Meet the Reader: Liza Olson
Liza Olson discusses being a story analyst, advice for emerging writers, and why she needs to care about your protagonist.
By Brianne Hogan.
According to Liza Olson, becoming a story analyst is something that she fell into. Years ago, when she was still working as a TV news producer, she wanted to take a screenwriting class through UCLA Extension. After looking through the classes, she happened upon the story analysis class description and “I thought it sounded great,” she says. “I remember thinking if I learned this first, then I would be better equipped to do the screenwriting classes.” So she took the class with Barney Lichtenstein (who still teaches there, by the way), completed other screenplay classes, and cut to several years later, she quit her job in TV news to pursue a career in entertainment in L.A.
“I was looking for an entry-level job or an internship where I could get my foot in the door,” Olson recalls. “I had two internships and they were both primarily doing story analysis. One was for a director and one was for an actor, and I thought, ‘Well, it’s a good thing I know how to do this!’”
She did the internships for a number of years before she was hired to be the creative executive at a film finance company where she vetted scripts and completed coverage on all the scripts that were pitched to the company.
Now Olson runs her own story analysis business called Synoptic Media in which she offers her expertise to production companies, talent agencies, writers and actors. She’s also a sought-after judge for screenplay competitions including, ScreenCraft, The Writers Store and the Cinequest Film Festival.
Creative Screenwriting chatted with Olson about the intricacies involved with being a story analyst, her advice for emerging writers, and why she needs to care about your protagonist.
So what is it about story analysis that you like?
That is a really good question. I look at each script as a new challenge. I am diving into the script and figuring out what the story is, and I am identifying the elements that work and the ones that don’t. Then taking all of that, and this is what people don’t realize, there is a lot of writing that goes into it. So I get to use my writing skills to precisely sum up what that script is and its merits and its shortcomings. And being able to do that in a way that lets someone read that coverage and understand what exactly what I read and see what I saw without reading the script, is a challenge and one that I actually thrive on.
It’s really difficult to read script coverage and understand what the reader saw. So what I try to do is create my script coverage and write it in a way so someone can say, “Oh, okay. I get that. That sounds like a great script,” or “That sounds like a bad script and I’m not going to bother with it.” So each script is its own little challenge. And I think my background in TV news has helped informed that. In TV news you have to tell a story very concisely and very vividly. You have to take a lot of information and distill it into very digestible information. So it’s using the same skills.
You mentioned that you do a lot of writing in your job, which is probably something that not a lot of people realize. When we think of a script reader, we tend to think you just read all day. So is there another aspect of the job that you think people may not realize that it actually entails, or an image of the job you would like to dispel?
Yes, that the reader is curled up in an armchair with a cup of tea and they’re all settled in to read that script and there isn’t any distractions. And the reality is, it’s our job. And there is more than one script to get through in a day — certainly many in one week. It is work. It’s not just kicking back and reading a magazine.
I think there are some misconceptions about what we do when we read scripts. Some people who arrive in Los Angeles for the first time are suddenly reading scripts for someone, but also responsible for giving out parking validations and delivering coffee and answering phones – and they’re supposed to be reading a script. And that’s what I don’t think people realize: how important it is to write their script in a way that is easier for a reader to follow. People who are reading scripts for production companies and talent agencies are also doing a million other things. They’re not curled up in the armchair.
I am always telling people to write for the reader and to make things very clear in your script because you have to imagine the worst-case scenario that someone who is reading it could also be someone else’s personal assistant or have another job and can’t solely focus on your screenplay.
What are some of the biggest challenges of being a reader? Is it being busy and interrupted?
Well, for me because I don’t work in an office, my interruptions are of my own making. So when I’m reading a script, there is always something – the fridge, the phone, the coffee shop that is beckoning to me in a different way than people who are working in offices. But, for me, I think the challenge is when I sit down to read a script and it’s bad, to keep going. Because someone is paying me to do coverage on a script, I have to keep going to read for comprehension in order to write a coherent summary. And some scripts that are written by newer writers are very hard to read and follow; I don’t understand what’s going on, but I have to keep going. I have to figure out how to summarize this script that doesn’t make sense.
Another challenge comes with diplomacy. If there is a terrible script, I have to diplomatically come up with something to say. In a way, I have to sort of come up with a script for the producer to tell the writer why they’re not pursuing the script. So I have to be mindful about that.
I have to come up with something complimentary to go with it. “There’s some really good world-building, but…” or “There’s really good dialogue, but…” And when my clients are writers, there is no filter or go-between. So I have to craft my notes in a different way and try to be mindful that the writer is reading this feedback and seeing this evaluation of their script that they worked very hard on. So I need to come up with a way to let them know of their shortcomings and give them insight as to why some things are important. For example, the amount of white space or writing in the passive. The challenge is to figure out who the client is and diplomatically convey the merit and shortcomings of the script.
You mentioned some of the things that writers have problems with, like lack of white space. What are other things do you notice that newer writers have trouble with?
The one I see a lot is that the writer has an idea and it’s probably really great in their head and they just can’t get it on the page in the way that translates into a great script. And I can empathize. Writing is hard. Writing is very hard. I would never tell anyone that it’s not hard.
Writers live with these ideas for weeks and months and years even, but they just haven’t learned yet how to communicate those ideas on the page. So I’ll read a script and think, “Is this in the future? Or in the past? I don’t get it.” I bet you anything that it makes sense to the writer, but they can’t communicate it on the page. I’m coming in cold. Unlike the writer’s friends, I haven’t heard about it for months. All I know is the title.
I have to be able to understand because I have to either write a two-page synopsis on it, or if I am reading it for a contest, I have to write a logline. If I am writing an evaluation for a writer, I have to be able to write coherent notes. So that’s one of the biggest things I see: they can’t get the idea onto the page.
Another thing is action sequences. I think action is very hard to get onto the page. I’ll read an action sequence, and I’ll think, “I don’t know who is in this scene or where it’s taking place. I don’t know who lives or dies,” and again, I think it makes sense to the writer, but I can’t figure it out. Sequences are hard to write. You’re trying to write lean, you’re trying to write active, but you have to write so the reader can figure out who is shooting and if the car has crashed, and whatever needs to happen.
I also think writers can get carried away with their scenes, which I can empathize with. They just keep writing and they get involved with the dialogue and they don’t know when to stop. At some point there is nothing else being accomplished in that scene. There is no advancing the plot or revealing a character or getting a laugh – the characters are just chit chatting. So that’s something else I see.
This is why I think they need an impartial person to read their script. Not a buddy or their family, but someone who can read your script and give you an honest opinion about it. Writing is such a personal thing, so your friends want to cheer you on, so you’re not going to get constructive notes from them.
This leads me to my next question. Other than having an impartial party to read their script, what other advice would you give to emerging screenwriters who have such a great story idea and they’re trying to implement that into a script, but it’s not working. How would a writer fix that?
That’s a fair question. I am a big believer of printing out a hard copy of your work and going through it with a pen and trying to be as objective as you possibly can. Go through it and go, “Okay, what’s in this scene? I am world-building. I am introducing a secondary character.” Then go to the next scene. “Someone breaks into a home” – boom. Now we are advancing plot. Then match it to your outline and beat sheet, and see if you’re accomplishing what you want. Maybe you hit a chunk of pages that aren’t really doing anything, so now you know what needs to be looked at. I’m a big advocate of doing that.
I am a big advocate of outlining to begin with, which a lot of people try to skip over because it’s a lot of work. Writing the dialogue is the fun part. I am a big advocate of taking the time to make a thorough outline because that is your road map. If you write a thorough outline and it’s strong and if you’re hitting all your points – in this scene you’re advancing plot, and in this scene you’re developing character, and in this scene you’re doing both – then you will have a much more efficient screenplay. You’ll have an easier time articulating into your script what your story is and what your plot lines are because you would have already did the work in the outline.
So I am always preaching to people to do outlines. Without it, challenges can become more daunting. But if you have a ten or twelve page outline, then they become much more manageable and it’s easier to identify where things need to be and what needs to be accomplished.
Another thing I encourage writers to do is work on the craft of writing outside of their scripts. A lot of writers get an idea for a movie and want to write a script. That’s fine – we all do that. But if you want to get serious about writing a good script, work on the craft outside of your story that you’ve had in your head.
Work on writing exercises. It helps if you have a partner or a group. I met a lot of people who I met through my screenwriting class and we formed a group and gave each other writing exercises and critiqued them. One of things that we did, which I recommend, is write a two-page scene in which someone confesses to a crime. Or, write a scene in which someone’s true identity is revealed. Watch people at the local bus stop and create stories for the people you see. I think writing other things other than your script helps writers get better at the craft rather than just being the writer of their own special story.
Also read scripts and watch movies. Do it with a notebook and pen in your hand. Pick up a script for any old movie and read it and take note of what you think works. Do you like how they introduce characters? Do you like the lean writing? Do you understand what’s going on? You can learn a lot from movies, even bad movies. Write these things down. It’s homework really, but if you want to be a better writer, then I think these things will help you think like a writer.
What movies or TV shows demonstrate great writing, that you’ve watched recently?
That’s a good one. This goes back to what I was saying that you can glean something from watching movies. I love foreign films. I learn a lot from foreign film because a lot of them are lean and efficiently told.
I recently watched Point Blank from France. It’s a very fast-moving script and I remember thinking that every scene and every line of dialogue accomplishes something. I think everyone can learn something from scripts like that. They’re very disciplined. There are no tangents. There are no scenes that people thought were cool so they just stuck it in there.
I like movies that are character-driven and I watched one that I thought was really good called The Visitor from Tom McCarthy with Richard Jenkins. That is one in which one character has such an influence over another character that they change in some way.
Another movie like that is one from France called The Intouchables. It’s a comedy-drama that made $380 million worldwide. It’s not a superhero movie –it s a French comedy-drama about a quadriplegic who hires a caregiver to look after him during the day. In the movie they learn something from each other. They’re changed because of their interactions with each other.
Speaking of learning something from a movie, there is a one that did so-so at the box office called How Do You Know? with Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson. In the movie, Owen’s bathroom is decked out with pink tracksuits in every size and toothbrushes and everything that a woman would need that stays over. And in that visual, where you see everything that he has set up there, you learn so much about his character and everything you need to know about that guy by what he has in a bathroom. I think that’s a great thing for a writer to see in terms of writing visually and conveying character. They weren’t sitting in a coffee shop and he wasn’t explaining to her that he has pink tracksuits in his bathroom – you saw it. As I said earlier, people should be watching movies and writing down what works and what they are responding to.
Staying with Reese Witherspoon, in Legally Blonde, on her first day at Harvard everyone is popping up their laptops and she’s got a pen with a fuzzy cap on it. And that is a great visual, that’s a great scene because you see what she is up against. You see that she is not like the others and she is ill prepared at that point.
For writers, they should write movies from all genres. Maybe the movies they would prefer to watch in the theatre are The Avengers or what not. So take the time to watch the character dramas. Watch a comedy. Expose yourself to different genres because you will learn something from each genre.
Any remaining advice for aspiring writers?
As a reader, I need to care about the story and the protagonist to keep turning the page. It doesn’t matter if it’s a ditzy blonde going to Harvard or a bomb defuser like in The Hurt Locker. The stakes are different, but in each story you still have a protagonist who is trying to do something and is up against the odds. Elle Woods is out of her element at Harvard while Jeremy Renner could die at any moment. I need to care about Elle Woods as much as I care about the bomb defuser. I need to care about them all the same within their different circumstances and I need to see if they can accomplish what they set out to do in order for me to continue turning the page.
Lastly: what do you love about movies?
It’s a great escape. It’s awesome when you see a movie and you can’t wait to tell your friends about it. That’s just fun. I love that feeling.
A movie can be inspirational and you can come out of watching it with a different perspective on something. You can come out thinking, “You know what? My parking ticket isn’t that big of a deal.”
It can really expose you to new things and take you to place you would never go to. You can immerse yourself in that world, you get to empathize with someone, you get to root for someone. For me, that’s a great way to spend a couple of hours.
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