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 m├ętier. 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.