Frank Spotnitz has navigated his 25-year career as a Screenwriter, Producer, and Showrunner by following three rules.
As part of the London Screenwriters’ Festival Breakfast Club, Frank shared these rules (and a lot more advice) to screenwriters in a Q&A event more than worth the price of admission.
For example, according to Frank, all good storytelling must…
- Move the audience emotionally
- Make the audience think
This strategy has resulted in ground-breaking crowd favourites such as The X-Files and Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle.
Originally hailing from Phoenix, Arizona in the USA, and currently living in Paris, and operating a production company out of London, Frank is in a unique position to offer insights on the differences between American and British industries. He generously discussed the role of the Writer-Producer in America. This nugget of wisdom opened a month’s worth of ideas, and I could have left satisfied right then and there. But the fountain of wise insights kept flowing.
Frank’s mastery of self-reflection enables him to teach from considered experience.
For example, the conflict (and balance) between Mulder and Scully provide the key tension (and therefore drama) of The X-Files. These characters are the narrative engine, despite the show being best known for scares and intricate, year-long plotting. Mulder and Scully are both driven by their faith, but what they believe in are in opposition to each other. Where she is guided by her Catholic faith, he put his faith in the existence of aliens.
Here are the Top Eight Story Lessons from Frank Spotnitz:
1. Actors are magic. During the session, the wonderfully expressive George Taylor and Mary Jane Lowe did staged readings of some of Frank’s favourite scenes. Frank then shared analysis and fond recollections of the scenes themselves. As much as we writers love the word on the page, the actors breathed life into Frank’s words and characters. Get actors to read your scripts aloud, folks. You will see your script with fresh eyes.
2. Know your key themes –Strong themes and focused story beats help all the members of a Writers’ Room put the narrative first. A unified vision is as important to a series as a tight script is to a single episode.
3. Establish your vision, define your story world clearly, and keep it consistent.
4. Writers Rooms can vary in size, but in Frank’s experience, six has been an effective number. Large enough to allow a wide variety of ideas, small enough that everyone can contribute. But regardless of size, all must be willing to leave their egos at the door and put the good of the show first.
5. To tell extraordinary stories, ground them in reality. One approach is to use familiar cultural references (with a twist). For example, having Scully sing a popular song to reassure Mulder (“Joy To The World” by Three Dog Night), or spinning off of iconic World War II imagery, game shows, and “Dragnet” in Man In The High Castle.
6. Online viewing has altered the pacing of serialised storytelling – stories have room to breathe, allowing for more character moments and world-building. This more deliberate pacing can allow the big moments to hit even harder. And hit hard (and fast) they must. It is a priority to streaming services that you stick around to watch “just one more [episode]. Just one more. Just one more.” So the hits must come fast in the last minutes of an episode.
7. A strong script will always open a door – this mantra should be repeated hourly. Always aim for the highest quality - rewrite, refine and be persistent. It’s not enough to keep saying you’ve got talent, show don’t tell.
8. All successful writers are lucky. So you had better work hard and be ready when the luck appears. Those who sit idly by and wait for their break are going to be sitting idly by forever. Write, revise, rewrite, and write some more.
Franks’s belief that a writer’s work is worthwhile and necessary was reassuring and empowering, especially in these difficult and confusing times. A recurring theme in his writing – “Always do the right thing, even though you will be punished for it” comes straight from his heart. It is the lesson he teaches his own children. Using your heartfelt beliefs to drive your stories will allow you to develop your voice and maintain your passion for your writing.
Knowledgeably and intuitively moderated by screenwriter, producer, and London Screenwriters’ Festival mainstay Bob Schultz, Frank’s inspiration left me so motivated, I forgot that I was on little sleep, no breakfast, and an challenging Tube journey, hauling a huge suitcase full of costumes across London.
Not a single regret. More than worth the sweat and strain.
With thanks to the LSF and Frank Spotnitz, I remain motivated and inspired to continue my Writing/Producing career.
By Writer Producer, Marie James, Bar Mice Films
Building on an extensive, award-winning career producing and commissioning content for companies including Channel 4, Marie works closely with writers to develop their stories for the screen. Bar Mice’s first drama ‘Lads’ is being developed as a series and, Lads (short) is set for released in June 2018.