TRANSCRIPT EP25 - Making a Good Script Great with Linda Seger
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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.
Linda: Yes, and even for your supporting characters who might be carrying the theme even more than the central character.
Geoffrey: There’s so much depth you can provide for supporting characters. The interesting thing in your book is that you’re not sold that every script has a midpoint.
Linda: I have looked for midpoints in some great films and I don’t always see it. This concept came from Syd Field and he used the term to divide a whole script in half, whereas I use the term to divide the second act in half….
Geoffrey: Like an Act 2A and an Act 2B.
Linda: Yes, and I found it more helpful for writers to divide it that way because the second act just gets so unwieldy without a midpoint. One of my favorite films is Witness, and I can’t tell you what the midpoint is. I know the film really well, as well as Bill Kelly…and Pamela Wallace, but I just can’t find the midpoint. Sometimes people say to me, “Why do you love that film so much? Besides the fact it’s one of the best-directed films ever made.” My husband proposed to me in the middle of the barn-raising scene, so of course, I love the movie. He said to me, “When we get married…” and he had always said ‘if’ instead of ‘when’ until that moment…I had gotten to know Bill and Pamela; Bill was quite a character [and I got to know him well].
Geoffrey: That’s an interesting take, to split the second act in half. I have to agree with you; most writers I’ve worked with that haven’t utilized subplots properly will crash at page 45. They get to mid-Act 2 and then it spirals. Act 2 is the make or break on whether you’ve developed your script enough. If you have, you can get through it.
Linda: That’s the hardest thing for writers. You have to keep going and make the second act twice as long as the first/third act. Often, Act 3 is the easiest because you’re moving toward a culmination and you know what that point is. Act 2 is when you start to dally. Don’t dally, especially in Act 3. That’s where the midpoint can be helpful because it gives you a halfway mark. It’s like going from L.A. to Chicago, and then you hit Omaha.
Geoffrey: Here in Detroit, it’s like trying to drive through Ohio, which just never ends. I can believe anyone can write Act 1, it’s the easiest and most fun because you’re discovering the characters and establishing the world. But after Act 1, that’s when being a screenwriter really hits you. Act 3 almost writes itself sometimes.
Linda: You know where you are going, you just have to get there. Sometimes, people get there too fast. You need that 18-20 pages for Act 3, but if you’re there in two minutes, that’s no fun…
Geoffrey: Let’s talk about pacing, because a lot of scripts suffer from a deficiency in pacing. They take too long to set it up, the characters will be reactive instead of active, so the story is just happening around them. What do you think?
Linda: That’s where structure really helps you. Even though I don’t believe in hard and fast rules, it’s not a bad idea for new writers to learn the rules. You generally have 15 pages to set up your story and get to the catalyst, the moment that moves you from the context to the story. You want to get to your first turning point around 30 minutes in. You want your third act to be 20 pages long. Then you can go in there and see if you’re not developing something enough or if you’re just wandering. That’s where a script consultant helps so much because that objective professional eye helps you see what you can extend, or how you might imply a lot of interesting things but you’re not playing them out, or you’re overplaying them. If you were to cut a certain three pages, look how the story moves so much better.
Geoffrey: Attention spans have decreased, so I always say to keep a scene three pages or less.
Linda: That’s a good guide. Sometimes a scene moves where you have three pages of people entering a party, more pages of them going around and meeting people, and then more pages where they leave the party. Maybe you only have 2-3 pages in one location.
Geoffrey: Right, in the sequence of that scene.
Linda: There’s a lot to learn about screenwriting. There’s a tendency to think that it just rolls off.
Geoffrey: “It’s easy! Anybody can do it, right?”
Linda: “It’s ballet, you just get up there and fly through the air!” No, you don’t. Every artform has preparation, learning, and knowledge. The more you know, the more you can pull from in order to solve the problems that are part of the artistic process. What’s my problem I have to fix/ solve? Let me think about it, I can remember past movies or what I learned in a book. You’re pulling from various areas to solve this problem, and we need to take that seriously. That’s why there’s books, seminars, and screenplays to read.
Geoffrey: And consultants. That’s what we do, we problem solve…Screenwriting software, as much as it is a blessing, can be a curse because anybody can sit down and write a screenplay, so they say, “what do you know?” I have 30 years in the industry, so you’re paying for the experience.
Linda: You learn a lot, even though the years, I learned a lot by watching films that were doing something I’d never seen before. Whether it was Pulp Fiction or Crash, some of these really unusual films, I’d ask, “What are they doing and how did they make that work?” I now have Seger Notes [which are like Cliffs Notes], where every month I take another great film and write a 4,000 – 5,000-word article [about it]. I just finished the 7th one for 2020, and if you lookup Seger Notes, they’re published by a company called Twice 5. One of the publishers is John Houston’s daughter, Allegra.
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Linda: We’ve just had a lovely relationship. We started these in June and I just finished the last one for this year.
Geoffrey: These are breakdowns of films?
Linda: Yes, I’ve done Jojo Rabbit, African Queen, Some Like It Hot, and Tootsie. I wanted to put those last two together to see their relationship. Each of them deals with something that is helpful for the writer to learn. Some deal more with themes and structure.
Geoffrey: These are books?
Linda: No, they’re articles, five dollars each. There’s discounts if you buy all seven. They’re this idea I’ve had for many years of doing something like Cliffs Notes for the film. I’m hoping they’ll be used in screenwriting classes, as well as by screenwriters, and people interested in the film. They’ve been fun for me to do and they’re more manageable than doing a whole book.
Geoffrey: I can’t wait to read them! I preach to writers, be the forever student, because this is a lifelong craft and art. This is something you dedicate your life to. This isn’t something where you write a script real quick and then you’re done. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I still see the passion you have for it. You’re a master at this, you’re a legend, you have over 9 books…
Linda: 10 on screenwriting and 6 on spirituality. With editions, it comes out to 25.
Geoffrey: I’m behind the times, I apologize. You’re still passionate about this. You’re putting out articles on screenwriting, and that [drive] is what you need to be great at it. You’re such an inspiration Linda, thank you so much.
Linda: Thank you! I’m so glad there are people like you out there who are continuing to consult. It was a job I created, and I had hoped it would keep going [when I first started]. It’s a very important job and there was a lot of resistance when I first started the business/career. It’s very different now than it was in the 1980s.
Geoffrey: I try to bring a mentorship capacity to the consulting so it’s not just “how do I make the project better?” It’s also, “How do I make you a better writer, as well?” I find that’s one of the things I can really do. There’s consultants out there that aren’t qualified, but I try to honor what we do because it is so important. We hold influence over [writers], and if you’re going to hold that kind of influence, you must make sure you’re doing it in the most benevolent way possible.
Linda: We nurture creativity, and we are there to be a professional objective eye because writers get too close [to their work]. We’ve learned a lot that first-time writers, and even someone who’s written ten scripts, might not even know. “Here’s the concept that’s going to help you through the problem you’re encountering in Act 2.” I started doing this by volunteering to help somebody I met who said, “I’ve spent five years and I don’t know what’s wrong with my script.” I said, “Let me try taking my doctoral dissertation graphic analysis way of analyzing your script, and let’s see if I can figure it out.” When we sat down together, he said, “I can’t believe this, in one hour, I know exactly what to do with my script after five years.”
Geoffrey: That’s such a good feeling. I love that you mention objective because I think that gets lost in the ‘consulting business. There are consultants out there that are ‘qualified’ to give ‘I Feel’ notes. I don’t care how you feel, tell me what’s wrong with it.
Linda: It’s just opinion. We’re not here to trade emotions or say things like, “This is the greatest script ever and it’s going to make tons of money!” I am here to help you have a better script and to work on the craft, as well as encourage your art.
Geoffrey: I always equate it to being a blacksmith; blacksmiths are incredible craftsmen; they work on a project while still having an artistic motif about them. Let’s talk about scenes…one thing I love to do is come in late to a scene and leave early because it cuts out the fat. What tips do you have for that?
Linda: One is to not dally and to know where you’re heading with a scene. There are scenes you’re going to develop into a three-act structure. I often use the example of the murder scene in Witness, where the boy witnesses the murder, as a perfect three-act structure. The music helps clarify what the director is doing, but also the action is very clear and well structured. Looking at great scenes is a good way to learn and using a book (like Making a Good Script Great) where they talk about certain movies, you can look at those movies [and see the points the book is making about certain scenes]. A lot of what you do as a writer is shape: you shape the whole thing, the scenes, the sequences, and that’s what art as a whole is; it’s shaping.
Geoffrey: When doing a rewrite, I do a specific technique. “In this rewrite, I’ll go through and just make sure the end is there. In another rewrite, I’ll go through and make sure there’s subtext in the dialogue.” Is there a system you recommend for when you get into the rewrite process?
Linda: That’s a really good way of doing it. You might go through the whole script, and you’ve had a script consultant who tells you to take out a scene, then take them out. Leave them in another file so you can grab them again if you need to. Create a vacuum so your creative process can fill in. “I’m going to do a rewrite today where I’m just going to follow my main character.” It might take you a few days to actually look at all of that. “Now I’m going to do a rewrite where I follow my main supporting, now just on the love story…” You take it apart. I had an experienced client come in with an optioned script, we did a rewrite, and it took three days to follow all the strands. “We need another line here that’s going to relate to that subplot.” It was a technical rewrite, meaning you don’t have to be overly creative; you’re evaluating and assessing as opposed to making it up and letting it flow.
Geoffrey: Emotional shifts in a scene is something you talk about that’s really important. I’ve had clients come in saying, “Look how much conflict is in this script.” I’ll read it, and it’s 90 pages of two people yelling at each other the entire time. It’s one-note. Could you discuss shifting emotion within a scene and how that keeps an audience?
Linda: One thing is to make sure the scene has emotion. My cousin, who had been to a therapist said, “There’s the emotions of mad, glad, scared, and hurt.” Well how mad are you? Are you mildly irritated or are you enraged? The more you can be aware of the shades of emotion…it’s the same thing with an actor; a great director will the actor to keep is closed but [to give off subtle hints of the greater inner turmoil]. Anthony Hopkins can twitch one muscle and tell the whole world, “I’m a little scared right now.” Look at all your angry scenes and see if you can get different dimensions because that might be what your rewrite is about. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We all want to write toward our strengths and keep working on our weaknesses, being aware of when we overdo something.
Geoffrey: It doesn’t just have to be someone going from sad to happy, in a scene. It could be the acceleration of somebody who’s frustrated, growing into an outburst, and then coming down from that. That could be a really fascinating emotional journey. I know you have a new book out.
Linda: You Talkin’ to Me? How to Write Great Dialogue, which is a line from Taxi Driver. I co-wrote it with this very experienced screenwriter named John Winston Rainey. Because I’d written a book called Writing Subtext, I really wanted to write a book on dialogue, but as a script consultant, it felt like I needed to write it with a screenwriter. I spent 8 years keeping my ears open because it wasn’t something where I’m interviewing people for this job, I just had to meet/ know somebody who was the right person. One thing we did in this book, which I think is such fun, is at the end of every chapter…we took a half-page from an anonymous client’s screenplay (with their permission) that had the problem that was discussed in the chapter. I analyzed what was going on in their script that needed to be addressed, and then John rewrote it. One of them that was really good was a section from a medieval movie, which was so flat and repetitive. John turned it into a Monty Python scene, and it was so funny. There’s great examples from great scripts, plus talking about the concepts of writing dialogue. The last chapter is, “Red Flags: Things Not to Do.” Like, please don’t say ‘YES!’. If I see ‘YES!’ one more time in a screenplay…
Geoffrey: Filler dialogue, that’s what I call it, where it’s just a wasted line. I always find that dialogue is one of the last things a screenwriter can really start to master. Having a book dedicated to it is absolutely fantastic, because every line in a script matters, no matter if it’s a descriptive action or the dialogue.
Linda: Yes, it does. There are very few books on dialogue out there, and we covered a lot of things that no other book talks about. We covered it in a different way that’s also entertaining; there are some great stories in there.
Geoffrey: I can’t wait to read it. I’m definitely going to check it out! Linda, thank you so much for being on this show, you are a treasure!
Linda: Thank you so much, it’s been great fun!
Geoffrey: Thanks for listening, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share in your social media, where you can tag us @thesuccessfulscreenwriter.
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