Dave Trottier is my hero.
And you know how I obsess about heroism.
Dave’s been a real-life hero of mine since I managed to pick up a copy of his book, The Screenwriter’s Bible, back in grad school. In the book, he provides the most comprehensive, non-condescending look at screenwriting that I’ve found in one place. The content made a significant impact on how I write my screenplays, while his paternal-sage tone inspired the way I’ve interacted with my own students for years.
I had the extreme fortune of interviewing Dave awhile back, and so I share with you now our discussion. If you’re a writer, the interview’s chock-full of practical tips to advance your career. Enjoy!
Mark Ezra Stokes (MES): Thanks for letting me pick your brain, Dave! Though you’re now regarded as the final word on screenplay format, that’s not how you began. I understand that you began your adult life as a marketing exec with a degree in business administration. How did that business-oriented background later help your writing career?
Dave Trottier (DT): My marketing mind is a silent helper with writing decisions. It does not intrude on the writing process. I guess it’s a developed instinct.
MES: What aspects of business, would you say, should career writers or artists make the effort to learn?
DT: Writers and artists need to understand the business from the producer and buyer’s viewpoint. It helps with pitching and negotiating. It’s like dating; it helps the relationship to see things from your partner’s viewpoint.
MES: You don’t seem to have followed a standard formula for success as a writer, and yet you’ve made some really impressive accomplishments. These accomplishments (having your creative stamp on projects like Zorro, the Gay Blade, the Movie Magic Screenwriter software, and Script magazine, for instance) seem to organically flow from previous events in your life. If I were a beginning storyteller—whether writer or artist or other creative professional—where should I start?
DT: It really depends on where you are at already. If you are supporting a family, don’t let go with one hand until the other hand’s full. In my case, because I had a marketing background, I began writing copy for businesses and gradually moved into (what are seen as) the more creative areas.
MES: What, in your mind, are the most essential elements that launch a creative career?
DT: I think there needs to be a balance between writing what you love and making a living until the writing you love can make you a living. Don’t be too rigid about the path you take; an unexpected turn can eventually take you where you want to be or a new place you didn’t realize you’d love.
MES: You worked in development at Disney for a few years. Their studio, along with Pixar and a few others, are known for a specific “voice” in their stories. How might one learn to speak that particular language before submitting a spec script?
DT: If you are starting out as a writer, you’ll have a tough time breaking into Pixar and most studios. Sometimes it pays to think small, and sell to an indie or small production company or even mid-sized production company, and build up a reputation. Everyone’s trying to break in with a big budget blockbuster. Be sensible about the business. Of course, if you think you can write the mother of all blockbusters, write it.
MES: You’ve been the authority on screenplay structure since The Screenwriter’s Bible first came out (1994, I believe). Now that you’ve published the sixth edition, I imagine you’ve noticed trends come and go. Where do you see story formatting as whole—and particularly screenplay formatting—going next?
DT: There has been one main trend over the last 20 years in terms of spec writing (that is, writing on speculation you will sell it later). That trend is to simplify and focus on the story and characters. Avoid camera directions and technical directions. CAPS are hard on the eyes; only use them for character first appearances when writing narrative description. Sounds are optional. The desired length of a screenplay is getting slightly shorter, although the upper limit is still 120 pages. The basic formatting conventions have not changed much.
MES: Not only have you established the standard for screenwriting, but you’ve also made a name for yourself as a freelance writer. What are some of the most profitable markets for writers ready to start their careers?
DT: No area of writing is easy, but copywriting and business writing are not a bad starting place, although this area has more competition now than it used to have. You can try a little of everything. Sell some greeting card verses and make a bit of money to kind of push yourself forward. Article writing is also competitive and won’t make you a lot of money, but why not give it shot? Web series writing and the new media can be a ton of fun. Write a script for a regional market or one of the hundreds of cable outlets that need content. Check out the TV markets.
MES: Looking at your own scripts, I see quite a few aimed at children or families. Does that denote your own interests or rather who’s buying scripts? If it’s the former, what interests you about that demographic?
DT: It denotes my interests. I like to write uplifting material, and those areas seem to lend themselves to that. If there’s any “common comment” I get from producers, it is this: “Your script made me cry and I laughed out loud, but it needs an edge; it’s not hip enough.” [laughs] Of course, the last several years, I’ve had a difficult time breaking loose time to write screenplays. Everyone wants me to analyze theirs, and I enjoy teaching very much.
MES: What genres or styles of story tend to withstand what’s “hot?” Why do you think that’s the case?
DT: It varies. I recently read someone who said that the romantic comedy is dead. I don’t think it is, but who would’ve guessed that years ago? I don’t recommend you try to write for trends. By the time the script is done and you’re into the selling process, the trend is passé. Having established that, I can say that action, thrillers and romance have always seemed to be in demand to one extent or the other. And, of course, we’ll always have horror.
MES: In The Screenwriter’s Bible, you include a great section on pitching the essence of your story in a variety of circumstances. That’s what stood out, to me, from the other screenwriting books. What’s your most memorable pitch story? What did you learn from that experience?
DT: When the producer to whom I was pitching stopped me and said, “But when do I cry?” [laughs] That taught me that it’s about emotional response. Don’t be afraid to highlight the emotional beats in a pitch.
MES: So many of my own students have trouble finding the motivation or consistently making progress with their passion projects. Has that been a problem for you?
DT: The passion is there; it’s the time and other variables. Plus, I like to spend time with my wife and family.
MES: What do you do to combat those variables that bog us down as writers?
DT: Whenever a student tells me they can’t decide what they want to write for their first script, I ask them to summarize three ideas in a paragraph each. Then, I ask them which of the three they have the most passion to write. That’s the one to write because you need that passion to carry you through. Of course, the first one is the one that’s most autobiographical and it must be written before you can move on. After that first script is completed, you’ll know whether or not you want to be a screenwriter. To the reader: good luck and keep writing!
If you want to learn more from Dave, check out his annual Screenwriter’s Retreat at Sundance. It’s been on my personal wish list for years now. One day, when the stars align, I will attend. Check it out!
Also, if you’re a screenwriter, keep an eye on all that Dave’s got going on at his site, KeepWriting.com. To give you a feel of just how against the stereotypical cutthroat, cynical mold he actually is, check out where many of his proceeds end up.
Dave, thanks again for taking the time to answer my questions! I do hope my readers take advantage of your practical career advice, and I’m eager to see what happens next in your not-so-rigid-though-respectably-successful pathway!