Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy 2009!!

Here’s wishing all my readers a happy and prosperous New Year, full of inspiring, illuminating and lucrative writing. In that order!

For those of you contemplating your goals for the coming year, do yourself a favour and take 20 minutes to watch this brief talk by psychologist Dan Gilbert, in which he debunks some popular myths about what makes us humans happy.

Apparently our brains have an astonishing capacity for envisaging outcomes of various possible scenarios, but are lousy at estimating which outcome is more likely to bring us happiness.

So if you’re basing your screenwriting plans for 2009 on what is most likely to make you happy, be aware that it might not be the obvious …

Thanks to all of you for your responses both here on the blog and through other channels. I look forward to writing for you and hearing from you again in 2009!

Best wishes,

Raving Dave

Monday, December 22, 2008

How Long Should It Take You To Write A Spec Script?

This question comes up repeatedly in online forums and interviews with screenwriters. But it’s a misleading question. It suggests there is an appropriate amount of time to spend writing a screenplay, beyond which there must be something wrong with the writer or the screenplay.

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that, for example, Ben Stiller finally made Tropic Thunder twenty years after he thought of the premise. Whereas writer Martin McDonagh claims to have written his recent hit movie In Bruges in just a few weeks.

The truth is, unless you’ve been hired to (re)write a screenplay and have a signed agreement stipulating when you have to deliver the draft, there’s no standard duration for writing a screenplay.

Just consider a few of the variables in a situation in which you might be writing a screenplay on spec:

  • Does the story require a lot of research? Do you need to read up on a particular historical period, conduct interviews, spend a year undercover as a nun? The more research you need to do, the longer your writing time will be.

  • Are you writing alone or with a writing partner? Writing together with someone else can speed up the process because it’s as if you write and rewrite at the same time. It can also improve the quality of the writing because you can’t ignore your blind spots. But it can also slow things down if you’re not both equally committed in terms of time.

  • Is it a complex plot? Keeping track of numerous storylines or intricate set-ups and pay-offs can be very time-consuming, and not something you can afford to economize on.

  • Are you working on (m)any other projects at the same time? How much time, literally, can you invest on a regular basis in the script? This depends on whether you have other scripts to write at the same time, but also on whether you’re holding down a day job, whether you’ve got kids to take care of, and so on.

  • How many hours a day can you normally write? Most screenwriters don’t claim to be able to do more than four or five hours of real creative work at a stretch. And even then, much of that might consist of staring out of the window while the subconscious (whatever that is) churns its magic in silence.

  • How many screenplays have you already written? The more experienced you are, the more productive you can be, simply because you get to know yourself better as a writer the more you write. You know when you write best, what your strong and weak points are, when you should stop writing and go for a walk, etc.

  • What are you planning to do with the screenplay? In theory you never want to release a screenplay into the wild until you’re sure you can’t improve it any further. But it does make a difference whether it’s a lo-budget, indie type movie, for which their could be potentially hundreds of takers, or whether it’s a big-budget, hi-concept Hollywood script that you want Spielberg to read.

And those are just a few off the top of my head! These and other factors will determine what’s reasonable given your situation and the nature of the screenplay. In the end, of course, the only thing that truly matters is the quality of the end result.

The main reason the original question is misleading, though, is because writing a screenplay consists mostly of other activities than typing the first draft into your formatting software. For most screenwriters, the “writing” consists mainly of preparing to write a first draft and then rewriting (editing) it, over and over.

In fact, an idea for a screenplay might float around a screenwriter’s mind for years before they even start exploring it in earnest. So when do you count from, anyway?

Some screenwriters like to get to a first draft quickly and then concentrate on rewriting. Others prefer to spend more time preparing (research, outlines, treatments) and less time rewriting. There are also screenwriters who do most of the work in their head and only start writing once they have a clear mental picture of what the story is. Or precisely the opposite, they don’t want to know exactly what they’re going to write beforehand.

I've commented before that some screenwriters like self-imposed deadlines. Let’s just say that if it works, you end up with something on paper within a limited period of time. The disadvantage is that you inevitably end up settling for second-best to some extent, which means more rewriting.

But whatever your style and preferences, I believe you can’t dictate the terms to a story. It’s the other way around. Every story has its own requirements. Which is why, in my opinion, many films don’t achieve their full potential, because economic considerations dictate the speed of writing and production, rather than creative choices.

I guess there are circumstances in which getting something produced, whatever it is, is better than not getting anything produced. But when it comes to writing spec scripts, it’s important to show that you’re a professional, not a dabbler.

So the amount of time it takes to write a spec screenplay, is … however long it takes to work out every last detail of your screenplay, to go beyond the obvious and do whatever you have to, to create something intriguing and special.

P.S. As promised, I did attempt a self-imposed deadline, “straight-to-script” approach on a story idea I had recently. What I ended up with was a bunch of intriguing but meandering scenes, and a half-baked outline. It’s not a screenplay yet by any means, and I won’t be using that method again any time soon. But I did have a lot of fun, and the screenplay has definitely become an ongoing work in progress!

Monday, December 15, 2008

How To Introduce Your Character Through Other Characters’ Actions

In an article entitled The Plot Thickens - 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life literary agent and author Noah Lukeman makes a very simple but useful point: One of the ways we get to know a character is by witnessing how other characters relate to them. Lukeman cites an example from The Godfather:

In the opening scene of ‘The Godfather,’ the character of Don Corleone is established without his doing or saying a thing. He sits behind a master desk, in a room of quietly devoted supporters, while across from him a man pleads for help and forgiveness. We get to know Don Corleone simply by watching THE WAY OTHERS TREAT HIM.

Think about that for a second. As a viewer, you intuitively understand that Corleone is a powerful, much-feared ruler, a kind of absolute monarch, from the way the people around him prostrate and humiliate themselves in front of him.

While writing, it’s easy to get stuck trying to figure out what a character should do in a scene in order to demonstrate who they are. Whereas sometimes a more effective way to show who they are, is to focus on what the other characters in the scene are doing in relation to them. Which is an important indicator of their position within the story world.

For example, in a scene introducing one of the main characters in a script I’m currently working on, we see a group of three young men speeding along in a car. The two guys in front are in their mid-twenties and the third, on the back seat, is about seventeen years old. The two older guys are euphoric, shouting and singing along to music. The younger guy keeps glancing nervously out of the rear window. The two men in front shower compliments on the younger guy for having kept his cool under pressure. They reassure him, tell him he can relax now. The kid laps it up, relieved.

From the older guys' attitude and words it becomes clear that the young guy has just been on his first serious criminal job in which he remained calm and professional while holding a gun to someone’s head for the first time. He’s now perceived as “initiated” by these veteran gangsters.

A scene like this, apart from setting a narrative in motion, also paints a picture of a character’s situation, of their station in life, their prospects and expectations, and so on. In this case, the younger guy’s inexperience, his ability to overcome fear, his willingness to use violence, his need for reassurance, his decision to embark on a career in crime … all of these character elements are implied by showing how the other two men relate to him, rather than showing the kid committing the crime itself.

Once you’re clear in your mind about what you want the audience (or reader) to know about a character, this is one way of portraying it. It’s a way of being able to show who your character is, while at the same time painting a picture of the situation or relationship they’re in. It simultaneously gives you room to expand on other characters too, as it’s them doing the work.

Of course, as with all screenwriting techniques, this is not a rule, but rather a possibility. It’s just one of many ways to think about how to introduce your character, and in screenwriting it pays to be aware of your options.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why Learning Screenwriting Takes 10,000 Hours

In his latest book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell debunks the myth that very successful people are merely more talented than the rest of humanity. He shows that in all walks of life, from sports to science, technology and the arts, success is the result of a combination of fortuitous circumstances which enable some talented, hard-working people to make it. Other equally gifted and diligent people don’t succeed, for reasons other than their level of innate talent.

The popular rags to riches narrative holds that successful people are different because they work their way up from nothing by sheer determination and by dint of their inherent and superior talents. They don’t have to work as hard as others because they have a dispositional advantage, so goes the erroneous reasoning.

Malcolm gives numerous examples, and here's one I would add: Miles Davis. Someone once told Miles Davis he had it easy because jazz music was “in his blood.” The suggestion being that because he was black, he didn’t have to practise as much as a white musician would. Davis responded by explaining that he’d studied for years at the Julliard School of Music, while simultaneously playing nights in New York’s jazz clubs. Not to mention the years of practice it took him to reach the level required to even get into the prestigious music college in the first place.

But as Gladwell shows, it’s not merely raw talent and perseverance that sets successful people apart from their less successful but equally brilliant and determined peers. It’s a set of serendipitous circumstances, often combined with a supportive and stimulating home environment.

In the case of Miles Davis: His father bought him a trumpet at age 13 and found him a good teacher. Then Miles happened to get a lucky break. For a couple of weeks he substituted for the third trumpeter in the Billy Eckstine Band who were playing his home town of St. Louis. That’s where he met and was inspired by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. After which his parents encouraged him to continue studying music.

So talent, yes. Lucky breaks, yes. Supportive environment, yes. But what’s perhaps most interesting for aspiring screenwriters, is that all the successful people Gladwell examines, started out by working, studying or practising the magical number of 10,000 hours in order to master their métier. According to Gladwell, this is the norm in whatever field of expertise you look at, from rocket science to rock music.

It might take you seven years (think what 1,428 hours a year of screenwriting really means), it could take longer or shorter, but the number of hours is a constant.

The notion that screenwriting is a profession that can somehow be more easily learned than others, e.g., simply by watching lots of movies, is a nonsense. As is the idea that there are some people who, out of nowhere, just “know” how to write great screenplays. Take a look at any sample of successful screenwriters. They all spent years learning to write, whether in TV, the theatre, as novelists, at film school, and so on.

In fact, after reading Outliers, I think the standard answer to anyone who asks how long it takes to become a good screenwriter should be: At least 10,000 hours of writing.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Five Great Ways To Keep Your Writing Fresh

The worst thing for a screenplay is the cliché. Heroes we’ve seen too often, entirely predictable arcs, scenes we know back to front, lines we can mime in sync, and so on.

The cliché is usually the first thing that comes to your mind, precisely because you’ve seen it so often. So here are some ways to get beyond the cliché into more interesting and original territory:

  1. Say no to the first thing that comes to mind. Linda Seger advocates a “list of ten” approach in her book Making a Good Writer Great. When you’re thinking about how to portray an emotion in action, or turn a scene, or reveal something about a character by means of appearance, or whatever it may be, list the first thing that comes to mind and then force yourself to come up with at least nine additional options.

  2. Write yourself into a corner. A method famously promoted by the Coen Brothers, but by others too. Make your character do something that in the normal run of things would stop the story dead in its tracks. Then see where salvation comes from (usually an unexpected and amusing direction).

  3. Turn things upside down. You’ll be surprised how often this one works like a dream, especially if your brain is as cross-wired and chaotic as mine is. Turn an accusation into an apology, a come-on into an insult, day into night, interior into exterior, etc.

  4. Change some physical aspect of your writing. Write somewhere you don’t usually write, whether that’s somewhere else in your home or a different location altogether (have you ever written on a train?). Use pen and paper if you usually work on a computer, or vice versa. Write standing up (the Hemingway method) or lying down (like Amy Holden-Jones). Write at a different time of day or night than you’re used to.

  5. Laugh at yourself. Visit some sites which poke fun at the worst movie clichés, such as PLOT-O-MATIC (a truly hilarious satire of the worst excesses of formulaic logline writing) and moviecliches.com (which does what it says on the tin).

And in that vein, to conclude …

Seen from behind, Raving Dave steps calmly towards the door. With one hand on the door handle, he stops and turns back to make one last comment before he leaves:

....................RAVING DAVE

..........Of course, clichés are not all
..........bad news. In fact they’re the
..........life blood of great satire and
................(smiles wryly)
..........But more on that some other time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Responding Rather Than Reacting To Powerful People’s Priorities

It happens all the time: You struggle to have a piece of work ready in time for a meeting, only to be told a day beforehand that someone with more clout than you has moved the meeting up a week.

My initial reaction is usually anger.

It’s partly ego. I don’t want to be told there are more pressing matters than my script. It’s partly annoyance. The nuisance of having to change my schedule. It’s partly fear. It’s unsettling to be reminded I’m lower down the food chain that someone else.

But here’s the thing: It’s better to respond than to react. This is a distinction that’s common among educators, anger management trainers, spiritual teachers and many other disciplines.

A response is an intentional rather than an impulsive action, informed by perspective. You take a step back and see the situation for what it really is. In the case of a script meeting being put off: It’s a change forced on you by powers beyond your control. Or, if you like, it’s life. Like I said, it happens all the time.

What’s the remedy for screenwriters?

Here’s one I like: Make sure you have more than one pot on the boil. Don’t limit yourself to working on one story/script/idea at a time. So if a meeting suddenly falls through, it’s no longer a problem, it’s an opportunity. To get on with another project that had to wait because of the meeting. Turn the situation on its head and you end up feeling grateful the meeting was cancelled, because now you can get your head back into something that’s a lot more fun.

Anyway, I’ll give you three guesses what happened to me this morning …

Yep. So now I’m off to have some fun with the script I said I’d finish before December 1.

P.S. I’ve added a link to my Twitter presence (see sidebar). Feel free to check it out and follow me!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Sweating Over A Very Short Synopsis Is Worth The Effort

I recently submitted a number of projects to the wittily entitled Son of The Pitch competition, organized by the Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival. The brief was straightforward: A logline of 25 words or less plus a synopsis of no more than 150 words. A simple written pitch, designed to pique the interest of the jury and eventually a panel of industry pros at the festival itself in the summer of 2009.

Now, I’ve written hundreds of loglines before, so that part of the assignment wasn’t too challenging. But as I got down to work on the synopses, I realized I’d never had to write within such strict limitations in terms of length before. I’d always taken as my yard stick a maximum of one page, which can run anywhere up to about 450 words. Three times the maximum set for this competition!

And you know what? Having such a limited number of words with which to sell my stories, actually made my pitches sharper! Not only did I have loads of fun doing it, it also taught me a few valuable lessons, all of which have to do with discriminating between essential and superfluous information. Here are some of my conclusions, not necessarily to be digested in this order …

  • Whereas in a logline you don’t have room for much more than an adjective and an occupation with which to describe a main character (e.g., a psychopathic window cleaner), in the synopsis you can flesh out the character by briefly describing how they respond to a dilemma or challenge. In other words, a dynamic image of the character struggling with something or someone carries more information than a flowery but static description of their personality.

  • Rather than attempt a blow-by-blow summary of the plot tent poles, describe one or two key dilemmas which show what kind of arena the story is set in. This gives a sense of the “size” of the story (big action set pieces, small domestic scenes, a confrontation in outer space, etc.).

  • If it’s relevant, then mention a specific location. This immediately conjures up images and associations in the reader’s mind and sets your story apart from the crowd. For example, a synopsis of Pixar’s Ratatouille just wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t mention the story is set in Paris …

  • Reserve some space to name the screenplay's genre, or perhaps what kind of existing film it’s similar to. This indicates what audience you have in mind.

  • Take a sentence to say something about what theme the story addresses, what questions it’s asking. This provides some insight as to what has moved you to write the screenplay, what your motive or interest is in the story.

I’m sure I’ve left out some important stuff, but these are the main points that I gleaned from a few days’ hard work. They are all ways of including one or more distinguishing elements from your screenplay in the pitch. Something that emphasizes its originality, while also demonstrating that you’re familiar with the industry’s parameters.

Whether or not the sweat I put into my very short synopses will convince the selectors to choose one of my ideas for Cheltenham, remains to be seen. But I promise if they do, I’ll put the synopsis up here for your enjoyment …

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What Is The Conscience Of Your Screenplay?

Not in a superficial, politically correct or zeitgeisty green way. But rather in a more fundamental sense: If you were character X or Y, would you know what to do? Would you dare to follow your conscience?

Your conscience is your personal, individual measure of good and bad. It’s in your own mind. No one can see it, and it’s one of the things that makes you as a human being a lot more complex than, say, a snail.

Humans mostly operate on a very simple level. In any situation we instantly evaluate possible risks and benefits. However, our decisions to take this or that action are also determined by conscience. In other words, an awareness of the moral consequences of our actions, especially for other people.

I’ve mentioned psychologist Philip Zimbardo here before, and one of his 20 hints for resisting unwanted influence, is this:

Be ready to say the three most difficult phrases in the world: “I was wrong,” “I made a mistake,” and “I’ve changed my mind.” Cut bait, accept immediate loss of money, face, etc. that could lead to bigger long term losses …

Sound advice, indeed, but extremely difficult to put into practice sometimes!

Imagine your character saying one or more of those simple lines in a critical situation. In a situation where any other answer would be the safe option, but would run contrary to their conscience.

What temptation must they resist? Is it money? Power? Security? Approval? Safe passage?

What’s the principle at stake? Is it honesty in business? Fidelity? Fairness? Equal rights?

And what about you? When have you ignored your conscience? What temptations have you been offered in your life which entailed an unacceptable pay-off? Did you resist?

A character listening to their conscience and standing up against temptation and influence, is a powerful dramatic concept. It requires the character to wilfully take a risk in order to remain true to a principle. Something quintessentially human about that, right?

As a story element, illustrating your story’s conscience creates dramatic tension because you know the character is going to be in for some unpleasant consequences. But it also demonstrates who the character is by showing their inner process as action. In addition, it’s a way of illustrating your theme without being preachy or heavy-handed.

What is the conscience of your screenplay? Altogether a question worth asking yourself.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

How To Use Self-Imposed Deadlines Wisely

Some people hold that setting a deadline for yourself is a great way of forcing yourself to do the work. I would advocate caution here. My scepticism towards self-imposed deadlines is not because of the stress levels they generally cause, it’s because they are symptomatic of an attitude which accepts good enough as its standard.

There are a number of unspoken convictions which underlie the misconception that screenwriting benefits from time pressure. Here are some:

  • Working under time pressure forces you to make choices you would otherwise make anyway, only later. The truth is usually that with time, you’ll make entirely different, more considered creative choices.

  • The degree of improvement to a screenplay diminishes as more time is spent on it. This is also nonsense. Sometimes a great insight can only emerge after you’ve written a whole lot of material and encountered an important new question.

  • A screenwriter will endlessly change their work if not forced to stop. This too is a fallacy. Every writer has a sense of form, and will reach a point where things “make sense.” Like when you change one last aspect of a character and suddenly it all fits.

But the main, and in my opinion most objectionable rationalization for imposing a deadline on your own writing, is the notion that artificially predetermining when the work must be finished, will result in it actually being creatively cooked and ready by then.

I’ve seen it happen so often: A looming deadline encourages you to move the goal posts, lower the bar, relax your standards. The closer the deadline approaches, the more crap you’re willing to see through your fingers, despite your intuition quietly telling you not to.

It’s precisely those nagging little doubts in the back of your mind which make for excellent rather than merely OK writing.

I definitely see the use of deadlines in firing people up to get to work. However once a deadline becomes an excuse to deactivate your critical faculties, then it becomes counterproductive.

So how do you use a self-imposed deadline wisely?

Set yourself a reasonable deadline and at the same time, compile a list of criteria by which you will judge whether you’ve achieved what you set out to do. When the deadline arrives, consult your list of criteria and be honest. Take a “Zen moment” to divorce yourself form any ulterior considerations and listen to your intuition.

If your material is where you want it to be, congratulations! If it's not, figure out why and by all means set a new deadline (with a new list of criteria).

There’s no point delivering anything less than the best you can do.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Staying True To Your Vision

In his book The Lucifer Effect, about circumstances that can collude to drive ordinary, decent individuals to unacceptable behaviour, social psychologist Philip Zimbardo discusses ways to resist external influence.

Zimbardo strives to create a culture of everyday heroism through showing how to become aware of and resist social structures that can subtly convince you to do things you disagree with. He advocates teaching awareness, critical thinking and nurturing autonomy in order to avoid falling prey to social pressure and individual manipulators.

So what’s that got to do with screenwriters, you ask?

Except perhaps for the top ten A-list writers in Hollywood, the vast majority of screenwriters are under constant pressure to sell their work and acquire new assignments. The playing field is generally very uneven, with production companies traditionally able to dictate the rules because they hold the purse strings.

Taking notes from producers is an art unto itself. Even accepting notes which make sense, as that requires the screenwriter to acknowledge weak points in their script. But when it comes to dealing with unacceptable, amateurish or plain bullying demands, what’s a screenwriter to do?

The moral dilemma goes like this: If I don’t accept the changes these people are asking of me, I’ll never be able to pay the rent. But if I go along with their demands, I’ll ruin my script.

I’ve been in these situations, and I’ve always done my best to try and divorce my need to earn a living from my vision for the screenplay. It can be very difficult, and it’s very tempting to compromise in order to get the cheque. Here’s one suggestion from Zimbardo’s website, which might be helpful (there are lots more, so go and visit it!):

Keep a temporal perspective in mind. Don’t let the heat of the present moment (= the meeting) blot out the personal values you’ve established for yourself in the past and the goals you have for your future. As Zimbardo writes:

Situational power is weakened when past and future combine to contain the excesses of the present.

Resisting influence means being able to separate what’s going on around you from what you as an individual stand for. Then you can take a wise and informed decision. That may lead to a compromise, but at least then it’s your conscious decision.

It may also lead to you being a bit of a hero, and surprising the authority you’re dealing with by politely turning them down, despite the fact that you need the money ...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Essential Screenwriting Skill #357A: Pacing

There are actually two kinds of pacing relevant to screenwriting:

a) The act of walking back and forth in a state of agitation, and

b) The variation in duration and intensity of scenes, the rhythm of the film as it were.

While the careful balancing of action, suspense, introspection, etc., is essential for a good script, it’s the nervous striding I want to discuss here.

In fact, I highly recommend this activity, especially in combination with talking to yourself. In my opinion it’s one of the least appreciated screenwriting techniques. McKee doesn’t discuss it, neither does Truby or Iglesias, or any of the other people who claim to know how to teach you to write screenplays.

Of course, you have to be careful about when and where you pace. Probably the only right circumstances are when you’re on your own and there’s no one within shouting distance. Public pacing can be misunderstood, especially in a park where children are playing.

However, I also occasionally pace when working with my writing partner. I will suddenly get up from the table and commence to marching to and fro across the room, whilst thinking aloud. (I take the fact that my writing partner still works with me despite this unnerving activity as a sign of the robustness of our relationship.)

Seriously though, here’s the thing: Sitting and typing activates different parts of the brain from walking and talking. Don’t ask me the neurology of what I’m saying. If you’re a Darwinist I guess you’ll say it has something to do with coming down from the trees ten million years ago. All I know is it’s true.

I find it an especially useful technique for getting to the point, whether the point be an aspect of your theme, the specific emotion a scene turns on, a character’s precise motivation, etc. Somehow it’s much harder to digress when you’re pacing and talking.

Oh, and here’s a variation I really enjoy: Pacing and talking aloud whilst pretending to be a big-shot lawyer in a courtroom drama. It really sharpens the wit, focuses your attention on the facts. Particularly as you can choose who has to take the stand: Your main character, the main character’s mother, you the writer, whatever takes your fancy.

..........Ladies and gentlemen of the
..........jury, I put it to you …

I’m off to put my writing boots on.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Screenplay Heroes: The Brave And The Courageous

In a characteristically poignant article, meditation teacher Sally Kempton talks about the difference between courage and bravery. Her area of expertise is meditative reflection and introspection, but what she says has relevance for screenwriting. Here’s a quote:

“… courage and fearlessness are not the same – in fact if we didn’t have fears we wouldn’t need courage. Courage implies moving through fear.”

She continues to describe the difference between what she calls “raw” and “cooked” courage. The former is the kind of blind, impulsive bravery in the face of danger that is perhaps spectacular, but can leave a trail of reckless destruction in its wake. The latter is the kind of calm, deliberate encounter with a fear, which comes from strength, conviction, faith, or trust in something larger than oneself.

Now here’s the point for screenwriting: Too often, a screenplay’s main character seems to be courageous because they take spectacular risks and defeat the bad guy in the process. But the real hero is the character who goes beyond that, who acknowledges and confronts a fear with conviction and inner strength. Regardless of whether that results in victory or defeat at the hands of the bad guy.

It’s this choice for integrity which makes our insides churn as we identify with the difficult decision the character has to make. Sometimes you can’t do the right thing and survive to tell the tale. (Often you can though, especially in Hollywood …)

Of course, the ultimate film hero is one who realizes his spectacular fearlessness means nothing and who finds real ("cooked") courage in the process!

So where does your main character stand? Do they face their biggest fear and become calmly courageous, or do they see red and blast everyone to kingdom come in the process?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Why Moral Ambiguity Is Essential For A Great Screenplay

In a fascinating and very entertaining lecture for TED, writer Amy Tan discusses how her creative process works. Among the many wonderful insights she gives, I find this one in particular relevant to screenwriters:

We all hate moral ambiguity, but it’s absolutely necessary in writing a story.

As human beings we are constantly confronted with events to which we need to respond. So we ask ourselves: What is the morally right thing to do?

In fiction, which is a deliberately condensed reflection on reality, it’s no different. A story explores a particular moral ambiguity, it asks a specific question. An essential part of the process of writing, is to discover what question you are asking.

But beware! According to Ms. Tan, laying too much emphasis on articulating what the story is “about” (= the answer) can distract the writer’s attention from what is more important, namely finding the question.

To my mind, this is what all the great screenplays have in common. Whether they are relatively small, personal dramas (e.g., In The Bedroom) or huge blockbuster spectacles (e.g., The Dark Knight), they all ask a question about characters facing morally ambiguous choices.

Ms. Tan describes the serendipity that comes into play once she discovers what question her story is asking. Once she has that focus, she sees the question addressed all around her. She constantly receives “hints from the universe.” All the previously random and seemingly irrelevant events of daily life now flow through that one question, and the question becomes the point of reference for all the elements in her story.

I’d say that sounds like the perfect state of mind to be in while writing a screenplay. Thanks Amy Tan!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Screenwriting: The More You Notice, The More You Notice.

In a recent review, Frank Kermode discusses a book called How Fiction Works by James Wood. Here’s a quote from the book which caught my imagination:

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.

I really like this image of literature as a kind of ongoing university of life. And when I transpose it to the realm of screenwriting, it makes perfect sense too:

Screenwriting makes us better noticers of life, we get to practice on life itself, which in turn makes us better readers of detail in screenplays and films, which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on.

The more you notice about people and the world around you, the more you’re able to layer your screenplays with meaningful and original detail.

Indeed, the difference between good screenwriting and great screenwriting, is attention to detail. Details such as the subtle nuances of language, which make the difference between a generic description and an intriguing, captivating image.

The screenwriter must never agree to settle for “good enough.” I’m not talking here about getting an idea down on paper, beating out a story, or even writing a first draft. I’m talking about the end result. The document you want influential people in the industry to read. Your calling card.

The annoying little voice in the back of your head telling you that some beat or line of dialogue might still be a little bit of a cliché, even after seventeen rewrites, is actually you noticing. Isn’t it weird how the human mind can ignore its own sound advice when heeding it means more work?

It’s very tempting, especially under pressure, to overrule your intuition and hope no one else notices. Of course, they will.

So the thing to do is allow yourself to notice. More and more. Notice what goes on around you, notice what your intuition is telling you, notice what you’ve written.

What transpires is, pleasantly enough, this: The more you notice, the more you notice. And being a good noticer of life is one hell of a valuable asset for a screenwriter.

I’ve just noticed the time ….

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Writing Treatments: Why Silence Is Golden

I’ve just recently finished a first draft of a (so far) thirty-page treatment. It’s taken ages and bucket-loads of blood, sweat and tears to reach this point.

Why are treatments such a big deal? Everyone talks about them, screenwriters are often asked to write them, and yet I’ve never met anyone who actually enjoys writing or even reading them.

Treatments are a big deal because they’re so damned hard to write well. There are various reasons that it takes so much effort to write a good treatment, but for me at least, the main one is because you need to leave the dialogue out.

There are numerous definitions of what a treatment is in terms of format (to slugline or not to slugline) length (three pages to three hundred), style (screenplay idiom, short story style, whatever you please style), and so on, but the absence of dialogue seems to be a standard requirement in all of these variations.

Now, so much of the fun of writing a screenplay is putting your characters in unpleasant, embarrassing, threatening and tempting situations and then seeing how they respond. You let them ramble on aimlessly in order to generate those few lines of dialogue that end up in the final draft.

But at the treatment stage the characters have to behave as if it’s still the age of silent movies. No talking!!

Limiting yourself to what can be seen is precisely the reason the treatment so mercilessly exposes weaknesses and blind spots in a story.

By not allowing the characters to speak, you force yourself to think through very precisely what each scene is about. You have to ask yourself specifically what the characters do (to each other), what they want and why, what the relationship is between their actions and the overall theme of the story and so on. It also allows you to look at the relationship between scenes, between set-ups and pay-offs, and other structural aspects of the screenplay as a whole.

Once you’re clear on these issues, it becomes a lot easier to write good dialogue, be that dramatic, romantic or comedic. Because if you know what you want your characters to communicate by means of their actions, it’s easy to have them talk about something else (i.e., create subtext).

In fact, getting to the end of a treatment is almost as big a kick as getting to the end of a first draft. Because once you’ve cracked the treatment, you know you’ve done most of the hard work. Your structure is pretty well sorted, your characters are fleshed out, your scenes are well balanced, and so on.

All that remains is the fun part: Peeling the duct tape off your characters mouths and letting them verbally express themselves at last.

Ah, can’t wait!!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Transitions – The Devil Is In The Details

I heard an interview last week with Michael Brandt, co-writer of Wanted , in which he divulged numerous interesting writing tips. One comment in particular stayed with me, and I paraphrase …

One way to tell the difference between a script written by a seasoned professional and one written by a novice, is how the transitions from one scene to another are written. How and when the screenwriter cuts into and out of a scene.

The dramatic principle of “get in as late as possible and get out as early as possible,” is a familiar one to most screenwriters, but Michael Brandt gives an example which speaks volumes: Cut into the scene when the cup of coffee is put down on the table. Not while it’s being prepared, poured, or put on a tray, etc.

In other words, unless the preparation for the action is essential in itself (in which case it is part of the action), and visually engaging, then don’t include it.

In a similar vein, Tom Lazarus (whom I mentioned in my previous post) advises the following exercise when (re)writing transitions:

Read only the beginnings and ends of scenes and visualize how they will look as they transition from one to the next.

Because transitions are such an important aspect of visual writing! The contrast between the shot at the end of one scene and the shot at the beginning of the next one tells a story too.

The funny thing was (is this what they call synchronicity?), I listened to the Michael Brandt interview right after finishing a sequence which includes one character serving another character a cup of coffee. And guess what? Yeah … I went back and cut that bit.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Screenwriting: The Incremental Method

I’ve been busy reading an inspiring and wonderfully written book by Tom Lazarus called Rewriting Secrets For Screenwriters. The book is chock-full of very practical tips and humorous, familiar-sounding anecdotes.

Among the techniques Lazarus describes, is the way he sets about developing an idea for a story, using what he calls the incremental method.

This basically involves writing down, off the top of your head, a shorthand list of all the scenes, events, characters etc., that are involved in your story idea. It doesn’t have to make any sense to anyone other than yourself, and it doesn’t have to meet any kind of standards at all. It’s just a rough list of thoughts about an idea you have for a story.

This way of working isn’t revolutionary, it’s completely intuitive and logical, but what’s so good about getting the idea for your story down on paper this way, is that you avoid the trap of thinking too much, too early on in the process.

There’s nothing that can nip a potentially good story idea in the bud more effectively than a bit of premature rational, critical brain work. Especially if (mis)guided by official structure manuals that tell you on what page to put plot points and act breaks.

Not that screenwriting manuals aren’t extremely valuable, but focusing on structure too early on can be devastating for the creative process.

Once you have the list, it becomes the starting point for elaboration. A place from which to ask yourself questions about what might have happened to cause a particular event, what the consequences could be, what the characters want, what their emotions and conflicts are, what locations might look like and why, and so on.

As you add more details, scenes and characters begin to emerge, and it will become clear whether the story is viable or not. If it is, perhaps a more structured outline is called for. If it’s not, better to know now than half way through the first draft.

The reason the incremental method works so well, as does the rewriting method Lazarus sets out, is this: By going back over the same list again and again, you gradually notice and adjust more and more detail every time. It’s a great way to avoid writing clichés and stereotypes, because when you come back to the same beat for the tenth time and it still feels fresh and surprising, you know it’s good writing. If you come back to a scene and it feels tired and too familiar, you know you need to move it up a gear or two.

Another great (re)writing tip from Tom Lazarus is to check what new information the scene is delivering. But more about that next time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Origins Of Subtext

From a very early age human beings learn to understand other human beings primarily non-verbally, i.e. by interpreting gestures, intonations, facial expressions, body language, etc. As soon as children begin to master that most human of all phenomena, language with syntax, they realize that a person’s non-verbal behaviour is generally a more reliable indicator of their motives and intentions than their words.

Especially when it comes to their parents.

Being a parent myself, I can quite easily see why this is: You want the best for your children, you see them imitating your worst habits and you tell them it’s not a good idea. They understand your words, but they see a contradictory message in your actions.

Now the child begins to learn a different set of rules, which govern the concept of calling a spade a spoon in order to avoid trouble. Once the child has mastered this principle, the next step is to pretend this whole as-if situation doesn’t exist. Pretend you don’t see or hear people’s speech and behaviour contradicting each other. Pretend for long enough and the trick becomes second nature. Like learning to ride a bike. No need for conscious effort any longer.

Lo and behold, the child has graduated from Subtext 101! It’s now ready to start writing screenplays. Because great screenplays are full of scenes which are “… not about what they’re really about …” to paraphrase David Mamet.

All screenwriters were children once, so presumably they’ve all been through this same learning curve. But they have to be able to consciously and deliberately switch between these different levels of communication. Between the literal content of speech and the accompanying, incongruous non-verbal communication, or subtext, as this is also known.

In other words, the trick is not to think too much about what subtext really is, but rather to understand that as a human being you’re already an expert at it.

Here’s a little exercise: Next time you’re interacting with another human being, imagine you’re a subtextually challenged child watching an adult desperately trying not to say what they really mean.

Have fun … and take a notebook with.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How Research Can Inspire

In a recent post entitled Give Up The Research Excuse!, inspirational writing coach Jurgen Wolff warns against the danger of using research as an excuse not to write. Just because you haven’t done all the research on your to-do list, doesn’t mean you can’t start writing.

I couldn’t agree more. Certainly when it comes to writing fiction, research can often provide huge amounts of new ideas and fresh twists. In fact, my writing partner and I very recently experienced exactly this phenomenon.

We have been working on a particular screenplay on and off for a long while now, and we decided we needed to interview some experts in a particular field to make absolutely sure the climactic scene of our movie had sufficient grounding in reality.

It didn’t.


We spent a couple of weeks desperately trying to bend the plot in order to keep the wonderful scene we’d had in mind for so long. We even considered adding a new character in order to set up the ending to fit credibly with the facts we’d learned from our research.

However, in the end, our conclusion was that it was just too contrived. It wouldn’t work. We had no choice but to kill our darling.

Out of this disappointment though, has risen a completely new version of this climactic scene, which we both agree is much better than what we had before! It’s more visual, it expresses the theme more precisely and it neatly pays off a number of things set up earlier in the script.

Without the research, not only would we have written a climax which might have knocked a few people’s suspension of disbelief, we would also have missed the opportunity to improve the quality of the screenplay as a whole.

The idea to interview these experts only came after we’d finished an outline, were a good way into a treatment, and began to wonder if that particular scene was making proper sense. If we had waited to start writing before “finishing” our research, we would never have thought to interview these particular people in the first place.

Research and writing can go hand in hand, each suggesting ways for the other to proceed, each feeding the other until all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place in the final draft.

And then it’s time for the director and his team to start doing their own research …

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why You Shouldn’t Always Try To Be Clever

Sometimes screenwriters try too hard and end up making their own work more difficult. It’s a bit like when there’s a word on the tip of your tongue: Making more effort to remember it often renders the word more elusive.

Here’s a small anecdote on a similar topic from Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who has been a writer for almost fifty years, and has worked with some of the most talented actors and directors both in theatre and cinema. A man who knows how to write, in other words.

When he agreed to write the screenplay for The Pianist (directed by Roman Polanski), he found he didn’t know how to start. Polanski called a number of times to ask how the work was progressing, and Harwood bluffed. He told the famous director that he was making headway, when in truth he hadn’t written a word because he couldn’t find a way of getting started.

He considered giving up, and when Polanski called again to ask how the screenplay was coming along, Harwood confessed he hadn’t written a word because he didn’t know how to start. Polanski barked down the phone: “The film’s called The Pianist, right? Show him playing the piano!!!”

This astonishingly straightforward and simple suggestion was all Harwood needed to get going, and the resulting film won masses of awards, including Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

As Sigmund Freud once said: Sometimes a cigar is a cigar. In screenwriting terms, it’s tempting to search too zealously for overt symbolism and meaning in every single detail of a script, whereas sometimes the obvious and purely visual is precisely what you need.

There’s a time for cleverness and there’s a time for straightforwardness. And sometimes, the obvious and purely visual can even turn out to be the cleverest, most meaningful image of the entire film.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Screenwriting and Happiness

No, I’m not referring to that mythical, seven-figure sale after an intense and bloody bidding war between five rival studios. I’m referring to what Positive Psychology’s Big Kahuna, Dr. Martin Seligman calls the three aspects of a happy life. In his TED lecture What positive psychology can help you become, Seligman distinguishes three levels of happiness:

The Pleasant Life – Full of pleasure, positive emotions, smiles and cheeriness.

The Good Life – Full of positive engagement, a flow in which time stops and one doesn’t feel anything, when a person’s unique strengths are most at the fore.

The Meaningful Life – Full of activities in which one’s talents serve something bigger than oneself.

I recommend you watch his lecture to get a proper picture of what he’s referring to, but let me just add my own adaptation to the life of a screenwriter:

The Pleasant Life – The excitement of the profession as a social arena, being part of the glamorous or at least public world of cinema, dreaming of Oscars, Hollywood and hobnobbing with the stars. The fun and emotional thrill of being involved in filmmaking.

The Good Life – The work. The flow. The part of being a screenwriter when everything else disappears and you are just in the writing, with no sense of time passing and with no feelings as such. The total, positive engagement with the task at hand.

The Meaningful Life – The part you hopefully get to when your films are produced and screened, when your films enrich other people’s lives with valuable insights, using humour, romance, action, science fiction or whatever your forte is.

When you reach that stage, screenwriting becomes a source of personal fulfilment as well as something that improves the quality of other people’s lives. Not bad for a mere storyteller, right? Certainly a powerful image of what to strive for every time you sit down to write.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Why You Should Know Your Fictional Reality Inside-Out

The other day I got stuck in the minutiae of a scene, asking myself over and over whether the action was realistic enough. Realistic in the sense of “how things actually happen in non-fictional reality.” I got annoyed and reprimanded myself: “It’s fiction, stupid!” Fortunately I wasn’t satisfied with that answer, and after a little thought I realized two significant things:

1. You need to get your facts right … within the fictional reality of your story world.

2. The emotional truth of a scene requires just as much attention as factual accuracy.

Allow me to illustrate with an example.

How many viewers of No Country For Old Men by the Coen brothers were so distracted by practical questions about Javier Bardem’s unusual murder weapon, that they couldn’t enjoy the film? Certainly far fewer than the number who felt shivers down their spine every time the bizarre piece of equipment appeared on screen, right?

That’s because the oddness of the weapon fits seamlessly into the context of the story world: It’s a fictional reality in which the boundaries of what is considered decent and expected (even amongst criminals) are blown wide open. The weapon astonishes and shocks everyone precisely because it is so outlandish. No need to dwell on how it works technically, and whether this is “realistic.”

In addition, it also makes perfect emotional sense in terms of the detached, psychopathic nature of the character. Each time the killer brandishes his weapon, it baffles his victim and causes them to drop their guard.

The emotional charge is right on target: This hit man is so methodical and indifferent, that even cynics such as the hard-nosed chief of police and a ruthless fellow assassin can’t get their heads around him. This is the emotional truth that accompanies the killer and his weapon wherever he goes: He overwhelms people by trashing all the accepted boundaries and norms.

Now, imagine the same implement in, say, a social realist film by Ken Loach. Or a romantic comedy by Nancy Meyers. Or a Star Wars movie. See what I mean? In a different context, the same thing isn’t necessarily realistic. That is, consistent with the fictional reality of that story world.

In order to establish your fictional reality effectively, you have to be clear about genre conventions (“laser gun” might be enough description for a sci-fi movie, but “pistol” might seem lazy in a crime thriller), plus you have to be consistent. It makes for confusing reading if the script changes tone arbitrarily, whether the tone is ultra-realistic or completely fantastical.

Once you’re clear on what characterizes the fictional reality of your story, you will be able to determine what level of detail you need to describe where, what issues you need to research further, and of course, what you’ve already nailed perfectly!

As for me, I have to get back to my in-depth analysis of the impact of the credit crisis on the average thickness of business cards.

P.S. For more insights into effective and successful screenwriting techniques, check out my Great Screenwriting blog, where there’s also a more in-depth article on No Country For Old Men.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Why Moral Indignation Is Good For Your Characters But Bad For You

As promised in a previous posting How To Outrage Your Characters, here is the second aspect of evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers’ argument, as described by Robert Wright, with a twist for screenwriters!

Trivers posits that the human brain has evolved to be heavily biased in its host’s favour when it comes to disputes. The brain selectively remembers arguments (however flimsy) which support its host’s point of view, and conveniently forgets arguments (however valid) negating the same.

Comments Wright:

One might think that, being rational creatures, we would eventually grow suspicious of our uncannily long string of rectitude, our unerring knack for being on the right side of any dispute over credit, or money, or manners, or anything else. Nope. Time and again--whether arguing over a place in line, a promotion we never got, or which car hit which--we are shocked at the blindness of people who dare suggest that our outrage isn't warranted.

So we’re programmed to be convinced we’re right. All of us. That’s weird. Because, of course, we can’t all be right all of the time, that’s logically impossible. Sometimes you’re just wrong. Or sometimes the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In this light, let’s take a look at a favourite screenwriter emotion: Moral indignation.

How often have you heard, read, or even experienced this: A screenwriter ranting about a producer who simply refuses to see the true value of what they’ve written? Or worse: A screenwriter masochistically wallowing in the role of victim, the exploited artist of the film industry?

If you’re that screenwriter, life sucks. You spend your days pecking out your own liver, cursing the day you ever decided to start writing for the screen.

However, if the screenwriter were one of your characters, you’d be on to a good thing. Before you could say … and the Oscar for best original screenplay goes to … you’d have this character running amok in his own life like a bull in a China shop. It would be clear to see for everyone except the character himself that his refusal to reflect and look at his own faults, is what is dragging him closer and closer to the abyss. And it will take at least until page 75 for this insight to start dawning on the poor guy himself. By which time it’s almost too late …

Of course, in the real world, if you’re still alive it’s never too late. There’s always time to start over and, without losing any of your passion for writing, acknowledge that it’s at least worth considering whether the other party has a point. But that requires letting go of the moral indignation.

Here’s one way to do that:

Step aside and look at your script and your career as if they belonged to your best friend. What would you advise them if you really loved and respected them? Would you tell them to look for a different producer? Change careers? Rewrite the script according to the producer’s notes?

Listen to the advice you would give your best friend, if they were you, as it were. Believe me, I know, I’m always right …

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Screenwriter, Observe Your Surroundings!

Last week, the BBC’s Alan Yentob presented a special edition of Imagine, dedicated to the late, great writer/director Anthony Minghella. As well as being a touching tribute to a very special human being, the programme also gave some interesting insights into Minghella’s working habits. One thing in particular stayed with me:

The actress Juliet Stevenson, star of Minghella’s first major film Truly, Madly, Deeply, recollects that Minghella had a mind like a sponge. He would absorb all sorts of details from his daily experience, including anecdotes people would tell him, and integrate them into his writing.

She recalls telling him, before the film was in production, about a rat infestation in a house she once lived in, which was dealt with by a very peculiar gentleman from the municipality. Imagine her surprise when she read the script and found the incident back in the story, complete with the man from the municipality and all his idiosyncrasies!

This habit, of being constantly alert to interesting and intriguing aspects of everyday life and individual people, is absolutely something to emulate. It’s so easy to overlook the material that’s all around you, staring you in the face, as it were, while trying far too hard to concoct something “original.”

The programme got me thinking. I asked myself this: What have I heard, seen or read about recently that might be worth noting down? Here are just a couple of the many things I came up with:

  • A friend of my wife’s had a terrible leakage in her flat last week. The entire place was submerged, furniture ruined and an immense conflict has been sparked with both the neighbours and the landlord. The exact same thing happened to her a year ago.

  • I stumbled across a blog written by a gun-toting ambulance driver in the US, called A Day In The Life Of An Ambulance Driver; a veritable goldmine of harrowing and fascinating tales.

  • I heard of a couple who enrolled their son in a particular high school at the last moment before the holidays, on recommendation. They have since discovered that the school is 99% Muslim (they aren’t), and they are mortified. They don’t want their son to be such an exception, but they don’t want to be seen as being anti-Muslim (they aren't). In any case, it’s too late to change schools.

  • A few evenings ago, my neighbour’s children locked themselves out while their parents were at friends. Their keys were visible on the kitchen table, but only a tiny top window was still open. I duct-taped two little coloured sticks with magnets attached (from one of my kids’ toy fishing sets) to a garden hoe, and very carefully fished the keys out of the kitchen through the tiny window.

And so on. There’s always a story, a character trait, a scene or even just a beat waiting to be spotted out there!

Go ahead, make a list for yourself and ask yourself what you (or Bruce Willis, or Helen Mirren, or Oliver Hardy) would do in the same situation …

Sunday, July 13, 2008

How To Outrage Your Characters

A recent posting from the charming and inspiring DelanceyPlace.com, contained a quote from a book by Robert Wright called The Moral Animal. Here, Wright discusses the work of evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, and mentions two aspects of the way human beings approach arguments which are interesting for screenwriters. Here’s the first:

The reason the generic human arguing style feels so effortless is that, by the time the arguing starts, the work has already been done. Robert Trivers has written about the periodic disputes ... that are often part of a close relationship, whether a friendship or a marriage. The argument, he notes, 'may appear to burst forth spontaneously, with little or no preview, yet as it rolls along, two whole landscapes of information appear to lie already organized, waiting only for the lightning of anger to show themselves.'

Does this sound familiar? It should! Your characters should all have this sense of being a coiled spring, ready to jump. An emotional jack-in-the-box. They should be, “… living in a powder keg and giving off sparks,” to quote a famous old hit song. There’s nothing like a fierce, emotional altercation, apparently about something entirely trivial, to illustrate the meaning of the word subtext.

Remember that phrase, “landscapes of information.” It’s a wonderful way to describe the inner world of your characters. The invisible source of their motivation and their emotional reactions to events around them. It’s the unique accumulation of upbringing, class, education, and so on, mixed with the specific backstory to the relationship or situation we’re seeing the character in.

Just to drive the point home for yourself, imagine the opposite: Your character is involved in a dispute which is about nothing other than the specific issue at hand, say, a speeding ticket.

.............You drove too fast.

.............Are you sure about that?


.............Shucks, I’m awful sorry.

.............Here’s the fine.

.............Thank you, Officer.

Not dramatically very interesting, right? But what if the dispute about the speeding ticket triggers the driver’s broader frustration with the government, with himself, with his wife (how’s he going to explain yet another ticket?) and so on. Not to mention the police officer’s sudden shift in attitude when the offender, driving an expensive car, turns out to be “one of those rich, arrogant douchebags.”

Hey presto, you have two strangers with an entire repertoire of preconceived ideas about each other, with intensely emotional opinions about the situation they’re in, outraged, going head to head within a beat or two. All because of this landscape of information which lies dormant all the time, ready to be activated by the slightest stimulus.

Coming soon to this blog: the second aspect Robert Wright discusses in the excerpt …

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Beware: Your Screenplay is not a Lottery Ticket

Much as I believe in the merits of positive thinking and visualization, I’m also convinced that it’s not possible to make it as a professional screenwriter by writing one script and spending the rest of your time waiting to be discovered.

Just as a writer writes books, so a screenwriter writes scripts. Lots of them. A few of which may eventually become films.

I was reminded of this when I read an interview the other day with Ben Stiller, concerning his latest movie Tropic Thunder. He first conceived of the premise for the film more than twenty years ago, when he was just out of film school and trying to establish himself as an actor and director.

However, Stiller wasn’t able to get the project off the ground then and it became something he returned to regularly during the years he worked tirelessly to establish himself as a hugely successful filmmaker.

His perseverance paid off. When the time was finally right, his reputation and clout made it possible for him to put the project into production. Now the film he dreamed of making so long ago is on general release.

This wouldn’t have happened if Stiller had treated his script as a lottery ticket, and just sat around waiting for his number to be called.

Although there are plenty of anecdotes about screenwriters having lucky breaks which launched their careers, what really counts is talent and stamina. It’s a hard slog. It takes a long time to develop the skills and sensibilities necessary to write a really attractive screenplay.

There’s a dictum in the Talmud which goes something like this: “It is forbidden to count on a miracle.” I think that’s a fairly wise motto for a screenwriter.

By far the best strategy is to keep the initiative. Continue writing, reading and learning. Always have something new on the boil. Keep abreast of developments in the industry. Make new contacts. And don’t wait around to get lucky.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Be Prepared: Why Screenwriters are like Scouts and Guides

I always have two things on my person: a Swiss army knife and a credit card. Because life is unpredictable like that, right? However, I recently received an urgent request for some documentation which I hadn’t updated because I assumed it wouldn’t be needed in the near future.

Wrong. Don’t assume. I was reminded that as a screenwriter it’s important to have other items at the ready besides tools for purchasing and opening cans of baked beans.

Items such as updated synopses and loglines of all your projects. Including the ones you pitched long ago and in which you think no one will ever be interested. Or practised pitches and most recent drafts of all your scripts. Not necessarily folded into tight packages and stuffed in between your switchblade and your plastic money, but ready-to-go, nevertheless.

Because you never know when The Call will come. And if you wait until the phone rings, you’re gong to have to rush, which means you’ll make mistakes. Which isn’t cool, because you often only get one chance.

It’s a bit like marketing: Smart marketers don’t wait until they have a warehouse full of dusty boxes to start thinking about how to position their product. They start way before that, so that by the time the boxes are delivered, the customers are already jostling outside on the street (or on the website).

In other words, you need to follow the boy scouts’ motto, and be prepared. Think ahead. You have no way of knowing what goes on in the minds of the people with the power to greenlight projects. Their priorities can change overnight. If they suddenly need something from you, pronto, it’s probably a good idea to be able to respond promptly and efficiently.

Anyway, I’m off to spend the rest of my weekend practising what I preach.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Why Writing Films Is Worth The Sweat

From time to time, especially in the wake of rejection or other news which requires one to take a deep breath, smash a few plates and avoid answering calls from your accountant, every screenwriter wonders: Why the hell am I still doing this?

Here’s a good way of answering that question: Read Mark Cousins wonderful article Movies Made Me in the latest issue of Prospect magazine. In this piece, he plots the influence movies have had on his and society’s opinions and habits in the past fifty or so years.

Cousins talks about how specific films helped form his sense of fashion, his knowledge of sexuality, his awareness of the larger world out there, and so on. But also how films have boosted national identities, challenged racial stereotypes and even managed to tell the truth about big emotions such as fear and loneliness.

Admittedly films can’t literally depict the horrors of war or slums (films don’t smell …), but they can certainly set trends, comment critically on social issues, raise uncomfortable questions and so on.

In my own little personal history, there have been many films which left a deep impression on me. Like George Lucas’s American Graffiti, which made me realize I was a teenager, or Kaos by the Taviani brothers which made me realize I should grow up, to name just a couple.

Someone sat down and wrote the scripts for those films. They sweated it out. They put those words in the actors’ mouths and conjured up the scenery and the drama within which these tales were told. They created these worlds and characters which moved me and changed me, and which became milestones in the narrative that is my past.

What a wonderful legacy!

That’s why writing films is worth the sweat.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

What Screenwriters Can Learn From Copywriters

In a recent newsletter, copywriting guru Gary Bencivenga summarizes the most important lessons he’s learned in his many years of copywriting. Unsurprisingly, there is a lot to learn for screenwriters there too, and I’ve taken the liberty of adapting some of his lessons to screenwriting for you here:

  1. The screenwriter is not the star. The more invisible you the writer are in your writing, the better. That’s not to say you shouldn’t develop your own unique voice. Obviously you must. But as soon as you try and show off with “clever wordsmithing,” you’re going to distract the reader and spoil the flow of the story. The reader wants to read about the characters, not about you.

  2. Research is the best cure for writer’s block. Not that any of us suffer from that ailment of course (we all have far too many ideas to write up, don’t we?). But let’s say, hypothetically, just for argument’s sake, you didn’t know how to proceed for some reason. According to Bencivenga, the best thing you can do is delve right into the material you’re writing about. Go out and collect heaps more information about your subject matter than you’ll ever possibly need. Interview people, read, get first-hand experience, etc., and before long the scenes will want to “… burst forth as if a dam is breaking.”

  3. Commit yourself to ongoing learning. The most successful A-list screenwriters read scripts and learn new tricks from each other every day. They never consider themselves to be finished learning, and neither should you. Keeping your mind open to new ideas and knowledge is a hugely important creative stimulus. So make a commitment to actively search out and study scripts and screenwriting manuals, to attend seminars, to see movies, and so on.

  4. Visualize what you’re writing. View it in your mind’s eye. You’re writing for the screen! What you write in the script has to make visual sense. The reader needs to be able to see what’s happening while they read.

I’m sure there’s lots more copywriters can teach screenwriters, not least of all about writing concisely and directly. But more about that some other time …

P.S. If you’re a fan of Judd Apatow, check out my latest post on Great Screenwriting, where I show how Knocked Up is a brilliant study in character-centred screenwriting!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

How not to be a slave to your writing expectations

Some screenwriters waste a lot of time and energy complaining about the film industry not treating them fairly. Of course it can be a relief to let off steam after a disappointing meeting, a set of boorish notes or a rejection letter. However, if you examine the assumptions feeding these feelings, you just might find you’re causing yourself more grief than necessary.

In his inspiring article The Tyranny of Expectations, vipassana meditation teacher Phillip Moffitt invites people to reflect on how their conscious and unconscious expectations are the cause of shame, disappointment, feelings of inadequacy, and so on.

In the case of screenwriters, these expectations might range from what defines a “good” screenwriter, to what you expect in return for all the work you’ve put in, or how you expect a “typical producer” to behave, and so on.

It’s what you expect that determines how you feel about the outcome of any given event. And the last thing a screenwriter needs, as someone who lives by and for their creative work, is to feel agitated, anxious, needy and desperate because of debilitating expectations.

So what to do?

Here’s what:

Be brutally honest with yourself about what you expect, and how these expectations are stopping you enjoying the present. That sounds easier than it is. Because when you begin to dig deeper, beyond the big, obvious expectations, you inevitably encounter smaller, unrealistic expectations, which are causing all kinds of upsetting and frustrating experiences.

Be aware of the difference between expectations and possibilities and allow yourself to be open to possibilities rather than fixated on expectations. When you’re focused on noticing possibilities in the now, “… your well-being is not contingent on the future.”

Be aware to what extent you define yourself and your well-being in terms of your goals and plans. Because that’s all they are. If life takes you in another direction, there may be much more fulfilling possibilities waiting for you there. Letting go of a pre-conceived notion of what your life as a screenwriter should look like, can be immensely liberating!

And parenthetically, apart from this being sound advice for those of us suffering needlessly rather than writing, it’s actually also a wonderful way to think about your characters …

What do they expect, and how is that hampering them, stopping them from living a more fulfilling and rewarding life?

Something to focus your attention on next time you feel yourself slipping conveniently into the role of victimized and unrecognized artist …

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Why Writing Yourself Into a Corner Can Work Wonders

The Coen brothers are famous for claiming their writing method consists mainly of napping. Whether they actually spend most of their time asleep or not, there is another element to their methodology which is equally interesting and probably more constructive for most other screenwriters: They like to write problematic situations for which they have no ready solution and then see where that leads.

In William Preston Robertson and Tricia Cooke’s book about The Making of The Big Lebowski Ethan Coen talks about how he and brother Joel had the idea for a scene with a severed toe long before they knew whose toe it was going to be. He concedes, “ … that’s a way to work, painting yourself into a corner and then having to perform whatever contortions to get yourself out.”

Or in their movie The Hudsucker Proxy, where they created an even more extreme conundrum for themselves by starting out with the idea of the main character jumping off a building. “That stumped us for a while,” says Ethan, “and we had to resort to the ridiculous extreme of, you know, stopping time.”

I recently unintentionally discovered the benefits of this approach myself when I showed up for a script meeting, armed with a scene in which the main character finds himself stuck in a car with his leg in plaster, watching his granddaughter being kidnapped by a group of thugs.

My writing partner hit the roof. “You can’t do that! You’re writing him out of the action!!” To which I replied, “Well, what might he do, given the kind of character he is?”

And lo and behold, a couple of hours later we had not only nailed the sequence*, we also came up with a brilliant twist for the climax as an unexpected bonus! Which we would never have thought of if we’d plodded along in a more logical, motivational, plot-oriented search.

As with all “techniques,” this is just one of numerous ways to approach the search for intriguing scenes and twists. But it’s certainly one that can activate trains of thought and associations that would otherwise remain dormant.

And if the Coen brothers’ films are anything to go by, it’s certainly worth a try.

Go on, surprise yourself, put your character in an impossible situation and see what happens!

* The original scene in the car didn’t survive.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Don’t Be Afraid To Cut

I’m in the middle of reading Chicken Run, Hatching the Movie, which is both a pleasure for the eye and for the (screenwriter’s) soul. Here’s why:

Very few people have any concept of how much excess material a screenwriter generates during the process of writing a script. Even producers usually haven’t an inkling. It’s amazing how few ideas, scenes, characters, plot twists, etc., actually make it into the final 100 or so pages.

Screenplays sometimes take years to come to fruition. And yet the resulting script seems so … brief. It’s not an eight-hundred page novel, or a gigantic Technicolor triptych … it’s about 15,000 words, or the equivalent in text of a modest short story.

It took you three years to write that? You want how much for it?!

Reading in detail how the Chicken Run story went from version to version, how characters came and went and how locations materialized and then disappeared again, is not just a fascinating and educational read for any screenwriter. It’s also confirmation that this is a perfectly normal process.

One of the most difficult decisions, especially for less experienced writers, is to cut or replace material you’ve become attached to. Partly for ego reasons (Hey, I thought of that!!), partly out of neurotic fear (I’ll never think of anything as good as that again!), and partly because it entails extra hard work (damn, now I have to go back to the treatment stage again!).

But it inevitably happens. A new, better idea comes along and you have to remind yourself the quality of the finished script is the only thing that counts.

So next time you hesitate to throw out a character or a scene that is holding up the story, or that has passed its sell-by date and belongs in a previous version, just remember it’s what the guys and gals at the top of the food chain do too. And be aware that the more you write, the more you write.

Just don’t throw out your notes. You never know when one of those old characters or ideas might be just what your looking for.

Oh and hurry up and order your copy of Chicken Run, Hatching the Movie. For some reason they’re giving them away for next to nothing …

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why imagining your movie trailer is an excellent idea

What will the trailer for your movie look like? This is a great question to ask yourself at any stage of the writing, but particularly at the stage where you’re still working out the basics. Here are just a few of the reasons why:

It stimulates your imagination. It’s like telling yourself not to think of that incredibly sexy neighbour of yours in their underwear. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you say that? Exactly.

It gets your creative juices flowing. Everyone knows how trailers work: They create expectations, they evoke associations and feelings by lifting a veil on the film. By hinting at some of the key dramatic moments, the trailer prompts you to unconsciously fill in the gaps. Which is exactly the right frame of mind to be in when thinking about your script.

It can surprise you. Just when you thought you knew what your film was going to be about, along comes an image in your imaginary trailer that says, what if …? Embrace that unexpected image, it might lead you to an amazing new twist.

It yields ideas for key moments in the film. That’s the nature of a trailer. Those climactic, hilarious or decisive moments in your film. The comedy set piece, the cliff-hanger, the bombshell revelation. The moment of betrayal, the discovery of an unsent letter, the deepest, darkest moment when all seems lost, and so on. All theses kinds of images are likely to pop into your mind.

It clarifies what genre(s) your script is in. You automatically picture the trailer in certain hues, at a particular pace, perhaps you hear a soundtrack or a voice-over, perhaps you visualize the taglines appearing, and so on. These are mostly associations with films you’ve seen before, and that’s good. Because every genre, or combination of genres, has its own characteristic type of trailer, and your film is no exception. The stronger your sense is of what kind of film you’re writing, the easier it will be to pitch.

It’s fun to do. Take a little time to watch trailers every now and then. It will remind you why you want to write movies. Don’t skip the trailers next time you watch a rented movie. Or take a look at sites like Coming Soon and Yahoo Trailers and just sit back and enjoy the show for a few minutes!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Writing emotional scenes

Most people watch movies because they want to be moved emotionally in some way. They want to laugh uncontrollably, to blubber unashamedly, to tremble in fear, to feel the surge of adrenalin, and so on.

The last thing you want while you’re watching a film is to get that distracted feeling. The urge to pee, or saunter to kitchen in search of munchies, or to check for Twitter updates on your phone.

One of the ways to keep the audience emotionally involved in every scene is to make sure it’s the characters themselves who are responsible for their actions. That may sound obvious, but unfortunately it’s a simple principle which is often ignored. Too many convenient coincidences in a plot will stretch the reader’s and the audience’s ability to remain emotionally involved with the story.

Here are a couple of questions to focus your creative imagination on finding the character’s emotion in the scene and using it to drive the action.

  • What’s the worst thing that could happen to my character in this scene? What would make them panic, or feel like jumping off a bridge, or want to sharpen that old axe in the garage?

  • What could my character have done (wrong) to set this disastrous event in motion? What were they trying to achieve or avoid? Why?!

  • What’s the best thing that could happen to my character in this scene? What would make them cry tears of joy? Or jump up and punch the air? Or kiss their scumbag boss??

  • What does my character need to do to cause that wonderful event to happen? What course of action does your character imagine will be the right one? Is it? Or are they fooling themselves? Is there something they don’t know?

Of course characters encounter external obstacles they have to deal with. But when the troubles and victories a character experiences are primarily the result of their own actions (intended or not), that’s when you really empathize with them most. It’s their courage, stupidity, vulnerability, fear, etc, which makes you hide behind a cushion or wet yourself laughing.


1. Show the character attempting, or avoiding something.

2. Make sure the audience/reader already knows what will happen if they fail/succeed.

3. Show the character failing, or succeeding.

4. Make sure the consequences of this failure/success are clear.

5. Show the character’s response in their actions (which can include what they say).

And above all, have fun writing!

P.S. If you’re a fan of screwball comedies, check out my Great Screenwriting blog, where I’ve posted a new article on Austin Powers …

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Essential Writing Skill Number One: Nurturing Your Ideas.

Possibly the most important aspect of any screenplay is the idea that generated it. Screenplay grammar and formatting can be learned, as can screenplay structure, genre conventions and so on. Yet there’s a popular fallacy which claims that you can’t learn to generate ideas. You’re either born with a talent for it, or not.

I think what’s closer to the truth is that if it doesn’t come naturally, it means you’ve learned to ignore the endless stream of ideas that everyone is subject to during the course of the day. Which is not necessarily a bad thing in many walks of life. Would you want your airline pilot daydreaming on the job?

As a screenwriter though, you need to unlearn that conditioning, open your eyes and ears. Everything around you is potentially the kernel of a story, a scene, a character. Allow yourself to daydream and fantasize about news items, people’s behaviour, locations, anecdotes, music, science, snippets of conversation, children playing, and so on. As I’ve written before in this blog, keep asking What if?

You also need to develop the ability to spot a nugget of gold buried in that mass of mental sludge. Because most of what we think is just white noise. Not Oscar-winning screenplay material.

However, perhaps the most crucial skill to master, is the skill of nurturing an idea you really think is worth exploring further.

In her insightful blog post entitled Idea Killers – 3 Ways To Stifle A Great Idea, M discusses three ways people often nip ideas in the bud. I’ve listed them here with specific reference to writing:

1. Not giving your idea a chance to grow.
This is when you undermine your idea by criticizing it and writing it off before it’s had a chance to ripen and blossom. Before its potential is clear. It’s the inner critic that likes to sabotage your creative mind, just for the fun of it. Don’t heed this voice! It’s good to have an accurate and sharpened critical faculty, but not at the initial ideas stage of the writing.

2. Sharing your undeveloped ideas too soon.
Often a side-effect of the initial enthusiasm and euphoria a writer can feel when an idea initially presents itself, this is when you blurt out a raw idea which to the listener just sounds vague or even silly. That response causes you to doubt too. You need to bite your tongue, keep the idea to yourself until it’s stewed for a while. This is a bit like sending a passionate email: It’s always a good idea to write the draft email, leave it overnight and then decide in the cold light of the next day if that’s what you really wanted to write.

3. Sharing your ideas with the wrong people.
This is a classic! The wrong people can be the kind of wet blankets who, for whatever reasons, always respond negatively to any kind of enthusiasm. The kind of people who can’t stand you feeling so upbeat and inspired. The wrong people can also be what Julia Cameron, in her immensely inspiring book The Artist’s Way calls crazymakers. The kind of larger-than-life, domineering, energy-guzzling busybodies who love to make you feel small, insignificant and untalented. Keep your ideas well away from them!!

In terms of screenwriting, an idea only acquires value in the real world once it germinates into a story. You can’t copyright an idea but you can protect a story, even if it’s just a synopsis. So trick number one is to harvest as many ideas as you can, in the full knowledge that you’ll never use most of them. And trick number two is to contain your enthusiasm when you do discover an inspiring nugget, at least until you’ve written a story concept based on the idea.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Five Important Reasons To Know Your Premise Inside-Out

A premise is a catchy, shorthand description of what your screenplay is about. A couple of compact sentences giving a sense of the genre, the main character(s), the central conflict and the basic narrative action.

The premise is based on the initial inspiration for the writing. This might have been a seemingly trivial stimulus which first made you think of a character, a situation, a theme, a title, or whatever it was that then became the seed for a screenplay. Equally, it might be a profound question or issue you’ve wanted to write about for as long as you can remember.

Here’s why it’s important to be acutely aware of your premise:

  1. Whatever the initial trigger was, once you start writing, the premise will become the corner-stone of your screenplay. It becomes the measure against which you can hold every line of dialogue, every dilemma and every twist. A kind of compass to keep you on track while you write.

  2. The premise is, as screenwriter extraordinaire Terry Rossio puts it in his characteristically witty column, A Foot in The Door, your calling card. There is no way to overstate the importance of a well-written premise as a marketing and pitching tool. The premise is the briefest but most essential advert for your screenplay. A well-crafted film poster or DVD cover can convince undecided or sceptical punters to part with their money on impulse. Similarly, your premise can mean the difference between your script being read or being binned.

  3. “Classic narrative is … like a river which has a source in an inland spring … the premise is the source of the river.” (Cherry Potter) In other words: Being aware of what your inspiration is, ensures you can return to it whenever you need creative nourishment, throughout the entire process of writing and selling the script.

  4. Your premise will pique people’s curiosity because it expresses the unique driving force of the story. It contains the main dramatic issue, the central conflict which is reflected in all the conflicts in the story (see John Truby for more on this). Plus it gives a sense of the unique story world, which elevates it above the generic level of its genre.

  5. As writer Bill Johnson explains, a story is a promise. It creates expectations. The audience unconsciously enters into a deal with you, and you have to deliver. The premise enables you to be aware of what your story promises while you write the screenplay, but also when you pitch and hopefully sell it!

Knowing your premise inside-out means you know what you’re writing and why. You owe this to yourself, to everyone else involved in making the film and to the audience.