Hiring a Script Consultant

When we finished our movie script for The Santa Diaries, we knew we wanted to hire Dara Marks to help us polish it. Laura had used her in the past on a couple of screen plays. We consulted our checkbooks, took a deep breath and called Dara. We booked an appointment and sent her a copy of the script.

Laura and I have used writing consultants in the past. We hired two different editors to look at Big Skye Ranch.

Big Skye Ranch cover

It was a much better book because of the money we spent and the book went on to be a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. It won international awards at the London and Paris Book Festivals and an IPPY award.

A week ago we had our four hour telephone conference call with Dara. We were nervous. What would her reaction to the script be?  It was a somewhat fitful start because the email outline she sent us got hijacked by some virus scrubber on her computer which decided to scrub at precisely the moment she was emailing us. And her dogs went bananas when the UPS man came calling, but after a few minutes of sorting things out, we got to work.

By the end we were exhausted, but exhilarated. Dara told us our script was “highly marketable, it’s got everything, a really good piece, the writing is terrific, there is a strong structure in the script.”  She really said all those things. I took notes! …and then she told us the plot needed strengthening and we could be clearer about the theme. She said the first 25 pages needed to be totally rewritten. Well, that’s what we were paying her for – brutal honesty.

The theme thing is tricky. It’s the most universal denominator and the theme drives the characters, the dialog, the setting. Theme should underscore everything in the script. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around because in the past our writing has been more character or plot driven. That’s not to say there wasn’t an underlying theme, but we didn’t spend time really trying to get that down to the bones.

In this telephone consultation we spent at least half an hour sorting out the theme. Turns out the theme is more elemental than Christmas, finding your inner Santa, nostalgia for small town life, or reconnecting with a lost love. The theme of The Santa Diaries script is “we’re all in this together.” We had not known that! Of course, the flip side of that theme is “we are alone” and that is Will’s fatal flaw. If he doesn’t change, he will be alone.

Will is isolated because he has sold out to Hollywood. He has lots of people around him, but they all want a piece of him. His business manager, Josh, whom Will calls his best friend, is a suck-up. Even his girlfriend has her own career agenda. If Will doesn’t find his authentic self (as opposed to his inner Santa) he will never be happy or fulfilled.

There were a couple of times when Dara pointed out that we were still thinking play, not movie. She was right. In the play we couldn’t have Sandy in the hospital with a broken leg. Heck, we couldn’t even get him staged in a bed in traction which is the way we wrote the original script. Sandy in a wheel chair with his leg propped up on a stool had to do. In the movie he gets to be in a hospital.

Dara suggested that we start with a clean slate for the rewrite and we did. We are now 22 pages into the first 25 (Act 1 up to the First Turning Point). After that it will be more tweaking than a total rewrite as we make sure any changes in the beginning are reflected in rest of the script. All the characters are slightly different than they were in the original play and the script we sent Dara. We hope that gives them more depth.

Will is a little softer, more redeemable. His father, Sandy, is no longer the paragon of virtue. We’ve roughed up his edges a bit. Brandeee is smarter and shrewder. We haven’t decided if Brandeee and Will are engaged anymore. It always bothered me some that Will broke up with Brandeee and moved on to Jessica so quickly.

The point is, do these changes drive the theme to its logical conclusion? We hope to have that figured out in the next month. Then the script will go back to Dara for notes. After that it should be ready to pitch. We think/hope the investment in using a script consultant will be well worth the cost.

Everyman Theatre

The show now at Everyman Theatre, Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks is incredible. Only two actors, Kenyatta Rogers and Eric Berryman, are on stage and carry the show to it’s stunning, but inevitable, conclusion. Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for this play, which was first produced in New York in 2001. This is its first Baltimore production.


Since I had been to Dara Marks workshop the day before I saw this play, I was thinking transformational arc.  At the end of Topdog/Underdog there is no redemption, but I remembered Dara saying there doesn’t always have to be; this was a tragedy after all. It would have made me feel better if there had been some ray of hope for these brothers, but their backgrounds, life experiences, and lack of opportunities made the ending an almost forgone conclusion.

The day I saw the play was Mother’s Day. We were in the new Everyman Theatre on Fayette Street in Baltimore so there is more handicapped accessibility. A family brought their elderly mother and parked her wheelchair across the aisle from us.  A nice outing for mom, right? As soon as the play started the woman dropped her head and slept through the entire show. I was glad because the language in the play, while authentic, would have scorched the ears of any woman her age. And the subject matter was not uplifting. That family would have been better off taking mom to brunch and giving her a blooming plant.

Plays are story telling and whatever project Laura and I are working on, it’s always about story. Any time we can observe how someone else makes it work is instructive, so we watch TV, go to the movies and to the theater. We hope it will make us better writers and story tellers.TopDog/Underdog at Everyman had lessons we will use.

Get Juiced

I love learning more about the craft of writing. Even better is adding tools to my writer’s toolbox. But best of all is coming away from a writing seminar juiced about getting back to writing.

Laura and I attended a Dara Marks seminar in Washington, D.C. yesterday. It was sprinkling when I left my house at 7 a.m. to pick up Laura. By the time we were on the road it was pouring. My wipers were on high and I was thinking it was going to be a very long drive. It didn’t last, however, and we were in the District in under two hours – circling the Palomar Hotel looking for a parking space. I hate driving in D.C. Finally Laura ran inside the hotel and came out with the answer to the parking problem – valet parking for $20.

Mala & Laura at Marks seminar 5-11-13

The seminar was a detailed explanation of Dara Mark’s Transformational Arc of Character and how to use it in screenwriting. It is fabulous tool for telling any story. Laura had used Dara as a consultant on several of her screenplays, but had never met her face to face. Photo below is Dara (left) but not with Laura. It was at the end of the day and there was a long line of people waiting to get their books signed. I got the best photo I could.


I was aware of the Transformational Arc because every project on which Laura and I have collaborated is started with a huge piece of paper on which we lay down the arc and fill in the story. This seminar (9:30 – 5) was long, but very specific about all the aspects and nuances of the arc. Dara gave us a handout with all the power point notes and spoke the entire time with no notes. I only zoned out once after lunch and, of course, that was the time when Dara asked a question of the audience and pointed at me. What was the question?

There were lots of take-aways, but one (which really wasn’t part of the arc) was, “people always tell you to write what you know; what you really need to write is how you feel about what you know.” That stuck with me.

Dara Marks gave me so much to think about in terms of laying out plot, thinking about the protagonist’s outer story as it relates to the inner story, even how to tease out the overarching theme which drives the plot. All essential writing tools.This is may be the most valuable writing seminar I have attended. I came away juiced, wanting to revisit our most recent draft of The Santa Diaries movie script.Did we hit all the marks?

Of course, there is a book. Buy it and get juiced.  Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc.