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#1 BEST Screenwriting Book!
Filed under Uncategorized
Casting is Everything
Casting is everything. Cast your movie right, your troubles are mostly over. Don’t take the time to find the perfect actor, everything after casting will be a waste of time. For you, your crew, and, Heaven help you, your investors.
Beginning filmmakers have no concept how helpful a superb actor can be. If you’ve never worked with excellent actors, you have zero basis for understanding their importance.
When I was at Vanderbilt, I taught a class where we made short films. The students crewed. I wrote and directed. Because the scripts were good and the university paid a professional location sound mixer and cinematographer, the best actors in Nashville would be in the movies. The shoots were four days and we fed them exceedingly well.
Once, we made a film set in 1904, about a man who had multiple mistresses and died during the opening credits having sex with one of them. Most of the story was his funeral, attended by his wife, daughters, and mistresses.
Most of the students had no faith in the project. They thought the period dialogue (written by me and Don Jones, who played the lead) was silly and stilted. Unrealistic. Impossible to deliver. They thought it sounded stupid — and therefore the movie would be equally as stupid.
The first scene we shot was in a room too small to fit anyone except key crew and Don. The first shot was a close up. He delivered a long speech straight into camera. So the pooh-poohing students could see, I had a monitor set up in the hallway.
Don Jones is an incredibly gifted actor. After the first take, when I came out in the hall, the students were staring at the monitor in stunned amazement. They had had absolutely no idea the setting and dialogue and wardrobe and story and everything would spring to vivid life when Don spoke.
Until that moment, they’d assumed the project would be a big fat waste of their time. Suddenly they realized it was going to be good.
Until you’ve seen it in person, you cannot understand the power and importance of talented actors. It makes all the difference.
Beginning filmmakers are easily satisfied.
“An actor” is what they’re looking for. Once they find “an actor”, their casting days are behind them. What is nearly impossible to get across, which my students in the hall understood as well as they would have understood how it felt to be struck by lightning, is that casting “the actor” is… everything.
Until you make the monumental effort to find, not “an actor” but “the actor”, and see how that time-consuming search affects your film’s quality, your filmmaking will never rise to the level of professional or film festival acceptance.
Filed under Actors, Filmmaking, Short Film, Uncategorized
Do NOTHING that might confuse your reader!
Like, f’rinstance: character names! Bob and Todd. Sally and Sarah. Virginia and Veronica. Sauron and Saruman!!
Here’s an image that’s intensely confusing — a map showing the three Superstates in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia. (two of which are hella difficult to tell apart, but that’s another conversation). It’s just a map. How difficult could that be to get right? A map. Simple enough: a color for each Superstate. Hard to mess up?
Oceania and Eurasia are almost the EXACT SAME COLOR. And, Eastasia is almost the EXACT SAME COLOR as the ocean!
At first glance, this map is incomprehensible.
And, gentle writer, a first glance is ALL you get.
Filed under Bad Writing, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process
“Start” is a 7 Deadly Sin Word for a Good Reason
The 7 Deadly Sins list (See Handouts! Free!) is a picky little thing. Ignore at your peril, gentle reader.
Profit from this wee excerpt from the superb The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes by multiple-Edgar winner Lawrence Block.
He shook his head. “Got a private investigator’s license, got to know the sheriff, and when we needed somebody with no local ties to play a part and wear a wire, I got the job.”
“And that was when, a couple of days ago?”
“There was a job before that,” he said, and started to tell her about the auto dealer.
This should’ve been: “There was a job before that,” he said, and told her about the auto dealer.”
Lawrence Block is one of the finest writers ever. But… when I was reading, I thought the P.I. started to tell her but didn’t finish telling her. That’s how “start” feels.
He did tell her about the auto dealer. He didn’t hesitate and stop telling her because he didn’t want her to have the information. He told her.
The next sentence is…
She remembered him, how he’d tried to get his partner killed and wound up going away for it, but hadn’t known about the way the evidence was gathered to lock down the case.
This is teeny tiny minuscule eensy weensy concern. For a moment, I didn’t understand what was going on. When I continued reading, I figured it out. However, I had… been… jostled.
You want your writing to be totally completely wonderfully smooth, like ice sliding on ice or like not wanting a hint of gristle in your chicken salad.
Yes, technically, the sentence is correct. He started to tell her and he continued to tell her and finally, he had told her. As someone wise said long ago, the important thing in writing is not for it to be possible for your reader to understand you, the important thing is for your writing to be so clear that it is impossible for the reader to misunderstand you.
And that, gentle reader, makes a world of difference.
Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting
F for Spell Check – Parents Night
When I first started writing, I used a typewriter. If you made a mistake, you could correct it while the page was still in the typewriter. If you pulled it out and then found a mistake, you had to retype the page. Which took a couple of minutes. A pain in the neck. Out of self-defense, my proofreading got killer good.
By the time I started teaching, spellcheck had been invented. How lovely! It wasn’t perfect, still isn’t, but what an improvement! Take 30 seconds, spellcheck a document, and off you go.
Except students, bless their little hearts, often couldn’t be bothered to take that time. Facebooking and Instagramming and drinking beer took precedence. Though understanding, I could not condone such deleterious behavior.
I instituted an F For Failure to Run Spellcheck rule. Basically, kiddies, if you don’t have the wherewithal to take 30 seconds to spellcheck a ten page document, to hell with you.
When I taught at Vanderbilt, the Dean called and said a parent complained about my policy. I explained that, in Hollywood, if they found a typo in your work, they would stop reading it and go onto the next hopeful contestant. That calmed him right down.
True story: one of my clients wrote a query letter good enough to get an agent to read his screenplay. A stunning success. He sent it in. Time passed. Finally, he got an email, “Sorry. Typos.”
One Christmas, my children gave me an “F SPELLCHECK” rubber stamp. Soooo satisfying because when I slam it on a homework, it makes a loud noise. It also means I can stop reading the homework. The student gets the grade they asked for and I go on to the next hopeful contestant.
Did I mention I’m not good at remembering names? It becomes important later. That’s called Pay Off. At the beginning of every semester, I’d tell my students that, by the end of the semester, I probably wouldn’t know their name. Embarrassing, but true. One year, at graduation, a senior came up, parents in tow, and greeted me with, “What’s my name?!” I remembered! He nearly fainted.
To at last get to the point, Once Upon A Time, I gave a lecture on Parents Weekend. It went well. Nobody threw fruit.When it was over, I was packing my stuff and spotted a father steaming toward me like an out of sorts torpedo. Great.
The guy was ready to explode all over the room. His opening salvo was, “My name is Edward Snickelfritz and I am an educator.” I thought, “I’m just a teacher, dude.” He went on, “and I take grave exception to your F for spellcheck policy. My child had one spelling error and you gave her homework an F.”
Because, thank you Sweet Jesus, he had an unusual last name, I remembered his daughter.
Savoring the moment, knowing I’d never get another one like it, I stared at the guy, waited longer than I should have, and said, “Did she tell you she got three F’s in a row?” Which meant she could not learn. The educator shrank to the size of a Lilliputian and, in a voice not quite so homicidal, said “Oh… that’s an excellent policy.” He slimed away, no doubt to speak in an unpleasant tone to his child for lying.
When parents swoop in on a teacher — guns blazing — like the helicopter attack scene in APOCALYPSE NOW, the child has usually shaded the truth to favor them over the teacher.
That’s my F for Spellcheck story.
In case you couldn’t tell, I like telling it.
Filed under Uncategorized, Screenwriting, Writing Process, Rewriting, Bad Writing
Michael Wiese changed my life
In 2008, Michael Wiese agreed to publish my book. At the time, I had no idea how much Your Screenplay Sucks! would change my life.
Michael died last week at his home in England.
This blog exists because of the book. I was invited to go to China, France, and England because of the book. I’ve made friends, earned money, had fun, and helped writers all over the world because Michael gave my book the nod.
He was a gentleman and always supportive. He heard me speak at a film festival in Albuquerque and, at lunch after, gave me some of the finest encouragement of my life. His thoughtful words helped keep me going through less-than-happy times.
His decision to start the Your Screenplay Sucks! engine not only improved my life, but those of countless writers.
Thank you Michael, thank you so very much.
Filed under Uncategorized
It Takes Two Things
To be a good writer, you must do two things.
1.) Master the craft.
2.) Have something to say.
That’s it! End of lesson.
No really, that’s it. Like Ferris Bueller at the end of the movie, “You’re still here? It’s over. Go home. Go.”
It is just those two steps. But, getting through Step 1 takes a gigantic, colossal, metric ton giant pile-o-work. Like a painter nailing the composition, mixing colors to get the correct blue green, or figuring out how to deal with light, and on and on, the control required to smoothly juggle those balls takes years to achieve.
Mastering the craft is in some ways the easier of the two. Skill means nothing if you don’t have something to shout to the world it damn well needs to know.
Recently, I went to an art gallery. Dozens of artists’ work on display. All was well done. All would look good over my sofa. Well, most of it. Some was, “Ewww,” but I could, even then, admire the quality of the execution.
An hour later I walked into an art museum. There was a long hallway hung with work by high school artists. At least fifty works in all media with all manner of subjects. To my delighted surprise, the majority were vastly more successful than the paintings at the art gallery! Why?
The gallery artists had mastered their craft, but few had anything to say. The barns looked just like barns, and the seashell looked just like a seashell… at sunrise. Nice. But there was barely any there there. Every high school student’s work was happy, angry, political, out there, dangerous, silly, on the edge, layered, goofy, exuberant, wild, fun, or energetic. They all had something to say!
Their work was compelling, inventive, dynamic, and a ton more interesting than 95% of the work in the gallery.
Amazing but true. I was slack-jawed with stupefaction.
Writers…! Advice for your first screenplays! Don’t write some giant-ass blockbuster like what’s in theaters until you’ve done other stuff first. Look up what Scorsese thinks about Marvel movies. Be like a high school student, with something to say. While learning to fly the Screenwriting F-22, get control of the controls while figuring out who you are as a writer.
If you’re lucky, both will happen on the same day!
Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, Uncategorized
The Cat In The Hat teaches You Story Structure!
Story structure is story structure. What works has worked for a long, long time. Even children’s books have a hero with a problem, an Inciting Incident, Act breaks, a Midpoint, and an All is Lost moment, just like what’s playing at the OmniPlex or computer screen near you!
The Cat In The Hat is 61 pages. Double that and pretend it’s a feature script. Remember it was written in 1957 when scripts were 120 pages…
Page 1. The hero and his sister, Sally, are at home and already have a problem. It’s raining and they can’t go out to play. There’s no backstory. They WANT something. They want ONE THING and they want it badly. On page 1, they’re sitting at the window, bored out of their skulls, wishing someone would hurry up and invent video games.
Guess what?! There’s an Inciting Incident…! On page 5, something goes BUMP! and the Cat In The Hat steps in on the mat. He’s wildly different from Sally and her brother. He says, that zany goofball, “We can have lots of good fun that is funny!” The children (conflicted!) don’t know what to say, but they sure know their mother is out of the house for the day.
Fish knows what to say! On page 7, Fish ramps up the conflict and says, “No no!… “He should not be here when your mother is out!” A splash of cold water that slows Cat down… not at all!
The Cat In The Hat then has fun hopping up and down on a ball while balancing Fish and more and more and more and more household items and showing how much fun all this is… until… page 21 (a tad late, but never mind), at the Act I break… everything he’s done in Act I comes crashing down. Just like in a Hollywood movie!
For the first part of Act II, Fish continues to scold the children and warn them and generally harass them for the bonehead mistake they made letting this dude into their house. The children try to convince Cat to leave. He won’t leave. No lack of conflict here! Just before we get bored, Cat decides to take us in a new direction. When, pray tell, does he do that?
Page 29! Right in the very middly middle! A Midpoint! Just like a movie!
Cat blasts in the front door with a big red wood box. What’s this?! He yanks it open! Out race Thing 1 and Thing 2! Everything changes! This is Act II, so things get worse! Now three people are causing trouble for the home team! Thing 1 and Thing 2 do terrible things like fly kites indoors! They knock things over! They tear pictures off the wall! They have so much fun ripping up the children’s home!
Then, the Worst Possible Thing happens! Thing 1 and Thing 2 wreak their brand of havoc in… not the basement… not the laundry room, but… the mother’s bedroom! The stakes are now so high, the consequences are cataclysmic.
Terrified, the hero asks what would their mother say if she saw all this…
The very next page (46, right on schedule) is the end of Act II. We see, OMG, Mom walk up the sidewalk! She’s baaaaack!! Fish shakes with fear and worries what she’ll do!
Making a daring move, the hero catches Thing 1 and Thing 2 in his net. The Cat, who only wanted to have fun, feels terrible about what they’ve done and says, “What a shame!”
On page 54, The Cat shuts the Things in the box and leaves.
Hero and Sally and Fish stare at the wreckage of their home, shattered. No matter how hard they might try, they will never be able to clean up this mess. Depressed, they face utter destruction. This children’s book has a dark, dark All Is Lost moment!
Then, the Cat In The Hat zooms back in to show them another trick!! Driving a crazy cleaning-up machine, he completely tidies up the entire house! Everything he and his henchmen messed up is put back in place. And, with a tip of his hat, Cat scoots out the door — just before Mom comes in. Whewwwwweee!
The last page is a rhyming image of the second page, with the children looking out the window, Fish in his bowl at their side. Opening Image vs. Closing Image! As Mom steps in, all is right with the world — but the children have survived a harrowing journey, weren’t bored for a second, and their world is different.
The Hero asks if you would tell your mother what had happened… The End.
Dr. Seuss uses three act structure! So can you!
Filed under Good Writing, Rhyming Scenes, Uncategorized, Writing Process
The WOLVES “3 Reads” Rewriting Rule
When I was rewriting my first script, THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE, I had next to no idea what I was doing. There was the draft, three hole punched, in a three ring binder… and I was struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.
To keep myself out of trouble, I made up a rule… I would read each page out loud, three times, before I could turn to the next page. If I made a single change, even a comma, I would have to start back at the first read.
Often I would get to the last sentence of the third read, make a change and begin all over again.
It was a silly rule and mineblowingly tedious, I admit, but my pages continued and continued to improve. Far beyond my wildest expectations. It took forever, but when I was done, the pages were flawless.
A dumb rule, sure, but the script sold and the movie got made.
Filed under Details, Editing, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized
Bury That Set Up!
I’m enjoying Carry On, Jeeves, a collection of Bertie Wooster short stories by P.G. Wodehouse. “Without The Option” is one of the best. At the end, when Jeeves explains the sublime way he vanquished the opponent, his victory depends on a gigantic coincidence.
To bring you up to speed, Bertie tries to help his friend Oliver (beholden to his Aunt Vera for 100% of his financial support) out of a romantic jam by suggesting he steal a policeman’s hat. A reasonable solution to most problems! Naturally, Oliver is thrown into jail for thirty days. If hair-trigger Aunt Vera finds out, she’ll cut him off forever. Disastrously high stakes! Bertie’s plan goes pear shaped and, at the worst possible time for it to happen, the worst possible thing happens — he finds himself in the same room with the dreaded Aunt Vera. There’s nothing to do but confess the truth…
Keep in mind that she’s a conservative, wealthy, frightening, ancient battleaxe and Bertie is terrified of the scorched-earth destruction she’ll wreak on his chum.
And now, the climax!
How does Jeeves save Bertie’s bacon? A cousin who’s a copper.
“There’s no way,” I mused, “this providential piece of good-luck-lightning could accidentally strike in a story written by someone as careful as Mr. Wodehouse.” I went back, looked, and there it was: an artfully placed, oh-so-useful set up, neatly tucked where we wouldn’t notice it, under a stack of socks.
Enjoy Wodehouse’s subtle set up! Know that Bertie has a crushing hangover…
As far as Jeeves’ eventual ability to solve Bertie’s problem, the fact that Jeeves has a cousin in the town where the opponent lives is the story’s most important piece of information. That set up is buried under the business of Bertie’s hangover pushing him to tell Jeeves not to interrupt. Jeeves interrupts anyway and Bertie chastises him. The instant the “cousin set up” appears, it is obscured by a scolding. The set up is, like a cat sleeping in a dark doorway for you to trip over at 2:00 a.m…. present, but invisible.
You can’t just willy nilly lob a cousin in at the finale and that cousin be the machinery that saves Bertie from Aunt Vera’s Doom. Deus ex machina works when you’re in fifth grade, but not in the summer following fifth grade or ever after.
Don’t give your character a magic sword at the moment they need it. Tuck it away it much, much earlier, hidden from view, in their underwear drawer.
Filed under Good Writing, Scenes, Screenwriting, Writing Process
Are You a Professional?
Do you have an amateur’s point of view or a professional’s? One way to tell: “How do you react to notes?”
A TV producer-director friend, who’s directed hundreds and hundreds of hours of television, comes across a lot of writers. A lot of beginning writers. A lot of intermediate writers. A lot of professionals. He recently told me he no longer reads scripts by non-pros. “If they’re not professional, all they want is praise.” He stopped wasting his time.
There’s always that straw that knocks the camel into the dung heap. For my buddy, this was it…
“I read the script by this guy. It was terrible. But it had a good idea. So when I met with him, I told him he had to throw the whole thing out and start over, but the core idea was worth the effort. He said, ‘Yeah, I know that. But would you show it to your agent?’ I told him again that it was not good, needed total rewriting, and wasn’t ready. He said, ‘I know, I know. But would you show it to your agent?’ I told him a third time and he asked me to show it to my agent.”
As the British would say, that tore it. End of that particular wannabe’s relationship with someone who could help him.
If all you want is praise, go hang out with your grandparents. If you want to get into the movie and television business, get ready for notes. All you’re ever going to get is notes. Criticism piled on more criticism with spicy criticism sauce poured on top. Plus… the lack of praise makes you feel bad. Get over it. I did.
All I ever want anyone to say about my writing is, “I weep at your genius.” I’m still waiting.
John Lloyd Miller, who’s a helluva filmmaker, says this and I agree, “Every note is an opportunity for you to improve your work.” You need to buy into that mantra, wholeheartedly. When someone takes time to give you notes, take the time to actually listen, nod attentively and appreciatively, write down every single painful thing they say, and pay for the lunch.
If you don’t want notes, can’t welcome notes, can’t smile when you get punched in the gut, find something other than writing to occupy your time because you don’t want to be a writer.
Not a better one anyway. Certainly not a professional.
Filed under Criticism, Good Writing, Uncategorized, Writing Process