Script Reader Pro has hella great taste. Tell your friends!
Action description and character description need not be bland. Your writing, even in a form as regimented as screenwriting, should let the reader know, “This person is a writer.”
In high school, I found and adored Richard Brautigan’s writing. It felt different and created wonderful images.
The novelist was in his late forties, tall, reddish, and looked as if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks and cars with bad transmissions.
Now the dare had been completed and I turned around in that house which was like a shallow garden and all my fears collapsed upon me like a landslide of flowers and I ran screaming at the top of my lungs outside and down the stairs. I sounded as if I had stepped in a wheelbarrow-sized pile of steaming dragon shit.
The place was small and muddy and smelled like stale rain and had a large unmade bed that looked as if it had been a partner to some of the saddest love-making this side of The Cross.
The men who worked in the office were all about middle-age and they did not show any sign of ever having been handsome in their youth or actually anything in their youth. They all looked like people whose names you forget.
Life is as simple as driving through New Mexico in a borrowed Jeep, sitting next to a girl who is so pretty that every time I look at her I just feel good all over.
A few years ago (World War II) I lived in a motel next to a Swift packing plant which is a nice way of saying slaughterhouse. They killed pigs there, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month until spring became summer and summer became fall, by cutting their throats after which would follow a squealing lament equal to an opera being run through a garbage disposal.
The auctioneer was selling things so fast that it was possible to buy stuff that wouldn’t be for sale until next year. He had false teeth that sounded like crickets jumping up and down inside the jaws of a skeleton.
This might have been a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that people need a little loving and, God, sometimes it’s sad all the shit they have to go through to find some.
The garage was very complicated in the light of a 15 watt globe fastened to a piece of yellow string that looked as if it had come off a mummy.
He looked like an insurance agent instead of a night watchman. I wondered about his capability and desire to defend the sawmill against sawmill thieves because he looked as if he couldn’t defend a marshmallow against a three-year-old.
Anyway, she died of pneumonia and Thank God, it wasn’t me. When I heard she had died of pneumonia, I really said my prayers that night. I promised to be so good that I would make a saint seem like a sack of coal.
Also, he had eyes that were born to look at things that he could steal.
The next morning I got out of bed and put my clothes on very quietly, like a mouse putting on a Kleenex, and went over to the house where the little girl used to live before she died of pneumonia.
The dock itself was three ten-inch planks that were about two inches thick. They were also hand-carved and then finely polished until the king could’ve eaten off them. It would’ve been interesting to watch a king eat directly off a dock.
It was like a little brother to the dock. It was totally handmade from an elegant wood that was varnished to a beautiful sheen like finely diluted sunlight.
The old man looked away from their approach and took a spoonful of his stew, which starred a lot of potatoes, featured carrots and peas, and from where I was standing, it looked as if a hot dog sliced very thin had a minor role in his stew.
He was also the best dancer in school and sang “Blue Moon” at student body assemblies. His version of “Blue Moon” made the girls’ hearts beat like the hearts of excited kittens.
Foster loves to drink and it’s always easy for him to find somebody to drink with. Foster is about forty years old and always wears a T-shirt, no matter what the weather is about, rain or shine, hot or cold, it’s all the same to his T-shirt because his T-shirt is an eternal garment that only death will rob from his body.
She was so beautiful that the advertising people would have made her into a national park if they would have gotten their hands on her.
She kissed me again, but this time with her tongue. Her tongue slid past my tongue like a piece of hot glass.
… and for your enjoyment, a Brautigan short story, best word last…
The Scarlatti Tilt
“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who is learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.
When surging forward on your first pass, attacking that diabolical blank screen, it’s crucial to feel you’re Wonder Woman or Thor, knocking away bullets of self-doubt with your magic bracelets or Mjölnir, your super duper hammer! Rocket forward so fast that the gremlin of failure is left choking in your dust and Get. That. Draft. Finished. You do that by successfully pretending to be all-powerful, Almighty, all-knowing, and really, really talented.
Only after you write FADE OUT. are you allowed to turn into a runny-mascara puddle of insecurity.
Sadly, stewing on the epic list of disastrous messes in your first pass can turn a rewrite into a Gibraltar of pain and misery. How could anyone ever solve all these horrible problems? How could anyone ever eat this granite mountain one tiny stone at a time? Staring down the double-barrels of an entire rewrite is a daunting assignment.
However, there are pain-free actions to keep you chugging toward the distant goal of: Next Draft! Non-anguish-inducing exercises will move you forward with minimum to zero stress.
Make a list of simple projects that won’t push you to suicidal thoughts.
Fix your slug lines! Check punctuation at the end of each sentence! Go through every line of dialogue, character by character, to see if that dialogue sounds like them… say, Catherine the Great instead of Emo Phillips! See if an action is followed by no reaction! Or, if a reaction is not set up by some kind of action! Simple!! Do any characters say two lines that basically repeat the same thought?! Cut the weak one! Would adding a prop to this scene help?! In each scene, can you raise the conflict, even a little?!
What about research?! Less pressure than rewriting, and now that you’ve got a draft, you’ll waste far less time researching dead ends! Lose starter words in dialogue! Easy peasy! Go through each paragraph of action description and tighten it until it squeaks! Are there words in there that you don’t quite know the meaning of?! Ask that simplest of questions, “Are my character names confusing?!” Read scenes out loud! See if your sentences end with the most powerful word! Check for eighth grade grammar mistakes! Check for fourth grade grammar mistakes!
Solving a small puzzle, Sherlock, does not require higher brain function anything like cracking the Enigma code of “I can’t fix my main character so I’m gonna die in a ditch…”
Find simple tasks that will help.
The great thing about non-depressing mechanical chores is that they effortlessly get your head in the story and, from time to time, grand ideas will shimmer to the surface and easily solve part of that whole giant Gibraltar rewrite agony.
Small steps lead to big bites.
Whatever you do, don’t be too protective of your idea or script. Don’t worry about bad guys in Hollywood stealing your inimitable idea and sailing to the Maldives. The odds of that actually happening are extraordinarily limited, but the odds of a producer thinking you’re paranoid and running like blazes are quite real.
So, quick advice: tell your story to anyone who’ll listen. Saying it out loud will help. A ton.
Once upon a time, I was directing a short film and, the day of the last shoot, was having breakfast with a friend. He asked me what my story was about and, not being paranoid, I told him.
As I described the climactic confrontation between the heroine and her oppressive mother, I realized, to my shock, dismay, consternation, horror and amazement! that I had neglected to include that oh-so-critical final confrontation in the script and, therefore, it was not on the shot list! and was not going to show up in the editing room! ARRGGHHHH!!!
I quickly wrote a titanic battle between daughter and mother on the steps leading to the girl’s bedroom. My image was two Arnold Schwarzenegger types with broadswords hacking their way up and down blood-soaked stairs until finally, the exhausted daughter slices off her mother’s head and is victorious.
It was a useful way to write an argument.
Which brings me to a couple of thoughts…
1.) However you define “mortal combat”, it has to happen at the climax between your hero and opponent. That face off must be as intense as your story’s tone will allow, yet still be believable.
But you have to have it!
We waited the entire movie to get here! Don’t be stupid like I was and forget that, at the end, you gotta have a slugfest.
Happily for me, both actors were superb and the mother cried when her daughter announced she was going to live her life free from her mother’s shackles. That’s not what she said, but you get the point.
2.) Telling my story out loud saved the movie. Because I was speaking, my mind operated in a different way than had I been writing. Jiggling your brain around will work miracles for your story.
You have them. I have them. David Mamet has them. Maybe he has fewer than I do, but probably not.
You need to start a list of your own personal Bugaboo words. “How can I do that?” you say… “I don’t know what a Bugaboo word is!” Thank you for mentioning that. I hadn’t realized.
It’s a word you use a lot. A lotty lot. Like, overuse, dude. You’re not aware you do it, because it’s invisible and insidious like the Communist conspiracy to sap our precious bodily fluids. It’s a word that you overuse, like a crutch, a habit, a tic. A word that creeps into your writing naturally, repeatedly, with malice aforethought. And you don’t notice until, in rewriting, you actually look.
It’s important not to worry about Bugaboo words, or anything else, really, while you’re cranking through your first pass, which is between you and nobody. As you chug along on your first pass, don’t worry about anything! Pretend you’re Aaron Sorkin and: Get. The. Words. On. The. Page. Assume they’re genius. Mush on!
When it’s time to rewrite, pull out your list of Bugaboo words… the more you add, the more you can get rid of. I will now plug a book I did not write. Imagine that! The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale is the finest thesaurus I’ve ever seen. I have a hard copy. I use it constantly. It is especially helpful when replacing Bugaboo words.
You can get a copy online for as little as $1.00. Or more.
Me, I have a tendency to start sentences with “And”. See four paragraphs above. This is okay, every now and then. “Every now and then,” only. I don’t want to look like an idiot. Do I?
Here’s my list. Notice how many are on the 7 Deadly Sins of Writing list. Mistakes you make, I make too!
And, appears, become, begin, both, cheap, colossal, completely, comprehend, down, exquisite, face, feel, feeling, flinch, gigantic, hauls, huge, immense, jerk, just, look, marvel, massive, percolate, pleasant, prodigious, pulls, rapid fire, realize, really, revel, seems, sit, some, stand, start, still, tremble, turn, very, walk, yank
One of my Bugaboo words is “immense.”
I search my script for “immense.” First time I find it, I leave it alone. But, after that, I insert other words in its place. Opening my trusty Synonym Finder, I check out “immense.” It gets to be a game. How can I clear out as many “immenses” as possible and the writing still feel like I wrote it?
1. vast, extensive, broad, wide, expansive, Archaic. vastly, Archaic. immane; voluminous, bulky, capacious, massive; huge, enormous, large, big, prodigious; great, towering, staggering, great big, stupendous, tremendous, Sl. humongous, Sl. hulking; titanic, cyclopean, Atlantean, Brobdingnagian; colossal, mammoth, gigantic, monstrous, monumental, jumbo; elephantine, hippopotamic, leviathan, behemoth, dinosaurian, metatherian.
2. immeasurable, boundless, illimitable, unlimited, uncircumscribed, unbounded, limitless, shoreless; endless, interminable, infinite, inexhaustible, never-ending; incalculable, measureless, fathomless, unfathomable, undeterminable, indeterminate.
Stephen King sniffs at anyone who uses a thesaurus. He gets to be Stephen King. I don’t. In Mr. Jensen’s “Primal Forces of Nature” speech in NETWORK, Paddy Chayefsky used “immane”. I’m not Chayefsky either. I need all the help I can get. Then again, he may have had Rodale’s book.
If I’m looking for sentences that start with “And,” I click Match Case so I won’t find every “and”, only those at the beginning of a sentence. I search for “And with a space after it” which steers me clear of words like Anderson.
Repeated words… Readers notice this stuff. Other writers notice. Overuse of words is a sign of weak writing, which is fine, but also a sign of pathetic rewriting. Not a resume builder.
Start your Bugaboo list today. Why wait? Like much of rewriting, the Bugaboo search & replace is mechanical. It moves you forward but induces no angst. Unless you mislaid your trusty copy of Rodale’s Synonym Finder. Then, angst galore!
Nobody likes conflict.
Well, some people thrive on it. Come to think of it, I’ve dealt with people who wake up in the morning looking for ways to stir the pot. Ick. Us normal folks avoid conflict whenever possible. If you’re a writer, this is not a recipe for success.
Watch a movie. Watch television. See how much conflict they cram in, everywhere, all the time. Large and small. Have you seen DEAD TO ME? Netflix. They have so much conflict all over everywhere that, were you not totally sucked into the story, you’d think it was ridiculous. But it’s not.
See how many kinds of conflict are in each scene…
1. Character vs Character
2. Character vs Nature
3. Character vs Society
4. Character vs Self (all that internal angsty stuff)
5. Character vs the Supernatural
6. Character vs Technology
“Conflict” does not automatically mean “fist fight.” It can mean, “I can’t get this tube of paint to open. Dammit.” It can be as small as a paper cut or as large as running away from the bulls in Pamplona or an asteroid exploding. Characters who have no problems and live a happy life without woes or concerns… are boring. People don’t want to read about them. Actors don’t want to play them.
If character is action, which it is, then good drama is conflict. Don’t ever forget it. I often see scenes that are conflict-free. Things just happen. There’s no energy. Conflict-free scenes suck.
Here is John Le Carré’s idea of story.
1.) The cat sat on the mat.
Dull as dishwater. No conflict. No drama. No paycheck.
After the rewrite…
2.) The cat sat on the dog’s mat.
Bingo! Everything changes! For the better!
Your job is to tap your finger on that scene, or part of that scene, or line of dialogue, and slide it up the Conflict-O-Meter higher and higher until it goes into the red — where it becomes unbelievable. When the reader thinks, “No way! There’s zero chance this’d ever happen in real life.”, you scoot the Conflict-O-Meter down a notch, back into the realm of believability.
Scene by scene, do a conflict pass through your script. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make this more intense, even just a teeny bit?”
When I wrote Your Screenplay Sucks!, I did not understand how many writers have a crippling aversion to conflict. I see it constantly. You gotta have CONFLICT! If you don’t, your script won’t sell and your husband will leave you. Jam conflict into every crevice of your script, make money, stay married, live happily ever after.
Once upon a time I wrote a scene about a nebbishy hit man who goes into a men’s room to pick up a revolver hidden in the stall Michael Corleone-style. Fun movie reference! He finds the gun. He gets the bullets. He loads the pistol and goes out into the restaurant to take care of, as we say in the South, “bidnis.”
No conflict whatsoever! Yukko!
Being a superbly gifted rewriter, I realized I had written crap that needed improvement. Just like Aaron Sorkin! And most likely, you. “How can I add conflict to this miserable scene?”, I asked myself.
First, I made it more difficult to load the pistol. Our tyro hitman is nervous so he fumbles putting the bullets in the gun and one falls on the floor. Does he reach down and easily pick it up and slip it into the cylinder? He does not! He reaches down to the sticky bathroom floor, grabs at the bullet skittering across the tile and… misses!
To make it worse, I decided to have the bullet roll out all the way out to the sinks! That makes our hero more anxious! It makes the reader more anxious! I asked myself, “Can I make the reader even more anxious?!” Bien sûr! I made a list of all kinds of problems to make the hero’s situation worse! That was not hard work. Heck, it wasn’t even writing. It was just thinking of obstacles. A Pet Rock could do it.
I settled on a man at a sink, washing his hands. Who, OMG!, might see that bullet rolling by! Some actor somewhere might get a paycheck, when 16 seconds ago, that part didn’t exist… Then, the topper. I decided, “What if the guy’s a cop?!”
And… the bullet rolls right up next to his shoe…
You can always find a way, in every scene, to raise the conflict level. Just because you start at DEFCON 5 doesn’t mean you can’t get it up to DEFCON 2. Ask yourself, “How can I make him suffer more?” “What can I do to make this worse for her?” “What’s the most unpleasant thing that could possibly happen, right now?”
Have you read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? You should. Lisbeth Salander is such a great heroine. One night, she went to her enemy’s apartment, bent on taking him down.
“The plan began to go wrong almost from the start.”
Fantastic! The clever hero, in whom we have extraordinary confidence, faced awful problems. She’s super-duper smart, but her plan, no doubt superb, was collapsing. Guess who did that to her? Not her opponent. The writer!
Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. Your first idea may be your best idea. But your 19th may be far better. Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to look at every single beat of every single scene and ask, “How can I crank up the tension for my characters and my readers?” You’ll be surprised at what you can figure out. It’s just about applying pen to paper, fingers to keys, butt to seat.
What scenes from your favorite movies stick with you the most? What was the conflict in those scenes? Make a list! Instead of just passively watching television, write things down. Scene analysis really develops your writing chops. Plus, it gives you a record you can go back to again and again.
One of the most intense scenes I ever saw was in THE KILLING FIELDS. The stakes were life and death. The conflict revolved around a small photograph and an errant, tiny… spot of glue.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 1975. The government is slaughtering citizens by the tens of thousands. For next to no reason. Or no reason at all. A terrifying time to be alive and to be attempting to stay alive a day longer. In the scene, at the Embassy, the character’s goal is to glue a photograph into a forged passport so he can get out of the country on an airplane. If he can finish the passport, he has a prayer of survival. There is time pressure because the Khmer Rouge are coming.
Nice story element: a ticking clock! Steal it for your own work.
I saw the movie 36 years ago and the scene still affects me. As I write this, my palms are sweaty. Because there is only one photograph and one passport, he’s only got one chance at it. There can be no mistakes or failure. The slightest slip up equals death.
He carefully puts the glue on the passport and pushes the photograph down, squeezing evenly to get it fully cemented. Then, oh fuck!, a small blob of glue oozes out the side!! I cannot adequately describe how terrifying that was. Now he has to clean up the glue without marring the photograph. If he gets glue on the picture, he dies. And the bad guys are closing in!
Watch the movie. See how it turns out.
Hell of a film, based on a true story. It would be interesting to know if the photograph and glue incident happened in real life or was it invented by Bruce Robinson, the screenwriter, to jack up the conflict?
Full disclosure. At it turns out, the scene didn’t happen in real life nor was it thought up by Bruce Robinson.
It was invented by me.
To make sure I had the story order correct, I rented THE KILLING FIELDS. To my surprise, the scene doesn’t exist. There’s a scene about a photograph but it has nothing to do with glue. Funny how your memory messes with you. I searched to see if there’s another movie with a passport photo and glue and turned up nothing.
Here’s what actually happens… Oh so tense, but different.
Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, an American journalist. Haing S. Ngor plays Dith Pran, his journalist interpreter and friend. John Malkovich and Julian Sands are photographers. If the Khmer Rouge get Ngor, there’s no way he’ll survive. They kill every journalist.
Sands tells Malkovich that he has an expired passport, but the visa is still good. They just need a photograph of Ngor and they can stick it on the passport. Malkovich hopes Ngor has a photograph of himself, because he has no film.
Nearby, the bad guys round up citizens.
Across town, Ngor is leaving to escape with dozens of his friends. Waterston says, “Give me an hour. I need some time to think.” Ngor hasn’t got time and starts to go… Malkovich runs up and says, “I’ve got an idea.” Ngor’s friends all leave.
At the Embassy, Malkovich and Waterston ask Ngor if he has a photograph of himself. Old passport picture, press card photo. He has nothing. The bad guys took everything. Malkovich says they’ll find the film somewhere at the Embassy!
They need to find chemicals they can make into photo developer. Worse, the water in the Embassy has been shut off. A friendly contractor says they can drain the air-conditioning units to get the water.
Malkovich runs up to Waterston. He’s found a roll of film! He can use the men’s room as a darkroom! He and Waterston hug, intensely happy.
They are ready to shoot the photograph of Ngor. It’s difficult to keep him from smiling. Conflict! Malkovich takes the picture. CUT TO: the darkroom.
Malkovich and Sands have developed the film. From a wee black envelope, Malkovich removes a square of photo paper.
Outside in the hall, Ngor rehearses his new name out loud. Over and over.
In the darkroom, they make a contact print. They put it in the developer. They get an image! With extreme care, Malkovich moves the little photograph into the fixer. But, the photograph turns completely gray. Crud! They have to start again.
Waterston and Ngor wait. Ngor paces, terrified.
Another try developing a picture. This time, it fades to white. They have to adjust the chemicals. This is a disaster. They are crushed. Wound tight, Malkovich sends Sands out. The bathroom is too small and driving him crazy. He has to do this alone.
Waterston and Ngor sit on a swing. Ngor is so afraid. Waterston smiles encouragingly.
In the darkroom, Malkovich has printed another photograph. This time, it does not fade. “Yeah!”
CUT TO: A knife blade scraping the old name off the passport.
Malkovich tells Ngor he’s going to New York! They got it! Huge hug! Huge relief!
A British government official collects everyone’s passports preparatory to beginning the journey home. Outside, heavily armed bad guys search a car. Waterston turns in his passport along with Ngor’s. Winks at him. We feel good.
CUT TO: Pouring rain, bad guy trucks and cars roll into the Embassy compound. Armed Khmer Rouge get out.
Inside the crowded Embassy, a Frenchman brings Sands a piece of paper. Sands reads it aloud and says that the trucks are there for everyone’s evacuation. But, that has to be confirmed. Waterston and Ngor stare at each other, afraid. Happy French people sing their national anthem.
Pouring rain. Sands and the helpful contractor are digging up bodies. The Frenchman comes, takes Sands off to the side under his umbrella. He gives Sands Ngor’s passport. The photograph has turned completely gray. The Frenchman says he’s sorry and walks off. In a wide shot, Sands stands in the rain. In CU, it comes down on the now useless passport.
Embassy. Ngor is still rehearsing his new name, out loud. Waterston comes and shakes his head. No dialogue! It’s over. Waterston pats Ngor’s hand. We feel terrible. Now, Ngor has to escape overland, through the jungle. The worst possible outcome.
Either I saw the scene with a passport photograph and glue in a different movie, or I imagined it.
Just delivered notes on a client’s script and want to share…
My last three clients totally had their ducks in a row when it came to physical writing. By that I mean the words on the page were succinct, perfectly chosen, and, essentially, invisible.
I was thrilled Your Screenplay Sucks! was named Number One Best Screenwriting Book to Read in 2020 by Script Reader Pro. [see link above!] One thing they mentioned was that I spent time talking about sentences.
Warm my black heart!
I don’t know if screenwriting is the most difficult form of writing. For sure it’s bloody hard. I’ve never tried poetry, but I imagine it’s like cracking rocks on a chain gang. Hell, all writing is tough.
At the beginning of your writing life, and every step of the way until the pen slips from your warm, dead hand, you’re asking your reader to read to the next page. And the next page and all the way to the end. Your only job, continually, page after page after page after page after page, is to never disappoint your esteemed and precious reader. You must make that happen on every single page,otherwise you will have spent all that time gestating a child who dies before ever going through the birth canal.
Use every tool on your workbench to get them to turn the page! All that hooha about plot and story and character and rising action and dénouement matters. To succeed, you better have your game on in all those departments. But, if your prose is mediocre, you don’t have wisp of a prayer.
If your sentences aren’t at “Hollywood level,” you will not get an agent. You will not sell your script. You will not get laid by a super hot actor. If you learn something, the experience will not have been a waste of time. But if you don’t learn and do fail to adjust, all that travail will have been for naught.
The foundation of good writing is good writing. That means: sentences.
Your Screenplay Sucks! is divided into three acts. Act Two, Physical Writing, is the most boring material in the entire book, and because fixing prose is a pain in the ass, I bet people skip it. Before they send their script, I tell every client to massage the prose. I email them examples of what to do. [above, click Handouts, click Physical Writing handout] They often say, “Oh no, don’t worry. I’m ready.” Meaning, “My prose is in tiptop shape.” After they see the bright red line notes on their first 20 pages, which often look like I slit a hog’s throat on ’em, I get chagrined emails saying, “I had no idea…”
Study the middle of my book. Soak up The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Read websites that talk about this stuff. If you find good ones, send them and I’ll put them here to help other writers.
I say this all the time: I only have so much time to deal with your script. I am hardwired to work on physical writing first. If you make me waste time cleaning up your prose, I will have less time to help you with story, structure, and character, which is what I am really good at.
I also say this all the time: “When they pick up your script, after they check the page count, first thing they’re going to do is read page one. They will have no clue if you understand structure or character or storytelling. But, they will know if you can write a clear, clean, concise sentence.”
These people read screenplays all day long. If your physical writing is not top-flight, they’ll decide you don’t care about professional-level attention to detail. If they stop reading, the only person you’ll have made happy is the dude who sells you toner.
You are in the Emotion Pictures business. So, when writing a scene, ask, “How are these people feeling?” All these people. What are they feeling now?
At the beginning… what was he doing before he walked into this elegant bar? What had happened and how did it make him feel? How is he showing us what he’s feeling? In the middle of the scene, stuff is happening. How is it affecting him? Is it changing his (or her) mood? And, at the end, how does he feel NOW? Where will he go next? Infused with this new feeling / mood that the scene fostered in him, what will he do?
When I say, “Go around the room,” I mean check in with every character, not just the ones with dialogue. Take everyone’s pulse at various points during the scene. Not just the principals. If we need to know how they feel, show us. Please don’t tell us about every single character all the time, but look around the room and, if someone’s doing or feeling something useful, communicate it. It will be interesting to see what fresh, strong, wonderful moments you find.
A superb reason to add reaction shots to your script is, when you make the movie, they will help your editor. Often, laughs happen on reaction shots, not on the person speaking. If you don’t have the coverage, your editor can’t get the laugh. For all kinds of important reasons, your editor will want to cut away from the primary players in a conversation. But, if a reaction shot is not on your shot list, you’re not going to shoot it.
When your editor says, “Have you got a single of Matilda?”, she needs that shot. If you don’t have it, she’ll smile, think you’re an idiot, and keep working. Reaction shots start with the screenplay. If you don’t go around the room while you’re writing, you won’t have reaction shots when you get to the editing room.
I can’t overstress the need for reaction shots. Put them in your script. They perk up the read and will give your editor the coverage she’ll need to save your ass.
I’ve been radio silent because I’ve been in deep consultation with a client in France and am just coming up for air. She has an interesting situation in that much of what she’s writing is based on real people and real events.
This can be wonderful, especially if the events start off basically working as a “story”, because you have much less to invent. To a buyer, Intellectual Property is catnip. It’s easier to sell something that happened because you can point to it and say, “Look, this blew people’s minds. You can make money here, easy!” The less they have to use their imagination to see dollar signs, the quicker those dollars will work their way into your pocket.
The trick with real life into drama is you sometimes have to wrench your story and characters away from “what really happened” and into the best possible story. You cannot be a slave to the truth. When turning real life into drama, you do not owe anyone anything unless you signed an agreement where they have any degree of creative control. Then you’re dead.
It’s tempting to think, “When this happened in real life, it was exciting! I’m going to do that!” No, you’re not. Not all the time, anyway. If your story demands it, you’ll slide it away from the true events because, while a slavish devotion to the past will delight your high school history teacher, they don’t write checks.
It can be exceedingly difficult to change “what happened in real life” in favor of a rearrangement, as it were, of the facts. The pull of “staying with the truth” is a tractor beam that at times, must be escaped. Above all, you are there to serve the story and the characters. If the real characters did something that doesn’t help your fictional version of their story, keep in mind that your job is to enhance life and turn it into art. Not repeat the past.
This can be very, very hard to do.
This is especially hard if you’re writing about your own life. Like my client in France. Unlike most writers turning real life into drama, all of whom must let fiction ride herd on the truth, the truth actually happened to her. That makes it doubly more difficult. Fortunately she hired me to keep her out of trouble. We’ll see how I do.
You have to allow your characters to do things they would do as a character in a drama, not what they did in real life. Just because it happened doesn’t mean it needs to be on the pages of your story.
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck.
This real life into drama problem happened to me.
A producer wandered out of the Hollywood jungle up the path to my door with IP, a book a man had written about his days as a pro hockey player, playing in a league one notch below the NHL. He wanted to finance a movie based on his book. Excellent! I’m always interested in people of means with open checkbooks.
The book worked delightfully well as drama. Nearly every step the hero took in real life worked smoothly in the story. A fabulous arena, cast of fascinating characters, humor, a solid three act structure… All elements tough to find in a true story. In this case, it was all there. Except…
The sticking point came with the climax and the overall reason for the story to be told. The “What is this story ABOUT?” conundrum. In drama, the audience wants an uptick at the end, a “happy” ending, but, because in real life the book’s writer never made it to the NHL and that part of the story couldn’t be changed, that “loss” had to be constructed to be a victory.
This works in stories all the time. It did in ROCKY. As you no doubt recall, Rocky lost the fight with Apollo Creed. But, because the story was structured so that, if he stayed on his feet until the last round bell and “went the distance,” he would feel great and so would we.
The ending doesn’t have to be happy. Just satisfying.
So, I had to figure out a way for a character who doesn’t get into the NHL to be content with what some might perceive as failure. The answer came through his father. In real life, father and son lived, ate, breathed, slept and dreamed the National Hockey League.
After pondering, I took that truth and turned it around.
In my version, the father (I recreated him as the hero’s Opponent) wanted the son to be in the NHL and drove him hard to achieve that dream. Toward the end of my version, the son discovers that he wants to stop this senseless pain. He wants to do things he wants to do, not what his father wants him to do. So he quits hockey and becomes his own person.
Worked perfectly. The hero gets the victory the audience craves and it fit the incontrovertible fact that he never made it to the big time. A stumbling block came when the guy with the money and the control refused to sell his real life father down the river for the sake of drama. I understood the sentiment, but it killed the story and the deal went away.
Real life can be excellent subject matter for stories. But if the drama asks, be ready to jump ship
Perhaps the single most important post in all of yourscreenplaysucks.com…
You may be getting weary of my proselytizing for typewriters as a useful writing tool. Old fashioned technology, right? You know, like the quill pen or papyrus. I don’t tout the lowly typewriter all that often. Last time was three years ago. [Search: In Praise of Typewriters. May 21, 2017] But, as yet another semester ends, it has again struck me how incredibly useful a typewriter can be.
Especially for people who have never written on anything but a computer.
The inability to get words on the page stems from a fear that the thing you’re about to write won’t be perfect. So why write it, right? With a computer, you can so easily work it and work it and work it until it’s either perfect or… until you give up, go out back, and weed the garden. With a typewriter, you Do. Not. Have. That. Option. You write it and it sucks and then you write the next sentence and it sucks and you write the next one and the next one and so on, and none are perfect, but once you get to the bottom of the page and pull it out of the machine, the page exists.
I ask my clients and students, “Do you write a sentence, erase it, and then hate yourself?” Some look at me like I’m stupid. Others… sag, moan, and glaze over. To them, I say, “You need to try writing on a typewriter.” At my film department, we have a Writing Room dedicated to a typewriter — with correcting tape removed. You can go in there and write to your heart’s content and you cannot erase a single word. Whether you like it or not, you move forward.
The idea for the Writing Room was born from the superb documentary, CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER. Check it out on Criterion. It’s fantastic. Here is the relevant clip…
And the relevant quote…
“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process as I’m trying to be a wacko. I’m trying to be an absolute whack job when I’m typing. And it’s like, the typewriter doesn’t judge you, it just goes, ‘right away, sir. Right away sir. However you want it to be.'”
Again, boiled down…
“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process…”
If you can’t get to the fragile zone you need to be in to write, and stay there, it’s game over.
If you write a sentence and hate yourself, you may as well go be a banker. Just to get to the bottom of the page, you have to think you’re Thor.
One student this past semester had crippling writer’s block. The computer was her deadliest enemy. She’d write a page, highlight it, and delete it. Again and again. The rough part was that she could really write. She had the talent to earn money. I finally took her to the Writing Room and basically locked her in. On the typewriter for a couple of hours, she ended up writing five pages, the most pages she’d ever gotten done that fast in her entire life. She was flabbergasted.
The nail in her writer’s block coffin was a line I got from Ellen Sandler, “Write fast, write badly.” After I told my student that was her goal, just to fill the page and fix it later, then it was, for her: don’t spare the horses! Every assignment she turned in began with, “You asked me write fast and badly. I have written fast and badly.”
After she wrote fast and badly, she had something she could print, hold in her hand, and rewrite. If it doesn’t exist, you can’t fix it. I tell my students, “I can help you make anything better, but if the page isn’t there, there’s nothing I can do.”
If you rewrite while you’re writing, get a typewriter.
Spend $300. Change your life.