How do I make it as a Career Screenwriter?

I just finished my first screenplay, and I know it is really good. I just need a chance to get in front of someone to prove it. I’ve tried to contact agencies, but got no response. I don’t want to give up my dream of a Hollywood career!

Any advice?

–Jim S., New York

The stock answers to the career question tend to be variations on “you have to pay your dues” or “you have to know someone.” I’m not a fan of either piece of advice, so let’s start by reframing those two old bromides into solid career advice:

Instead of “paying your dues”, which implies years of suffering and sucking up, master the craft of screenwriting by building a strong portfolio.

New writers fall in love with their first finished script. Don’t, because unless you are the genius of the century, it’s not very good. And if you ARE the genius of the century, your next screenplay will be even better. Start another one. Screenwriting is like writing poetry– it needs to be elegant, expressive and written in a particular (and very odd) style. Your learning curve is HUGE. Plan on finishing 5 or 6 scripts before you start looking for work.

Even when you have one great script, you’ll want a couple more in your back pocket for when the agent or producer asks the inevitable question “What else have you got?” The correct answer to that question? Your next best script.

To get all that writing done and to learn how to do it better, consider taking a class or two or six. I’m a fan of UCLA Extension, but there are other schools with good screenwriting teachers, and everything is on line these days. In class you’ll meet peers at your level. Trade scripts with them. Stay in touch. Share experiences. Learn and grow together.

Stop worrying about who you know, and instead learn how the business side of show business actually works. That is, what do real people, who make real movies and TV, look for in addition to writing talent?

First, they look for people who actually know what good writing looks like, in themselves and in others. For whatever reason, screenwriting seems easy to people. Nobody would show up at the New England Patriots front office and say “I caught a bunch of passes in an intramural game yesterday. I’m ready to play offense.” Yet the ratio of script inquiries established companies get is something like 97.5% wannabe to 2.5% actual talent. Naturally, Hollywood’s defenses are built up high.

In real life, you show up at the NFL in perfect shape. With your game films from a whole bunch of college games. With a coach that knows your work. Then you STILL have to prove yourself. When you talk to the offensive coach about football, you’d better know how the game works, on and off the field. You have to know what they’re looking for, and then give it to them.  Entertainment is exactly the same.

The answer to getting through the system is become a great writer, then learn enough about the business so you know what the professional expectations are. So you know what “great” really looks like. Learn by listening  to screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin on August’s podcast “Scriptnotes”,  a great source of both business and creative advice.  Read the trades (, etc.) Read screenplays (free all over the net) and books about screenwriting.

That way when you take your 5 great scripts to an agency or management company, you’ll know enough about their business to have an intelligent conversation about yours.

Hollywood is desperate for great talent and great stories– that’s why big-time screenwriters get paid a fortune. At the same time, we are desperate to defend ourselves from people who think they have “something big” but have not done the work to prove it. Everyone wants to work with professionals who know their stuff and can reliably tell a great story.

If you’re that person, you will definitely have a career.


The Structural Reason You Were Disappointed in Wonder Woman 1984

Wonder Woman 1984 Review**Spoilers here**

There are many reasons to be disappointed in Wonder Woman 1984. To name a few:

The rules of the no-good-very-bad wishing stone are, shall we say, fluid, and seem to change scene by scene. Anachronisms abound (Starbucks-style coffee sleeves! Full-color CRT monitors!) The bad guy looks much better when he’s wearing a suit of armor, but they don’t give him one. The hero does not, but they do. And worst of all: the filmmakers saw Cats and thought “Purr-fect! We must have those special effects for our next blockbuster!”

None of these disappointments would have mattered nearly as much if the movie didn’t commit the biggest sin in all of storytelling: cutting the legs out from under its hero at the most important moment of the film, leaving a giant structural hole no amount of ’80s art direction can fix.

A Hero’s decisions power a well-told story. If Bruce Willis (to stay in a Christmas motif) does not decide to climb the Nakatomi towers, there is no Die Hard. If he doesn’t decide to walk over broken glass to get to the top, we don’t feel his struggle. If he doesn’t decide to risk his life and use every ounce of his remaining strength to power his way through the climactic battle, we won’t care if he kills Alan Rickman.

The audience signs up for an emotional ride: to watch a hero gets themselves into trouble and then, through torturous, super-human struggle, back out of trouble. Living that struggle with them keeps us wanting to know how it turns out at the end. Whether they screw up or succeed. Live or die. The bigger the trouble and the harder they struggle, the more we care how they do. If they struggle and succeed, we feel great. If they struggle and fail, we are destroyed (in a very good way—that’s tragedy.)

But if the struggle is taken away from them, then we don’t care. We don’t empathize with the pain or feel the triumph. Instead, we feel like we wasted two and a half hours we’ll never get back. Which is exactly how you will feel after watching Wonder Woman 1984.

As clunky as the film is, at its heart is a very compelling dilemma: what if your biggest, deepest, most heartfelt wish came true– but the only way to save the world was to give that wish back? Worse, what if giving the wish back meant the death of the person you loved most in the world? That’s a really huge question, built for struggle and angst. It’s perfect for a massive, operatic, spellbinding, emotionally affecting story. We very much care how our hero gets through this one.

But when we get to the moment in the film where Wonder Woman realizes that her only way to save the world is to kill the man she loves (again)– the man she deserves to be with– the writers whiff the ball. Face to face with this wrenching dilemma, at the moment we want to see our hero take action, she doesn’t. Instead, the writers commit the cardinal story sin of taking the key story decision away from their hero.

In that big, emotional turning point of the film, Chris Pine’s not-the-title-character turns to Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and tells her he’s going. She whines. Then he tells her again. They kiss and she walks away. We don’t see her make the decision because she doesn’t. We don’t see her struggle. We don’t even see him die in this, what should be the most breathtaking, emotionally pitched moment of the film. She nods and walks away and he’s—presumably– gone.  And just like that all the air hisses out of this movie.

The filmmakers have taken a female icon, a SUPERhero, who in the first film single-handedly jumped out of a foxhole during a firefight, crossed no-man’s land and saved a French town—and let her boyfriend mansplain to her what she “has to do.” And she does it. This disempowers a woman who is not just the hero, but a superhero. And if she’s not the decider, why should we bother watching? We no longer care about what happens next.

This is not only a structural error, but a monumental, culturally tone-deaf structural error for a film about a female superhero. In the living room I watched in, everyone was angry– but especially the women who loved the first movie because it showed a just, powerful woman kicking serious ass on screen.

This isn’t the only film to undercut its female action hero in the climactic scene. My favorite example before this was 1994’s River Wild, in which Meryl Streep spends the film being tortured by Kevin Bacon, only to have David Straithairn pop up magically at the end to kill him for her. But of course that was 26 years ago.

It’s also not the only superhero movie to undercut it’s lead and weaken the film. When the big-money sequel pressure is on, it’s hard to stay the course and make a great movie.

Fortunately, even if the movie doesn’t work, it does provide Story 101 lesson for the rest of us. Let your hero get into big trouble, really suffer, and the audience will love you when she figures out how to get out of it– all by herself.

10 Tips for Great Holiday Video

Ah, Holiday memories.

Like the time you think your dad told a hilarious story– but you can’t hear him on the video.  Or the time young Sarah– or was it Matthew?– kept talking about “Santa Paws”.  Hard to tell which, because whoever’s face is too dark to see. And let’s not even talk about the video you shot of the lights and place settings and decorations and presents and…um…hardly any people at all.

Shouldn’t your Holiday video bring back memories… of the Holiday?   Of course it should.  And from now on it will.  Just follow these 10 tips for great holiday video:

1. Spare us the scenery: Holidays are about memories, and memories are about people. In ten years, nobody’s going to beg you to haul out “that great video—you know, the one with the fireplace and logs and stuff!”  But the one where Eric got Gretchen that sexy underwear and she poured eggnog over his head?  You’ll play that one a lot.  By all means shoot the lovely place settings, the tree, the outside of the house decked with menorahs—but remember that unless they’re really unusual this year, they’re each good for a maximum of 5 seconds of screen time.

2.  Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes: If our memories are about people, people are about their faces.  We don’t just talk with our faces, we show our complete personalities with what goes on in our eyes, our foreheads, those creases around our mouths. Remember the face, and you’ll remember the time. Another reason to focus on faces– your 4-year old daughter’s face will be completely different next year. And, sadly, so will yours.

3.  Zoom with your feet. Don’t shoot from across the room . Zoom lenses make your picture shaky, and the more zoomed your lens is the less light it sees. Instead, turn off the zoom and walk closer.  You’ll also get better sound—there’s no such thing as a zoom microphone.

4.  Change your angle: We tend to hold the camera at chest height all the time so we can see the monitor screen.  But that’s not always the best way to tell the story. Might you get a better view of the table full of relatives if you raise the camera over your head?  What if you get on the floor with the kids when they open presents?  Different angles make more interesting video.

5.  Ask questions:  And make them open-ended questions.  Not “Do you like the tree?” (answer: “Yes, Mom” then silence) but “Susie– tell me about where the tree came from” or “Grandpa, what was Hanukah like when you were little?” Don’t forget the interviews!

6.  Shoot first, yell later:  Which story are you more likely to tell—the time you had a perfect Christmas and everyone was very nice and polite, or the time your son “helped” the cat climb the tree and the whole thing fell over?  Misbehavior makes great video.  Unless someone needs first aid, make sure your camera doesn’t stop rolling until it’s over.

7.  Represent your kids: Your three-year old can’t tell you what to shoot.  But you’re a big part of his life—don’t forget to include yourself and your spouse in the video.  Then every once in a while think about what you wish you had video of from your childhood, and shoot that.  In 20 years your kids will be grateful for the memories you’ve preserved.

8.  Careful of tricky holiday lighting. Candlelight, strings of colored lights, crackling flames—all very lovely, but frequently insufficient for shooting. It’s fine to try the romantic firelight shot, but if it looks dark in the monitor it won’t get magically less dark later. Turn on the overheads, pull over a floor lamp or open a window shade—whatever it takes for you to see a sharp, clear picture on your viewfinder

9.  Use Ritual to your advantage:  What are the things your family always does?  Shoot at least a little of the annual trip to the tree farm, the out-of-control-latke party or family ice-skating debacle every year to make it easy to see how your family changes and grows over time.

10.  Don’t try to hide the camera: Kids (and many adults) may be camera-shy, but they’ll be much worse if they think you’re trying to trick them into being filmed.  Be obvious about shooting.  Soon they’ll get bored with you and start acting natural.

Last minute gift ideas:  Who couldn’t use a dozen copies of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck?  Now available in audio version too!

How to make Screencasts Interesting

How can I make great screencasts?

I am an educational technology trainer and have to make videos for teachers to show them basics of online tools like Google Classroom. Most videos/tutorials out there are dry, a person with their face in the corner going through the site and explaining. This is great when someone is seeking quick directions, but boring for people who need to be convinced that this is the right tool for them.

Any ideas? Thinking in shots is hard to do when the only shot is a computer screen.

Keri Haas

I’m with you on how boring screencasts are. But is it true that your only available shot is a computer screen? Just because your fellow screen casters are locked into that format, who says you have to be? If you literally think outside the box, it’s possible to make screencasts more interesting and informative. And shorter (which is almost always better.)

You do it by creating additional non-computer screen footage, and spending more time editing your finished product. The extra footage costs nothing to make, and using it lets you to accelerate the pace of your lesson, clarify points and make the video more watchable by cutting out the boring parts.

I’ll take you through it step by step, and you can see what I mean:

1) Prepare your screencast. But instead of thinking of it as the finished product, let’s think of the “person in a little box” part as your “master shot.” Your master will be the spine of your edit– the shot you’ll come back to to tell the story of this lesson to your viewers.

In this version of a screencast, we’re going to cut a lot. You don’t need to get everything live. Instead of preparing one long lecture, think in information chunks. What are the must-include pieces of information? What can you leave out? Try really hard to leave things out.

When you record this, plan on multiple takes. You can try to show things different ways, smooth out your performance, and pause to think knowing you’ll cut in the good stuff and drop the rest. Maybe you want to make a shot list of the important bits.

2) Shoot your Screencast. Instead of the usual setup, let’s go with two cameras this time. The first is your “normal” screencast. The second is shot with a second camera, simultaneously, of you in closeup. This full-screen cutaway of yourself allows you to talk right to camera, or re-explain points as you go.

The easiest way to do this if you have it, is the Quicktime app. You can record a movie at the same time you record your screencast using other software. Quicktime records only what the computer camera sees– no screen– giving you a closeup of yourself that you can cut to whenever you like.

If your setup doesn’t allow this, you can accomplish the same thing by recording with your phone. Just set it up to one side of the monitor as you screencast.

3) Create additional footage. Watch your master. Where does it drag? What’s unclear? Brainstorm fun ways to fix the problems. Since you’re in the biz, your ideas will be better than mine, but consider adding:

–“closeups” of the detail of a specific operation. Zoom your screen in and record typing into the search window, a mouse movement, a result.

–Ad footage from the tool you’re using to show where an advertised function lives

–Closeups shot with your phone of your hands doing things on the keyboard or mouse

–Quick intros and outros to your video shot on your front porch or as you drive down the highway.

4) Edit. Cut the boring stuff. Add fun shots. Tighten, tighten, tighten. You can add graphics, music and sound effects to your screencasts too– something I rarely see when I pull one up.

The result probably won’t do quite the box office of Spiderman:Far From Home, but you should end up with a tight, informative piece that makes viewers want to come back to you the next time they need a lesson.

Do you have a question? I bet you do! Ask it here.

How to Do a Zoom Meeting that Doesn’t Suck

Zoom call While there are plenty of posts on Video Meeting Etiquette out there, much of that advice is painfully obvious. (Pro tip: It’s painfully obvious advice if the words “you moron” perfectly complete the sentence. Like this one: “Unmute before you talk.” See what I mean?) As the pandemic wears on and it’s clear that video meetings are here to stay, it’s time to go a little deeper.

We just shot a series of commercials for Saatva via Zoom. This made sense as a) there is still no actual production here in LA and b) the spots were set in a video conference. Immersing myself in video meetings got me thinking about how to make the meetings better—perhaps in ways that don’t end with “you moron.”

1)    First Do No Harm: Video is an information-rich medium. Nobody can tell when you send your “can’t talk now i’m on a plane” text from your lounge chair at the beach. Phoning the boss from the bathtub? Kinky, but also your secret if you turn off the jacuzzi jets. But in a video call, a tsunami of extra information flows to your fellow Zoomers. In fact, that’s the prime benefit of video conferencing: you go beyond voice or text to share a (nearly) full range of in-person human information transfer. All that extra visual data makes your interaction feel more like real life. You can get to know people better, and get more done.

Unfortunately, it also shows everyone how well you applied your makeup, whether or not you’ve dusted the fake books in your bookshelf, if you’re sitting eagerly or as if this is one more video meeting than you can stand. That stain on your shirt communicates things you might not have intended or desired. To use video’s information-rich signal right, you need to control the information you transfer.

Start with pre-production, just like they do on a real movie. Once you’re set up, hit record on Zoom or Quicktime and shoot yourself talking for a full minute. I know this is awkward for everyone except actors, TV hosts, and narcissists but it’s the only way to see yourself as others will see you. When you play it back, you will see problems. But that’s good—you can now fix them! Take out the obvious mistakes and you have a shot at being remembered after your meeting for something other than having spinach in your teeth.

2)    Lighting is an emotional tool: Once you’ve fixed the obvious, it’s time to level up. That so-so lighting you saw in your test shot will not magically change when the call starts. Lighting in film shows people where to look in the frame and sets a mood. Yours should too.

To make sure they see you clearly, add light from the front.  Some folks buy ring lights that clip to their monitors, but dragging lamps around and opening and closing the shades works just fine with a little practice. To make sure you don’t get lost in a busy background or blend in with your greenscreen, place another light behind you and to the side. Aim it to hit the back of your head and one shoulder. This will make you pop off the background.

When you’re done, see (by recording again) how your lighting feels. Tinder dates and cocktail meetings can look a little moodier, but most business meetings call for an “open and relaxed” mood. If the shadows on your face make you dark and mysterious, add more light to fill them in. Ditto if your face looks overly red. Are you blown out and blotchy-white? Close the blinds a bit or move your light farther away.

3)    Wardrobe is Character:  Business or t-shirt is up to you, but remember that clothes communicate information about you. Make sure it’s what you want to say. Beyond style, look at color and mood– If you are the same color and exactly as bright as what’s behind you, you’ll look washed out and boring. Try a contrasting top.

You CAN wear pajama bottoms to a video call, but actors know that the way clothes look and feel affects your performance, even when you can’t see them in the shot. You will feel different if you dress all the way. Try it for your next important meeting– you may be surprised.

4)    Backgrounds Tell Stories: On a recent call, the guy I was meeting sat in front of a bookcase. Pretty normal. Except on one shelf, next to the mystery paperback section, was an assortment of rags, cleaning supplies and bleach. I did not ask if he was a serial killer disposing of bodies, but I wanted to.

If your background is cluttered, clean it up. Or move your location for a better shot. If you can’t find something great, try a blank wall. If you don’t like the wall, try keying in a static custom background, like a wide photo of your old office. Consider what the background is saying about you before choosing, say, a moving roller coaster video.

5)    Don’t Shoot Until You See the Whites of Your Eyes. Viewers look at your eyes as you speak. That’s because the muscles around your eyes show subtle emotional cues, let people know you’re listening, even help them know when to jump into the conversation. If your eyes aren’t clearly visible, move your camera closer until they are. The more face you have in the game, the more presence you have in the meeting. The more people in the meeting (and the smaller those boxes get) the truer this is. You may have to move the monitor closer than you expect. This will feel odd at first, but you’ll get used to it.

6)    Know your eyeline. Here’s some terrible advice: one article I read insisted that you should look directly at your computer’s camera when you talk. First, this is nearly impossible to do without looking like a deer in the headlights unless you’re a trained TV host. Second, staring at the little green dot causes many people to lose their train of thought. Finally, you won’t see anyone’s reactions to what you’re saying. Which is the whole point of communicating via video call.

Instead, drag the video window so it’s right below your computer’s camera. Because the camera lens is very wide, it will make people feel pretty much like you’re looking right at them. It’s not perfect, but everyone’s used to it, and it’s better than blanking in mid-speech.

7)    Frame up nicely. There’s no point having 3 feet of useless space over your head. Having half your face cut off on one side is a look, but is it YOUR look? Reposition your monitor until you fill the frame nicely. You do not need to be perfectly centered.

8)    Don’t Mute Your Mic. Of course you should mute in a webinar, or if the trash truck suddenly shows up under your window. But it’s a last resort, not a go-to move. If you have sound issues, your go-to move is to someplace quieter. The noise-reduction in Zoom et al. will cover you for minor room tone. Muting/unmuting is an unnatural act, as you’ll learn when you’ve been talking for 20 seconds before you realize nobody can hear you.

9)    Always Use an External Mic. Vocal tones impart lots of subtle information. For better presence and maximum communication, always use an external mic. Fancy USB headsets are great, but your phone earbuds will do the job. The point is: Mic close to mouth. Always. Any noise between your mouth and the computer screen gets sucked into your computer’s automatic level controls and amplified. Wind, kids, washing machine—they all mix with your voice to make you seem farther away. Nothing undercuts your brilliant point about the marketing budget like saying it in a tinny, garbled voice.

10) Have fun. Video lets you do things you can’t do on the phone, or in person. A funny background loop or a well prepared screen-share joke can break the ice. You can (for real) do the meeting from the top of a mountain or on the veranda of your farm. All these things add information, and if the information is that you’re creative with a good sense of humor, why not?

Note that pre-packaged Instagram-type masks and funny hats (and roller coasters) do not communicate creativity because they are, you know, pre-packaged. Everyone’s seen them. You are only allowed to use them a) ironically and b) among real friends. Who will still snap a screen shot to embarrass you with later, but it least they won’t cost you the deal.

Do I Need to Know the Act Breaks in a Movie?

I’m from Poland. Sorry, for my English. I read your article about Arrival after seeing the movie. I was wondering about three-act structure of this movie. Could you tell me in which minute – in your opinion – are the act breaks for act I, II and III? I’m have a trouble to do this. For me:

I act ends at 41 min – after Louise return from the spaceship – “kangaroo” scene

II act = 92 min – after they get in contact with aliens

III act is about stopping China from attack on aliens

What do you think? Is it good understanding?


Great job on the English, Michal, and a good question. I can’t answer it, I’m afraid, but explaining why not leads us to another great question: Why is “three act structure” still a thing at all?

Applying a three-act structure to screenplay analysis was popularized by Syd Field. His book Screenplay launched the “how to write a screenplay” book business over 40 years ago. It’s a perennial best-seller, and has plenty of fans. My sense is that most fledgeling screenwriters buy a copy, and that most pros haven’t looked at theirs since they were just starting out. There’s a reason for that.

Field’s observations about how classic Hollywood films are structured opened the eyes of many new writers about story, but it confused even more of them. Finish Screenplay and, for a time, you’ll be obsessed about which page act breaks are on, and where the “plot points” are and on what page the “inciting incident” happens. Which, per your question, can seriously confuse people. (screenwriters don’t love numbers, generally speaking).

The book also gave formula-loving film executives license to become “story experts” on the structure of your film. (Are we 20 minutes in? Must be the end of Act 1!) In the first decade or so after the book came out you could set your watch by the beats of big commercial films– if you were still awake enough to check it.

Field was right that screenplays are a unique art form. Screenplays are structure- though he also wasn’t the first to say that– (William Goldman was. More about him in a moment.)

But it’s not helpful to pretend that screenwriting is as rigid a form as, say, haiku. All stories need a beginning, middle and end, but you don’t have to write too many screenplays to realize that page numbers don’t magically tell you where to turn a plot. As the writer, you need to deeply understand what structure works for an individual story, and for your particular way of telling it.

Field confuses new writers because it’s a super-simple formula applied to something that’s really very complex. Screenplays always tell more than one story, and each story has its own beginning, middle and end that don’t align themselves to made-up page numbers. The more complicated those stories become, the harder and more pointless is it to try to hang your film on a mechanical formula.

Since I’ve written a lot here about Arrival, let’s use a different example and try to find the “act breaks” in The Princess Bride:

The Princess BrideWilliam Goldman’s script, expertly directed by Rob Reiner, is of course about a Grandfather who tries to win the love of his sick 10-year-old grandson. Oh– that’s not the story you remember from the film? Hmmm.

Okay. The Princess Bride is about a man who as a young boy saw his father killed by a six-fingered man and now seeks revenge. No? Try this: It’s about the Dread Pirate Roberts, coming ashore to find his successor and pass down the business. Or a woman so convinced she’ll never love again that she decides to kill herself. Or a corrupt Prince trying to start a war, or a Hero rescuing his former love from the clutches of said Prince.

Or maybe The Princess Bride tells the sweeping tale about a poor servant boy who falls in love with a rich girl, loses her when he’s kidnapped and she agrees to marry a prince, finds her again and rescues her, reveals himself to her and rescues her again, loses her again when he’s captured, almost dies, and then finds her and rescues her yet again. That, by the way, is seven acts, not three.

The Princess Bride is about all of these stories, all at the same time. As an exercise, I recommend tracing each story through the brilliant script and see how they work in the overall film. The beginnings of most of these stories happen somewhere in the first 30 pages, although the Six-Fingered Man doesn’t get a mention until page 34. The main love story starts on page 4, then lies dormant for 44 pages before the boy and girl reunite on page 48– and, as mentioned, has 7 acts. More surprises await you– check it out!

Then do the same thing with Arrival, which is even more complicated because it has at least 6 main stories centering just on Amy Adams’ character and which may or may not have something to do with one another. And they all jump around in time throughout the film. Which means you see things at the beginning of the film that tell the ends of some big stories– only you don’t realize that until the end of the film. We’re talking “bending the spacetime continuum” complex.

Where the “acts”  break in a film isn’t a fact, it’s a discussion. Your analysis of Arrival is fine, from one point of view. But I could argue 12 other POVs with you over beers. That’s a good thing, because (a) beer, and (b) we would deepen our understanding of how to construct a film and why Arrival works.

To make a film or video, you need to understand its story(s) well enough to see and feel the how it affects the audience. What is each character’s goal? How do they start, what do they do in the middle? Do they get what they want or not, and why is that the right thing to happen? How does this character’s story relate to this other character’s story? What happens when they meet?  That’s important. Which page is the “Inciting incident”? Not so much.

Story structure– beginning, middle, and end– is a critical tool in film and video. But only because it helps us with what we really care about: Does my story feel right? Will the audience enjoy the ride?

Beyond that, don’t look for rules in art. There aren’t any.


PS: Did you know you can buy the Polish translation of How to Shoot Video that Doesn’t Suck wherever fine Polish-language books are sold? Did you also know that I have no control over foreign-language covers? Now you do.

Polish Language version of "how to shot video that doesn't suck"

Adding a Story After the Shoot

I bought your book last Saturday and have already read most of it!  I have a question about creating a story for a book-signing that I shot on Saturday to promote my friend’s new book.

Using your story formula, I know my hero is the author. But what’s the story? Should the video tell the story of how she breaks into a new genre of writing?  Or should it focus on the story of her book?  I’m confused.

Can you help me get to step two with my video?

Babs Hogan
Arlington, TX

Thanks for reading the book, Babs. Great that you happened to be shooting at a bookstore!

The “formula” you’re talking about isn’t really mine.  It’s some guy named Aristotle. He said that every story has to have a hero, a beginning, middle and end.  And you can use his simple story structure no matter what story you want to tell.

Even though you’ve already shot your footage, it will still make a better video if you find a story. Story functions as an “organizing principle,” helping us arrange our thoughts in a way that makes them easier to share and easier for others to remember. You aren’t the first to have a pile of footage in front of you without a clear story– half the reality shows on television are built that way. And yes, it’s better to know your story up front because it will guide your planning, your shooting and your editing. But hey, stuff happens.

To help build story after the shoot, first load your footage into an editor and see what you have. Editing programs let you “bin” footage, or set it aside by topic, so in this first round, keep only the shots you like. No wrong answers- just do it by feel. Make three piles called (and this will shock you) “beginning”, “middle” and “end.”

Now go through each pile, cut out all the shots that you don’t like (again, just doing this by feel), and play down what’s left. As you watch, brainstorm a list of possible stories. Again, no wrong answers, just see what’s there. Are there any shots that feel great as a start? What is the footage in the middle about? What shots definitely grab you for an ending?   Brainstorm a list of story themes the footage suggests.

For example, is there a lot of footage about “an author signs books”? Maybe you shot her (beginning) arriving at the store, (middle) sitting behind the table, shaking hands and signing books, and (end) thanking the owner. Or maybe the footage shows the “author is nervous about the signing.” Did you cover her at home before the event? (beginning), hands trembling as she puts on makeup and describes her fear (middle), her arrival at the store and reluctance to even get out of the car (more middle), and (end) the smile that lights up when 50 people applaud as she’s introduced. If she gave a talk, is that a story? Can you build something around her three key points?

Once you have a theme– “Author’s Nerves” or “High School Boyfriend Shows at Book Signing” or “People Ask Authors Strange Questions”– and a few beats for beginning, middle, end, use the best of the rest of your footage to support it. If you discover multiple story options, you’ll enjoy the whole process more if you choose the one that’s most entertaining to you. You can’t go wrong– any story is better than no story.

Another tip for stories assembled in the edit: you can shoot more footage! There’s no rule preventing you from editing a story, seeing what footage you’re missing, and then going out to shoot it. TV and films do it all the time. Can you get “b-roll” by re-shooting the drive to the store, or hands taking her book out of the in-store display? Can you do a new interview with the author or the store manager? If so, focus those interviews to highlight the story your footage is now telling.

If all else fails, try this: Put the footage in chronological order. Cut out all the bad shots. Add a title. Be done. You’ll have will have a chronological beginning, middle and end for a story called “My friend’s book signing.” While it might not be Netflix-worthy, it will still be a good record of the event, fun to watch and worth posting.

Good luck!


Don’t Start Your Video Marketing Conversation with SEO

video marketing does not equal data managementGoogle “video marketing” and you’ll get—as of this writing—2.63 BILLION hits. That’s way more than Kim Kardashian (266 million), weed (382 million), Donald Trump (1.4 billion) and, surprisingly, porn (also 1.4 billion).

Books, articles and videos (and more videos) offer you “21 Video Marketing Tools” or “5 Super Secrets” or “8 super-successful tips” every video marketer should know, all of which revolve around data manipulation: jacking your view count, tracking prospects, a/b headline testing, the latest changes to the YouTube algorithm, and reams and reams on Search Engine Optimization schemes.

Scrolling through this mass of information, you could be forgiven for thinking that all you need to know about video marketing is how to force people to click on a video by whatever means necessary—buying views, SEO, banner ads, influencers, social media, click-bait headlines and more.

But something’s missing from this data-centric rush to get people to see your video. Our emphasis on getting clicks skips past a much more important question: What, exactly, are you asking people to watch?

80% of Americans carry tiny computers in their pockets, and they stare at them an average of 4 hours a day. Nobody watches bad video- ever- because they don’t have to. Fingers poised above the screens, smartphone users can instantly watch almost any piece of film or video ever created. People have become experts at judging, in seconds, what’s worth their attention.

You know this is true, because “people” is you. That’s your finger hovering over the screen of your phone, deciding if a video lives or dies. You’re the one clicking “skip this ad” ahead of your YouTube unboxing video, or wondering just how long this boring testimonial video about a real estate lawyer is and whether maybe instead you should watch the next episode of Stranger Things. Or this new song. Or comedy special. Or cat video.

You’re the one who takes about 3 seconds to decide if the video playing on your screen is attention-worthy. Because in today’s infinite entertainment universe, there’s always something better on.

Your video marketing content is constantly being evaluated by its audience. And it’s not being compared to content from your fellow lawyers, software companies or real estate agents. It’s being compared to stuff from Disney, NBC/Universal, Netflix, Amazon, CBS, AT&T, Fox, Discovery- and every other on and off-air network ever created. Like it or not, that’s who you compete with for attention.

If you’re starting your video marketing strategy meetings with SEO and data points, you’re doing it wrong. No matter how you trick your customers into clicking on your video, if they don’t love it they’re not going to watch it.

To get attention, you need to pay attention—to the entertainment and information needs of your audience. This is creative work, not data crunching. Start with your existing customers and on-line visitors. Work to translate into video what your brand means to them, and then give your customers something of value to watch (Hint: if you love it, you’re on the right track. And vice versa.)

There’s a right time to use data, SEO and influencers.  It’s last– after you figure out how to say something valuable to your customers. Great video marketing always starts with content.