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May 2021
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Notes to a screenwriter
Filed under: GENERAL
Posted by: Jon @ 6:04 am

Occasionally in my blogdom, I’m going to share with you correspondence I have with grantwriters and screenwriters and writers of all types. Why here? Because it’s all about storytelling. Some of these thoughts could just as easily apply to a proposal’s program design.

By about page 40 I completely understood why your feedback on this and your other scripts has been mixed. I can hear people saying, “I liked it but….” As always, I’ll try to explain the “but…”

First, your characters are excellent; brilliantly conceived, well drawn and executed vividly. Nothing but high marks there.

Second, your dialogue is also excellent; subtle, a balance of humor and drama and irony and enough of a flavor of the dialect to make it appear authentic. I would go so far as to say that your dialogue easily stands up to that of most professional scripts. No doubt.

The research and atmosphere of your script also gets high marks; essential for a period piece but to not stop the script and make a history lesson out of the thing is a tough task and you pulled it off.

But where your script falls - actually never gets to its feet - is in the basic storytelling aspect. You have all the ingredients of a story but not the recipe for mixing it all together and telling it. In that sense, it was a very frustrating read. For example, with the superbly drawn young mother character who we care most about, you constantly cut away from her and don’t come back to her plight for pages. All basic storytelling stuff. Another example, there’s no sense of who (i.e., the one person) the story is about. Basic storytelling stuff. The story never really takes time to let us get inside the heads and hearts of the character. Back to the young mother again. In the first sequence she burns the body of her dead baby. As a parent, I know that would send me to the edge of suicide, that I couldn’t function, that I would be dying a slow death from the inside. But there’s none of that in the script. She does her deed and moves onto the next sequence - seemingly unphased by what happens prior. Basic storytelling stuff. In the first sequence there’s blindingly fast crosscuts between the burning of the baby and the burning of the building. That fails your story in two ways. It never allows the reader to latch onto a character and two it portrays you as a writer crying out, “This is how my script should be directed and edited.” While that may not be your intent, it read like it was your purpose.

Basic storytelling: Allowing the audience to see the story unfold through the eyes of the main character. The focus should be on simple structure, while letting the emotions of the story and the depths of the character bring complexity to the story.

This is something you’re going to have to really study and work on if you want to be seriously considered. Break down a classic movie - HIGH NOON for instance - and pay attention to how a majority of the scenes contain and are about the main character. Note that some of the supporting players who were actually nominated for awards in that story, had very few scenes without the main character. Had very few scenes period. Study BRAVEHEART. Break it down. You’ll be surprised at how simply the stories unfold.

This will probably come as a shock to you as most of us assume we know how to tell a story. But, trust me, that’s not true. We all like and appreciate and are mesmerized by a good story - but that’s because we’re on the receiving end. And the good ones make it look simple. As writers, are brains are cluttered with so many vital details and story points. But few are the writers who have a mechanism to declutter when it’s time to tell the story. Those are the ones that break through. The rest of us are left puzzling “why don’t they like my writing?” That’s because most of us can see our story in the theater of our minds but haven’t learned the ability to tell that story to others.

It’s the battle of a lifetime. Welcome to the Lifetime Pass.


My new book, RIGHT BEFORE YOU WRITE, applies the FUNdamental principles of storytelling and screenwriting to the program design and grant writing process. Check it out at