On Screenwriting

My foray into screenwriting began, quite expectedly, with fanfiction.  Specifically, it began two and a half years ago in response to a single wonderful review.

Review

The review in question.  This is for Chapter Ten: A New Home, from my favorite fanfic I wrote titled Pushing Through.

Of all the reviews I have ever gotten, this touched me the most.  Growing up, I’d always distantly dreamed of becoming a TV writer.  I figured I’d be really good at it; I think one of my strongest suits as a writer is quickly coming up with a lot of ideas for stories.  Obviously, this would translate well to crafting TV episodes.  I never figured I would ever become one; even as a child I knew it was nearly impossible to break into any aspect of showbusiness.  So it remained a far-away fantasy until April 17th, 2012.  My first thought after reading that review was, “I would be a good writer for Jimmy Neutron.”

Immediately after that thought popped into my head, I felt something stir inside me.  I realized, unequivocally, that it would be my absolute dream to write for my favorite show growing up.  In that instant, I’d never wanted anything more.  I tried to shake that desire aside; after all, at that time Jimmy Neutron had been cancelled for nearly six years.  Even if it were to somehow come back, I was a fanfiction writer with no screenwriting experience and absolutely no connection to Hollywood.  The very idea of me becoming a writer for Jimmy Neutron was beyond laughable.

So of course I spent the next 15 months pursuing it.

I knew I would never be able to accomplish this on my own.  So I immediately recruited my two friends and favorite writers from the JN fanfiction community, Edward and Saundra.  For some reason, they agreed to help me on this quest.  We all wanted Jimmy back and we all wanted to write for it.  That was about all we knew.

None of us had any idea how to write scripts, how to make a season plan for a TV show, or even how to contact Nickelodeon.  We knew we needed more help, so we set our sights on JImmy Neutron co-creator Keith Alcorn.  He’d developed a reputation among the fandom as a very approachable and friendly guy, commonly answering fan questions.  He’d even responded to a message I once sent him thanking him for creating the series.

Luckily, we had enough wits about us to realize that messaging Keith and saying, “Hey, we want to bring Jimmy back and write for it.  Want to help?” would be disastrous.  The key was to be honest but professional.  We would admit that we had no screenwriting experience or connection to Hollywood, but we would learn as much as we could and present him with a solid script to show him how serious we were.  We figured that would draw his attention. So we gave ourselves a couple months to research the industry, draft a script for the first episode of our new season, & create a 13-episode outline of this new season.

This was one of the hardest things any of us had ever done.  Every day we researched, wrote, and edited.  The first thing we did was come up with the season plan.  This meant not only creating 13 solid ideas for new episodes, but also figuring out exactly what we wanted this new season to be.  Were we going to return to season one’s zaniness and comedy?  Keep season 3’s more mature and relationship-heavy tone?  Or try to push the boundaries further and make something more Avatar-like?

We decided to try to push the envelope.  Our major theme for the season would be the JN gang coming closer together and truly admitting that these five friends were a family.  We would continue the slow burn on the Jimmy/Cindy relationship.  What we were most excited about was the idea that there would be a semi-serialized aspect to the season.  Every few episodes would progress the season’s plot, which was that all the villains Jimmy had ever faced were coming together as well to recreate the League of Villains which had fought Jimmy in season 3.  We wanted this threat to be less cartoony and more visceral than in seasons past.  In short, this season was going to be an epic story of friends coming together to fight looming death.

Once we had this general plot mapped out and we created a list of 13 episodes, we moved on to writing our first episode.  The first issue we had to deal with was learning how to write a script.  We quickly realized that screenwriting and novel writing were insanely different.  The toughest thing for us to learn, and something that I still struggle with, was that the major focus of screenwriting is dialogue.  It’s the writer’s job to set up the scenes, get the dialogue down, and give just enough information for the actors and animators to bring the scene to life.

Here’s an example of the difference between two mediums.  In that same fanfic I mentioned earlier, this is the description I wrote of a spaceship called “The Flaming Justice” exploding.  (This is also one of my favorite excerpts from any story I’ve written.)

Five seconds passed, and then a new sun seemed to burst into existence. The Flaming Justice silently disappeared in a blinding flash of light, which shone for a single glorious moment. Then, as quickly as it had come, it vanished. There was no trace of the cruiser’s existence, nor was there any remnant of the explosion. All that it had been had ceased to be.

Hopefully you think that’s some nice prose and it conjures up a beautiful image in your head.  Now, if I was trying to convey all that in a script, this is what I would write.

The Flaming Justice blows up.

That’s it.  Anything else would be excessive and trimmed in a later draft.  By saying I want the ship to blow up, I have to trust that the animators will know how to convey that.  That’s the biggest thing to me about screenwriting, it’s all about trust.  You have to have faith that the rest of your team knows what they’re doing and can turn a simple description into a polished product.  It took many, many drafts before we truly understood this concept.

But eventually, we managed to get a script down.  Episode 401, A Crime of Confusion, was a comedy heavy episode inspired by the episode of Community titled “Remedial Chaos Theory.”  In this story, the gang is in the principal’s office for breaking Ms. Fowl’s mug.  Due to each character having been distracted by something at the time the mug broke, no one is sure who destroyed it.  Five segments of the episode revealed what each character believed happened and reflected how they viewed the other members of the group.

For example, in Jimmy’s retelling of the story he was helping Cindy answer a homework question right before the mug broke, since he considers himself the smartest.  Libby, who throughout the series showed that she realized Jimmy and CIndy were in love and was tired of them denying it, says that J/C were flirting in a humorous, over-the-top manner.  There were tons of these little discrepancies between the kids’ stories that highlighted each characters’ relationship and how they thought of their friends.

Saundra, Ed, and I figured we now had enough to prove our worth to Keith.  We contacted him, and he decided to help us.  Unfortunately, he had limited pull at Nickelodeon since it had been a while since he worked there.  He offered to guide us but suggested we reach out to other crew members of Jimmy Neutron to see if any of them could help us further.

We set about contacting many people who had worked on Jimmy Neutron and, while waiting for responses, worked on two more scripts.  Keith explained that Nickelodeon would probably want a lot of evidence of our ability and that one script couldn’t show that.  So since I’d been the head writer for “A Crime of Confusion,” Saundra and Ed set about writing two more scripts.  Saundra penned the incredibly funny and touching, “Three’s a Crowd,” which focused on Cindy’s jealousy of Jimmy’s other crush, Betty.  Ed wrote “Interception,” a heart-breaking and action-packed story of the gang going inside Sheen’s dreams to remove his obsession with his favorite show Ultralord.  (And yes, it was also a parody of Inception.)  We wanted to show not just humor, but a lot of heart in these stories to get across the tone we were striving for in this fourth season.  While touching up these scripts, we heard back from three amazing JN crew members.

Darryl Vickers & Andrew Nicholls had written for Jimmy Neutron and had over 30 years of screenwriting experience. For some reason I’ll never understand, they also agreed to help us.  They didn’t have any pull at Nickelodeon, but they offered to look over our “Crime of Confusion” script.  They gave us tons of general pointers: how to trim out unnecessary scene descriptions, proper script formatting, and found lines that didn’t sound right or weren’t in character.  Most importantly, they pointed out a fatal flaw in this script.  We wanted this to be the first episode shown on TV and for it to prove that we could capture the spirit of the old Jimmy Neutron series.  But the whole thing was very un-Jimmy-like.  It all took place in the school without a wacky adventure or inventions.  This could work as a normal episode, but it didn’t prove we could write a classic Jimmy Neutron story.

So it was back to the drawing board.  We thought of just substituting “Interception” or “A Crime of Confusion” for our first episode’s script, but we didn’t feel either one perfectly captured the old Jimmy Neutron spirit.  But there was one episode idea in our season plan that did.  It was called “Deep Impacts” and had everything the best JN episodes did.  it had action, humor, crazy inventions, a trip to the moon, a villain from previous seasons, and just a hint of romance.  It took weeks to write and perfect it, but ultimately we finished the script for “Deep Impacts.”

2 pages

The first two pages of “Deep Impacts,” what would have been the fourth season premiere for Jimmy Neutron.

During this time, we also made contact with the man who would become our greatest ally and my friend, Mike Gasaway.  Mike was one of the directors of Jimmy Neutron and immediately took us under his wing.  He spent countless hours looking over our documents, giving us a unique director’s look at our scripts, and was overall just the person we needed.  Best of all, he was pals with an executive at Nickelodeon.

After a year of work, we were ready.  We’d penned four complete episodes.  We’d expanded our original 13-episode season plan to a full 26 episode season outline, which Mike said was what we would likely get if we were picked up.  Mike had explained our project to his friend at Nick, who Mike was confident would at least look it over.  We were ready.  So we packaged our materials and sent it out.

Then came the hardest part.  Waiting.  For over a year our team had spent every single day writing, editing, or researching something.  Now there was nothing to do but sit and wait for a response.  We couldn’t even be sure if Nick would ever look at our stuff; you can’t exactly call a major studio every day and ask.

It took two and a half months, but we finally heard back.  This is the letter we received.

Dear Ryan, Saundra, And Edward,

Thank you so much for submitting your proposal for the fourth season of Jimmy Neutron. The details of your proposal were very impressive. There are several things we consider when looking to bring a show back. The first thing we look for is a new and fresh take on the material that warrants bringing a show back. A good example of this would be Rugrats All Grown Up. It re-launched the Rugrats franchise, but with a new take on the characters and property. Planet Sheen, the spinoff of Jimmy Neutron, was launched on Nickelodeon and finished its run on Nicktoons fairly recently. Timing wise it may just be too soon to revisit the same characters. Second there are serious legal and logistical issues that face a series coming back. This can be very difficult and make it impractical if not impossible to bring back a series.

While almost everyone here at Nick hold Jimmy Neutron in high esteem, we also look forward to finding the next show that will prove to be as successful as Jimmy Neutron, and our other past hits. Unfortunately at this time, we are unable to take the next steps in re-launching Jimmy Neutron. Your script and proposal were well crafted, and I encourage you to work on an original idea. I am sure if you put as much effort and craft into an original idea, as you did into this proposal, you will create something great.

It hurt.  We’d spent a year on this project, and in one moment it was shot dead.  There was nothing more we could do.  We couldn’t contact other networks; Nickelodeon held the rights to Jimmy.  But there was a silver lining in that letter.  Let’s check out those last two lines again.

Your script and proposal were well crafted, and I encourage you to work on an original idea. I am sure if you put as much effort and craft into an original idea, as you did into this proposal, you will create something great.

This was an executive of a major network saying that we had talent.  Mike insisted that this was an enormous step forward.  If they’d thought our stuff was garbage, they would have tossed it out and never sent us a response.  Of if they did contact us, it would have been some form letter.  This, on the other hand, was a custom-made rejection.  It signified that we had potential, but the idea we were pitching wasn’t what they were looking for.  Mike told us to follow their suggestion and come up with an original idea.  So of course we did.

Saundra bowed out of the project at this point; she had other paths she wanted to pursue.  But Ed and I kept moving forward with Mike’s help.  We spent the next three months sketching out a new show called “Continuum.”  We didn’t write a pilot script at this point because we wanted to respond as quickly as possible before Nickelodeon forgot about us.  But we did send them this.

076 From left to right: 13 episode Season Outline, Sexy Envelope, Show Bible

It was everything the network needed to know about our show.  A lonely fifteen year-old girl who was neglected by her parents uses their newly completed time machine and gets stranded in the past.  While there, she makes new friends that pledge to help her get home.  While struggling to make her ownime machine to complete this goal, she finds less and less reason to use it.  She doesn’t want to leave her new family behind, and a sinister corporation is threatening to use her technology to take over the world.  It all leads up to an action-packed finale that takes the series in a crazy new direction.

So we mailed this out to Nick, and heard back much quicker.

Hi Ryan and Edward,

Thank you again for submitting your pitch for Continuum. You were able to capture a unique story with well-defined characters. You show a high level of craft, and I am impressed with the detail and smart choices that were made in the pitch. It is obvious writing is something that you both take seriously, and that puts you well ahead of most people aspiring to write professionally.

Unfortunately at Nickelodeon we are currently not pursuing action and serialized properties like Continuum. However, taste and demands often change, and I do not discourage you from exploring this story further. I think you should explore companies that are creating action based animated shows. They will be a better outlet for you. My advice for further development would be that you continue to define and explore the world. It would be great to have more examples of how all of the characters interact, because this is often what drives the action from one episode to the next. It would also help to have concept art and designs that visualize the world and characters. I think you are well on your way to being excellent writers/creators.

No one said show biz is easy.

Unlike before, we had options now.  There was no reason another network couldn’t pick up Continuum.  So ever since, Ed and I have been fine tuning our product.  We’ve made what we believe is an epic pilot script.  We’ve fine tuned our show bible and our currently soliciting artists for some concept sketches.  We’ve researched all the possible networks and will soon be sending out our final product to them.  It may not happen tomorrow, next month, or even next year, but one day I have to believe Continuum will make it on the air.  And just in case it doesn’t, I’m starting work on a novelization of this concept.  One way or another, this story will be told.

So there you have it.  The basics of screenwriting, how I got into it, and my plan for the future.  I’ll be sure to let you all know if something big happens, and I’ll probably do another post in the near future discussing my project and the process of sending out “Continuum” in more detail.  Until then, I’ve got more work to do.

Advertisements

Published by

quietthinker1

I'm a 24 year-old veterinary student, novelist, & aspiring screenwriter. I'm trying out this blogging thing in my spare time.

15 thoughts on “On Screenwriting”

    1. I honestly don’t know. We had support from a few members of the show, and it was fully submitted to and reviewed by Nickelodeon. It’s not for me to say if it’s officially canon; it’s up to the old JN crew.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s