a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Friday, March 03, 2006

I Just Fled the Black Hole of Zoetrope...

To give some context, I finally wandered over to Zoetrope a week or so ago, because someone had posted something about my $60 Notes service over there.

I was surprised to run into an old friend who I hadn't spoken with in about 15 years, so I hung out there more. And then I joined in some of the screenplay discussions.


Turns out that, for whatever reason, the boards over there have apparently become the playground of the happily, aggressively ignorant.

(I'm sure there are a lot of great people over there. But most of them are very, very quiet).

There's nothing like trying to give good advice, and having it slapped down.

Of course, I should have fled earlier, when I got not one but THREE e-mails warning me not to get sucked in over there.

Instead, I got aggressively involved in a debate over format, of all things, and whether it made sense to write your script out of format, and then completely reformat it later.

My take? A waste of time. Learn to write format, have it be second nature, and then feel free to concentrate on story.

The regulars there didn't want to hear that.

One even defended not putting DAY or NIGHT in his scene headings, because -- ready for this? -- they "don't advance the story".

Finally I realized how pointless it all was, and I have finally pried myself loose. Though not without this final rant, which came in response to one of the regulars complaining that "no one helps beginning writers". I'm going to repost my rant here, because what the hell.

"A few things...

I feel like I just spent too much time with beginning writers, just posting on this topic. (And yeah, I know I'm a beginning writer too. Doesn't mean I don't speak from experience).

Sometimes I feel like I need to offer advice. If beginning writers don't want to listen, that's their problem.

You know what. Write your script however you want. Just know that there are 1000 -- 10,000? 100,000? -- people writing better stories than you, and their craft is impeccable. And that's what you're up against.

And there are 100,000 people writing utter crap. And that's what your script may resemble.

The irony that no one is talking about? The "rules" are really set up for the protection of the beginning writer, because you aren't ready to deal with most of these tools/devices/ways to break format. It would be one thing if everyone were required to actually learn -- to write 10 screenplays before trying to submit one -- but that's not the case. Everyone wants to sell something now, now, now. No one is ready.

So it's like the warning signs on the really steep expert ski slope. You all want to ignore them, and the bodies are piling up on the bottom.

There's an excerpt up there somewhere from Shane Black's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", that is actually a great example of how if you are a great writer you can bend the rules.

As far as I can see, few (if any) people who have been posting here are ready to bend the rules. Because you just aren't good enough writers yet. So your writing is pointless and hard to read, like Lawrence's excerpt somewhere above, where you have to work harder just to figure out what's going on.

And yeah, now you are pissed off, because no one likes rules telling them what not to do. And you think you're ready, but you're not, because you don't even understand what I'm talking about.

It's not about format. It's about telling a great story. And the "rules" for format (which are loose in many areas) enable you to do that in a way that will make your script more readable and professional.

Correct format is easy. You should be able to pound out pages in correct format without even it being an issue. If you can't, then you really haven't put enough effort into this writing thing.

This is baby Screenwriting 101 stuff.

But maybe you need to take that course again. Because it's part of a growth curve that just doesn't seem to be here."

The irony is that I was initially trying to be nice, and see how they turned me into a bitter ranter? Yikes. Life's too short.


At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Peter said...

All I could think about after reading this was Yoda's lecture to Luke in ESB (Okay, I'm a geek...)
that begins with, "Ready are you? What know you of ready?"

Screw 'em, Scott. You can't talk sense into morons. At least you can take solace in the fact that they don't appear smart enough to even ever get their scripts in your hands, let alone for you to have the opportunity to pass on them.

Still, I'm curious - where is this zoetrope forum? I'd be interested in taking a peek.

At 3:18 PM, Anonymous k. said... you have to get a free membership.

i'm a zoetrope alum. before i moved to hollywood they served as my virtual writers group. it's non-exclusive. that's pretty much what you need to know.

some quality writers have done time there in each genre (their short fiction rooms used to be really really fun and fairly well-populated with talent), but there's a lot of crap on there too. it's a microcosm of the real world.

Scott - I am 100% with you. Why would anyone want to make their job more difficult by not using script format at the get-go? I wrote my 1st screenplay on Microsoft Word style sheets I programmed myself. It sucked ass. All they have to do now is buy Final Draft once and they have the format taken care of forever. I don't get the resistence to something that makes your life easier. Writing in script format is a pleasure. All that white space.

I can understand the resistence to things like "second act turning point" and "every scene must have conflict," because these dictums can give a beginner a serious cause of anxiety. Sometimes books full of "the rules" make screenwriting feel like Calculus. But arguing over slug lines? Who gives a f--k?

By the way -- speaking of sluglines -- we were just told in class that you don't have to put day/night in a screenplay until the shooting script stage. What's your take on that? I always use it, I guess because I picked it up from the Syd Field book way back when. Now I wonder if it makes me look like a total amateur. Should I drop it unless I have a time-of-day change from one scene to the next?

At 3:27 PM, Blogger Robert Hogan said...

I joined Zoetrope a few years back when it was still a good place to go and workshop your script. Things went downhill fast and I bailed. It's a shame becuase it's a great concept. Now it's like going to a public pool. Everyone pays the same to get in and they all think they own the place.

At 3:28 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

99% of the scripts I read have DAY or NIGHT in the scene headings.

And why wouldn't they? It may be up to the director what camera angles to use, but what time a scene is taking place is part of the texture of the story.

It falls under the writer's responsibility, and you might as well have it in there throughout.

At 3:28 PM, Anonymous joel said...

Yeah, it's really a shame. 2-3 years ago Zoe was absolutely one of the best place for reviews and discussions. Now it's a bunch of whiners and cliques who don't seem to talk about screenwriting very much.

I haven't workshopped anything there lately, so I'm not sure if the quality of the reviews has gone downhill too, but just judging from the number of scripts it's not a pretty picture.

It seems like blog comments are becoming the new water cooler for screenwriting. Which is ok but they're just so decentralized.

(a recovering zoetrope lurker.)

At 4:57 PM, Blogger William said...

I can't even believe you had that conversation with them. What's is the hang-up with proper formatting? I mean, get a grip.

Like K said, I understand the resistance to the whole structure thing. Every writer wants to break out with their own style but formatting is a non-issue, just do it!

Day/Night -- regardless of whether the scene takes place in a meat locker or on a football field I put day or night. Just good practice.

It's funny, I put my screenplay up there a while back and by the time I read my required three I was so disgusted I didn't even read the comments someone wrote for my screenplay. Before that I read a group of short scripts and commented. My vitriol didn't go over so well. I got a warning from the site administrator.

Robert, yeah, it's like a public pool that everyone has peed in...

At 5:05 PM, Blogger writebrother said...

I never even get into discussions with people about format or structure. Reminds me of people who watch football and talk about blocking and special teams. Those are fundamentals and who wants to talk about that? It's about story and dialogue with me. The coffee shop hounds and the frustrated outsider types tend to spend time arguing about trivial things.

At 6:09 PM, Blogger A WOMAN ON THE EDGE said...

I was waiting for this post ...

Hopefully your experience will create some changes over there.

I doubt it, but I really hope so.

At 6:34 PM, Blogger mwc said...

There's an alternate to Zoe that many folks have found called The Writers' Building. It's structured very similar to but it has a few elements in place to thin the herd a little. (A small membership fee after the free trial, no anonymous postings and you've got to have at least one screenplay under your belt and registered).

Outside of topics involving politics and religion (which are no longer allowed), I don't think I've seen any posts where the members have had any seriously belligerent arguments.

If your still interest in a Zoe like concept but prefer a calmer atmosphere, stop in and look around.

_ _ _ _
As a disclaimer, I should state that while I'm not part of the staff, I was hired by the site's creator to do the initial graphics. But these days I'm just one of the struggling writers who uses the site as a place to exchange ideas.

At 6:59 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

So apparently not all Zoetrope is bad.

Turns out that most of the serious people over there have retreated to private discussion rooms, which I guess metaphorically are like walled cities with deep moats to keep the trolls out. One just snuck me in the back door.

Maybe it's my fault for getting stuck in the mosh pit ;-)

At 7:52 PM, Blogger Tom said...

15 years?

(rifles through memory)


Glad we stumbled across each other, anyhow. It used to be that all I'd see on the forums were lengthy arguments about whose self-commissioned Friday the 13th sequel was better, then it seemed to get better, now I guess it turned back to goo. I'm there once every two years, it's funny we popped up at the same time.

What's really funny to me is I'd just opened my private office there to discuss how not to let Zoetrope's format Nazis and paradigm-clingers crush your creativity. You found the best answer: avoid them.

At 9:03 PM, Blogger shecanfilmit said...

I started putting my screenplays up on Zoetrope in 2000 and then became an (in-person) reader for the print magazine in Feb 2002. I think the site went way downhill somewhere at the end of 2003 into 2004. During the past year, I've participated in the private offices of some very productive and helpful people based in Los Angeles. They are readers (like you), directors, optioned/produced screenwriters and producers. I have met most in person and they passed the reality check. Zoetrope is great, if you get in the right "private" offices. If you're on the main board, God help you.

Zoetrope does sometimes remind me of high school politics, but Hollywood in general seems very high school. So instead of bitching about that fact, I work it. After all, I was popular in high school and not ashamed of it.

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Belzecue said...

"It's not about format. It's about telling a great story. And the "rules" for format (which are loose in many areas) enable you to do that in a way that will make your script more readable and professional."

... amen to that.

At 9:35 PM, Blogger Patrick J. Rodio said...

You are all correct, I mean, it's hard enough getting someone to stick with your script, why would you want pissy format giving them an excuse to bail?

And I use Day & Night. I won't use it constantly (say if the a scene following the previous one obviously happens soon after) but I certainly use them throughout - I think it's important to know if the characters are out in broad daylight or pitch blackness.

At 10:46 PM, Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

Robert, and the people who really want to learn to swim? They jump out as soon as they figure out how many people have PEE'D in the pool!

At 1:19 AM, Anonymous Lucy said...

DAY/NIGHT is totally part of the story context!! How can it not be?! There's nothing directorial about it and it so DOES advance the story!!

I don't use Zoetrope, but I have had a similar experience with a UK site. After responding to a Q about grammar of all things, I had no less than FOUR emails arrive from one guy saying he "couldn't leave it, as I was progressing under an illusion". In addition, on the forum itself a whole bunch of people started on me too - but it was ok as "they were all copy editors and did this type of thing all day, every day"!! Besides the facts that that doesn't have a hell of a lot of relevance (nobody asked me what I did or, God forbid, where I might have got my info from!), I have an English degree and a whole bunch of actual grammar qualifications - who the hell did they all think they were?!? Even if I was wrong (which I wasn't), why some people get so pissy about daft things is beyond me. The fact that you can try and help people and get shot down in flames is, I think, totally ridiculous. I now do not take part in discussion or debate in these forums online and feel censored by others' small mindedness which does really irritate me. The fact, as you say Scott, that they turn "one" into a bitter ranter like I've just done - even more so!! Grrr...

At 4:46 AM, Anonymous Gerry said...

You're right, most of the serious private offices in Zoe are just fine.

The main board is like a lunatic asylum, taken over by the patients.

At 5:20 AM, Blogger stu willis said...

I think some people like discuss formatting because its tangible and an easy distraction from the hard reality of story.

At 7:18 AM, Blogger writergurl said...

Hmmm, I never registered at Zoe, I stumbled across Triggerstreet and have been happy over there since 2004.

There's a message board there too, occasionally there will be a "fight" when some newbie comes in (upon occasion from Zoe) and yells about how format. Everybody tells them the deal (nicely) and then they either learn and shut up or they go away.

We do discuss politics over there but it's not on the main screwriting board and if things get too heated, the moderators lock the thred and that's that.

Check them out, it's a beginner's site but it's not a back biting free for all.

At 7:27 AM, Blogger Brett said...

It does seem as though Zoetrope has gone completely batshit crazy in the main room over the last two years or so. I remember when I joined thinking it seemed like a cool place—there were serious people answering serious questions with useful answers. At some point someone tripped over the Goofy Switch, and suddenly the whackos, wingnuts and trolls rolled in like a dim mouthy tide.

The private offices do still offer some useful engaging discussion, but IMO the ugly stench from the main room pervades every corner of the site.

Yeah, I still poke my head into one or two private rooms there, but my urge to linger and participate is a fraction of what it once was, and as for posting scripts for "analysis and review"... I think I'd get better results by tossing copies to the chimps at the zoo.

What's most scary/sad for me is to see and understand how many people seem content—thrilled, even—to fritter away time and creative energy on such utterly pointless little booger-flicking battles.

Rather than write or read 127 posts arguing whether or not one is "allowed" to use voice-over or whether or not format matters or if the word "IS" is verboten under penalty of death, why not focus on your actual work? Why not try to understand where it could be improved? Find people who are handling some aspect of the process better than you are and respectfully ask them intelligent questions? Why not use the opportunity to develop not only your writing muscles, but your interpersonal muscles as well? Why not practice such things as courtesy and professionalism and respect and humility and honesty and maturity?

‘Cuz that might require some small sacrifice of pleasurable experience.

As is often the case, it’s far easier to start an argument than it is to take an honest look in the mirror and see what needs to be improved. The majority of folks banging pots and pans together on Zoetrope in an orgy of self-absorbed attention-grabbing not only will never make it as screenwriters, but never really cared about that goal in the first damned place. For them Zoetrope is a safe affordable mosh pit in which to conjure up some delusions of relevance.

Oyay, oyay, oyay, let us all stand and hail the self-crowned kings of Dipshit Mountain.


Don’t sweat it, Scott. I still think you’re smart and stuff.

At 9:40 AM, Blogger Dave Fogerson said...

Let the newbies ignore format. Makes more room for the serious ones.

At 10:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

there will always be those that try to stay 'hip' and 'current' with the latest format tweaks and changes (remember the hoopla when it was okay to drop the More's and Cont'ds?), but the thing of it is, if you keep using the old tried and true formulas like including the More's and Cont'ds, and your story is good, it'll still get passed along right Scott?

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...


Again, there are format things that matter, and things that don't, and room to play with them, if you know what you are doing.

And story is king.

At 8:51 PM, Blogger Mark said...

Another good point is writers must be able to take criticism, good or bad.

If they don't want to listen, they're loss, but I'm willing to listen to any and all points about writing.

So, I applaud your efforts, but just like the learning curve many new writers are simply not ready to take criticism even when it's helpful.


At 6:12 AM, Blogger The Gambino Crime Family said...

I don't know. I've been dropping in and out of Zoetrope for... well, way too long... and it seems that the discussion boards have this Groundhog Day quality. The same s--- over and over again. Format. Complaints about reviews (or lack thereof). Your odd lunatic complaining that Hollywood has stolen their wonderful, oh-so-unique script.

On the other hand, I've found you still can get quality criticism - especially in the short story wing. It's far, far from perfect, but what the heck, it's free.

At 6:22 PM, Blogger Rene said...

I remember how much I resisted the rules when I was first starting out with my writing. 120 pages? Bah! Easy on the dialog? Ridiculous! Three act story structure? Pass! (You see, I was a hotshot newbie who was going to amaze these conformists and their screenwriting rules. I was, of course, also going to sell my very first screenplay.)

But even before I outgrew my childish hangups, I NEVER would have rebelled against -- of all things -- a slugline.

Seriously, wtf.

At 8:26 PM, Blogger Tom said...

I just finished up my latest review for Zoetrope, and while the writer managed to get the format right, everything else was wroooong, so wrong. The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking about this post and shaking my head.

At 10:57 PM, Anonymous James Patrick Joyce said...

egads! Am I ever sorry.

Really. My apologies.

And here I thought I was doing them a favour. Ah, well.

At 2:38 PM, Blogger jjlunt said...

I've been using Zoetrope on and off since I was 16 (way back in 1999) and I went through a phase where I got my feelings hurt way too easily by a bad review, although as an adult I've gotten pretty thick skinned. But yeah, I've definitely noticed the change. I spent a lot of time there in 2004-2005 because I had a sudden flow of creative output and it was a really useful place then. Then after '05 I stopped writing to focus on documentary production. I posted a script there a month ago and was shocked by how many morons reviewed it (and I know they really were morons because I reciprocated reviews of their own terrible scripts) and how ignorant they all seemed.

That being said, I did pick up some specks of good advice when sorting through all the rubbish. For example, all five of the reviews complained about the same thing in my opening scene (an overlong piece of dialogue), enough to convince me that perhaps there was some validity to that criticism.


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