Screenwriters love to talk, read, and learn about screenwriting. It makes sense to get them in a room together.
Taking place over a single weekend, the Toronto Screenwriting Conference is divided into a variety of panels, lectures and Q&A sessions, offering writers a valuable learning experience. Utilizing the facilities of a university in downtown Toronto, attendees are appropriately seated in chairs typically occupied by students.
I was lucky enough to attend the 2014 edition, my second year in a row. With speakers including Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine), David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner), and Leonard Dick (LOST, The Good Wife), there was plenty of first-hand experience, skill, and wisdom.
Covering writing topics in film, television, and even video games, professionals gathered to share what they had learned throughout their varied careers. With advice ranging from keeping order in a comedy series’ writing room, to breaking into that room in the first place, there’s advice for writers of every experience level. The conference also featured a social event where you can hobnob with fellow writers from all over, including some of the featured guests.
You can read my breakdown of one of the more thorough seminars, Michael Arndt’s “Toy Story 3: Mistakes Made, Lessons Learned” in my other article. However, here are a handful of other thoughts to share:
- Paul Chitlik is an experienced writer and producer who has written a book titled Rewrite 2nd Edition: A Step-by-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in your Screenplay. He recommends eight passes to your first draft, each focusing on a different element: structure, conflict, descriptive paragraphs, protagonist’s dialogue, antagonist’s dialogue, supporting characters’ dialogue, cuts, and presentation. He also suggests that within our first sight of the main character, we should get an idea of their main flaw.
- In a panel featuring a number of Canadian comedy television writers, a successful pitch was described as a good story, followed by what the project is about, who the characters are, and leaving them with something to read (ideally, of course, a script).
- It was also agreed upon by the panelists that they preferred to read original specs (rather than series specs) when meeting a new writer. Original scripts are better at showing unique personality and voice.
- Even when pitching high concept series like science fiction, focus on the characters. The hook is good, but you can’t dwell on it
- It took David Webb Peoples many years to warm up to the line “like tears in the rain,” from the climax of his film Blade Runner. The line was improvised by actor Rutger Hauer, which Peoples eventually appreciated as a lesson in collaboration and finding emotional truth through experimentation.
The Toronto Screenwriting Conference is a good opportunity to learn from some of our industry’s working members, as well as meet some of your peers. While registration can be expensive (with general registration reaching north of $400), it is a worthwhile trip if you come with an open mind and a question or two. Like many learning experiences in writing, you’re pretty much guaranteed to end the weekend inspired and eager to get back to the keyboard.
I’ll be back next year (a decision made easy by being a Toronto resident). Maybe I’ll see you there.
Alex Shutsa is a writer based in Toronto, Canada. He works in Canadian television, helping to produce award-winning lifestyle series. On his off time, he dreams up scripts that would be a whole lot more expensive to produce. You can follow him on Twitter at @shutsaswords