Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Book review: Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays

Lucy V. Hay is a qualified teacher, novelist, script editor, screenwriter, a blogger who helps writers, and one of the organisers of the London Screenwriters' Festival (LSF), where she currently holds the position of Director of Education. She is the associate producer of the British thriller Deviation, and author of Bauchentscheidung ("Gut Decision").
    She also wrote Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays. I've been on the verge of writing a review of that since late last year, but health issues and the release of a novel of my own crowded the schedule. Anyway, here we are. ________________________________________________________________________


Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays is a 223 page paperback, with index (thank you), arranged in three parts. 

The first settles the question of "What is a thriller?"
    I used to be quick to say I wasn't a huge fan of thrillers, but it turns out I've watched a lot more of them than I'd realised.
    Lucy breaks the thriller genre into 22 sub-genres, and explains and illustrates each with examples. That's twenty-two sub-genres.

   Then she analyses thrillers from the point-of-view of the protagonist, and comes up with eight common male protagonists in thrillers, and ten female equivalents. That's another eighteen ways to slice up the thriller pie. If you decide you want to write a thriller, you have some homework to do first.

How much conflict is enough?
Part two addresses the business of writing your thriller screenplay. Please note: this has nothing to do with outlining formulas or beat sheets or any of those aids other people have written about so ably.
   The "writing of" section covers tools which are frequently underrated by newbie writers: premise, logline and story outline. What elements will you find in the logline of a marketable screenplay? Lucy will tell you, with real life illustrations. Everyone knows that the first ten pages are vital in grabbing a reader's attention, but what are the traps to avoid? They're listed here. 
    We know that screenplays are about conflict, but how much conflict is enough? When does your protagonist move from flight to fight? How do you bring your story to a resolution?

How do you bring your story to a resolution?
Part three is all about selling your screenplay. It opens with a short pep talk, which is pure Lucy. I used part of the pep talk in this post back in February. 
    As someone who has been asked for feedback on screenplays in the past (I don't do that any more), I know that many newbie writers have no idea of how to handle it. Lucy provides five questions the writer should ask about feedback that will put a boundary in place and help them maintain their equilibrium. 
    Probably the biggest single question to ask about a screenplay, before you thrust it before the eyes of a startled world, would be, Is this screenplay ready? Most I've seen were so far from ready that a few honest comments generated despair. Good work was thrown aside, interesting projects abandoned, and writers with potential were left tottering on the edge of true failure, which is to quit writing altogether.
    Assuming the screenplay is ready, the next step is to pitch it to people with the power to get it made into a film. What are the basics of a pitch? Do you know how to handle an emergency pitch, a one-page pitch, an advanced pitch? Can you write an appealing treatment? What are the common mistakes that turn readers off a pitch?

No one has ever said after hearing a pitch, 'I wish they had talked longer.' ~Stephanie Palmer
Is this screenplay ready?

At this point you'll be dreaming of a simple sale, a large cheque and an Academy Award. Keep dreaming! Better yet, stay awake and read Lucy's observations on the myriad tracks that can open up before you as you wend your way through the undergrowth of Potential-Filmmaker Forest. Careful. There's bears in there!  
    Have you considered transmedia? How can your sample screenplay open a door into the industry? How should you respond to an offer of an option? How do you find a producer, or a director?

There's a lot to consider and Lucy lays much of it out before you. If you've sold several screenplays, you don't need this book. If you're a newbie—somebody standing on the edge, looking in—this might be the book you've been searching for. And if you're even thinking about writing a thriller, you'd be nuts not to buy and read Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays by Lucy V. Hay.

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Here are a few of Lucy's more quotable lines from the book.


  • Knowing what has gone before in produced movie content is absolutely key in writing your low-budget thriller spec or your blockbuster script sample.
  • Agents and filmmakers don't care what a great writer you are; they care whether your screenplay is an easy sale.
  • There are two things everyone in the industry wants from a screenplay, regardless of genre: a great story, with great characters.
  • Hollywood mantra: Write me a low-budget picture that creates a $200m sequel.
  • It's not the execution that counts; it's the concepts that sell.
  • The uncomfortable truth is that execs, agents and filmmakers know a good idea when they hear it.
  • First impressions count in the industry. It's rare that agents and producers consider redrafts.
  • Too many writers in meetings simply look like rabbits in the headlights when asked about their premise.
  • There are so many spec scripts out there, why should people pick yours?
  • Learn to recognise feedback with an agenda attached; don't let others impose their own vision on your work.
  • Actors' skills and experience are frequently underestimated by spec screenwriters.
  • There is no 'right' way to write a one-pager (only multiple 'wrong' ways).
  • Treatments are frequently left out of screenwriters' arsenals and this is always a mistake in my opinion.
  • The more people who know you and what you do, the more likely you will hook up with someone who will be able to take your work somewhere.
  • There is always money available for the 'right' project.
  • Forget about art and think on this: your thriller screenplay is a business opportunity.
  • I see no point in writing without an 'end point' in sight, whether it's a production or a contest deadline.

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1 comment:

Kathy Smart said...

Your book reviews are so detailed, Henry, they always want to make me buy the book.