Answering your unanswered search queries

07/21/2008
Since this site occupies the very same ground once occupied by another blog of mine, and since that blog was maintained for four or five years, people often get diverted to this new web site from their search results, only to find the information they were searching for has vanished into the ether. In an uncharacteristic effort to spread a little good will around the Internetz, I’ve chosen to answer the most pressing search queries that went wanting in the hope that those who come after will at last find what they search for.

Queried: “What is a one-sheet in screenwriting?”

Answered: I’ve rarely used the term one-sheet in the screenwriting sense. Usually, when you say one-sheet to someone in the movie industry, you are talking about a movie poster.

However, in screenwriting, a one-sheet is a single-page that contains the logline and synopsis of your feature film screenplay. It’s basically a two-minute pitch on a page.The only time I’ve ever written one was for submission along with my screenplay to a contest many years ago. Other than that, I don’t honestly know when you would need one.

Queried: “Being a screenwriter in 2008″

Answered: It may seem counter-intuitive, but 2008 is probably a great time to be a screenwriter. Yeah, there were some rough times during the strike, and not everyone thinks writers got a super deal, but progress was made on the MBA. Once SAG settles their own issues it’ll be full-steam ahead for the movie biz. The spec market is already heating up again. Summer of 2008 is gonna be a record-breaking box office season, and the movie studios will want more of that. With so much attention brought to new media, more opportunities seem to abound than ever. In fact, Joss Whedon is changing the rules as we speak.

Looking ahead and looking back, you can say it was a turbulent year but there is reason to be optimistic.

Queried: “Do I send the logline again with the screenplay?”

Answered: Probably best to incorporate a brief version of your logline in the friendly cover letter you include when you send your screenplay. You know, “Dear Executive-type-lady, here’s the romantic drama you requested from me at the recent Super-Duper Pitch Fest Event. Robot-Dinosaur Circus tells the tale of a robot dinosaur who joins the circus for some reason…”

Queried: “Why should I get a writing partner?”

Answered: To do all your work for you.

I kid, I kid. I don’t know why you should get a writing partner, but I know why I got one. Because it’s fun, and we’re better together on our particular project than we would be apart.

My former writer’s group met every other week and in addition to my script pages, I would regularly bring in three fresh loglines to pitch — it was an exercise in coming up with new ideas on a regular basis. Most of the loglines were crap, but every now and then one was bound to be gold. That’s how I came up with the idea for my current spec, and it’s also what led to my first ever collaboration.

My writing partner, another member of my group, came up with a twist on my idea that was so good it sent both our imaginations into overdrive. I didn’t know it, but on the drive home that night he’d come up with dozens of notes and ideas for the story. In the meantime, I wrote him an email inviting him to collaborate.

In other words, the story itself brought us together. The energy created by our collaboration is more than we individually put in. And without my writing partner, I’d still be stuck on the inciting incident, instead of having the whole script outlined on note cards. And we’re just getting started.

That’s why you want a writing partner.

It’s important to note that my partner and I have been in the same writer’s group for three years, and gotten to know each other over that time and our mutual likes and dislikes. We knew this kind of story would be a good fit for both of us, and that we’d be a good fit for each other.

If you are looking for a partner, be patient. When the story is ready, the partner will appear. I can’t see the appeal or the logic in, say, placing a classified add for a partner. What’s the point?

Queried: How do I keep up my writing skills?

Answered: Is writing like riding a bike (you never forget)? Or is it more like bodybuilding (muscles atrophy with disuse)? I think the query may be the problem. Do you really want to “keep up”, or do you want to grow as a writer?

Maintenance requires regular but minimal attention. Growing requires something else. You have to stretch beyond your limit, to the point of failure, and rebuild, and stretch again. You have to be willing to challenge yourself, to feel incompetent, and to look downright silly. You have to be willing to venture outside your comfort zone and directly confront your fears.

I did that for most of my time in film school[1]. The downside was that I graduated with a stack of screenplays that made for great learning experiences, but not much else. I was still finding myself as a writer. The good news is that once I had discovered my strengths, once I knew definitively what I wanted to write, I returned to my comfort zone as a much stronger writer.

I recently scared the hell out of myself by writing a historical drama about grief and loss and a lighthearted kid’s adventure tale — in the same script. It was like walking a tightrope for a year. I think I even had a small nervous breakdown cathartic episode afterward. But the experience probably brought me as far along as a writer as three years of grad school.

I’m stepping outside my comfort zone once again — this time to collaborate. Giving up total control of a script is a new experience for me. I have a feeling it’s going to pay off just as well as those other times I stretched myself.

So don’t maintain, grow. Face your fears, go to that place in your writing that makes you squirm, and you’ll come out the other end stronger and better than before. Then do it again.

Queried: Screenwriting beat sheet?

Answered: A beat sheet is a simple chronological list of the beats in your story, a beat being the smallest unit of action that moves the story forward. Often times, it’s just a numbered list of what happens in the script. It can sometimes have sluglines. Unlike an outline, it isn’t structured — no acts, no sequences, no subplots. Those things exist, but they aren’t highlighted in this format.

The simplicity of the beat sheet helps to expose the skeleton of the story, especially for review and critique. It’s also helpful to break down produced movies into a beat sheet to study the underlying story.

Feature film beat sheets will have about 50-60 beats. There is a recently popular screenwriting book that promotes a 15-beat “structure” and refers to the tool for this format as a beat sheet, but this a more peculiar use of the term and generally isn’t what is meant by beat sheet.

  1. UCLA gets something of an undeserved rep for promoting “commercial” or “formulaic” screenwriting, but the truth is you can experiment to your heart’s content in a 434 — as long as you’re willing to face the critique. []