Trottier Formats Scripts

Trottier_review_20211023

Dave Trottier. 2020. Dr. Format Tells All: Everything You Need to Format Your Screenplay. Cedar Hills, UT: Applewood Arts.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Women read; men watch movies. When I wrote my first novella last year as a romantic suspense, I was told that my male protagonist would not appeal to the primary audience for this genre: older women. One thing led to another and I realized that if my novella were to end up as a screenplay, I would need to write it. This line of reasoning led me to begin studying screenwriting.

Introduction

In the preface to his book, Dr. Format Tells All, Dave Trottier[1] writes:

“My desire is to provide you with guidance to specific formatting and spec screenplay writing topics…I have mainly selected columns and articles prepared for Script magazine.” (iii)

Needless to say, Trottier writes a column in Script magazine entitled: “Ask Dr. Format.” This book is written to complement his other title: The Screenwriter’s Bible (review).

Background and Organization

Trottier has a master’s degree from Goddard College and is a graduate of both the Hollywood Scriptwriting Institute and the Hollywood Film Institute. He describes himself as a screenwriter, script consultant, and teacher. He is the author of numerous books and screenplays.

This book primarily takes a question and answer format. The table of contents cites these divisions:

  • Crucial Formatting Information (page 1)
  • Answers to Specific Formatting Questions (20)
  • General and Miscellaneous (214)
  • How I Became Dr. Format (225)
  • Index (229)
  • Screenwriting Resources (240)

The individual sections typically pose a question and offer answer along with screenwriting examples.

Discussion

Trottier writes: “Formatting is the language of screenplays.” (6) He observes that when he taught screenwriting, about half the questions from students had to do with formatting (226). His focus is on writing spec scripts.

Trottier describes the spec script in these terms:

“The spec is sometimes called the reading script or selling script. A spec script … is primarily written for a reader (story analyst).” (2)

Spec is short for speculation, a script written for sell, not one written under contract. Once it is sold, it is typically rewritten as a shooting or production script, where camera direction and other needs of the director are considered. Because a spec script has not yet been sold, it is written in a standard form to facilitate the reader being able quickly to understand and appreciate it. Non-standard formatting distracts the reader and can lead the script to be rejected.

Assessment

Dave Trottier‘s Dr. Format Tells All proved to be a useful read. It focuses on special formatting circumstances that come up and require discussion. After reading The Screenwriter’s Bible I thought that I knew all the conventions, but after reviewing my first script I found that I clearly misinterpreted many of these special issues. Inexperienced screenwriters, like myself, may find this book helpful.

[1] https://www.keepwriting.com.

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Trottier Introduces Screenwriting

Trottier_review_20210826

David Trottier. 2019. The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Over the past year I wrote my first novella as a romantic-suspense. As a career-long nonfiction writer, this was a significant milestone for me, but it was not without a few hiccups. My first editor informed me that a male protagonist would not appeal to the primary audience for romantic suspense—older women. Meanwhile, my second editor described my work as simply a thriller—guys write thrillers; women write romance—my daughter informed me. When my critique group suggested my writing style was more like a screen play than a novella, I decided that I needed to know more about screenwriting.

Introduction

In his introduction to The Screenwriter’s Bible, David Trottier writes:

In this volume, I help you begin the screenwriting and script-selling journey and guide you along the way…every aspect of screenwriting is covered in this work. That’s why I call it The Screenwriter’s Bible (xi).

At 462 pages, Trottier faithfully completes this objective better than any writer’s handbook that I have seen and he does a reasonable job of distinguishing screenwriting from other writing genre, as the designation of seventh edition attests.

Background and Organization

Trottier has a master’s degree from Goddard College and is a graduate of both the Hollywood Scriptwriting Institute and the Hollywood Film Institute. He describes himself as a screenwriter, script consultant, and teacher. He is the author of numerous books and screenplays.[1]

The Screenwriter’s Bible divides into five books:

  1. How to Write a Screenplay: A Primer
  2. Writing & Revising Scenes: A Script Consultant’s View
  3. Seven Steps to a Stunning Script: A Workbook
  4. Proper Formatting Technique: A Style Guide
  5. How to Sell Your Script: A Marketing Plan (ix-x)

The first book is preceded by an introduction and the final book is followed by a challenge, list of resources, and an index.

Difference between Screen and Novel Writing

Contrast clarifies. Trottier writes:

A novel may describe a character’s thoughts and feelings page after page. It’s a great medium for express internal conflict. A stage play is almost exclusively verbal; soap operas and sitcoms fit into this category. A movie is primarily visual…it is primarily a visual medium that requires visual writing. (4)

This distinction between novels and screenplays may help explain why women tend to be more avid readers while men consume their fiction primarily through movies.

Knowing this distinction can help authors lean into the strengths of their genre both in writing and marketing. In a novel, one might easily express the thoughts of a protagonist by simply writing in italics, but in a screen play someone would need to mouth the words, something like an aside or soliloquy in a Shakespeare play.

In marketing, one might easily think to rewrite a screenplay swapping the gender of the protagonist to match the strengths of a particular “talent” (Trottier’s word for an actor or director). While fiction writers will often talk about their “what if” scenarios, I find this exercise easier in the screenwriting context because the medium is inherently more applied, more adaptable. Imagine trying to sell your favorite actor (or actress) on your script in an elevator. Your drama might easily morph into a comedy once the gender is swapped, a transaction easier to make at least in my mindscape.

Formatting a Screenplay

Trottier’s description of the writing process is innovative and helpful in expanding one’s toolset as a writer in any genre, but my only connection to acting arose when I dated a thespian in graduate school. Trottier’s guidelines on formatting a screenplay changed all that.

Trottier describes a spec script as “speculation that you will sell it [a script] later; in other words, you are not being paid to write it.” (237) Previously, I thought that a spec script described the format, not the marketing, of a particular type of script. This is an important ah-ha moment because marketing is baked into script writing much deeper than other genre, a distinction lost on other author books that I have seen on screenwriting. Later, when he talks about copywriting (328-29), the marketing problem again presents itself as a clear distinction in screenwriting. Most authors do not need to register a copywrite because no one is likely to steal a book that does not sell enough copies to pay for the editing—I registered my first book mostly out of ignorance. A script is different because more money is potentially at stake.

Script formatting fits into this discussion of marketing because the immediate audience for a spec script is the reader (story analyst), an assistant to a producer who does the actual evaluation of your script (237). After you have read several hundred of such scripts, formatting distractions are an annoyance. Trottier simply says: “The spec script is the selling script.” (238)

The annoying 12-point Courier New font style performs the function of making it easy to translate script pages into screen time, one page per minute. New characters are introduced in all CAPS. Dialogue is indented. Trottier convinced me to purchase screenwriting software almost immediately as I read through this section in his book.

Assessment

David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible requires an investment of time to read through it. Having finished it, I am convinced that I am a better writer for having spent the time and I will likely convert my novella into a screenplay as a result. Trottier’s movie suggestions are also worth the ticket of admission. This is a book that belongs in every author’s library.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.keepwriting.com/davet.htm

Trottier Introduces Screenwriting

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Snyder Explains Screenwriting

Sydner_review_20210626

Blake Snyder. 2005. Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting that You’ll Ever Need. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

If wanderlust has ever taken you outside your own profession to sojourn with another, you will discover new insights that will enhance both analogous to a year’s study abroad. Each profession has a slightly different focus and jargon to match. Jargon borrowed from one field and used in another can both enlighten and confuse, depending on the quality of the communication that accompanies it.[1] Crossing writing genres is no different.

Introduction

Blake Snyder, in his book—Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting that You’ll Ever Need—writes:

“The real inspiration for this book started with one simple desire: I had a whole bunch of snappy rules for screenwriting and I wanted to get credit for coining them…To get to the good part, I had to explain the screenwriting process, from idea to execution, in order for anyone to understand what I was talking about.“ (120)

Over the past several years, I have read and reviewed numerous writing books, but Snyder is the first author to take the time to define the many technical terms that he uses. If you don’t believe me, look up the term, beat—an emotional story transition. Most fiction authors use the term without precise definition. Snyder outlines fifteen such transitions on his beat sheet (70).

Snyder distinguishes his book, saying:

1.    He uses the language and terms actually employed by screenwriters,

2.    He has actually sold scripts,

3.    He has taught the material presented, and

4.    He explains how the business actually works. (xii-xiii).

The title for the book comes from Snyder’s rule that the author must present his protagonist as likeable, like the policeman that climbs up the tree to rescue a cat (xv). Authors who fail to take the time end up with robotic characters that readers/viewers have trouble bonding with.

Background and Organization

Wikipedia describes Blake Snyder (1957-2009) as: “An American screenwriter, consultant, author and educator based in Los Angeles.” He studied English at Georgetown University in Washington DC.[2] He writes Save the Cat in eight chapters:

1.    What is it?

2.    Give me the same thing only different!

3.    It’s about a guy who…

4.    Let’s beat it out!

5.    Building the perfect beast

6.    The immutable laws of screenplay physics

7.    What’s wrong with this picture?

8.    Final fade in (v-vi)

These chapters are preceded by a foreword and introduction, and followed by a glossary.

Sell Me

The one point that stays with you in reading Snyder is the importance of selling a script. In the moneyed world of movies, every conversation is metered like an elevator speech. Being able to communicate the theme, audience, plot, and key characters quickly takes pride of place.

Snyder sees four elements in your pitch: a touch of irony (an intriguing hook), a compelling mental picture, an indication of audience and cost, and a killer title (6-9). A “high concept” film is easy to see and pitches itself in one sentence (the logline; 14-15).  These elements are so important that Snyder starts with the pitch before writing a line.

The Spec Writer

Snyder describes himself repeatedly as a spec writer, a term he neglects to define. My image of a spec writer is the jaded writer who follows a director around always with a typewriter within reach, like the writer in Clint Eastwood’s 1990 film: White Hunter, Black Heart.[3]

The key to being a spec writer is to being able to analyze a story quickly in terms of genre and beats. Snyder gives us ten types of story genre:

1.    Monster in the house

2.    Golden Fleece (the quest)

3.    Out of a bottle (a touch of magic)

4.    Dude with a problem

5.    Rites of passage

6.    Buddy love

7.    Whydunit

8.    The fool triumphant

9.    Institutionalized

10. Superhero (25-40)

What is interesting about this list, it is that it classifies stories by their dominant theme rather than an undefined, literary tagline. This helps the spec writer to classify stories quickly and to detach emotionally so as to be able to change up storylines as needed to strengthen the emotional content. Snyder’s fifteen beats in a story then allows him to peg the key turning points in the plot (70) where such changes might be made. Understanding this framework, the jaded writer morphs into more of an action junkie on a quest to write the ultimate screenplay in the least amount of time.

Assessment

Blake Snyder’s book—Save the Cat—is perhaps the most helpful book that I have ever read on writing fiction. As I read through it, I had repeated ah-ha moments where things that I read elsewhere suddenly made sense. I also found myself memorizing Snyder’s categories and descriptions, knowing that it would be helpful to recall them as I watched movies or read novels that use such devices. If you are a writer or simply a wannabe, you will want to read this book.

Footnotes

[1] During my year in Germany, I heard the term ferkle, which translates as piglet, bantered about in new and interesting ways. At one point, a friend noticed my amusement at the use of ferkle in conversation and explained to me that ferkle did not simply mean a cute little pig, but one that had not yet learned to control its bowels and would defecate everywhere.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blake_Snyder. Also see: www.BlakeSnyder.com.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Hunter_Black_Heart.

Snyder Explains Screenwriting

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Grams: Outpouring of the Spirit

Grams_review_20200804

Rollin G. Grams. 2010. Stewards of Grace: A Reflective, Missions Biography of Eugene and Phyllis Grams in South Africa, 1951-1962. Eugene: Wipf & Stock.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the truly remarkable events of 20th century Christianity has been the outpouring of the Holy Spirit through the Pentecostal movement. It is also relatively undocumented. Rollin Grams’ book, Stewards of Grace, works to fill this gap. Rollin is the son of Pentecostal (Assembly of God) missionaries, Eugene and Phyllis Grams, who labored most of their careers in South Africa. He writes their story in their own words. The book is, however, more than an oral history or a travel diary. Rollin writes from the perspective of a biblical scholar who can interpret their experiences in terms of the biblical tradition.

Why might we, as Christians, read be interested in the lives of these quiet missionaries? Grams writes:

The Story of Eugene and Phyllis Grams is a story of one way to live justly amidst the social injustices of apartheid—the policy and practice of racial separation and inequality of South Africa. It is one way to live missionally before the needs of the world (x).

The words—live justly—and—live missionally—stand out here. Our lives in Christ are in tension with the world—how exactly do we deal with that and remain faithful to our calling as Christians?

Salted throughout the book are asides (he calls them capsules) to explain to a non-Pentecostal audience what is going on. For example, in an early capsule, Grams provides historical insight into the Pentecostal movement. Pentecostalism is often dated to begin with the Azusa Street Revival in 1906 (www.AzusaStreet.org) in Los Angeles, California. However, the Azusa Street Revival was one of many offshoots of the Welch Revival of 1904 and 1905 (19). Pentecostalism builds also on the much earlier holiness and faith healing movements (18). The multi-ethnic, multi-racial context of the Azusa Street Revival is a Pentecostal distinctive and an important contributor to its rapid growth worldwide.

Not all his capsules focus on Pentecostalism.  For example, Grams’ first capsule deals with Apartheid. What was Apartheid? Apartheid started in the Afrikaans Dutch Reformed Church whose General Synod ruled in 1857 that blacks should worship separately from whites. This doctrine pointed to God’s separation of the races at the time of the Tower of Babelthe whites viewed themselves as Israelites entering the promised land (3). This religious separation became law after the Nationalist Party gained control of the government in 1949. A series of laws were passed. The Mixed Marriage Act of 1949 made interracial marriage illegal. The Illegal Squatters Act of 1951 authorized the government to relocate into “homelands”. The Abolition of Passes Act required blacks to carry identity books at all times (4). It was in 1950 that Nelson Mandela was elected to the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress (ANC). After the abolition of Apartheid, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994 (5).

Other than the capsules, Grams primarily writes a series of short stories. The book consists of 21 chapters that frame these stories. These chapters are preceded with a forward and followed by short postscript. Far from dry, Rollin poses a sense of humor that makes the stories come alive.

Apartheid is now history.  Historians will likely want someday to understand the events and people that led up to the quiet revolution in South Africa. The church likely played a leading role in this effort, even if historians gloss it over. I can tell you as someone who worked in international affairs that few people envisioned the changes that took place in South Africa. The role of Christians, such as the Grams, in providing hope to persecuted and reviled people cannot be underestimated. Rollin’s book provides source material for that evaluation.

A good screen writer could place this biography against a backdrop of the times and create a classic in Christian cinema.

Grams: Outpouring of the Spirit

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Bell: Sharp Characters Spirit Dialogue

James Scott Bell: How to Write Dazzling DialogueBell: Sharp Characters Spirit Dialogue

James Scott Bell.[1] 2014. How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript. Woodland Hills, CA: Compendium Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What dazzles editors? Journeying from nonfiction to fiction writing, I have had to learn new things. Where nonfiction authors write articles, reviews, and reflections, fiction authors focus on writing scenes. While nonfiction authors focus on analysis and description fiction authors focus on plot, character, and dialogue. When I stumbled across James Scott Bell’s How To Write Dazzling Dialogue, I knew that I had to learn how to dazzle.

Introduction

Bell starts by comparing three manuscripts. The first begins with description. The second begins with descriptive dialog. The third begins with dialog between two people in conflict. Which has the most rapid pace? Which is most likely to get noticed by an agent? Bell describes the third manuscript as “crisp and tense”. It is taken from Michael Connelly’s The Last Coyote (9).

Dialogue Defined

Bell defines dialogue citing John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting who described dialogue as “compression and extension of action.” He goes on to say that: “Every word, every phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth is uttered because the character hopes it will further a purpose.” In other words, every character has an agenda. (12) Thus, dazzling dialogue arises from the intersection of two characters’ agendas in opposition. (13)

 Five Functions of Dialogue

The role of compression is important. Bell writes: “Dialogue is not real-life speech. It is stylized speech for which the author, through the characters, has a purpose.” (16) Focusing on the character’s agenda, the dialogue must cut to the chase and reveal underlying conflict, even if in good natured banter. (17) Bell sees five functions of dialogue:

  1. Reveal story information
  2. Reveal character
  3. Set the tone
  4. Set the scene
  5. Reveal theme (22).

In weaving a story, Bell advises the author to act first, explain later and to hide story information (exposition) within confrontation to avoid appearing too preachy. (25) How people talk reveals their character in terms of education, social position, regional background, and peer groups (35-36). Tone is revealed in how characters talk to each other (36). The scene is described through how characters react to it and to each other (37). Theme can be revealed without being preachy by embedding it in the dialogue. (38)

Practicing Dialogue

Bell suggests that the best way to learn to write dialogue is to practice acting out or writing out different roles with a voice journal. He writes:

“How do I know what a character’s voice sounds like? I prompt them with questions and then let them talk. I do this fast, without thinking about it much. What I’m waiting for is the moment when the character starts talking to me in a voice I did not plan.” (40-41)

He advises writers to take time in writing these journals out and reading them out loud (41-42). Another way to practice dialogue is to convert movie scripts into scenes in narrative form. (42). His example is taken from Cool Hand Luke, a film starring Paul Newman (1967), one of my favorite movies.[2] Bell also suggests trying improvisation. (45)

Increasing Tension

Dialogue can also benefit from new agendas, arguments, barriers, and addition of fear. (61) Bell recommends that characters who simply act out who they are in dialogue makes for natural conflict that simply flows out of their personalities.

The classic film that Bell returns to over and over is Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (28-30). In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays a closed mouth private detective, Sam Spade, who interacts with talkative socialites, manipulative millionaires, and sleazy women who have trouble telling the truth. Conflicting agendas break out everywhere because the characters differ deeply from one another. This is what Bell refers to as orchestration because well-formed characters ooze conflict. (62)

Arguments can be playful or serious. Barriers can be cultural—think of someone that thinks so differently from you that communication is difficult—or situational. Have you ever had a job interview where the interviewer was constantly interrupted with phone calls or an assistant breaking in? Sometimes barriers to communication can be downright funny or simply discouraging.

Assessment

James Scott Bell’s How to Write Dazzling Dialogue is a fascinating read for authors needing tips on how to improve dialogue and follow convention in writing it. Bell writes thrillers, teaches writing, and works as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. His advice on dialogue runs deep.

Footnotes

[1] www.JamesScottBell.com. @JamesScottBell

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cool_Hand_Luke.

References

Connelly, Michael. 2003. The Last Coyote. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Lawson, John Howard. 1936. Theory and Technique of Playwriting. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

 

Also see:

Bell: How to Plot a Good Novel 

Karr Voices Memoir Clearly 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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