Meet the Reader: James Napoli
Great advice from James Napoli on the importance of story flow and voice, doing away with “happy endings”, starting slowly, and what writers can learn from silent films.
“I remember writing my own version of a Hardy Boys story in the third grade, so I think it’s safe to assume I have always wanted to tell and think about stories,” recalls script analyst and Creative Screenwriting columnist James Napoli.
Napoli, who was also a film major in college, has been on the production and directing side in theater and short films, and has had several screenplays optioned.
“I like to think that I bring a unique perspective to script reading in terms of what the script will eventually become on a set, as well as what the nebulous process of ‘development’ entails for a writer,” he says of his extensive storytelling background.
After studying film in London, Napoli returned to Boston to try acting and improvisational comedy. “But when it came time to go back to my film roots, Los Angeles seemed like a natural choice.”
Over the course of his career Napoli has read scripts for production companies, finance companies and individual producers, and is currently a reader with Paradigm Agency.
“The agency world is particularly instructive, because it involves all sorts of reasons for submission whether it be for a potential director, potential representation, packaging or financing,” he says. “It gives me a great sense of the movements of the industry on a weekly basis.”
When he’s not reading scripts, Napoli teaches screenwriting at National University’s MFA in Professional Screenwriting Program, as well as analytical and movie history subjects at Columbia College in Hollywood.
Creative Screenwriting chatted with Napoli about the importance of story flow, doing away with “happy endings” and what writers can learn from silent films.
How did you end up working as a story analyst? What was your big break?
It’s difficult to classify story analysis in terms of a big break, at least for me. It’s been more about steps along the way.
For example, I was blessed to learn about how to write great coverage when my first temp job in LA was helping a major studio re-catalogue its coverage library. Every day for a year, I was reading coverages of everything from A-list projects to fellowship contests; all of them written by established union readers who had been at it for many years.
That was the time when I realized that I had always been good at breaking down what works and doesn’t in a script. Once I had a format to emulate, I got a short-lived producer’s assistant job where I did a bunch of coverage, and that gave me the samples I needed to send around and look for work. From there, it blossomed.
What do you like most about analyzing story?
Because part of my background is in comedy, and I grew up studying how comedians deliver jokes–what words they choose, which words they punch—I think I have always had the kind of mind that thrives by drilling down into why certain words and concepts succeed.
From there, a lifelong love of film and absorbing story structure into the DNA just naturally led me to want to firmly establish why something is working, or not.
I will say that early on I was advised by one of my clients to lay out the content of my coverage using paragraphs that corresponded to the order of the grid on the front page of a coverage. [This is the grid where various script elements are rated from “poor” to “excellent” as a quick guide for the production executive.]
In other words, start by putting into words why the premise works or doesn’t, move onto why the story structure works or doesn’t, and so on with character, dialogue, etc.
It’s an incredibly good way to familiarize oneself with how to tackle story analysis: one chunk at a time. And it should be mentioned, in fairness to screenwriters, that often the premise, story, character, etc. both work and don’t work. It’s not usually one or the other.
I may have strayed from the point there, but I think the answer to your question is that I don’t really grow tired of wondering what is going on with a script and what it needs. If I bring any gift to the screenwriter out there whose work might come across my desk, it is that after all these years, I truly turn to page one wanting to love the script.
One of the nicest compliments I received from a development person at one of my early gigs was, “I may not always agree with you, but you always make a well-informed case!”
What are some of the key things that you are looking for in a script?
It sounds incredibly pat and unimaginative, but a sense of story flow has got to be number one. Take me through your story scene-by-scene organically and you’ve got me committed to your page count.
The problem there, of course, is: how does one define organic scene build?
I think it is something that becomes part of the mental muscle memory of a writer as they grow in experience and technique, and so it does remain a vague concept in a way, especially to a new writer. But one sign of when story flow is not working is when many scenes relay the same information over again. That’s a nice red flag for writers to look out for.
After the story flow, that other elusive and tough-to-pin-down quality: a voice. The voice of a writer is closely allied with tone. If a writer can keep a consistency of tone – oh, tone, there’s another hard-to-pin-down term! – then it’s usually a sign that his or her voice has evolved over the course of their experience as a writer.
But I bring up these somewhat ethereal terms as another way of saying that I think they are more important to the overall success of the script than just saying, “Oh, the dialogue is good, the characters were great.” These things will be a natural extension of a screenwriter with a voice, who keeps the tone consistent and the story flow organic. And that becomes innate with experience.
If you can’t sense whether it’s there yet, you need more time to develop it.
What are some elements that you find are missing from most scripts that you’d like to see more of?
I think more writers should have enough faith in their material to know what the “right” ending is for their stories. The obligation to tie things up in a bow is something I see a lot of, whereas if we are with the story in a heart or gut way, sometimes the most satisfying – as opposed to “happy” – ending is the one that stays true to the story we’ve been being told all along. So, it leaves us maybe a little sad, or with a feeling inconclusiveness? Well, so does life!
On the other hand, what do you want to see less of?
Moving from my concerns about endings, we come to beginnings here. I think hands down my answer to this question is “Stop trying to create a kick-ass opening sequence that grabs us.”
What usually happens is that the script then spends the rest of its pages trying to live up to some huge set piece that kicked things off, only to discover that the whole big bang opening was a smokescreen for a story that cannot sustain itself.
Don’t be afraid to draw me into your story with a page-and-a-half of no dialogue. A character waking up in the morning – but please don’t have them slam off the alarm, though, that is one overused trope, people! – or looking out the window of a cross-town bus…Give me a moment with your protagonist, the person I’ll be spending your whole movie with.
Don’t try to knock me back with a juggernaut. If you are one of the few writers who can keep the juggernaut going, then you’ve got me, but that is extremely hard to do.
Another thing I have seen enough of in my career is the “bad date montage.” This is the romantic comedy trope in which a series of dates that went badly are shown in order to inform us that our protagonist has had hard luck with men or women. Writers will be pleasantly surprised to find that these montages can almost always be cut without having any impact on the script at all.
From your experience teaching screenwriting, what is a common thing that a lot of students struggle with? And how do you advise them?
Writers are often solitary, inward people, and one of the biggest notes I end up giving is that the script held itself back emotionally.
We go to movies so that actors can bring emotional stories to life, and we can process our lives through them. Writers need to realize that the reason they write is so that their quiet, solitary selves can give massive, deeply-felt expression to the many different feelings they may not tell us about in their daily lives.
Writers should be like actors who take on various personas and live through them for a while. If the author is not willing to see what happens when their protagonist becomes an emotional puddle on the floor, then they are too afraid to touch that part of their own psyches—and that is death for a writer.
You teach movie history. In terms of storytelling/screenwriting, what are some examples of some movies and screenplays from the past that you would recommend to emerging screenwriters?
Silent movies! There is the first lesson from movie history we can take to heart. I encourage all writers to experiment with crafting scenes that are only description, to see the tension that immediately leaps off the page from a scene with no dialogue.
Without words to ground us, we are on the edge of a cliff, waiting to see what could happen. It’s an instant effect.
Of course, we cannot write an entire screenplay like this, but be on the lookout for when a script – which is a blueprint for a visual medium after all – can attain great power from silence.
Then there is the surprise vs. suspense angle that Hitchcock understood so well. One of my Creative Screenwriting craft articles is about that very subject: “Surprise or Suspense?“
Can you name a few recent movies that you thought had a pretty solid screenplay?
On the independent vision side, Christine from Craig Shilowich was a beautifully measured character study. The adaptation of Moonlight by Barry Jenkins and Tarrel Alvin McRaney was an elegant exploration of human feeling and retained some nice prosaic elements on screen. And I thought Jeff Nichols’ script for Midnight Special was a wonderful, unclassifiable hybrid.
On the bigger budget side, Guy Hibbert’s Eye in the Sky script was a smart parable that managed to make a story set largely in situation rooms very compelling. And Jared Bush and Phil Johnston’s Zootopia earned its Oscar—it was a beautifully structured animated noir with tons of great plants and payoffs.
And even though it’s not a feature film category, it is well worth mentioning that Sally Wainwright (Scott & Bailey, Happy Valley) could be the most individual and fearless writer working in television right now.
What’s one of the best pieces of advice you’ve ever received in terms of writing that you think others would find useful?
“Stay open.” Although the phrase did not come directly from the mouth of the person that taught me the lesson…
The lesson came when I nearly walked away from the opportunity to make an independent film because I disagreed with one sticking point one of the producers didn’t want to budge on. I let my writerly vision cloud my judgment and walked. Luckily, I realized what a mistake I made the next day, and contacted the producer immediately to meet him halfway.
While the movie never got made, making the change the producer suggested yielded an almost entirely new screenplay that remains one of my most solid spec scripts that I still keep in my arsenal today. Don’t hold too tightly to the certainty that your screenplay is perfect just because it’s yours.
Finally, you’ve written a few books. What’s next for you?
I ended up being referred to a publisher years ago, and that led to being hired to write several humor books, including one breakthrough title, The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm. Another is in the works now.
I would like to branch out into more extensive film craft writing—some kind of unique book about screenwriting. And it would have to be unique because there are so many of them out there!
Meantime, Focal Press has put out a terrific new series of books for young filmmakers called “Perform,” and I have contributed a chapter to the volume Writing for the Screen, called “A Script Reader’s Perspective: How to Love What You Do When You Can’t Do What You Love”.
That is a message I will put out to any writer, student or artist of any field: keep creating and don’t worry about anything else. If the process of writing is truly what you got into a creative field for, then that is what will sustain you — no matter what you are doing to earn a living!