The 3 Most Important Elements When Writing for Hire
By Jacob Krueger
3 Most Important Elements When Writing For Hire
This week, we’ll be taking a break from our regular programming to bring you an excerpt from one of Jacob Krueger’s Master Classes.
Jake: You know, writing for assignment is very different than writing on a spec. The beautiful thing about writing on spec is we have all the time in the world to fully explore, to fully mess up, to go in the wrong direction, to explore what the limits of what the movie can be are, to play. And in an ideal world that’s the way we want to write.
You know, most of the scripts that break writers into the industry were not written in a weekend. They were not written in a month. They were written over years and years and made to look easy.
And it’s your next script- And, fortunately, when you allow yourself to explore that way, when you have the time to build that way, it also builds your skills. And it makes you much more likely to succeed when you’ve got to do these crazy 12 week turnarounds. The standard turnaround for a professional writer, whose only job is to write, is 12 weeks, and Marti is trying to do that with kids, a husband, a movie in pre-production and a commercial.
Marti: By August 30th, woo-hoo!
Jake: So this is a real challenge. It’s exciting, and it’s a real challenge. So, what’s the most important thing when you’re writing on assignment?
Page 1 determines what the reader is going to feel as they start reading your script. It’s like the window through which they’re going to view everything else. So, imagine you’re going to a job interview. You can be totally brilliant, but if you didn’t take a shower and you look disheveled and you forgot to put your pants on, we all know what happens, right? So, the most important thing when you’re writing on assignment is Page 1. Remember, producers expect to have to give notes, and when there’s a 12-week turnaround, there’s no option that they’re not going to have to give notes. You’re not going to get a perfect script in 12 weeks. Period. Ever. It just never happens.
Even Matthew Shepard, for which we won a ton of awards, for which we had to turn in the first draft in four weeks (which was insane), even for that movie, we did a year of rewrites after that four weeks.
But the most important thing when you’re writing for hire, and quite frankly if you’re working on a spec as well is Page 1. Because a producer is waiting…
Well actually, come to think of it, maybe the number one thing should be to turn it in on time! You are better to turn it in on time good, than late great. Because turning the script in late is like “icing” a producer: it screws a producer up.
Producers are incredibly dependent on deadlines. Oftentimes a producer has a star interested, for example, and that star has a window from this date to that date, and if they miss that window, that star’s gone and the movie’s gone. Or they have a director who’s available only during this time or they have a financial person who’s waiting for this script who they’ve made promises to…
So if you are late- late is always the worst. There is nothing worse that you can do than late.
A producer, is always really anxious before they get the script. I know when I was a producer I was always really anxious. First off you’re wondering, “Are they actually going to turn it in? Am I gonna have to call them? Am I gonna have to call their agent? Are they blocked? ‘Have they even written it?” So as a producer, you’re really freaked out. You’re like, “Oh my G-d!” You’ve often spent a lot of money, or even if you haven’t spent money, even if it’s a spec, you’re thinking, “Oh please, please don’t let it suck.”
Because oftentimes the scripts that you get from professional writers suck; they really suck. They suck because the writers wrote them too fast. They phoned it in. They didn’t have any real emotional connection to the project. They’re just doing it for money. They’re throwing it up against the wall to see if it sticks.
And when that happens, it creates a lot of anxiety for the producer and a very uncomfortable situation, because now you have to decide: “All right, do I still wanna do this project? Do I want to develop with this writer or do I have to fire them? What’s that gonna do with my relationship with their agent? What’s that going to do to my relationship with them? How much time am I going to have to put into developing this? How far is that gonna push the project down the road? Is my boss even going to be interested in it by the time I fix it? How much of my time is it going to take? Do I have the ability to fix it?” We’re worried about all this before we even get the script! And so, when a producer first starts reading, there are only two things that can happen on Page 1.
Either you go, “Fuuck me!” or you go, “Oh, thank G-d!”
And that feeling actually happens on Page 1. And that’s why Page 1 is the most important page of your script, because a great Page 1 allows a producer to go, “Thank G-d!”
The second most important element when writing for hire is the first 10 pages. By page 10, the producer, the actor, the writer, the director is already telling themselves whether they want to make this movie or not. They’re pitching the movie to themselves. They might be pitching it wrong…
But then again, hopefully they are. Hopefully you’ve got more up your sleeves than they’re expecting. But one way or another, they’re already telling themselves a certain story. So you want to make sure by page 10 that they’re telling themselves that story and that the story sounds exciting!
We were talking about The Hangover earlier. By page 10, you know what the movie is about: Are these idiots going to find the groom? You know what it’s about, and you also have a feeling of the movie, right? What’s it going to feel like as they search for the groom…
I just did a Podcast on Swiss Army Man. Swiss Army Man literally starts with a fart joke. And it’s literally- it’s an hour and a half long fart joke. The whole movie is a fart joke. And it’s beautiful and profound and funny and sad… but it all starts with a fart joke.
So basically, it’s called Swiss Army Man and Paul Dano plays a guy who is stranded on a desert island. And in the first scene, he tries to hang himself. And as he’s hanging himself, he sees a man roll up on the shore from the waves. So he takes a step towards the man, and he falls and he almost kills himself in the noose, and luckily the rope breaks, and he crawls towards the man…
And of course the man (played by Daniel Radcliffe) is dead…
And then the body starts to fart. And, I mean, it starts to fart a lot. And, by page 10, Paul Dano has ridden the body like a jet-ski and washed up on the mainland. And that’s where he begins his journey of becoming friends with the body and using the body to get home.
It’s called Swiss Army Man because the body’s natural bodily functions are everything Paul Dano needs to get home. And it’s really a movie about being an artist. It’s a movie about having the things inside of you that you need. And it’s a movie about being blocked. It’s a movie about shame and, getting your shame out there and about what happens when we put our shame on the page. And the main character’s journey is, he moves from hiding his farts to farting in public. That is actually the character’s journey. And it’s so surprisingly beautiful. It’s so beautiful… It’s a gorgeous movie that started as a fart joke.
But why am I talking about it in this context?
Because in first 10 pages, you already get it!. He’s going to become friends with the dead body, and the dead body’s going to get him home. So do you see we’re already pitching the movie.
And you can pretty much do this with any movie. Right? By 10 pages in we should be able to tell ourselves, “This is a story about a girl who, or a guy who…”
Since this is an ensemble piece that Marti’s dealing with, let’s talk about Little Miss Sunshine, one of the truly great ensemble pieces.
So if you think of the opening sequence of Little Miss Sunshine, every single character has a thing that they’re doing that’s going to help them to win.
Dad is doing his presentation for his nine steps to a room of three people. Grandpa is getting high. The Paul Dano character is doing his push-ups. Olive, the first image we see in the movie is Olive copying Miss America. They all do their things. Mom is going to go get Steve Carell to take him home. They all have their really simple thing that they want. And by page 10 we have that really awkward dinner scene where Olive finds out why Steve Carell tried to kill himself. And by the end of page 10, “I won, I won, I won, I won, I won, I won!” And she’s going, and the whole family’s going. And we already get it: This family, who fucking hates each other, is going to go on a road trip to California to go win a contest that this little girl could never ever win.
Do you see how we’re only ten pages in and we’re already pitching ourselves the story? And every pitch basically has the same formula. Every pitch is, “It’s about a girl who,” or “It’s about a guy who,” or “It’s about a bunch of people who,” or “It’s about a family who,” or “It’s about two guys who…”
It’s always about a character with a dominant trait: a family who fucking hates each other- a sheriff who’s afraid of the water who’s got to stop a killer shark- It’s always really simple. A marooned guy who needs to use a dead corpse to get home. A wedding party who needs to find the groom before his wedding. Do you see how simple it always is?
So the most important thing is the first 10 pages. And the reason is, honestly, a lot of producers won’t read beyond page 10. They’re going to read the first 10, and they’re going to decide they’re going to send it to coverage or if they’re not making it. They’ll send it for coverage or they’ll pass it down to their development exec. And they’re already saying “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.”
I cannot tell you how many meetings I’ve been in where I’ve realized that the producer hasn’t read the script. They’ve read the first 10 pages. And they liked the first 10 pages, or they wouldn’t be in the meeting.
Then they’ll send it out for coverage, and now they’re regurgitating the coverage reader’s notes to you. Or their development executive usually has read it, and that development executive has reported back to the producer, “well here’s what’s strong, here’s what’s weak”, and now you’re getting the notes, usually from the development executive in that case.
So all these things are important. With Swiss Army Man, Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe both said that they decided they wanted to do the movie after reading the first page. It actually happens that fast. Actors, producers, directors make decisions that early. They’re not making a decision “yes, I’m going to buy it”. They’re making a decision, “yes I’m interested” or “no, I’m not.”
Your first most important element is your first page. Your second most important element is your first 10 pages. Your third most important thing is you first 30 pages.
The first 30 pages basically tells the producer: this is the movie. So by the end of Act One, we’ve really locked in the character’s journey, and in an ideal world we are taking it further than people expected it.
So, if the Inciting Incident by page 10 is like the jab, the End of Act One, by page 30, is the right hook.
The end of Act One is the moment where the reader realizes, “Oh, this is what’s happening”. So we’re telling ourselves the story of the movie, “Oh, I’m pretty sure it’s about this” and then BANG! that happens! Holy crap!
These are the first three most important things when you’re writing for hire.
So we really want to nail the first 30. That’s where the most amount of love needs to go. And the reason for that is because if you don’t nail the first 30, you can guarantee that they won’t read the next 30. Hundred percent guaranteed. But if you nail the next 30, they might deal with your bumpy 30 after that.
If you do those first 3 on a first draft, on a work for-hire project, you’ve done a pretty fucking good job. The producer is probably pitching themselves the script and they have expectations already. Now, I don’t want to sell this too hard because this is an incredibly competitive industry. And my belief that what we want to be doing as screenwriters is to be writing better than the professionals.
Professional writers sell out all the time. And there will come a time when you get to sell out if you choose. But, we really want to be writing better than the professionals.
So what I really want when one of my students goes to a producer with a script, I don’t want them to say “What a great first 30 pages, I’m going to have to develop the rest” I want them to say “Oh my G-d! I never get to see a script like this. I never get to see something this good. I never get to see something this clean!”
Because if you do that, even if the producer doesn’t want the script, they’re probably going to pass it on to another producer. They’re going to call a friend. They’re going to say, “Bring me your next thing.”
They’re going to think to themselves, “You know what I can hire this writer for my next project because look what she’s able to do.”
Which is why it’s so important not to rush those first 30 pages, especially when you feel like you’re running out of time. Because sometimes what happens when we have goals that are too big, we end up in this state of terror. “Oh my god. I don’t have enough time to do this. How am I going to fucking do this?”
So, I’m going to share some of the things that went through my experience, that I went through when I was writing The Matthew Sheppard Story in four weeks. I was scaring the shit out of John because I kept going back and recreating the structure. And primarily I kept recreating the structure of the first 30 pages and then the first 60 pages. I kept on recreating the structure because I realized that our movie and our theme was not lining up and I realized their weaknesses early. I knew those weaknesses early were going to kill us later. And I kept saying, “If we don’t fix this now, how are we going to get to the end? How is the end going to be if we don’t know where we’re coming from? If we don’t know what the character wants. If we don’t know what the journey is. If we don’t know what they’ve really gone through, how are we going to a good ending? I promise you, if we figure out the beginning the ending will come faster.”
And that’s one of the things that is true. The endings do come faster, when you really have all the elements in place. When you’ve really done all your vignettes. When you’ve really seen, heard, felt everything. Because you know the characters, and you know who they are.
Take the person you know best in the world. If I want to send my sister to the Wild West, I can do it. I know exactly how she’d be. If I wanna imagine my sister as a World War 2 veteran, I know how she’d be. If I want to imagine my sister in a sci-fi epic, I could do it. I know how she’d be. She’s my sister. I know exactly who she is.
And so, those early pages are also where we get to know our characters. And it becomes so much easier. Because if you think of the person you love most, you also know how she needs to change. You also know how she needs to grow.
So, sometimes, we need a shorthand.
When we’re writing on spec, and we have years if we need them to develop our scripts, we can really write from a purely meditative place. We can really just open our minds, and explore the realm of where the movie can live and what the movie can be and what the extremes of it are. We can really be fully creative and exploratory in our approach, because we have the time. And doing this will serve you more as a writer than anything else. It will serve you on every project you will write in the future. You will learn the skills by doing. It’s just the most valuable thing you can possibly do.
To give a little metaphor, we’re upgrading the entire back end of the studio. We have this program called Salesforce, which is extraordinary, and basically within a year everything we do is going to be automated. But right now, we’re in the throes of integrating that system. I’ve spent the last 6 months brainstorming every possibility of what could happen and working with these very brilliant developers to develop this system. I can’t even tell you how much money we’ve spent to do it. So that my staff’s lives could be more pleasant, because right now so much of their lives is data entry.
And, yesterday was the first day of our implementation. Our salesforce guy said: “Yeah, you know what? Actually, the best thing for you guys to do is just try to use it and mess it up. And in the process of using it and messing it up, you’ll actually teach yourselves the system and then you’ll know what you actually need from me.”
And isn’t that a great metaphor for writing? Sometimes we try to plan it all, we try to plan it all out and anticipate everything, and until we get in there and start using it and messing it up and actually seeing what works and what doesn’t and seeing what we actually need.
It actually becomes easier to do it by messing it up than by doing it properly.
Again, we didn’t just go, “Oh, here’s Salesforce, this incredibly complicated program, just use it.” We started by saying, “I think this is what it is.” And we started building infrastructure. But there’s a point that you have to jump in and go “Ok, let me do this” and see what happens.”
So how do we make this quicker?
In an ideal world, we know what we want to do. We want to explore, we want to do meditative writing, we want to play, we want to find the limits, we want to draft after draft, we want to have fun.
But when we have to be fast, we need some tricks. And the first trick is metaphor.
Find a heart of a story that feels like something in your own life that you’ve already experienced. Somebody in your life that you’ve known. A wish in your life that you’ve had since you were a child. A fear that you’ve had. Something that’s real for you.
Because then, when in doubt, you just have to think, “Well, if this is just a metaphor for that, if my superhero is just about a kid who wants to be popular on the playground, then what does the character do?
The first trick is to find a really simple metaphor for the main character’s journey. And even if you’re working on an ensemble piece, like Marti is. Ensemble pieces are great, but most of them are actually built around one main character. And then the other stories are threaded through.
For example, Little Miss Sunshine is actually built around dad’s journey. He’s the primary character in that movie. And all the other characters just weave around him thematically.
And you can see it, because dad’s the one that has the biggest problem. Olive doesn’t actually have a problem. Olive is actually really comfortable with herself. Mom, doesn’t really have a problem. Steve Carell has a problem. And he does go on a change, and so does the son. The son has a problem. But dad actually has the biggest problem.
Dad’s problem is that his 9 steps don’t work. His book is never going to sell. And his view of what it means to be a winner is so fucked up that he’s never going to win.
And we see this from the beginning. Little Olive just wants to eat some ice cream, and dad humiliates his little girl over ice cream. Dad’s got a huge problem. And if you think of the structure of Little Miss Sunshine, you can see that most of the actions are Dad’s actions.
When they decide to go to the Little Miss Sunshine contest, it’s not Olive, it’s Dad. Dad looks at his little girl and says “Are you going to win?” “Yes.” “Then we’re going!” It’s dad that drives the ice cream scene. It’s dad that takes the little scooter and drives across the country. It’s Dad who decides to steal Grandpa’s body when Grandpa dies. It’s Dad that gets pulled over. Dad who decides that he doesn’t want Olive to perform. Then Olive performs anyway, and it’s Dad who goes up there and makes a fool out of himself in front of everybody with her. It’s actually Dad’s journey. And all the other journeys are woven through.
And if you look at almost any ensemble piece, you will find that this is true.
Crash is primarily the story of the characters who meet at the crash. The African-American director and his wife, and the asshole cop? Crash is actually primarily their story, with everything else just woven through.
Bridesmaids is Annie’s journey. She’s almost in every scene. Almost all ensemble pieces are basically one main character with the other characters threaded through.
And this way, you can isolate that one character around the theme. Find that character who’s at the heart of it for you, and ask: “What in my life is her life like? What in my life is her journey like?”
This gives you a shorthand to focus your creativity on a particularly valuable exercise… on a particular valuable area.
So trick number 1 is to find a metaphor for your life.
Trick number 2 is Theme, which is related to finding a metaphor for your life.
Theme, theme, theme, theme, theme. Theme is so powerful.
Now, in the best world, I’d like to allow the theme to emerge naturally, because I believe that theme is like therapy.
What I mean by that is when you go to your therapist you’re like “I just do this weird thing, it’s just this little thing, it’s not a really big deal but I’m having a little, tiny problem with relationships, like this small.” Or like: “Well, I organize things in a weird way sometimes.” Right? You think you have this little tiny thing. And you think that’s the theme of your therapy. Or you think, “Oh I’m dating somebody horrible, it’s them” or, “All these bad things happen in my life,” and then after years of therapy you realize, “Oh my G-d, I’m really doing this, and it really goes back to my childhood, when I was 4 years old.”
And I think theme is the same way. So, in an ideal world, what I like to do when working with theme is to start by playing broadly, just connecting what my character wants and needs, and then looking for things that keep showing up in the movie and trust me those are the themes. Those are the themes my subconscious is dealing with.
In an ideal world, if I’ve all the time in the world, I’d like to do it that way, because I’m going to get to the real themes faster.
But, when we’re working on a deadline we don’t always have that option. Sometimes you have to choose a theme and build it. Do you guys watch Orange is the New Black?
I started watching because Laura Gomez is one of my students, she plays Blanca, and she’s wonderful and so beautiful in real life, and they make her look so not beautiful.
So, Orange is the New Black, the first season had a really clear theme. The first season was about this privileged white woman who ends up in prison: who suddenly finds herself in a non-privileged place. And the theme was about the different kinds of people, and the people we look at as different from us. The first season was all about privilege. They do this really beautiful journey where she ends up becoming a part of the prison community, with people she would never otherwise be connected to, and losing her connection to her family, her privileged family, who is much more horrible than anybody in prison. The whole first season is built around that theme of privilege.
Then we get to Season 2. What happened is they introduce a new character into the prison, and actually the whole feeling of the season changed, although it was quite good. They basically introduced a villain in Season 2. A woman comes into the prison and starts organizing drugs, and starts playing the races against each other. Basically, it’s about greed and power, and how the desire for power turns this odd “paradise” into hell. You can see that theme throughout the Second Season.
The Third Season was the bumpiest season. The season started and we didn’t know what we were watching. And then, about halfway through the season, they found their theme and we started to realize what it was about. They were basically doing the labor movement in prison.
So, in the Third Season, Piper, the main character, starts a business. The prison gets bought by a huge corporation, and becomes a private prison. They are basically using the inmates for slave labor to make underwear, which they are selling.
Piper realizes that she can make money by stealing the scraps, making g-strings, having the prisoners wear them and then sending them to dirty old men for like $700 a g-string. Dirty underwear. Dirty prison underwear.
So she starts a business. What we watch is (and it doesn’t happen until about halfway through the season) they actually find the theme. The first 6 episodes, you’re like “What the fuck am I watching?” And then they find the theme, and you’re like, “Oh! It’s brilliant!” Because on the big corporate level you have what corporations do to people when they commoditize prisons. And then on the inside level you have what happens between the inmates and what happens to Piper when Piper becomes business, and the other people in the prison because labor.
In the Fourth Season- I’m only halfway through but it’s really good, in this season they are doing racism. The whole season is about racism. And the theme of racism guides every episode. It focuses their creativity. In the previous season one of the black characters has converted to Judaism because she wants to eat Kosher meals, because the food that the private prison has imposed upon them is so disgusting that the only way to get good food is to go Kosher. So she’s converted to Judaism but she ends up being really serious about Judaism, and it’s lovely.
So what do they do? They put a bunkmate in her bunk, who is Islamic, who wears a headscarf. What happens in the season? This is just a metaphor for something in your life. So what happens between these two characters? The Islamic woman puts her shoes on the Jewish black woman’s side of the bed. And the Jewish woman doesn’t want the Islamic woman’s shoes on her side of the dorm. Do you see what’s happening? They are doing the Arab-Israeli crisis. And in the episode that I just watched, they actually have a mediation between the two of them. And the language is basically the language of Israel vs. Palestine. They actually give the characters the best arguments of Israel and the best arguments of Palestine and they let them go at it. Do you see that metaphor focuses the creativity? It makes it so much easier to go “Oh ok, what’s really happening with these bunk mates?” You see they are doing the theme of racism there.
The main character, Piper, remember, is a New York liberal. Her panty business has transformed her into a corporate boss. And, what happens now is that the Latinas start to organize, and realize they can create their own panty business. Piper doesn’t want competition, so she starts a task force to work with the guards, and accuses the Latinas of being a gang. And because of racism, the guards start to stop and frisk only the Latinas. Piper starts the task force only to enforce her turf, but all the women who join her task force are full blown skinheads. So suddenly, she is the leader, and they are doing Donald Trump with Piper. Not the guy who planned to be a nazi-sympathizer, but the guy who realized, “Oh, these people can really help me.” And you can see what’s happening. They are actually doing the link between racism and finance. Racism and capital. Racism and power.
So you see how that simple theme of racism made this season work, and how the different themes made all the other seasons work, right? How clear it allows the focus to be, because you just know, everything’s about that theme. Everything. It just comes back to that theme, that theme, that theme, that theme. Just like Swiss Army Man is about shame. It’s all about shame.
So, a metaphor for your life AND your theme. Those are two shortcuts when you’ve got to move fast. If you don’t know what your theme is yet, look at the scenes that you love the most and ask yourself, “What do they have in common? What are they about?”
Look at the scenes that feel most connected, most surprising, or the ones that you know needs to go in your movie but you have no idea why. The things that are weird, these will lead you to your theme.
So, when you want to go fast: Trick number one, find a metaphor for your life, trick number 2 is use your theme, and trick number 3 is build around your hook.
Just keep going back again and again to the question you raised in those first 10 and that first 30 pages, “What’s it about? What’s it about? What’s it about? Am I doing that?”
And what are the elements of Hook?
The first element of Hook is a character with a strong want. If you don’t have a character with a strong want, you don’t have a hook.
The next element is that the character has a strong dominant trait. A sheriff who’s afraid of the water. A dentist who’s afraid of his own wife. A stranded suicidal castaway. We want a strong dominant trait.
We also want a strong, clear want. A suicidal castaway who just wants to go home to be with the woman he loves. A dentist, who’s afraid of his own wife, who pulls out his own tooth to prove his love to a stripper during a bachelor party gone wrong. A sheriff who’s afraid of the water who wants to stop a killer shark.
And you can see how this leads to the third element, which is an ironic situation. Given their dominant trait and their want, what’s the most ironic situation they could find themselves in? And this will be the beginning of your hook. And this will propel you through the whole first half of your movie.
Linda: That’s the logline, right there.
Jake: Exactly. That’s going to end up being your logline right there. So these are the things that you can use to speed yourself through and to go, “Okay, is this scene doing what I need to do right now?” All these things add up together and you can see we’re keeping it simple here. We’re talking about 3 elements, not 152 elements, right? And you can see they’re all related.
A metaphor for your life is related to your theme, your theme is related to your hook: these are all different words for the same thing. This is the most external. This is the most internal. So, metaphor for your life is the most internal, hook is the most external, and theme is kind of in the middle to bridge the gap between the 2. But these are just 3 ways of doing the same damn thing.