I’m a writer. How can you tell? Easy, I carry a pen in my pocket. Not a fancy pen, not an expensive heirloom or a lucky mojo magical pen. Just a ballpoint. Something to write with. When the waitress or cashier hands me one of their disease ridden, communal pens to sign my check, I’ve already whipped mine out and proudly decline, “No thanks! I’ve got my own.”
Cause I’m a writer, see?
Some people are overly romantic about the pen and paper thing like George Lucas who, I hear, writes all his scripts this way. That would drive me nuts. Because not only can I type a gazillion times faster which ensures I can actually get a complete thought down before it dissipates into the vapor it came from, but sadly it requires the gift of spiritual interpretation for me to even read and discern my own handwriting. It’s kinda like shorthand only without all that annoying clarity at the end.
Boss: “How did that meeting go, what did you all discuss?”
Me (flipping through notebook): “Well, sir, apparently the 3rd Quarter chipmunk formed a polygon tuna in what I assume is the…rectum (!?) of the uptown nazi bravo horse. And then something about a Chevelle.”
Who knows, maybe Lucas can’t read his own writing either which totally explains Star Wars Episodes 1, 2 and 3.
Anywhooooo, if we’re going to continue this relationship we’re forming, this loose association between us, you need to know this about me. I love Banana Pudding. But also, more importantly, I’m currently writing my 8th Script. I don’t say that in a super braggadocious way, mind you. That would be a sin and also probably a cool Mary Poppin’s Song. No, in fact 3 of those 7 finished scripts are toxic waste. Did they start out as toxic waste? No, they did not. At the time I was writing — and shortly thereafter — they were the most important pieces of english literature ever to grace a keyboard.
My theory is that just as food spoils and cars rust and atomic isotopes breakdown into radioactive…Stop! Spirit of Big Bang Theory come OUT!
Whew, I gotta cut back on that show.
But back to my theory, I think if you write an amazing script and tuck it away on your computer, it begins to breakdown on its own. Maybe the computer kilobytes are reacting negatively with the Courier-12 font. I don’t know. I’m not a Paleontologist. But over time, this Word Decay or “Super Fractalization” very simply turns genius verbiage into stink bombs. Sometimes the process takes years and years, sometimes, in the case of a lot of these Wired4Film articles, I write them up one day, post them online and by the next day they’ve already begun to fractalize and they’re not as funny or insightful or there’s typos suddenly in them that weren’t there before. It’s very frustrating. Could be a problem with WordPress, actually. It may clear up after a few more upgrades.
In the meanwhile, we suffer through.
Have you revisited any of your old works recently? Have you seen this to be true? Most industry professionals don’t use the word “fractalize” cause it’s so pretentious. They’ll normally abbreviate it just like the periodic table to the letter F. Hence the phrase, “That script is really F’d up!” Clearly, Super Fractalization at work.
In full disclosure, I started this article with the hyper-tantalizing title of “The 7 Deadly Sins of Screenwriting.” Yeah, I’m not going to get to that today. Possibly tomorrow. That is if my writing doesn’t get all F’d up!
Our friends Scott Myers and Tom Benedek over at ScreenwritingMasterClass.com have outlined some of their 2013 writing courses coming up. Very exciting! These guys are Pros and know their stuff. Don’t let a lack of good training prevent you from moving toward your 2013 Script Goals! Invest in a class! Form a writer’s group! Get connected! Take a look at what is selling! These are some excerpts from their December Newsletter…
Screenwriting Master Class
Happy New Year, Fellow Screenwriters!! 2012 was active in “the business” for original scripts. Great writing, strong concepts rise up.
SCREENWRITING MASTER CLASS: COURSE SPOTLIGHT
Pages I: The First Draft: This 10-week workshop provides a supportive environment in which writers use weekly due dates to pound out an entire first draft of their original screenplay. A great way to get that script done.
Dates: January 14-March 24, 2013 Instructor: Scott Myers
Prep: From Concept To Outline: This unique 6-week writing workshop takes you through a step-by-step process enabling you to break your story before you type FADE IN, giving you the best shot possible at finishing your script… and making it great.
Dates: January 21-March 3, 2013 Instructor: Tom Benedek
Craft: Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling: Having produced 13 consecutive box office hits, Pixar is arguably home to the best storytellers in contemporary filmmaking. In this popular 1-week course, we will analyze several Pixar movies revealing key narrative principles you can use to develop and craft your own stories.
Dates: January 28-February 3, 2013 Instructor: Scott Myers
Introduction to Screenwriting: New course! In this 10-week online class, participants will learn the fundamentals of screenplay structure, strengthen storytelling insight, acquire skills to build a film project step by step, and work on an original script project using clear, simple writing exercises.
Dates: January 28-April 9, 2013 Instructor: Tom Benedek
COMING IN FEBRUARY AT SCREENWRITINGMASTERCLASS.COM:
February 4: TV: How to Write a One-Hour Spec Pilot (Tom Benedek)
February 11: Craft: Handling Exposition (Scott Myers)
February 18: Pages II: Rewriting Your Script (Tom Benedek)
Not only do they offer course work, they go above and beyond with their 2012 Script analysis to talk about not only what is selling but why…
SPEC SCRIPT MARKET SALES
Title: Currency Logline: Focuses on two Secret Service agents in pursuit of a private mercenary’s powerful and sophisticated counterfeiting operation. Writer: Mark DiStefanoGenre: Drama Agency: APA Management: Anonymous Content Buyer: Participant Media Date: 10/5/12.
Title: Almanac Logline: Found-footage. No details about Almanac were given other than it is intended to be a found-footage project and that Paramount intends to move aggressively and swiftly with it. Writers: Andrew Stark, Jason Pagan Genre: N/AAgency: WME Buyer: Paramount Date: 10/5/12 Notes: Writers are first-timers.
Title: The Join Logline: Set in the wake of a terrible particle accelerator accident, story follows a first response hazmat team sent in to investigate, only to find themselves targeted for assassination as soon as they emerge. Writer: Justin Rhodes Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller Agency: ICM Management: Madhouse Entertainment Buyer: Legendary Pictures Date: 10/18/12 Notes: “The Join” was a ‘trunk script,’ the first one Rhodes wrote and had been sitting in his ‘trunk’ for some years.
Title: Patrol Logline: The pic follows US Marines patrol who while chasing drug smugglers to a remote island, their mission takes an unexpectedly deadly twist. Writer:Jayson Rothwell Genre: Action Thriller Agency: WME Buyer: Paramount Date:10/24/12.
Title: Our Name Is Adam Logline: An astronaut who travels back in time and works with his younger self. Writer: T. S. Nowlin Genre: Science Fiction Agency: WMEManagement: Caliber Media Buyer: Paramount Date:10/25/12.
Title: Somacell Logline: “Somacell” chronicles a female prison guard in the near future who discovers that the virtual reality process that rehabilitates convicts is not all it promises to be. Writer: Ashleigh Powell Genre: Thriller Agency: Gersh Management:Benderspink Buyer: Warner Bros. Date: 10/29/12 Notes: Reported mid-six figures. Writer is a first-timer.
Title: Subdivision Logline: N/A Writers: Morgan Jurgenson, Alex Ankeles Genre:
Science Fiction Comedy Agency: Jurgenson [APA], Anekeles [CAA] Management:Jurgenson [Hung Entertainment Group], Ankeles [Kaplan/Perrone] Buyer: UniversalDate: 10/30/12 Notes: 2nd spec sale for duo this year including “Hyperdrive”.
Title: Triple Time Logline: Two-hander follows a broke U.S. marshal tasked with escorting a prisoner accused of an environmental disaster to Washington, D.C. When their transport plane explodes, the unlikely pair must work together to figure out who is behind the conspiracy, which may include one of them. Writers: Peter Billingsley, Michael J. Wilson Genre: Action Thriller Agency: CAA Buyer: Scott Pictures Date:10/31/12.
Title: Cherries Logline: “Cherries” follows three naive dads who set out to stop their daughters from making good on a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. Writers:Brian Kehoe, Jim Kehoe Genre: Comedy Agency: ICM Management: DMG Entertainment Buyer: Good Universe Date: 11/9/12. Notes: Option deal.
Title: Sanctuary Logline: A young woman possessed by a powerful demonic force seeks refuge within The Sanctuary, a Vatican-run secret organization that teaches the possessed to channel their inner demon and use its power as a weapon against evil.Writer: Alan Trezza Genre: Supernatural Action Management: Magnet ManagementBuyer: Paramount Date: 11/13/12.
Title: High Value Target Logline: A lethal special-operations unit attacks a boat operated by Somali pirates. In an effort to ramp up the realism, much of the story will be told with point of view cameras attached to members of the unit. Writer: Spenser CohenGenre: Action Management: Energy Entertainment Buyer: Millennium Date: 11/19/12.Notes: Low-six figure deal.
Title: Straight Edge Logline: “Edge” is an Los Angeles-set actioner that revolves around a heist gone wrong and follows a slew of colorful characters, ranging from corrupt cops to Southland gang members. Writer: Rich Wilkes Genre: Action Agency: Verve Buyer:Silver Pictures Date: 11/27/12. Notes: Pre-emptive acquisition.
Title: 52 Percent Logline: A longtime married couple is contemplating divorce. A clash develops between their daughter, who hopes for reconciliation, and a jaded young divorce attorney unwilling to lose a client without a fight. Writer: Zina Zaflow Genre:Romantic Comedy Management: Chad Snopek Management Buyer: QED InternationalDate: 11/29/12.
Title: Leave Logline: A group of U.S. soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress while on leave in Thailand. Writers: Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari Genre: Thriller Agency: WMEManagement: Prolific Entertainment Buyer: QED International Date: 11/29/12.
Title: Priority Run Logline: The story centers on a small group of correctional officers and inmates who must band together to fend off a mysterious attack when their prison bus is sabotaged on a remote stretch of highway. Writer: Terrence Mulloy Genre: ActionAgency: UTA Management: Benderspink Buyer: Arclight Entertainment Date:11/30/12. Notes: Writer is from Australia.
Title: Untitled Logline: N/A Writer: Robert Lynn Genre: Action Agency: UTAManagement: Kaplan/Perrone Buyer: Davis Entertainment Date: 12/6/12.
Title: Arminius Logline: Script tells the fact-based story of Arminius, a German who was trained as a Roman warrior, but who switched allegiance when the Romans tried to take over Germania. At 25, he would eventually unite disparate Germanic tribes and rally them to victory against the Roman Army in the bloody Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The defeat had ramifications that would end with Arminius losing his life, but it halted the Roman Empire’s expansion North, and became the worst loss suffered by the Romans under the reign of Augustus Caesar. Writer: Frank Moll Genre: Historical DramaAgency: CAA Management: Rain Management Group Buyer: Twentieth Century FoxDate: 12/7/12. Notes: First script deal for writer.
Title: Empire Logline: Described as being in the style of Safe House and The Usual Suspects. Writer: Ben Ripley Genre: Thriller Agency: Gersh Management: MosaicBuyer: New Regency Date: 12/11/12.
Title: Peste Logline: A teenage girl begins a video documentary about her life for a school project just as a terrifying virus sweeps through her small town. Quarantined with her family, she thinks they are out of harm’s way, but she soon learns that the virus has invaded their house. Her video documents the family’s frantic struggle to find a cure before they are completely taken over by the Peste. Writer: Barbara Marshall Genre:Horror Thriller Agency: APA Management: Industry Entertainment Buyer: IM Global Octane Date: 12/20/12. Notes: Script made the Black List, Hit List, and Blood List.
Title: Warden Logline: Story centers on a prison warden who — when his wife and son are kidnapped — is blackmailed into helping the American head of a Mexican drug cartel escape from his own high-security facility. Writers: John Sonntag, Thomas SonntagAgency: UTA Management: Mosaic Media Buyer: New Line Date: 12/22/12 Notes:This is the second spec script deal of the year for the Sonntag brothers.
Through the end of December, 96 spec scripts have sold in 2012, compared to 110 at this point last year. The downturn can be attributed to two factors:
- In October-November of 2011, 39 spec scripts sold, 18 in October alone.
- The spec market has softened somewhat in the 4th quarter 2012 compared to the previous 8 months.
Why the latter? Some buyers’ fiscal year ends December 31 and they may simply have run low on acquisition funds. Perhaps, too, buyers have stacked their slates with projects with the acquisition spree beginning in January 2011.
Still even if the year ends where it is now, this marks a significant increase over 2010 in which only 55 specs sold.
Congratulations to Andrew Stark & Jason Pagan, Ashleigh Powell, and Frank Moll ‘first-timers’ who broke into the business by selling a spec script.
Congratulations, too, to Justin Rhodes on the sale of his spec, a big fan of Go Into The Story and Screenwriting Master Class.
Writing Quote for January 2013
“I took a class in screenwriting because I wanted to strengthen my sense of structure. To me a good novel delves deep into a character’s spiritual and emotional drives, and then compels them to act in life-changing ways. I didn’t want to be one of those meandering novelists who cover up lack of action with narrative. So I took the class and I fell in love with screenwriting. It’s like story poetry, the most disciplined form of modern writing, where the story is most cleanly exposed and there’s a beating heart left there bleeding on the page, precious, holy and frightening.”
– Shawn Lawrence Otto (House of Sand and Fog)
Visit their website here.
Follow them on Twitter @ScreenwritingMC where they track all Hollywood lit sales as well as the latest screenwriting news.
Let’s talk format.
I was watching a panel discussion one day of some local yokels that happened to be independent filmmakers of various shapes and sizes. The question came to them about whether formatting was important in their scripts. One of them snickered and said, “In Hollywood, the trashcans are filled with properly formatted scripts…” and the room laughed with him. He went on to claim, “Write what you want.”
Well, he’s partially correct. Those garbage bins, also known as the “slush pile”, are filled with properly formatted scripts. But at the bottom of those bins, thrown out days, perhaps weeks earlier are the improperly formatted scripts.
We must be clear about one thing…script formatting was invented by Hollywood Producers, for Hollywood producers. There is so much packed into a script which tells the Producer how to break down a scene by character, props, locations, etc. The dialogue to description ratio allows them to guess-timate how many screen minutes will be taken up in a page. Typically 1 minute per page. So, Producers, understandably, are very picky about their script formats as our Producer Pal Ken Altman explained in his Top 10 Things Producers wish Writers Would Do article.
But they’re not usually the first ones we encounter. We generally have to pass through the Hollywood Reader’s omniscient and ever-watchful gaze first.
You see, the Hollywood readers pick up this new script and the first thing they do is look at the cover page. Do they know this writer? Because a William Goldman script carries ssssslightly more weight than an S. David Acuff script. Goldman goes to the top of the read list…Acuff goes to the top of the slush pile.
Second thing they do, they flip to the back. Does it fit in the 90 to 120 page range? Because they’ve got a lot of scripts to go through. So if they can skim a 160 pager off the top, that just makes their life all that easier.
Thirdly they flip quickly through. What is the white page to dark ink ratio? Is there plenty of space on the page or is this thing wall to wall words and description? There are a lot of frustrated novelists trying their hand at scriptwriting and as we’ve mentioned before, they are two different animals all together.
Fourth, they scan the formatting. Does it seem like in general this person knows what they’re doing. Is it a Courier 12 font or has this rogue writer gone all Helvetica 16 on them?
Lastly, they’ll bite in to the first 10 pages. What do your first 10 pages do for the reader? Does it hook them instantly? Any time someone reads one of my scripts I always give them the 10-page money back guarantee. If they’re not hooked by 10 pages, they can stop reading and are free to return the script to me and get all the money they didn’t pay me back. By page 10, the reader should not only have a good clue as to the main character but also the direction this story is going.
If it’s a comedy, they darn well better have laughed. If it’s an action film, something better have blown up or someone better have judo chopped someone’s clavicle.
The seasoned Hollywood reader knows this secret: If someone hasn’t taken the time to learn proper formatting technique, which is one of the simplest things to learn and implement within our craft, more than likely they haven’t paid attention to deeper formatting issues like story structure, character arcs, genre rules, etc. And so….slushpile.
You’ve got to be a little Rainman-ish about your script formats. ”Yeah, the Character name is DEF-initely 4.1 inches in from the left margin….DEF-initely.” And spell check! Poor grammar and spelling is a shortcut to the slushpile.
I wrote my first 3 scripts in Microsoft Word. It can be done. It’s more work, but you can’t let lack of tools be your excuse for not writing. As in, “If only I had the Ab&Back Plus 5000, I would work out every day.” Truth is…the Ab&Back Plus became an expensive clothes rack by the bed. I mean, if you can’t find the time for 30 sit ups in the day, put the credit card down…a fancy schmancy machine sold to you late night by chiselled gods and goddesses ain’t gonna help.
But if you’re serious about the screenwriting craft, by all means, go out and get Final Draft. Or buy a used copy on eBay. Spoiler Alert: Final Draft will NOT…and this is important..write your scripts for you. Often times in post-production circles, I’ll mention that with this new Final Cut Pro software, these tv shows and short films pretty much edit themselves. Har har har…laugh laugh laugh. Acuff you’re so funny, why are you out of your room?
Or in production circles, I’ll casually say that they could save themselves thousands of dollars of preproduction and time and shave off, like 30 crew members if they would just shoot on the Canon 5D. Cause Canon 5Ds, as we all know, pretty much make everything look exactly like a professional movie. No big deal. Laugh laugh laugh…har har har. Acuff you’re so funny, security please escort this man off the set please.
You get the point.
If you’re just interested in general “proper script formats” the quickest easiest is to Google it. You get some decent choices. I might also recommend this page from the Nicholls Screenwriting Competition which has this page of SCREENWRITER RESOURCES including a PDF showing you properly formatted script.
There are also dozens of screenwriting books available as you can see on THIS PAGE that lists Top 10 Books to help on your screenwriting journey. Some of the best of the best. The one I would trust the most on formatting is this one:
Yes, Syd Field has some good books on formatting, and there are others, and you can even pick up an online script and use that for a reference point, but remember that script formatting rules evolve and change through the years. What was “must do” 20 years ago is different. Used to be MORE and CONT’D were used at the bottom of each page where the scene carried on to the next page. Now, you can leave it off. Leave that for dialogue that straddles two pages.
There was a time when people wanted single sided scripts only. Now in our greener, more earth friendly studio environs, double-sided pages are more acceptable. Things like that change from year to year, so if you are looking at a screenplay as your formatting guide, make sure it is something VERY recent. 500 days of Summer recent. The Social Network recent. Also, certain scripts online are Word Documents, and others are PDFs. I prefer the PDFs because your MS Word may reformat the Word document in some crazy way, while PDFs are locked into however they were originally printed…usually from Final Draft.
It’s a good exercise sometime to look at a romantic comedy like “When Harry Met Sally” from the 80s versus the formatting and structure and pacing of a “Larry Crowne” to compare apples to apples.
So, in review:
1. Formatting is essential. So, be Rainman when it comes to formatting.
2. Spelling and grammar count.
3. Buy a book or Google some online resources to reference
4. Final Draft Scriptwriting Software has some assembly required
5. Ab&Back Plus is no replacement for some good ol’ fashioned stomach crunches.
Let’s write a movie!
by Cheryl McKay
My organizationally-challenged, creative friends think I’m maddeningly structured. (Sorry, friends!) Perhaps I am. But I’d love to share a method that gets my creative juices flowing when organizing, plotting and planning to write a screenplay. While there is no one “right way” to plot, I’ve found that nothing stimulates my imagination in the stark blandness of script plotting like the use of color.
Start by giving each project you write a suitably colored binder. (My binder for Never the Bride is purple – my character is obsessed with it. I even wrote my scene notes with a purple pen.) Then use color-keyed divider tabs so every note can be filed under the appropriate tab. Tabs can include general brainstorms, scene ideas, character breakdowns, locations/settings, research, synopses or treatments, thematic notes and meeting notes.
Once you know enough about your story to plot out scene ideas, the real fun begins. Long ago, I used plain (as in BOR-ring) white index cards to track scene notes. I’d face 100-200 cards that looked exactly alike, overwhelmed about how to order them. I also found them inconvenient to take anywhere to organize – like on a plane or to a coffee shop. (How many times did I drop a whole set I had just ordered? Grr.)
Years ago, I switched to using colored Post-It notes. (I have about 15 color choices.) I make a list of my main plots and subplots, and assign a color to each one.
Example color chart from Never the Bride:
Jessie and God’s storyline – Yellow
Love interest #1 (Blake) – Green
Love Interest #2 (Clay) – Blue
Best Frien Subplot (Nicole) – Lavendar
Brooklyn’s subplot (Jessie’s Sister) – Orange
Proposals Business/Work Place – Pink
The Cops (humorous runner) – Purple
This is where the real fun kicks up a notch. Take the appropriate color Post-It for a scene idea and write it down – whether it be a moment of dialogue, a plot twist, an act break, a character action, reaction, a surprise reveal, a humorous gag, etc. (If there’s crossover in a particular scene, choose the color from the most dominant part of the story.) Don’t analyze scene order yet; just let your mind play.
If I know I’ll just be staying home to work on a particular project, I’ll stick these on poster boards. If I’m travelling, I stick them on blank pieces of white paper that can be filed in my binder under the scene ideas tab. (This is the only time I’ll give you permission to use white paper, so your scene colors stand out.)
Once you’ve written out as many scenes as you can dream up, structure them. First, shift them around by acts. (You’ll likely have a sense if a scene belongs in Act One, Act Two or Act Three.) Then, get more meticulous and try to order the notes within each act. (I like to do this in 15-page blocks at a time. For example; Pg. 31-45 or 46-60.)
When you think you have a rough scene order, this is where colors make what’s going on with your plotlines jump off the page. If you see a long sequence that is completely missing orange, you’ll realize you haven’t serviced that storyline in a while. You can write a new scene idea and insert it, or you can move an orange scene from somewhere else to keep that thread of your story alive and kicking. You’ll also see where your script is getting repetitive by having too many beats in a row of the same color. This is a big benefit of color-coding that hundreds of white note cards just won’t give you. (Plue, remember! White is boring.)
Once you think you have all of your scenes in place, you can “watch” your story progress by reading all your colored Post-Its in order. You can get a sense for how your story is unfolding, and how your main story and subplots interact with each other in living color. Once you’re satisfied with your outline, it’s time to type FADE IN: on the blank white screen. But in your mind’s eye, you’ll always see that color, sparking your creativity throughout the writing process.
Cheryl McKay is the screenwriter for the award-winning film The Ultimate Gift. Her screenplay for Never the Bride was adapted into a novel and published by RandomHouse Publishers (with Rene Gutteridge).
She also wrote an episode of Gigi: God’s Little Princess, based on the book by Sheila Walsh, and Taylor’s Wall, a drama about high-school violence. She’s beenwriting since the tender age of five, when she penned her first play. Cheryl is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and currently lives in Los Angeles.
Okay, okay, let me clear this up first. When I say “30 days of Screenwriting” I didn’t say…”consecutive”. So here we are on day 23 on September 12th. I hope your script is coming along swimmingly.
Mine is. In fact, last week in a writer’s group session I just had a major breakthrough with the story. There’s a huge accident that takes place in the script that I thought HAD to happen in Act I. It just HAD to! The breakthrough was when another much more seasoned writer suggested that it be the Midpoint of Act II.
It was an “Ah ha!” moment where the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine shot through the windows and landed on my laptop and I was all, “Duuuuuude!” And he was all “Whoooooaaa!” Because in our writer groups we talk like the 500 year old sea turtles from “Finding Nemo”.
All the signs were there, I just wasn’t reading them. The story was light after the accident and I was trying to cram in too much BEFORE the accident. By moving the accident to the midpoint of Act II then that allowed all that info before to breathe, and it strengthens the back half of the script cause the audience is all distracted by the fact they’ve just seen a C-130 go up in flames.
There’s two points to be taken here. One is me highly recommending having a sounding board for your script. A place to bounce your ideas off of other seasoned writers. The second is that these things take time to bubble up to the surface.
Occasionally you’ll hear urban legends about a script like “Usual Suspects” that the writers sold on Spec on the idea alone and then they locked themselves in a hotel room and pounded out the script in week’s time. And it’s a great story. But believe me, it did NOT happen in a week.
The writer’s had been mulling over the story for years. They’d been revisiting it in their mind, re-arranging characters and scenes, slowly cooking this story, adding spices, and putting it back on the back burner to simmer a while. Then they’d take it back out, do some more work and put it back to the back. And so when it was time to put pen to paper, or pixels to ‘puter, then it flowed out. In a week.
There are a lot of writers that maybe take a week or 2 weeks to pound out a draft. But, you also have to figure in the 6 months of prep work they’ve been doing to get to that point. And you have to figure in the 4 months of rewrites they do afterwards polishing and perfecting.
It is a lot like cooking. And not like Ramen noodle soup or Oatmeal in the morning kinda cooking, I’m talking some Chef Emeril Rachel Ray type stuff. You know there was a time when I shied away from any of Martha Stewart’s recipes because they all started with the same thing: ”Step 1. Go grow your own wheat in a field that you will later grind up into flour.”
Thanks, Martha. Thanks for that. I’m trying to get dinner on by 5:30 and already I’m 7 months and a harvest behind. I mean I’m assuming it takes 7 months to grow wheat but I dunno. Wheat production isn’t a huge thing in Downtown Charlotte.
“Step 2: Go to market and select a dairy cow from which you’ll make your creamers”
Martha!! Just stop it! You’re killing me. My loft apartment is now filled with a grow house that some hippies helped me retrofit for wheat growing purposes and you want me to fit a cow in here too? Lord knows, I’m 4 years behind on growing the apple trees too.
Yes, this will be the best Apple pie EVER in the history of David. But, G’AW! Is it really gonna be that much better than my frozen Marie Callender pie? I thought THAT was hard work cause I not only had to pre-heat the oven, but I had to fork the crust too. Fork, I said.
Anyway, there are so many ingredients your script will need to make it taste exactly right. And there are many layers and many steps to the process. You’re gonna have to baste, puree, braise, simmer, knead, fondue, al dente, stock, score and sweat your vegetables. You might be writing on a deadline. But your script may not fit neatly into that deadline you’ve assigned.
Back up your writing process, start it earlier, to prepare for the times of simmering. Where for all purposes it looks like you’re just watching a pot waiting for it to boil. But really, things are happening below the surface that you can not see. That you’re not aware of. Sugars are breaking down, ingredients are smelting together, flavors are being released and extra liquids are being boiled out in that simmering period.
Let it happen. And your little Sous Chefs helping you along is your writer’s group. Occasionally they’re gonna try and throw something weird in there and you’re all, nooooo we don’t need garlic…this is a chocolate fondue. But, trust the seasoned writers. If they say to add some brown sugar to your spaghetti sauce…DO IT!!!
It tastes delicious. And you know what? So does your script now. At the very least, you got to harvest the wheat field in your living room in time to see the TV for football season. If you’re in to such things.
Let’s write a script!
Let’s face it…naming a script is hard work. I mean, haaaaaaaaard. Don’t believe me? Just look through the Hollywood Reporter’s In Production Listings section at all the projects called, “Untitled.” Of course you have to subscribe to Hollywood Reporter to see that section, which is why I haven’t seen that section. But I imagine that there has to be a handful of “Untitleds” nestled in amongst all the Marvel Reboots and Pixar films and Vampire movies because it is. so. difficult!
Naming your film is just as hard to do as naming a kid. And you KNOW how poorly that’s worked out. Just give any teacher a choice between having to call the class roll or spraying themselves with nutella and skydiving into a Tiger pit…of…Tigers that like nutella flavored…things…not sure where this is headed…
…the point issssss…..the point is, they choose the nutella.
“Napolean?” ”Here! G’aw!”
“Jefrognqua?” ”Here. I go by Froggy.”
“Braxxtyndle?” ”Here. I go by Xtynd.”
“Pernicious Alexanderinfuldorfer?” ”Here. I go by Sue.”
“Ahhhhhh, where’s my Nutellaaaaaaa…”
You’ve been warned. Naming your script, your darling beloved masterpiece, is no easy task.
Do you go ironic with your titling like the mob-movie “Goodfellas” or “American Beauty”? Do you interweave multilayered meaning and depth like “Shawshank Redemption” or “The Usual Suspects” or “The Smurfs”? Do you go for humor like “Stop! Or my Mom will shoot!” or “The 40 year old Virgin”? Or shadowy and obscure like, “Inception” and “Memento”?
These are the choices that drive a writer curr-RAZY!
But when it gets really fun is when writers have drained the last drop of creative juice from their oversized Starbucks mind mug and they just go with the blatantly obvious.
“Snakes on a Plane”
“Cowboys and Aliens”
“Friends with Benefits”
“Hobo with a Shotgun”
“Star Wars: Phantom Menace Where The Force is Not So Much A Mysterious Magic Thing Anymore As It Is Really a Blood Borne Pathogen More Akin to Lip Herpes Only Not Contagious Except Genetically And I Hope You Like C-SPaN cause then THIS movie is DEFINITELY for you! Die Jar jar!”
Okay, I quite possibly made the last one up cause I’m still bitter. But the rest are all SUPER-real titles. Visceral and vivid, their names lay it all out on the table. In fact, I’m glad we don’t name our kids like this or we’d have a lot more roll calls like:
“Snotty pucker wrinkle face?” “Here!”
“Bulbous Balloon Fatty Hog leg?” “Here!”
“Toxic Poopy Garbage Diaper?” “Here!”
That does not mean that those obvious-named kids aren’t well-behaved or adorable child geniuses. And having a simple, tell-all title doesn’t mean your film belongs in the slush pile either. They can actually be fun films.
In fact, what even got me thinking about all of this today was a Trailer I saw for “Machine Gun Preacher”:
I liked the trailer and movie title so much, I may go back and rename my three daughters. You know, Caitlyn, Alexis and Gooey Monkey Face.
1. Have you ever been in love? Have you ever met someone that makes your heart pitter patter, your breathing shallow and your palms sweaty? Have you ever wanted to tell someone that you loved them, but couldn’t. It wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t the right place. But you were with them. But you couldn’t tell them. What was that conversation like? What did you talk about? You were oooooozing love, and trying to make sure the other person knew you really really liked them, but you couldn’t just come out and say it.
2. Have you ever been mad? Insanely, blood boiling mad at someone. But your kids were in the room so you couldn’t let it all hang out. Or you were in public and it wasn’t appropriate to explode all over them in Wal-Mart. What did you talk about? How was your manner of speech with them?
3. Have you ever been to church and everyone’s all praise and worshipp-y but you encountered something last night that rocked your world. A first kiss. A bad divorce. A hit and run. And then all the sudden you turn around and there’s that other person in front of you. They were there, too. What do you say? What do you talk about? How is your crazy internal world of conflict and drama leaking its way into your conversation?
This all has to do with the Art of Subtext. Subtext just means that there is something more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. And when the audience is in on that bit of info, it can ignite a whole scene between two characters.
You want romantic subtext? Think of “The Princess Bride” when Buttercup was in a room and the Farmboy would come in and she would find some chore for him to do. She would ask and he would say, “As you wish.” And after a while of this, she began to realize as did we, that when he said, “As you wish,” he was really saying “I love you!”. The subtext was the unrealized passion and love they had for each other the surface level was about a boy fetching a pitcher for a young maiden.
Subtext. Layers of meaning beneath the surface.
Intrigue subtext? What about “Inglorious Basterds?” Quentin Tarantino can talk a script to DEATH. The man loves the sound of his own writing. And his characters talk and talk and talk and talk and then BAM some huge piece of action happens, and then talk talk talk some more. But he does an interesting thing, as with the open of that film.
You’ve got a dairy farmer who is being surprise inspected by a Nazi jew hunter. The Nazi comes in to his home, sits in his kitchen and talks to him about dairy farms and milk and his job and local families and all that type of stuff. At some point, the camera pans down beneath the floorboards to reveal a family of jews quietly laying hidden. This adds an electric spark to the otherwise monotony of the scene as the Nazi officer prattles on and on about rats. Only he’s not talking about rats, really, he’s talking about Jews. And we nervously perch on the edge of our seats as we watch the drama unfold and wonder if they will discover the secret beneath the floorboards…inches from their polished German boot steps.
Are you married? Would you recognize a scene where a furious woman goes into the kitchen to clean and scrub and clean and scrub. ”What’s wrong?” the husband asks. ”Nothing,” she replies, scrubbing the teflon right off the saucepan. She can even begin a conversation about him not helping around the house, about him not doing dishes, like, EVER! But truth be known, it’s not about the dishes. It’s something else. Something deeper. Something Subtextual. Hidden beneath the surface. Did he forget their anniversary? Did she find lipstick on his collar? Did she get a foreclosure notice on the house today? Did the doctor find a lump?
Subtext. The action and the dialogue is made richer through the addition of layers. A father that is completely incapable of telling his son that he loves him or that he’s proud of him has developed other ways of communicating that. What are they? Perhaps it’s the way he checks the air in the tires before the trip. What if the son is going off to war and the dad may never see him again? Do NOT let your father break character. Dig deep. Find the “I love you” somewhere else. The watch he gives him. The sudden interest in mending the fence. The need to be elsewhere.
Human beings are extraordinarily complicated, have you noticed? Most people are driven by a single goal or interest within a conversation. That goal is rarely stated straight out. But they methodically go through the conversation trying to achieve their goal. To make themselves look good? To keep a co-worker from asking an embarassing question? To just be accepted by the cool kids?
Each of your characters going into a scene needs a goal. A purpose. What are they after. How do they go about getting it? This drives the action of the scene. The dialogue flows naturally out of this action. And there’s always, ALWAYS more to the scene than meets the eye.
WHAT’S YOUR NUMBER?
By Calix Lewis Reneau
In 2009, Richard Kelly released The Box, a film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story called “Button, Button.” The premise is simple: you are given a box with a single button on it. If you press the button in the next 24 hours, two things will happen:
1) You’ll get a million dollars.
2) Someone you don’t know will die.
Great premise, tricky to adapt (which is why it took Kelly to get around to it after all these years – alas, to questionable success, although I liked the flick.)
So here’s a variant game we’re gonna play:
I give you a box with a button, you push the button, you get a dollar (and no one dies, even!)
Do you push it?
Would you push it a hundred thousand times to make a hundred thousand dollars?
If you wouldn’t, maybe you’re not cut out for screenwriting.
An average screenplay is around 20,000 words – if we assume you average five letters a word, and never do a revision, and never make a mistake, and sell the script for top WGA minimum, you’ve just pressed buttons 100,000 times to make 100,000. More or less. (It’s a metaphor – shh, don’t scare it away!)
Obviously, screenwriting is not quite that clear-cut in real life.
In real life, on a script that sells, you’re likely to make ten or more passes – so it’s not unreasonable to call it a million button pushes to make a sale. (I’m over a thousand button-pushes into writing this, not counting backspacing!)
And in real life, you’re not likely to sell that first script – maybe you’ll make it on your tenth. So we’re looking at 10,000,000 button-pushes to get to that sale. If you’re lucky.
Are you willing to push buttons ten million times to get to your dreams?
Another set of numbers:
It took me (personally, really) 18 years from the time I moved to Los Angeles to the time I heard my director call “action!” on the first feature I ever had produced. Okay, that’s a looooong time, to be sure. (I’m slow in other ways, too.) But that’s my number; that’s what it took me.
What’s your number? If you moved to LA in 1991 the same as me, and you were one of those “I’ll give it five years – or three – or ten” – guess what?
Okay, here’s another set of numbers:
Best I can find out:
There were 25,000 to 35,000 feature-length projects shot in the USA in 2010.
There were another 50,000 projects registered with the WGAw in 2010.
There are 30-some hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute – nearly 16,000,000 hours of content uploaded in 2010.
Remember, there are only 8,760 “real” hours in a year – total.
So you could watch maybe 1,500 of those 35,000 feature-length movies in a year if it was your only full-time job. Or one week’s worth of YouTube uploads – if watching that single week of uploads was your full-time job for the rest of your life.
So how about reading those 50,000 scripts – how long will that take you?
…keeping in mind the 50,000 scripts from 2009 are still out there… and the 50,000 scripts from 2008… Yes, some of those are “off the market” now, so to speak, but can you really comprehend those numbers?
So, what are your numbers?
How many buttons will you push? How many scripts will you write? How many queries will you send out? How many times are you willing to fail? How long will you give screenwriting? Is it a lottery ticket – a passing urge – or a passion you’ll do even if you never get produced?
Because – honestly – most of us never will get produced. Cold hard fact.
And one other cold hard fact: when you send your script to that agent, that manager, that prodco – you’re competing against the best of the best. You’re stepping onto the court in the NBA against people who have done all of the work – who have counted the cost and pressed on.
Ultimately, the only way you can succeed in this biz is if every morning you can look in the mirror and say:
“If I never sell a script, if I never have a movie produced, if I never make a single dime – I am a writer, and I can still be satisfied on my death bed that I pursued screenwriting all my life, and I typed.
“I pushed the buttons. No matter the number.”
(PS: Matheson also wrote I Am Legend, another short story that seems to keep proving unadaptable - but that’s a different kind of button being pushed…)
That’s what Mark Twain wrote, anyway. Presumably sober.
No, he’s not advocating we get our best ideas from inebriation and substance abuse. (Although one has to wonder about Charlie Kaufman and the eternal sunshine of his not so spotless mind – brilliant film by the way)
The idea of “Write Drunk, Edit Sober” is the same concept as the Right Brain Left Brain thinking. You’ve got the Left Brains that are all organized and mathematical and logic oriented and scheduled and systematic and stuff. A.k.a. the Sober side.
Then you’ve got the Right Brainsesss that are creative and free thinking and loose and unrestricted by rules and kinda hippy-like. A.k.a. the Drunk side. Each of us uses both sides of our brains, but we tend to favor one side or another.
Writing drunk means not limiting your story or characters in any way. Being as hopelessly creative as possible. Taking the lid off the box and showing us a story that we have never seen before in our lives. And by knowing your characters and listening to them, allowing them to take you wherever the story leads.
Sometimes this clashes with our Christianity, because we also have our own set of morality and rules that we have to live by. Biblical rules. Stay with me now. This next concept is pretty huge. But writing drunk also involves not imposing our own religious values on ALL of our characters and scripts. Not in the writing phase.
In the writing phase, just write. Explore. If the character curses, let him curse. If another character sleeps around, let them sleep around. Create characters who are true to themselves. Ghetto Gangsters that yell out: “Shucks Golly, I’m going to malign you!” is not true to any gangster in any ghetto on planet earth. So write true to the characters.
And if this doesn’t sound very Godly to you then just pick up the Old Testament sometime, open it randomly to any book, any chapter and start reading. As long as you didn’t land in the legal mirey depths of Leviticus or the genealogical dude begat dude labyrinth of Numbers…you probably land on some very colorful people leading some very colorful lives.
Okay, now after you’ve got a couple drafts of your script you need to sober up. You need to switch to your other brainsesss and take a new look at your characters. Start with language. The goal is not censorship…the goal is evolution. Evolve your words. And to do that, maybe take a page out of the Shakespeare handbook:
Away, you cut-purse rascal! you filthy bung, away! By this wine, I’ll thrust my knife in your mouldy chaps, an you play the saucy cuttle with me. Away, you bottle-ale rascal! you basket-hilt stale juggler, you!
2 Henry IV (2.4.120-22)
No one denies that this character is angry and saying some rude things to another character. It’s pretty clear without using the 5-cent swear words. The english language is an amazing tool. Think of all the films under the Hayes Code from the 40s through the 60s. The golden age of Hollywood.
We knew when Bogart was mad. We knew when Scarlett almost got raped. We experienced laughter, fear, love, hate…every single emotion we feel when we watch today’s movies only without the curse words. Without the love scenes. Without the gore.
Trust me, I’m not saying every one of our films has to be rated-G. I don’t agree with that. ”Crash” is a very powerful film in part because of its edginess and raw dialogue. I wouldn’t change a word. ”American History X” was one of the most powerful redemption stories on film. Some very tough scenes to watch. Wouldn’t change a thing.
So, again, I’m not saying cut everything out, but take another look and find new ways for your characters to express themselves, new ways to show a love scene. I mean, “Titanic” had one of the steamiest scenes ever with just a hand pressed up on a fogged car window.
“Jaws” had the scariest monster ever BECAUSE you didn’t see it for so long. And only glimpses when he did show up. Course that was because the huge clunky mechanical beast looked like “a floating terd” according to Spielberg if they showed too much of it, but he set the bar for many many creature features afterward. Less is more.
Know your audience. And your first audience is the filmmaker or studio you want to make your darling beloved script. If that is a faith-based audience, there’s going to be a zero tolerance attitude for cussing, nudity and to a lesser extent, violence. That’s changing, but for now if you’re going for that market, you need to evolve your script right out of an “R” rating.
But, in your first draft, let your characters talk however they want to. If you stop to fret over the F-bomb you just put on paper, you may lose the heat of the scene you’re writing. Besides this draft is for you and you alone. Stay in the writing moment and get your thoughts down on paper. Then, go back and edit once you’ve sobered up. So to speak.
Let’s write a movie!
POPULAR LOG LINES QUIZ
In 1984, the USSR’s best submarine captain in their newest sub violates orders and heads for the USA. Is he trying to defect, or to start a war?
HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER
Bob Munro and his dysfunctional family rent an RV for a road trip to the Colorado Rockies, where they ultimately have to contend with a bizarre community of campers
A group of Earth children help a stranded alien botanist return home.
ET: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL
Two men who keep an eye on aliens in New York City must try to save the world after the aliens threaten to blow it up.
MEN IN BLACK
A best man stays on as a houseguest with the newlyweds, much to the couple’s annoyance.
YOU, ME AND DUPREE
The cross-country adventures of two good-hearted but incredibly stupid friends
DUMB AND DUMBER
An ambitious ex-con and his ten accomplices plan to rob three Las Vegas casinos simultaneously.
A workaholic architect finds a universal remote that allows him to fast-forward and rewind to different parts of his life. Complications arise when the remote starts to overrule his choices.
A dysfunctional family determined to get their young daughter into the finals of a beauty pageant take a cross-country trip in their VW bus.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
When a regular guy dumps a superhero because of her neediness, she uses her powers to make his life a living hell.
MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND
Berated all his life by those around him, a Friar follows his dream and dons a mask to moonlight as a “Luchador” (wrestler)
On New Year’s Eve, a luxury ocean liner capsizes after being swamped by a rogue wave. The survivors are left to fight for survival as they attempt to escape the sinking ship.
How’d you do?