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!

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