6 Mistakes New Screenwriters Make by David Willis

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage: Just off camera you told us that you go to Meetup groups for writers. And I’m wondering what Meetup groups strike your eye in terms of why you go to it and what do you get out of it?

David Willis: Well, when I was first starting writing, I had some people help and give me some advice. The first writer’s group that I went to (that I was a part of), it was all sitcom comedy writing and the very first note I ever got on my first TV script was “This was so boring, I was falling asleep.” And we all laughed because comedy writers can be pretty vicious in a funny way. And then he said when he got to this part “That’s when I woke up and it was really funny.” So this group showed me right away that you need honest feedback but constructive criticism. Because this particular writer, he gave me that note but then he told me what was working so I go “You know, you’re right. I feel the same thing, I agree with the note.” So it really helped me out.

That group (that little writer’s group I was in) eventually dissolved because everyone got work. That’s a great reason for a group to dissolve, everyone was working on one of those shows. So I thought that was really helpful when I was first starting out. I thought “I’d like to help people, too.” So I go to the Meetup site and I see that there’s a writer’s group and so I go to these and I just give them notes. You know, gentle notes, encouraging notes, but honest notes. It’s helpful to people. And you know, if you don’t ever give something back or help other people, that doesn’t feel very good.

Film Courage: Okay, so that’s your way of giving back.  What do you see (and I won’t ask you 5 things again), but what do you see as several top things that most new writers have trouble with?

David Willis:  Well the two big things are 1) Is a passive lead character. I see that quite a bit. I see it over and over. Their lead character has a bunch of people coming at them and doing things “Oh you should do this.” And he goes “Okay!” And he does it. If it doesn’t come from within the character, then you’ve got no train…you’ve got no choo-choo pulling the train, it’s not pulling the story train. What you’ve got is a caboose pushing it. It doesn’t work, okay? You need pull it and have it go somewhere. And I see that a lot, just with these passive lead characters. The other thing is either no conflict or very lowercase conflict where (same as TV), people are flipping through channels and they watch something for five, six seconds. If there isn’t deep conflict that is popping off the screen, they’re going to keep flipping. They are flipping past your show, okay! So you like conflict, you know? When you watch TV, put it in your script.

Watch the video on Youtube here

One of the reasons it is difficult is because in real life, people don’t like conflict. If you are a nice person, you don’t want to yell and argue with people. You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, okay? But in real life that is great. In a script, that’s boring! That’s just really boring.

So let the conflict go. Let is go into that script, put it in there and then it will jump off the page when people read it.

Passive lead character and not enough conflict. I see it all the time and the other thing that I see is…people are safe. I have a professional comedy writer’s group and people apply to it and we’ve had like a thousand people apply in this group and there is only 20 people in it. So we always just like certain people to be in it. Most of whom are professional or they are show runners or they write for shows and if they are newer writers, they are good and they are on their way. And I get people applying to the group, you know perfectly nice people, people who send their script and they have screenwriting degrees, you know?

Sometimes multiple degrees in writing and theater and everything in their script happens at exactly the right time.

The inciting incident, the first act break, the midpoint, the third act, and all of these story threads are “perfectly correct.” And I don’t give a crap because they were so busy being correct in their form, they haven’t put any spark of madness into the script, they haven’t put anything quirky and personal, you know? It’s not in there. It’s like forget all this stuff. You learn and just let it pour out. Just allow your craziness, your weirdness, your quirkiness to be poured into that script.

That’s the other mistake is I see people, they are holding back. This is show business! Okay, this is the one business where there is nothing wrong, okay. You can let these characters say weird things, crazy things, politically incorrect things, mean things, stupid things, anything!

You have the license to do an infinite number of things, do it!

Film Courage: So speaking of conflict, let’s say the conflict was not in the script, but when you gave a note. Was there ever conflict and was there ever a time alternatively where you thought there would be (conflict) and you were scared and actually the person thanked you?

David Willis: Yeah, that’s happened. I mean there’s a way to give a note. Your job when you give notes is to help the writer tell the story they’re trying to tell. To help them tell it better. You say “Hey, this character is coming off as this…is that what you meant? And they are like “No…no…no. I meant for…”

And you go “Well, it’s coming off as this…” and you tell them and they’re grateful. “Oh, I didn’t realize that?”

From little things like I was giving notes to one person and he described a character as elderly, this elderly character. And then (in the next paragraph) he called him 50 years old.

Film Courage: [Laughs].

David Willis:  Yes, you get it. You’re laughing. And a lot of people at the table were (you know) around 50. And so I said “You know, when you say ‘elderly’ we’re thinking…and you say 50.” And he goes (and he was a very young writer) and he says “Wasn’t that, isn’t that elderly?” And like all the people around him were like “No!!!!!”

The reason this matters is because A) It’s a little confusing. You want clarity in the script. And B) If somebody who is reading this, who could hire you is 50 and you call them elderly, it’s just…why create trouble, right? So there’s little notes like that.

But I was working on a show, I came to work one day and there was a writer who was walking out with their stuff in a box and they had just been let go. And it was like “Ooohhh?” And we didn’t ask the executive producer anything. But he said and he was a really nice guy. “She didn’t know when to stop defending a pitch.” In the room she was a perfectly nice woman, everybody liked her. But when you’re in the writer’s room in a sitcom, there’s a bunch of writers there and you’ll pitch an idea. And the executive will say “Oh, we need this in this scene.” And you’ll pitch an idea and the executive producer will say “Oh, yeah, that’s great. Write that.” Or they will say “Oh, almost…not quite.” And other people will pitch in and then somebody will pitch in and there will be like 3 or 4 pitches later based on your pitch, you will come up with a solution in the script and you write it. Or the executive producer will say “No! You should move on.” Okay, because it’s their job to know what’s in the show. The executive producer says that. And you don’t want to have discussions about it. And she kept defending. She kept going back to it and saying “Well, you know if you did that thing I say.” And it’s like, it just wastes time and it makes the executive producer feel bad because they’ve got to keep saying “No.”

So he eventually just let her go. So I learned from that, that was in my career when you are given a note, like “No!” By your boss, okay? Take the note. Also sometimes what’s called, I don’t know if you’ve heard the concept ‘the-note-behind-the-note?’ And sometimes there is something under the note that is not clear, so you have to clarify the note for somebody.

But it’s your job (and you’re a professional), it’s your job to explain the note until you see a light go on in their eyes, that’s your job to make them understand the note. And maybe your note is a great note but it’s not the right note for the story.

But when I’m working at these Meetups with newer writers and stuff, you take into account that they are new. And I’ve seen a million scripts and I’ve solved a lot of script problems and they haven’t seen those yet.

So you are just trying to say “Hey, this problem in your script has been solved in a couple of ways by doing this and this.” And how does that feel?

And when you are giving the note you can’t be attached to the note if it’s not a professional situation where if you’re not their boss or whatever, you can’t be attached to it. You can’t get upset if they don’t take your note. I mean, it’s not about you, okay?

It’s about the writer and their script. There are some really fun writers at these Meetup groups. There are very talented people of all ages and it’s great that they can come together and see their stuff come to life.

Film Courage: It’s great that the over 50 ones [writers] can actually get out of the house! I’m so glad they can make it there.

David Willis: I’ve written and I can’t get up!


Question for the Viewers: Are you guilty of any of these mistakes? Be honest.


Watch the video interview on Youtube here





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