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[Title of Post]

Die-hard fans of my blog may have noticed a recent change. I’m no longer sticking to the title format of “Kevin’s Tip #___.” Which brings me to my latest tip (#21).

Never get stuck in a pattern with titles.
 
I can’t tell you how boring I find it when a show has a constant theme for titles. The Big Bang Theory, Community, Friends. I mean, ”The One With Two Parts?” Could they be any less creative?
 
The pilot of Ice Cream Sundates is called “Pistachi-hos.” Episode two is “Hookies ‘n’ Cream.” Does that mean episode three will be called “Slutter Pecan?” Maybe, actually. Because that’s pretty good. But after that, who knows what I’ll do?

Why am I so against themes? Themes tend to tip too much of the story. In “The One Where Rachel Smokes,” you know exactly what’s going to happen. Rachel is going to smoke. “Football, Feminism, and You” tells the viewer, “Hey, we’re going to do an episode about football, ladies, and we’ll occasionally break the fourth wall with meta commentary on our surroundings to make you feel included.” Where’s the element of surprise?

That’s why I’m a huge fan of the episode titles for Mike & Molly. Sometimes they tell you exactly what’s happening; other times they barely relate to the story. In “First Date,” Mike and Molly go on their first date. In “Molly Makes Soup,” Molly is mad at Mike for agreeing to go to a basketball game with her mom’s new boyfriend. Pretty sure they ate soup in the cold open, but that’s about it. It really didn’t matter, though. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Nobody wants to go see  a movie when the trailer gives away all the best stuff. Likewise, nobody wants to read a script when they can get everything from the title.

If you want someone to read your script, don’t remotely hint at what it’s about.

—Kevin

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Lights, Camera, Action Lines!

I was complaining to a friend yesterday about X-Men: First Class; namely how anachronistic the script was. When I said it was ridiculous to have a female CIA worker in the 1960’s parading around in a mini skirt, my friend replied, “You can’t blame the script for that.” 

I completely disagree.

If you leave your script vague, you are responsible for the poor choices that get made. That is exactly why action lines (“stage directions” to you playwrights) were invented. Action lines are not just there to tell you what a character is doing, they are there to tell you everything. They are essential to getting your vision across. 

I like to teach by example, so here’s how it should be done:

Taylor comes home after a long day of working on the truck. She wears a skin-tight, black, plastic dress, which barely covers her 5’7”, 115 lb body. Under the dress are torn, fishnet stockings and red, knee-high boots. Breasts heaving, her shoulder-length blond hair is slightly tussled from a hard day’s work.

That was an excerpt from my first draft of Ice Cream Sundates (prior to my changing Taylor to a male character). As you can see, I leave nothing to the imagination.

Thanks to all of the descriptive wording I use, my action paragraphs sometimes run as long as half a page. Nothing wrong with that. It shows off your abilities as a writer to really craft a world. (And it looks pretty impressive.) Unfortunately, executives are lazy and want the “Cliff Notes” version of your actions lines. To accommodate, I like to bold or italicize certain important words or phrases, so that they really stand out.

Lastly, I know some people like to make action paragraphs cutesy and fun by putting little jokes in them. Adding “flair.” What a waste of time! Save style for your dialogue. It has no business being in your action lines.

As Kevin finishes yet another brilliant blog post, we pan down to…

— Kevin

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Changing It Up

I recently saw X-Men: First Class and I was absolutely shocked. By the woman in front of me who groaned at the premise of The Change-Up when the trailer played.

Jason Bateman plays a married man who magically switches places with single man Ryan Reynolds after they both piss in the same fountain together.

Played out she said. Hackneyed, she mumbled. A tired concept, she whispered!

Oh, really, lady in front of me who thinks a climactic battle sequence is the perfect time to unwrap her Raisinets? Let me tell you something. There is no such thing as a hackneyed concept. Any idea can be done an infinite number of ways and times. Who cares if we’ve seen it three-thousand times? There’s a three-thousand and first version waiting to be told!

Allow me…

  • A police officer and a criminal magically switch places after they have a shootout near a fountain.
  • A business man and a custodian magically switch places when they both use the same drinking fountain.
  • The president and his campaign opponent magically switch places when they both sip fountain water during a debate.
  • A football player and a science club guy magically switch places when the football player throws the science club guy into their high school fountain.
  • A male and female coworker magically switch places when they pass a water fountain on their way to a unisex bathroom.
  • A Chinese guy and a Japanese guy magically switch places when they both reach for the last DVD of The Fountain.

Challenge extended and achieved, lady!

There’s no such thing as an overused concept. Just underused potential.

— Kevin

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Kevin Hall: Checking In

I’ve gotten a lot of new readers (understandably) since I began my blog.

Posting will be limited in the coming days, as I continue my tenure on the jury of… Well, I can’t actually tell you what I’m on the jury for. What I can tell you is that real courts are nothing like court on television. I would kill for some of the rousing speeches you get on Harry’s Law right about now. I might suggest the prosecution hire David E. Kelley to write their closing. He won’t be busy with Wonder Woman, that’s for sure.

Anyway, a quick tip for today is to always be on the lookout for a story. Being on jury duty (Again! I always get called. It’s like the law can sense my sense of sensibility.) has provided me with a rather juicy story to tell. Again, I can’t tell you anything about the case, but I can tell you the plot for my next spec feature.

A man, let’s call him Grian Breen, “stabbed” his “mother” with a filed down umbrella. Things happen. Cases are made. A lone, boyishly handsome, Bradley Cooperish juror uses his charm and devilish smile to sway the jury to guilty so he can go home and get back to writing.

Find stories in everything around you.

Now, to the title of the post. This post is me checking in. I want to hear from you. Sound off. What do you like? What do you love? What do you really love? What would you like me to discuss? Elaborate on?

I want to know. (For now. This will probably not last.)

— Kevin

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Kevin’s Tip #18

SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT CONTINUE TO READ UNLESS YOU WANT TO KNOW HOW YOUR SCRIPT GETS BETTER! (ALSO SPECIFIC STUFF ABOUT PIRATES 4.)

It’s summer movie season. Time to grab my notebook and tiny book light, hit the theater, and write down everything I can learn while I’m watching the movie. A quick tip to get things started? Sit near the back. People are less inclined to break your book light if you’re not right next to them.

The most clear lesson I have received so far was brought to me courtesy of Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides.

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides was by no means perfect. But, it was pretty damn good. I enjoyed the drama of Captain Barbossa struggling to come to terms with the loss of his leg. The pain in his eye as he realized he probably should have cut the rope that was holding his leg instead of the leg itself. I was expectedly wowed by Jack Sparrow’s almost unbelievable, Rube Goldberg style escapes. The way the Spanish would reclaim the cups only so that they could destroy them, despite having had ample time to destroy them earlier in the movie. (I admit, I didn’t see that twist coming and I am usually pretty good at calling things.)

But, while all of those things were thrilling, the part of the movie that I really responded to was the love story between the missionary and the mermaid. Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides is a superb example of how a well inserted love story can really elevate a script.

The love at first sight that was so blindingly strong that he knew her name without ever asking approach may not be appreciated by some. But, to me it gave stakes to the whole movie. Much as Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan were critical to the first three movies, this movie would have crumbled without the missionary and the mermaid. (Forgive me. They only mentioned each other’s names once, and I had a handful of popcorn at the time. I wasn’t able to write them down on my notepad. I’m sure IMDB can accommodate you.)

Love stories should have turmoil. Obstacles. She was a mermaid in a box. He was a man of God who wanted her out of the box. In the second film, Davy Jones was Calypso’s employee, but sexual harassment law kept them apart. (I’m kidding. Obviously, that intricate and haunting story needs no explanation for its brilliance.) They even managed to pair Jack Sparrow with Elizabeth Swan and Penelope Cruz in separate movies, but make each story stand on its own.

A love story gives the audience something to care about. To root for. To identify with. We’ve all be in love. For my money, your story is worthless unless it includes two people falling in love.

What’s love got to do with it? About $163,967,000 so far.

— Kevin

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Kevin’s Tip #17

Happy Memorial Day! A time to fire up the barbecue, throw on the swim trunks, fling the old Frisbee, and bow our heads in remembrance of the lives ravaged by the horrors of war. I’m even making coleslaw!

Speaking of killed soldiers, segues are very important. Your script will be dead without them. Transitioning between scenes is one of the most crucial skills a writer can master.

Film and television are very visual mediums, which is why I like to see my characters giving rousing speeches about what’s to come. Like Braveheart. Or the third Pirates movie when Keira Knightly is on the boat with all the other pirates.

As helpful a tool as that can be, it’s always fun to play on expectation. You can wring a lot of great laughs from your transitions. Have a character say, for instance, that they would never in a million years wear a mascot uniform. Then the very next scene have them in the mascot uniform. You set up that the mascot uniform was coming next, but you subverted audience expectation by having your character say that it wasn’t.

Transitions don’t have to be between scenes. Dialog is an incredibly efficient way to segue into a needed bit of information. “Speaking of Geoffrey, I was planning to visit Cancun this Christmas in order to find my long lost sister.” “Which reminds me, what are we supposed to do with the ruby amulet again?” “Well, great. Alone, no job, and back here in Ohio. And I’m talking to myself.” There are any number of subtle turns of phrase like these that you can use to guide the script where you need it to go.

One word of caution, however. CUT TO, SMASH CUT TO, JUMP CUT TO and other transition markers can really eat up valuable page real estate. I don’t believe in setting page maximums, but there may an instance when it is required. Start by cutting these from your script. It will give the appearance of sacrifice without actually having to lose any of the good stuff.

Which reminds me. I’m also making a mean potato salad.

— Kevin

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Kevin’s Tip #16

Here’s a treat.

While doing another of my biweekly notebook burnings (I shred, throw out, or burn all of my collected notes and thoughts. It’s important not to keep too many notes lying around. It becomes an over-saturation of your old ideas. There’s a reason you didn’t use them when you thought of them. Use them or lose them.) I decided to jot down a few and hand them over to you.

I’m sure one of you is in the middle of a spec or pilot and could desperately use a fresh idea. So, here are a few from the brain of Kevin Hall. Take this gold and spin it into even shinier gold.

Give someone cancer. Give them any sort of terminal affliction. Cancer, lung cancer, stomach cancer, skin cancer, getting hit by a bus. Hop on WebMD and just start throwing symptoms at it. Disease is a shorthand. Why spend five pages showing a character doing something that would endear him to the audience? Spend those five pages being awesome and just toss in a chemo reference at the end. It’s a different means to the same end. And that end involves a lot of Kleenex.

Give a guy a purse. I laughed when I thought of it and I laughed when I read it again. Here’s the idea. A guy is given a gift from his girlfriend, wife, mother. Anyone who he wouldn’t want to upset by not liking it. Only problem is, the gift is a purse. But, it would be too obvious to call it a purse, so I figure it’s like some kind of European bag. Maybe something from Beirut? I bet they have some crazy stuff in Beirut. What’s great is now he has to carry this thing around. People are making fun of him for using a purse. I mean, it’s just a simple dissection of a social norm. That’s the sort of target you want to aim at. Make your audience think. Show them something they’ve seen (a person carrying a purse) and then twist it (make that person a man).

Break an elevator. Characters on shows usually have some sort of unresolved conflict with each other. This is an obvious flaw. How can we be entertained by unresolved conflict? I pay my cable bill to see some people yelling. Not mulling their feelings. So, resolve it. Come up with some means to get them in the same place. Their friend is having a baby, so they take the same elevator to the maternity ward and it breaks. Or, one of them goes down to the basement and the door locks. The other goes to get them and the door locks again. It really doesn’t matter how you get them together, but just make sure they’re alone. Then… that’s it. Let them start yelling. If the exclamation point on your keyboard doesn’t break by the end of act one, you did it wrong.

So, there you go.

Don’t expect me to do this every time I fire up the old hibachi, but I thought it would be alright just this once. I hope you can find use for these. Just remember one thing.

The appropriate credit is: “Based on an idea by Kevin Hall.”

— Kevin

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Kevin’s Tip #15

SEX!

Now that I have your attention…

Sex!

This tip is a short but important one. Sex scenes in scripts. Now, some people will call them pointless. They’ll tell you that they don’t advance the story. That they’re sleazy. That you could easily cut them out and not lose a thing. That, seriously, they don’t advance the story.

You know what I say? Well, actually, I think Salt-N-Pepa said it best when they said: “…sex…”

"Sex sells" became an adage for a reason. I have eight scenes in the first part of my Gossip Girl and Castle crossover alone. Go all out. Make the pages blush.

It’s your job as a writer to set the mood. It’s the FCC’s job to kill it.

— Kevin

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Kevin’s Quick Tips: Part 2

Tragedy struck. Sort of.

As I sat in The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, thinking of those depressing souls typing away at Starbucks, fate struck me a terrible blow. And by fate I mean the hard drive on my MacBook.

Luckily, I had the foresight to back up my scripts. (I save them on an external hard drive that I keep in my desk drawer. Then, I save them on a second hard drive that goes into a little safe I bought and keep in my closet. Then, I print hard copies and mail those to myself in a sealed and postmarked envelope. This saves them as well as serves as a form of copyright.) I’ve developed a bit of a wrist injury from a week of back patting. Now, I’m rebooted and ready to get back into it.

In addition to always backing up your files, I have a few other quick tidbits of insight to give you.

Don’t let the audience breath. Pacing is everything in a script. You look at a show like The Event (Not anymore. Thanks a lot, NBC.) and it’s just constant action. The audience is always engaged. There’s always something going on. Then, you turn on Mad Men and it’s just such a grind to get through. I mean, just do the thing as a half hour and stop pretending you have enough material. How many thoughtful glances and cigarettes can a show rely on? If the audience has time to breath, they have time to sigh. If they have time to sigh, you’ve lost them to The Event.

Do take every opportunity to pitch. I recently attended a panel discussion about running your own show. Although they didn’t have time to get to me, you better believe I was in line at the microphone. A copy of Ice Cream Sundates in hand. Look, nobody likes being pitched to. In fact, sometimes you’ll be told outright not to pitch. The moderator at the beginning of this panel said not to. People will always tell you no. You need to have the courage of conviction in your idea to say, “We open on an ice cream truck.” How can they know they don’t want to hear your idea unless you share it with them?

Don’t be afraid to direct in your scripts. There’s an old adage that says writers write. But, there’s nothing in that adage that says writers can’t also direct. If you’re writing a scene and you can’t see it any other way than set to Ace of Base’s Don’t Turn Around, then write that it happens during Ace of Base’s Don’t Turn Around. The reader will latch onto that and get the same emotional charge you did. The same goes for the camera. You see the movie in your head when you write. See the chance for a really sweet tracking shot? An awesome pan? An opportunity for a dolly zoom? Tell someone. Put it in. Most directors probably appreciate the help.

So, there we have it. A preemptive thank you for any condolences you send about my laptop. As well as a preemptive I’ll get to it if I have time for any questions you may have about writing.

Also, write down the combination to your safe. Locksmiths are expensive.

— Kevin

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Kevin’s Tip #14

screenwritingtips:

Keep a hypothetical season finale in mind while writing your TV pilot. That way, you’ll be able to think in terms of setting up future storylines.

This is a quaint summation of a very complex issue when writing a pilot. Pilots are meant to set up a series. When you write a pilot, you need to leave the reader with the sense that there can be more. Frankly, there’s only one way to do that.

Plot.

Plot is your best friend when crafting a pilot. (It’s no coincidence that you can’t spell pilot without “plot.”) You can create great characters all you want, but they need things to do. You need places to stick them. A chessboard to move your pawns, so to speak.

Plot is your story. It’s what happens. But, not just in your episode. Plot is what happens in your series. And that is what you need to leave the reader with. Nobody cares what happens now. They want to know what’s next.

Lay out your entire season before you even start word one on your pilot script. “But, Kevin, you don’t outline.” Episodes. I don’t outline episodes. But, I certainly map out my series.

The pilot of Ice Cream Sundates? They get the truck, become hookers, and the first girl’s estranged mother is murdered. Week five? The first girl meets Lionel Rigby, her estranged mother’s estranged brother. We don’t meet him at all in the pilot, but I know he’s there. It informs my writing. Week nine? Well… I don’t want to spoil too much for you.

By knowing every beat of your series, you can keep yourself on track. Plus, it’ll be very helpful if your show goes to series. Writers are always very pressed for time, so know now what happens in week four and thank yourself later.

I might even go so far as to suggest writing multiple scripts. Yes, write your pilot. But, write episode two. Episode three. Hell, write the finale. It’ll force you to change each script until you have a very tight series written. (British Coupling was written all at once. American Coupling wasn’t. I think we all now know why the latter failed…)

You need to nail the storyline of your show. Otherwise, you’ll have no clue what kind of characters you need to create.

Plot. Ignoring it would be a grave mistake.

— Kevin