Friday, January 2, 2009

Screenwriting with Leslie Ann Sartor

I'm excited to introduce Leslie Ann to Seekerville! I met Leslie when I first became a member of Colorado Romance Writers YEARS ago. She wrote awesome Romantic Suspense back then : ) Now Leslie is a contracted, award-winning screenwriter with lots of tips on the film writing industry to share with us.

Morning Leslie!

Morning Audra. Thank you for having me here at Seekerville. I'm honored, you have an incredibly talented bunch of writers here.

How long have you been writing fiction and screenplays?

Oooh! Really, I have to date myself? Then, because you insist, since I was about 4 years old.

You mean writing for a career? Since the 90s'. You can tell I'm obviously one of those writers who has experienced that meteoric rise to fame. LOL. Well I thought it would happen that way, don't we all have that hope?

You wrote romantic fiction for many years and were quite successful. What made you think about writing scripts?

This is why you're my BFF. My novels did do well in contests, thanks for reminding me, you tend to forget those things when you keep plodding onward.

Screenwriting was always a goal of mine, or something to do with movies--as a kid living in the Pacific Palisades, movie stars were abundant, we saw them at the market, the gym, mom knew a lot of them by first name...but moving to Colorado made that goal seem unreachable.

Then several things happened, and I was open to them. The internet made it feasible to live away from the heartland of movie making and I found an incredible mentor, Robert Gosnell, who moved from the Hollywood scene to Colorado, continues to sell, and better yet, wanted to teach, to pass on his experience and knowledge... so here I am, in Boulder CO, writing screenplays with contacts all over the world.

Are there special tools or programs you use, or can MS Word and other popular word processing programs be modified?

You can modify your existing word processing program with tabs and Macros, but it always looks unprofessional in my opinion. And often that will be the kiss of death. There are more screenwriters in the world trying to sell than novelists, that I think I went from the frying pan way into the fire!

Currently I'm using Scriptware, but I think the industry standard is now Final Draft. The dedicated programs solve so many issues with screenplay formatting--which is very precise. Furthermore they allow the production team to break down the script and pull the info each department needs; lighting, time of day, interior/exterior shots, characters per scene or conversely, scenes with particular characters. All of this is vital information for the production team.

As novelists, we have many more words to work with than screen writers. How do you convey emotions and tone without the room for all the narrative?

You know that is one of the hardest things I've had to adapt to--the lack of words. I do miss the ability to write longer scenes, but in novels I'm finding even those long elegant passages with all sorts of imagery that we used to devour are now nearly a thing of the past.

Every word in a screenplay must do at least double duty...triple or quadruple duty if you can find a way. The dialogue has to convey emotion, or lack there should have subtext and it has to move the story along. Not an easy task. But it's absolutely a must. See my blog on this at:

You also learn visual vocabulary and find physical proxies to take the place of expository dialogue, to SHOW what the character is thinking, is doing.

Can you tell us how getting contracted to write a screenplay is different than receiving a contract for a book?

The contract for Cry of the Dove (adaption of Mother of the Pound, a non-fiction book) was concrete proof that someone thought I could write a script that was sellable.

I still remember every detail of the interview, the long contract negotiations and when it was finally signed, the overwhelming fear that I couldn't do it. And then I remember after the last rewrite was completed, sitting around the author's dinner table, with the development team and Jeffrey Reiss (MOW ABC movies) standing up, toasting me and all of us, saying, "we have a movie on our hands." I was absolutely speechless.

As an aside. I was lucky, my husband is an attorney and conducted the intense negotiations for me. I would have caved far earlier. During the process it became obvious that one needs to find a professional to be your negotiator, allowing you to concentrate on what you as a writer can do best, write. Attorneys, agents and managers know what to look for, they have learned how to be tough, hold 'em, fold 'em.

A contract in screenwriting is paid out differently than a contract for a novel. You get a portion, generally a third of your money when you sign, then another portion when the first draft is done, then the last portion when you turn in the rewrite.

Future rewrites can be negotiated. If you're an A-list writer you can negotiate points on the gross/net of the movie. Now, what I've mentioned above is fairly standard for WGA (Writers Guild of America) signatory productions. Non sig's usually can't hire WGA writers because of the union restrictions. Note I say usually ;) My contract was non-sig, but we wrote the contract using the MBA (minimum basic agreement) of the WGA.

There are so many elements of screen writing that would benefit the novelist. Could you list some and tell us how it would help our writing?

Subtext, action, movement! Movies move. Novels are beginning to move more. This is an interesting aside, but while talking to a director/producer in Israel for Cry of the Dove, it was revealed that the audience is far different there than that in the US. The Israel audience wants everything to move quickly. I asked why, and he thought it was because there is so much conflict and uncertainty there that people just want to be quickly entertained, and then are on to the next part of their life. News is delivered quickly, movies are fast paced.

If you can, remember while writing that the story has to move, always move onward, upward, downward. A great way to accomplish that is to create tension and conflict on every page, then you'll have a page turner and a long lived career. I know this is stuff we've all heard before, but it's so true and oh-so-hard. I think Donald Maass' book "Writing the Breakout Novel" has a lot of great advice on writing conflict.

If you can find ways of visualizing your scene before you write it and then use the objects in the scene to show WITHOUT explaining what is happening, you're a huge step ahead. A master at that is Nora writing as JD Robb. In a blog post on the Five Scribes blog,, I talked about that very thing

Now in screenwriting, we minimally set the stage and the stage dressers do the rest, but if it's important we can highlight the object by using caps, and if the director agrees, there will usually be a second or two focus on the object. It's almost a prompt. If you see it, you know it'll be used somehow in the movie. You know we've all seen those. Well, writing a novel you can use prompts as well, just think about what will give the most bang for the buck what shows us that we're in the future, or in England, or a ranch high in the Rocky Mountains.

Emotion. The object, the primary goal of a movie is to make you feel, not just watch the actors on the screen. We want you to feel the terror, the love, the triumph along with the actor/s on the screen. That's when you leave the theatre FEELING like you've just experienced something different, something thought provoking, something wonderful.

Dialogue. Vital.

It's been said a million times, but read it aloud and try not to use INFLECTION and see if you're getting those points across without being "too on the nose." Sometimes you'll need expository dialogue, but try, and try hard to eliminate from your writing. It's hard, but it's vital in a screenplay and will only help the pace of your novel. Another trick we use is to have the script read by actors, to see if their inflection is what we were aiming for. You can do this by having someone who doesn't know the story read parts aloud. Listen carefully and see if you're getting the emotion you're striving for.

And of course, Show, don't tell. Movies are all about SHOW. If you have too much dialogue, you'll lose the viewer, who doesn't have the ability of re-reading a passage to make sure she's caught the gist of the scene (and we don't really want them re-read anyway.) If you lose a viewer, you may have lost them for the entire film.

Novelists have the luxury of building contacts through conferences and contests. How do you develop a rapport with the screen writing industry?

Yeah, I miss that. RWA is fabulous for that. But I've a new set of contests and contacts I've developed. I had to search the internet then do research, there is very little word of mouth, which is kind of odd...anyway, I have a list of contests if your readers want, I'll forward it to them....

For the novelist thinking about writing screen plays, what advice or suggestions do you have?

You want an honest answer? If an agent or someone tells you that "your story would make a great screenplay, so go write one," I cringe. It's a totally different media, the pacing, the lack of words, the STRUCTURE is all so different.

As a novelist you're mastering your medium, so you must ask yourself if you want to take on the challenge of learning to write a screenplay. Yes it's ONLY 120 pages long, give or take, but it takes much more concentration and skill than I ever dreamed. I could not write a novel while I was learning screenplay structure. It was too different.

Now I can, but not at first.

If however, you want to learn if screenwriting is for you then, by all means, jump on in. The water is choppy, and you'll need the life-preserver of information that books and classes can offer. And there is an explosion of them. When I started, there were few books and people like Bob were almost extinct.

I'm going to post a bibliography of my favorite writing books on my website, - give me a few weeks. Maybe Audra will post when I get the list up?

Finally, could you fill us in on what's hot and what's not in the film industry today?

Franchises. Batman, the Marvel comics, Spiderman--though I just heard that Disney is pulling out of the next Narnia, which is a franchise.

And contrary to what Disney is doing with Narnia (because we don't yet know the real reason Disney is pulling away) I'm seeing a lot of requests for faith based films on Not overtly religious, but with a lesson, a moral to the story. And funny thing, I know a screenwriter who can adapt your book to screenplay ; )

What's not hot? Hmmm let me check that out. Nothing, nowhere can I find out what's not hot.

Thanks again. And please if you have questions, comments, I'll be happy to answer them.
LA, aka Leslie Ann Sartor

Leslie is a frequent contributor to the Five Scribes blog Please visit her there for more screenwriting advice and to read her interview with Marilyn Atlas, Film Producer. Also in the coming weeks, Leslie will be interviewing InkTIP, and other film professionals, sharing her knowledge of an industry that tends to keep information under wraps.


  1. Leslie, welcome to Seekerville. This is soooo exciting. Thanks so much for sharing. I remember years ago Linda Seger saying selling scripts to Hollywood was hard unless you were a young white male. The internet sure has changed all that.

    Have a latte and a bagel!!!

  2. Good morning, Leslie and welcome to Seekerville! Tina, our early bird has beat me to your welcome, LOL!! Come on in and and grab a plate. Ummm, cinnamon rolls. . .

  3. Wow, Audra and Leslie, what a meaty blog today!!! I am amazed at the wealth of information Leslie has brought to us ... and in complete awe of the process AND her!! I don't know if I will ever write screenplays (I just learned how to write novels!!), but this article is a must-save if I ever do. Thank you, Leslie, for your valuable insight.

  4. The idea of writing a screenplay makes me want to run for cover. Leslie, the knowledge you bring. Audra, wonderful interview. This blog always makes me hungry for some reason :) Happy New Year!

  5. Cool. A fascinating post. I especially liked your advice about dialogue and subtexting. That's something I've been thinking about lately.
    Thanks for sharing! Good luck in that Hollywood world! :-)

  6. Welcome, Leslie! You've really tweeked my interest in writing screenplays. I've never considered how learning about screenplays could help improve my novels. Thanks for the info.

  7. So much intersting material there, especially about conflict on every page and movement. And emotion, of course.

    Bummer about the Narnia movies. The kids so loved the first one.

  8. That is sad about the Narnia movie getting canned.

    The thought of writing screenplays scares me too. It seems so different from writing novels.

    But congrats on your success, Leslie. We need more morality in movies!

  9. Tina,
    You are an early bird. Thank goodness for the internet! Honestly I couldn't do what I'm doing now with out it. Even so, those living in Lala land still have an advantage and that is being available for pitches. But hey, I'll buy a ticket and jump a plane anytime.
    That latte was great!


  10. Audra,
    Thanks for doing this interview, it was a blast. Sometimes we get so buried in what we're doing, your questions made me question myself and made it all fresh again :) .
    I was saving room for that cinnamon roll!

  11. Wow, Julie, I'm blushing. Thank you! Audra knows...and now you do, that I could talk endlessly about screenwriting :)

  12. D,
    Yes, don't they have the best table spread here?
    LOL, run for cover? Nah.


  13. Jessica, hi. Thanks for the good wishes. Here's a little secret, I work at a bank PT and we had to bring in pictures of what motivates know what I brought? Pix of an Oscar and an Emmy. People laughed, and I'm not sure they really got that writing is my passion. If you have time, use the link to fivescribes and read my take on subtexting.


  14. Hi Cara,
    If I can help any further, drop me a line.

    Screenwriting techniques can most assuredly help novel writing.


  15. Ann and Melanie,
    Disney is pulling out...Walden Media is staying Narnia isn't dead yet! I really enjoyed the first Naria, the second...I felt we lost a lot of "why" things were happening. It felt very choppy to me.

    Ann, every page! It's hard, but it'll make all your work pay off.

    Melanie, yes, I'm very tired of gratutious swearing et al on the big screen. Just tired of it and morality doesn't have to hit one over the head, leading one toward it is just as important, or by example, yes?


  16. Hi Leslie,
    You are an impressive energy ball, kiddo. And kudos to you for eagerly taking on Hollywood and succeeding.

    I've always said that the best screenwriters are master storytellers 'cause they can do what we authors do in such a concise, masterful way. I love getting tips and listening to screenwriters talk craft 'cause I believe they really help teach me to refine story craft.

    Also, there are several writers conference that do include screenwriters and hollywood professionals where you can not only take workshops but can pitch to producers and directors. The two I know of off the top of my head are Maui Writers Conference in early September and the San Diego State Writers conference Feb 6-9 this year. Network and promotion are key in the entertainment industry!

    Great interview Leslie and thanks to Audra for shining the light!

  17. Hi Leslie,

    Is it still possible to write freelance tv scripts for shows? Do the shows still have a “Bible” a writer can read to avoid duplications and mistakes in character back-stories? My screenwriting teacher made a living doing this in the 1970’s and she’d show the class actual ‘marked-up’ scripts. She had done five MASH episodes and many other shows – all freelance. Of course, they did many more shows a season back then.

    Thanks for your post.


  18. OUTSTANDING POST! I hope you come back, Leslie. I learned SO much from this and crave more.

    What a fabulous start for 2009!

    Cheryl Wyatt

  19. Oh ugh. I'm bummed about the Narnia thing. LOL!

    I just re-read this entire post. Such great material for how to help readers experience the story rather than just read it.


  20. Theresa,
    Ball of energy? Wow, I love that! Though there are days ;)

    Thanks for the info on the contests and conferences. Networking in the industry is key, key, key!
    See you on Five Scribes.

  21. Cheryl,
    Hi, Happy New Year.

    Gee, thanks, I'm really blushing now. I loved doing this interview, so hopefully I can come back to do something else.

    Theresa in her comment was right on, Hollywood loves novelists turned screenwriters (and thinks RWA rocks b/c RWA chapters have a strong teaching mentality) because novelists understand story. But novelists can learn so much from screenwriters as well.

    Anybody know where I can get a 4 shot latte around here? You guys are amazing. I'm needing a shot of energy ;)

  22. Hi Leslie,
    I will definitely check out the links, thank you. :-)
    I worked at a bank too (before kids) so I know what you mean. LOL

  23. Leslie, great post (and thanks, Audra!)

    I'm still getting the hang of subtext, for screenwriting and novels. That's not my strong point, but I work at improving.

    You're a wealth of info and more fun than several lattes, Leslie. As much as I'm at Starbucks, that's saying something! :)

    Happy New Year!

    Nancy Haddock
    La Vida Vampire
    Last Vampire Standing

  24. Hi Vince,
    Yes there are still "bibles." Can you imagine how thick the one for Star Trek must be?

    I'm checking on a couple of things, and will get back to you on your other questions. 'K?


  25. Hi Nancy,
    Nice to see you here. Happy New Year!

    More fun than lattes? That is saying something. LOL.
    Thanks for your kind words, you are a light. You know that, right?

    Subtext is huge, something we all need more practice on. When I watch movies and the subtext knocks me off my feet, I'm so envious! I love subtext, and I'm working hard on getting better at it.


  26. Hey Jessica,
    I noticed you went to Five Scribes to check out the blogs. Thanks! I'm glad you found them helpful.


  27. Vince,
    I chatted with Bob Gosnell and this is what he had to say.

    "Spec writing for episodic tv is tough. Not to say impossible, but pretty
    close. In the "good old days", shows used to produce 21-23 episodes per
    season, on average. That left enough to go around to the staff and still
    allow for freelancers to come in and pitch ideas. Usually, three or four
    scripts per season would go to outside writers. Those days are long gone.

    Very few, if any shows produce that many episodes, now. Each show, sitcom or
    episodic (hour long) has a staff of writers. Everyone on staff is on salary.
    The staff gets most, if not all of the episodes. They'll pitch ideas to the
    show runner, and if they like the idea, they'll assign the writer to write
    the script. Sometimes, the staff will develop an idea together and the show
    runner will assign the script to someone on the staff. Once a draft is
    turned in, the staff will then rewrite and polish it until it's right, then
    it will be produced. The writer who wrote the original draft will get
    writing credit (and, of course, the money for the episode).

    It's been a long time since I worked freelance in tv, so some things have
    changed, but my guess is, it's even harder now than it was then, and it was
    hard, then. It's still possible, I'm sure, to get a pitch. Most shows like
    to see outside writers at least in a limited fashion to keep from catching
    hell from the WGA, but they aren't obliged to. It depends a lot on who the
    show runner is, and how sympathetic they are to freelancers. The contact
    with the show (to set up a pitch) would have to come through an agent,
    manager or someone known to the people on the show, and if you aren't a WGA
    writer with credits, your chances become even slimmer.

    And, if you aren't
    out there, able to take meetings, that's a killer, too."

    Again, this is straight from Robert Gosnell,

    Hope this helps, I wanted to get you the right info.


  28. As soon as you started talking about *staff writers* I thought about the old Dick van Dyke Show where he wrote for a comedian : )

    Bummer about not having much of a chance for freelancing. Would make sense to freelance until you sold a script. But that's novelist mentality talking.

    Thanks for researching the answer, Les!

  29. Audra,
    This lack of freelancing ability just shows you how hard it is to break into this industry. Contests, conferences and there aren't that many)and networking all help to promote your work, your skills.


  30. Leslie, Loved your post and wealth of information. Do you belong to the RWA scriptwriters chapter? I'm thinking of joining as I'm learning scriptwriting as well. I love it. I'd love copies of the info you are wanting to share and I've bookmarked your blog for further info. Sounds like you post a lot of helpful hints. Audra has my email. When you email me, I'll send you some info I just received. Thanks so much.

  31. Sandra,
    Hey welcome to the club!

    I'm really pleased you found this helpful. Yes, I belong to the RWA screenwriters group, Scriptscene. I don't participate much, b/c of time constraints, but I'm sure you'd find it useful.

    I'll get your email from Audra, and I'll post when I get my bibliography on my site. I must do this soon. And if I can help in anyway, please let me know.


  32. Excellent post, Leslie! Thanks so much for joining us in Seekerville today!


  33. Missy,
    It was my pleasure to be here, I really enjoyed it. You guys are energetic, inquistive and just plain wonderful. No wonder Audra loves Seekerville.


  34. I check in before and after work. Wow, Bob Gosnell's response was fascinating.

    Thanks so much for being here today, Leslie.

  35. Hi Leslie (waving madly)

    Great blog!! I know nothing about screenwriting so I'm fascinated :-)

    Have a wonderful day blogging,

    Cher :-)

  36. Tina,
    Bob is great. The fact that he not only teaches but is a writer of produced scripts gives him insider knowledge. I'm lucky he's my mentor.

    I had a blast here.


  37. Cheryl,
    Hi!! Waving back. Keep checking out Five Scribes as well, that's my blog home and I'm the screenwriter of the scribes.

    I had a fun day, this was my first ever interview.


  38. I wrote a novel, Grave Street House, and didn't realize that writing a script is similar until now. Thank you.