On The Page: Screenwriting Guru Pilar Alessandra and Writer Suzanne Keilly Answer Essential Screenwriting Questions

By October 4, 2017Main, Screenwriting 101

By: Andrew Schwartz

On The Page is a weekly podcast hosted by Pilar Alessandra, a writing teacher and former story analyst for Dreamworks SKG. Her podcast focuses on breaking down and understanding the craft of screenwriting and features many prominent voices in the industry. 

In episode 524, entitled Inbox, Pilar is joined by Suzanne Keilly, a professional film and television writer recently hired to write a feature for the Syfy channel after receiving a writing credit on Ash vs Evil Dead. Together, the pair answers a wide range of listener questions that run the gamut from where to live, to how to approach an adaptation. We’ll be summarizing some of the more interesting questions here, but first, check out the episode below!

Q: One of my struggles as a TV writer is dealing with a dead beat sheet. I write remotely, and my head writer sends me a beat sheet that completely omits the emotional arcs of scenes. It doesn’t identify who’s driving the scene or even what the character wants. How can you mine the beat sheet for more oomph? And, how can I do that best without writing things that will screw up the plot down the line? 

P: Most people in LA tend to do whole outlines instead of beat sheets and it goes back to what the idea of a beat is. When we talk about a beat sheet in Hollywood, there are so many variations of them. What you will see in my class is the eight sequence beat sheet for a feature or a five to eight sequence beat sheet for TV. My students look at that as every 10-15 pages and it is the sequence of story (you can use beat and sequence interchangeably). 

In that sequence of story, I ask my students to decide what the goal, activity and complication is for each beat as driven by the main character or main characters — what do they want, how are they doing to get what they want, and what gets in the way? What gets in the way could be emotional, physical, or both!

Look at what emotion this creates from the character and if the activity isn’t large enough to create emotion dial it up a bit, but if it does create an emotional reaction then you’re probably fine! Never throw in a new obstacle that doesn’t actually come from what’s naturally going on. 

S: We mostly do outlines, and once the outline is approved we take the outline to script. With the Syfy channel, their movies are in eight acts (beats) and the end of each section has to end on a high beat.

Q: Can your book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter help with adaptations and creating a series from the adaptation? 

Absolutely! The book can help you focus on what the actual movie that comes out of the book is rather than just summarizing what the book is about. It will help you find the actual movie log line that originates from the material of the book. 

Q: Almost everyone agrees that one of the best things you can do after you finish the first draft of your script is to take a break from the story in order to have a clearer mindset when you come back to the script; what should I do during that time? Should I watch movies, read or work on a new script, or would that make it too difficult to come back and focus on my original story ? 

S: I don’t like to leave anything for too long. After I finish a first draft, I like to go back and work on it right away because I need it to keep it fresh. I also like to have a friend, or someone else to read it. If I have something else to work on then I will work on that, but yes, the most important thing is to keep working on your project — don’t stop writing or else it could be too hard to get back into the script. 

How hard is it to get my career off the ground living outside of LA or NY?

P: If you are a screenwriter writing features, it is more possible to do it from elsewhere these days. It used to be you had to live in Hollywood, but if you’re a TV writer and you want to be staffed you have to be here in LA because you have to come into an office every day. That doesn’t mean you need to move here to try to be a TV writer —  you could send your stuff out to TV and screenwriting contests and see if agents ask you to come in for meetings. See what the possibilities are for you and then move out here. 

Also, you can submit to writing fellowships — NBC, CBS, WB, etc. — submit to those and commit to what they’re going to expect from you if you get it because once you’re in, you’re getting fast tracked into being staffed on a series!

If you have something you can put on the web and it is quality — it looks good, sounds good and it doesn’t have low budget acting — put it on the web. Your content can go to many different platforms and you can show people what you can do.

S: I remember hearing about some of the late night shows that were looking for people to submit jokes and people from places like Ohio were getting staffed. It’s always important to know whats going on in the writing communities. It’s also hard to pick up and move but the best way to make contacts and relationships is to be where everyone is.

As a comedy writer, use your city to help your career — theaters, comedy clubs — use those venues to find your voice and hone your writing. Use your city and your audience there to start a career and then come to LA and sell your story. 

Q: What is the relationship between beats and scene structure and how many beats should be in Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, and Act 3? And, how many beats should be in a scene?

P: However many there needs to be. A scene can be an eighth of a page, or it can be five pages long depending on how much attention that particular moment has to get, or how much attention that story beat has to get. The scene is the action and emotion that defines the entire act, which are very long segments of story.

A scene can be on one track and then suddenly shift; there can be more than one beat in a scene, but if you’re in the same place and your on the third beat of your scene you might want to ask yourself, “Why am I still in the same location?”

Q: I’m writing a continued feature that is all interviews and an interrogation. I’m worried that it is all exposition. From what I’ve read, exposition is bad. Am I shooting myself in the foot by writing this? 

P: Exposition is bad when you’re telling us something we’ve already saw, should be seeing or are about to see. If you’re doing a feature about a reporter, then part of that reporter’s action is interview. Get the information that reporter needs in an active, interesting way. It’s the same with an interrogation: you need that information because it’s part of that scene and story, as oppose to showing the interrogation and having characters talk about it later.

S: Thats why I don’t love voiceover: writers will often show it and then talk about it later. Voiceover works when it’s doing something that the action or the dialogue can’t.