Screenwriting Expo: Day 2 & 3

After an invigorating but relatively exhausting Day 1, the rooms were overflowing as the L.A. locals who couldn’t get a day off on Friday came to pitch/sit in on sessions.

I had my day planned out and the first of the mark was Billy Mernit.


Billy has been around for a long time and it shows… in a good way. He developed a fine palette for the genre we were covering: that of romantic comedies.

He was a very affable guy, easy to listen to and was constantly getting the audience involved.

In the brief time available, Billy succinctly described the obvious pattern in RomCom’s: – Boy meets Girl – Boy gets Girl – Boy loses Girl – Boy get Girl back (with the inverse being true as well).

The 6 secrets of Rom Com are as stated by Billy:

  1. Write the Chemistry – The inner journeys should oppose or duel with each other
  2. Expand the Genre – Move it from the bedroom to the jungle or disguise it within another Genre (Romancing the Stone, Wall-E) etc
  3. Be Cinematic – Make it visual… Show the concepts don’t just speak them.
  4. Make sure the concept is a ‘high concept’ to get noticed, e.g. 50 First Dates
  5. Tweak the Formula – Create and execution gag e.g. 500 days of Summer
  6. Romantic means Sexy and Comedy means funny – Use the characters’ flaws against them in comedic situations. Comedic reversals etc. And maybe show a bit of skin ;)

Another note that stuck out is that a lot of the great comedic moments happen when the private matters of a relationship are made public.

I was tempted to stay for Billy’s second lecture but decided I had to spread the love a little and moved onto:


Bob was fun. He is an executive at Nash Entertainment, who primarily run reality TV shows. Has worked everywhere and his side gig is taking people’s ideas and pitching them to people.

He was full of funny anecdotes on pitching. Bob has become somewhat of a pitch master from what he said as he rarely walks in the door without 30 ideas to pitch. His basic motto is: “Give up and Sell Out”, which will make people uncomfortable but this is Hollywood and this guy is one of the more generous guys.

Bob was very open to ideas being sent to him and if any grabbed him he assured us that he has always come through with money if he liked your idea and the pitch was successful.

His theme was the same as all the ‘business’ guys at the expo: when it comes to your pitch, you have 15 seconds to give the execs an idea for your story.

If you can get through this 1-2 line 15 second concept pitch, you may be in with a shot. According to these guys if you can’t distill your idea into a 1-2 line ‘pitch’ then you are in trouble as they won’t even read the script…

LINDA SEGER – Structuring Scenes and Scene Sequences

This was a tossup… I wasn’t sure as Linda has been around for a while and from what I have read since her original breakthrough book a few years ago, nothing has really evolved.

Yet, I decided to go.

That was a mistake. Within the first 10 minutes I was finding the best time to leave. The old Turning point systems and complete rigidity made the class very grating.

All of this stuff was dynamite about 15 years ago with Syd Field. Now however, with the likes of Gulino , Hauge, Kaplan, Vogler et al a lot of this simplistic metric stuff is just old hat.

So I ventured out and caught the tail end of Victoria Wisdom’s lecture on “Finding the Right Buyer”: It was very similar to the previous day’s speech which was OK as it was good to refresh it all again.

After Lunch onto:

An Afternoon with STEVE KAPLAN

I decided to clear out my final two sessions and give them up to Steve Kaplan, a story analyst focusing on comedy.

This guy is to Comedy or in the ancient form Commedia Dell’Arte as Vogler is to Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. He had some brilliant insights in his two lectures; Creating and Developing a Comedy Screenplay and The Hidden Tools of Comedy.

Briefly (and by no means doing him justice) I’ll try to cover what his ideas were:

  • All great comedies, theatre, film or television involve archetypical characters in a closed environment. (Sadly he went to fast to write them down but Steve will be in Australia in 2010, so go and see him then.)
  • All great comedies involve a comic premise and this premise is generally a lie. A good comic premise is something that would never happen in real life. However, comedies will fail if they lie more than once.
  • All comedies have character determine the structure. This makes sense even to a structure nut like me as comedy involves characters reacting to situations to get their want or desire. How they fail is the comedy.
  • All (well, 95% of) comedies revolve around a story with an ordinary guy or gal struggling against insurmountable odds and they lack the tools to win, but they never giving up hope.

The hidden tools of Comedy

These are the different situations a writer can put a character in to achieve comedy.

Steve did a great gag with some volunteers, that proved that funny is very different to comedy.

A ‘comic’ event is always going to be comical because of the situation a character is in and involving what they hope to achieve.

A ‘funny’ event is a forced, generally uncharacteristic action of the character, that the writer inserts. They, subjectively, deem as it funny and results in is forcing the character out of their natural story choices. While they may get some laughs not everyone will and he proved this with a great gag he played on some audience members and the movies he referenced.

So if Comic events are situations how do you create them?

Referring back to the title the following are the hidden tools of comedy as stated by Steve Kaplan:

  • Winning – The idea that comedy/story gives your character the permission to win. (note they may not necessarily win)
  • Metaphorical Relationship – E.g. the Odd Couple – Instead of two guys acting as friends they act as a married couple.
  • Non-Hero – A character who lacks all the required tools to win but who will manage to win nonetheless.
  • Positive Action – The idea that every action is positive for the character and they expect it to work (selfish actions)
  • Active Emotion – The act of trying to gain the want of the character in the scene in the face of all obstacles.
  • Straight Line/Navy Line – One character struggles against a problem and another is creating/perpetuating the problem.

This is all very brief. As Steve Kaplan doesn’t have a book out that I am aware of, I suggest you look him up and book in for his session in June in Australia.

I’ll leave you with my favourite quote of his regarding drama and comedy:

“A Drama helps us dream about what and who we should be – Comedy makes us deal with who we are”

The Story Department now has Steve’s full article on The Hidden Tools of Comedy online here.


The final day and the Pitch Fest was still pumping away. A few writers told me they had been successful – others not – so it IS possible to come here and achieve something.

Before I go into the Day 3 breakdown just an inside word for anyone planning to come and pitch.

You need 3 things:

  1. A 60 second (or less) pitch: read Michael Hauge’s book.
  2. A 1-sheet: A printed 3 paragraph synopsis to give out straight away
  3. A backup pitch: if you’re successful, you might as well ride the wave

Also, know your antecedents: which similar film is playing now or will be opening next year. Go to IMDb etc. Find out what the next or just released successful film in your genre was and see if it is similar. NEVER mention it if it is like a flop though ;)


Paul is great. He is an associate professor at Chapman Uni in the states and has a great take on the sequence structure in acts and good practical ways to develop them.

He discussed an important section of his book SCREENWRITING: THE SEQUENCE APPROACH, called “The 4 Tools of anticipation”, about the ways a screenwriter can hold an audience’s attention:

  1. Telegraphing: Deadlines & Appointments (character has to go somewhere)
  2. Dangling Cause: Cause and Effect but withholding the effect.
  3. Dramatic Irony: The Audience knows more than the characters (bomb under the table etc.)
  4. Dramatic Tension: the character is having trouble achieving a goal

Paul also spoke about his theory on sequences, in particular the 8 Sequence structure: Act 1 has generally two major sequences, Act 2 has around 4 sequences and Act 3 has 2 sequences.

The fact that sequences run around the 8-10min mark has to do with how old films were made with 1,000 foot reels and how in theatres at the end of each reel the film would stop and music play while they changed the reel.

Using Toy Story and Being John Malkovich as examples, he broke them down describing the different dramatic tools used to keep the audience watching and in turn the reader turning pages.


It was a solid look at the opening of Million Dollar Baby, and as always Hauge delivered it well.

4 major objectives in the opening 10 pages

  1. Draw Reader into the Story with vivid description and an introduction of the hero
  2. Create Empathy for the Hero, using likability, comedy, sympathy, jeopardy, and knowledge/power.
  3. Set the Tone of the film: Comedy, Thriller, Drama etc. and don’t confuse the genre.
  4. Continually elicit emotion.

He also discussed the 6 most common openings of a script:

  1. Everyday Hero Intro: Living in a normal ordinary world
  2. Action Hero Opening: James Bond etc.
  3. Outside action opening: Not involving the hero, we see an event that will affect the hero.
  4. Prologue Opening: Event from earlier in the hero’s life, which is relevant to the wound.
  5. Bookend Opening: Using a narrator, usually involves a flashback. (Princess Bride)
  6. Mid Point Flash-forward: Open with the midpoint or Ordeal, then show what happened before. (Maverick, MI3)


This was the last hurrah and a fitting finish to the seminar. The guys spoke about the current despair in the industry and some old war stories. Everyone had a good laugh…nothing major…a nice relaxed finish.

That’s it!

I hope I was clear and concise for everyone who read this and if you need any more info regarding the event, the speakers or the sessions just comment below.

Keep writing and Support the Story Department!



JamesNicholasJames Nicholas is producing a PC game to be launched in 2012 for Games Lab.

He has worked in film and TV for the last 10 years, assisting George Miller during development and production of Mad Max: Fury Road and Happy Feet and acting as an Assistant Director on such films as Stealth, Ghost Rider, Superman and Kokoda as well as various commercials.

James is also a Monomyth expert, which makes him a perfect contributor for the Story Department.

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