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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.
Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have an amazing guest today; screenwriting guru and author of Making a Good Script Great, the legend herself, Linda Seger. Linda, thanks for being on with us today!
Linda: Lovely to be here!
Geoffrey: Before we really roll into this, I want to first thank you for being a trailblazer for script consultants. You’ve done this for over twenty years, and if it wasn’t for you, people like me wouldn’t exist.
Linda: It’s actually been 39 years.
Geoffrey: Wow! We’re going to discuss the book today, Making a Good Script Great, because this is in the pantheon of screenwriting books, with the likes of Story and Save the Cat! This book should really be in every screenwriter’s collection. Before we dive into the book, I always like to get people’s origin stories. Can you guide me through how everything started for you?
Linda: I came out of the theatre; I got a Master’s degree, directed 25 plays, and went to graduate school. In graduate school, I did a dissertation for my doctorate on “What are the Elements that Make a Good Script?” When I entered the film industry, I saw scripts that weren’t great, so I flipped my dissertation into, “What is Missing from these Scripts?” Also, when I discovered that Hollywood tends to be anti-education, where the only way I could get a job was to sell myself and my typing ability…after a few years, I said, “I wonder if I could create a business on this.” I went to a career consultant, got it started in 1981, and then went full-time in 1983.
Geoffrey: Absolutely amazing. You wrote the book…and you talk about the five components of stories: Story Lines, Characters, Theme, Idea…and then you end on something that nobody talks about enough, which is Images and how a scene builds an image. I love the way you describe it because you don’t find it discussed anywhere else. Can you walk us through that a little bit more?
Linda: Film is a visual medium, some people think it’s a word medium, so they overwrite dialogue where it’s very on the nose with the message they hammer away at. In film, you can do an image very quickly [that can give you a sense of the theme and character motivations] in one second. Look behind me [at my Christmas decorations] and that gives you an immediate sense of who I am and what my character is. It’s about the story and the little details around the character, which immediately gives you a clue so you can learn to be a visual thinker. That is something you can learn; I spent two years in graduate school doing visual thinking exercises to learn to think in images.
Geoffrey: That’s a brilliant technique for any screenwriter to do: teach themselves to think visually. One thing you wrote that’s always sat with me is that the mind can interpret the visual way faster than it can through dialogue. It takes the mind longer to [process the dialogue], especially if there is a voiceover in the film that’s used to explain the world. You mention that [writers] should just show the world of the film with minimal dialogue, which is great advice.
Linda: Many times, the idea is to start your movie with an image that immediately brings us into it. These can become a cliché, [for example, using a shot of the Eiffel Tower to establish that we’re in Paris]. You might decide to try something a little different, but you want to create that immediate sense of, “I know where I am, I’m oriented, and we don’t have to talk about it.” Voiceovers tend to do that a lot, I generally don’t like them because I think they’re a crutch. But there are times when they are very effective. That’s one of the things you learn: “When do I use [voiceover] and when do I think through my images more directly?”
Geoffrey: I love this idea. One thing I always think about, when it comes to voiceover…you’re establishing that world and if you have to use voiceover…in your book, you use the example of Lord of the Rings, where they introduce the world through a foreign language. Right away you know it’s a whole new world with a whole different land with a new language. I didn’t even interpret that while watching the film, but seeing you analyze it that way, makes total sense.
One thing I have an issue with when I deal with my own clients, is rewriting. You’re obviously a master of rewrites. When I have to work with a client who’s rewriting a script, one of the biggest things I find is that the script goes nowhere via “a series of scenes.” The scenes are nonsensical because they’re just a bunch of scenes put together and then there’s an ending. I wonder if that is something you’ve ever had to deal with.
Linda: In Making a Good Script Great, I talk about scene sequences and I think I might be the only person who’s really talking about this. You think of scenes as action-reaction, action-reaction, so you get the scenes put together and they often are put together with a beginning, middle, and end. Particularly, with scenes like a car chase, you can create that car chase in three acts…Ron Howard said that’s one of the things he got out of Making a Good Script Great, that he has used in so many of his films: you think of the sequence of scenes, not the episodes. It’s really easy to fall into arbitrary episodes, where pretty soon everything is in there. When you’re looking at the cohesive whole, what’s the magnet that holds the scenes together? Why is that scene there and why is it important? If you could take it out and not need it, then you might as well take it out.
Geoffrey: You’re looking at a scene and giving it a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a three-act structure within the scene itself.
Linda: There are some scenes that are just there to transition and move the story forward, but the sequence of scenes says it’s a series of scenes in different locations that are all connected and have a beginning, middle, and end that lead to a climax.
Geoffrey: One thing I’ve found while working with these scripts that aren’t going anywhere is a lack of theme. The writer has a great concept, or idea of what they want it to be about, but they don’t know what the seem is so they don’t know what they’re trying to say [with their movie]. The theme is exceptionally important in your model, so I was wondering what your thoughts were on that.
Linda: I got very interested in theme because, when I was in college, I got interested in value systems. What are we trying to communicate in drama? What are we saying about the human condition, what’s important in life, what’s the meaning of life; and how do we say it without giving a sermon/lecture? I began to think about the important themes and ideas we see over and over again [in film]. One of the most important [themes] in film is the theme of identity. “Who am I? Who am I becoming? Who am I transforming into? Am I becoming a more committed/truthful/ integral person? Am I standing up for my integrity?” I began to see that 90% of movies have something to say about identity. [If you ask] ‘what is my script saying about identity?’ then you can get much more specific about what [you want to say]. Part of my graduate school was seminary, so my doctorate is actually in Drama and Theology at a seminary, which is actually one of a few in the world that has a religious element; in Berkeley in the 70s. I went to seminary because I couldn’t find what I was trying to find about exploring this idea by continuing my MA in Drama from North Western. I thought, “I’m interested in Theology, let’s see if seminary would help.” I found a brilliant professor; I didn’t want to approach [my research] through religious drama, I wanted to approach it through secular drama that communicated values without hammering it in. I was not interested in converting people, I was interested in exploring and expressing the human condition.
Geoffrey: I’m blown away by that because it makes total sense to me. I’ve interviewed a lot of people and I’ve found that great screenwriters are fascinated by the human experience. The fact that you majored in Theology makes total sense to me. Screenwriters that go to the next level are deep into the psychology and want to know how people work and why they do the things they do. They express it through their work partly because they’re trying to figure it out, themselves.
Linda: A Master's and Doctorate in Drama and Theology is the least marketable degree you could ever get. No one is going to hire you with that. The only way I could get a job was by taking all my degrees, except my BA in English, off my resume. No college/university would hire me because one of the problems was there are stereotypes about both [my degrees]. Religious people thought I must be outrageous because of the Drama degree, and drama people thought I must be rigid because of the Religious degree. No one even wanted to interview me. In a way, by following that path I got so interested in, I was following a path where clearly my career was going to have to follow an unusual path. I was going to have to create [a path] myself because it didn’t fit anyplace. It’s hard to create something new…that’s why I found this terrific career consultant and asked, “How do we do this?” She created a five-month plan and it worked!
Geoffrey: That’s amazing! Great screenwriters are seekers and you’re living proof of that. You were able to take all this knowledge you’ve learned, put it into a brilliant book, and make it accessible for everyone. That’s something that screenwriters who reach that level need to be doing to help their community. One thing I’ve found with scripts that are struggling is there’s a lack of a central question, as you call it. “What are we trying to say?” It’s different than the theme, but would you say the central question is influenced by the theme?
Linda: Yes, but it’s more closely related to the story. I learned this idea by taking a film directing class many years ago; not because I wanted to be a director, but because I was trying to understand how the film is put together, so I could become a better script consultant…The instructor talked about the central question, “It’s the question you ask at the beginning of a story, and the story answers that.” Will the detective get the criminal who committed this crime? If the answer is yes, then we’ll spend the movie following that because it helps you stay on track. You ask how he’s going to catch him, and the ‘how’ becomes the second act. Will the woman find the love of her life? Will the couple actually move to Italy and decide to accept the mansion they’ve inherited? It’s easy, when you start writing, to start going all over the place. The central question, as well as the theme, is about the story beats and the plot.
Geoffrey: It’s more so implied, you don’t have characters stating their central question, correct?
Linda: Most of the time you don’t, sometimes you do have someone saying, “I’m going to go for that boxing match and I’m going to win it.”
Geoffrey: Exactly, but it’s not a hard-fast rule that it needs to be said out loud. Let’s talk about subplots, I’m a bit of a subplots guy, myself. I wrote a book that has subplots and I show where they intermingle with the main plot. I love that you cover subplots, as well, because nobody is talking about them.
Linda: That’s true, I haven’t seen very many people talk about subplots.
Geoffrey: No, they don’t. I talk about three different subplots: the supporting subplot, the hard subplot, and the antagonist’s subplot. When did stumble upon subplots? Because you don’t really find [analysis] on them anywhere. And how did you realize that this is what scripts need?
Linda: When I really began consulting and breaking down scripts, the method I used was a graph where I color-coded all the plotlines. I developed this method so you could visually see what that script looked like, and it allowed people to visualize their story. I had little marks for conflict points and momentum; I had all these different color codes…and writers would say, “That really helps me understand [my story issues]. The green/subplot dropped out for 50 pages.” This method of color-coding made me aware of how storylines intersected, where they went, how they were built and structured. By the time I wrote Making a Good Script Great in 1987, I had really worked a lot with that.
Geoffrey: One thing I find when I get scripts from clients is they’ll be really light, between 60-70 pages, because it’s all the main plot. They needed to bring in subplots, and I started asking myself, ‘what are subplots?’ Writers can get lost in trying to tell just the main story and they don’t realize they can use the subplots as a way to be a support/antithesis to the theme.
Linda: The plot is the direction, the subplots are the dimension, but they also must influence and relate to the main plotline. I had a rather famous client many years ago, who’s written one of those films that everybody knows, and she came to me because she was stuck. I said, “You’re so overburdened with subplots. You don’t have that directional story.” She did not want to hear that; she was more interested in subplots. Most writers are because they’re more dimensional, but without that forward motion, [there’s no story]. One of the movies I use as an example is Stand by Me, if they were not searching for the dead body to create a direction for the story, all you’d have is a bunch of boys wandering around in the woods. Even if that directional story has less screen time than the dimensional stories, you don’t want to lose it. The Titanic better crash by the end of the movie, otherwise, you’re just watching a cruise to New York, which is no big thing. The crash doesn’t happen till the midpoint, but there are a lot of things layered in about this ship about how it’s ‘unsinkable’…
My cousin was once standing in line for a movie, and she didn’t realize James Cameron was in line behind her. They got to talking, something came up about Titanic and she said to him, “I don’t know if I’d want to go see that because I know the ending.”
Geoffrey: With subplots, one thing I found is that it’s a great way to develop intercharacter relationships and also reveal more layers/depth to the central character.