Award Winning Screenwriter Corey Mandell Shares Priceless Wisdom on Scriptchat

Yesterday I was lucky enough to stumble into the US #scriptchat session and read with great interest Corey Mandell‘s tips and shared wisdom about screenwriting.

When I was in L.A. I had taken the habit of following and sometimes participating to the #scriptchat Sunday’s meetup, a great opportunity for screenwriters to talk to professionals and peers within their community. I cannot recommend it enough and last night proved to be another great example of this community’s power.

Because I feel what Corey shared is particularly interesting I have regrouped his longer/more detailed answers into paragraphs that you can read below. If you would like to read the full twitter transcript of last night’ scriptchat meeting, you can click here.

Also, keep in mind everything Corey said was via tweets. I find the length and depth of his answers admirable and impressive.


Q: @SarahAlexis4: What are some ways you suggest writers can keep you engaged/not bored when you’re sitting down to read a script?

A: One of the smartest things anyone ever told me is that this is an energy transference business… If you are not 100% engaged when writing it, the reader won’t be either… And of course, it all comes down to the most compelling characters AND story. For more on that 

Q: @JimNewman75: is there a new trend where the critical 10-pager has been consolidated to a new critical 3-pager?

A: I worked as a studio reader and have many students who do so now… Your writing ability will be judged by the first 2 pages. If you are deemed someone who truly knows how to write in compelling conflict and great characters, a reader will in there. If not, the game is over that quickly.

Too many people teach that you have to HOOK them with the story by page ___ This is not true. You have to hook them with your writing ability right away or it’s over. You need to hook them with your writing ability right away or it’s over. Here’s the thing, if I read a great opening scene, it doesn’t mean the entire script is great BUT if the opening scene isn’t great, I KNOW the script isn’t either.

People make the same structural mistakes in scenes that they make in scripts. So a reader can tell a lot from your opening scene. I recently brought in my agent from WME to my class and asked him how many writers trying to break into the business can write scenes that grab your attention and want to make you keep reading and he said 1 in 200… Yet most writers think they can write great scenes and it’s story structure that is keeping them from success. Industry gatekeepers would disagree.

Q: @FilmTony: how do you measure readiness?

A: The BIGGEST mistake writers make is going out to the industry before they are TRULY able to write AMAZING material. Everything is covered and databased/shared. 95% of scripts get coverage that hurt the writer and that follows them around like a bad credit score. Don’t be in a rush to break in. You only get one first impression. I know this is much easier advice to give then to take (and I was in too much of a rush to break in myself, I just got lucky). If you feel impatient about breaking in, a great book to read is Mindset by Carol Dweck. Only book I make all my students read.

I was so lucky in film school to have a manager take me under his wing and answer that for me. He told me that when I write a script and read it, a movie plays in my head. And when someone else reads it, a movie plays in their head. Most writers assume it’s roughly the same movie. He taught me how to ask specific questions to figure out the movie other people were experiencing and WHY it was different from the one playing in me head and how to rewrite to close off the gaps. He told me 99% of writers go out with scripts that they would be shocked to discover the movie playing in the reader’s head. Always a far less compelling movie than one in the writers head.

He said NEVER show anyone in the industry any script until you have tested it and know your movie is playing in other people’s heads. Once I changed my teaching to show my students how to do this, their success rate significantly increased. One of the main jobs of a writer is to learn how to write in a way where total strangers can fully experience the movie that you experience. Very few people can actually do this. They tend to be the ones with careers.

Q: @JimNewman75: How can a newbie have their work tested? What’s the most effective approach: paid coverage?

A: NO, that’s the problem with paid coverage. They give you notes on the movie that played in their head. That’s often a waste  I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve worked with that have ruined their scripts because of that. For example, [two screenwriters] were told their ending doesn’t work and they throw it out and come up with a less compelling version. But when I ask them to tell me the story that plays in their head with their original script it’s clear they have a great ending, but no one else is able to see it because of problems with the build. So instead of fixing the real problem (the builds) they throw out a great ending. All because they paid someone to give them notes on the movie playing in their head. When I work with someone, first thing I do is have them walk me through the movie playing in their heads. Most of the time, it’s very compelling but isn’t playing for the reader. I see my job as helping the reader understand why this is the case and how to rewrite it so others can see their movie as clearly and passionately as they do.

I can see why Mindset works well for screenwriters because they visualize the story from beginning to end. Most writers don’t do that. It’s an unnatural way to write for most. The key is to learn how to do it and then learn how to make it feel natural. I’ve seen writers accomplish this in a few weeks, others take 4-6 months. Depends on how naturally intuitive they are. The more intuitive (and thus, the better they naturally are at characters and dialogue) the harder it usually is to learn to write in conflict. So the writers who naturally write the best characters and dialogue are the ones who are usually the worst at being able to have total strangers experience their movie. That’s a real shame.

A lot of very intuitive writers keep failing and quit, thinking their stories aren’t interesting to others when the reality is most readers can’t experience their stories. And if they could, they very might love them. I teach them how to write in strong compelling conflict, I teach them how organically escalate that conflict, how to turn off the conceptual chatter/judging and discover their best possible characters and how to integrate those characters into the conflict. I also teach organic structure and how to TEST your material to see the movie playing in other people’s heads and how to rewrite your script so others can experience your movie. And I help people detox from all the rules and formulas they are using to destroy their chances of success. My classes focus on process, on subplots… I was hired out of film school by Ridley Scott to write Metropolis. It was my first ever gig and I learned far more from Ridley than film school. One of the things I learned was how to figure out and articulate what the story was about at it’s core. And that ALL subplots had to support this. Most writers fail to do this and it feels fragmented.

Paddy Chayefsky said he feels sorry for writers who don’t know what their story was about. He spent a year writing scene after scene of Network until he could figure out what it was about. And until he knew that, he didn’t know what belonged in and what didn’t. He eventually realized it was about, “How to live your life, when you live in a world that no longer values human life?” and everything in that script is about that. No exceptions. Once we figured out what Metropolis was about, Ridley wouldn’t let me put anything in it that didn’t directly connect to this. The professional writers I do consults for write this way. Most amateurs don’t because it isn’t being properly taught. And it’s also REALLY hard to distill your script into a single, clear what’s it about and have the discipline to stick to only that. Not easy but essential.

Q: @Jeannevb: when you’re done discussing conflict, perhaps some words on subtext or subplots?

A: In terms of subtext… It’s the unspeakable. That’s the key. There’s a reason it won’t be said. Too many writers create subtext for the sake of subtext and it comes off feeling fake. Conceptual writers force subtext. They need to train themselves how to turn off the conceptual part of their brain and write characters and dialogue from the intuitive part and the subtext part takes care of itself. The problem is most teachers are very conceptual and try to give conceptual rules for writing subtext which is silly. And intuitive writers know how to create great characters but don’t know how to have anything interesting happen to them. Thus, the need for creative integration 

Q: @methinks2much: Is moving to LA a must?

When you’re in the writer development phase, you can live wherever you want. When you are a big time established writer, you can live where you want (unless you’re a TV writer) But when you first get an agent/manager and are in the take a bunch of relationship meeting stage, it’s really helpful to be here. If not, at least be able to come out for a week a month. But those relationship meetings are always rescheduled last minute. Executives always have fires crop up to deal with so big advantage for writers living in LA.

About the “Popular Paradigm”

Nobody has asked about writing to the popular paradigms, but this is one of the biggest mistake newbies make. For more info…  I just had 3 WME agents tell my class that if you’re writing to these formulas we can’t rep you And in the last year I’ve had more and more agents send me clients to ‘de-formulize’ them.


Once again, a massive thanks to Corey Mandell and the Scriptchat’s treefort!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Pingback: Emma Coats on Finding, Keeping, and Nurturing Your Voice

  2. I clicked through to his blog to read his advice about structure, but it doesn’t look like he ever wrote the fourth post. Too bad!