Writers and “movie makers” speak different languages. If you don’t know this, it can get surreal to have a conversation with someone who uses writer terms, but isn’t a writer, because they both use the same terms, they just use them to mean different things. I will give you an example:

When writers talk about tone (is it brooding, dark, suspenseful, creepy), writers tend to describe the work in terms of an emotion evoked by the piece. They are telling you the flavor of the piece in their heads, in an emotional context.

When a filmmaker asks you tone, like an executive or a producer, and this goes for agents as well, they mean, “What big-money box-office movie is it like?”

If you don’t know this, it’s going to be hard to sell proposals because a studio exec is going to ask you about the pitch and want to hear that the pitch is “Men In Black” while you’re saying, “It’s suspenseful and fun.”

This miscommunication probably cost me five pitches. They were very good projects, too. He just didn’t know what the hell he was doing. An executive asked me, “what is the tone of the film?” I’d say, “it’s dark and brooding and a bit fast-paced.” The executive would say, “That’s great, but can you tell me the tone?” I’d say, (looking at the exec as if he’s from Planet Zorg), “Um, sure, it’s dark and bittersweet and it moves really fast.” And the executive would say, “That’s great, um, um, well, I’ll get back to you.” And we would both leave the meeting wondering what the hell the other person was talking about.

I think this is one of the reasons why a lot of writers think the people in the studio are completely stupid and reckless. (Okay, some people in the study are downright stupid and reckless, but not all.) “Why the hell do they keep asking the same question after I already told them?” Well, because you’re speaking a language they don’t understand, and vice versa.

The same problem arises when an executive or producer guy asks the writers what a story is about. Executives and producers want to say, “What’s the crux of the plot?” But “what it’s about” means a lot of different things to a writer. “What is it about” covers the topic.

Every time they ask “what is the story about?”, they are talking about a concrete plot, of action and verb.

Wow, the theme can get you into trouble. The executive asks a writer what the story is about. The writer says, “Oh, it’s about our fear of rejection.” The executive goes blank. The writer looks at him. Wow, what a jerk, but okay, here it goes, and it goes deeper and deeper into people’s fear of rejection. The executive is looking at the security button. Hmm.

What the executive needed to know was that the story is about a man who falls in love with a super model. That’s what the executive was asking to hear. Those are plot things. And ultimately, the crux of the plot. What the writer was answering was a thematic question. For writers, stories are often about a theme. For executives, they are not.

Sometimes when you focus on the subject and answer “what is the story about” the executive and producer types follow suit. Oh those crazy dreamy writers. It’s endearing the way they continue. And they see it as passion and they want you to be “passionate”, always, for the material. But, upstairs they can’t sell “it’s about fear of rejection.” They can sell “it’s about a man who falls in love with a super model.” But not “fear of rejection.” “Fear of rejection” is intangible, not concrete, that damn “A” word I can never think of. Where is my fucking thesaurus? “Summary.” Executives and producers can’t sell an abstract thematic ideal in Hollywood terms, because an abstract thematic ideal doesn’t translate into a trailer in people’s heads. No one can see the movie. It just isn’t there.

When I got to Hollywood, I even stopped using the term “subject” right after I went to a meeting to talk to three people who assured me they had a Ph.D. in literature from Harvard or something (we’re all friends here and very smart, ho). Wow, let’s dig deeper: if they had been cops, I could have sued them for entrapment), and then when I used the word “topic,” I froze. Then my agent got a call saying they really liked it, but he thought I was too highbrow for the project. Too intellectual? God!

I didn’t use the term “topic” again in a kickoff meeting until it came up as the question of the day. Not long ago, too. I’ve been asked about the “universal theme” now at three separate kickoff meetings (by execs!), so I guess this gets asked a lot these days. It’s a smart question, I wonder who came up with it before it spread like wildfire through the ranks. In any case, people are looking for it now. “Universal Theme”. wow.

I wouldn’t take it too far and open a speech with “topic,” I wouldn’t even bring up the topic in a meeting, unless we were in the question section and someone told me and then sat down to see what I would say. (Sometimes they get so sneaky in those meetings.) However, you should know. In the back of your head, if you’re pitching, you must know what everyone on the planet is struggling with that is somehow mentioned in your story. That is the “universal theme”. It’s also known in literary circles simply as “theme,” but it sounds more flashy and important to executives with the “universal” label.

In one of my stories, the “universal theme” was that everyone is so reliant on formulas and shopping lists these days that everyone looks for a love of numbers in self-help books rather than their own books. hearts. (Okay, universal themes always sound corny, so shoot me.) In another, everyone is so afraid of failure that we have given up trying to succeed in order to avoid it.

Everyone is afraid of failure, everyone wants love. Those are the universals. Learn those things about their stories so you can answer the new trick question.

But don’t open with that. Just remember that the keywords are “universal theme”. That’s when they want to hear that. Not when they ask “what is the story about?” Whenever they ask “what is the story about?” they are talking about a concrete action and a verb-driven plot.

And when people ask you questions in the studio and production offices, remember that it’s not a writer you’re talking to. This is someone from the commercial building. They think in concrete substantial terms. Their questions revolve around concrete and substantial answers. The tone is “what other movie is this that made a lot of money”. “What is your story about” is the plot. Who do you see as the lead, not who you were thinking of when you wrote it or who you really like that you think is talented, but “Who made a big box office last week that could play him?”

There are countless examples of “tycoon talk” vs. “writer speaks”. They will change with each story and each encounter. The important thing to remember is that executives want answers in concrete, plot-specific terms. And examples that relate directly to the box office. Keep that in your head and you’ll be fine.

• Excerpted from “The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide; or Guerrilla Rally Tactics and Other Acts of War” by Max Adams