Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Call in The Script Doctor

In addition to writing and editing books, I also write screenplays and stage plays, and have worked as a script doctor. A script doctor, who is sometimes simply called a consultant, is a writer hired by a director or producer to fix an existing script. Sometimes that is just an extensive copy edit similar to what is done for a novel. Other times the script doctor is asked to polish specific aspects of the script, including structure, characterization, dialogue, pacing, theme, and other elements.

That's what Stephen Marro and his Arrested Development Production Company in New York hired me to do for his film, Broadway's Finest.  He had a terrific story, but the dialogue, pacing and characterization needed help. That project started in development - which means all the work that goes into financing, producing, and marketing a film - about fifteen years ago and took this long to find its way to the screen. The original working title was Arrested Development, but then the television series came along, so he changed the film's title. Here is the trailer for the film.


I first met Stephen when he was interested in directing a screenplay I had written, and later worked with him on three scripts on which we share screenwriting credits. For two of those, I went to New York and spent several days with him developing the scripts. He had the basic ideas, some of the characters, and some of the scenes, and together we fleshed out the rest of the stories. Then I came home and wrote the first drafts of the scripts. Those were sent back to him for his input, then I did the final formatting and proofing.  If "It Doesn't Take a Hero" and "Canned Goods" ever find their way to the big screen, I will get screen credits because my contribution to the scripts was more than doctoring.

The reason I don't have a screenwriting credit for Broadway's Finest is because under the Writers Guild of America screenwriting credit system, a screenwriter must contribute more than 50 percent of an original screenplay or 33 percent of an adaptation to receive credit. So no screen credit for me. But I did have fun watching the film with my son not long ago and recognizing some of the lines of dialogue that were mine.

Just like a physician, one cannot simply hang out a shingle and be a script doctor. I took numerous screenwriting classes and workshops at the University of Houston and wrote two award-winning scripts before I even attempted to be a script doctor. Being a good book editor is not enough either, as script structure is different from that of a novel, as is the pacing and other elements, not to mention the formatting. That is vastly different from a novel or other prose, and a writer has to be skilled with those elements before a director or producer will hire him or her.

My first screenplay was "A Question of Honor", which is the project I had in development many moons ago and was my introduction to Stephen. It was a semi-finalist at Sundance, and even being a semi-finalist there gives one good scriptwriting creds. A few years later I placed as a semi-finalist at the Chesterfield with the adaptation of my mystery, Open Season.

If you would like to try adapting one of your stories to a script, check out the tutorial that Shon Bacon posted here yesterday - Book to Screen: Seeing Your Book as a Visual Story.

Have you adapted a story to a script? Got some tips to share for those just starting out?
Posted by Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent book releases are Doubletake and Boxes For Beds, both mysteries that are available for Kindle and in paper.  Stalking Season is the second book in the Seasons Mystery Series, also now available as an e-book, along with Open Season, the first book in the series. To check her editing rates visit her website. When not working, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas

17 comments :

  1. I think a few more movies out there could have used a script doctor, a script EMT in some cases. There are so many factors that go into a successful movie: acting, directing, filming, editing, sound effects, etc. I can forgive a few speedbumps here and there, but terrible dialogue is a death toll. Since so much of the final product is under someone else's control, the screenwriter needs to be good at creating a tense overall plot arc and a master craftsman of dialogue.

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    1. That is so true, Diana. A few TV shows could use some help with dialogue, too. Dialogue has always been a strength of mine as a writer, so that aspect of script writing came easy to me. Stephen relied on that strength a lot as we worked on the various scripts together. His strength is in fresh story ideas and scenes, so that made working with him such a pleasure. I've collaborated a number of times on scripts and novels, and find that the individual writing strengths complement each other.

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  2. I think it takes a lot of talent to do what you do. I tried my hand at translating my book HOOKED into a screenplay this past winter for the Page Contest. Though it was a great learning experience on tightening dialogue, my effort went nowhere. I thought that particular book would make a fun movie, but it should be in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing. I used Final Draft, so the format was already done. Great experience, not such a great outcome.

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    1. Polly, while it is important to get the formatting done correctly, there is so much more to adapting a novel to a script. As Shon mentioned yesterday, you really have to think about the visuals that will tell part of the story. I once took a 6week scriptwriting class with Joe Camp of Benji fame and he taught us how to focus on visuals and not rely on dialogue. That was a great lesson for me.

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    2. I suppose if I were serious about scriptwriting, I'd pursue courses, but I have enough trouble writing books. It was still fun and worthwhile. I learned a lot, like cutting unnecessary dialogue.

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  3. Hey, Doc ... my script has this dangling participle ... would you mind taking a look?

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    1. Give it two aspirins and call me in the morning. And don't forget to send the check. :-)

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  4. Polly, what is Final Draft? Software, I'm guessing. Have we blogged about it?

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    1. That is a scriptwriting program that does all the formatting automatically. There are several out there, so maybe a post about all of them with recommendations would be good.

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  5. As mentioned to Shon, I've been involved in just one such project. We didn't have a scriptwriting program, just a book of instructions and a very slow computer (20+ years ago). While the script was optioned (and we were paid for the option), I probably will think long and hard before attempting that again. It was an arduous task that took endless frustrating hours to complete. Of course, current software options likely make the job far easier, but I'm still not sure I'd do it again.

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    1. Linda, the software only helps with the formatting, and back when I wrote my first script and no software existed, I learned the indent formula- 5 tabs for character name and 3 tabs for dialogue- and that made the typing go fast. The challenge was always to get the structure down/ :-)

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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