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.