Best Popular Screenwriting Podcast

Scriptnotes: Ep. 363

John and Craig pack this business-centric episode with big picture conversations about guild negotiations, changes to the Oscars, the Disney/Fox merger, the Paramount Consent Decree, and the tragedy that is being unable to stream The Flamingo Kid.


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My abortion story

Last week, Slate ran a feature in which six women talked about their abortions:

We might better understand what abortion is, and what that right means, if we talked about it more. And so we asked the people who write and podcast for Slate if any of them have abortion stories they’d be comfortable sharing.

It’s a great piece. You should read it, listen to it, and share it widely.

Like every other cisgendered man on Earth, I’ve never had an abortion. I believe it’s not my place to tell a woman what to do with her body.

And as a gay guy, I never expected abortion to play any role in my life. But it did.

So in the spirit of talking openly about the subject, I’ve decided to share my experience of an unplanned pregnancy, and how it demonstrated why restricting abortion may constitute a moral crime.

My abortion story starts ten years ago in the suburbs of San Diego, where a young woman finds herself pregnant.

Katie is 17, living at home, about to graduate high school. Her grades are good but not exceptional. She plans to go to community college while keeping her job at the mall.1

It takes Katie a while to realize she might be pregnant, and longer still to tell anyone. She’s scared and in denial.

Part of the problem is the guy. He’s a classmate. They’d hooked up after a party, but were never dating. She doesn’t know how she feels about him.

Part of the problem is her parents. She is their only child, the light of their life. She knows they’ll be disappointed in her.

So she doesn’t say anything for months, even as the pregnancy becomes harder and harder to ignore. She finally tells a friend at work. They sit in her car discussing all the options.

You probably think you know what happens next.

You’re wrong.

Katie tells her parents. As she predicted, they are upset, and scared, but also supportive.

They talk it over, and together decide to contact an adoption agency.

After a phone interview, Katie gets a folder of “Dear Birth Mother” letters from families looking to adopt a child. Here’s how it works: After reading through the letters, she can choose a family to meet and decide if they are the right home for her kid. It’s all up to her.

Suddenly this pregnancy, which had seemed like a curse, feels like an opportunity. She can give a family what they want most. The dread has been lifted from her, replaced with a sense of hope and responsibility.

After sorting the letters into piles, weighing pros and cons of each family, she makes a choice.

She chooses us.

That’s how I enter this story.

At this point, we already have one kid: a daughter who is nearly three. This is one reason Katie picks us; Katie had always wanted a big sister. Her child will have one.

Plus, we live close enough that Katie can visit. She isn’t sure how much she wants to be part of the kid’s life — it is hard to think that far ahead — but she is excited to have the option.

Before we drive down to meet Katie, the agency schedules an ultrasound to check on the progress of the pregnancy. It’s her first checkup.

That’s when the story takes a second turn.

The ultrasound reveals feet and hands and a heart, but no brain. It’s missing. At top of the spine is a shape like a deflated basketball.

These types of neural tube defects are rare, but not as rare as you’d think. They happen in roughly 1 out of 1,000 pregnancies. They show up in an ultrasound. The back of the head doesn’t form properly, leaving the stem exposed.

There isn’t going to be a baby to adopt, because what is growing can’t survive. It will likely be stillborn, but even if it is isn’t, it will never be conscious.

Katie is devastated. She has just come to accept she is going to have a baby, and now she isn’t.

Her decision is straightforward. She terminates the pregnancy. That’s what the vast majority of women do when receiving this diagnosis.

We never end up meeting Katie. We send our condolences, and wish her and her family the best. She goes back to her life, and we go back to ours.

Very few of our friends know there was even the possibility of a second kid. Neither do our parents. It never comes up. But recently, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

This could have been much, much worse

The procedure Katie had is an abortion.

It would be illegal under many of the laws proposed across the country — laws waiting to be enacted if Roe vs. Wade is weakened or overturned.

The most far-reaching of these bans are called “heartbeat bills” because they prohibit abortion beginning at the moment a fetal heartbeat can be detected, roughly six weeks.

Other abortion bans start at 20 weeks. Ohio’s Republican governor John Kasich signed one of these bills, calling it the “best, most legally sound and sustainable approach to protecting the sanctity of human life.”

But not if you’re Katie.

Katie had passed 20 weeks when she discovered what was growing inside her was certain to die. Doctors couldn’t tell her when. It could happen at any moment, or during birth, or immediately afterwards.

Under Ohio’s law, Katie couldn’t terminate the pregnancy. Like most of these laws, Ohio’s doesn’t make exceptions for fetal anomalies.

To be sure, some women in Katie’s situation do continue their pregnancies, bracing themselves for the grim outcome. If you Google their stories, you’ll see phrases like —

I had two options…
We prayed on it and ultimately decided…
For us, the choice was clear.

According to the Ohio legislature, these women shouldn’t have a choice. They shouldn’t pray over it. They should wait until they spontaneously miscarry, or until their due date arrives at which point labor can be induced. (Odd science fact: Natural labor is triggered by hormones in babies’ brains. No brain, no hormones.)

The end result will be a dead body without a brain, the same as if the abortion had taken place months earlier.

To me, forcing a woman to continue a doomed pregnancy is a moral crime.

It means forcing a woman to go through months of emotional and physical distress, along with potentially serious medical complications. It means forcing a woman to suspend her plans for no one’s benefit. It means her life is worth less than a collection of cells that will never be conscious.

I suspect that most legislators are not thinking about neural tube defects when they pass these bills. Nor do I believe that governors intend to inflict suffering when they sign them.

I don’t think these people are evil. But laws passed without careful consideration can do real evil.

It’s the responsibility of our courts, elected officials and citizens to tell them that. That’s why I’m sharing this story now. That’s why I encourage more people to talk about their experience with abortion, either publicly or with friends and family.

And as new abortion restrictions are proposed, I’d urge you to be skeptical of anyone proffering “reasonable compromises.”

They’ll say 20 weeks is the threshold of viability. But it’s not. Katie’s pregnancy was never going to be viable, if you define viability in any sensible way.

They’ll say that the woman needs to wait a few days, or see the ultrasound, or hear the heartbeat. But she’s not the one who needs to stop and look and listen.

Ultimately, the heartbeat that needs attention is the woman’s. She’s the one who is unambiguously alive. She has a past, a future and a family.

Katie will be 27 now. We haven’t had any contact with her. Wherever she is, I hope she’s well and happy.

I have to imagine this was a terrible experience for her. But I’m thankful it wasn’t worse. She didn’t have to spend months answering questions about her doomed pregnancy, knowing that at any moment she could miscarry. She didn’t have to go through the pain of delivery to give birth to a dead child.

Because abortion was legal, a young woman’s suffering was lessened. That’s something worth defending.

You can download the audio here.

  1. I’ve changed Katie’s name, but none of the other details.

The One with Mindy Kaling

Scriptnotes: Ep. 362

John sits down with writer/actor Mindy Kaling (The Office, The Mindy Project, Champions) to talk about her origin story, her big break as Ben Affleck, what it’s like to simultaneously showrun and star in a sitcom, and the nature of half-hour comedies.

We also answer a listener question about point of view and its relationship with genre and medium.


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I’m on the App Store

app store article with photoThis morning, Apple posted a profile of me and my software company, Quote-Unquote Apps. If you’re on an iPhone or iPad, you can read the piece here.

Or just open the App Store app and I’m on the front page.

Yes, it’s a little frustrating that the article is accessible only through the App Store app. I get why they do it — they want exclusive content about apps available right where you get them, just like airlines have their own in-flight magazines. But it feels weird to have a link that only some readers can open.

When you agree to a profile like this, you don’t get a lot of control. I didn’t see the story or the photos until it posted. But I’m happy they emphasized the team that makes it possible. Nima Yousefi is our master coder. Dustin Bocks designs everything to pixel precision. Megan McDonnell keeps on top of support issues and finds new scripts each week for Weekend Read.

While this profile mostly focuses on Weekend Read, in reality it’s Highland 2 that occupies most of our time. Since it debuted in May, Highland 2 has become our biggest hit by far. It’s also the most important app for me as a writer, since I use it nonstop for scripts, books and blog posts like this one.

If you still haven’t checked out Highland 2, today’s the day.

And if you’re a screenwriter nervous about making the jump, definitely check out our new PDF on Switching from Final Draft to Highland 2.


This quote, often misattributed to Steinbeck, is a pithy summary of what I wrote earlier this morning:

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

Thank you to Twitter folks who mentioned it.

“Socialism” and “proletariat” are loaded words, so the simpler 2018 version might read: Americans never think of themselves as poor, but rather billionaires-to-be.

Living the dream

Forbes recently named Kylie Jenner one of the “60 richest self-made women.” Ann Friedman isn’t having it:

America is not the level playing field that places such as Forbes pretend it is, and Jenner illustrates perfectly that, while your odds of going from rich to filthy rich are still pretty good, your odds of going from rags to riches have never been slimmer.

Americans love “rags to riches” stories. We mythologize immigrants who came to our shores with nothing and rose to become titans of industry. We celebrate women like Dolly Parton and Oprah who were born into poverty and achieved greatness through talent and determination.

We’re believers. Hopers. Dreamers. America isn’t a country of what is, but what could be.

The term “American Dream” is surprisingly recent. It traces back to the 1931 book The Epic of America by James Truslow Adams, in which he describes —

“That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Like Martin Luther King in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Adams is describing a vision and a hope, not a reality.

Yet too many of us act as if we’re already living in the American dream, that our country is essentially fair, that everyone has the same opportunities if they just apply themselves.

Friedman again:

According to Pew, only 1 in 5 people think that the American dream is out of reach for their family. America’s founding myth is that anyone can find success by working hard. Even as inequality grows — particularly along race and gender lines — we want to believe that “self-made” millionaire status is as achievable for the African American daughters of unmarried teens in Mississippi as it is for Westchester-raised Exeter students and reality television stars.

Friedman argues that by focusing on the Kylie Jenners and Mark Zuckerbergs, society is turning a blind eye to the poorest Americans who desperately need our attention.

But I think it’s actually worse than that.

When we celebrate the notion that anyone could become the next billionaire, we encourage this mass delusion that good times are always just around the corner. Sure, money might be tight right now, but you could strike gold tomorrow!

The reality is, most Americans are much closer to becoming poor than becoming rich. Economic mobility works both ways. You can climb, but you can also fall, and fall fast. A dozen things could wipe out your life’s savings overnight, including illness, addiction, fire, fraud, and crime.

The smart play, then, is to take precautions against events that could send you into poverty. That’s why you go to the doctor. That’s why you buy insurance. That’s why you pay taxes for police and firefighters.

Doing these things isn’t pessimism. It’s realism.

But in America, reality isn’t a priority — after all, we’ve got The Dream. So instead of funding safety net programs, we cut them. We deregulate industries and destabilize health insurance markets.

None of this makes sense if we acknowledge that we’re all likely to need these programs one day. Eventually, fate’s arrow is going to point at us, and our friends and family. We are much more likely to become broke than billionaires. We need to act accordingly.