Franz Kafka’s brother, and the perfect agent

Scriptnotes: Ep. 172

John and Craig talk about why writers are often reluctant to show their work, and how film journalists love to focus on the director — even when there’s no director in sight.

Then, it’s part two of our Perfect series, in which we look at what constitutes the perfect agent. Underlying the agent archetypes — advisor, advocate, connector — is a relationship based on honesty and trust. How do you build it? How do you maintain it? We offer our opinions from the writer’s side of the phone sheet.

Come to our live show on December 11th in Hollywood! You’ll find the link in the show notes.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 12-1-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Finishing a script, and the Perfect Studio Executive

Scriptnotes: Ep. 171

What are the odds that’s statistical analysis of screenplays will make Craig angry? Always bet on umbrage. Fortunately, he just finished a script, so we talk about that, and John’s new gig writing Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (which was the project he described phone-pitching the past few episodes).

Then we talk about what makes for the perfect studio executive. It’s a series we plan to continue, looking at the prototypical awesome person in various categories.

Our December 11th live show is likely to sell out, so don’t delay getting your ticket. And Thursday at noon is the last chance to get a Writer Emergency Pack. Links to both below.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 11-25-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Lotteries, lightning strikes and twist endings

Scriptnotes: Ep. 170

John and Craig look at the nature of fluke hits, everything from #alexfromtarget to huge spec sales. Is luck just luck, or is it about how often you play the game? Where does talent fit in?

We walk through a great breakdown of twist endings by Alec Worley, looking at how expectation both inside and outside of the story shapes the experience.

Then we answer a bunch of listener questions, on topics including using real-life locations, breaking up dialogue, and passing gracefully when you don’t like a project.

The Scriptnotes Holiday show is December 11th in Hollywood, featuring guests Aline Brosh McKenna, B.J. Novak, Jane Espenson and Derek Haas. Check the link below for tickets.


You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 11-17-14: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

In praise of flat adverbs

Emily Brewster of Merriam-Webster offers a cogent defense of “drive safe,” “take it easy” and other cases in which adverbs seem to be missing their -ly ending:

It’s not simply a matter of do-what-you-want. These words really are adverbs, they just look like their related adjective forms. A good example is “near.” It’s an adjective, a preposition and adverb — even though there is also an -ly form.

It was a near miss. [adjective]

I work near the train station. [preposition]

The deadline draws near. [adverb]

Christmas is nearly here. [adverb]

They’re all related, but you can’t use them interchangeably.

Last night, Stuart corrected something I wrote in a Kickstarter update. Instead of “look close,” he suggested “look closely.” Both work, but there’s something I really love about the flat form.

Thanks to Bryce Edmonds for the link.

Development Emergencies

Vineet Dewan, who was nice enough to co-star in the Kickstarter video for Writer Emergency Pack, decided to film his own version pitched at development executives:

So, yeah. Sigh. I can imagine Writer Emergency Pack being used this way, as a shortcut to actual notes about an actual script. But these wouldn’t be the worst notes I’ve gotten in a meeting.1

If pulling a card from a deck fosters a good discussion about the script, at least it’s about the story and not useless minutiae.

Meanwhile, the real Writer Emergency Pack is roaring ahead on Kickstarter. With 10 days to go, it’s fully funded, with 2,400 backers. Huge thanks to everyone who’s joined us.

  1. The worst note I got was, “She should be a flight attendant. Women aren’t airline pilots. It’s unrealistic.” This was from a female producer.

Writer Emergency Pack, and the secret history thereof

After four years of discussion, three complete do-overs and two print runs, we finally launched Writer Emergency Pack.

It’s a deck full of useful ideas to help get your story unstuck.

Here’s a video we made to explain it:

It’s on Kickstarter. It’s already fully funded. It’s been an exciting 24 hours.

How we got here

Writer Emergency Pack was originally called Unstuck, and it was supposed to be an iPhone app. In fact, it was our very first app, built by me and Nima Yousefi before I’d even met him in person.

Here’s an early drawing I did for the launch screen:

UI drawing

The original idea was that you shook your phone, Magic 8-Ball style, and a suggestion would appear.

When I hired Ryan Nelson as my Director of Digital Things, we re-conceived the app, giving it a vintage survival guide vibe. Here’s Ryan’s mockup for the iPad version.

Unstuck iPad

We built it. We hated it.

It was sort of a book, but not really. Something about pulling out your phone to deal with story problems felt wrong. When you’re writing, the phone is a distraction, not a solution. Once you’re looking at that little screen, you’re tempted to check email, or Twitter, or play a quick game.

The iPhone was the wrong tool for the job.

So we never released it. Instead, we focused on the apps that would become Highland and Weekend Read.

But there were aspects of Unstuck we loved. Ryan Nelson had designed amazing artwork inspired by vintage Boy Scout handbooks. I’d written a bunch of the suggestions for the app. And we’d commissioned terrific illustrations by David Friesen.

unstuck illustrations

And then we lost the name Unstuck. Technically, you can’t lose what you never owned, but it still felt like a loss. A self-help project called Unstuck took the URL and started making apps and registering trademarks.

Nameless = aimless

Our Unstuck was basically dead. Every week at our staff meeting, Unstuck would be at the bottom of our list of projects. “Yeah, that’s still kind of a good idea,” I’d say. Then I’d remember there were lots of other projects we were working on, and this one didn’t even have a name. So for three years, it was always the lowest priority.

But two ideas arrived together to make us look at the project again.

First, the idea of using playing cards. JJ Abrams’s company always sends cool holiday gifts, and one year they sent a deck of custom Bad Robot playing cards. A few months ago, I found the deck again and marveled at it. “How expensive is it to make custom cards?” I wondered aloud. Some googling led to the answer: playing cards are very expensive to print unless you’re printing a bunch at once.

Then at Jordan Mechner’s wedding, each guest received a limited-edition deck of cards. The design was terrific; the printing was extraordinary. More googling led me down a rabbit hole of card designers and collectors, many of them connecting through Kickstarter. There was a whole community making cards. If they could do it, we could do it.

Cards felt like an appropriately tactile solution to story problems. After all, screenwriters use index cards all the time. And unlike an iPhone, if you’re pulling these cards out, you’re focussed on writing, not Twitter. I started to think about how I could rewrite my suggestions to fit in a smaller format.

Then, on episode 161 of Scriptnotes, Aline Brosh McKenna joined us and described how she’d recently solved a nagging script problem by deliberately upending her own expectations about one character. It was exactly the kind of suggestion I wanted Unstuck to provide.

If Unstuck existed. Which it didn’t.

I asked Ryan to mock up his drowning-man artwork as a playing card box. He did. It looked great.

unstuck box

But of course, it couldn’t be called Unstuck, because there were a lot of other trademarks in the way.

The drowning man felt like a screenwriter being pulled underwater. He was a writer having an emergency, and this object was a pack of cards.

Putting it all together, we got Writer Emergency Pack. Once we had a name, we had a unifying concept: a survival kit for “writer emergencies” — stalled stories, confused characters, plodding plots, alliterative et ceteras.

header graphic

From there, it was still a tremendous amount of work to figure out how to actually do it. We printed demo decks. We showed them around. I rewrote everything. But we finally had a clear destination — something we were lacking for four years.

Quite appropriately, making Writer Emergency Pack has been a lot like writing a screenplay. When you’re trying to fix a broken idea, it’s a thankless grind. When you’re executing an idea you love, it’s a treat. It’s been tremendously fun to figure out how to make these cards.

And now that we’re funded, we’ll get to make a bunch of them.

The Kickstarter phase of the process is a very quick 16 days, so don’t miss out on the chance to preorder. There’s no guarantee we’ll have any extras, so this may be the one opportunity to get them.

You can find Writer Emergency Pack exclusively on Kickstarter. Choose “Back This Project” to reserve your deck.