Ask A Professional Screenwriter

With Jurgen Wolff

The UK’s top writing coach, Jurgen Wolff, joins us to answer your questions. Jurgen is the author of “Your Writing Coach” and writer of more than 100 episodes of TV, the feature film, “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and script doctor on projects starring Kim Cattrall, Michael Caine, Eddie Murphy and more. We asked him to start with the questions he is asked most often about screenwriting.
 

What are producers looking for in terms of scripts?

 
The answer I get most often from producers is, “Something fresh, something edgy, something that hasn’t been done before.”
 
The problem is that when you show them something fresh, edgy and not done before, their response often is, “I’m not sure I get this. It’s kind of weird. The inciting incident doesn’t happen on page 24…You got anything else? Like maybe, you know, “The King’s Speech” meets “Transformers”?
 
That’s because when a script exists they are one step closer to spending money—a lot of money, in many cases—on something new.  That’s a risk. Yes, it may pay big dividends, but it could also flop. When it succeeds, nobody asks who was responsible—they’re all quite happy to take the credit. When it fails, the hunt is on for that person who was the earliest in the chain to say ‘yes.’
 
One way to help your chances is to relate your project to something they will recognise, even if the comparison is a stretch. Gene Roddenberry failed to sell “Star Trek” until he told the network that “It’s Wagon Train (then a popular Western TV series) in outer space.”
 

I like to write comedy and drama and I’d also like to try writing a sci-fi script. What genre makes the best spec script?

 
There are a few things I suggest you consider:
·      What you write best.  There are a few genius writers who can write comedy and drama and sci-fi equally well, but the odds are you’re not one of them (no offence).

·      What you want to keep writing for a long time. If you have a hit with a comedy, producers will ask you for more comedies. If it’s a thriller, suddenly you’re that person who writes thrillers. You will be pigeon-holed, so find a pigeon-hole you’d enjoy.

·      Assuming you have specific ideas in each of those genres, which is the best story? If you hope to sell to a major studio, generally these days it had better be a very big story. One that will be expensive to make and will look expensive on the screen. If you want to make it yourself or sell it to an independent, make sure it’s a story that won’t require $100 million to shoot.

 
If you look at all those factors, the answer should emerge. Otherwise flip a coin.
 

What writing opportunities are there on the web?

 
From the writer’s perspective, writing scripts for films to be shown on the web is not very different—if at all—from writing scripts to be shown in more traditional ways. Usually they are either feature-length films or shorts that couldn’t find a traditional distributor.
 
The big breakthrough on the web is that it’s a method of distribution available to anyone. You can stream it or sell DVDs of it all over the world. There may be only 100 people in your town who’d pay to see it. At the cinema that would be a disaster. But multiply that 100 by however many towns, and it’s a huge success. If you can reach them. That’s the hard bit. The more that producers figure out how to do that, the more work there will be for you as a writer.
 
Of course there have been and are some series made specifically for the web. A few have been successes, most have not. We haven’t yet seen the breakthrough hit that defines that genre. There are lots of opportunities to experiment and get experience. So far, there are few opportunities to get paid much for it.
 

What’s the biggest mistake newer screenwriters make?

 
I think it’s letting a formula or template be the master of your story rather than the servant.  A lot of newer writers start with something like the hero’s journey, or 22 steps, or three acts with specific pages for specific types of developments, and treat it like a fill-in-the-blanks exercise. Mentor…mentor…my protagonist needs a mentor or it’s not a hero’s journey. OK, I’ll make up a mysterious old lady who lives next door!
 
Part of the problem is impatience. I can relate—when I have a new idea, I want to get started right away. The fun part is writing, the hard part is doing an outline first, so why not grab the nearest formula? The sooner I squish my story into that, the sooner I’ll be able to spend time with my characters.
 
The why not is that it may take you away from what would make your story different and authentic. Authentic in the sense that it comes from you without being tortured into a specific shape right at the start.
 
I don’t mean any disrespect to the people who write how-to books about the hero’s journey or 22 steps, it’s not their intention that these be misused that way.
 
The time to bring those structures in is after you’ve let your story grow naturally. After you’ve used your own gut and your own brain to figure out what parts of the story are important.
 
The odds are that by then it will also be unwieldy. That’s the time to step back and consider which approach to story structure (or which combination of approaches) will help you solve your story problems.
 
Or you may find that your inciting incident, the thing that changes everything, is on page one. It could even be in line one. Hey, it worked for Kafka: “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”
 
If in doubt, trust the story.
 
****************
 
Now it’s your turn. Email your questions to JurgenWolff@gmail.com and he will answer them here. His books, Your Writing Coach and Your Creative Writing Masterclass, both published by Nicholas Brealey,  are available from Amazon and other book sellers.  You may also be interested in his Breakthrough Writing Strategy online group coaching programme. It starts on January 16 and there are bonuses for early signup. You can find out more and get his free 2012 Writing Breakthrough Report.

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About Jurgen Wolff

Jurgen WolffJurgen Wolff is a writer, teacher, and creativity consultant. In the United States, he wrote for sitcoms including “Benson” and “Family Ties.” He wrote the feature film, “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer and directed by Vadim Jean. He was a script doctor on the hit film, “Mannequin” and others starring Michael Caine, Walter Matthau, and Eddie Murphy. For Germany, he co-created the comedy series, “Lukas,” which ran for 65 episodes, and an original comedy series called “Krista.” He also wrote nine episodes of the series,” Relic Hunter.” He wrote two TV movies for the Olsen Twins, and several the German TV movies including, “On Top of the Volcano,” starring Maria Schrader and Sebastian Koch (2007). His play, “Killing Mother,” was produced at the Gorky Theatre in Berlin, and he’s also had plays produced in New York, Los Angeles, and London.
 
As a writing and creativity teacher, his courses include “Beyond Brainstorming,” “Create Your Future,” and “The Creative Breakthrough Workshop.” He has presented his courses at the University of Southern California, the University of Barcelona, the Skyros Institute, many films schools, and groups and organisations including The Academy for Chief Executives, Egmont, Grundy-UFA, and Columbia-Tri-Star. For eight years he was a visiting lecturer for the Pilots Program in Sitges.
 
His books include “Your Writing Coach” and “Your Creative Writing Masterclass” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing), “Creativity Now” (Pearson),“Do Something Different” (Virgin Business Books), “Successful Scriptwriting” (Writers Digest Press), “Top Secrets: Screenwriting” (Lone Eagle Press), and “Successful Sitcom Writing” (St. Martin’s Press). He has written for many publications including the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Broadcast Magazine, and he is the editor of “Brainstorm,” the creativity ebulletin.
 
His writing blogs are at www.TimeToWrite.blogs.com and www.SuccessfulScreenwriting.com. He runs the Writing Breakthrough Strategy Program, an online group coaching program (www.WritingBreakthroughStrategy.com). He is based in London but spends part of each year in Los Angeles. He can be contacted at jurgenwolff@gmail.com.

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Ask A Professional Screenwriter