Writing Excuses 5.22: Film Considerations

Mary Robinette Kowal and Dave Wolverton join Dan and Howard for a discussion of movie considerations and formulas. Dave explains the three-act structure to us, and we talk about how this applies for transitioning stories to the screen.

And on the subject of screens, Moses Siregar III of Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing captured us on video as we recorded this ‘cast. It’s up on YouTube.

We talk about taglines, and for an example Mary tells us that Shades of Milk and Honey would be pitched as “Jane Austen with magic.” She then relates to us the tale of how Lou Anders Hollywood formula saved the ending of her book.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Runelords, by David Farland, narrated by Ray Porter. The first four books in the series which are available now in audio format.

Writing Prompt: Come up with an eight-word tagline for your novel or short story. It needs to be pithy, punchy, memorable, and easily comprehensible.

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53 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.22: Film Considerations”

  1. You get those two together as guests for a podcast to go with the regulars (minus Brandon obviously) and you cut it UNDER 15 minutes? *SAD*

  2. Also haven’t finished it yet, but actually picked up a book recently on building a 60 second pitch for novels/screenplays, which includes building log lines. The little bit I’ve read so far is very interesting.

    It’s called Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds by Hauge.

  3. I remember the director of Tootsie saying something similar to the 3 act structure, but he related it to music with an ABA form. The scenes in the city were the ‘A’ verses, and the middle in the country was the ‘B’ bridge.

  4. I enjoyed watching the show for a change. Maybe you could do it again sometime. I also think being able to describe your story in eight words is a good idea. It helps you to keep the main story elements clear in your mind as you write.

  5. I’m glad some folks have enjoyed the video. I filmed two episodes at Superstars and I think the next one will go up next week along with the next episode (it’s a good one!).

  6. Not so long ago, I said how cool it was to see videos like Howard’s talk on talent or Dan’s talk on story structure. And now here we are with a Writing Excuses video.

    I have no doubt it’s nothing more than a massive coincidence, but still, very cool.

  7. Moses? Thanks for the video — it really is helpful to see what they’re doing when they are talking (who knew they spent half of each podcast gesticulating wildly during those poses in their talking?). Of course, it does raise a difficult question about this episode’s transcript — should I try to annotate the handwaving, canned beverage being slurped, and so forth? Or just stick with the plain old dialogue, unaccented?l

  8. I put way too much effort into this, but the result was really cool – I managed to get the MP3 sync’d to the youtube video and watched the video with the “good” audio.

    a couple of times I had to pause the mp3 for just about 1 second to re-sync it – but it was worth it.

    only mention it because a) it’d be really cool to see you guys do that in the future, and maybe do the audio overlay post-production and b) others may want to do the same, and I wanted to let you know it’s not as difficult ad you’d expect.

  9. Mike – It would be fitting if this episode’s transcript read more like a film script, complete with annotations.

  10. I’m working on a YA fantasy novel and have managed to limit to eight words, which was not easy, but here you go:

    Parisa is dying and potatoes won’t save her.



  11. Another good one. I really wish this one could have gone longer – between endings and loglines and movies, you had a lot of topics there, though I understand the time limit. I’d like to see an episode on loglines in particular.

    Thanks, Moses, for the video. It’s fun to see you guys. Though, once again, the question of whether any of you are wearing pants is left unanswered. ^_^

  12. I was just going to comment that videos of WE would be cool. I would love to see videos of the regular episodes as well.

  13. @Iron Mask that was my exact thought…I was disappointed and I hadn’t even listened yet. I guess we’re all spoiled.

    Just watched it on YouTube: Another great one (feels like I say that each week).

    Love that we got to see Dan as he says his very diva “mmmhmmm” He’s more attentive than I’d imagined. I always envision him rolling his eyes and looking off in a direction opposite the guest (or the one speaking).

    8 word prompt: Perfect for a busy week. I think I can swing this one.

    I’m with you @fardawg, “cut it in two”

    @WE: Keep doing the YouTube Videos. Maybe a network will pick you guys up and force you to do a full hour.

  14. Just had a thought: If you have film considerations in mind, why not just write a screenplay?

    Mary’s example is a good one; the movie formula makes a tighter novel…but this can’t always be the case, can it?

    I would guess that the formula is a good one to hold a finished work against…but factoring it in too early might influence the writer into leaving out some of the fun fluff and maybe even writing in a happy “Hollywood ending” when it’s not what they would have done otherwise.

    I smell a nasty trend coming on.

  15. ioMu, my aunt works in Hollywood. She’s got a script and has had a couple of big names signed on for at least three years now. She first acquired the rights to the script ten years ago (it’s an adaptation of an award-winning novel). It’s not uncommon for things to take this long. Hollywood move slowly. Publishing a book first will give the author a more immediate payoff and help build a fanbase for a future movie adaptation.

  16. Well, it’s a long, long journey
    To the Hollywood city.
    It’s a long, long wait
    While I’m sitting in committee,
    But I know I’ll be a film somedaaay
    At least I hope and pray that I will,
    But today I am still just a book.

    Couldn’t help it…and the price I pay is that it will be stuck in my head all day.

  17. Good one. I love Dave’s insights and Mary is always great on the podcast. You guys seriously need to have a woman on at all times. The episodes with gals on them always stand out.

  18. First chance I got to watch it (desktop went down, laptop is not entirely on speaking terms with Youtube, yadda yadda), and it’s pretty much as cool as I expected. Like I said before, it’s nice to get a look at how the discussions work visually as well as verbally.

    @Amyryuu: Maybe take out the ‘who’? I don’t know about anyone else, I’m hardly an expert, but that ‘who’ kinda bugs me. It turns the tagline into half a sentence.

    “Two men have destroyed their homelands”. Works a little better, maybe. Leads to questions like why they did it, was it with magic or napalm or alien tech, did they work together or was the destruction the byproduct of a personal war, etc.

    I think a good tagline of the kind mentioned in the ‘cast should be something that describes what the story IS, not what the story is ABOUT.

    Still trying to figure out what that means for mine…

  19. I never thought about taglines, interesting. Here’s a stab:

    “The terminal came online and his world changed.”


  20. I agree with you Jace.” Two men have destroyed their homelands” makes me think…”oh, that was a dumb thing to do” and I’m not so interested in them.

    But if its “Two men have accidentally destroyed their homelands” I care about them a bit more…(if it’s not an accident, there should be some hint of a reason)

    “Two men have destroyed their homelands in war/greed/other and the new colonies arrive in 3 days.”

    “Two rivals have destroyed their homelands and there’s only one place left to go.”…

  21. Hey, it was great getting to see Dan and Howard and their guests on video. Too bad that we don’t get a video for every episode.

    More later after I have a pot of coffee and wake up. These dreary winter days with no sun light really knock me down.

  22. Regarding the 8-word pitch, it helps to use some of those words on things that conjure up lots of information.

    “Jane Austen with magic” is only four words. It says nothing about the actual plot, but EVERYTHING about the feel of the book.

    Granted, using titles of other things can work against you, so you have to be careful with it. Just because I COULD describe Schlock Mercenary as “Babylon 5 meets Bloom County” doesn’t mean that would be a good idea.

    Both the submitted examples — “accidentally destroy their homeland”, and “terminal came online” are not taglines that will sell. They’re teasers that might lead well into a synopsis paragraph.

    Consider “Tale of Two Cities in a post-apocalyptic era” and “Moby Dick with A.I.s and magic.” Not that I have the slightest idea if either of these fit.

  23. Brilliant!
    Thanks Howard.

    So If my pitch is “Mad Max meets the Muppets”…would that be it?
    Is there a time where it’s ok to say “Mad Max meets the Muppets in search of treasure?”
    or is plot not to be mentioned at all?

    And if it is to be hinted at is this done through references…such as:

    “Mad Max meets the Muppets on Treasure Island”?

  24. I think the main thing is that a tagline is not quite the same as hook, not the way it’s used here.

  25. @Jace: When you say “how it’s used here” do you mean when pitching a book for film consideration?

    Also, are these expected to be different than when pitching otherwise? I always thought a tagline was:

    “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”/”A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… ”

    Will listen to podcast again. First time, there were a zillion other things going on.

  26. Here’s an un-submitted dialog exercise that I want to turn into a short film. We just need Kevin Bacon to sign on.

    Masking Motivations

    “This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by Holible. Visit HolibleHolcast dot com slash Excuse for free trial membership.”

    “This… Is… Writing Excuses! Season 45: Episode 9, Masking Motivations.”

    “Five minutes long, because you have no attention span…”

    “And we’re really old.”

    “I’m Brandon.”

    “I’m Dan.”

    “And I… forgot.”

    “Howard! Let’s start with you. What do we mean by “masking motivations?” What is it, why do we do it, and should we do it?”

    “You caught me off guard. I thought we were discussing which medium to deploy idea bags to.”

    “That was last week. We had a whole discussion about how I chose to publish Elantris 5 as a series of pornographic holeos.”

    “Howard’s dementia seems to be acting up. I suppose I’ll start.”


    “Masking motivations, for me, usually applies to characters. It’s when I want a deeper meaning to what it is that they’re doing, but hide it from other characters in the story. It works best when the reader doesn’t pick up on it either.”

    “My students do that all the time, and you’re describing a case of poor foreshadowing.”

    “The key difference with what I’m doing is that on a second read-through it becomes completely obvious. That works to force that second reading and puts more money in my pocket.”




    “OK then, Howard’s memory still seems to be shot.”

    “What I think he’s getting at is that some of us aren’t lucky enough to publish to a medium where royalties are assessed per reading. He can sell a Sunday strip one time, and won’t get another dime from a reader unless they choose to repurchase it.”

    “So Dan, other than the monetary aspect, are there any other reasons why we would want to mask the motivations of our characters?”

    “You can use it to build suspense. But there is something to be said for not peppering your work with lies of omission.”




    “Howard seems to have invented a word by mangling the pronunciation of ‘white lies,’ a feat historically reserved for bashing my work.”

    “Let’s take a quick break for the holo of the week.”

    “This week we have The Hobo, a Tolpunk adventure that follows Fredo after he finds the One Ring at the bottom of Lake Tahoe. He subsequently rides trains to return it to the fairy mountain from whence it came. It’s a story that illustrates masked motivations expertly. Fredo may have betrayed the family, but did he do it to save the world? Go to holibleholcast dot com slash excuse, sign up for a 5 day trial, and grab your free holo of The Hobo.”

    “We’re back. Dan! Should, or shouldn’t, ideers mask the motivations of their characters?”


    “I’m gonna go with Howard on this one. Just because we all use Autowrite to transform our idea bags into fictional media we should still call ourselves writers.”

    “Point taken. You didn’t answer the question.”

    “I don’t want to say that we should do it, but I will say that I do it all the time. Even when not writing.”

    “So you go around lying all the time for no reason.”

    “There’s always a reason. Why do you think I bought Kevin Bacon?”

    “Because you like bacon?”

    “I’m Jewish.”

    “Um… really?”

    “Absolutely. Why do you think I wanted to drop audible as an advertiser when they went to holcasts?”

    “I see the similarity. So your religion and diet were masking… what, exactly?”

    “Kevin! Hit Howard in the head to cure his dementia.”

    “A whack on the head has never cured dementia.”

    “You don’t make history by following the rules, you make it by seizing the moment.”

    “Ow! Who hit me in the head? Kevin Bacon?”

    “Howard! You’re back! Give us a writing prompt.”

    “OK… I want you to fill an idea bag with motivations from at least 17 Schlock Mercenary strips and run it through Autowrite. Now take 2 and run those through. Then combine those two stories with the first 2 ideas masking at least 14 of the 17 original motivations.”

    “That’s more complicated than my plan to cure your dementia.”

    “But less complicated than my plan to set Kevin Bacon up for a lawsuit.”

    “And far less than mine to increase our listenership.”

    “This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.”

  27. I thought about that right after posting. I think I’d have him wearing pants, though, because he forgot that he stopped wearing them completely somewhere around season 37.

  28. @Duke
    At the risk of offending someone… wow, good story.

    Yeah, in the sense of pitching a story as a potential film. As I understand it, the tagline is basically supposed to be the KIND of story it is, and sort of what it’s about in a broad sense. A hook, on the other hand, is where you begin to drop in exciting or interesting details to attract interest.

    “His best friend is a talking pie”, etc.

    But I don’t think tagline/pitch here is comparable to movie poster taglines. Those are often incredibly vague or tangential, or they require some kind of pre-knowledge of the movie.

    Take the movie Slither. I’ve never seen it, but I gathered from the trailers/ads at the time that the aliens are kinda slug-like, which is also suggested by the name. So the tagline ‘Slug it out’ makes sense, but would probably be confusing to someone who didn’t have that context.

    Look up movies on iMDB, look at their taglines, and then see if it really tells you much about the movie without the poster or some kind of context about the movie content.

    “just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” makes much more sense with a picture of a shark, after all…

  29. Oops. I’m a complete idiot, and had forgotten about the possible offense with the “holocaust” aspect. There was a whole episode about not offending readers.

    When I realized that Dan would need to be secretly Jewish for the Kevin Bacon part of it I saw that holcast looked a bit too much like another word. I then spent about 5 minutes trying to come up with another term for a “holographic podcast” but couldn’t think of a quick way to get that whole idea across. Things are shortened over time, and that seemed the most natural shortening of the idea.

    I figured I’d “hang a lantern on it” and show that I saw the similarity but make it clear that I figured that a normal person not looking for similarities wouldn’t pick up on it (hence Brandon’s reply which was basically “oh, damn, I guess you have a point there.”

    If I were prepping this for actual publication I think I’d have to change it up to drop that term completely and have them film regular videos instead. Unless, of course, I found a better term for “holographic podcast” that wasn’t so wordy.

  30. i know i’m late to the party but here’s my tag so far:

    “Epic fantasy meets indie music…”

    Feedback welcome!

  31. Thanks @Mike

    @Steve: I like it. It would appeal to me. Though, I’d probably like it to be more specific.
    “Epic Fantasy” is so broad. Also, “indie music” sounds like the soundtrack. “Indie music scene” might be better. Better still, name the scene…

    Blade Runner meets Sub Pop. (Just an example)

  32. I can’t believe I’m the only one who thinks that Dan looks like Michael Bolton. The one from Office Space, that is, not the one who sucks.

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