Tag Archives: screenwriting

Screenplay: The Frenzy – Preparing Part 2: The Outline (Sequence and Beat Approach)

Many screenwriters I know hate writing outlines (and loglines and summaries and treatments). I’ve approached each feature I’ve written in a different manner, trying to find the ultimate way of getting the story outlined. By far, the most successful technique I’ve found (the one that made the story flow from my fingers) was the “sequence” approach. I have my own adaptation of this that I call my “Sequence and Beats Sheet.”

I think each writer has to find what works for them. I studied the 3-act, the hero’s journey, Sid Field’s & Michael Hague’s approaches, which you can easily find on line. But I never connected with anything as much as the sequence approach, which is taught in the USC screenwriting program.

The sequence approach was developed by Frank Daniel while head of the graduate screenwriting program at USC. It breaks the story up into 8 10-15 minute “mini movies,” each with their own 3-act structures. The theory is that this approach is more like the early movies in which film reels were only 10-minutes long, so back then writers were forced to divide their stories up into smaller sequences.

For me, this method breaks the story into manageable bites and serves to move the story forward, even for character-driven drama. I find it particularly useful during the middle of the story (that dreaded 2nd Act), which often feels like being lost in a jungle.

This approach is explained by Paul Gulino in his book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach (he also analyzes 11 films based on this approach)  and Chris Soth (USC grad and “Million Dollar Screenwriter“) uses this “mini movie method” in his very successful screenwriting workshops. (btw – Chris was a participant at PitchMarket 2010 and is a wonderful supportive resource. I highly recommend working with him).

If you are interested in finding out more about the sequence approach, I suggest getting Gulino’s book or doing a google search, as it is discussed on several blogs and forums. The blog A Good Story Well Told gives a great overview of his book.

Gulino names each sequence and what is meant to happen inside it (set up, development, special world, game, grace, intensification, sprint, resolution). If you are new to screenwriting, following these more closely and carefully will get you through that draft.

I have several screenplays under my belt, so I took a much looser approach, focusing mainly on the idea of “status quo” change.

(btw – before I plotted this, I nailed my logline down, which really helped)

1) I numbered some pages from 1 – 8, leaving ample room for the “beats” in each sequence. Beats are basically whole scenes that have their own beginning, middle, end. You can think of beats as the “steps” of the story. (Carry and Bob get married, their limousine crashes on the way to the airport, Bob gets his legs amputated, etc.)

2) I decided what the “status quo” was at the beginning of each sequence, and how the status quo would be changed by the END of that sequence. During this process I also thought about what the goals were for the characters in that sequence.

Here’s a hint – if the status quo never changes from the beginning to the end of your sequence, your story probably isn’t very dynamic and is most definitely missing conflict.

For example, my story was based on the relationship between a mother and son. Events happen to them (both as individuals and together) to create conflict between them. At the beginning of the first sequence, their life together is set up and we understand that they have a pretty good relationship. But, mom actually has a secret she’s been keeping from him his whole life. She’s never told him who his real father is. By the END of the first sequence (about 15 pages later), her son has found out this secret and wants to go meet his father. The son is furious with the mom. New status quo.

At the beginning of the next sequence, they go to see his father, who is in the hospital. The son decides he wants to stay. Mom wants to leave. Mom gives in to son to keep him happy. New status quo.

And so on until the end, by which time their major conflict would be resolved (I wanted a happy ending, what can I say).

3) I reviewed the beginning status quos for each sequence to make sure they significantly changed. I drew an up arrow (good terms) or down arrow (bad terms) to indicate the state of the mom/son relationship at the beginning of each sequence. Up, Down, Double Down, Up, Down, Tripple Down (the worst point for them), Neutral, Up.

Great. Story is dymamic.

4) I added as many beats in each sequence that I could think of that would complete each sequence. In the first sequence they start off camping, drive to Uncle Bears, Reunite with their hippie commune family, Mom finds out son’s father is in hospital, son catches her smoking pot and gets mad, Mom tries to sneak off to hospital, Son catches her and confronts her, she confesses her secret. Okay, so 7 main beats to that sequence. If I can divide them up even smaller, I go for it. If I already have particular scenes I know I want to write, I note them in the proper sequence.

And that’s basically how I outlined the plot for the script. It was MUCH easier than thinking of it in larger sections. The sequence approach lends itself to moving the story forward. And when I wrote the script, it flowed better than any other I had written.

Okay – the FRENZY starts on THURSDAY (egad!). By tomorrow morning, I have to decide which story I’m going to tell and sequence it out. I suggest you do the same! Good luck!


Filed under behind the scenes, screenplay: the exercise, screenwriting, writing exercises

Screenplay: The Frenzy – Preparing for the Challenge

Wow, I noticed it’s been over a YEAR since I posted my last Screenplay: The Exercise entry. Guess I’ve been busy. And I’ve been working on the accidental novel launch, which is in two months. Woo-hoo!

But now it’s time to dust off my DIY Screenplay Kit because

What’s that? you ask. Why Script Frenzy is a writing event in which participants take on the challenge of writing 100 pages of scripted material during the month of April. Feature film, play, TV show, graphic novels all count for the challenge.

People who know me know how much I love a good screenwriting challenge. A feature in 30 days? Piece of cake! (famous last words) I challenge you to finish in 21 days and spend the rest of the time editing.

The hardest thing right now is simply deciding which story to tell.

Exciting, isn’t it?

If you’re on board for the FRENZY, I’ll be posting writing exercises, advice, support, encouragement on my blog as I participate in the event. If you sign up at the frenzy website and become part of your local frenzy scene, there will be meetups happening all month. (Unfortunately I’ll be out of town for Vancouver’s kick-off event on Sunday, March 28 at Blenz at Pacific Centre in downtown Vancouver.)

Having been a screenwriting teacher for several years, I’ve developed (okay, stolen and personalized) several writing exercises as well as created a writing program called “From Start to Finish” – which takes students through a screenplay in 12 weeks. At T.A.N.’s former home over at blogspot, I also hosted several challenges and presented my “Super Scene Writing Formula.”

Since we don’t have 12 weeks, I’ll be taking some of the highlights of that program and reposting them here under my Screenplay: The Exercise series. That will make it happy, since I’ve been neglecting it for so long.


The FIRST thing you need to do is PREPARE to write your screenplay!

Okay, actually, before you do that you need to PICK AN IDEA. Just pick one, pick one, pick one and stick to it the entire month, even when things get crunchy.

If you’re totally stuck, try the PLOT MACHINE on Script Frenzy’s homepage. After a few random pulls I came up with these:

After the Third World War, a group of Star Wars collectors is catapulted into the limelight.

In a post-apocalyptic world, an out of work lion tamer falls head over heels in love with a zombie.

Next, there are many things you can do before you even sit down to do your OUTLINE (which I will discuss in my next post (oh, goodie!) when I share my not-so-secret path towards screenplay outline success).

(CLICK on links for further help/explanation)

1) TALK your story ideas out loud.

2) Work on your LOGLINE.

3) Work on your protagonist’s DILEMMA.

4) Try some PREWRITING exercises.


1) Find a support system, a team of people who’ve got your back. You meet on a regular basis. They can be individuals, a small group, a paid professional.They hold you to your commitments and keep you on purpose.

2) Take a long walk alone. Let your mind wander. Allow all your ideas and stories and characters and images float around in your brain. If you haven’t already, decide on your next project before you get home. Make a mental commitment that when everything else seems more interesting and easier, you will stick with that project. Tell everyone on your team what you’re working on.

3) Buy a notebook and a bunch of your favoutie pens. This notebook is your brainstorming and exercise book for your story. Write the name of your story on the cover. Carry it with you everywhere. Any time you have 5 minutes (on the bus, waiting for a friend, etc), write your ideas down in it (I’ve suggested some start lines below). Do not edit, do not cross out, just write without stopping. DID YOU HEAR THAT?? WRITE, WRITE, WRITE – do not edit.

You can use the startlines below, write character lists (names, ages, descriptions, etc.), or write down what I call “moments.” That’s when a scene hits me and I’m not sure when it goes in the story, but I want to write it down. Scene when Chelle overhears Max getting a girl’s cell phone number and she feels like a bad mom because she can’t afford to get the family a cell phone.


If you find yourself stuck in front of a blank page, here are a few start lines you can try. Remember, write quickly without stopping and without editing. If you run out of things to say, write blah, blah, blah, i can’t think of anything to write about my character Susie because I’ve never known anyone like her… etc.

Also, I use conjunctions to connect ideas and use very little punctuation… keeps things flowing.

This is a story about… (forgiveness, forbidden love, jealousy, revenge…)

Before this story began, my protagonist…

When this story begins, my protagonist…

More than anything, my protagonist wants…

By the end of the story, my protagonist has learned…

What if… (always a good one, just lists when you get stuck on an answer… what if the twins find a kitten? what if Max wants a job? what if her father dies? and then when you strike something that resonates, riff on that for a while… Oh, yeah, Max not only wants a job, he wants to be emancipated and move in with this girlfriend…)

Feel free to mention the project you’ll be working on in the comments. Saying it out loud keeps you more committed to it.

And remember, there are ALL KINDS of writing tips and resources over on the Script Frenzy site.


Filed under behind the scenes, screenplay: the exercise, screenwriting, writing exercises

Brigitta is on the Loose (or, the History of the Accidental Novel) – Part Two

(continued from the PREVIOUS POST)

I am not ashamed to admit that the original Brigitta of the White Forest screenplay was written for the purpose of making money. I had made the decision that writing was not a hobby and that if I didn’t start making a living from it sooner rather than later, I was going to get seriously depressed. Since my dark indie dramadies weren’t pulling in the dough, I figured if I wrote something totally commercial, simply to sell and get back to my passion (i.e. dramas with dark comedic elements), I could support myself doing what I love to do. Plenty of artists did commercial work to support their other projects, right?

The problem came when I fell in love with my creation. I spent one too many moonbeats (a measure of time in my imaginary world) hanging out with Brigitta and her sister Himalette and creating an entire faerie history. I grew very attached to it and had strong feelings about the way I wanted it to be produced.

I was positive it had to be a live-action film ala Chronicles of Narina… which I knew was a hideously expensive proposition for an unknown property (as opposed to a KNOWN property like Chronicles of Narnia).  I had also worked so hard to create this world and wanted to explore it some more! When a company became interested in the script, my agent told me they would probably want the entire rights to it. The whole thing. Which meant good-bye to any plans I had for it. When that same interested company started talking about it being an animated film, I decided it was time to rethink how I wanted to release Brigitta into the world.

As I mention in my About section, a screenwriter friend of mine had adapted one of her original screenplays into a novel. The novel was published, which ironically got the screenplay optioned. I asked if she would consider adapting my screenplay into a novel. She told me to take a year off and write it myself.

But I’m not a novelist, I said.

Neither was I, she responded.

I took a year off of screenwriting and birthed the novel version of Brigitta of the White Forest. I took another year and wrote a few more drafts. The story got deeper and darker and my imaginary world got richer. I realized I really liked writing novels and that this imaginary world had many more stories that needed telling.

I started sending out my agent queries and that’s when things got wonky. I was taken on by a fabulous agency in the UK, Brubaker and Ford. Two gregarious and generous men run that boutique agency, and I was in writer heaven with the amount of affection they poured forth. They left voicemail messages sending love and praising my work. I saw success right around the corner! This was it!

Only the book wouldn’t sell. We were told the fantasy market was oversaturated. We were told the economy was uncertain. We were told new technologies were changing the book industry. We were told nobody was taking financial risks with new authors. Nobody said they didn’t like the story. Most of them praised the writing. I was so confounded that I was literally pulling my hair out (see trichotillomania) – luckily, I have a lot of hair.

After a year of approaching all the big houses and it not selling, we parted ways, as much as it broke our hearts. I decided to do one more rewrite to get rid of a bit of the exposition, and then run it through a focus group of teenagers to see if I was crazy thinking this thing was any good! B & F had suggested I find another agent and submit the new version back to the same big houses under another title. I started querying again, but my heart wasn’t in it. I got one offer for representation and I turned it down b/c it just didn’t feel like the right fit.

I decided the hell with agents and big publishing houses. Did I really want to wait three more years for this book to come out? I had already drafted the sequel! I was ready to take the show on the road! I approached a few boutique publishers and Tod McCoy of en theos press (who has published my books of poetry in the past) decided it was just the new direction he wanted to take his small press. Not only is this a person I trust, I was going to be involved in the whole process, something that doesn’t happen with a larger publisher. This made the control freak side of myself very happy indeed.

Another rewrite later and I was in much better spirits. I was actually THANKING the universe that the previous version of my novel wasn’t published because this version was so much better! After some very positive feedback from my pre-teen focus group (some begging to see the 2nd novel as soon as possible), and a significantly smaller rewrite and editing, it was finally done. Done done. Off to the copy editor done.

It only took 7 years from the day I received the idea to the day I let it go.


Filed under behind the scenes, Brigitta of the White Forest, industry poop, novel adventures, writing life

Can I get a hey? a hip-hip-hooray? a WHEW! (Brigitta is on the loose)

At long last… no seriously…loooooong laaaaaast… I just handed (okay, I e-mailed) the FINAL DRAFT of my accidental novel Brigitta of the White Forest to my copy editor. It’s officially out of my hands.

Do you even know how unreal it was to let it go?

This story began in late 2002 when I was visiting my brother’s partner in her most-awesome store EARTH CENTRAL. A cavern of magical items, books, tarot cards, and piles of faerie-like clothing. I was tending her store and pondering something my EX-screenwriting agent had said to me after reading my 3rd dark, dysfunctional, indie dramedy.

Danika, could you please write something BIGGER?

Bigger I thought… something more mainstream… something with merchandising potential, perhaps… all of this stewing in my brain while being surrounded by FAERIES!

Lady Luna on her Doorstep

You can say inspired, kissed by a muse, or downloaded – but the idea for the story was simply suddenly there. I could picture the two faerie sisters in my mind. So, I let the story percolate, my usual mode of development for a new idea. My mind just plays with it, tosses it around, pokes at it, and asks it a few what if questions.

And then, fortune of fortunes, the next summer I was hired to work on set on the magnificent Sunshine Coast. If faeries live anywhere, they live near skookumchuck narrows on the Sunshine Coast. I knew it was the perfect opportunity to write the story. I made my goal to finish it by the end of the gig… four weeks.

Skookumchuck Narrows Park (from M/V Just Playing)

I did just that and even met some fabulous hippies with an old VW van (painted with faeries, of course) and told them the whole story. My first audience.

That was when the screenplay Brigitta of the White Forest was born. Since I had created an entire world with its own rules, magic, flora, and fauna I decided before I wrote another draft I had to figure out how this world worked. I wrote a 25 page world book and glossary for my own reference and 4 more drafts of the screenplay over the next two years.

In 2005 I got a call from an agent in Vancouver who loved Brigitta and wanted to market the script. I was thrilled, of course.

But it was still not a novel. It wasn’t even an idea for a novel. It was a mainstream, big-budget, family film with merchandising potential. It was a SO THERE to my EX-agents who complained that i didn’t write BIG enough…



Filed under behind the scenes, Brigitta of the White Forest, novel adventures, screenwriting

Hit n Strum Wraps… on to PitchMarket 2010!

Last week we wrapped on Hit n Strum… for the most part. There are still a few minor scenes that need picking up, but for the majority of our team, it’s time to move on. Other gigs are calling, our spouses and loved ones want to see us, and the volunteer members of the crew are down to their last boxes of cereal.

I have to say this was one of the best things I have ever done in my life and I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in the editing room. Half scripted, half spontaneous guerrilla shoot, and all magic.

HS crew photo

Stunt Day Crew Photo

See the older couple on the far left? Those are the director’s parents. His Dad drove the cast and crew around. And his mom (in the sunglasses) made the crew breakfast every morning during the shoot. I’m gonna miss her.

Oh, and that’s their CAR… the one we used in our stunt. They were pretty good sports.

Reporter Glen Schaefer from the Vancouver Province was there on Stunt Day. CLICK HERE for the great article he wrote about our shoot. Very nice spread.


In addition to getting back to editing my latest feature script, I’m the Program Director for PitchMarket 2010, a professional networking and pitching event happening here in Vancouver on March 6th and 7th. CHECK IT OUT! It’s going to be great. Register now, cuz the first 50 registrants get extra special bonuses you won’t want to miss.


Filed under film biz, pitching your script, screenwriting, workshops

The Inside Story from the Inside Passage

It’s almost 11 pm and I still haven’t finished packing. I’ll be out the door at 6:45 AM to drive down to Seattle to catch the Celebrity Infinity cruise to Alaska.

photo of Alaska's Inside Passage from shipshoretravel.org

photo of Alaska's Inside Passage from shipshoretravel.org

I’ve never taken a cruise before, and frankly I’d never wanted to until I found out about Dara Mark’s class Engaging the Feminine Heroic, which takes place on the ship. It’s billed as a “7-Day Women Writers’ Retreat at Sea” and it’s going to be a blast.

Dara Marks is the author of The Inside Story: the Power of the Transformational Arc. I highly recommend it for those who’d like to develop authentic, character-driven stories.

A dozen women, mostly over 40, hanging out for a week at sea and taking a class with Dara Marks. How cool is that.

I will be posting every day along the trip about the cruise and the class.


Filed under cool poop, screenwriting

Training for the CyberSpace Open: A script per day!

When I started my 10 day screenwriting challenge the other day, little did I realize how this might get me in shape for one of the most interesting screenwriting contests I’ve seen:  Screenwriting Expo’s CyberSpace Open.

The contest is set up in round-robin (elimination) style. Each round the participants must write a five page short script around a specific premise. You can write from anywhere. To win you need to survive 3 rounds, each with a tighter deadline than the last.

In the final round, the top 10 writers have only 90 minutes to write a 5-page script. Whew!


I’ve been writing a short script per day for the past 7 days. I missed one day, so I only have 6 scripts. I was hoping to write 2 today, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

I may actually keep doing it for 2 weeks. We’ll see if I run out of steam.

I will post my favourite script of the 10 (or 14) right on this site. 🙂


Filed under Calls for Submission, contests, cool poop, film biz, industry poop, screenwriting, serious play, writing exercises

Blake Snyder – R.I.P.

If you haven’t heard yet, screenwriting guru Blake Snyder died of a heart attack yesterday. He was best known for his Save the Cat books and workshops.

The news is so strange to me, so unexpected. First of all, he was still pretty young. I have many friends around his age. But also, he has been so present in conversations lately. I just saw him at the PitchFest in L.A. and we were talking about brining him up to Vancouver for PitchMarket. He was one of the most popular screenwriting teachers out there.

save the cat

save the cat

I had some personal differences with some of the things in he said in his book, but he had some excellent pre-writing and writing exercises. He also inspired thousands of writers and not many out there can say that. He was also a genuinely nice man.

Someone on his website commented that they would dive with renewed passion into their own scripts in his honour. I will do the same. Here’s to you, Blake!

Best wishes to his family and friends. Losing a loved one is never easy.

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Filed under aw... poop, film biz

Script Creative Launched

I’ve been over at the OTHER wordpress (.org) for the past few days — the one that allows you to keep your own url and has more bells and whistles. What fun. (You can also screw up your site easier because it gives you access to the code — whoops!)

I JUST launched Script Creative, my new story editing / script development services, and I’ve got a hot summer deal. So hot I’m sweating.

It’s fun to procrastinate productively!

Now… back to that rewrite… 🙂


Filed under film biz, screenwriting

Pitching Tips from Pamela Jaye Smith

A great article on INKTIP (a great resource for screenwriters):

7 Pitching Tips from Ancient Myth to Modern Media

reel scrpt

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Filed under film biz, industry poop, pitching your script, screenwriting