Pilar Alessandra is the director of the Los Angeles-based writing program On The Page and a highly sought-after speaker and script consultant. She’s worked as Senior Story Analyst for DreamWorks and Radar Pictures, trained writers at ABC/Disney and MTV/Nickelodeon and presented classes at The Great American Pitchfest. Her students and clients have sold to Warner Brothers, Sony and more. She recently released her new book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter Writing Your Script Ten Minutes At A Time.
Ann: In your book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter, you discuss how emotion + action tells the story, can you share your theory about story with us?
Pilar: A string of feelings without activity? Boring. A story of activities without emotion? What’s the story? So the idea is to layer the two. Each activity creates an emotional consequence for the main character. He or she then acts on that emotion, which pushes the story. It’s impossible to know what a story actually is, unless we know what it means to people.
Ann: Why is writing in ten-minute increments so beneficial for writers? What does it do for them?
Pilar: To be honest, I’d wish on my writers more time than ten minutes, but the simple truth is that most of us have busy lives and we have to be creative in those small stolen moments. The upside is that a focused ten minutes, in which you don’t allow yourself to think about anything else but the story at hand, can be incredibly productive. You can often find yourself spewing out genius because you have no time but the present.
Ann: Tell us about “Scene Brainstorming” and one of the techniques, where you use character flaw or external obstacles.
Pilar: Every character creates natural activity in a scene simply by being himself. By applying character flaw, even shopping in a super market can be interesting. How does an uptight person get a cart? How does a perfectionist shop for food? How does a timid person check out? Exploit the flaws of the character and you’ll have instant entertainment,
Ann: Talk to us about “Character Rules” and give us some examples.
Pilar: Think about your favorite characters on the big or small scene. We get to know them through small, repeated behaviors: their character “rules.” Take a man who refuses to dance and put him at a wedding with a date. There’s a natural scene there. Or, break his rule at the end of the movie by showing him doing a tango with a woman he loves and we’ll know he’s changed (without him having to actually say anything).
Ann: What is a “Set Piece”? What well-known film scenes can you use as examples?
Pilar: A set piece is an active, trailer-worthy moment that takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary. It often uses the character’s immediate environment to create a unique moment of entertainment. Think about the FAO Schwarz “playing Chopsticks” scene in Big. Think about the “cityscape implodes” scene in Inception. An “action set piece” takes a familiar fight, escape, or chase scene and uses the environment to create something fresh and new. Think of the “free running” scene from Casino Royale.
Ann: What can writers do to avoid having “A bunch of talking heads” in a long conversation scene that may be necessary for their script?
Pilar: Remember that a great dialogue-driven scene results from a blend of verbal lines and action lines. What someone does while talking is even more important, sometimes, than what they’re actually saying.
Ann: What is your favorite room in your home and outside environment? Can you describe them and tell us why you like them?
Pilar: My home is dominated by my kids (6 and 10), their play-dates, my husband, and the music he loves. So, in all honesty, my favorite “room” is actually my writers’ studio in Sherman Oaks where I teach my classes. The studio is divided into a teaching and working area. It’s quiet, just a little bit funky, and at its best moments, filled with writers and new ideas.
Ann: Do you have any special quotes or sayings that you keep visible in your work environment to help inspire, motivate, and encourage you?
Pilar: Emerson’s definition of success begins: “To laugh often and much …” I re-read it all the time.
Ann: What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
Pilar: I just taped episode #200 of my podcast, “On the Page." It remains great fun for me, but also a resource for writers who don’t live in Los Angeles. I’m also creating a workbook of my “On the Page” materials, a webinar of some of my classes, and an “On the Page app”.
Ann: Can you tell us about The Future of Story conference coming up in Los Angeles on August 27th and what your role is?
Pilar: I’ll be moderating the panel on “pitching”. As the subject is the future of story, I’ve asked the panelists to think hard about what’s next for getting one’s idea out there. Virtual pitchfests? Skype pitch sessions? Online communities? We’ll also be discussing the nuts and bolts of pitching of course. How best to communicate an idea with passion … and economy!
Ann: What do you think writers will find most useful from attending this conference?
Pilar: Take every book you’ve got on your shelf about writing and suddenly “bring it to life”. That’s what they’ll get; opinions and ideas about writing and story from the authors’ own mouths. Should be exciting!
Ann: What opportunities are there for the attendees of this upcoming conference to network?
Pilar: They’ll be in the company of other writers and have the opportunity to meet the authors of their favorite writing books in person (for a low price too). Not bad!
Ann: Thank you, Pilar, for taking the time to share your knowledge and insights with us.
Pilar: It was a pleasure, Ann. Thank you!
To learn more about how you can meet Pilar Alessandra and over 30 other MWP authors of some of the best-selling books on screenwriting and filmmaking in the industry, sign-up today to attend The Future of Story Conference in Los Angeles.