Screenwriters instructor Hilliard Guess' thoughts on a few of the things that young film and TV writers can do, in their scripts and in the business, to set themselves on the right track.

Less black on the page

There’s something beautiful about the way a script looks on the page. And I can usually tell if somebody hasn’t read their script on paper. If you make a copy of your script and start reading it, you’ll see things like, if I just edited that scene it could have ended at the bottom of the page, and it would have been a lot cleaner to start again at the top of the next one. Young writers also tend to write big, blotchy paragraphs that you just don’t want to read. There’s too much black [text] on the page. They’re not starting a scene late, they’re not ending early. They’re doing amateur moves and I see them a mile away.

It’s not that people don’t like to read, but attention spans are shorter. This is why movies are getting shorter and shorter. You just want to have a clean script that’s full of great dialogue that you can zip right through. Everybody flips to the end of a script to see how many pages it is. I flip through it in general to see how it’s feeling and looking and how dense it is.

Get to the point

You don’t have 20 pages anymore. You don’t have 10 pages. You have one or two, maybe three pages to catch the reader. So when I’m writing a script, I get right to my inciting incident on page two or three. Some people wait until seven or eight. Great, if you’re Quentin Tarrantino, and you can write dialogue that pops so well they don’t even care. But if you’re not that guy, you’ve got to get right to what the story’s about.  First page, boom – Ashley’s fired. So what’s she gonna do? She’s gonna fight to get her job back. So we know that’s what the story’s about. We’ve got to get right to the story.

Trusting the reader

One of the biggest things that I see from younger writers is constantly speaking in their scripts, in the action and the dialogue, in a passive voice. Drives me bananas. Jackie’s standing in the doorway.You don’t have to say somebody’s sitting at the desk. They’re at the desk. We know where they are.

And a lot of young writers will be repetitive; they’ll say, INT. METRO BUS – DAY. And then, We’re inside the bus. They sometimes think they have to explain every single detail. Then they’ll read somebody else’s script that’s more advanced, and say Wow, he didn’t describe anything, but I totally got it.

You have to give your reader more of a benefit of the doubt. Once you trust your reader, you stop worrying about all those little nitpicky details that have nothing to do with anything.

Building curiosity

In every script I try to ask, how can I make my reader curious?  From the very first page. And usually it’s setting up a situation where we meet a character and we’re not sure what they’re doing. Why is she bleeding? And you won’t find out until later. Another thing is, if I have a group of characters in one particular place, I’ll make sure that everybody has a secret they’re hiding, that they all have to reveal at some point. That’s a sequence I’ll tend to do around the midpoint, page 60 or so in a 90-page script. That is the one moment in a horror script where nobody dies. It’s a character’s monologue of truth. And it’s also about seeing a character who is weak become strong for the first time. They finally admit what their problem was, how they got there, what they’ve learned. And I can’t tell you how many people will read a script like that, and that big reveal is the moment that took them over. More than any other scene, it was how we revealed what the character was hiding that got them.

Writing natural dialogue

I teach people how to write in contractions, in action and in dialogue. I’m not going to do something, I’m gonna. Everything should have a natural flow, like the way you talk. It helps you get to your character voice because each one of them will have what I call an ism - a thing that only they do. Some people will describe it as different things but what I mean is, if I have a character named Drake, his best friend might call him D; he may refer to her as something else. That makes it more conversational and personal.

That’s the other thing. Every time somebody introduces a character they think we need to know what their name is. We don’t. If we’ve been talking for 15 minutes, I may not say your name once. So you have to think about that when you’re writing your script. If there’s two people in a scene, it’s just he and she. Unless it’s a big move – if a character is exiting a room or he picks something up and throws it across the floor and you need to be specific. But it’s thinking about those moments, those ways to make the dialogue sound more like everyday speech.

Crafting characters and location

I’m a research junkie. So I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what’s the best location for this story, and what kinds of people live there. Once you understand that, you can understand the world of the characters. And their voices start speaking to you. You can feel when you’re in the Midwest, how they act, how they talk, how they slow down a little bit. If you have a script that takes place in a small town in Missouri, but you’ve never been there, there are so many things that you can do.

When I was writing my very first script [Sundance Finalist] Rebel Yell, it took place in London in the ‘60s. I’d never been to England.  But if you read my script you’d think I had been there, by the way I describe it. Here’s one thing I did - on Google, it’ll give you a bird’s eye view of streets. You can literally move around the streets and say, “Okay, there’s a pub on the corner. I wonder what it was like 20 years ago? What if there wasn’t a pub there. What if there was something else…”  So that’s where my imagination starts to work. But if I hadn’t seen it, it would only be my imagination.

Structuring spec scripts

Besides understanding the pattern of the show, I want to know who’s the main character in a particular episode and follow them at the beginning and end of each act break. What I tend to do in an ensemble show is figure out what my A story is, and I’ll center it around one character. Each time I’ll end my main act, I’ll end it with my A story, and the next act will start right back with my A story again. In the show, they may switch to the B or C story, but in a spec script, I want the reader to know this episode is about one character. It helps my specs stand out.

For instance, I’m writing a Walking Dead right now, and I decided to focus on Carl’s character. Yes, all the other characters will be in the show, but this is his episode. So each act break ends with something that went wrong because of Carl. Then I’ll find the B and C story. And the best stories are when the other characters parallel what’s going on in the A story; when they all have to solve the same problem, so it’s the same theme throughout the whole episode.

Writing to get representation

The reason I encourage young writers to do competitions, particularly Sundance, Austin, and Slamdance, is if you make it to even the semi-finals of some of those competitions, a list goes out to the industry. And people start knocking on your door. That doesn’t mean you’re going to get signed. But it means that all of a sudden people will want to read [your work].

It gives you that much more of what I call oomph, under your script. It’s not just a script anymore. It’s a finalist at Slamdance. So now when you go to query an agent because you don’t have any referrals, now you have something under it. There are tons of writers who’ve never done that who just got an agent. But if you don’t have a friend’s referral or a contact at an agency, you need something else. And that is so much more powerful than just a script only you think is great.

Fine-tuning your script

Before any of my friends see a script, I’ll probably have polished it 10 times. I’ll write my outline, and I’ll spend more time on my outline than I do on my script, so that the script is like most people’s fourth or fifth draft. What I see is a lot of young writers that are lazy. They write a script, they do a little polish on it and think it’s ready to go. And it’s 120 pages. Today you want to show Hollywood that you can get a script in under 110 pages, depending on the genre. You want to show that it’s a fast-paced movie. When you say you just wrote this cool new science fiction movie and it’s a long ass 130-page script, but you think that you’ve set this new world and there’s nothing that can be changed, that’s part of the misconception.

So they don’t spend enough time with their scripts, and they don’t have anybody read them who are really giving them notes. But that’s the cool thing about the internet. When I started writing 10 years ago, every writing guru didn’t have a website. Now you can punch in screenwriting and see who’s teaching where, and what online class you can take. You can call [script consultant] Pilar Alessandra. You can send your script to OBS. We have great instructors - Lisa Bolekaja, Rene Rhawls, Ron Covington, Tracy Grant, Teri Brown – and readers that will give you coverage.

A person living outside a big city could easily join a book club and have them read your scripts too. People who read books might not understand what interior/exterior or POV is, but they will understand character and story and structure for the most part. My sister, for instance, is in a book club. She’s an avid reader, she’s super smart, and when I finish one of my scripts she’s one of the first people that will read it. She’s hard on me just as my writer friends are, and I want that. And nine times out of 10, she’s right on the money with what my other writer friends are saying.

Being you

One thing I find really interesting is when people move here and they get a meeting with a producer, they think they have to get dressed up for it. You can be you here. You don’t want to be in a shirt and tie, you want to be casual and clean. Nice pair of jeans, nice shirt. That’s all you need.  I can’t tell you how many young writers will show up in their best Sunday suit to go into a meeting. And it’s almost intimidating to the person sitting on the other side. You’re watching this person and thinking they’re a complete amateur. And the one thing you don’t ever want people to think is that you’re an amateur.

Always be reading and writing

If you’re not writing, you should be reading. If you’re not reading, you should be writing. And if you finish the script and you can’t work on it anymore, you should be moving on to the next thing. If you ever sit behind me at the coffee shop, I have a script up, an outline for the next thing I’m working on, and if I get bored with both of those, I’ll open up an old script and just start fiddling. Because every day that you are a writer, you grow. Don’t let a day go by when someone wants to read your stuff and you need two weeks to fix it. It should be ready.

And I try to encourage writers, if you write at home, great. But when you read your script, take it to the coffee shop, somewhere where other writers are. It’s just about being out, letting other people see what you do. Make a copy of your script, and make it look professional. I’m a pro. I’m not just an amateur. Claim it. Take that positivity into yourself. I think that’s one of the things that those competitions helped me with early on – there are things that you can do to give you that confidence. Being out and about with other writers gives you confidence.

When I’m in public and I have a script in my hand, I usually make a copy of it, I’ll put in my brads. I want to show that I’m a professional writer. People judge you, and I want to be judged that I’m ready at all times. So whenever you see me reading something in public, it looks like it’s ready to go. Even if I’m reading somebody else’s script. I want to show you, with my script, what I want you to see in me.

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Hilliard Guess has been writing for film and television for ten years, and has won and placed in nearly 20 writing competitions including Sundance, Slamdance, the PAGE Awards, Screenplay Festival, FIN, and the Nicholl Fellowship for Screenwriting.

You can find more about him and his work at Hilldog Productions.


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