"Unsolicited Submissions"—You Don't Mean Mine, Right?

No matter how long or short your creative career has been, you've seen the phrase: "No unsolicited submissions." Here are some FAQs to help you decide if and when to press "send" or otherwise share your creative content with other people — if even you're already a working professional.

What is a "submission"? A submission is the sharing of any creative content with another person, spoken or written.

What is "creative content"? An idea, overview, summary, synopsis, pitch, presentation deck, beat sheet, outline, treatment, script, or other form of original storytelling, regardless of the length of the material, the number of items included, or the form in which it was shared.

What is "solicited"? Solicited means the person you want to share your content has specifically stated, "Tell me about/Send me" whatever form your content is in. Ideally, this is in writing, and it may come with conditions (e.g., via your representative, after signing a release form/waiver, etc.).

What is "unsolicited"? The person you want to share your content with has NOT specifically stated, ideally in writing, "Tell me about/Send me" whatever form your content in.

This last one is the key. "Solicited" submissions are affirmative, active requests for your material. If the person has not actively stated, "Send me this," then they have not "solicited" it. If they have not solicited it, don't share or send it in any form or at any time, including:

This applies even if you're an established but currently unrepped professional. This applies even if the person is a close friend. In my roles as a development executive, I've had friends immediately email me projects that I'll never know if they were a fit. Because you're required to immediately delete unsolicited content (or a system tool does, or the assistant or coordinator does before you've ever seen it). I've sometimes sent clear steps on how to properly submit, and I've rarely been taken up on it.

My tip is, if you've got a friend in a position that could be a fit for your content, don't lead with sending them that content. Instead, just as you would with a stranger in the same role, lead with, "What are you looking for right now?" and "What is the best way for me to submit it?" The benefit of that friend isn't that they'll make your project regardless of its brand fit (they probably can't and won't) — it's that they'll share the extremely critical information of what their company is buying directly with you. Let's add those questions to the list:

Why isn't the person I sent my unsolicited content to getting back to me about my submissions? They're not allowed to. They only accepted solicited content.

What should I do instead of sending unsolicited content? Ask what their current content mandate is and what the acceptable way is to submit. Usually, it's through an established agent or manager, sometimes it's through an established entertainment attorney, and sometimes it's through your signing a release or waiver acknowledging that they have a lot of existing projects and other projects in consideration that may be similar to yours. (Which, trust me, is astonishingly true, no matter how specific your story is. And that's okay.)

What if I don't want to sign a release or waiver? If that is the only option available to you, and you don't want to, absolutely do not. Accept that it is a requirement for that particular outlet, and remove that outlet from your list. Or keep an eye out for other avenues into that outlet, including pitch sessions, competitions, etc.

What if the person I want to send unsolicited content to is my friend? Be even more careful and respectful of their role because, ideally, you're their friend, as well. Don't put them into a situation to act or appear unprofessional in the eyes of their organization.

Can my rep send unsolicited content on my behalf? They could but they usually don't. They simply ask if they can send a sample or project, and the executive or producer says, yes. Voilà. You're in the weekend read.

Of course, you can do that, too. Before sending something unsolicited, which will potentially mar your relationship with the recipient, try asking if you can send it. Sometimes people just say, "Yes." And you, too, are in the weekend read.

How — and why — to start writing story from the inside out (Step 1)

When you're writing a television pilot, your goal isn't to create a completed script, but to create a complete, and resonant, character. The reader has to know in the first 10 pages how your main character enters a room, what trait they fall back on in daily moments, and what they long for most deeply in their hearts.

You could describe those things right now for your best friend and your worst enemy. It's how well you know someone that tells you what situations to avoid putting them in and being in with them. Because they won't handle it well! Those situations, by the way, are the foundations of every episode of your series — and most importantly, your pilot. So you can't spin out dozens of episodes if you haven't reached that understanding of your character first.

The reader has to know in the first 10 pages how that character enters a room, what trait they fall back on in daily moments, and what they long for most deeply in their hearts.

Try this exercise with someone you know very well in mind. What would they do if:

Notice how utterly basic these scenarios are? Keep that top of mind. It's a reminder that it's your character's traits that make your story interesting, not the scenarios you weave. Your scenes are only as interesting as our understanding of your character makes them — and our anticipation of how this circumstance will test them compels us to keep reading.

As you approach this exercise, don't just make anything up that comes to mind to complete it. That's what you may be doing with your scripts. You write scenes you have in mind, then move your character through them. That's writing from the outside in. Instead, examine and change the details of the scene itself to create specific circumstances that will put pressure on your main character and their core trait. Craft the scene in response to your character. That is at the heart of writing from the inside out.

Craft the scene in response to your character. That is at the heart of writing from the inside out.

Next, do a practice run on this with evergreen characters from hit TV shows. In the first example, the classic "check splitting" scene, I'm going to use Archie Bunker, start with his core trait, then explore possible beats that will put pressure on him. I've added some sample beats below that I might add to my board, knowing I can organize the best ones into an escalating flow after the brainstorm. Also, this is an exercise to illustrate this approach to character, rather than to align with or add to the entire canon of All in the Family! If you aren't familiar with this show, it wrote about '70s society from a working class white man's perspective, which informs what you are about to read:

This example is to show that the scene doesn't make the character, the character — and their essential trait — is what makes your scene. And your show. And your series. Continue ideating from here, with an eye on creating escalating pressure and choices for Archie and exploring all levels of conflict available in the physical, cultural, interpersonal and timeperiod space. You don't need to ever have watched this show or to like this character. You only need to understand this character and how know-it-alls behave in the world, then add the layer of 1970s America to more deeply inform the scene.

Next, give it a try with one of your favorite TV characters. Keep designing and reworking the scene until you've created a memorable, specific journey for them.

Finally, try this with your pilot's main character. Don't focus on anything you've already written, focus on truly understanding what that guiding trait is and how you can shape the scene to create conflict and choices based on that trait. The next time you revisit your script's first 10 pages, you'll be able to do so with this new lens on character at the center. Fade in.

What to do (immediately!) when your story's lead character ISN'T your story's protagonist.

Quick! Who was the star of The Office, A Different World and The Big Bang Theory? If you said Steve Carrell, Lisa Bonet and Johnny Galecki, you're right (at least at the beginning of each series).

Now, slower: who was the protagonist of those shows? If you said Michael, Denise or Leonard...well, and I think you know where I'm going with this...that isn't right. I'm going to explain why so you can review your existing or upcoming projects and make sure your main character actually is your protagonist, as understood by the industry you're shopping your projects to.

As I may have mentioned a few times before, sellable stories are driven by conflict, and conflict is rooted in character (NOT plot). Not conflict of the moment — a missed bus, an argument with a friend, etc. Conflict that is informed by who your character is and by the new world you've dropped them into. Your main character may experience conflict within themselves, with other people, and with cultures, rules, norms, the environment, etc. And all of that conflict, ideally, is driven by the core trait they lead with in most spaces and by the organic population, rules and environment of the new world.

Sellable stories are driven by conflict, and conflict is rooted in character (NOT plot).

This makes identifying your protagonist a breeze: whoever's in active, continuous, escalating conflict with their new world is your main character. Use this simple checklist to review your projects:

  1. Who's entering a new world? Remember, the new world isn't required to be a new physical environment, though it often is. It also might be a new circumstance in the old world (a new boss, being asked for a divorce, discovering a magical gift, etc.).
  2. Who is rejecting the new world? Multiple characters may collectively experience the new world (e.g., all of the co-workers, the parent and their kids, etc.). But we are laser-focused on the one who doesn't accept the change and takes steps (however tiny and always ineffective) to return to the old world.
  3. Who is in multiple layers of conflict with the new world? This is the key - whoever has the most layers wins because all of those layers of issues are where your character arc and evolving relationships and episodic possibilities are going to come from.

Whoever's in active, continuous, escalating conflict with their new world is your main character.

In the pilot of The Big Bang Theory, Penny moves in across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon. Both Leonard and Sheldon now have a new neighbor, so they both are in an altered world. But Leonard moves towards the change — it's love at first sight! Let's invite her to do something! It's Sheldon who rejects the possibility — they already have plans for the afternoon. And with that, incredibly early in episode 101, we know it is Sheldon we'll be following through the journey of this show. Add to that the conflict that Sheldon's central trait always generates with others and with the rules of a world he believes he's above, a world that says he is "wildly racist" and, "apparently ridiculous" yet fails to penetrate his superior point of view...and you have an undeniable protagonist.

That's why when we see shows like A Different World or Fresh Off the Boat, it's inevitable that the central story of the show will shift to Whitley and Jessica. Denise was not in conflict with her new college life; the world of the show was as besotted with her as the real world itself was. It was Whitley who felt the school, the students, the men, the campus and even Denise were beneath her and would benefit from her superior point of view. She was in conflict at every turn. The same with Jessica versus her son, who was delighted to move to this neighborhood, found friends, etc. It was Jessica who felt the neighborhood, neighbors, etc. were beneath her and would benefit from her superior point of view. (Hmm...if we reflect on Frasier moving to Seattle...and Diane taking a job at Cheers before that...you'll see at least one clear archetype for protagonists that drive conflict and have room to arc.)

It was Whitley who felt the school, the students, the men, the campus and even Denise were beneath her and would benefit from her superior point of view. She was in conflict at every turn.

So how to fix a missing — or misidentified — protagonist in your own story? Here are two options:

  1. The easy way. Make the person in conflict with the world your protagonist. Done! Why wait for Season 2 or a "retelling" of the story? Ah, you don't want to do that? Is it because...the character you want to be the protagonist...is the one that's based on you?
  2. The deeper way. Often, when we write passive or flat protagonists, it's because they're representations of ourselves. And we're writing them into a world in which they are good, blameless and mistreated by others who can't appreciate how awesome they are. To keep "them/you" absolved of any accountability for the things that go wrong in their worlds, you sanitize them. You strip them off a governing trait because that would make the things that go wrong their fault. Does this resonate at all?

    Here's how to get past your protectiveness of your alter ego on that page. Core traits aren't inherently negative traits. "They/You" doesn't have to be greedy, rude, selfish, etc. They just have to have a central, go-to, defining trait (and we all do!) that is in conflict with the new world. Their flaws are only "fatal" in the new world. In Enchanted, Giselle isn't a wicked princess. She's just a fantastically naive one from a fairytale land. You drop all that innocence and warbling into New York City, and ta dah! You have conflict. So get real about a central trait for "they/you," then adjust the new world so that trait will be a liability

Core traits aren't inherently negative traits... Their flaws are only "fatal" in the new world.

With your eye on characters with core traits that conflict with new worlds and who arc over the course of the series...which character would you say is the protagonist of The Office? Of Friends?

And most importantly, of course, who is the real protagonist of your script?

The Single Quote that Changed My Life...and is about to Change Yours.

I spent my 20s jumping on planes to places I didn't tell my parents about until I got there. "Collect call from Taipei" remains my dad's favorite side-eye memory. I had an enormous vision for my life, astonishingly little street sense, and the limitless sense of possibility and agency that is the birthright of youngest children everywhere.

(I see you, older siblings — you know what I'm talking about! Years ago as a showrunner, I would informally poll the entire team about their birth order. Consistently, my line producers, accountants, HODs and other wildly responsible colleagues were oldest children. Our hidden team members making the set run or quietly editing, mixing, transcribing and sweetening away in post: middle kids. And the freelance, hop on a plane, who-knows-where-the-next-job-is-coming-from creatives were a smorgasbord of "babies" and "onlys." When you've had a safety net of parents, guardians and older siblings reliably snatching you out of oncoming traffic all your life, your gauge for what "risk" is does not exist.)

Multiple collect calls and exhilarating career leaps later, at 30, my list of what I'd planned to accomplish in life was fully checked off. To be clear, I had not become POTUS; I had, instead, removed that item from the list after working in politics for two years and abandoning it summarily for even wilder times trying to walk the runway. With nothing specific remaining to pursue, I faced an unusual challenge: What do I do next? I had no answers. There were several opportunities in front of me I'd recently dived into, and I loved them all. So I pursued them all, simultaneously and sleeplessly, and figured the universe would decide for me. And every time, it did.

I pursued them all, simultaneously and sleeplessly, and figured the universe would decide for me. And every time, it did.

That's when I began to grasp that whatever I focused on with action and intention would deliver a response. Never what I thought it would be, and usually bigger and better than I'd even known to imagine. (And I'm a youngest child, so the imagined version already was ludicrous.) When I first started sharing my career story as a speaker, people would say that my trajectory was unique, or I was lucky, or I probably hadn't experienced the pushback others faced. And that certainly wasn't the case. I had primarily experienced resistance and friction, particularly in entertainment. Every job, from my first fellowship until I sold my first show and beyond, was filled with people actively opposing my presence and role, along with a few amazing champions who impacted the course of my career. I leaned into the latter! Later, when people would ask, "Did you prove your detractors wrong?," I would say, "No. I never tried." Because what you focus on ignites, and focusing on people's negative reactions to you predictably delivers negative outcomes. Instead, I would speak up then focus on a vision for myself in, and after, this experience. Then I would learn what next steps were required and make the choices to get myself there.

You're wondering where the quote is. It's coming. I'm sharing all of this first because I didn't change my behavior after I read the quote. I read the quote years into my professional life, and it finally explained why my behavior had delivered so much reward. I'd never taken a job solely for the paycheck and never taken myself out of consideration for a "reach" position or experience. That's not because I didn't many times need a paycheck, and quickly! Or that I didn't have to push hard for a big opportunity when someone couldn't see the "me" in me that I saw.

Instead, for each "what's next?" moment, I opened with the biggest possible vision I had for myself and pursued that. Why? Because I understood that it was just as much work to pursue an opportunity I didn't want as it was to pursue one I deeply, definitely did. And as I say in presentations, if it's the same amount of work, then it isn't the work that's keeping you from turning your dreams into firm decisions and excellent outcomes.

I understood that it was just as much work to pursue an opportunity I didn't want as it was to pursue one I deeply, definitely did.

Then, one day, I read a quote online that made me yelp out loud at my screen. It was such a stunning, searing truth. I called my (middle!) sister to read it to her. I turned it into multiple graphic designs. I shared it with everyone who would hear me. And now, finally, let me share it with you:

We are kept from our goals not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal.

— Robert Gault

Again.

We are kept from our goals not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal.

— Robert Gault

Think right now on a vision for your day, your year, your life that you are not actively pursuing. That you make no time for because you have allocated all available hours and energy to that thing that is or is going to pay the bills. Your vision can pay the bills, too. Not in its "vision" form, but in its "strategic" form, in the moment after you decide it is what is going to pay your bills. Then you begin to take the steps and learn the things and meet the people and pursue the roles that will make that vision a reality.

Or you will not. You will see that clear path to a "surer" thing. A thing that, in reality, you have invested enormous time in and is not delivering for you yet. And you will pour more into that thing you don't want, that doesn't appear to want you either, not because of obstacles, but because of clarity. You will do it because you know how to do it, or who can help you do it, or some other thing that you think reduces the chance of failure or losing your place or your kids not eating.

And there it is. That thing you're really focusing on, that's really igniting: What could go wrong. What you could lose. What you don't or won't have.

So I will amend and extend the magical quote that put my wild ride into such sharp focus for me: "We are kept from our goals not by obstacles, but by a clear path to a lesser goal...and by following that lesser path, we focus on scarcity rather than abundance. And that is, inevitably, what we create for ourselves."

By following that lesser path, we focus on scarcity rather than abundance. And that is, inevitably, what we create for ourselves.

Clearly, I write — and lived! — all of this from the relatively fearless perspective of a youngest child who was never held responsible for the meals, laundry, and literal lives of her siblings, never had a curfew, never had to overcome a parent's hyper-protectiveness of their first few kids. But it wasn't the circumstance of birth order that made my particular experiences possible. It was the mindset that came with it. So while none of us can change our relative roles amongst our siblings, all of us...ALL of us...can change — can set — our minds to a new perception of our own possibility and agency.

As ever, I say, begin.

These Two Short Words Will Change Your Career — No Matter What Level You're At.

If you want to:

Make this commitment right now, today:

Make your first response to a Yes or No question: "Yes" or "No."

Literally.

When the person you asked to read your script says, "Are you repped?," you aren't, and you may want to say, "It's really hard to get an agent when you can't even get people to read your script. Hollywood has so many gatekeepers." When they then decline to read you, that's further proof to you of how impossible it is to get to the next level of your creative career.

Instead, just reply, "No." And stand by for why they ask. Or politely include, "Why do you ask?" If, in fact, they don't read repped writers, they may ask you to sign a waiver. Or they may recommend a reader or competition they trust. Or they may say sorry and wish you well. Doesn't all of that seem simple when you read it? And incredibly quick? On to your next request - with this relationship still intact for when you are repped.

When your boss asks you if you were in the office at 9 a.m. yesterday, and as a manager, you're always the first one in, you may long to say "I'm here at 9 every day!" Because you know what they really mean is "You're an unnoticeable or ineffective team member." The shift in your boss's tone then further confirms your sense of how underappreciated you are in your role.

When your boss asks you if you were in the office at 9 a.m. yesterday, as a manager, you may long to say "I'm here at 9 every day!"

Instead, reply, "No." And wait for the follow up. Years ago, when I was the boss in this conversation, my planned next question was, "Do you know anyone who was? I got a message my package was left with someone, but I can't read the signature." But we didn't get there immediately because my team member came back with that surprising response. I knew we needed to pause right then to connect so I could clearly state how hard-working and conscientious I believed them to be...and so they could relax some of the guard they'd put up after a series of horrible bosses (as I learned in that chat).

Leaders, the same approach builds team trust and wipes out a lot of unnecessary confusion. The answer to "Can we set time to talk about a raise or promotion?" is not "Well, we're looking at a pretty tight budget this year." It's "yes." That's right. "No" is off the table. Their question wasn't "Will you give me a raise or promotion?," even if that's the goal. The question was "Will you talk to me about it?" Answer the question that is asked. And as a leader, strive to over index on the "Yes" side.

For the rest of your day today, practice saying a simple (not a defensive or hesitant or snarky) "Yes" or "No" in response to a Yes or No question. Then breathe. Don't fill in any blanks for the person who's talking to you based on: 1) what happened in the past (with them or with others) or; 2) what might happen in the future (based on this conversation or others). Stay right in the moment and allow the present to unfold before you. Be open to the unknown neutral, or even beautiful, possibilities on the other side of your simple answer. Then be confident that you have both the brilliance and the boundaries to calmly navigate whatever follows after you reply.

Be open to the unknown neutral, or even beautiful, possibilities on the other side of your simple answer.

Will you give it a try?

☐ Yes

☐ No

☐ Why do you think I won't give it a try?

Why your script's first page has to be the last page you write. (Trust me.)

You've done it. You've fleshed out realistic, compelling characters with conflict-driving dynamics, you've beat out and outlined a solid story based on that work, and your treatment urges the reader forward, eager to know where the protagonist is headed. (It even propels you forward, and you already know what happens! Or so you think...)

You've just opened your screenwriting software and confidently typed up your title page. It's time, at last, for page one. One of two things is about to happen, and there's a fix for both:

You confidently fill page one with paragraphs of descriptive text and audio and visual references, believing you are providing critical context to the reader before your story begins.

When you're in "Unbridled 'World-Building'" mode, this is what you see:

And, gently, this...is what your reader sees:

Of course, when you're in blank page syndrome, no one's seeing anything. Even a tumbleweed rolling across the page would be welcome. Maybe you could make it a Western!

Breathe in, breathe out. The answer to both dilemmas is simple. You never start writing your script on page 1. You actually start writing your script on what will become page 3 or 4 (or 5 — we see you, genre, fantasy and period pieces). If you've enjoyed exercising your craft to get here, you have a clear storyline that's ready for the page. That's what you'll begin writing. And, as you know, once you type that first character's name, they're going to take over. They're going to sound like they want to sound, thanks very much. They're going to spar with the antagonist in a surprisingly different...unexpected...wait, are they flirting with each other? Anyway, they're going to snatch the keyboard away from you and bring you along for their ride.

You never start writing your script on page 1. You actually start writing your script on what will become page 3 or 4.

Congratulations! You've entered pure creative, channeling mode.

If you haven't entered script stage with strong character and story development already in place, this may still happen, but it won't make the remaining pages any better than the first one that you're struggling with. Shut down your screenwriting software and do the preparatory work that will make this part easier and delightful and sometimes fascinating and often, honestly, still terrifying. Let's just focus on the "easier" piece and call it a win.

The time to write your real page one, and the rest of your 1-4 page Set Up, is after you've typed the very last word of your script, stepped away, revisited a few times and adjusted, and shared with a trusted reader. Is the character consistent on the page? Do they arc in the course of the story? Is there a single theme? Do the relationships evolve; does the tension keep escalating? Do you care what happens and feel driven to find out what does?

Once all those answers are yes, it's time to, literally, start your script. And now you have the building blocks you need for a memorable and effective set up, one that clearly establishes your main character's core, governing trait and why it works for them in their current world. You absolutely cannot know that until you finish the script. Believe me! Your characters will take on lives on their own. Let them. Then capture that lightning in a single moment that helps us understand why they are accepting of their "old world," no matter how awful it may be, and why, as a result, they are going to reject the "new world" that's about to be sprung on them in a few pages. As I write in "Write It, Pitch It, Sell Your Screenplay":

"The Set-Up establishes the normal existence and expectations of your Main Character.  But not every minute and action and person in every typical day! Just the specific values and relationships necessary to give meaning to the upcoming Unexpected Change." — DMA Anderson

If you save the Set Up for last, you will find yourself facing a wide world of possibilities again, but this time, they come with a clear, filtering purpose: prepping your protagonist and the reader for the ride ahead. And this time, it's based on establishing your character to center your story in their change, rather than establishing the physical environment to center your reader in the location. Stop trying to prepare your reader for the entire story, and switch to preparing your reader solely for the Unexpected Change. What do they need to know in order to understand and care when the Main Character says no? That's what makes them want to know how you're going to organically force your protag reluctantly into that journey anyway. (And not because someone is going to die and grant them an inheritance if they say yes. Remove that beat!)

Stop trying to prepare your reader for the entire story, and switch to preparing your reader solely for the Unexpected Change. What do they need to know in order to understand and care when the Main Character says no?

Of course, there's a third possibility as you face that blank screen: you've done all your foundational work, you know exactly how you want to kick off the story, and you're ready — and prepared! — to begin. Still wait. Let your characters have their day and their say and their way with what will soon become their words. You may end up using the same Set Up at the end; you may come up with several more. But you'll have all the insights you need to make an impactful choice that draws a delightful, indelible line from Fade In to Fade Out.

Now take a moment to revisit that title page. Are you suuuure that's the best name for your script?

What you focus on...ignites. (The simple shift that will change your 2024.)

Over the next few days, a lot of us will be thinking about resolutions and goal-setting and envisioning what lies ahead in the new year. Let me offer this guiding principle: What you focus on ignites.

You might read that, then think back on 2023 and say, “Uh, it certainly does not!” Maybe you had big wishes for 2023, and you know for sure you are not living those dreams right now.

To which I say: you may have wished for that thing, that experience, that turn of events…but what did you actively focus on in 2023? Were your thoughts, words and actions lasered in on that outcome? Or were they elsewhere instead? Deep in your heart, you may have longed for a new job, financial independence, a great romance or more. But in the course of each day, was your mind more set on:

Again, where was your actual focus? Because that is what you will manifest. The universe is moving in exactly the direction and at exactly the speed that you are. So if you’re all about “just getting by day-to-day” or “sticking things out a while longer,” then the universe gives you more things to survive. Or if you’re just sitting there, waiting for something good to happen, the universe says, “Oh, we’re sitting and waiting.” And it sits right there with you and waits.

More importantly, if you’re leading with or letting in thoughts on the limitations of life and the likelihood of failure, know that the universe doesn’t have time to parse out “negatives” and “nots” from your thoughts. As you focus every day on “not being stuck in this job,” or “giving up unhealthy habits” or “outperforming that ascending rival,” the universe doesn’t pause to strike out the “not being stuck” or the “giving up” or the “outperforming” parts of those thoughts. The universe is about nouns. So you just manifested yourself more of “this job,” “unhealthy habits” and your “ascending rival.”

The universe is moving in exactly the direction and at exactly the speed that you are.

From this moment forward, know this and live by it: you can’t successfully not do something. You absolutely have to move towards something, because moving away from something puts your focus on that thing, and you will only manifest more of it. Does that resonate?

As you face — and, I hope, embrace — the astonishing possibility of 2024, please, frame it enthusiastically in the affirmative. What will you feel? What will you do? Who will you become? What will you change and for whom? Make it as big and bold and amazing as you can! Then take one active step towards it each day. Each. Day. Read a how-to article. Connect with someone in that space. Take an e-course. (Use your library card for free newspapers, LinkedIn Learning classes and much, much more!). Learn, then list, the steps towards success — not as you wish them to be, but as information and relationships start telling you they actually are. Then take those steps. Get the molecules of agency bouncing all around you.

You absolutely have to move towards something, because moving away from something puts your focus on that thing, and you will only manifest more of it.

Move the universe.

One last thought if doubt starts creeping in about what might go wrong: I don’t believe in “be careful what you wish for.” I believe in “be ready for what you speak up, write down, think about and act on…because it is going to happen.” Of course, it rarely happens in the way you expected it to. And you may be well into the experience before you realize…wait, this is a manifestation of work I did. I created this. Along with the universe, of course.

It’s waiting for you. Begin.

Does your script’s page one indicate your script's a “page-one” (rewrite)? Here’s how to fix that.

Every week, the hardest part of reading a script is flipping from the title page to Page One. (Unless the title page itself is awash in various fonts and images. Or has a typo. In which case, much of my hard work already is done.) When I take the plunge and turn to that first page, I know what I’m excited to see: an intimate, distinct — and if it’s a comedy, laugh-out-loud funny — character reveal. I want to eavesdrop into a micro-moment in the main character’s day where they make a micro-choice that clearly demonstrates their core trait…and teases two upcoming things:

  1. What imminent Unexpected Change, what applecart upset, will thrust this character reluctantly into a New World where their core trait absolutely cannot succeed; AND
  2. How will this core trait, which they invariably lead with and cannot turn off, constantly cause them to be the Architect of their Own Demise (ideally for 100 episodes)?

Your protagonist’s core trait is the defining element of story. Absolutely everything revolves around, butts up against, and/or spins off from that North Star. First, your New World is defined by its diametric opposition to your main character’s central, governing trait. If your protagonist can succeed in the New World exactly as they are on the first page, then I have nowhere to take them. Survival in the New World won’t require them to learn lessons, grow, fall down, and pivot, so there’s no basis for conflict or character arc in the story. Second, your secondary characters exist only to create friction and growth opportunities for the main character. Their roles and traits must put pressure on your main character, so if there’s no core trait, there’s no magnetic center to build your other characters in reaction to. And finally, the thing that makes main characters both authentic and relatable is that they feel real. And real people have real dominant traits that really inform the really awesome to really awful things they really do. Those traits are why we really love, despise, long for and run from the people we encounter in real life. For real.

Your protagonist’s core trait is the defining element of story. Absolutely everything revolves around, butts up against, and/or spins off from that North Star.

Some glorious examples of classic page one protagonist gold include:

All right, we’re going to leave the deeper conversations about controlling female protagonists (and about the ending of LTWB — LOVED IT! FIGHT ME!)  to another post.

What I want to, long to, cannot wait to, am always thrilled to see on your script’s page one…is a small, simple, human moment in the main character’s familiar old world that showcases how they move, innately, through a space. What trait they lead with and fall back on the most. When I see that, I settle in for the read.

But I rarely see it. Instead, I see a lot of text on the page. Paragraph-long action lines. Sometimes detailed descriptions of shots, camera angles, posters on walls, and music lyrics. Always skylines for the city, and, inexplicably, quite often scenes of the character brushing their teeth. Pause on all of that for now. Just open one of your scripts and read the first page. Does your main character even appear? If so, do they make a character-revealing choice on that page? If so, does that revealed character trait directly inform and propel the rest of the script?

Open one of your scripts and read the first page. Does your main character even appear?

If not, that’s the opportunity for infusion of craft that lies immediately ahead. If you have a completed script, ask yourself what your character’s single, dominant trait is (or might be, if you’re not sure). Then go scene by scene through the script and precisely note which scenes are driven by that trait, which characters are in friction with that trait, and how the character shifts regarding that trait, however infinitesimally, near the end of the script. Make no assumptions or adjustments for things that don’t perfectly match. It has to be that exact trait in action on the page. And ideally, it shows up and starts driving the story on page one. In the course of this review, you will most likely find that your main character has absolutely no dominant trait that’s informing anything…or you might find that the character you thought you wrote became their own person on the page by the end of the script.

For example, if you saw LTWB, you’ll notice Amanda’s core trait is repeatedly articulated on the page/screen as “misanthropy.” So the new world would have to introduce human connection (and, spoiler alert, it certainly does), which would be a clear, organic core conflict. No misanthrope wants to be forced to intimately connect to others. However…to me, her choices and conflict most frequently were rooted in controlling outcomes. So, maybe she hates people as a consequence of not being able to control them? That’s why reviewing and considering what you’ve actually written, versus what you intended to write or believe you have written, is helpful and critical to developing your story.

Reviewing and considering what you’ve actually written, versus what you intended to write or believe you have written, is helpful and critical to developing your story.

One final note: your main character’s dominant trait-revealing choice doesn’t always have to appear precisely on page one. In sci-fi, fantasy and period pieces, writers first might briefly establish the culture and mores of their world or times, or briefly establish the “before-times” to give context to the new order and, more importantly, to provide necessary information to understand how the core trait of the character fits in this world. Then we narrow focus to a character-revealing moment and choice to anchor the story and hook the reader. In these genres, you’ll still need that choice to appear in the first three pages of a script, but please feel free to wow your reader by getting right into it on page one.

And if it’s not on page one? What I’ve learned from reading, literally, thousands of scripts, is that the script itself most likely is a Page One rewrite. Because if the most essential element of character — their core trait — isn’t yet on the page, none of the other elements of story and structure are anchored in anything. The script may be entertaining to read as a one-episode sample, but it’s not yet a 100-episode story…because those are guided, always, by a clearly drawn character with a central, core, dominant, governing, go-to, North Star trait.

Why your red-hot writing sample isn’t a shoppable pilot (YET)

I'm writing this on a Friday, and like many execs and producers across L.A., I’m facing my weekend read with apprehension. Not because of the height of the stack (typically smaller at this time of year), but because of the temptation of it.

I...LOVE...reading writing samples.

They’re like a literary first date with a writer. And unlike driving behind a stop-and-start delivery truck on a narrow canyon road en route to an L.A. restaurant that inexplicably has no parking lot in a restricted residential parking neighborhood, every writing sample offers the promise of something delicious: an unexplored slice of life, a relationship beat that resonates, a laugh-out-loud scene, the perfect cadence of that one character’s dialogue… That’s the role of the writing sample: to show how well, and how specifically, a writer captures character, voice, choices and moments on the page. The whole idea is to say, “See? Now imagine what I will do on YOUR project!”

To be clear, most samples in a given stack are decidedly NOT great. Maybe 1 in 30 will be. That’s the one that compels you past the first 10 pages all the way to the fade. And the next thing you know, you’re calling the rep (or following up on your waiver) to say, “Let’s meet.”

To be clear, most samples in a given stack are decidedly NOT great. Maybe 1 in 30 will be.

Why do I call? I’m always wildly curious about what motivated a writer to create a great writing sample. I want to ask tons of questions, see what else is underneath a character, a world, a moment, a sentiment I caught a glimmer of. And when those calls go well, and how I love when they do, sometimes I take an unexpected next step in the relationship and say: “I’d like to develop this.”

And this moment, like those dimly lit, parking-ticketed dinners, is where Producers are from Mars and Writers are from Venus. Because we often aren’t yet having the same conversation. The writer, and sometimes their rep, thinks I “really” mean: I want to take this script, as it is written, and start shopping it to my Rolodex (Gen X)/Contacts (Gen Y)/Out-of-Life-Balance, Aging Co-Conspirators (Gen Z. They’re not wrong). Or that I'll give them notes on a couple of passes and then take their script, again, pretty much as written, out to market. And no matter how clearly and repeatedly I explain my true intentions for their project, which I sincerely have feelings for, I very rarely succeed in explaining that we often will have to do a page 11-rewrite to transform said writing sample into a sellable pilot.

That’s because a writing sample delivers a one-episode character. Your great writing sample protagonist has a clear voice and memorable dialogue, moves with granular and escalating choices through a defined mini-mission, and/or showcases secondary characters vividly on the page. A sample’s goal is to demonstrate your skill as a writer, to close or wholly eliminate any gap between what I need done on my show and what you will be able to do on Day One of your hire. To shift you from “drive on” to “parking space,” from lunch at home to team lunch order…after team lunch order…to bringing your own lunch from home to the room.

A writing sample delivers a one-episode character.

Your great writing sample doesn’t have to worry about setting up the core trait of a protagonist that drives their every self-limiting choice…deftly building the authentic new world you’re going to drop them into so it constantly and increasingly conflicts with that trait…finely crafting distinct secondary characters and placing them in organic roles in that world to fully dimensionalize that protagonist…establishing the stakes, jeopardy and glue that will challenge your lead on their new mission…or weaving in a clear, relatable, resonant theme that guides them like a reluctant, recalcitrant, resistant little North Star on their way.

That’s because when you’re staffed on a project, the show’s creator(s), producers and executives already have done that work. They just need you to flow with the characters and world they’ve already fought the beautiful battles for.

They already wrote, shopped and sold…a PILOT.

A pilot absolutely has to unveil a 100-episode character. Not something entertaining in a single read; something absolutely undeniable in the vision it unfolds for a character season after season. (Okay, yes, our industry has changed, so your pilot may only make it to eight episodes before social media begins decrying its untimely demise, but it still needs 100-episode-level vision.) (Okay, okay, I also know you’re not going to make old-fashioned 100-episode residuals if it isn’t a broadcast show, but the creative rules of our “show” have not changed as much as the financial rules of our “business.”)

A pilot absolutely has to unveil a 100-episode character. Not something entertaining in a single read; something absolutely undeniable in the vision it unfolds for a character season after season.

A 100-episode character has to be clearly set up, on page one, with a singular and memorable, core trait-revealing moment. Then within the next few pages, that new world has to arrive. And the reluctant mission must begin. Meanwhile, each character must arrive organically, with their own mini-mission and traits and relationship dynamic, applying their specific pressure to the protagonist, starting their own dovetailing stories. The protagonist must fully arc in the episode, yet somehow only move a grain of sugar (or salt) towards evolution, so we have somewhere to take them...for 99 more episodes. And the single, solitary, crystal clear theme has to be established and sewn into the fabric of every scene and into the choices, wins, losses, escalations and retreats of our characters.

A great pilot is so well-executed that through its synopsis alone, a roomful of writers can instantly start pitching possible episodes and generate laughter, familiarity, tension and even tears because they all immediately know what these characters would do. Not what they did that one time, in your great writing sample, but what they will do 100 times, in an ever-evolving fashion, towards becoming better people and making the world a better place. (And before you say it, yes, even if it’s Walter White. Watch that series finale again.)

Of course, not every writing sample could be a great pilot, and not many great pilots start from writing samples. But in the event yours IS that great sample, and you’re ready for it to become a great pilot, the first step is to reframe. It’s not your premise, or the plot, or that one joke, or that moment everyone mentions, or the characters themselves that make a sample pilot-worthy. It’s the promise of one or a few of those things. And like all relationships, building out that promise and making it great will take dedicated work.

Or, you can shop and sell your sample as-is without doing all that work. It happens! But should you find yourself in development hell as a result, here’s a weekend read especially for you.

Why you're in development hell - and how to get out of it (or never go in)

Writers, there is a special place called "development hell," that is more accurately called "writer's purgatory." I want to tell you why it happens so you can see when it's looming ahead and avert the crisis in favor of a creative win.

Development hell happens because someone in the creative pipeline - a prod co, studio or network exec - saw something they liked in the premise or the plot of your pitch, and they said, "let's do this." (Not "I love it!" That almost never means what you think it means or what the actual study of English language literally means it means.)

That kernel of an idea was filled with promise, and docs were signed, and deals were flowed, and cash was likely not exchanged. And there you were "in development." (Aside: someone definitely told you or your reps this project wasn't ready yet, and you or your reps definitely just told them that it has gone into development, so there!)

Now come the notes. After the slow-motion pace of finalizing the agreement comes the surprise acceleration towards, "Okay, where are we?" That begins the push towards product. And in this industry, product is a treatment or a script. So everyone is going to urge you towards writing, and hear this deeply, "plot" because that's what you brought to the table that excited them. There then will be many meetings about "What if this happens?" or "Why does this happen?" and you will ponder and pitch ideas and go back to your initial pages and write more complicated and sometimes convoluted permutations of plot.

Everyone is going to urge you towards writing, and hear this deeply, "plot" because that's what you brought to the table that excited them.

And you will never emerge. After many months of this, you will be pushed to "go to script" to see if you can somehow "crack the story," and the notes will continue and the contradictions will surge, and your rep will Zoom-rub your shoulders, and you will be irritable and weary, and your prod co will be more irritable and weary, and your studio and network execs will remain oddly cheerful because the coffee is powerful and ever-flowing in those legendary buildings.

At the end of a year or so, the development term will expire, and the project will go quietly into that good night of turnaround or "we own it even if we don't want it but you definitely do not get to do anything else with it." And lutes will be strummed, and lore will say, "the writer couldn't crack it." (Really, it's the execs who will say this. And sometimes your rep, just never to you.)

Lutes will be strummed, and lore will say, "the writer couldn't crack it."

How do we record scratch this moment? We're not wondering how you got here; we know how you got here. Now, you will know, too.

You are in development hell because you led with premise or plot instead of characters. You pitched a series of scintillating sequential events instead of a compelling, complex character. You wrote, as I say, from the outside in. You wrote exciting things about "what happened to my character next" instead of grounded, revealing illustrations of "what my character inevitably did next." And you can't effectively develop plot points.

You can't. Develop. Plot points.

Plot is only meaningful as a manifestation of your character's values, desires, risks and changes. It is an expression of character, not a replacement for it. Without character, everyone is just debating ideas for events, in meeting after meeting - and without the anchor of a character, their core trait, their organic tension, every possible event is going to be considered a *viable* possible event. And you will chase those possibilities until the sand runs through to the bottom of the glass.

Plot is only meaningful as a manifestation of your character's values, desires, risks and changes. It is an expression of character, not a replacement for it.

You will not go into development hell if, before you ever pitch a thing, you do the deep, glorious, revealing work of finding, defining and forming a real character. That is the craft that will guide your project. And that is the reason anyone will ultimately watch your project. The world didn’t devour “Wednesday” for its depth of plot; they watched it for the astonishingly specific character (and the amazing performances). “Squid Game” would be a one note gore-fest without the beauty of flaws and arc of its perfect protagonist. You will follow him on that plane into S2, no matter where it takes him or you, because that character has you in a hold. And it’s not a scripted rule of craft either; social media is filled with reality show fans talking about cast member’s names and who they root for and against. Watch any award-winning doc and see how they root the story not in the literal events but in the characters who experienced them, what decisions they made, and how they changed for better or worse as a result.

Please, pitch characters, not plot. Develop character journeys, not plot points. And if a development opportunity comes your way, the very first meetings you and your rep must insist on having is a deep dive into and sign off on the protagonist and supporting characters. Not their physical descriptions, jobs and catch phrases. Their essential selves, true norths, conflict with the world.

What if you’re currently in development hell? You still can get out and back on track to a producible project. Temporarily stop trying to organically land aliens at the end of Act Two and schedule a character dive before you do any more plot pivots. Come to that meeting with your characters built out, arced and dynamic. Have that conversation as soon as you possibly can.

Temporarily stop trying to organically land aliens at the end of Act Two and schedule a character dive before you do any more plot pivots.

And that person who told you it wasn’t ready yet? Grab a coffee with them and see if they might remember or share their thoughts from way back when, because it may be helpful craft for your next foray into development.