If you left the May meeting of the Alameda Writers Group (AWG) with unanswered questions about screenwriting, it was your own fault. The featured speaker at the AWG General Membership meeting was writer, director, producer, author and UCLA instructor Tom Lazarus.
AWG President Marc Cushman (Star Trek, Diagnosis: Murder) introduced Lazarus whose credits include writer/story consultant for many TV series including Jake and the Fatman, Knight Rider, Columbo and Charlie’s Angels. His big screen credits include Stigmata, Hear No Evil and Tom Hank’s Mazes and Monsters. He also has written a series of screenwriting how-to books, most recently The Last Word: Definitive Answers to All Your Screenplay Questions.
Lazarus emphasized the importance of catching the interest of the studio reader (the person who decides whether to recommend a screenplay for development) in the first five pages of your script. “You need to get to your story,” he said. “No one wants to wait around till page 30 to find out what your story is about. People don’t have time for that anymore.”
His reference to “page 30” is to the commonly accepted length for the first act of a 120 page screenplay. This is where most screenwriting gurus will tell you your story should take a turn and force the hero out of his comfort zone. Lazarus advocates a much shorter length now, only 100 or even 90 pages.
He said “I onced asked a development executive from Paramount, ‘How many pages do you have to read to know if a script is from a good writer?’ His answer: ‘One.’ Get your story started.”
His personal method for developing a story is to start multiple files. One for characters, another for possible scenes, another for dialog ideas, and so on. “When I can’t stand not writing anymore, I stop my research, make a list of scenes and try to write as much as I can,” he explained. “Your first draft should be about 85 pages and should just tell your ‘A story.’ Don’t get bogged down with a ‘B’ or ‘C’ story. Get your ‘A’ story right and you can add in the other stuff later if you need it.”
The “A” story is the main plot and a “B” story in an action movie, for example, could be a love story.
Lazarus lamented that he has noticed a bad trend lately with screenplays that he reads: “The worst thing I see happening with scripts now is that people are dumbing them down. They put in bold and underline and italics. No! This is annoying and makes the script hard to read and more importantly, it’s an insult to the reader.”
He explained, “Bolding something is like saying, ‘Hey, dummy, pay attention to this.’ Well, readers aren’t stupid. They may have MBA smarts, not creative smarts, but they know when they’re being insulted. Use proper screenwriting format. Your story has to sell itself.”
The AWG audience contained a mix of all kinds of writers, so, Lazarus also emphasized the difference between writing a novel and a screenplay. “Your job as a screenwriter,” he said, “is to report what’s happening on the screen. Don’t write about what the character is feeling or remembering – no internal processes. Just what you can see or hear. Let the story tell itself.”
He also pointed out what he called the most vital rule of screenwriting. “Every scene must move the story along. How do you know if it does? If you can cut the scene and the story still makes sense, get rid of it.”
Although not a touchy-feely guy, Lazarus did discuss the personal challenges that writers face. He suggested that writers need to know their weakness. “Whenever I get notes on a script I’ve written, it’s always ‘put more emotion in’, ‘needs more feeling’. I’m not a very emotional guy so my characters aren’t either.”
He recalled an example of this: “One time on a movie-of-the-week, I had the hero fall asleep. That’s what I would have done. But the notes came back, ‘What are you doing. You can’t have the hero fall asleep.’ So I had him throw a chair through a window. The point is, know your fault and watch for it.”
He added: “It’s important to have a good feeling about your work. Make every script you write perfect. That way when you send it out, you know you’ve done your job as a writer and you can feel good about yourself. If it doesn’t sell, there could be all kinds of reasons but you’ll know it wasn’t your fault.”
Lazarus answered questions from the audience, including one which asked about the most important part of a script.
“There’s a lot of emphasis put on the beginning of a script,” he replied. “Writers usually do a great number of rewrites on the beginning, but then have a weak ending. You should rewrite the ending as many times as you rewrite the beginning.”
Another writer asked: “If a script has to be perfect, how do you know when it’s done?”
Lazarus said, “I usually do a dozen rewrites. Not just going through and making a change here and there, but a rewrite from beginning to end. When I’ve done a rewrite and I see it’s the same number of pages, and I haven’t done any major changes, just tweaks, that’s how I know it’s done.”
Lazarus encouraged writers to experiment. “Don’t be afraid to try crazy ideas. The great thing about modern technology is that if your ideas doesn’t work, you can always go back.”
The Alameda Writers Group is open to all kinds of writers and meets the first Saturday of every month at 10:00 am at the Glendale Central Library. The monthly meeting is free and open to the public.